Winter begins in just a few weeks and with that change of season, folks across North America will get bitten by the travel bug–especially those from colder climes seeking relief from blizzards and wind chill. For those flyers, drivers and riders of every stripe, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single click of the mouse.
To that end, there’s good news for under-30 travelers: The explosion of travel websites over the past decade, including Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline, means that more people can take trip planning into their own hands like no other time in history.
To get some answers about effective booking and money-saving strategies, Money Under 30 turned to two travel writers, one a seasoned veteran, the other a smart young hotshot. Travel columnist Donald D. Groff has dispensed advice and stories since 1988 in such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, The Kansas City Star, Newsday, Salon, Condé Nast Traveler, and the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. (He’s also a member of journalism’s esteemed Clint Harding Network.)
The other expert is Matt Kepnes, who writes under the pen name “Nomadic Matt” at his website of the same name. In 2005, a trip to Thailand in 2005 inspired him to travel the world—so he finished his MBA, quit his cubicle job and set off around the world. Now he’s got a book coming out in February 2013, “How To Travel The World On $50 A Day: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter” (Perigee/Penguin).
Borrowing from the best these two had to offer, Money Under 30 presents you with 10 travel tips designed to maximize your bottom line, and minimize your bottoming out.
Use Autoslash.com to get the lowest rental car rates
The premise for this site is somewhat remarkable: If you use autoslash.com to rent a car, it will shift your rental from company to company until it finds the lowest rate on the market. Groff says he used this company for a February booking in Phoenix, and “it worked as advertised. It’s spectacular in that once you book through it, it continues to monitor the car rental rates in the city that you’re going through—and it doesn’t just alert you to the better rate, it switches your reservation.” Groff says Autoslash can work the way it does because “with car rentals you’re not locked in [on a payment] the way you would be with an airline ticket.”
Be flexible with air travel dates
“It’s always cheaper to fly during the middle of the week than on a weekend because most people travel on the weekends and airlines hike up their prices then,” Nomadic Matt says via his website. “If you fly after a major holiday, prices are also a bit cheaper. Early morning or late night flights are cheaper because fewer people want to travel then. Before you commit to your departure, make sure you check other dates to pick the cheapest day. … Even the difference of a day can mean hundreds of dollars in savings.”
Get personalized alerts on low airfares
Airfarewatchdog.com offers fare alerts for cities you designate, and you can get personalized alerts for airfare deals from sites such as SmarterTravel.com and Travelocity’s FareWatcher Plus. The more of these you sign up for, the more bargain fares you can work with, Groff says.
Don’t spend too much on your backpack and accessories
Getting an itch to travel? Don’t scratch it by spending on all sorts of expensive accessories. If you’re planning to spend $300 on a backpack, for example, it may boast lots of bells and whistles—but how many do you need? “I don’t believe that any backpack is worth $300, no matter how nice it is,” Nomadic Matt says. “Any backpack under $200 (not including tax) is fine.” If you want to follow in his footsteps, Nomadic Matt swears by the REI Mars Pack, which sells for $199. “I’ve had this backpack since 2004 and it works, looks, and feels just as good as the day I bought it.”
Don’t overlook hotel websites for great deals…
Hotels are competing much more aggressively against travel booking sites than in years past, Groff says. “They’ve realized, ‘Why should we be giving Travelocity or Orbitz a cut when we can offer these rooms online and eliminate the middleman?’ It’s to the point where now, especially in the last five years, many online hotel booking engines will guarantee the lowest rate, and match any low rate you can find.” Hotel loyalty programs will also provide a source for great specials and deals.
…or, stay for free via Couchsurfing.com
Couchsurfing.com is free to join, and it’s always free to stay at someone’s place. About 5 million members belong worldwide, and accommodations can range from a weathered futon in someone’s living room to a yacht bunk or a Maui tree house. Typical stays last two to three days but can also last several months. While you can reciprocate and offer your own couch when your host travels, there’s no requirement that you do so. “I use this site all the time, and I think it’s one of the greatest things to happen in travel,” Nomadic Matt says. “While I love the fact I can get out of hostels and hotels and save money, what draws me to the site over and over again is that I get to see the local side of a city. I get taken to parties, and restaurants, and sites that aren’t in any guidebook.”
Consider Groupon Getaways as a deal source
Groupon’s taking a beating in the press lately for its corporate woes, but all indications are that Groupon Getaways continues to offer competitive travel bargains. While Groff cautions that he hasn’t personally tried this option, he thinks that it’s definitely work a look in terms of finding deals that work. Groupon Getaways has partnered with Expedia, and you can sign up for email alerts as well.
Think frugal with your food
When it comes to travel, maybe the way to a guy’s wallet is through his stomach. Eating out all the time in a major city may be tempting, but you’ve got to resist letting restaurants gobble up your savings. Nomadic Matt recommends picnics, street food, outdoor vendors and lunch buffets as ways to save money without coming close to starving. You can read more of his grub-related advice by clicking here.
“Let the flyer beware”
As a super-experienced traveler, Groff cautions that the zeal to find a terrific bargain can result in some disappointment if you’re not careful. “There’s no magic bullet that’s going to work flawlessly at all times,” he says. “The best route to good deals is to be an informed traveler—monitor the price patterns, filter them with your own needs and desires, and don’t be deceived by exclamations of ‘best deals’ and ‘fare wars.’ Websites are as adept at carnival-barking as print advertising ever was, and comparison shopping is your only real protection against overpaying.”
Start using travel-related credit cards to earn free travel
Assuming that your travel jones isn’t wearing off anytime soon, be smart and think long term. Many credit cards allow you to earn frequent flyer miles, and you often can snare a sign-up bonus that gives you the equivalent of one round-trip domestic flight. But it doesn’t stop there: “Lately, in a bid to get more people to join their card programs, many airline and hotel-specific cards are offering bonuses between 60,000 and 100,000 points, which can help get you tons of free flights,” Nomadic Matt says. “I simply won’t sign up for a card that doesn’t give me at least 30,000 points.” There is a caution, though: Many of these cards carry higher interest rates and annual fees in the $100 range.
One of the great joys of travel centers on encountering the unexpected. But you can’t do that, financially at least, without a good bit of planning, research, and careful deliberation. Here’s hoping all of your travels in the months ahead prove both enjoyable and affordable.