How To Be Cheap And Frugal When You Travel, But Still Be Smart About It

I remember how I felt when I heard the simple idea that has changed the way I travel. I was trying save money everywhere I could and ended up spending more time getting from place A to place B or not buying something that would make my travel easier or more enjoyable. I’ve stopped worrying about every little expense and my travels are much better because of the change. I don’t stress over every decision. I don’t spend hours figuring out travel plans when a simpler plan that is a little more expensive is available.

I realized that Sharon and I have been making these decisions that deal with our bigger travel plans for years. What flights will we take? Which hotel should we stay at? What size car should we rent and from who? As we’ve gotten older and traveled more, we realize that it’s often best for us to spend a little more, but to pick our spots where we’ll get the best return. All of these factors are the same if I’m booking with cash or with miles and points.

Airfare

The basic decisions you need to make when booking an airline ticket are:

  • What airlines do you want to fly on
  • Do you want to have a non-stop or connecting flight
  • What time do you want to fly
  • How much luggage do you need to bring

I’ve already written about how to find cheap airfare. However, we don’t always book the cheapest airfare. Among other reasons, there are airlines, due to personal preference, we won’t fly on.

When it comes to flight times, there was a time where we’d take the 5AM flight to save some money but that time has pased. We now prefer to pay a little extra so we can leave around 10AM or later because that way we can keep our dog home one more night and drop her off at “camp” on the way to the airport (which also saves us the cost of one night boarding). (Note from Sharon: it also means I won’t be quite so crabby in the morning because we’re not waking up before the butt crack of dawn to get to our flight on time)

If we have a choice, we’ll take a non-stop flight. Luckily for us, Orlando airport has no shortage of cities that we can fly directly to.

domestic

That doesn’t mean we won’t take a connecting flight; moreso that we often don’t have to because the non-stop flights are often cheaper.

The luggage question is one that we’ve just needed to start considering. If the best fare for us is on an airline where we’d have to pay for a checked bag (or an airline like Frontier where we need to pay for a carry-on bag) we’d need to take that into account. While we could also save money by booking a basic economy ticket, we’ve decided that type of travel is not for us.

No trip is the same. For some of our travel, our flight times are more flexible and for others we have to be somewhere by a specific time. The more important it is for us to be somewhere, the more willing we are to pay the extra for exactly the flights that we need. I wish I could put a number on it but it varies. Sometimes we’ll pay $50 more for the perfect flight time but then we might not want to pay $25 to save a few hours.

Hotel

If you’re going on a longer trip, your hotel bill might be higher than your airfare. Lucky for us, we don’t have a bunch of requirements when it comes to hotels. We’re just as happy staying at a Waldorf AstoriaCourtyard by Marriott, Candlewood Suites or a cabin at the Grand Canyon. If we never stayed in another five star hotel for our entire lives, I think we’d be fine with it. We’ll pick what’s most important for us each stay. Maybe I got a great deal or we might want to stay at the same hotel as our friends or we may want the hotel room to have a full kitchen with a freezer (so we can bring home Texas BBQ). Each one of those were deciding factors on recent hotel stays for us. We may have paid a bit extra to get what we wanted, but not much.

What I do know is that when it comes to hotels, I try to NEVER book a prepaid room (although I have on a rare occasion). On the other hand, I can’t remember a time when I’ve booked a prepaid, non-refundable room. For starters, I usually can get almost the same rate that I’m able to cancel, if needed, and pay at the hotel by booking with an AAA rate. It’s worth the few extra dollars to not pay the hotel for a room months in advance.

Car Rentals

I like to think that this is the place I’m willing to make the most concessions to save money. While I used to spend hours trying different combinations of codes and coupons, I now let Autoslash find the lowest prices for me. I make sure to use a credit card that provides primary LDW coverage and always decline the gasoline option. I only book the smallest car that I’ll need for the trip (and I have no problem putting luggage on the back seat of the car).

There are some choices that I’ll make that may cost us more money:

  • If there are on site and off site rental locations, I’ll always try to rent at an on site location. There’s the time saved when renting, and that’s even more important when returning the car – it can make a huge difference. How much more I’ll pay, I’m not sure but I’ll pay for the convenience.
  • I’ll choose a company where I can pick my own car if possible. Since Sharon can’t easily drive all vehicles (Note from Sharon: I’m like a candy bar – I’m fun sized!), we try to choose ones we both can drive. I’ll occasionally  go through the cars and find one where the SiriusXM is still activated.
  • Renting from a company that lets me add Sharon as an additional driver for no charge is nice and may cause me to pick one place over another. It’s not something we’re gonna pay much extra for though.
  • Under special circumstances, I’ll pick the company I want to rent from and try to make that work. For example, we were renting a car in Manhattan and planned to drive it to New Jersey and Staten Island over two days. Both of us would be driving the car. My only choice for this rental was Silvercar. They don’t charge any extra for toll charges (and there are plenty of toll charges when driving in NJ and NY). I didn’t want to try to have to find a gas station in Manhattan when returning the car and Silvercar only charges a small surcharge for filling up the tank for you. They also didn’t charge anything for an extra driver. While the rental may have been $20 more a day, we saved more than that in fees and surcharges we’d incur with another company.

Skipping The Rental Car Entirely

We’ve been doing this more and more when visiting big cities. Most airports are connected to the downtown area by some sort of mass transit, usually trains. If we can make it around from there by walking, taking other public transport, using ridesharing apps like UBER or Lyft or even using taxis, we’ll try and do that. Otherwise we’d have to pay car rental charges along with the insane parking fees charged by most city hotels.

Changing Travel Dates

I’m sure you’ve seen the pop up box that says “Travel 1 day earlier and save $45!” when looking for airfare. It sounds good but we’ve hardly ever taken them up on the offer. In our case, I’ve usually had to put in for vacation time weeks if not months in advance. Leaving a day earlier would mean missing an additional day of work, already making this a money losing proposition.

Here’s an example where you’re able to fly at 7PM the night before instead of 7AM the next morning for a party of 3 and the flights would be $50 cheaper per person. So $150 total.

Here are some the costs you may incur:

  • Extra night of hotel
  • Extra day of car rental
  • Extra day of parking car at home airport
  • Extra cost of boarding animals
  • Extra night of meals away from home

If you don’t have any of these expenses (getting a ride to/from airport, staying with family or friends, lost wages) this would be great for you. Just consider that saving money on airfare by changing dates might cost you more in the long run.

Flying To/From Alternate Airports

If a city has multiple airports like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles I’ll be willing to fly to any of them for a cost savings if it is convenient for the trip. We flew into Burbank when staying in Hollywood and it was easier to get to our hotel and was cheaper airfare. I’ll also consider flying into an airport that’s a little drive from our final location if the airfare is massively different. Three hours of driving is worth $200, but not $50.

I will occasionally look to see if flying out from another Florida airport, like Tampa, Sanford or Daytona, will be cheaper for us. It usually turns out that since Orlando airport is so popular, they usually have the lowest prices in the area because of all the competition.

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