I get asked for travel advice a lot: from friends, from readers, from random strangers at cocktail parties. That’s okay. I enjoy helping out. Most of the questions are the same: the cheapest places to travel, how to save on airfare, and how to get a better hotel for a better price.
Here are some answers to the questions I don’t get asked though. There are a few random lesser-known deals and freebies out there for those who are really looking to make their travels a better value or have a more pleasant experience every time.
Loyalty and Credit Card Goodies
First of all, if you want to really fly free more, check out this recent blog post on racking up frequent flier miles. But apart from getting a free flight by signing up for the right credit card (something I’ve done three times now), cards affiliated with airlines often come with something else thrown in. At the least you’ll get more miles/points for using the card to book tickets. On some though, like Continental’s, you get to check an extra bag for free. That’s huge, especially if you have a family or a spouse who couldn’t pack everything into a carry-0n if her life depended on it.
I pay more than $400 a year for an American Express Platinum Card. Being the cheap bastard I am, you know that it’s gotta hurt for me to send them that much money. So why do I do it? The main reason is I get to use the airport lounges of several different U.S. airlines AND I can bring my wife and kid in the lounge as well—or one guest. There’s also a dedicated lounge in the Mexico City airport just for people with high-end Amex cards. As in the Continental lounges, that means free Wi-Fi, snacks, and beer/wine/cocktails. The other perks the card gives (including a mileage program that ties into multiple airlines and hotel chains) are the icing on top.
Going Up a Class in Ground Transport Means More Goodies
The difference between an air-conditioned express train in India and a 2nd class sleeper is like the difference between a 4-star hotel and a $5 a night hovel. Real sheets, waiters, guards to keep the bag-slashing thieves at bay, and toilets that are almost usable.
If you take a first class or executive class bus in many Latin American countries, you’ll get a lot of extra goodies for your pesos. Besides more legroom and better seats, you’ll usually wind up with a snack, something to drink, men/women bathrooms in the back, and Wi-Fi in a dedicated lounge at the station or even on the bus. Heck, in Argentina you’ll probably get champagne!
You Can Book Almost Anything Cheaper Locally
I understand why people book adventure tour vacations from home with a company in their home country. (And some of the small group tour companies are a good value.) But if you’re watching the budget and your schedule is not super-tight, you’re almost always better off skipping the middleman and booking adventures locally. In the old days that meant just showing up and walking into offices—which still works—but now you can frequently work out that rafting, trekking, and zip-lining in advance online or via Skype.
Often you’ll be using the same local company as you would have if you had booked it through an agency in your own country, just without the hand-holding and the doubling in price. Here’s an oldie but goodie on the subject: Book Adventure Travel Locally and Save.
Finding Wheeling/Dealing Hotels Isn’t Hard
When most people book a hotel, especially in the U.S. or Europe, they go to one or many of the booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity, or Hotels.com. That’s all well and good if you want something really specific or you’re especially picky. Otherwise, why pay retail?
Unless we’re in a boomtime or there’s a special event going on, very few hotels are even close to full on any given night. This means hotels are constantly selling rooms well below market rate, but not through those regular channels. The most common way they up the occupancy is by putting inventory through Priceline or Hotwire. See links here to those hotel deal sites , but also the message boards where you can find out what other people ended up with—and what they paid. This way you’re not flying blind on where you’ll spend the night. Believe me though, the savings can be huge. I’ve routinely paid 40-60% less than what was on Expedia for the same hotel, at every star level.
I’ve also had luck using SkyAuction.com for resort areas and people in a higher budget range than me swear by the deals they’ve found on LuxuryLink.com. I’ve had friends score great last-minute package deals too. Most of the sites that specialized in this have folded or been bought out, so now you see them on the big booking sites or on “flash sale” sites like Jetsetter or SniqueAway. This works especially well if you just want to get away for a few days or a week, but you’re flexible on where to go.
And remember, in much of the world, your rate is negotiable.
Get 4 free plane trips per year? Join the Travel Hacking Cartel.