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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.

Siem Reap Angkor

Until Burma reaches a point of real reform and starts getting the promised foreign investment coming in, Cambodia will hold the crown as the best travel value in Southeast Asia. What you get for your money is unbelievable sometimes, yet you don’t have to go way off the beaten path to find the bargains.

In Cambodia you can travel in a manner that feels way above your budget. If you spend $30 on a room it’ll come with air-con, maid service, a great breakfast, TV, fridge, and maybe even a pool. If you spend $5 on a meal it’ll be in a pretty nice restaurant and probably include a beer or two. If you have to break down and take a tuk-tuk or taxi across town, that’ll set you back two or three dollars. So naturally, if you’re used to doing everything on a shoestring and want to keep that going, you can really make your budget last by hanging out here for a month.

Without the vast distances you have to navigate in Indonesia or even Vietnam, you can get to most anywhere you need to go the same day.

Here are some sample prices for Cambodia, from my mid-range family trip this past summer, from my notes, and from articles and blog posts I bookmarked before and after. Almost everything is priced in U.S. dollars here—even in the supermarkets—so you rarely use local currency.

Hotel & Hostel Prices in Cambodia

This country has gone from being critically underserved on lodging to being in the midst of a building boom, so there’s plenty to choose from in every price range. You have to negotiate on the spot to get a private room without paying the two-person rate: couples or friends traveling together get a better deal. A triple or family suite is generally just 1/3 more than a double at cheapie places, even less at nicer ones. Some hostels have free laundry, almost all have free Wi-Fi.

Hostel bed: $4 -$7, usually including Wi-Fi, sometimes breakfast
Cheap double room, fan-cooled, shared bath: $5 – $12
Cheap double room, air-con, private bath: $8 – $18
Mid-range room with hotel amenities, maid service, breakfast: $16 – $50
Deluxe room with elevator, bellhops, pool: $40 – $200

(There are very few hotels where guests pay more than $200 per night for a standard room. When I searched Siem Reap hotels on Trivago for two weeks from now I only found 8.)

Siem Reap restaurant

Food & Drink in Cambodia

This is where you really get the full benefit of local pricing. As long as you eat what’s grown in the region and don’t need a daily fix of imported items, this is a place where you can eat out three meals a day and spend less than $5 if you go where the locals go. Step up to a nicer restaurant with waiters and you can still get a meal for a few bucks. Often our family of three would completely chow down on multiple courses in Siem Reap and I’d have a few beers, my daughter would get a fruit shake. The bill would come and it would be $11 or $12.

cheap beerStreet or market stall meal: 50 cents to $1.50
Basic restaurant main dish: $1 – $3
Nicest non-hotel restaurant in town, meal for two: $35 – $60 with a bottle of wine
Draft/bottle beer: 50 cents/75 cents – $1.50/$2
Soda or coffee: 50 cents – $1.50
Fruit shake: 50 cents – $1.50
Cocktail: $1 – $4

Transportation Prices

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by boat: $35
Same route by bus: $6 – $13 (working A/C and Wi-Fi).
Bus from Phnom Penh to the beaches: $4 – $6
Taxi from Phnom Penh to the beaches: $50 – $60 (up to 4 people)
Bus to Saigon, Vietnam: $6 – $14
Bus to Thai border from Siem Reap: $9
Taxi to/from Thai border to Siem Reap: $30 – $48 (up to 4 people)
Flight to Vietnam: $100 – $300
Tuk-tuk ride: $1 – $2 local, $10 – $16 for the day
Taxi: $1 – $4 local, $15 – $50 for the day depending on distance, negotiations. (If there’s a meter, $1 per 2kms)
Motorcycle taxi – $6 – $9 around Ankor Wat for the day.
Motorbike rental (not allowed in Siem Reap): $6 – $25 per day, weekly rates are cheaper.
Bike rentals: $1 – $3 per day

Other Traveler Prices:

CambodiaAngkor Wat region admission: $20 one day, $40 three days, $60 one week
One-hour massage: $5 – $8
One-hour four-hand massage: $10 – $15
Manicure/pedicure: $3 – $5
Laundry service: $1 – $2 per kilo
Local tours: $15 – $35 per person
Mobile phone Sim card: starts at $5
(Illegal) MP3 albums/movies: $1/$2

If you want to move to Cambodia to live for a while, you can’t buy property without partnering up with a local, but you can get a 99-year lease, which works for most people. International Living says you can rent a 2BR beach house in Sihanoukville for as little as $150 a month and get by there on $525 a month total in living expenses.

Related post with pics: What $50 a night gets you for a hotel in Southeast Asia

Miami hotels

Do you typically go to one or two sites to check hotel prices before booking? Do you change those sites depending on the region?

Even if you do, you’re probably paying too much.

One of the companies I’ve partnered up with over at Perceptive Travel is Trivago. Since I’ve starting using them to search for the best hotel deals, I’ve seen dramatic differences between the various online travel agencies and you can rarely point to one of them as being consistently lower in price than others.

A lot of American travelers haven’t heard of Trivago because they’re based in Europe. The closest thing to it here is Kayak, but I don’t have to look at 3 display ads from outside companies and three blocks of Google Adsense ads on Trivago. And I don’t have to uncheck boxes that will send me to three more booking sites. (If Kayak already gives you the best results, why do they want to send you to Orbitz or Priceline? Because they get a few cents every time you leave the boxes checked and those windows open, that’s why).

So this site delivers multiple results like Kayak, but it loads faster and has a cleaner interface, without a bunch of distracting ads blinking and expanding on the sides of the page.

Hungary hotel search

Trivago pulls from 141 booking sites in all, so if you search for a Budapest hotel deal, you’ll get 1,149 hotels in the results. Whoa, that’s a lot of hotels! When I searched Miami Beach hotels for an upcoming trip, there were 365 of them to choose from. Thankfully you can narrow this down by price, distance, ratings, or popularity on the general side, lots of specific factors (like star category, amenities, and type of hotel) on the left sidebar. If I drilled that Budapest list down to 3-star hotels within a mile and a half of the city center, I got 13 results. All but one were $100 or less.

Here’s why using a metasearch site like this matters though. In those results, the lowest price for various choices came from six different booking sites. Sometimes Agoda was lower, sometimes Booking.com, sometimes Vivastay or EasytoBook. This is why just going to Expedia every time is a bad idea, especially for international locations.

I also like this site because it gives you different room options from various sites. So you may see a difference of $10 for a standard double, but a difference of $50 for a junior suite. Or you may click on a hotel on the same block and find a similar junior suite $60 less than that.

There’s a lot to sift through in some cities and that can be a bit daunting. But if you use the filters to home in on what you want, you can book through Trivago feeling confident that you’ve gotten the best possible deal, whether that deal was from Splendia, Agoda, GetaRoom, Venere, the hotel chain site, or a dozen sites you probably never would have checked otherwise.

If you’re going to potentially save $40 or more on your hotel bill, a few extra minutes spent on research would seem to be a good payoff.

Follow this link to find your cheap hotel deals.

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Granada

In most respects, Nicaragua is the cheapest place to travel in Latin America, which makes it the cheapest destination in the Americas period. Since it’s also close and easy to get to for a reasonable airfare, at least for those of us in the U.S. and Canada, your total cost for visiting Nicaragua is going to be lower than almost anywhere else you could go internationally.

Granada

This huge “meal of the day” was $2.50 with drink and tip

Naturally, you have to give up a little comfort in the process though. You’ll be on a “chicken bus” now and then if you get off the main tourist track. Budget hotel choices are a good value, but the selection and overall level of quality are not always up to what you find in Guatemala or even Honduras—again, outside the main tourist towns that is. In part this is because domestic demand hasn’t been there and while tourism numbers are growing fast, they’re still relatively small.

This is a country where you can feel like an adventurer though, with almost no tour buses in sight, affordable restaurants everywhere, cheap drinks, and limited hassles from touts and scammers. If you’re looking for somewhere to kick back for a while and let your budget recover, here you can do it in a beautiful colonial city (Granada), on a beach (San Juan del Sur or a more isolated surfing village), or in the mountains of coffee country.

At the time of writing, the exchange rate was 23 cordobas to the U.S. dollar. So if two happy hour cocktails are 35 as in a photo of a bar I visited below, that’s around $1.50.

hotel

A $52 splurge (with full breakfast) in Granada

Hotel and Hostel Prices in Nicaragua

Dorm bed: $3 – $8 per person, often incl. basic breakfast & Wi-Fi
Basic double room with shared bath: $6 – $15
Double room with private bath, A/C, TV, maybe a fridge: $10 – $30.
Nice double room with all that, good bedding, daily maid service, breakfast, maybe a pool: $25 – $60
(There are probably only about 12 hotels in all of Nicaragua where rates for a standard start at more than $125 double per night.)

Food & Drink in Nicaragua:

Market stall lunch: $1.50 – $3
Basic restaurant lunch: $2.50 – $7
All-you-can eat buffets: $4 – $8.
Fancy restaurant meal, cloth napkins: $7 – $15
(There are probably only about 20 restaurants outside Managua where you can spend $20+ per person on dinner excluding drinks.)

Flor de Caña rum, 4-year: $2.50 – $4 per liter
Flor de Caña rum, 7-year: $4 – $9 per liter depending on where.
Cheap local rum: $1 – $2.50 per liter.
Rum cocktail in a bar: $1 – $2.50.
Small beer in a bar: 60 cents to a dollar in a bar
Liter-sized beer in a bar: $1.50 – $2 (Less in a store or at happy hour.)

Seasonal fruit: 50 cents to $1 a pound
Tortillas: 50 cents for a handfull
Bread: 10-20 cents for sandwich roll, 50 cents for a baguette
Coffee: 50 cents to $1 a cup, from good local beans

Transportation in Nicaragua:

The regular buses in Nicaragua are mostly converted school buses discarded by U.S school systems and on their second life here. They can be slow and crowded, but will often only cost you a dollar or less to get you where you’re going.

Express bus: 60-80 cents per hour of travel.
Express minibus: around $1 from Managua to Granada, around $2 Managua to Leon.
Tourist door-to-door shuttle: pricey, but quick and air-conditioned. $27 for Granada to San Juan del Sur, $18 to $35 each between Granada and the Managua airport depending on group size.

Local buses in cities: 15 – 25 cents.
Taxi ride: 50 cents to $4 in city limits anywhere. $6 to go across Managua, more from the airport.
Taxi from the Ometepe ferry dock in San Jorge to the bus station in Rivas: $1 – $2 (depending on your bargaining skills.)

Ometepe

Ferry from San Jorge to the main port on Ometepe: $1.50 (small boat on the right above) to $3 (air-conditioned large ferry, on the left).
First-class air-conditioned seat on the overnight trip from Granada to San Miguelito: $9. (Second class is $4, but can get crazy crowded.)

Bike rental: $3 – $8 per day, less for half day.
Scooter/motorcycle rental: $12-$40 per day depending on quality, demand, season, and your bargaining patience.

Internal flights: $80 to $140 round trip on a puddle jumper prop plane.

Other Prices for Travelers in Nicaragua:

Hop-on, hop-off tourist site buses: $10 – $22 per person
Internet access in cafe: 75 cents to $1.50 per hour
Hourlong massage from a blind masseuse in Granada – $15
25-minute VoIP phone call home – $1 USA, $1.50 Europe
Museum admissions – 25 cents to $2

$8.50 dorm, $28 double room in Turkey

I just did a post over at Uptake.com on the differences in hotel prices between big cities and smaller cities in the United States. It’s easy to compare apples to apples in this country because the market is so dominated by chain hotels that don’t vary much. Sure, there are differences around the margins, but it’s hard to tell when you wake up in a Hilton or Courtyard by Marriott whether you’re in Albany or Anaheim.

The differences can be pretty shocking. A Courtyard by Marriott standard room in Tampa is $109. In New York City it’s $409 for the same kind of room on the same weekend. A Hampton Inn room that’s $148 in Omaha is $405 in San Francisco. (Who’s paying that?! They need to learn how to use Hotwire.)

But what about the rest of the world at the budget end of the scale? How much difference does it make when staying in a big city compared to a much smaller one? Even in some developing countries, there’s a big underlying cost difference because of real estate prices, taxes, and labor costs. So how do hostel prices stack up? I looked up the same random weekend in May on Hostelworld and Hostelbookers. Here’s what I found. All prices are per person, per night. So double the price here for a private room for two.

$16 double room in India

India – Mumbai
Shared dorm – $14 to $22
Private room – $15 to $40+

India – Jaisalmer
Shared dorm – $1 to $10
Private room – $3.60 to twelve choices under $10

Turkey – Istanbul
Shared dorm – $11 to $33
Private room – $16 to $34

Turkey – Goreme
Shared dorm – $6 to $16
Private room – $11 to twelve choices under $20

Vietnam – Hanoi
Shared dorm – $5 to $12
Private room – $4 to $35 (most under $10)

Vietnam – Sapa
Shared dorm – $4 to $9
Private Room – $4 to $10

How well does this correlation hold up when we look at five or six other places? Much better in expensive countries than in most cheap ones it turns out. Prices in Buenos Aires are as good or better than what you’ll pay in Salta or Mendoza. The same is true of Quito, Budapest, or Kuala Lumpur. The reason for this is that there’s much more of a tourism infrastructure in the capital and therefore much more competition. If you own the only hostel in some small town, you have a lot more pricing power. When you’re competing with 30 others, you are subject to market forces.

So in general, if you’re in an expensive country, you should limit your time in the main city to seeing what you want to see and getting business done. Then hop the train/bus out of London, Paris, or Sydney. In many of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, however, it doesn’t make all that much difference unless it’s an out-of-whack place like Mumbai. Stay in Bangkok for the food and nightlife if you want, soak up the scene in Sofia for a week if you feel like it. So this is another budget advantage to picking the right destinations: you don’t have to hightail it out of the big city because accommodation is too expensive. So you only leave fast when it’s a pit like Jakarta or Guatemala City and there’s no good reason to stick around anyway.

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