With a tightening economy across the board and travel expenses in particular putting the squeeze on your budget (can you say "fuel prices?"), many travelers are looking for ways to "Go Anyway" without going broke as well. However, while it's important to keep an eye on your budget while traveling, there are certain parts of your trip where you may not want to cut corners. Following are my guidelines for when and when not to worry about money when traveling in a recession economy.
Let's start by saying it's not necessarily all bad news out there for travelers — the dynamics of supply and demand sometimes work for you and sometimes work against you. As more folks opt to take fewer trips, take shorter trips or even stay home, the opposite effect is that there are more empty seats, open hotel rooms and rental cars on the lot — in short, more good deals.
For me, an upcoming trip to visit family will turn out to be the least expensive such trip I have made in a decade. Just by doing very standard booking engine searches, I found low airfares, a great hotel rate (even in high season) and a rock-bottom rental car rate. The cost of gas on the trip may be formidable, but it will be offset by these other savings. (I'm considering renting bikes as well.) Before you decide travel is too expensive at the moment, check to see what a trip would really cost you. You may be pleasantly surprised.
When to worry: Advance purchase benchmarks
In the current pricing environment, when you are coming up on any of the advance purchase price-hiking benchmarks (usually 21, 14, 7 or 3 days before your flight), it is time to stop dallying and make your purchase — because by the next morning, fares are almost certain to have jumped upwards. For more information, see Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare.
When not to worry: Finding direct flights
For my money, the one thing worth digging a little deeper for — and paying more for — is a direct flight. I have three reasons for this: delays, cancellations and baggage handling (maybe that should really read "one reason": airlines). A problem with any of these three increases dramatically when you have a connecting flight, and can very quickly get bad enough to ruin an entire trip.
When to worry: Booking mid-range chain hotels
For most trips, lodging options vary considerably; from hostels to heavily-starred hotels, you can almost always find a room, and your wallet is your only worry. Your average chain hotel is a lot like the next, and it has become much easier to avoid real dumps by checking the reviews on a site like TripAdvisor. Unless one of these hotels consistently ranks low in user reviews, you are safe saving a few bucks when you make your final choice. For more tips on saving money on your hotel, see Get the Best Hotel Rate.
Another place to look for potentially considerable savings is by booking a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast. If you are traveling with a family of four, paying for breakfast could cost you $30 or more every day for the same food that costs you about $8 to serve yourself at home. Over the course of a long weekend, you can save into the triple digits by eating downstairs with the road warriors watching CNN.
When not to worry: Choosing an "official" hotel
The real estate agent's mantra of "location, location, location" is the key to knowing when to pay a little more for a more convenient or expensive hotel.
For example, if there is an official "convention hotel" or "wedding hotel" that costs a few dollars more per night, I say go for it. You will have all your stuff right upstairs with no need for any additional driving, and will save on gas, parking, taxis, restaurant meals (by stocking your hotel room with groceries and snacks), even a rental car. This approach can save you both sweat and money in the end.
When to worry: At the pump
When it comes to driving expenses, the pain is at the pump — and you are more exposed to high gas prices while traveling than at any other time. When driving near your home, you likely know where to go to get the best gas prices, what the local averages are and which stations to avoid. While traveling, you have less local knowledge and thus far fewer choices. It doesn't help that most gas stations that are conveniently located for tourists and travelers — on interstates, in town, near airports — are often priced the highest.
Check out Gasbuddy.com for a rundown of the lowest gas prices across the country. You might even learn something by checking your own home town; I just did a search in my area, and it looks like I can save about 15 cents a gallon by going two miles north from my house instead of my usual two miles south. Also, don't miss our tips for saving gas and money.
One more suggestion in these days of record gas prices: Before handing over your credit card, make sure the station does not have a different (read: higher) price for credit card purchases as compared to cash purchases. In these cases, the station is passing on their credit card processing fees to you. Without fail, the price advertised on the sign will be a locally competitive cash price while the credit card price is considerably higher. I see credit card prices at these stations positioned at about six to eight cents higher per gallon, and these numbers go up as prices go up.
When not to worry: Hard to say
Gas prices do not seem to have topped out yet, and with Memorial Day just around the corner, it's fair to fear the worst is yet to come. If prices push past $4 a gallon, driving a couple hundred miles roundtrip to go to the beach, a lake or a concert could cost you $40 - $50.
But let's look for a bright spot: It's easy to share driving expenses, so when your car is full of people it's actually not that expensive to drive somewhere. So if you have a family or group of four, and it costs you $10 each in gas to get to the beach, it's not the dealbreaker that a $40 roundtrip might be when you travel alone.
When to worry: At the time of booking; use auction sites, avoid tiny cars
I have my own strategy for getting good car rental deals. My only rule is to avoid truly tiny cars, unless I am traveling alone and will not be in the car very much. (Of course, if the car is serving largely as an "airport and back" vehicle, then get the cheapest car you can, irrespective of size.)
When not to worry: Upgrades at the counter
You can often game the system by booking a subcompact car as cheaply as possible, and then requesting (or accepting an offered) upgrade at the rental counter. The upgrade will often be "x additional dollars," but if you used some of my tactics for getting a very cheap rental in the first place, this is still only x dollars over a very low starting price. (Do keep in mind, however, that a larger car will also cost you more in gas.)
When to worry: Upon arrival, and when getting and unloading cash
Despite a little rally this past week, the dollar remains at record lows at many popular destinations worldwide. There are two primary culprits to avoid in this environment: exchange desk fees and ATM fees.
With respect to exchange desks, you get hit both coming and going — the exchange rates are worse than you'll find anywhere else, and they take a commission as well. There is no real reason to use an exchange desk anymore; simply avoid them by getting all your money at an ATM. However, if you are not careful, ATM fees can pack quite a wallop as well. When traveling internationally, the local ATM will likely charge you a fee, as will your bank back home. There are two tactics to beat this — first, use no-fee ATMs whenever you can find them; second, take out enough cash on each trip to the ATM so you don't have to keep going back every day, fees racking up with every card swipe.
When not to worry: In your day-to-day travels
When traveling overseas, don't worry too much about your most mundane expenses such as snacks, transportation or a visit to the best attractions; you'll drive yourself and your traveling companions nuts. I once had a budget-fussy traveling companion, and eventually had to go my own way at least once every day in order not to miss out on everything to save a few pazooties.
Attractions, shows and tickets
When to worry: When coupon-clipping looks promising
Tourist bureaus are a largely untapped source of discounts on attractions great and small, famous and obscure, and most tourist bureaus have a passable Web presence these days, so they're not hard to find. With a little research, coupons here and there can start to add up. More sources of locals-only discounts:
- Coupons and offers show up in daily and weekly local publications that no outsider would usually see; pick up a few local papers (often for free) at delis, convenience stores and other small establishments.
- Travelzoo has a new Shows and Events section.
- Consult with fellow travelers on money-saving tactics. For example, type "Disney on the cheap" into a search engine and you'll find dozens of great ideas, such as these from USA Today.
When not to worry: At big-ticket attractions
Finding good deals on popular attractions can be tricky business, and let's face it — if you're going to Disney, you're going to Disney — it's not like the special on pony rides at the local petting farm is going to make its way onto your radar. But that doesn't mean you can't find discounted tickets to Disney from the local tourist bureau — check out OrlandoInfo.com for the proof.
When to worry: When you're not dividing by four, but multiplying by four
When traveling as a family, it's the sheer numbers that will put the hurt on your budget; airfares may be low, but four or five times pretty much any budget airfare puts you into the four-figure range. Luckily, some of the tactics noted above are perfectly suited to traveling together as a family — for example, keeping car rental upgrade costs under control and saving on breakfast at the hotel.
When not to worry: When researching deals
Many resorts, hotels and attractions offer family deals — in some cases, you can even get discounts on kids' airfares. Check out the Discount Family Vacation Deals section of our Bargain Box for current deals, and browse our Family Travel Resources for more ideas on how to find them. You can do extremely well with a little research.