I’ve got a new business idea.
It came to me when I spied a dog walker wrangling half a dozen of his charges down the sidewalk here in Atlanta. I figure if a dog owner is willing to pay someone to walk their pets, some people might be willing to pay us to take their vacations for them. The pitch would go like this: “Why be hassled with all the planning and airports and annoying hotel check-ins? Pay Chuck and Lori to take your vacations for you! Just TELL your friends you went to Fiji! Act now and Chuck and Lori will take 1,000 free photos for you!”
I’ll have to get to work on that website…
But, anyway. Most questions we get asked about our travels fall into the how category. How do you find the best deal on hotels? How do you know you’re getting a good airfare? How can you afford to travel all the time? How did you get such great-looking abs?
Well, here’s our obligatory “Top Travel Tips” blog for 2017, mandated by BAIT, the Blogger Association International de Travel (they’re Manganese). To be precise and search engine friendly,
Our Top 12 Travel Tips for 2017 – And 1 BONUS TIP!
1 – Start Planning Early
For us, planning is half the fun (actually, more like 6/7ths, or maybe 11/13ths), even if we’re talking about months-long trips and continual travel. At the moment we’re researching and booking our Europe itinerary for this fall, and in fact have started researching travel into 2020. Planning isn’t all picking hotels and checking airfares, though doing this well in advance will give you a much clearer idea of what sort of costs to expect and whether what you wind up paying for was actually a good deal. Planning also means getting to know where you’re going: start by asking what there is to do, but then get into learning what the people are like.
2 – Set Realistic Expectations
Listen carefully to anyone who has had a bad travel experience, and somewhere down in the muck is likely an unrealistic expectation. Like the couple who goes to the Caribbean during the height of hurricane season. Or the first-time cruisers who read in a blog that ALL of today’s cruise ships are so stable, nobody EVER gets seasick anymore. Good, thorough, planning and research will help you set realistic expectations, from the quality of your hotel to the availability of foods you’ll eat, but also just try to roll with the travel punches. Hunkering down with the natives in a hurricane shelter on the island of Saint Somewhere might not seem like a great vacation, but it WILL make an interesting travel story for life.
3 – Get App’ed Up!
In today’s constant nose-to-phone world, there’s no reason lovers of travel shouldn’t be taking advantage of the glut of great travel apps out there. On my iPhone, for example, I have a travel app folder containing 41 apps! Granted only a handful of those do I use on a regular (daily, pretty much) basis, and even the apps I consider “great” get downgraded over time (because the developers think they must “upgrade” them and wind up converting them into useless tap-fodder, or they never upgrade them and they get passed up by cooler, newer, stuff.
I have apps for general search and booking, apps specifically for airfares and tracking, apps for travel on rail and bus, and apps I’ve installed and don’t remember why (like “Sygic Travel”—note to self: play with the Sygic Travel app, and shoot them over an email asking why the weird name). For quick reference, here are the apps I think everyone should have (apologies to my Android friends if they don’t have an equivalent for you, but perhaps you should consider getting a real smart phone haha):
- Kayak – best all around flight, hotel, and rental car search tool
- Hopper – a new flight search tool vying to blow Kayak’s fare tracking feature away (review blog coming soon)
- Hotels.com – see this blog
- AirBnb – if self-catering, privately-owned vacation homes are part of your travel strategy, you gotta have their app
- TripAdvisor – best for researching destination restaurants and things to do, but they’re getting into the hotel booking space
- Rome2Rio – still the best “how do I get from A to B” research tool out there
- RentalCars.com – usually the best rates on rental cars, if you don’t mind paying up front
4 – Off-Season, Mid-Week, Easy Hours
Going against the grain of travel will save you money, time, and headaches. Those of us who have lived in big cities dread getting out on the major freeways at rush hour: we know it’s best to drive around at other times. The same is true of long distance travel. If you can go to Europe outside of the summer rush, not only will you enjoy the pleasures of spring in Paris or the leaves changing in England’s Lake District in the autumn, but also you could save up to 75% in airfares and hotel rates. All savvy travelers know that airfares to leisure destinations are lowest mid-week (and to business destinations on weekends). Even rail and bus service is cheaper different times of year, different days of the week, and different hours of the day. In general, try to think of when travel will be busiest (highest demand), and look in the opposite direction.
5 – Alternate Locations
Similarly, going to alternate locations will save you big time. It’s a fundamental strategy of discount airlines to fly to smaller, cheaper, less convenient airports. You can take advantage of the same concept. This fall we are planning to visit Southwest England, specifically the cities of Truro, Exeter, and Hereford. Surfing room rates it was obvious that hotels in Exeter charge a substantial premium over the other two cities (presumably because it’s more of a “destination” than the other two), so we’ll stay a bit longer in Truro and Hereford and only 1 night in Exeter to save ourselves a couple of hundred dollars. Want to stay in a big, expensive city like London but don’t like the $300 a night hotels? Stay in a suburb at a hotel convenient to a rail station and a 1-hour link into the city center.
6 – Maximize Your Points
We’ve been American Express members (not just cardholders, because American Express is an exclusive club, you see) for 30 years this year. Almost from the beginning we signed up for the Membership Rewards program. Of all our flights to and from Europe, we’ve only actually paid real money about 20% of the time. Now we have the double points whammy of both the Amex Platinum and Chase Sapphire, and we always take advantage of the special points promos, like 5 times points with Amex when booking flights directly on airline websites with their card. Not to mention all the airline-specific mileage programs, hotel programs, and rental car programs we participate in.
If you’re not following The Points Guy (https://thepointsguy.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/thepointsguy/), you should be. Even though “The Points Guy” is a big company, not just “a guy”, nowadays, his original vision of helping you take advantage of travel reward programs is still the best out there.
7 – Stay Longer When & Where Possible
Many hotels, not just AirBnB’s, offer weekly and monthly rates. In general, staying longer saves you money. Even if you’re “only” talking about a 2-week vacation, going to 1 place and staying put will save you: if not in better lodging rates, then in the costs of moving around more.
8 – Pay For Luggage Up Front
Those impossibly cheap $10 airfares are often just too hard to pass up. Just remember all the extra fees that will come along. If you have no luggage, then great, but most of us like to carry around a couple of changes of underwear and socks with us. They make up for those impossibly cheap fares by charging you for your luggage, often 2 or 3 TIMES what the base fare cost. If you have this realistic expectation before you go to the airport (see number 2 above), then great, but know also that if you pay for your luggage up front when you book that cheap fare, the airlines will usually give you a deal. For example, low cost love-em-or-hate-em airline RyanAir currently offers you 3 price options: Standard, Leisure Plus, and Business Plus. The Standard fare will be that impossibly cheap eye-catcher fare. If you go ahead and book the Leisure Plus fare at about $30 per segment more, you’ll get a checked bag (20kg max), AND you’ll get 60 day check-in, seat selection, and priority boarding—all for less than just the luggage fees if you wait until check-in. Bottom line, if you know you will have a bag, pay for it up front.
9 – Cruise Repositionings To Europe
We’ve crossed the Atlantic by cruise ship several times now. The best deal we got was a 10-day ride from Miami to Barcelona for just over $400 per person (we actually upgraded to a balcony cabin for $500 total, just because, but you get the idea). At the time, this was cheaper than 1-way airfares to Barcelona. Obviously, you have to have the time and willingness to be on the ocean for a week or so, but if you do, keep this travel factoid in the back of your mind: every spring, there is a mass migration of cruise ships of almost every cruise line from the Caribbean to Europe for the summer season. Then in the fall, the migration goes in reverse, from Europe back to the Caribbean. Cruise lines hate to have empty cabins, so they offer deals like $300 inside cabins. A side benefit: your cruise loyalty level for a cheap 7-day repositioning is usually just as valuable for a more expensive “normal” 7-day cruise.
10 – Compare 2 1-ways To 1 Round Trip
Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy 2 1-way flights than to buy a round trip, even on the same airline. Many of the low cost airlines price their fares by segments anyway, and give you a slight discount booking two fares together, so this tip might only work on “full service” airlines. Of course booking 2 1-ways gives you the flexibility of picking two different airlines, with one perhaps offering a better fare going in one of those directions (though remember to compare your combined 1-ways to the round trips for both airlines). A similar tip is to check the airlines and booking site’s multi-city booker, even if you’re only talking about a round trip, there-and-back, fare. Every multi-city search I’ve used allows you to search for just 2 segments if you want. The last benefit of booking individual 1-ways is that you have complete leeway of booking a return from a different city than you flew into, which might save you the fare of getting back to that return city of your round trip ticket.
11 – Make The Bookers Think You’re Elsewhere
This is a bit of an advanced tip for the tech-savvy traveler. There are internet services out there called VPN’s, an acronym for Virtual Private Network. Among other benefits of using a VPN, the one relevant here is to make the websites you’re visiting think you are in a different location than you are. Follow me here: using my VPN, I connect to a server in London, then I go to a website like cheaprentalcars.com (or wherever). Their system thinks I am in London, so the rental car prices they show me are what they think will be competitive to a British customer. Those exact same cars, from the exact same companies, might be offered cheaper to Americans. Or Mexicans or Filipinos. This technique works more with hotels and rental cars than anything else, and it’s a bit of a game to see where the cheaper fares are offered and what booking sites offer different rates to different countries, so I usually only try this if I’m looking at a pretty hefty booking. Like renting a car for a month, or booking a week-long hotel stay in London.
12 – Ask for Discounts
It never hurts to ask. Don’t be shy: if something—particularly lodging—is outside of your budget, call or email the hotel or owner and ask them if you can get a better rate. A couple of years ago when we went to the island of Ibiza, we had booked an AirBnB place at a great rate. A week or so later, for reasons unknown, the owner cancelled our booking. Back to the drawing board, I found another AirBnB place that was more expensive: I contacted the owner, explained what had happened, and asked if she could honor the other booking’s rate. She agreed. The worst that could have happened was she said no. But she didn’t.
13 – Bonus Tip…Gain New Perspectives
We’ve said it, other travel bloggers love to say it, and many of the travel gurus say it. Rick Steves has built his entire “Europe Through The Back Door” brand around it. Travel is not about checking stuff off your list, it’s a learning experience. After all the planning and optimizing points and chasing down the best deals, it’s about the people you meet and the experiences you have along the way. Gain new perspectives—on religion, politics, culture, anything really—and you’ll learn and earn way more than the money you spent on the trip.