Two years ago, my boyfriend and I bought plane tickets for our first big trip together. We were going to Berlin for six days — his first time in Europe, my first in Germany. And thanks to booking with a budget airline, it was only costing us $350 a person. We were so excited.
That is, we were so excited...until we actually read the fine print. It was one of those bare-bones budget airlines where everything “extra” ends up costing you. So, while the flights themselves were only going to cost us $350 round-trip each, that didn’t include other travel necessities. We ended up paying an extra $100 each just to carry on a bag — the only thing included with our tickets was one personal item each. We wanted to sit together on our flights, which meant we each had to pay another $40 total to pick our seats. The planes also didn’t have any complimentary meal service, and since we didn’t plan ahead and pack some snacks, we ended up splurging on overpriced, mediocre sandwiches. Plus, it was an Iceland-based airline, and all of their trips included a stopover in Reykjavik. This meant we had to get all the way through customs and onto our next flight leg in the span of our 40-minute layover, which was way too close for comfort for me.
All in all, we had a wonderful trip — and we also decided that saving a few bucks with a budget airline just wasn’t worth it for us. After tallying, we could have spent about the same amount to fly on a “nicer” airline and have no layover, some food included, a free carry-on bag, and, if I’m being honest, a much more comfortable seating situation. (Budget airlines tend to scrimp on whatever isn’t necessary which, going off my personal experience, includes cushioning.)
I’m hardly the first person to see through the budget-friendly claim these airlines are making, and I also know there are plenty of other travel savings scams out there. I decided to reach out to some experts in the travel and personal finance worlds to find out which budget travel traps to avoid, or at least be wary of — here’s what they had to say:
1. Travel rewards credit cards
“Travel hacking” has become a huge trend in the world of travel bloggers. Essentially, it includes a variety of ways to score things like flights and hotel stays for free or cheap through using credit card points. Oftentimes, travel rewards credit cards will include a tempting sign-up points bonus, giving people incentive to apply for a card to fund their upcoming vacation.
But these cards can end up costing you more than they save if you’re not careful.
“Credit card companies offer travel reward cards where you can earn free airline miles because they count on the fact that the consumer will overspend and end up paying more in interest than they are saving,” says finance expert Amanda Abella. “This can end up canceling out your ‘free’ flight or costing you more than the flight would have cost.”
Of course, there are ways to make these cards work in your favor — you just have to practice caution. “To win the game that credit card companies are playing, you have to avoid paying interest,” Abella says. “You can do this by paying off your credit card balances every month. Also, keep a lookout for promotions and wait for the ones that provide the most miles. Carry multiple cards and use the one that has the best promotion going at the time. Besides earning you free flights, the bonus to frequently using credit cards and managing them carefully will be a better credit score.”
2. Tourist package deals
In New York City, where I live, it’s common to see tourists taking advantage of a CityPass, which includes admission to a wide variety of museums and attractions. But an adult CityPass currently costs $126 — and in such a large city, there might be many other attractions you’re interested in that aren’t included in that fee.
"Overbuying deals is a travel 'hack' that can be a huge pitfall," says Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com. "Be careful to not get overexcited by deals being offered and buy more than what you realistically have time for. You'll find yourself rushing through activities, robbing you not only of money you didn't need to spend but also of the experience you desired."
You could both be overpaying for the number of attractions you actually get to and be limiting yourself to a set itinerary. A “deal” like this only saves you money if you actually get to all the things it covers — otherwise, stick with booking activities a la carte.
3. All-inclusive resorts
“One popular hack that seems like a money saver but is actually a money drainer, is booking at an all-inclusive hotel without reading the fine print,” says Megan Wood, travel expert and editor at Oyster.com, a TripAdvisor company. “Travelers might see a resort that boasts 12 all-inclusive restaurants and unlimited free drinks, but on arrival find out that most of the restaurants require reservations, extra money or are only open two days a week. Plus, the included liquor is low quality, and ordering a nice glass of wine or imported beer will cost extra.”
But if you’re really into all-inclusive-style vacations, there are still good deals out there. Wood says, “Check out websites that do the legwork for you (like Oyster, Forbes Travel Guide or TripAdvisor) or call a travel agent and ask specific questions. Some all-inclusive resorts are really good about providing a truly all-inclusive vacation, no hacks required. [For example,] The Excellence brand doesn't upcharge for lobster and Zoetry includes spa treatments.”
4. Overseas rental cars
Booking a car overseas often seems extremely reasonable when you book it via an online travel agent — but most tourists are in for a rude awakening upon arrival. This happened to Denver-based entrepreneur and hobbyist travel hacker John Doherty. “I once booked a car through Sixt in Ireland that was a screaming deal, like $50/day for 10 days. When we arrived, we learned that they wouldn't take US car insurance and the total ended up being $1,200 for the trip instead of $600.”
If you’re determined to rent a car during your international trip, be sure to ask the car company plenty of questions ahead of time and budget correctly. Otherwise, taking advantage of public transportation may be your best savings bet.
5. Setting price alerts
Finally, one of the biggest tips I’ve seen (and used!) to save money on flights is to set price alerts. But this might not be the best idea, according to Jennifer McDermott, a consumer advocate for finder.com.
“While price alerts appear help us track price movements on airfares,” McDermott says, “they also provide the airlines with the intel of routes you are interested in, seeing prices go up the minute your first search is logged. One of the most cost-effective ways to get a good deal on your air ticket is to search in private or incognito mode in your browser. No search history will be attached to your request providing you with the lowest available fare every time you search.”
One of the most cost-effective ways to get a good deal on your air ticket is to search in private or incognito mode in your browser.
Of course, none of this is meant to scare you off — traveling on a budget is absolutely possible. Plus, taking time off to recharge is necessary to keep being a happy, healthy human being. All of this simply boils down to three things: shop around, do your research and always, always read the fine print. Otherwise, all that awaits you in your travels is lackluster plane food and paying far too much for a carry-on.
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