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Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part III: Transportation

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part III: Transportation

One question I get asked frequently is how I am able to travel economically . To answer that I have put together a series of posts with some of my go-to strategies for saving money on a trip as well as strategies to avoid.

This is Part III, which focuses on transportation such as rental cars, taxis, and public transit (Part I discusses flying and Part II discusses accommodations). Getting around once you have arrived at your destination can sometimes be overlooked when organizing a trip. However this is an area where with a little planning you can avoid spending both time and money that isn't necessary. Here are some strategies to help make the most of your trip.

Do:

Choose the Best Transportation Option. 

Consider the cost and convenience of renting a car (including gas and parking) vs public transportation vs ride-share (Uber/Lyft). Based on the situation and the city, the best approach is going to be different. Outside of the United States and Canada I personally do not get rental cars because the rules of the road are different, streets tend to be more crowded, and my personal insurance does not cover it. This has not been a problem as public transit and ride-sharing have covered my transportation needs.

 

Shop Around for the Best Rental Car Rate. 

Rental car rates are inconsistent from week to week and from company to company, which can make it harder to shop for a good deal. One advantage the consumer has is that you can make a reservation that can be cancelled at anytime and does not require prepayment. I recommend shopping around once you know the dates of your trip and making a reservation at that time. Continue to check on rental car prices as it gets closer to your trip to see if fares have gone down at all. If they do, make a new reservation and then cancel your previous reservation. For members of AAA or Costco you may be able to get a better deal booking through their website. Also some airlines will have promotions for partner rental car companies. Explore all options before committing and making a reservation.

Rent a Fuel-Efficient Car.

For trips that call for a rental car, I personally like to get the smallest, but still safe, car that can seat everyone comfortably. Not only are smaller cars usually cheaper, but you don't spend as much on gas.

Use Public Transit in Crowded Cities. 

In a large city such as New York, parking can be difficult to find and very expensive. Using transit instead will save both time and money. This is especially true in foreign cities that are even more dense than American cities and have invested more in their public transit systems.

Consider a 1-Day Transit Pass. 

If you are gonna be taking multiple rides per day on the bus or train, it may be more efficient to buy a 1 day pass. For example, in Chicago if you are going to ride the "L" train more than 4 times in a day it would be cheaper to buy a $10 1 day pass (as of May 2018) than pay $2.50 per ride. For an extended trip multi day passes may also be available.

Plan Ahead on Which Route to Take. 

This is more about saving time than money. Better to spend vacation time at the places you want to visit than on trying to figure out how to get to your destination. In cases where there is more than one option to get from Point A to Point B you can have that information ahead of time. Otherwise you may take a longer route than you needed too. Google or Apple Maps or the transit agency's website are good resources to use.

Park and Walk.

For visiting multiple points of interest that are close together it may make more sense to find a central location to park your car and then walk between the nearby sites. Much time is wasted by looking for parking and can be avoided by only having to find a spot once. Finding a parking garage will likely be faster than circling looking for on-street parking. Also with a garage you don't have to worry about feeding a parking meter and possibly risking a parking ticket.

Don't:

Rent a Car on a Third-Party Site. 

When I say third-party I am referring to Hotwire, Priceline, and other sites that require non refundable payment. Sites, such as an airline website that just make a reservation for you without requiring prepayment are fine. As I mention above, rental car prices are always changing and what may seem like an unbeatable deal one week may not be the lowest price a month later. Another important reason for not using a third-party site is that if your travel plans change you will have to forfeit the reservation without a refund.

Pay for Unnecessary Add-Ons.

Rental car companies will offer many add-ons when you arrive to pick up your car. Here are the most common and whether or not you need them:

Pre paying for a tank of gas: No. While the per gallon rate may be cheaper, you only save money if you bring the car back with a completely empty tank. If you still have half a tank of gas left when you return the car, you will still pay for a full tank. Just be ABSOLUTELY sure to fill the car yourself before you bring it back and save the receipt. Some companies will charge a extremely high per gallon fee if they have to fill it up themselves.

GPS: No. If you need help with directions just bring your own GPS device or use an app on your phone such as Google or Apple Maps.

Insurance: Maybe. Insurance through the rental car company will usually cost between $20-$50 per day which can add up quickly. They will most likely not tell you that you can decline coverage but this is definitely an option. Only do this if you are positive that you are covered under your own personal insurance plan. Some credit cards may offer coverage as well, but check in advance to see. The downside to using your own coverage is that if you are involved in an accident you will have to pay any deductible that your insurance requires. They will likely raise your rates afterward as well.. For some people the peace of mind of avoiding this risk is worth the extra money. That is a decision you will have to make for yourself.

Toll Tag: Maybe. This depends on where in the country you are traveling to. In the Northeast or South Florida where there are a large number of toll roads it is probably a good idea. Many roads in these areas require a toll tag. Other places such as the West Coast or the Midwest that only have the occasional toll road usually offer the option of paying with cash or paying online. The rental car company will charge a fee if you go through a toll both and don't have a toll tag or pay for the toll yourself.

Another strategy I have heard of, but have not tried myself, is to buy a transponder directly through the toll agency. These usually come pre-loaded with some money so if you use it enough times it doesn't end up costing you any extra.

 

Return a Rental Car at a Different Location.

While I am a big fan of renting a car and driving around to multiple cities, I always return to the car to the same place that I started. That is because rental car companies do not like having their inventory thrown off and will charge a drop-off fee (usually costing at least a few hundred dollars) for being inconvenienced.

Take a Taxi. 

Getting around by using a taxi is an unnecessary expense. For situations where you absolutely need a ride use Uber or Lyft, otherwise drive, take public transit, or walk. This suggestion applies more to the United States and Canada as there are countries where Uber is not available and or taxis are actually reasonably priced.

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part II: Accommodations

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part II: Accommodations

One question I get asked frequently is how I am able to travel economically . To answer that have put together a series of posts with some of my go-to strategies for saving money on a trip as well as strategies to avoid.

This is Part II, which focuses on accommodations (Part I discusses flying and Part III discusses transportation). Trying to find a good price on a hotel without sacrificing comfort can seem overwhelming. Here are some of my tips to help make it simple.

Do:

Compare Hotels. 

Checking sites such as hotels.com or Trip Advisor is helpful for getting an idea of what rates are and to read reviews. For members of AAA or Costco discounted rates are available for some hotels through their websites.

Use Hotwire. 

Unless you have your heart set on a specific hotel, booking on hotwire.com can be a great way to get a hotel room at a below market price. While you cannot see the hotel you are staying at until after you book, they give you a specific enough set of parameters that you have an idea about the type of hotel/location you are booking. One downside is that it is non refundable so only use this approach if you are 100% certain on the dates.

Stay in the Outskirts. 

In some cases you can save money by staying at a hotel that is a little farther from popular points of interest. An example would be staying in New Jersey and taking the train into New York. I was able to save at least $100 per night, park my car for free, and it was only 25 minutes travel time to Lower or Midtown Manhattan.

Be Rewarded.

Earn points either from your favorite hotel chain or a comparison site (like hotels.com) so you can get the occasional free stay.

Stay at a Hostel. 

While this is admittedly a last resort, it is a strategy I have used on multiple occasions when I have exhausted all other options. While not for everyone they can make sense in the right situation. Besides a considerably cheaper price than a hotel some benefits include having group activities going on and meeting new people who might have similar interests. Drawbacks are that it can be more noisy than a hotel and you have less privacy. Some hostels do have individual rooms for rent, although you still have to share a bathroom, which helps a little with these issues. The clientele tends to be people in their twenties which can be a plus or negative depending on the person. Look at reviews on sites such as hostelworld.com and hostels.com before booking.

Don't:

Stay at a 1 Star Motel. 

Staying at a sleazy and or rundown hotel just to save a quick buck is not worth it. Always read the reviews before booking.

Stay in a Questionable Neighborhood. 

Having to worry about your car being broken into and other crime is not worth any cheaper prices. Previous guests will usually mention in reviews if a hotel is in a bad neighborhood.

Splurge on an Expensive Hotel.

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this, but if you are just using a hotel for sleep then staying somewhere really pricey is not worth it. You can get a comfortable bed at a moderately priced hotel. It might seem backwards but moderately priced hotels are more likely to have free wi-fi and free parking.

Show up without a reservation. 

There are exceptions but generally showing up at a hotel and asking if they have rooms available will lead to getting a bad price. If you need a last minute room consult a comparison site (my go-to is the hotels.com phone app) and either book online or call the hotel over the phone.

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part I: Flying

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Economically Part I: Flying

One question I get asked frequently is how I am able to travel economically . To answer that I have put together a series of posts with some of my go-to strategies for saving money on a trip as well as strategies to avoid.

This is Part I, which focuses on air travel (Part II discusses accommodations and Part III discusses transportation). A flight is usually the largest percentage of a trip budget so getting a good price on that can go a long way to keeping overall costs down.

Do:

Be Flexible.

Flights are cheaper when there is a lower demand. Keep in mind that this will vary based on the destination. Generally when school is out (Spring break, Summer break, Thanksgiving, Christmas) and more families are traveling is when flights are more expensive. The least expensive days to fly are usually Monday-Thursday and sometimes Saturday. The least expensive times to fly are usually early morning and late evening.

Book in Advance. 

Domestic flights are usually priced lowest about one to two months out. There are also more options available than waiting until the last minute. For international flights the best time to buy can be anywhere from three to nine months depending on the destination.

Compare Pricing. 

Check multiple airlines/dates/times to make sure you are getting the lowest fare that works with your schedule. Third-party sites (Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity) are great research tools although there are drawbacks. Booking through a third-party site can create headaches if changes need to be made to an itinerary in the future. I recommend Kayak because they will send you directly to the airline's website once you are ready to book. Airlines may have specials that are not listed on third-party sites and Southwest does not show up at all.

Look Into All Possible Airports.

Larger metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Bay Area, etc) have multiple airports. Check flight options at every airport near your origin and or destination to find the best price. Do not just assume one airport is the cheapest in an area because it was in the past.

Earn Points. 

Having a credit card that earns miles/points is a good way to get the occasional free flight. In addition to getting points for purchases, airline credit cards may offer perks such as a free checked bag and priority boarding. The exact perks vary based on the airline and card. There are also travel credit cards that are not co-branded with an airline. The main benefit being that you are able to redeem points at more places although they lack any airline-specific perks.

Get Alerts.

Many third-party sites allow you to sign up for price alerts on specific routes. This is especially helpful if you know you want to visit a certain destination, but are just waiting for an inexpensive opportunity to go. Some airlines also offer email or text notifications of special offers.

 

Don't:

Book a Connection on Multiple Airlines.

That is flying one airline to a transfer city and then flying a different non-partner airline from the transfer city to your final destination. Sometimes you can get a seemingly good deal but the upside is not worth the downside. The biggest risk is that if your flight on the first airline is late, the second airline will not care and you will have to pay extra to change that flight. If that second flight is nonrefundable then you will have to eat the cost and book a new flight. Another downside is that if you have checked your bags you will have to get them at the baggage claim in the transfer city and recheck them to your final destination.

Fly Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers. 

Certain airlines like Spirit or Allegiant may appear to offer unbeatable pricing but customer service is awful, on time performance is questionable and you will be charged fees for almost everything which offsets the low base fare.

Book a One-Way Flight. 

Airlines discourage buying one-way tickets because it is a disruption for their scheduling systems. A one-way ticket, especially for an international route, can cost significantly more per leg than booking a round-trip. Some low-cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue price each leg separately so the cost per flight is the same for a one-way as a round trip.

Check a Bag. 

Avoid having to pay an unnecessary fee and instead carry on your bag. You are allowed to bring on-board one suitcase and one personal item such as a purse or briefcase. In my experience, if there is no more room in the overhead bin then the airline will check the bag at the gate free of charge. Exceptions to this strategy are:

  • The airline you are flying on does not charge for checked bags
  • You are a member of a frequent flyer program or have an airline credit card that waives the checked bag fee
  • Your bag is oversized
  • You have multiple bags.
  • There is content in your bag which is not allowed through a TSA checkpoint such as liquids or sharp objects
The Question of Tourist Traps

The Question of Tourist Traps

When I started to write this post, I was planning to put together a guide of which American tourist traps were actually worth visiting. After going through many websites listing overrated places, I realized it was not that simple of a question. I found whether or not I thought going somewhere was worthwhile was all based on circumstances. So instead I decided to list recommendations on how to see popular attractions.

Go at the Best Time

Going in an off peak season or on an off peak day makes a noticeable difference. Getting an early start is also an effective strategy. I really enjoyed my visit to Walt Disney World, but this was partly because there were not many people. As a result, I did not have to wait too long in any lines and I was able to get a reasonable hotel room. If I had been there when it was packed, I would have had a completely different experience.

Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World

Avoid the Surroundings

In the case of many popular points of interest, you don't have to look too far to find chain restaurants and stores selling junk. Niagara Falls is a prime example of that, but the falls themselves are an incredible sight. See the sights themselves and don't waste your time on gimmicky side attractions.

View of Niagara Falls from the Maid of the Mist

Choose the Right Location

Sometimes you can avoid the masses by viewing the same attraction from a different location. An example of this is the Grand Canyon. Just 10% of visitors go to the North Rim, rather than the more convenient South Rim. This has nothing to do with the view, which is just as spectacular at the North Rim.

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Check for Alternative Transportation

Similarly it is smart to consider multiple transportation options. At the Statue of Liberty you can avoid some of the crowd by taking a different ferry to Liberty Island. The Liberty State Park Ferry from New Jersey has far fewer passengers than the boat from Manhattan's Battery Park. Another option is the free Staten Island Ferry, which offers good views from the Harbor, but does not stop.

Statue of Liberty

Diversify

I personally like to plan a number of stops when traveling. That way if any of them disappoint, it does not ruin the trip as a whole. Times Square is the epitome of a tourist trap. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't see it. One solution is to pass by while you are already in New York as opposed to planning a whole trip around it. There are so many other attractions nearby that you can just move on quickly if you are not enjoying Times Square.

Times Square

Lower Expectations

The closest I have come to a let down from a well known attraction is the Mall of America (near Minneapolis). I'm not sure what I was expecting, but at the end of the day it was a mall, just bigger. Instead of one Starbucks, they have three. Luckily, I was just passing nearby on a road trip so it was not a big deal. If you enjoy shopping then it might be something to do if you are already in the area, but nothing more.

Mall of America

Buy Tickets in Advance

When possible buy tickets in advance for popular points of interest. In some cases, such as the Colosseum in Rome, there may be a small fee (2 Euros as of May 2018) but it is worth not waiting in lines that can be hours long. Some places can sell out weeks or months in advance and do not offer day of tickets. To avoid being in this situation, I recommend looking into tickets in the early stages of planning a trip to make sure they are available for your desired dates.

The Colosseum, Rome
The Colosseum, Rome

If planned appropriately, you can include popular attractions as part of your next trip. Just do your research (feel free to reach out to me with questions on any of the places mentioned in this post or other well known tourist attractions), know the relevant information and then make the decision for yourself on whether or not to go. While the name "tourist trap" has a negative stigma, there are some amazing places with this label. If you really want to see the Statue of Liberty, don't let someone including it on an "overrated list" stop you. There is a reason so many people want to go there. Comment with your favorite or least favorite popular attractions.

My Advice on When to Go Where

My Advice on When to Go Where

Weather, crowds, and pricing all vary from season to season. This makes selecting the right time for a trip an important factor in the planning process. With that in mind, I've created this guide on where to travel during each season and where to avoid.

Winter

Miami, Florida

Go: Sunny destinations such as Hawaii, Florida or Arizona, which can become too hot later in the year. While not as warm, other Sun Belt states such as Texas still offer a mild climate and fewer crowds during winter.

Avoid: The northern half of the country unless you enjoy cold weather. If you are looking to go on a ski trip then consider Colorado, Utah, or Reno/Tahoe.

Spring

New York City, New York

Go: Cities in the Northeast and the Great Lakes Region, like New York City and Chicago, that are too cold in the winter and too humid in the summer. With generally good weather and lower costs, spring is a great time to travel almost anywhere.

Avoid: Popular spring break towns, at least during the early part of the season. Also keep in mind that Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other states which are prone to tornadoes, experience the highest frequency from April lasting until June.

Summer

Seattle, Washington

Go: The Pacific Northwest has their best weather in the summer, making it a great time to experience Seattle or Portland. Some areas in the Mountain West or West Coast have warmer than ideal weather but are still bearable.

Avoid: The eastern half of the country which experiences humidity and the sunbelt which experiences extreme heat. Popular tourist destinations everywhere will be more crowded and travel costs will be more expensive because of summer break.

Fall

San Francisco, California

Go: Cities and National Parks in the Mountain West Region such as Denver, Salt Lake City, and Yellowstone National Park. Fall is also the best time of year to visit California. This includes my home city of San Francisco, which has warmer temperatures and less fog than in the summer. Like spring, fall offers ideal weather, fewer crowds, and lower prices in a number of places.

Avoid: Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the Southwestern Atlantic Coast, which are at the height of Hurricane Season in September and October.