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Money-saving tips for travel tightwads

One summer, early in my traveling career, I took my mother with me on my work-related road trips. Not because she was great company, but because with her in tow I could get a senior discount.
Duane Hoffmann /

One summer, early in my traveling career, I took my mother with me on my work-related road trips. Not because she was great company, but because with her in tow I could get a senior discount on motel rooms. As you can imagine, there were some serious downsides to that scheme, but at the time it seemed to make sense.

I’ve wised up over the years and found other ways to cut costs when out on the road. I scour Web sites and tourism brochures for hotel and meal coupons. I take advantage of discounts available to card-carrying members of Costco and AAA. I stick to hotels that offer complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi. And while I have no qualms about taking an extra apple or banana from a hotel breakfast bar and saving it for lunch, I stop short at pocketing those tiny unopened jam jars on room-service trays other travelers leave outside their doors — although I’ll admit I’ve sometimes been tempted.

Perhaps you have, too. Or perhaps, like the tightwad travelers below, you’ve found other creative ways to conserve cash when you travel.

Eating on the cheap
Many tightwad travelers tell me they’ll only stay at hotels where rooms come equipped with kitchenettes or, at the very least, microwaves and coffeemakers. And plenty of travelers say they never leave home without some dried fruit, energy bars and packets of instant soup tucked into their suitcases.

Ohio-based writer Noah St. John swears by Balance Bars and cashews. For Katie Coakley, a PR professional from Vail, Colo., it’s packets of oatmeal. “They’re healthy, travel well and most rooms have a coffee maker. Heat up the water in the coffee maker, dump the oatmeal into a coffee mug and you have a healthy, economical breakfast that doesn’t involve pastries.”

Crave something more filling? Phil Johnson, a “comedy and music artist” from Milpitas, Calif., says he once got free hamburgers on the road simply by reading his receipts.

“Burger King gives you a free Whopper if you complete their phone survey after a visit,” he says. “I bought the first one, got my freebie in the second town with a new receipt and survey opportunity. I got another freebie in the next town, and so on. I ate Whoppers for a week. Not exactly the healthiest tip, but I did save a lot on food.”

And after getting charged $26 at a hotel for a room-service-delivered personal pizza, Giti Saini, co-founder of a social and parenting network with an Indian cultural twist, figured out that at most hotels, getting pizza delivered from an outside restaurant is no problem — and much cheaper.

Many travelers have surefire methods for saving on water and coffee. Web strategist Ed Kohler says he looks for bottled water in his hotel fitness center, where it usually costs less than the bottled water sold in the lobby or in the room.

And when on a road trip with her boyfriend, writer Elisa Cundiff of Las Cruces, N.M., stays awake and caffeinated, for cheap, thanks to a giant thermos. 

“This small purchase has saved us hundreds of dollars on our road trips,” she says. “We take our thermos into gas stations, filling it to the brim. Every single gas station that I have been to charges less than a dollar to do this. They’re used to people doing it. It’s an old trucker trick!”

Free Wi-Fi and cheap transportation
Washington, D.C.-area handbag designer Pauline Lewis saves on travel by paying close attention to her membership discounts. “AAA memberships, reward cards and credit cards all offer partner discounts. Use them or lose them! For example, whenever I fly JetBlue, I get 15 percent off just for using AMEX!” 

Want to save on Wi-Fi charges? San Diego, Calif.-based adventure photographer Brett Holman keeps a lid on his Internet charges by seeking out hotel chains that offer free Wi-Fi access that can be accessed in the hotel parking lots. “As long as you don’t camp out for too long, you’ll rarely get hassled. I’ve found that Holiday Inns and Best Westerns work best.”

For staying in shape, small business owner Kari Eide suggests making a one-time purchase of a fitness kit instead of paying to use the hotel gym every time you go.

Seattle-based Karen Kartes, who travels for an international humanitarian organization, scours seatbacks for free reading material before getting off a plane. “You'd be surprised at the great assortment of periodicals you can find there, if you take a second to look — without holding up the folks behind you, of course.”

Searching for souvenirs? Michael Foster, a handicraft importer from Houston, Texas, shops for souvenir local candy or coffee in local grocery stores.

“When I go to Guatemala or Costa Rica, my friends always beg for coffee,” he says. “It costs $8 to $12 in touristy gift shops, but local coffee beans are about $.75 — $1.00 lb in local grocery stores.”

To save on public transportation in cities, New York entertainment attorney Cheryl Wickham suggests buying a weekly transit pass — even you’re only in town for five days. “In San Francisco, many tourists fall for the tourist card because they want to ride the cable car. But a weekly pass will save a lot more money and you’ll probably only ride the cable car once anyhow. And in New York, you’d be silly to get the pay-per-ride metro card when the weekly can start any day of the week.”

For airline ticket savings, Chicago-based freelance editor Kim Wiseman swears by the travel Web site because it monitors fares even after a ticket is purchased and will help you get a refund if the fare goes down.

“I'd bought a ticket to Orlando for a meeting at $420.80,” Wiseman says. “A few weeks later, the price dropped by $65, and then the next day it dropped again by $50 and finally by $187. I was able to get a credit for $302 to use on another flight.”

Book the ‘Flagpole Room’
Although not for everyone, this tightwad tip from M. Anderson seems sort of intriguing. Anderson once worked at a hotel that had something called the “Flagpole Room,” because on windy nights the flagpole on the roof of the hotel would vibrate and make a weird noise.

“It was a tough sell to keep someone happy in this room,” says Anderson. “We always discounted it and sold it with a disclaimer.”  

As a traveler, Anderson now seeks out these hard-to-rent rooms.

“I know it sounds weird, but when I make reservations I always ask to talk to someone on property, and I ask if they have a ‘flagpole’ room,” says Anderson. “I’ve stayed in a ‘Boiler Room,’ an ‘Elevator Room,’ an ‘Ice Machine Room’ and a room with a missing television.  If you don't plan on being in the room much and you use a white-out noise machine, you don't notice the imperfections and can save some serious coin.”

Does that seem a bit extreme? Not to me. But then again, I used to think nothing of taking my mother along for the hotel discount. 

What about you? How far would you — or do you — go to save coin when on the road? Share your tips, and they may show up in a future column.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for