Nick Ut  /  AP file
Want to be a step ahead of the rest of your fellow travelers? Columnist Christopher Elliott shares his ideas for saving cash and improving your overall experience.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/5/2007 9:40:58 AM ET 2007-11-05T14:40:58

What if I told you a secret that could cut the cost of your next plane ticket in half? Or get you upgraded into a better room or car, pay less for your restaurant meal, even help you zip through the security line?

Too good to be true, you say?

Nope. If you travel enough, you’ll discover these money-saving strategies, and you’ll use them, and you probably won’t share them with anyone else because, well, if everyone knew, then …

Oh, what the heck. I was never much good at keeping secrets. Here are eight of my favorites:

Going one way? Buy a roundtrip ticket
Here’s a secret for those of you flying one way. Don’t buy a one-way airline ticket. Because of a quirk in the way airlines set their fares, the one-way ticket will almost always cost more than a roundtrip ticket. “Historically, for domestic travel, one-way tickets have been treated by legacy airlines as business tickets and thus inherited the premium business price point,” says Rick Seaney, the chief executive of the Web site Farecompare.com. “For international travel, you will rarely see a one-way international airfare that is not three to four times the roundtrip price point.” Just think — one ticket for the price of two. Only the airlines could get away with that. But you don’t have to play that game. Buy a roundtrip ticket and only use half of it. Airlines can’t stand it, because you’re denying them the revenue they’d get from a more expensive one-way ticket. The practice is scornfully called “throwaway” ticketing. So don’t ask your travel agent to get involved, and don’t offer your frequent flier number, which makes it easy to track this little trick.

SSSS is for speedy
The fastest way through the TSA line may be as a selectee. After a recent column about how some airline ticket agents punish problem passengers by tagging them as TSA “selectees,” I got several e-mails from frequent travelers, asking me: “So what’s the problem?” Seems the line for these passengers who must undergo extra screening is often faster than the one for ordinary air travelers. I didn’t believe it. So on my last flight, I asked a TSA representative if I could go through the selectee line. The move saved me at least ten minutes. If time is money, you might consider trying this. Or, at the very least, not minding the “SSSS” stamped across your ticket. Maybe they’re doing you a favor.

Find a first class seat in coach
Experienced travelers know that there are a couple of seats in the economy class section that are as good (and in some instances, better) than the first-class seats. They’re emergency-exit row seats. And they’re better because they have several extra inches of legroom and because kids aren’t allowed to sit in them, so you’re all but guaranteed a quiet flight. Another secret: check out the premium economy seats, which can be as comfortable as the seats in the front of the cabin at a fraction of the price, says Matthew Bennett, editor of the Web site Firstclassflyer.com. “For example, Virgin’s new premium economy seats are 22 inches wide, while Delta’s BusinessElite seats to Europe are only 18.5 inches wide, and cost up to10 times the money,” he says.

Reserve a Matchbox car and score a free upgrade
Veteran car renters love this next secret. Never rent a full-size vehicle unless you’re absolutely certain that you need one. Otherwise, pick the smallest car — the subcompact vehicle that costs significantly less. Why? Everyone else does, too, and if you arrive at the right time of day, the car rental company will usually offer you a free upgrade. “The best time to shoot for free upgrades is probably Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, in the early afternoon,” says car rental analyst Neil Abrams. Wait a second — did he just say “free upgrade?” Why, yes. But he warns that you shouldn’t count on it. Many car rental companies have adjusted their fleets, which means they’re likelier to have the car you ordered. But if you don’t mind playing the system, you could still end up with a nicer set of wheels.

Use your cell phone, save a bundle
Pretend the phone in your hotel room doesn’t exist. Hotels wish you wouldn’t, because they depend on them for revenues — about one percent of their income comes from the in-room phones, according to PKF Consulting. Now that may not seem like a lot, but for some resorts, it represents millions of dollars a year. Another gotcha: wireless Internet charges, which can cost up to $10 a day. PKF analyst Robert Mandelbaum says people can avoid these high telecommunications charges by carrying their cell phones, calling cards, or just staying off the phone. Better yet, hotel guests are choosing hotels that offer free Internet access and using their Internet-based phone services such as Skype.

Package deals can save you crazy money
Buying air and hotel or air and car rental together instead of separately can save you ridiculous amounts of dough. The best package deals are to Hawaii and business-class air to Europe, says Janice Hough, a travel agent for All Horizons Travel in Los Altos, Calif. “For example, the lowest published airfare to Hawaii might be $750, but a tour would have a $500 fare,” she says. I once saw a weekly car rental in Baltimore that cost more than the car rental plus a hotel. And I know of travelers who have bought these packages and not used one of the components — in other words, they’ve purchased air and hotel packages and then not used the hotel. What’s with the travel industry math? Tour operators or agencies will buy large blocks of hotel rooms and airline tickets at a deep discount and then resell them to you at a markup — but still less than you’d pay if you bought them separately. “A good agent should know where to find these deals,” says Hough.

Play the restaurant menu game. Save big bucks
What’s the difference between the lunch menu and the dinner menu? If you said, “it just costs more,” you could be right. Restaurants play all kinds of menu games, including marking up the dinner menu, offering more expensive kids meals, and imposing mandatory “tips” without telling you. I could spend an entire column on restaurant savings, but here are two of my favorite “games” you can win. If it’s a choice between eating lunch or dinner in a restaurant, go for lunch. It’s almost always less expensive. Restaurants believe you’ll spend more on the same food for dinner (and they’re usually right). And the kids meals? Not always worth it, says restaurant expert Stanley Roberts, who runs the Web site We8there.com. “Try ordering food for the kids a la carte,” he recommends. “Lets say you order French fries and two small cheeseburgers a la carte, you might you might save more money than ordering a separate kids meal,” he says.

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Don’t bother with a suite. Snag a handicapped-accessible room
Before I explain this tip, let’s get one thing out of the way: It’s wrong, wrong, wrong to ask for a handicapped-accessible room if you aren’t handicapped. But I’ve been given the keys to these special rooms or berths in the past, and they are sometimes as spacious as any suite — usually at no extra charge. Here’s how I see it: It’s not cool to ask for handicapped-accessible rooms if you aren’t disabled because you might take the room from someone who needs it. But what if there’s no one with special needs on the ship or in the hotel? It’s not wrong to mention your interest in these rooms, as long as you let the cruise line or hotel know that you’re able-bodied, and as long as you can be sure you’re not taking it away from someone who really needs it. Full disclosure is essential. “We have kids, and could use the extra room,” or “I have a lot of luggage.”

When you’re on the road, keeping your costs under control is a constant struggle. These eight secrets can help you stick to your vacation budget.

Happy travels.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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