Browsing Posts in Family travel

Would you like to pay 30-60% less than retail every time you buy travel clothing or a new bag? Or get your shoes for half price? Buy $18 hiking socks for $7? It’s not very hard.

travel clothing discounts

A while back on this cheap travel blog I did a post on how to play the retail buying cycle on clothing and gear. You see, every year I go to this huge trade show called the Outdoor Retailers Market. There the manufacturers like North Face, Columbia, Outdoor Research, Teva, and a few thousand others are showing off their new stuff to buyers. What they’re showing to buyers will not be on your local store shelf for another 9-12 months though. That’s how far ahead retail buyers are making decisions on what they think you’re going to purchase for your adventures.

These decisions are never more than an estimated guess, of course. Sometimes the fashionista designers say, “Orange is going to be hot next year!” and instead everyone wants plaid. A charismatic trends guru manages to get everyone to believe that there’s some pent-up demand for retro backpacks. A year later, it turns out they’re wrong. (They didn’t ask me…)

The result is an inherently inefficient system whereby lots of outdoor apparel, travel clothing, luggage, and gear has a short time in the spotlight. Then it is then cast aside. By “cast aside” I mean marked down to get it out the door. Sometimes those markdowns are drastic, below the point of anyone making a profit. That’s where you step in and find a deal.

Since I’m editor at Practical Travel Gear, I get e-mails every week from online retailers I have affiliate programs with begging me to talk up their new half-off sale so they can move the old inventory out the door. Sometimes this is seasonal: you can find an incredible deal right now on a snowboard, set of skis, or down jacket. When the heat is highest in August, bathing suits and shorts go on sale.

Often though, you can get exactly what you need for your upcoming trip, just in last year’s model instead of this year’s. At this point in the innovation cycle where it’s hard to make fundamental breakthroughs in technology, there’s not much to be gained by buying the 2014 model over the 2013 one. It’s probably just a different color or maybe a pocket moved.

travel gear markdowns

Hunting around at 10 different online retailers every time you are in the market for new travel gear can get tedious though. Lucky for you, there’s one simple e-mail newsletter you can get that will put all the sales, deals, and coupon codes in one place. It comes out an average of one time a month, whenever the timing is best with loads of markdowns happening at once. You can sign up for free here and you’ll also receive a report on “10 Travel Gear Gifts for $20 or Less.” (And maybe you need those gifts yourself.) Sign up here:

Insider Gear Deals List

 

St. Charles line

In general, the United States is a crappy place to get around by public transportation. There are a few cities that are exceptions, however, and in some of those it’s actually pleasant. At the top of that list would have to be New Orleans, where people actually board the streetcars because it’s a fun ride.

I was in New Orleans a few months back for the first time in ages, on a post-convention trip eating my way through Louisiana. I was lucky enough to be there while an annual seafood festival was going on and as it so happened, that was taking place at the end of the green Canal Streetcar line. Then I hopped on another line that goes through the Garden District, with views out the windows of the grand homes in the nicest neighborhoods. See a video tour here:

 

Sure, staying, eating, and partying in the French Quarter is lots of fun, but you’re not doing the city justice if that’s the only part you see. Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar line and if you go far enough, you’ll see a huge levee holding back the Mississippi River. Grab a bite to eat or a beer there an imagine what it must have felt like to be there when Hurricane Katrina ripped through. You’ll also pass near Loyola and Tulane Universities. Another line goes directly to Loyola, while the red Canal line goes up to the above-ground cemeteries, where you can get some cool photos. touring New Orleans

These are refreshingly creaky old cars too, not some aerodynamic modern marvels whooshing along on dedicated median strips. These are vintage cars going through real neighborhoods.

Not only is this an enjoyable way to see the city, but fitting to this blog, it’s also cheap. A normal one-time ride is $1.25 and transfers are free. Or you can buy a day pass (which also works for bus lines) for just $3. Pony up $55 and you can ride as much as you want for a whole month. In between are passes for 3 and 5 days. If you’re 65 or over, you only have to pull out four dimes to be on your way.

Parking in the French Quarter is crazy expensive, topping $25 a day at some hotels, so this is not a city you want to drive into and park. You’re much better off catching a taxi from the airport and then walking and using the streetcars after that. Or if you are doing some kind of cross-country journey, find a public parking lot or street parking near one of the streetcar lines and leave the car there until it’s time to leave.

New Orleans is a city where you actually want to take public transportation, so enjoy it! See the full scoop on the streetcars at norta.com and get more info on New Orleans at their official tourism site. (Yes, on my 4th visit to the city, I was hosted by them this time.)

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Do you want to really get a great travel deal? The kind of bargain you’ll talk about for 10 years? The kind of deal that is so great that when you tell a cocktail party couple what you paid, one person’s jaw drops and the other starts choking on their drink in disbelief?

I can get you a deal like that.

But I’m not going to ask you to buy anything, sign up for anything, or join some secret club. Anyone trying to sell you insider secrets that will unlock the hidden bargains is probably not to be trusted. There are no secrets anymore.

But there is a formula. It looks something like this: 6v – 0v = 10,000

That won’t hold up in algebra class, so don’t try to solve it. It’s really symbolizing a travel truth: 6 variables – 0 variables equals 10,000 possibilities. More than that in many cases, but let’s pick a number. Here’s the illustration of this truth.

travel variables

Whether they have expressly thought about it or not, this truth is what guides those travelers who always seem to find the cheap vacations, the fantastic deals, and the experience of backpacking around the world for a year. Often by trial and error, they’ve stumbled upon the way to get “lucky.” The more travel variables you leave open, the less you are going to pay.

Now let’s look at why I can barely help most infrequent travelers who ask me for advice on how to score better travel deals. After a little prodding, it usually ends up that they’ve already decided they’re going to fly to x place during y time period and are staying at hotel z they read about somewhere. They think, however, that there’s some secret I can tell them that will miraculously shave half off their trip cost, even though they barely have any variables left to work with. If they had a chart it would look more like this, with what’s already been decided grayed out:

traveling variables

Those two visual representations aren’t really even accurate though because not all travel variables are created equal. The 40 decisions they may have left are just fringe around the edge of the budget.

Most of the time, your destination will have an outsized effect on the budget because that will impact the cost of everything else on the list. If you can be flexible on one thing, make it that. If you’re flying to an international destination for a week or two vacation, airfare may be the biggest tangible budget line item. If you’re going domestic or not very far, then the lodging probably will be. Leaving what you’re going to have for dinner open will have a relatively small impact in comparison.

travel costs

You could revamp this quite a bit though depending on your particular situation. If you’re going skiing for a week, the “what you do” part will be a bigger expense and you could maybe cut that cost in half (and lodging too) by picking a smaller ski resort with better package deals. If you’re going from New York to New Zealand, airfare is going to be expensive no matter when you go. It’s just a matter of how much it’s going to hurt.

If you’re a long-term backpacker, a day at Petra is going to wreck the budget for days, whereas changing hotels to a worse one might only save you $2. If you are traveling through Southeast Asia overland, moving slowly will cost far less than staying in a different spot every night or two because transportation becomes a disproportionally high expense for backpackers taking a bus or train several times a week. Part of the reason multi-country Africa travel seems more expensive than it should be is because the vast distances are often best traversed by plane.

They key is to recognize these variables and leave as many as you can open—especially the ones that will have the biggest impact.

“I want to go to Paris the third week of July and then do wine tastings around Bordeaux” is going to be expensive, no matter how emphatically you say, “but I don’t mind staying in simple hotels.” Contrarian Traveler

“I’m thinking of heading to Central or South America sometime late this year and I’ll figure out an itinerary after we check flight prices” is a whole different story. If you’re that second person, let’s grab a beer because I’ve got lots of advice for you.

Or, if you’re an inexperienced traveler and want to learn more about this strategy in detail, I’ve got just the book for you, full of evergreen advice on this topic. Click on that cover to see it on Amazon.

Bolivia to Chile

Sometimes you have to make your own path…

Why do some people always seem to travel for cheap and others search in vain for deals that elude them? Often it comes down to a combination of patience, persistence, and creativity. As creative thinking author Roger Von Oech advised, often you need to find “the second right answer.”

Next week I’m traveling from Mexico to South Carolina on a Delta frequent flier ticket. Their miles are often derisively referred to as “Skypesos” because they’re so hard to cash in compared to most other airlines. Getting the lowest level awards are next to impossible. But…this is the fourth time I’ve flown Delta for free, so it’s close to impossible, not completely so.

I managed this, as I’ve done the other times, by basing my travel dates on when Delta had availability, not when it was most convenient for me. I’ll make all kinds of changes in my travel schedule if it’s the difference in paying $50 in cash-in fees or $550 to buy a ticket.

Over the past few years, due to some smart travel hacking efforts, I’ve flown for free (except for taxes and fees) to four continents, plus a few domestic flights. Rarely was this as simple as punching in my dates and hitting the booking button. Here are a few contortions that were required to cash in all those miles for almost-free tickets:

  • I flew American to Bolivia and LAN back from Chile because neither had openings both ways.
  • I started and ended my four-country tour of Eastern Europe not in Sofia, as I’d planned, but in Budapest because that’s where I could get a mileage ticket flight the time of year I wanted.
  • My family returned from Southeast Asia on a different airline than me.
  • My daughter and I moved to Guanajuato a week earlier than my wife because we were paying and she was using mileage.
  • I got an extra cheap hotel room one night in Salt Lake City because the date I wanted to fly out on mileage wasn’t available. The next day was.

Be a Travel Deals Detective

This kind of willingness to be flexible also applies when you’re paying. I recently got quoted in this Reuters article about flying an unaccompanied minor because they liked my story about how I avoided paying United Airlines $300 to put my daughter in a seat by herself. I accompanied her up and back on Allegiant, then she returned on JetBlue. It took some time and a calculator to figure all that out, but we saved a a few hundred bucks and it all went smoothly. creative travel savings

Hotels? Go beyond the typical booking engines everyone uses. For normal hotel deals, try Trivago.com and get a look at what everyone is charging. If you just need a chain hotel in a certain area, use Hotwire or Priceline bidding. Try the HotelTonight app if it’s last-minute.

If all else fails, use none of them and go old school, researching independent options that don’t want to pay the big booking sites. Look at guidebooks, destination websites, and the third page of TripAdvisor for hidden gems. Ask friends of friends. Or if you’re staying a while, rent a home or apartment.

If you’re coming up empty finding a reasonably priced way to get from A to B, make sure you’re looking at all the options. From Megabus to Amtrak, Easyjet to AirAsia, one-way rental cars to alternate airports, there multiple possibilities to try before giving up.

Travel is so much easier than it was when I started 20 years ago, but it’s also easier than ever to overspend. It’s easier to mistake info that pops up in your first search as the final word. Really, it’s just a starting point. Dig deeper and wider to find a better answer.

alentejo traveling tim leffel

A lot of travel bloggers really don’t need to ever do a year-end summary because they’ve already told you about everything they ate for lunch in each destination and every monument they snapped a photo of. I try to be more evergreen than that, telling stories that are reasonably timeless and giving advice that is useful for more than the next two weeks. So here’s a look back at travels and projects over the past year, including some I didn’t write much about on this Cheapest Destinations Blog.

I kicked the year off right with a newly revised 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. It’s been a decade since the first one came out. (For what it’s worth, this was also the 10th anniversary of Vagabonding, which you can now get as an audio book read by Rolf himself.) If you bought or reviewed my new edition, thanks!

After the book came out, I hit the road again.

1) I started out in chilly Salt Lake City checking out new travel gear on the way and then went to Park City for the first time. I skied all three resorts, rode the Olympic bobsled course, and went snowshoeing the backcountry. A story on that trip just came out.

salt church near Bogota2) In February I headed down to Colombia again, visiting Bogota for the first time (check out this crazy cathedral in a salt mine nearby) and returning to the Coffee Triangle and Cartagena. If you’re heading to South America sometime, this is a great place to start. Not the cheapest, but great music, beautiful things to see, fun nightlife…

3) During spring break my family returned to our old hip home of Nashville, Tennessee to see old friends. Mostly we did that, partied, and ate well. Here are some tips on eating local food in Nashville.

4) Panama I’ve been here several times now, but on this trip I explored some different areas for a Global Traveler magazine article I was researching on adventure travel there. I did some hiking, ziplining, and coffee farm exploration around Boquette, then explored Coiba Island and a few islets from a base on the mainland.

5) The great company Bike Tours Direct invited me to try out one of their tours in Portugal, in conjunction with local operator Turaventur in the Alentejo region. I cashed in some miles gained through smart travel hacking and took my wife along. We slept in a castle and this palace that are a surprisingly good value, drank great wine for under $10 a bottle, and worked off a lot of flab cycling through the countryside. I wrote a story about it: Wildflowers and Wine: Biking Through Castle Country in Portugal.

6) On the way back we stopped in Madrid. But our flight got changed and we missed the Tapas tour we were going to do with Viator. Bummer. But do they have a cool looking airport or what? This is not a sci-fi movie set. It’s baggage claim.

Madrid's baggage claim

7) I went to Miami to cover a luxury travel conference for another publication and hang with the beautiful people, staying at the cool National Hotel. (Hint to aspiring travel writers: those covering luxury tend to stay in better digs than those writing about budget travel.)

8) Right after that I went up to Toronto to speak at the TBEX bloggers conference. Then I traveled down the lake to Kingston, Ontario and wrote a story about Canada’s first capital.

Leffel Guanajuato house

9) After two years in Tampa, Florida, I carried an embarrassing amount of luggage up to the check-in counter and boarded a plane to my new home—for the second time—Guanajuato, Mexico. I own a house there now, with this view above, on a hill above the main locals’ market, a short walk from the center. Unfortunately it was completely empty and needed a new kitchen, so my lack of rent to pay has been offset by having to lay out a lot of dough for “stuff.” Short term pain, long term gain. If you’re heading my way, sign up for one of my Mexican street food tours.

10) I hit Veracruz, Mexico for the first time and got a taste of the adventure travel options in that area. One of the best whitewater rafting trips of my life.

national park near Cuenca

11) Ecuador called my name again, with a bit of time in Quito and then more time in and around Cuenca. It’s an interesting city and I really liked the gorgeous countryside around it, but I feel like there’s a bit of a bandwagon effect going on with all the retirees. As a place to live, it looks better on paper than in person to me. Though it is certainly one of the cheapest places to live in the world.

12) I returned to the Riviera Maya again for another travel conference, then did a post-trip in the Merida area. Because I was with the top tour company in the area, my group got to visit Chichen Itza after hours and explore that and Uxmal with two archeologists. And then stay in a hacienda hotel. Very cool.

13) The North American Travel Journalists Association asked me to be a panelist (along with Kim Mance and Chris Jay from the 20 X 49 blog) in Shreveport, Lousiana. Then at the last minute keynote speaker Andrew McCarthy got a movie gig, so I filled in his opening speech spot. I ate really well in Shreveport, then Alexandria, then New Orleans. I may have gained five pounds in less than a week from eating my way through Louisiana. But yum!

day of the dead
14) Day of the Dead is a great time to be in Mexico. I got to experience it in Guadalajara (where the above photo was taken) and in Guanajuato. See some more great Katrina and Day of the Dead photos.

15) An assignment for a trade pub gave me an excuse to go to Mexico City again and as always, it was invigorating. It resulted in my most viral post ever (30K+ unique visitors in four weeks) after blogging on here for a decade: Are you avoiding Mexico City for outdated reasons?

canyon near San Miguel

16) The year ended with a bang: horseback riding and pyramid exploring with Coyote Canyon Adventures outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Then Christmas in Guanajuato, who knows what yet for New Year’s Eve.

In all that I only visited two new countries. But that’s okay, because I’m not a country counter. I’d rather visit five new places in countries I’ve been to than to put a check box next to Paraguay.

I won some more travel writing awards this year, which was nice. This blog and Perceptive Travel both got tagged by NATJA and I won two Gold awards there for a piece I wrote on Bulgaria and a Southeast Asia reflection article I did for Lonely Planet. The Perceptive Travel Blog I launched many years ago won best travel blog from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Thanks for reading along and following, whether you discovered this blog 10 years ago or last week.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll bring you in 2014 besides a February trip to Nicaragua already booked and lots of travels within Mexico. My big project is going to be a book I’ve already started working on about cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. Title T.B.D. – I’m getting input on that and some parts of the content from the people on this newsletter list: Live Abroad for Less. Sign up!