A common misconception is that all travel is expensive. Well it can be if you’re the type that needs to stay in an exclusive hotel, eat at the finest restaurants, and prefers that someone else do the planning for them. If you’re this type, the travel industry has no shortage of establishments ready to cater to your premium needs, but umm… at a premium of course. For the rest of us without an endless bank account, there is still hope but it takes a little (OK a lot) more work on your part. You’ve got to be savvy and do your homework. There are deals out there for the taking.
So you’re ready to travel. You want to see everything and experience everything, but you don’t have unlimited resources and you’re not sure how to do it. We’ll you’ve got to think thrifty. You can’t take the easy street and call a travel agent, you’ve got to dive in yourself and find some deals. Here is what you should be asking yourself when you start out planning your trip.
You think airfare, right? Start with asking yourself, “can I drive instead”? Obviously it will be a lot more uncomfortable and longer but it won’t take long once you’ve made it to your destination to come up with a million ways to spend the money you just saved. How much will you save? Just go to Google maps and get directions from your house to your destination. At the bottom where it tells you how long it will take to drive, it will also tell you how many miles it its. Take that distance, divide by your cars miles per gallon (MPG) (again just Google your vehicle’s mpg if you don’t already know it), then multiply by the price of gas (yes back to Google to get the average price in your state or just take the price at your local pump). Now take that amount and multiply by 2 for round trip cost. (example 250 miles one way/ 21mpg=11.9 gallons X $4 per gallon= $47 one way for gas X 2 for round rip = $94 total gas. Don’t worry about the extra miles if you drive around at your destination because you’re actually saving money by not having to pay for a taxi, bus, or rental car to get you around.
Your second thought, if driving your own car isn’t an option because you’re going one way or your car can’t hack it, should be bus or train. Price it out at least, you never know. Usually it’s best, cheapest, and more comfortable to take your car especially if you’re traveling with another person and can split the price of fuel vs. buying two tickets but sometimes you don’t have that option especially overseas. Overseas, it’s almost the preferred way to travel when you’re not going super long distances. If riding a bus long distances brings back frightening memories of when you where young and had to ride the city buses filled with all those weird smelly people, don’t worry, those people don’t usually travel long distances, and if they do and end up sitting next to you, you’ll at least have a good story to tell your friends and coworkers when you get back. Just Google the city you’ll be traveling to and from and the word bus or train (example. London to Amsterdam train /bus). Then check the websites that pop up in your search results for their prices.
If you’re overseas, away from home or for some reason can’t take your car, think about a rental car. Its a small world. Those major rental car companies are everywhere now. If potentially dealing with a local outfit who might be renting out their cousins mini van puts you off, go with an established one. Just know that if you want to drive overseas you’ll most likely need an international drivers license ($20 at AAA). Check with the rental car company before you leave home. Also, foreign lands can be umm, foreign. Different signs, different laws, different roads, and sometimes different languages can add A LOT of stress to an already sometimes stressful time. Unless you’re the adventurous type, want the freedom to stop or go where you want at your own pace, if the price is about equal I’d save the headache, relax and take an alternative way to get there than a rental car.
So you’re within driving distance and think you can handle to navigation? Maybe think about saving on hotels along your route and rent an RV? Believe it or not you can rent one. It’s not a bad way to travel at your own pace and get to where you’ve got to go. Unfortunately, the rental companies know this and charge accordingly. However, if you have 3 or more in your group or the hotels along your route or at your destination are expensive (like at high travel seasons or during a festival) it can be the least expensive way to travel. Just know all the fine print in advance like, how much extra are the pots and pans (if you plan on cooking), toiletries/ propane. In addition, you should ask what your expected MPG is then Google the local price of fuel. RV’s suck gas like nobody’s business and when outside the US Gallon, the price of a liter of gas when converted to gallons can startle you. Hey, there is nothing lost but your time by looking into it.
Those other options didn’t pan out? Time to fly. Ahh, here we go. Bargain hunting time. There are so many ways to save. You’ve just got to be dedicated enough to find it. Just think that the amount of time you spend looking for a good deal, is usually proportional to the deal you’ll end up with. Well sometimes not, but it helps to think that. Just know your limits. Enough is enough. Stop searching and commit to the best price you could find, or don’t after a point. My wife and I will spend days searching before we are content or drop from exhaustion searching for the best deal. Usually, its not worth putting yourself through that stress just to find a slightly better deal. Save yourself the stress, go into your search with an out (one hour or whatever) and then be done with it. Where to start your bargain hunt?
1st think about using your frequent flier miles. If you travel even the slightest, you had better be earning miles with someone. Seriously, it takes a few minutes to sign up, is free, and can save you big dollars if you end up becoming a frequent flier for work or whatever. A few long flights and you’ve got a free ticket that would have cost you several hundred dollars. Remember your password and check you miles online. Depending on the airline’s rules some miles will expire in as little as two years if you didn’t have any activity within that period, while others have no expiration date. Its as simple as logging in, checking where you’d like to go with that airline, then paying for the flight with your miles (expect to pay a small amount even if you use your miles unless you book like a month in advance). I’m shocked by how many people have earned the miles but choose to pay for a flight (trying to accumulate more miles to go somewhere more exotic, rather than use the miles when they are eligible. Don’t mess around if your miles expire, get your free flight when you can because the airlines can always change the rules). Also, you might be surprised to find out what is considered a standard free flight in North America. For example, on one instance my wife and I flew to an ‘exotic’ location in Cancun Mexico, for the same amount of miles it would have cost to go to anywhere else in the US. Another perk of using your miles is free bags. At $35-50 for 2 bags it can add up. If you’re not afraid to potentially ruin your credit by taking out another line of credit, dive into one of those airline sponsored credit cards. You’ll usually earn enough for a free domestic flight just by signing up, just look into the small print first because there is usually an annual fee, and you have to usually wait 6 months before you can use your sign on bonus miles. Still its a good way to keep your miles active (since they can expire if you don’t accrue more miles in a time period), and save a few hundred dollars from your free flight.
2nd try the small airfare consolidators that advertise in the back of your local newspapers travel section (usually the travel section is once a week, Saturday or Sunday). Call them all, tell them your estimated dates (obviously avoiding the expensive holiday times if you can), but be prepared for them to try the switch aroo (you know the sorry all seats at that price or date are sold out but we’ve got them at a slightly higher price song and dance). Even if you get the bait and switch, they may still be the cheapest around.
3rd search through websites. There are soooo many to try these days. Check out our website resource links for a bunch we use. Try them all and click through to the end until you find out the final price and get the true availability so you can weed out the promising ones from the shady ones that tac on a bunch of taxes and fees at the end. Obviously, the earlier you start your search, the more seats will be available at a lower price. Wait until the last minute and you’ll probably get stuck paying more. However, if you’re flexible and just need a week/ weekend away somewhere, don’t be afraid to check out the last minute deals (within a week) online. You can walk away with a steal and head to a great place you may have never considered. Once you’ve found a good deal and know which airline (or rental car for that matter) it’s on, take a second and check the price on that airlines website. A lot of times you’ll find it cheaper there because of a promotion it is offering. Skip the website middleman mark up. * Some basic tips when trying to choose where to fly to… Flying to and from a major airport will usually be cheaper. Price your trip considering fling into or leaving from a larger airport and possibly taking alternative transport like a bus or train or car to your final destination. ** Tip. Especially with rental car searching, first find the cheapest car company by searching someone like Expedia or Travelocity. Usually there will be one company that is a lot lower. Then go to their website and find it for cheaper, then take one more step and Google online coupon for that carrier. You’ll usually be able to find coupon codes that will save you even more and can be added to the promotional price you found. No kidding, we’ve done it.
Depending upon your length of stay, usually the next biggest expense while traveling is on where you lay your head. * Hint, hint. If you look into simply finding a place to rest your weary bones after an awesome day of exploring your new city, rather than thinking of your destination simply being a nice hotel in some far away land, you won’t mind skimping on stars to save $$. Seriously, if you’re not planning on spending your day at your hotel, why pay a premium for a nice one? Save your money and spend it on doing fun stuff while you are awake and away from your hotel. So if you’re following my logic, do as we do, and start on the bottom and work your way up. The cheapest places to stay are called hostels. Usually they cater to students on a budget, provide basic amenities, and get the place to sleep job done for less. Some have cheap rates by literally bunking 4 or more people in one room (I’ve been in rooms ‘dorm’ rooms with 16) but private rooms are usually available for only a little more than 2 people would have paid to bunk separately in a bigger room. If you’re not into the social thing (noise, neighbors, snoring etc) or just want a more reliable place to lock your stuff up, then opt for the private room. Hostels won’t be luxury accommodation but you’ll save a ton and probably have some juicy stories to bring home (good or bad). After all, isn’t travel all about new experiences? Start at the bottom and work your way up the price scale until you find your balance between savings and comfort. Just read the reviews online for a sense of the place.
After you’ve searched for your best flight price and best available hotel price, consider taking a few steps backward (if no inexpensive hostels/ hotels/ flights are available) and search for flight plus hotel packages (same online websites but just click the button for flight + hotel search). Since you already did your homework, you’ll instantly know if the package gets you into a nicer hotel or cheaper overall price.
Travel agents– I’ve used them once, and only to buy an inexpensive Japanese rail pass that wasn’t available for sale without going through an agent. I’m hesitant to see the value for the informed shopper, except for the most unique and complicated travel (like around the world tickets, or to very remote places). An agent working for you is a luxury, and luxury is usually more expensive. If you’ve already done your homework and are curious to see what they can offer, by all means get a quote. Chances are they’ll be higher and you’ll be even more content with the price you found on your own, if they can beat your best price even better. *An alternative approach is to start with a quote from a travel agent, knowing that they’ll probably be high, absorb their knowledge such as cheaper nearby airports or alternative bus routes, then set out to beat their price on your own. For all those travel agents out there who are bocking at this strategy, remember that in some instances you may actually be the cheapest that person can find, in which case you’ll have a sale, otherwise you’ll be no worse off than had they never came in to price you out. Right? Whatever. Just be weary of people that make more money (commission) the more money they get you to spend. Do your own homework.
So you’re all set with your flight and have your accommodation booked, your next biggest expense is usually food. You’ve got to eat 3X a day and unless your hostel has a kitchen (many do) and you’re prepared to save by cooking yourself, you’re going to have to eat out. A lot. Just like when you eat out at home rather than cook yourself, consider eating out a luxury of convenience. For budgeting purposes, the readily available restaurants you’ll find in touristy places will usually be more expensive than the local places off the beaten touristy path. Be prepared to put on your walking shoes, ask a local for a recommendation, try some local grub, and save a few bucks in the process. It’s pretty simple. There are a million other ways to save (just like when you’re at home), from skipping breakfast, eating at a nice restaurant that has good lunch specials rather than eat there when it is more expensive (for the same food) at dinner, to finding local coupons, eating/drinking during the happy hour specials, you name it. Whether you were at home or away on travel you’ve still got to eat, it just doesn’t necessarily need to be more expensive than you want to make it. *Eating/ experiencing new foods in an exotic location can be one of the joys/ highlights of travel, just be sure you’re spending your money at the kinds of places you can’t find back at home, otherwise you’ll get home with little new experiences and wonder why you left at all.
Same logic as eating out applies here. If its touristy (like a city tour bus), expect to pay more. Use local transportation wherever you can (subway/bus/train, etc) or better yet, do what we do and strap on your walking shoes, and walk. You’re an explorer, there’s no better way to explore than on your own pace (and like us, you’ll feel much better after pigging out at dinner knowing you walked a million miles earlier that day).
Avoid conveniences like taxis whenever possible, they are usually one of the most expensive ways to get around and add up quick. The sooner you lose the taxi crutch and figure out for yourself how to get around like a local, the better your wallet will be because of it.
Day passes– If you’ve got an active day planned and it requires jumping on and off local transportation, find out if day passes are offered. Rather than paying each time you ride, most likely if you’ll be taking 3+ trips (2X is round trip anyways) you’ll save big $ and enjoy the freedom to explore as much as you like regardless of how many times you jump on or off.
Other than getting to your local destination and back you may be planning to see a few more spread out places. How do you get there and back? Usually if you’re overseas, the cheapest way is by train or bus bought locally, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, in Japan and Europe there are rail passes available to foreigners that are cheaper (when all your traveling is factored in) than you can buy locally. The catch is you have to purchase it before you leave home. Do your homework, Google some local prices and compare it to the ‘all inclusive’ daily passes (usually the passes are good for unlimited rides within a set amount of days like 3, 5, 7 etc) offered to foreigners overseas. Then save $$.
Hopefully your idea of travel doesn’t mean flying far away from home only to sit besides a pool somewhere. Just stay home and go to a local pool for goodness sake. You’re there to explore something new, so why not try something new as well? There are an endless supply of activities you might not have ever considered while you were at home, now suddenly thrust in your face. That’s OK, get excited. Try something new (chances are it will end up the highlight of your trip), just don’t get carried away. Surely your budget didn’t factor in every day trip or half day adventure you see. Look around at the options, decide on one or two (or whatever your budget allows) then consider shopping around for the best deal. Usually several small touristy booth places will all be selling the same (or very similar) tours. Rarely do they all charge the same price. Take a stroll, ask for the prices at a few, then go back to the one that best fits your budget.
Coupons– Local tour companies almost always have competition (offering virtually the same tour), so many advertise in the local free tourist magazines, maps, and ‘things to do’ type booklets and provide discount coupons. Before you commit to a tour, save yourself and your group some easy cash by checking the touristy brochures for coupons first.
Along with being thrifty and looking to save money, you should also be on the lookout for scammers who will take you and your money for a ride. You are a target, especially in touristy or less developed countries and a major place to be on high alert is the second you pull your bags off the carousel at the airport. If you’ve ever stepped off a plane and into a poorer or less developed country/ area you know the feeling of being flooded by demanding people/ taxi drivers (all disguised as very friendly and helpful of course). Before you know what’s happening, they’ve got your bag in their trunk and you’re being whisked away at a frightening pace. You most likely (and wrongfully) assumed all taxis use a meter (like at your home) and you’ll be charged the standard fare. WRONG! Many countries have no such requirements, or they do and its not enforced, you’re at the mercy of the swindling driver. And that helpful guy who swarmed you the second you stepped out past the line with your bag, is suddenly about to take you and your wallet for a ride.
The unfortunate truth is that in poorer countries (and most are poorer than the US) taxi drivers prey on the disorientation of new foreigners and you’ll get scammed if you don’t recognize whats going on. Beware!
Be nice and politely decline the the assistance of ANYONE who walks up to you professing to help. Then get your wits about you by looking around or asking someone who’s job is not to make money off you (janitor, policeman, or airline staff), then 1) head for the shuttle bus line if its available to your destination (find out) it’s usually the cheapest because they wait a few minutes and gather several people going to the same place and put you all in a bus or van together. If a shuttle bus isn’t available option 2) is to find out where the official taxi stand is (most airports have one) and get in line (even if there are guys with taxi’s trying to wave you over). Ask in advance or look at the posted signs for what the standard fare is to your destination so that you’ll be ready when its your turn to hop in your taxi. Then before jumping in your taxi, agree on the price you previously saw posted, or insist that a meter is used. Congratulations, you’ve managed to skip the local/ usually unregulated/ sometimes illegal scammers and are making your way in an official taxi (the police usually make sure the taxi’s that are allowed into the official airport line are regulated in some way). Remember that in poor countries the seemingly rich tourists are prey for the scammers and the unfortunate truth is that if someone walks up to you and offers to help in any way (at an airport or anywhere), they are the hunter and you’ll end up their prey. Find people to help you on your own or those who aren’t aggressively seeking your business. You’ll be safer and hopefully won’t get scammed right out of the gates.
So there you have it. With a little bit of advance planning and some savvy comparison shopping, you can travel without making a huge hole in your wallet. Once you master the art of cheap travel and start enjoying your foreign experiences, you’ll be hooked and look at the world around you a lot differently. Good luck bargain hunting and safe travels.