Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tips for cheap travel (how to do it even if you think you can't)

When it comes to travel, there seems to be two camps; those who think it's for the rich and/or costs an arm and a leg, and those who know the tricks.
Out of necessity, I know quite a few tricks. Just thought I'd share a few (hundred):

1) Pick your destination based on what's currently cheap. I look at this like buying fruit that's in season; sure you want watermelon in February, but if it's not in season it's going to be expensive. For some reason, Costa Rica was ridiculously discounted last year, which made it an obvious choice. We flew round-trip from San Diego for $220, including taxes. The entire trip was cheaper than some local road trips we've taken!

2)Sign up for Travelzoo email alerts. Their weekly "Top 20" list is full of incredible deals (including local entertainment...I regularly buy symphony and other performance tickets for under $20, and we saw Spamalot for $7!).

But the real jackpot is the "flash sales" they randomly send to your in-box.

One morning the flash sale was $225 round-trip to Barcelona from San Diego, tax inclusive. The sale lasted all of six hours (I know this because that's how long it took me to locate someone who would go with me, and by then it had ended!)

Be flexible, have a passport, and be ready to book.

3) Parlay one vacation into another by volunteering to get "bumped" off your over-booked flight. I know some people who purposely choose notoriously over-booked flights just for this opportunity. The airline will typically reimburse you with a domestic round-trip ticket and put you on the next flight out.

Additionally, excessively delayed (we're talking hours) or cancelled flights should be compensated with flight credits. If they're not offered, politely but firmly request them. It probably helps to have a frequent flyer account with the airline, and maybe to cry a little (or let your kids cry..).

Last year, our flight to NYC (which we paid for with rewards points) was delayed by four hours. United sent each of us a $400 flight voucher, which nearly covered the entire cost of our flights to Kauai for our next vacay. Free flights from free flights...not bad!

5) Which brings me to...rewards cards. They are only as good as the people using them. No use working your rewards card all year to get a free $300 flight to NYC, but paying $300 in interest and ending up in debt!

If you sign up for a card just for the intro 25,000 free miles, get in and get out. Cancel the card immediately upon return to avoid forgetting about it and getting hit with the annual fee, and don't make charges on it (beyond what's required to get the free miels) to avoid interest.

We like the Citi Premier Pass because it has no annual fee and allows you to earn points on the purchase price AND the miles flown for EVERYONE whose flights are charged using the card (that means double miles points-once for the airline frequent flier program and once for the credit card).

6) Rent a house. Better yet, travel with friends and share the (comparitively low) expense of renting a house. Use VRBO or my new favorite, AirBNB. If you're looking to be comfortable, have an authentic experience, and travel on the cheap, there's no better way. You'll have tons more space and privacy, and amenities that would cost a fortune at a resort, like access to laundry, kitchen, bikes, beach equipment, patio space and/or yard, BBQs, and "concierge" advice from a local.

We've noticed that with a family of four, food can quickly become the biggest travel expense unless we have access to a kitchen (12 meals x a conservative $12 per meal = $144 a day)
But mostly, it's just nice to lounge with your own coffee without having to dress and head down to the restaurant for it, or to have a quick bite for breakfast and head out for adventure rather than sitting around at a restaurant while the kids spill juice and poke each other.

7) Have a vacation account separate from your regular savings, and have small automatic deposits set up...maybe you can't come up with $1200 at once, but you might not miss $25 a week being stashed in your vacation account!

8) Use travel as an annual excuse to clean out closets/garages and have a yard sale...add the money to your travel account.

9) Play mind games/Prioritize. If travel is a burning goal for you, like it is for me, when you're about to make a purchase ask yourself if you would rather have the item, or more money towards your trip. If you choose the trip, transfer half the money you just saved to your vacation account. I.e., if you passed on a $100 purse, transfer $50 to savings.
When it comes to going out, occasionally suggest a bottle of wine at your house instead of a full-fledged night out (or at least suggest a spot with a great happy hour instead of that expensive restaurant!), and make sure to transfer the difference to your travel account! Pat yourself on the back. So smart, you!

10) "Find" the money. Cancel your gym membership if you don't use it, ditch the excessive cable package, cancel the newspaper if you rarely read it, get a friend with skills to dye your hair, shop for a better cell phone plan, and ditch your land-line...pay the savings to your vacation account instead. Twelve years ago, we resolved not to pay for anything beyond basic cable, and every time we waver on that resolve we remind ourselves we've save an estimated $6000-$8000!

When making larger purchases, budget the amount you plan to spend and then "find" money by challenging yourself to spend less. You know what to do with the savings....
Case in point, we needed new patio furniture and I had budgeted $600 for a used teak set from Craigslist (which seemed to be the going rate). By looking a little harder, a little longer, I found the perfect set for $100. O.K., so I had to search "teak" over and over for a few days, and drive 90 mph to get it before anyone else did, but I would say that's worth being $500 closre to your next trip, wouldn't you?

What's your best cheap travel story or idea??


  1. hmmmm. maybe sleeping in airports doesn't fly with a handful of kids?

    good post..

  2. Sure it does...they make great pillows

  3. We travel in hostels instead of hotels (and they usually have a kitchen and private rooms), drive our own car almost everywhere, spend most of our cash on experiences (like excellent restaurants and museums) rather than things, and are happy spending a couple of hours in a coffee shop with a book.

    Really, it's not all that different than being home.

  4. Oh, and I'd like to point out that the Point Loma hostel (in SD) has free pancake breakfast and coffee. Plus, they let me keep my mug - I was so thrilled that it had my alma mater on it!

    Cheap thrills galore!

  5. Sarah-youre in SD?? What are u doing here? Convo me privately so I can send u my number-u have time for a drinky poo??

  6. Sarah-i will let u keep the wine glass.....

  7. Summer,

    I sent an email with my digits to the modernhaus@gmail.com account - is there a better one?

    I would love to hang. We're actually driving out to Santa Monica to meet some friends later today, so I'm not sure that there's enough time. Let's get this convo thing figured out, though, so that next time we can meet up.

    My email (one of many, I know) is: sarsha2003@yahoo.com

  8. Love the travel tips, I live by these every year when picking our destinations. I love and hate choosing flights that are overnight flghts but they have some great deals. And virgin arlines have 45 dollar flight to San Fran for a nice weekend getaway.

  9. Christina-I agree. My thinking on booking red-eye flights is that your regular flight might be delayed and END UP a red-eye, so you might as well just buy it to begin with and save the money. Besides, flying makes you feel like you've been up all night regardless.

    I love that we're on the cheap route to San Fran...I can't even count how many times we've gone. I would go for a day just to hit the DeYoung and MoMA!


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