aNewDomain — Most travel advice focuses on budgetary extremes. Travel journals cater to those willing to spend $850 a night for a hotel room, and scores of websites address the frugal $20-a-day sort whose idea of splurging is paying for running water.
Then there are the rest of us, Americans in the middle.
Our funds are not unlimited, but when we travel we want to stay in a real hotel, eat at decent restaurants, and maybe rent a car. What about people on a budget, as opposed to a chewed-up shoestring? You’ve come to the right place if this is you. I mean, I don’t break the bank, but I don’t travel like a hippie unless I have to, either.
If that sounds like you, check out my travel tips, below.
When traveling internationally, the main thing is to balance the cost of staying there versus the cost of just getting there.
Round-trip airfare to Third World vacation destinations like Thailand, Vietnam, and Bali is expensive, currently around $1,800 round-trip from the United States. But once you get there, meals and housing can be had for next to nothing compared to back home.
Winning strategy: stay a long time, at least two weeks, four if you can get away that long. Other places, like Mexico and the Caribbean, are cheaper to get to (around $650 r/t now) but more expensive by the day. Throw in the shorter travel time and it’s a no-brainer: a 3-to-5 day visit makes the most sense.
Thinking of Europe? Think again. I mean, yeah, France is lovely. It’s my favorite country. But the cost of European trips is too high. And meals are crazy price. I’m still smarting from the $55 pizza in a totally non-touristy joint in Italy. Throughout Europe, the cost of hotels is ridiculous ($200 for the equivalent of a Motel 6 in rural France) and airfares are double what they once were ($1,300 to Paris from New York is typical). So forget Europe. It’s a big world. Check out the rest of it and wait till you can get your company to send you to Europe, or it gets cheaper.
No matter where you go, make it a habit to hit the Tourist Information Office when you arrive. They’ll arrange for a hotel room, usually for less than the official price. And if you’re not following my advice and going to Europe, anyway, screw the Eurail passes. Renting a car is cheaper, faster, and lets you see the countryside. Take local buses and chat up everyone you meet. You’ll eat great and you’ll meet cool people.
OnTheFly is a smartphone app that includes a nifty option for people whose schedules are flexible. You should use it if you have your heart set on domestic travel this summer. Say you want to go from Tampa to New Orleans for five days and you’re fine leaving any time between November 1 and November 20. OnTheFly will show you a chart of airfares by day, allowing you to choose the cheapest departure date. The interface is super simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, Southwest Airlines isn’t on it, and you can’t book your flight with it. Even so, this app is so good that I find it to be an essential.
For journeys where the drive is six hours or less, consider driving rather than flying. You’ll avoid the trip to the airport, the hour you have to be there in advance of your flight, and the hour from the airport to your destination. That’s at least three hours, not even counting all the luggage check hooha. If you drive you can skip the $30 fee for an extra bag and you’ll avoid the jerks pushing their seat back into your knees, as well as the TSA agents out to steal your toiletries. Two or three can travel for the price of one when you hit the road instead of the skies.
If you insist on flying, make sure you reserve a car rental and learn how to blow it off without penalty. You don’t even have to cancel. And do go for a decent agency. Expedia, Travelocity and other travel sites let you compare cars from companies based on the lowest rates, and those rates will be a lot lower than any no-name places. Companies like Fox have terrible reputations for screwing over consumers with extra unexplained charges, making you pay for damage to vehicles you had nothing to do with, and so on. With car rentals, the cheapest is often the most expensive, so go second-cheapest.
Wireless Internet is a necessity. If you stay at hotels at least 3-4 nights per month, get a personal wireless device that connects to an LTE or 4G network. It’s cheaper, and you’ll be amazed how often you find yourself using it, like when the connection at Starbucks sucks. Those with the fastest (not like home, but decent) connections go for $60/month. Warning: streaming video will cause massive overages and heart attacks.
Drive or Ride to the Rental
Big-city car rental rates can be exorbitant. In Manhattan, $125 a day is standard. But $55 is the norm on Long Island. Spend a little time on some of the major rental firm’s websites, and you’ll find it might be worthwhile to take mass transit to an agency in the ‘burbs. Or drive. Many suburban agencies let you leave your car in their locked lot overnight.
Keep Your Thirsty Bucks
Don’t waste a bunch of money paying lots of little costs for conveniences, i.e. $30 to check a bag, $30 to board earlier, $30 to use the lounge.
Do invest in a rolling suitcase that fits the smallest of the biggish planes. If you need more room, add an equivalent size bag whose side slides over the handle and rides on top of the first one. Most airlines will let you count this setup as just a single item.
And whatever you do, don’t check bags at the check-in counter unless they make you. Because if you have too many bags, they’ll still force you to check them in at the gate. But they won’t charge you the $30.
And about boarding earlier? Don’t pay extra for this. And don’t pay extra for the lounge. It only makes sense if you’re at the airport more than a few hours.
Last but not least, remember the sacred traveling adage: bring half the clothes and twice the money that you’ll think you’ll need.
Cover image: “Incheon airport” by eliazar at Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/eliazar/3147153155/sizes/l/in/photostream/. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.