i recently commented on a post by Milenomics (who, by the way, is perhaps the best voice of reason when it comes to the miles and points game — well worth your time to follow) about saving money on your travels, and i realized that my blog post on this topic is over two years old and way overdue for a revisit.
much of what i said in 2011 still holds true, but i’ve really ramped up my travel since then which not only means more experience but also a greater demand for frugality (since i don’t, you know, have a money tree).
so here goes — the way i travel without breaking the bank. (note that i am not into the manufactured spend and cards thing, so i’ll save all that for the experts.)
be flexible — go where it’s cheap
while this is not an option for everyone, i’ve found that it’s saved me the most money and allowed me to really get out there. put simply, i let the price dictate the destination.
thanks to the folks at The Flight Deal, i’m alerted to fare sales and mistakes, meaning, say, i was able to fly to South America this year for around $400, about the same to Russia, and next year i’m taking advantage of a mistake fare from Mexico City to Buenos Aires for about $150.
if you’re using award miles, be sure to be flexible with your dates and maybe even your destination so you can redeem for the lowest level. this is when it helps to plan early — check for seats as soon as the booking window opens and keep checking if you don’t see anything. Gary Leff has thoughts on this.
in the same vein, award redemptions are great for aspirational travel — getting to go places and on certain flights that would be expensive or otherwise not easy to obtain, like when i did two Hello Kitty flights back-to-back in business class. this is probably my main reason for sticking with an airline/alliance and wanting elite status (so those miles rack up faster, especially since i don’t do the points game).
live like a local — stay where it’s cheap
while there are times when i stay in a hotel (e.g., it’s convenient for an airport overnight, or i need a visa support letter [Russia]), for the most part, i’m a devoted Airbnb user. it’s usually cheaper than a hotel and you get much more for your travel dollar. much more space, free internet, washing machines, a kitchen, and way more local color than you’ll find at a hotel have made me a fan.
apartment rentals especially make sense when there are multiple people in your party. instead of getting separate hotel rooms which can really add up, get a single large apartment with multiple bedrooms and save save save — assuming you can stand everyone in such close proximity ;). (this is how i normally travel with my parents.)
you may also get some local perks such as a refillable subway card (so you don’t have to deal with the deposit) or a bikeshare membership card to use during your stay.
update oh, forgot to mention, having a washing machine at your disposal, at least at one point during your travels, means you can pack less, meaning you can fit everything into a carry-on, meaning fewer fees and no chance of lost luggage! (i almost always travel with just a rollaboard.)
if you need/want to be connected, get a local SIM card
yep, i’m a social media addict and i need to be connected to work email as well. so i forget roaming plans with their crazy overage charges and use my phone with a local SIM card. note this really only applies if you have an unlocked GSM phone, or a CDMA (aka Verizon or Sprint) phone with GSM capabilities. something to note is that all Verizon iPhones are unlocked by default so you can use any SIM card in them. use this wiki to determine local SIM options, including prices and purchase locations.
With O2, 400 MB of 3G for 50 cents a day, SIM card with over €1 of credit was €3,50. Score!! pic.twitter.com/ybb8nxAVGc
— Jonathan Khoo (@jonk) August 17, 2013
(yes, it says Austria, but this was in Bratislava)
do your research
i can’t stress this enough. you need to know what to expect at your destination for two reasons: planning and being street smart. yes, some may see all this rummaging around for information as being tedious, but imho it’s also a great way to get excited about your trip!
some questions i always ask and answer before leaving: what’s the best way to get around town? is it public transportation? walking? cab? bikeshare?
if by public transportation (my favorite, by the way, since you’re then integrated into the fabric of your destination), are there multi-day or even a weeklong pass that might save you some money? where can you buy these passes? some transit systems offer discounts if you use a reloadable card versus paying fares individually.
if by cab, how much should a trip, say, from the airport to the city center cost? for these, i usually rely on Wikitravel and the “Get Around” section for each destination city, like this one for Yangon. you can then budget a bit better and you’ll be an informed traveler who is less likely to be taken advantage of.
if you’re traveling by rail and can commit to a certain train at a certain date and time, there are often discounts for buying tickets in advance directly from the rail company, like Deutsche Bahn’s Sparpreis or Taiwan High Speed Rail’s Early Bird tickets. yes, sometimes it literally does pay to investigate your options!
especially if you don’t have access to a kitchen (ahem, AirBnB!), don’t just hop in the first restaurant you see (or, yikes, one of those with the people in front trying to call you in for a meal). the best way i have found to eat well and on a budget is by using review sites like Foursquare (my favorite) or Yelp (if available for your destination) or even TripAdvisor. you can filter by how much you want to spend and proximity to you or your plan for the day. of course, it’s easiest if you have a working smartphone (ahem, local SIM!) so you can check while on the go, but otherwise at least look into options before you leave or when you’re planning the next day’s travel.
my favorite? cafeteria-style places in Eastern Europe. you can get more than your fill for not so much money, and you know i’m not beyond eating local fast food!
Mushroom soup and meat pierogi = zł14 (~$4.22). pic.twitter.com/lcm9PcKL
— Jonathan Khoo (@jonk) December 28, 2012
are there days when museums or other sites you want to visit are free (as in beer, not as in speech)? (or, closed?) do you qualify for discounts that you need to sort out beforehand — like AAA or an ISIC (student) card? (not saying either are worth the investment; that depends on your situation and travel plans/habits.)
look for ways to get around surcharges, such as a no-international-fee credit cards and ways to withdraw from ATMs without a fee. these include checking accounts that don’t have ATM usage fees (Milenomics recommends the Charles Schwab Checking Account) and knowing your ATM options abroad. for instance, when i banked with Bank of America years ago, i discovered the Global ATM Alliance which offers no-fee withdrawals at certain member banks.
and, as many people have stated, do NOT use the US Dollar currency option given by certain retailers, especially if you have a fee-free card. it’s pretty much never to your advantage to be billed in dollars when abroad.
what i will spend money on
as i mentioned in my old post, what i will spend money on are experiences you cannot get at home. while not cheap, getting to go to Eurovision, the Winter Olympics (been to the last two, am going to Sochi), trips just for concerts, day trips to places i normally can’t reach, and the safari i went on are things i do not and will never regret. i’m ok with these occasional splurges given how much i (think i) have been saving otherwise. of course, everybody’s priorities and budgets are different, but don’t be so cheap that you say no to everything! (that said, i will definitely be the first to say that many experiences and long-lasting memories are free!)
(i’m not sure i’ve ever shared this video before, but you’ll have to excuse my shout-singing. this is from that concert i linked to above.)