How to see the world without going broke
Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:11 a.m.
Not a month goes by that somebody doesn't ask how my husband and I manage to travel so much.
The answer's easy: We're tightwads.
We could travel one week a year to an exotic destination where we would be swathed in luxury. Instead, we choose to spend less and travel more. By planning carefully, we always wind up having rich experiences at puny prices.
Here are some of our favorite cheap tricks:
Fly midweek. I book most of my weeklong trips Wednesday to Wednesday. Flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are almost always substantially cheaper than those on popular days such as Friday and Sunday. Saturdays are sometimes cheaper, as well.
Sign up for discount alerts from the airlines, such as American Airlines' NetSAAver e-mails and Southwest Airlines' Ding program. They'll alert you to specials available for certain time periods, usually in the near future.
For advance planning, sign up for alerts from travel Web sites such as www.travelocity.com and www.orbitz.com. Check the site to see which airline is offering the fare. You can usually shave another $5 to $10 off the price by going directly to the airline's Web site and booking it there.
Depending on the airline, you'll have to book seven to 21 days in advance to get the best price.
Join mileage clubs. All of them. It costs nothing to join, and although using miles has become tougher, it can be done. Just find out how early you can book with miles (with American, for example, it's 330 days in advance) and call then.
Also, it's great to have frequent flier miles in case an emergency makes it necessary to travel without an advance purchase. ''Compassion fares'' - typically 50 percent of the last-minute purchase fare - are anything but compassionate. My husband was once quoted $900 for a ''compassion fare'' one way from San Francisco to Dallas when a family member died suddenly. He used miles instead.
You don't just want to find a cheap hotel; you want to find a cheap hotel that you'll enjoy. That takes planning.
Clip newspaper travel articles on cheap travel to destinations you might someday want to visit. Put them in a file so you don't lose them.
Go to a book store and take notes from travel books such as the ''Let's Go'' book series, Frommers or, if you're headed for Europe, a book by Rick Steves. Buy the book that seems to have the most helpful advice for your trip (you'll need a reference while you're there), and take notes from the rest. I've never had a bad experience with a hotel recommended by these three travel publishers.
I did have a less-than-delightful experience some years back after I booked a cheap New York hotel off www.hotels.com without researching the hotel. That was entirely my fault.
Book a cheap sleep only if it's recommended by a trusted source or you've at least checked the place out on its Web site and a comment Web site such as www.tripadvisor.com. (There've been some complaints that tripadvisor.com contains both shill comments from hotel staff and extra-nasty comments from ex-staff, so don't let that be your only source of information.)
Like large resorts and hotels? Try using a travel agency. They specialize in good deals at big properties, and although they charge a fee for airline booking, they typically don't for handling lodging or rent cars.
If you like chain hotels and motels and know your destination well, I'd recommend using www.priceline.com. I never use it unless I'm well enough acquainted with a city to pick the specific area I want to be in, and when I use the blind bidding option - you don't know where you're staying until you've already paid for it - I never seek a hotel below three stars.
I usually get a Hyatt or Hilton or similar.
But I prefer funky, homegrown hotels, and the only way to find these is by word of mouth or research.
If you really, really don't want to spend money, try a hostel or a hotel with a bath down the hall. Europeans can handle it; why can't we?
But don't worry; most major cities have wonderful small hotels offering a room with a bath for $100 to $150. Check newspapers and guidebooks. Don't call the hotel's 800 numbers; call the local number in the early afternoon (after check-out and before check-in), establish a rapport and ask about specials and discounts.
Obviously, you'll get much better rates during your destination's off-season, and that varies depending on where you're going. The cheapest days of the week also vary by destination. Usually, weekdays are cheaper, but cities that gear themselves primarily to business travelers - Houston, for example - often offer their best rates on weekends.
Check hotel rates on the big search sites such as travelocity.com and orbitz.com. Sometimes you'll find a deal; we got a third night free once by booking a San Francisco hotel on orbitz.com.
But most of the time, especially with high-end hotels, you get the best deal on that hotel's Web site. Check all the options.
The books I mentioned earlier are also good for finding restaurant ideas. Also, go to the library or book store and cruise your destination's local paper for dining listings.
Many major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have occasional ''restaurant week'' promotions where you can get a three-course prix fixe meal for $20 to $30 at a very high-end restaurant you wouldn't otherwise be able to try.
Avoid touristy areas such as the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Just a few streets over are excellent mom-and-pop restaurants where you'll be wonderfully fed for a fraction of the price. In Europe, I always order the house wine, and I've never been disappointed.
And wherever you go, stay out of the mini-bar.
Most cities that have major theater scenes have half-price ticket outlets. (Google your destination city and ''half-price theater tickets.'')
Likewise, some cities such as London subsidize their museums, and so they're free. In U.S. cities, that's seldom the case, but there's usually one free day per month - sometimes even per week - at each museum. Do your research.
Most destinations offer delightful activities for folks on a budget: Visit the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Instead of an expensive tour boat, take the free Staten Island Ferry past New York's Statue of Liberty. Find these freebies in local newspaper listings or guidebooks.
I've found no science in dealing with rental cars. My husband and I play dual games: I research all the Internet travel sites; he makes phone calls. Whoever finds the cheapest deal wins; sometimes it's me and sometimes it's him.
This work pays off: The cheapest rental car is usually about $200 cheaper per week than the rest. There's no consistency in which agency is cheapest.
If you don't have time to play this game, use a travel agency. Because agencies deal in volume, they often have good rates.
You'll need a car in cities such as Los Angeles - and all Texas cities - but in other places you're better off without one. Hotel parking fees can run $20 to $40 a day.
In those cases, you need to get into town from the airport cheaply. Cabs from the airport get more expensive every day. If there's a train into town, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit train from San Francisco International, you can save big bucks. A BART ticket into San Francisco is $5.65 from the airport; a cab ride's about $40. And with the train, you know exactly how long it will take and how much it's costing.
When you do use a cab, know exactly where you're going - not just the address, but a cross street. In too many cities these days, many cabbies have no idea where things are, and you'll wind up taking the scenic, expensive route.
I love public transportation: trains, subways and buses. They're cheap and, where subways are concerned, quick. Buses can take longer, and there can be some highly interesting fellow passengers (don't make eye contact). But you get to see where you're going, and you don't spend much getting there.
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