Once you start traveling a bit, it doesn’t take very long to realize that there is an entire universe of blogs, books, and membership sites dedicated to the concept of saving as much money as possible on travel. This process is affectionately referred to as travel hacking.
The primary concept discussed in the travel hacking world has to do with maximizing frequent flyer miles and other “points” you earn when obtaining and using particular credit cards. Dedicated travel hackers have more credit cards than they need, and they obtain them in order to get the introductory bonus miles and additional points for hitting certain usage levels.
Miles/points aren’t just used to get free or cheap airfare, but can also be used for free or discounted cruises, hotels, rental cars, tours, and other travel items.
All of these programs are well and good, unless you’re credit challenged. Even though my credit score is finally emerging from the scourge of my bankruptcy, I still have a long ways to go before I can qualify for most of the offers that the travel hacking world relies on.
So where does that leave the frequent traveler that happens to be credit challenged?
Since I’m basically a permanent traveler at this point (I have not had a fixed, year-round home for several years), I’ve learned as much as I can about saving money while traveling, without having access to all the awesome credit card bonus mile deals and other perks that are out there.
Here are the basics for stretching your travel dollars.
Your flight is typically the most expensive part of getting somewhere. You may have heard in the past that traveling slower means traveling cheaper, but that simply isn’t the case in all situations. In North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, I’ve found that flying is often far cheaper than taking trains or buses within the same country.
How I find cheap flights:
- Do a flexible date search on SkyScanner.com, Kayak.com, and the Kayak iPhone/iPad app.
- Check the boxes to do comparison searches on other sites (CheapOAir, Travelocity, etc). They’ll pop up in separate windows.
- Strangely, the Kayak iOS app returns more complicated route searches, and appears to search airlines not on the web site.
- For complex, overseas, multi-city trips, also check AirTreks.com.
- For domestic/short flights in a region, check local budget carriers directly, as they often don’t show up in major site searches. Examples:
- United States: Frontier, Southwest
- Europe: RyanAir, AirBaltic
- Japan: Peach
- Southeast Asia: Tiger
For U.S. domestic flights, I will end up on Frontier, even if it’s a few dollars more, just so I can get my miles towards future free flights. Same with United, unless I find a far cheaper flight on SkyScanner, which is becoming more and more common.
Bear in mind that flights in the middle of the week are usually cheaper than weekend flights, and that booking at least 14 days in advance is usually required to get the best deal.
As an example, I just booked a flight from New Orleans to New York City yesterday, and I ended up paying nearly double what I would have paid if I had booked it last week when I was first looking. I should have booked it last week — it’s literally the same flight number I first looked it, but I basically forgot, and it cost me. I also paid a slight premium (15% or so) for taking a Sunday flight instead of a Monday flight.
Because they are ALWAYS so much cheaper, I’ve reached the point where the only place I check for rental cars anymore is Hotwire.com. It’s not uncommon for them to give me a better rate for an Enterprise car (my preferred car company) than I get by booking directly with Enterprise. Hotwire will give you a popup to compare rates with CarRentals.com, which I probably end up using half the time.
I’m not picky about rental cars, and tend to just get the cheapest thing I can. I like Enterprise because they have a nice $9.95 per day deal on the weekends, and have good full week rates, too. I also have a good history with them and get their frequent renter deals with points I accrue through them.
I’ll also briefly mention car share programs. These are awesome, both domestically and internationally. I belong to two car share programs, and will probably join more.
Hertz On Demand (now called Hertz 24/7), for example, allows me to pay $6 to $8 per hour for a car in many cities across the U.S., when I need one for just short errands. My electronic access card for the cars, however, also works in France, Spain, Germany, and several other European countries (at higher hourly rates, due to higher fuel cost). The rates include all insurance and gas up to a certain limit.
If I’m not camping, which I do less and less as I get older, then my first preference is to stay in a hostel, even domestically. Hostels are rare in America, but more exist than you might think. I’ve even stayed at hostels in places like Boulder, CO and Salt Lake City, UT.
Since I’m a member, I start with Hosteling International (hihostels.com) to see if they have a member hostel where I’m going. I also like HostelBookers.com and Hostels.com, since they don’t have booking fees. HostelWorld.com has more properties, including B&B’s, but has booking fees and usually higher rates listed for the same properties.
If you’re really adventurous, try CouchSurfing.com, and literally crash on a stranger’s couch in their home. I’ve done it, and it’s a fun way to meet new people, but it can challenge your comfort level.
In the United States, I basically live in motels. I’ll generally check Hotels.com and Hotwire.com, looking for the best rate. Both these sites are generally cheaper than what I find on Kayak, Priceline, Expedia, and Travelocity, so I basically quit looking elsewhere.
I’m a big fan of the “Hotwire Hot Rate”, where they sell last minute unsold rooms, but don’t tell you exactly which hotel it is until you book. I’ve always ended up somewhere acceptable by doing this.
Hotels.com has a decent rewards program, where you book 10 nights and then get 1 free somewhere. It’s available at limited hotels, but enough that I use it.
If you travel to the same places a lot, you’ll obviously find favorite spots. Check travel blogs for other people’s favorites, also. For example, in Sapporo, Japan, there’s only one hostel to consider staying at: Jimmyz Backpackers. In Maui, I was referred to Banana Bungalow in Wailuku by several travel writers, and my stay there was quite epic.
If you’re going to be staying in a place for an extended period of time (several months), it may be cheaper to rent a furnished flat (apartment). Look on Google to find short-term apartment rental agencies in foreign cities. In the US, check Craigslist. AirBnB.com is growing popular for this, too, but I’ve yet to use it.
Sticking with certain companies, and using their rewards programs, can help overcome what is lost by not getting the credit card bonus deals. As I discover new tips/tricks, I’ll update this blog post to list them.