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.
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.
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.