If you’re on a trip there are perhaps times when you’ll intentionally fork over too much money for a mind-blowing performance or meal or single bottle of something special. You deserve it. And then there are those other times when you may unintentionally parallel park next to a barely visible spray-painted yellow line. Hence that parking ticket behind your wiper. You probably didn’t deserve that.
The point is, you need to leave room in your travel budget for big-ticket items good and bad, expected and unexpected. Which also means that to stay on budget, you have to find ways to curb your other trip costs. Help is here -- 15 tips culled from frequent travelers perpetually looking for ways to save a buck.
Seek out mid-August bargains. If you think summer travel pricing remains high through Labor Day, think again, says travel correspondent Chris McGinnis, who notes that “airfares and hotel rates take a dive when kids go back to school and demand falls, and that means it's now more like mid-August when you'll find some good deals and last-minute specials. This is even more pronounced recently since schools seem to start earlier and earlier.” More evidence that peak season is ending earlier than ever, he says, is that “the airlines’ peak-season surcharges this summer expire around August 20.”
Do more targeted Web searches for freebies, says shopping and travel writer Jennifer Paull. “Look for the sites of smaller, independent local publications and local blogs. These often highlight cheap, quirky things to do and restaurants to try, not to mention who's got the most generous happy hours,” Paull says, adding that “for large cities, you can often find a dedicated site or two for free or inexpensive activities. Some of these, like New York's The Skint, also have Twitter feeds for up-to-the-minute tips.” Other good sites, she says, are EyeSpyLA.com, sf.funcheap.com, and www.londonforfree.net.
Voucher hunt. “You've seen people lining up to get bumped from flights,” says “Great American Motorcycle Tours” author Gary McKechnie, “but what do they do with the credit they receive from the airline? Some post them on eBay,” he says. “Of course, they're not allowed to sell the credit, so they sell ‘the time it takes them’ to send you the code that'll help you book your flight.” Check eBay and other auction and classified sites under “vouchers,” McKechnie says. And, as always, buyer beware.
Research the credit card you’ll be using overseas, says flight attendant and author Betty Thesky, as “credit cards are now charging an ‘international conversion fee’ for all purchases,” she says. “Before I leave I call my [credit card companies] to see which one has the smallest fee. On my cards the fees vary from 1% to 4%, so [on a recent trip] I opted to use the card with the 1% fee. Those few phone calls before my trip saved me 3% on my whole vacation, which really adds up.”
Book an opaque hotel. Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown says that “for last-minute trips, booking an opaque hotel” is still a pretty solid way to save. “Opaque” is the industry term for not knowing the name of your hotel before you book it, and in addition to “name your price for a song” standbys Hotwire and Priceline, Travelocity has also joined the fray with Top Secret Hotels.
Pack lighter than ever “so you don't have to pay luggage fees and you can change flights easily in case there is a mechanical problem,” says JohnnyJet.com founder John E. DiScala. “Packing light enables you to take public transportation” more easily once you reach your destination, a big potential money saver.
Consider a backpack as your summer bag of choice, says frequent business traveler Ken Walker. “Lighter weight clothing requires less space so I can get away with a smaller, lighter bag,” Walker says. “A travel backpack can hold a laptop and three days worth of clothes. Bringing along a few tablespoons of dry laundry detergent lets me do a quick sink wash of some shirts -- the new ‘dry-fast’ business casual shirts are fantastic for summer-- it saves me the cost of a checked bag, and I save money on laundry, too.”
Pack an empty. “I bring a small empty water bottle through security to fill from a fountain once I've cleared security,” says longtime flight attendant Toni Vitanza. “It saves tons of money.”
Use your debit card at your destination. “Bothered by excessive ATM fees? Don't pay them,” McKechnie says. “Instead, use your debit or check card for a small purchase [like candy or mints] at a drugstore and when paying with your card, request cash back. Now you've got a snack plus cash… and you've stuck it to the man.”
Make cheap or free calls. “When traveling overseas, especially to Europe, there's no need to pay for costly calling cards or cell phone calls,” says tour guide Ann Lombardi, co-owner of The Trip Chicks. Install Skype on your laptop before leaving home or “ask new friends if they use Skype and borrow their computer,” she says. Sans Skype, she suggests, “buy a phone card from a tobacco stall, newspaper or magazine vendor, or bookstore in the country you are visiting. It’s convenient and cheap.”
Make breakfast your biggest meal on the road suggests Jamie Jensen, author of “Road Trip USA,” and if you can, have it for every meal. “Eat a good breakfast, all day, every day. In my experience the breakfast menu offers the best value for money, and has a reliably good range of choices, too,” Jensen says.
Picnic, especially if it’s pleasantly summery where you’re heading. “Instead of eating lunch in some fancy restaurant, go to the grocery store or a good deli and bring it to a park,” says DiScala. “Not only will it be much cheaper but [you’ll have] better scenery and overall a much better experience.”
Bring your own stroller if you’re bound for Walt Disney World, says travel writer and former flight attendant Beth Blair. “Toting your own stroller can save $15 -$31 at Disney World, depending on the type of stroller you use, single or double.” Having your stroller is also worth the hassle if you’re navigating an unexpectedly large airport, Blair says.
Buy Disney souvies elsewhere. “My hugest tip for saving money when I went to Disney World [was buying Disney] souvenirs in advance, says mother of four Melissa d’Arabian, season five winner of “The Next Food Network Star” and host of the network’s “Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa d’Arabian.” She went to a big box store or dollar store ahead of time and bought such trinkets as “glow-in-the-dark-necklaces [and] Cinderella stuff, and then every night or every morning we’d set out a small little gift for the kids [which] completely got rid of need to buy any sort of souvenir.”
Be sly about WiFi. Not all hotels are on the free WiFi bandwagon, so check out free hotspots in advance at www.wififreespot.com, Lombardi says. One trick worth trying “when staying in a small town or village in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland [where] your hotel charges WiFi fees,” she says, is to “go down the street to visit another hotel you already have researched and know offers complimentary WiFi. Tell the front desk clerk that you’re interested in ‘inspecting a hotel room’ for a possible future stay. After the brief hotel tour, ask the hotel personnel if it would be okay for you to sit in the lobby and use your laptop. Usually this tactic works like a charm.” A local tourist office or library may also supply free or inexpensive Internet access, she says.