INTERESTED IN 37 newfangled apps that will save you 0.01% on travel for the coming year? I didn’t think so. At some point, you have to stop trying to find every new tool for, and shortcut to, bargains as they appear and just wait to see which ones stick. By now, you surely know some basics: you probably use meta-search sites to compare airfare and hotel prices; you’ve either tried or consciously avoided ‘sharing economy’ services like Uber; you know that most domestic car rental reservations can be cancelled with no penalty should you find a better rate even on the day of the trip.
So instead of offering wacky tricks, here are eight ways to take strategies you already know and do them better—with a few new appealing tools thrown in.
Get paid to park
Uncomfortable with strangers living with you? Equally unexcited to bunk with strangers? Or simply hesitant about Airbnb’s legal struggles? Take a baby step into the sharing economy by renting out your car while you’re away and get free airport parking to boot. Or rent someone else’s car for less than most traditional companies and forget about monitoring the ebb and flow of daily rates as your trip approaches. If even cars are a bit much for you, how about renting someone’s bike? Spinlister.com started in 2012 and has since spread across the world; last December, it added skis and this past summer, expanded to surfboards and stand-up paddle boards.
Nothing on Airbnb says you can negotiate a better price when you book rooms or apartments or houses or yurts, but nothing says you can’t either. Write the host a note that goes something like this: “Your place looks great, but it’s a bit outside my price range. Would you consider $60 a night?” (it’s not as likely to work if the property is managed by a third party rather than directly by the owner). You’ve also probably noticed Airbnb’s service fees of 6% to 12% when they ambush you before you finalise your reservation. A new start-up with a cute name, Hovelstay.com, charges a lower 3% service fee and caps its (pre-fee) prices at $99 a night—no more browsing jealously through those gorgeous, unaffordable Airbnb digs. Instead, Hovelstay, which previously
was available only to students, breaks things down into three groups: ‘survival hovels’, ‘good enough’ and ‘clean & comfortable’.
Layover in Kiev
Flying through an airline’s hub rather than going non-stop is the oldest savings trick in the book. But a stopover in Kiev? That’s new. Ukrainian International Airlines began flying out of New York in late April—tragically bad timing. Less than three months later, a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down near the Ukraine-Russia border amid unrest in the southern and eastern parts of the country itself (far from Kiev). But the airline staged a comeback with almost absurd promotional rates from New York (Dubai for $453?) and although tickets are going fast, as of this writing, you can still get from New York to Istanbul or Athens for $479 in February. All have very reasonable layovers. I couldn’t resist and booked a flight from New York to Tbilisi, Georgia, and back from Yerevan, Armenia, for $493, with two checked bags and Ukrainian airplane food.
Stay on top of currencies
To state the obvious, some countries are just more expensive than others. I found that out on a trip through Scandinavia, where I ran through cash maybe five times as quickly as I had in an earlier trip to Bolivia. But how cheap a country is can change from year to year, especially as its currency changes. I ran the currencies for most major (and some minor) tourist destinations from January 1, 2014, to late December and found out which ones lost the most ground against the dollar. You probably have already heard that the Russian ruble is tanking (as of late December, a dollar will get you 94% more than it did a year ago), but here are some other countries where you would get at least 13% more cash for your cash if you arrived there right now: Argentina (31%), Chile (16%), Mongolia (15%), Israel (13%) and—yes—Sweden (16%) and Norway (21%). It was also a bad year for the euro, which means right now is a good time to go to Europe: you would receive about 10% more for your dollar in countries from Portugal to Slovakia (of course, not all goods and services will be exactly that much cheaper, including hotels that set rates based on the dollar).
You spend a lot of time searching online travel agencies, but have you ever clicked the ‘Packages’ tab? It’s not a match for every trip, but I found out this year that booking a hotel and flight together is the single fastest way to save. It’s not even that unusual to pay less for the plane fare and hotel together than you would have paid just for the flight. But it’s important to compare the price to the best deal you can find elsewhere. When a site tells you you’re saving 10% or 20%, that’s compared with the very same flight and hotel booked separately, which is probably not what you would have booked if you had done separate searches. Also, note that flights booked through Priceline won’t always tell you your exact itinerary before you book a package, so you might end up with unsavoury layovers.
Head to Queens
Probably the most common question I get is where to sleep cheaply in New York. I used to hem and haw, and mumble something about Priceline bidding, but now I have a new answer: stay in Long Island City, Queens, just across the East River. When I checked what a week’s stay would cost in March at hotels one or two subway stops from Midtown, I was shocked to find that 18 of 20 hotels were $151 a night or less (with taxes, it’s $180 or less). Do you know what Manhattan hotels cost? For that matter, do you know what Manhattan rents are? Even some city residents could save cash (and gain housekeeping service) just by moving in. The same idea can apply to other cities that have secondary clusters outside the main business district,
but near public transportation. Use Hipmunk’s great maps to scout out the city you’re visiting.
Googling free activities
If you’re like me, you still like guidebooks, but have to admit it’s tempting just to search online for what to do wherever you’re headed. But if you search ‘Rome attractions’ or ‘Paris tourism’, for example, you’ll get an avalanche of messy results. Making it through 11 $100-weekends around the world, I’ve learned that every city of any size or cultural importance has at least a half-dozen great activities that cost nothing, not to mention free museum days and the like. So search ‘London free’ (without the quotation marks) and choose from the bounty that follows.
Read the small print, just once
Budget travellers are quick to assume their credit card will make the collision damage waiver sold by car rental companies unnecessary, and that their health insurance will cover them fully while abroad. Those can be costly assumptions; credit cards normally don’t cover liability and may not cover collision in all countries, for example. Between now and your next trip, make a cup of coffee, take a deep breath and plow through the small print of your favourite credit card’s benefit package and your health insurance’s international coverage. Everything’s online, of course, so ‘small print’ is just a figure of speech. You might even find some benefits you didn’t know you had, like reimbursement for toiletries if your luggage is lost or for your camera lens if you drop it within 90 days of purchase—as I’ve done multiple times.