Monday, May 18, 2009

Guest Post: Stretching Your Travel Dollars

Pūpūkea, HawaiiImage via Wikipedia

Thanks to Shai at Converting a Spendthrift for the following frugal travel tips:

I travel a lot for work. You would think a humble researcher like myself would just live in her musty cubicle, but I don’t. Fortunately and unfortunately, I attend conferences, conduct site visits, make and attend presentations, moderate and facilitate at roundtables, and more. I receive a per diem to cover my expenses while I am on the road and have learned to stretch these dollars as far as possible. I know most people don’t get paid to travel, but the same principles apply.

Do Your Research
Research activities to do in your destination. Do a web search for “cheap and easy things to do in [fill in your destination].” Finding cheaper alternatives to the popular attractions will trim money from your budget.

Packing your bags
Before you even leave the house, the first thing you should do is pack light. You do not want to check multiple bags especially as the price often climbs exponentially after the first bag.

Second, if you know you will be purchasing souvenirs (more on this later) then leave room from the beginning. The thing you want to avoid the most is having to pay overweight bag fees (sometimes up to $300 a bag!). Weigh your bags before you leave home, adding a few pounds for souvenirs, to make sure your bags won’t incur overweight fees.

Airports: Prepare for Delays
If you are in the airport and become delayed (weather, mechanical, personnel – this happened to me once; my flight didn’t have a flight crew and we had to wait for a crew to come from three hours away) for any reason, you are frankly screwed. You could even be kept waiting all night, and we all know how much airport food costs. Here are some types of snacks you might want to keep with you when traveling:
  1. Salty – any type of nut falls in this category
  2. Sweet – snack cakes, fresh or dried fruit, applesauce
  3. Crunchy – crackers, chips (banana chips travel really well), pretzels
  4. Sour – pickles
  5. Savory – what is your personal flavor?
  6. Meaty – jerky, anyone?
  7. Healthier – energy bars and cereal bars work well here. Besides they travel the best of anything.
  8. Peanut butter (the best travel food ever, great on apples or crackers)
If you come prepared, you can stay away from the food courts and reduce how much you spend when the urge to eat descends. I have seen plenty of people carrying sandwiches and fruit but even more people have nothing with them. My old boss was one of these people; she would rather pay seven dollars for a sandwich than take five minutes to make several at home. My new co-worker seems to be the same way. When we went to Albuquerque she used almost all of her per diem; I had enough left to take the kids out to dinner and hit up the library sale. Also, if you bring your snacks with you, that will leave you something to snack on for the rest of your trip. I eat my snacks the entire trip; leaving me more time to sight see and less money spent than my initial investment.

All liquids must be purchased in the airport.
I suggest you buy Crystal Light On the Go packs or similar products that can be added to a bottle of water. Reusing your water bottle or bringing your own reusable bottle that can be filled from fountains or at the food court will keep you from making multiple drink purchases.

Other costly things to avoid in the airport:
  1. Paying for internet access: Go to Travel Post to find out which airports offer free Wi-Fi access.
  2. Purchasing single-use movies: Don’t fall in this trap. If traveling with kids pack a deck of cards and a movie. If you have Netflix or other subscription movie services this is the perfect time to watch one.
  3. Books & magazines: Purchase books from the dollar store or take library books (I always fear leaving these behind, so I am extra careful.)
Travel from airport to hotel and around the city
  1. Car rentals vs. Hotel Shuttles: If you plan on renting a car, don’t just yet. Instead, call the hotel ahead of time to find out if they offer shuttle service! Knowing this would have saved me at least $75 or more in cab fees in the past. Now this is one of the first things I ask of a hotel: “How extensive are your shuttle services?” Some shuttles will only go between the hotel and airport, but I have tipped a driver who has taken me on several detours to a supermarket, a museum, and elsewhere. Other drivers, however, will only make a pre-determined loop through the city.

    If you must rent a car, your hotel might be able to get you a discount. Several of the hotels I have stayed in offer a discount if you rent a car through them. Ask ahead of time if the hotel can shave a few dollars off your car rental in a package deal.

  2. Taxis: Find out the meter rate for taxis in the city you are visiting, plus what they charge for extra passengers and baggage and wait times. Never trust the cab driver to have the quickest route, some (NOT all) are unethical and will try to take you the long way. I was once taken on a $27 dollar cab ride; the return ride was $12.

  3. Buses and Trains: Find out the scope and breadth of public transportation in the city where you are going and use it. Get a map, and don’t be afraid to ask the bus driver to let you know when your stop is coming up.
Cheap Eats
The biggest travel expense, besides airfare and accommodations, is usually food. To save money, you’ll need to modify the way you eat. My peers on these trips (whether they are federal employees, contractors, consultants, trainees and co-workers) love to eat heavy meals all day. They want to go out for a sit-down breakfast when the hotel we are staying in has a perfectly decent continental breakfast. Why waste ten to twelve dollars when you can eat for free and save time too?

When you book your hotel, ask whether breakfast in included. If so, take advantage of it. Eat before you leave and grab an extra yogurt, muffin, or piece of fruit to stash for a midday snack. Have a heavy late, late lunch or eat lunch in your room using your handy dandy peanut butter and a bagel you grabbed from the hotel breakfast. Then have a light dinner or eat off the appetizer menu or make a sandwich using the food stuffs you brought with you or purchased at a market along the way.

If you are going to eat out, search for coupons for local restaurants. Go to and purchase discount gift certificates that you can use for yourself—but only do this if you know for sure that you want to go to that specific restaurant. My advice, however, is it avoid restaurants all together by purchasing your meals from a nearby supermarket or farmer’s market. Before you leave home, go to enter the zip code of where you will be staying and search for markets and food vendors and plot them on your map, so you’ll be prepared when you’re out and about.

Everyone always recommends places for you to shop when you go on vacation. But remember, shopping is not entertainment! You shop to buy things you need. This is not to say you can’t go shopping on vacation; just be aware of what you’re buying. If you like having souvenirs, have a pre set amount of money that you will spend on them. I ask my children to pick one item they would like (t-shirt, baseball cap, poster, etc.) If you’re buying gifts, assign a monetary value for each person or a total of what you will spend. Think of your purchases beforehand. I bought my in-laws food produced in the local area. This is more thoughtful than just another item stamped with a city name, I believe.


If you have never watched your money while traveling or always end up spending more than you expected, the tips in this post are a great starter tool for travel budgeting. Happy trails!

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Converting A Spendthrift said...

Thanks Wren for the chance to guest post!

t.kittye said...

These are great practical ideas for those of us tring to save anywhere we can!

mellisarock said...

Thanks for all the great tips!

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