Travel is one of my favorite hobbies in the whole world. To me there’s few things better than the anticipation a week or so before a trip – scouring through various TripAdvisor reviews, looking through guidebooks, and dreaming of all the cool things you’re going to do. It makes getting through the work week so much easier when you see your calendar coming up with the words “VACATION” blocked off.
Because of that, I try to go somewhere and explore as much as I can, which of course is never as much as I’d like. I’m limited by both time and money. Sometimes, lots of money. I used to be the kind of person who defined travel as a “priceless” experience – those three weeks in Europe spent dithering around, boozing in the afternoon and drooling over boutique window displays? Invaluable for broadening my horizons and exposing myself to unique and vital cultures! Now, I feel differently. I don’t think travel is priceless at all – it definitely has a real value, and I try my best to maximize it.
I’ve been asked several times to put together my tips for traveling on a budget, which I’ve hesitated to do as I’m much less Rick Steves (love him by the way), much more priss who generally spends unnecessary amounts on cushier travel. I’ve put together some tips and rules that I follow though – and I hope that you find them helpful.
Book hotels early….and then periodically check on prices. As soon as we decide to go anywhere, my first step is usually to find a hotel. Yes, even before flights! For me, hotels are an integral part of almost all travel experiences. You can go out and have a great day, but it can be all ruined if you end up spending your night on scratchy sheets in a smoke filled room.
As soon as we’ve identified our preferred hotel, I go ahead and make a booking. Almost all hotel reservations in my experience are guaranteed by just your credit card number, and no deposit – so making a booking costs you nothing, and locks in a rate. This can be very valuable, especially as more and more hotels these days are doing fluctuating rates, just like airlines.
After I make my booking, I go and check on rates periodically. About 30% of the time, I do find that they have dropped as the date comes closer, and I can then just rebook. You can see how early I plan below…I’ve already begun my research for a potential Thanksgiving holiday with my parents (and yes, I have to do all the work in checking and rebooking…the road to travel savings can be a lonely one).
My number one enemy when booking a hotel? The non-refundable deposit of course! Though some extraordinary properties do have them, and in those cases, I just make 100% sure that I can make the dates before reserving.
Use points wisely. Mr. Feather and I both rack up our air miles, and Mr. Feather used to also collect Hilton points through work travel (no longer the case).
Even though it can seem like a while to accumulate any amount of points to actually redeem something, please keep collecting. They can be incredibly valuable, and I always have viewed and used our points balances as “emergency funds”. In the past, whenever we had a last minute event pop up and all hotels were at very high rates, we always able were to use Hilton points instead.
The same also goes for air travel – sometimes when ticket prices are really high, I’ve still been able to find award seats available to use miles to book. Also any flight I think we might be in danger of having to cancel later, I try and use points for, since our United status means that we don’t pay any charges for redepositing the miles. We’ve had to cancel flights more than once in the past few years, and we would have had to pay big fees if we hadn’t used miles!
Negotiate for some extras. This is largely a tip I share with those who are booking into higher category rooms at luxury hotels (aka those big suites with special names you can do cartwheels in), or anyone who might be planning an extended stay (2 weeks+). If you’re dropping $10K or more on a single hotel stay, a property is really incentivized to keep you happy (and to make sure you return!). Before booking a stay, contact the property either yourself or through your agent, with details about the length of stay and room, and ask what they can do for you. You’d be surprised on the flexibility on price and services (free massages anyone?) some properties may provide.
Show your loyalty. This of course applies to airlines, where staying loyal can get you points and status (and access to some decent German food at the Lufthansa lounges). And of course also to large hotel chains, where loyalty can get you perks like upgrades and free breakfasts (ever noticed that almost all consultants use the SPG Amex)?
I rarely stay enough at Hyatts, Hiltons, or Starwood hotels in a row to get any type of high status at these chains. But even independent and/or luxury hotels appreciate loyalty. I have a lovely reader (who asked to stay anonymous) who receives a very good rate at the George V in Paris in a preferred suite, because she and her husband return year after year, and stay for several weeks at a time.
Of course, while some hotels will automatically note your loyalty, some may not unless you call it to their attention. So maybe send a note to the manager, saying hello and mention that you’re a regular customer.
PS: While writing this post, I realized that I actually have quite a few tips! Enough for another post….so stay tuned for part two, and please share your favorite travel savings tips in the comments!