A Penny Saved – Travel Edition

Frugal is en vogue these days. With ‘economic downturn’ and ‘bail-out’ and ‘foreclosure’ part of everyday vernacular, it’s no wonder the national pocketbook is a bit pinched. While far from experts, our little family has developed, implemented, and maintained some concrete money-saving habits.

Since we’re in the throes of dreaming about our upcoming vacation to New York City, I thought I’d start by outlining some of the ways we save money while traveling.

A few side-notes. I think, in general, all people have areas where it is natural and easy to be frugal. Take vacationing for instance – while we choose to save money on entertainment (we’re a no cable/satellite and one-movie-theatre-experience-a-year-on-cheap-night kind of family), we “splurge” on travel.

Secondly, none of these are earth-shattering in their complexity. If you happen to think they’re mind-numbingly obvious, you would be correct. We’re not rocket scientists here…

Airfare

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Flying ain’t cheap, especially when you add in the arm-long list of airport fees.

  1. Shop around : check different airlines and pay attention to (and if possible avoid) peak traffic times (holidays/weekends)
  2. Be flexible: try a variety of departure dates, and consider less-than-ideal departure/arrival times. Taking a red-eye can result in some pretty major savings, if you’re willing to suffer the trade-off of exhaustion.
  3. Use points: most major credit cards come with reward incentives that involve airfare. Aeroplan would be familiar to most, but lots of other options exist.
  4. Drive: for local vacations, consider driving. Remember, though, that it’s not always the cheapest option if you factor in parking fees (which can be high in larger cities), gas, and the wear-and-tear on your car.

Accommodations

1. Do your research:

  • Read the reviews: we always read the reviews; don’t dismiss a hotel with a lower-than-you’d-hoped-for overall rating. Maybe one reviewer doesn’t like the shower pressure, or is upset the TV doesn’t get more channels. Lots of superfluous (to us at least) things can bring overall ratings down, but are relatively inconsequential. Reviews also reveal red flags like cases of food poisoning, excessive noise, bedbugs etc.,). TravelAdvisor.com/.ca is a great resource.
  • Factor in the “extra‘s”: if a cheaper hotel room means you’ll end up doubling transportation costs to and from the beach/city center etc., it may not be your best alternative.

2. Get a Continental Breakfast: self explanatory. Eliminates the cost of breakfast and is an added convenience (families can split up breakfast/showering/morning preparation). We usually eat a large breakfast, and then eat a late lunch/ early supper, only paying for one meal the whole day.

3. Use reward points: also self explanatory. Again, most credit cards offer points that can be redeemed at large hotel chains. If you travel often, consider collecting loyalty points for a particular chain. CAA/AAA often have preferred locations where discounts are available.

4. Shop online: we’ve booked using Expedia with good success, and there are a variety of websites that offer discounted rates. In some cases you can bid on room prices and walk away with large discounts (this is generally a last minute scenario).

5. Consider Bed and Breakfasts: while this is a personal choice, if possible, we prefer staying in bed and breakfasts. By shopping around, we usually find rates to be lower and service to be much better than traditional hotel options. Also, it’s hard to beat homemade food in the morning.

6. Stay with family and friends: we often schedule vacations around visiting family/friends. This can free up extra funds to take in local attractions and often saves precious resources on food costs too, since cooking at home becomes an option.

Food

1. Continental Breakfast: already noted above; while the quality can vary, a continental breakfast is a good way to keep food costs low. We eat a large breakfast, and generally have a small snack mid-afternoon, reducing costs to one meal per day. Can you tell we really think CB’s are a good deal?!

2. Plan your splurges: We choose to eat relatively inexpensive meals for the majority of our trip (think Subway or healthy snacks), and then plan a few special outings (in New York we wanted to eat at the Olive Garden in the middle of Times Square, and budgeted accordingly).

3. Cook at home: many hotels have mini-fridges that can hold some rudimentary sandwich ingredients, yogurt, and granola bars. If you are based out of a home/condo, consider cooking at home for most meals, and again, planning occasional splurges.

4. Eat novelty food: buy street vendor fare in New York City, eat traditional Danish pastries in Denmark, have Key Lime Pie in Florida…it’s a great way to combine food AND entertainment since food traditions are part of local culture.

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Fresh churros in Denmark.

Entertainment

1. Free is best: well, best for the pocketbook at least. Many museums have “pay-what-you-can” options, or flat out free days. We found this repeatedly in Denmark where most museums were free to the public at least one day per week. Free concerts/outdoor plays are common in summer months; libraries often host free events.

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The Ringling Museum in Florida – free on Mondays.

2. Pick one of the two…or three: when we visited New York City, two of the main attractions are the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre. We chose one option (the “Top of the Rock” tour) knowing the two experiences would be so similar.

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3. Plan splurges in advance. We KNEW going to New York City we would spend well over $100 to go visit Broadway. So, it came as no surprise when we spent nearly $150 accomplishing this goal. In Florida we wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. Again, research your options, and the price points of each. Set a budget and chose entertainment selections accordingly.

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Lucky enough to see one of the last shuttles out on the launch pad.

4. Walk, walk, walk. I’ll touch on this below, but one of the best ways to fill time, see a location, and save money is to walk.

Transportation

1. Walk/Bike: Cabs and subway passes can add up. As much as possible, try to walk or take a bike. It’s the best way to see a city, and healthier for you and the environment.

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The HighLine – one of our highlights from New York City. Free, and a good excuse to get some exercise!

2. Carpool: when cars are necessary, when possible, try to carpool or consider public transit (usually the best option in larger cities where driving and parking are a nightmare)

Souvenirs:

1. Start a tradition: it’s easy to get caught up in the world of souvenirs and not know when to stop (like the advertisement we saw the other day of someone trying to sell a giant stuffed M&M doll – originally $300).

  • We mail ourselves a postcard from every spot we visit. It’s cheap, so fun to arrive home and have a postcard…from yourself…and very inexpensive
  • We try to buy a small piece of blue stained glass (random, I know)
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