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. If I can help people find some travel perks they didn’t know about or some great bargains that will enhance their trip, that makes me happy.
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. As I emphasize on this blog a lot, keeping your options open will save you more money than anything. Flexibility goes a long way.
Being a contrarian traveler helps a lot too. I wrote a whole book on that idea once. Then I took it further and summed up in one sentence how to save money on travel consistently.
Here are some answers to the questions I don’t get asked though. There are a few random, lesser-known deals, travel perks, and freebies out there for those who are really looking to make their travels a better value. Most of these will enable you to have a more pleasant experience every time while spending the same or less money on vacation.
Loyalty Travel Perks and Credit Card Goodies Are Widely Available
Joining airline and hotel loyalty programs is free, so there’s no real reason not to do it. You won’t get a lot of perks from that move alone, but it is a way to be assured you’ll have free Wi-Fi at chains from big international chains like Marriott and Hilton, where they might try to charge you otherwise.
The best perks and savings come from getting the right credit card(s), however. Some people balk at paying an annual fee for a credit card, thinking they won’t use it enough to make the fee pay for itself. In some cases though, it’s a sure bet that any annual fee is going to pay for itself in year one because the sign-up bonus value will far exceed the fee.
Then some of them keep delivering in year two onward also because of the travel perks they pass on. My favorite one for that is the IHG Rewards card from Chase. It grants you a free night at most hotels in their chain of thousands, excluding Intercontinental, but including Kimpton, Crowne Plaza, and their all-suite hotels. You also get automatic Platinum status when you have their card, when means a space-available upgrade everywhere you stay. I’ve gotten upgraded to a suite on my last four stays where I cashed in points, and on my free annual one that I used for a Kimpton.
The airline cards aren’t as generous after that first-year bonus, but you do get some travel perks by sticking with them. American Airlines gives you a discount on bookings with frequent flier miles and you get a checked bag for free on domestic flights. It doesn’t take many trips for that to offset the annual fee. You also get priority boarding. United and Delta cards get you a free checked bag on some flights and some boarding help as well if you have their credit card.
Southwest gives you some free miles each year when you renew, though not enough to offset the fee, unfortunately. I hold onto that one though because they often run 5X mile promotions at gas stations, grocery stores, or other categories and you don’t need a lot of points with them to fly somewhere, especially one-way. Since they don’t nickel-and-dime you so much, you always know you can check a bag with them for no charge, a huge plus.
I used to pay more than $400 a year for an American Express Platinum Card. Being the cheap bastard I am, you know that had to hurt for me to send them that much money. So why did I do it? The main reason then was I got to use the airport lounges of several different U.S. airlines AND I could bring my wife and kid in the lounge as well—or one guest. I dropped it when that perk went away, but they do have dedicated Centurion lounges in some airports just for people with high-end Amex cards, with free Wi-Fi, snacks, and beer/wine/cocktails.
Amex cards with Membership Rewards and some higher-end Chase cards are good for accumulating points you can use to top off your other accounts to get to a free flight or hotel. With the more expensive ones, you usually get some money back in the way of travel credits and other goodies too.
If you’re in a country where these loyalty credit cards are rare or stingy, there are plenty of other ways to get cheap or free places to stay, like through home exchange sites or by housesitting.
Going Up a Class in Ground Transport Means More Goodies
Cheap travelers often take the cheapest possible bus or train, which subjects them to a level of discomfort that goes far beyond the cost savings. In India, for example, the difference between an air-conditioned express train and a second-class sleeper is like the difference between a 4-star hotel and a $4 hostel bed. With the former, you get real sheets, waiters, guards to keep the bag-slashing thieves at bay, and toilets that are almost usable. For just a few bucks more.
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!
The lowest class of train is often fine in Europe if you’re not going very far, but stepping up what you spend can result in faster speeds, a sleeping bunk, charging outlets, or at least more comfortable seats with more legroom.
You Can Book Almost Any Adventure Cheaper Locally
I understand why people book adventure tour vacations from home with a company in their home country. It’s fast, easy, and provides some peace of mind. You can even search multiple options these days with TourRadar. Plus full tours with Intrepid or G Adventures can be a good value–sometimes less than $200 per day. 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, through e-mail, 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 so the middleman gets a cut. Here’s a post on how adventure travel tour pricing works if you’re interested in the background.
The same applies to city tours. Viator, GetYourGuide, and Airbnb Experiences are real time-savers if you just want to go to one site, pick something, and be done with it. The local tour companies are generally paying them a cut of 20% though, so if you can book direct you can often get a better deal or negotiate a group discount if you have four or more going together.
Wheeling and Dealing on Hotels Is Still Possible
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, Booking.com, 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 Hotwire. In my experience, 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 last-minute sites for resort areas and people in a higher budget range than me swear by the deals they’ve found on sites like LastMinute.com. Most of the sites that specialized in this have folded or been bought out, so now you see these clearance deals on the big booking sites instead. 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.
If you’re the kind who doesn’t mind a good haggle, remember that in much of the world, your rate is negotiable.
You Can Always Find a Good Flight Deal to Somewhere
As I write this, the USA has gone from nobody flying to seemingly everyone with two shots in their arm flying. It caught the clueless American Airlines so off guard that they’ve had to cancel flights in the summer peak travel season because they didn’t hire enough pilots and flight attendants back to be ready for the rebound.
In good times and bad though, you can always find a great flight deal to somewhere. I always advise searching for deals first and then deciding where you’re going to go on vacation instead of picking the place and dates first, then taking whatever the industry throws at you to determine how much you’re going to spend.
There are loads of sites out there dedicated to finding you a good airfare deal, like SecretFlying, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Airfare Watchdog. They post all day on Twitter and you can set up e-mail alerts for your own airport. Instead of waiting though, you can just pull up Google Flights. Put in a date (or two for a round-trip), put in your own airport, and leave the destination open. You’ll then get a map of the world you can zoom in and out of that will show you what the lowest fares are. Here are some August weekend one-way prices from the non-hub city of Nashville where I used to live:
There are some great deals in there. Fly to Bozeman on Allegiant for $49 one-way or $98 round-trip! Fly on Frontier to Seattle or San Diego for $99 each way on Frontier! To Vegas for just $67 on Spirit! Those are all bare-bones airlines, so you’ll have to cough up more for a bag unless you find a way around that, but pretty darn cheap to go hours away on a plane. The Minneapolis deal for $102 is non-stop on Delta even.
Just remember that this doesn’t include Southwest, so you have to go to their site to find deals for them. It also doesn’t include some international budget ones like RyanAir in you’re searching within Europe. But if it’s cheap on here, it’ll probably be a bargain destination on those too.
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