Recently, my family embarked on a spring break trip to visit friends in North Carolina. I had originally planned to fly in order to avoid eight-plus hours of driving with two small children. We have a Frontier hub an hour away, and there are always discounts on flights to Raleigh if you book far enough in advance.
However, my husband thought driving would be cheaper. I agreed to make it a road trip if we could take our time going back and forth, breaking up the trip with stops and hotel overnights.
What happened next was a comedy of errors or an ironic reminder from the universe that trying to cut costs can end up costing you more.
Here are the four main lessons I learned from our experience to help you avoid unanticipated travel expenses.
Driving isn’t cheaper than flying if your car breaks down
My 2008 Toyota Yaris with 115,000 miles is my main point of frugal pride. It wouldn’t be most people’s first choice road trip car, but it’s the only car we have until we can afford to buy another one. So we stuffed it with suitcases, toys, and our family and departed on a Saturday night. We’d already reserved a hotel room a few hours away in Maryland where we’d spend the night before continuing on to NC the next day.
An hour later we found ourselves on the shoulder of the highway. The front right tire shield had come loose and started dragging as we drove over a bridge. Luckily, my mom added me to her Triple A membership a few months ago. If the tow truck driver could repair our car we could keep going without spending a penny.
As you may have surmised from the intro, this is not what happened. The car had to be towed, and since we had no way of getting it back if we left it locally, we had to pay a few hundred dollars to have it towed to our local repair shop.
Overall, when you add up the cost of towing the car, repairing it, and paying for the hotel room we never made it to, we could have bought three low-fare plane tickets instead.
When you’re deciding whether to drive or fly, consider the age and reliability of your car. This could also be a reason to get a newer or second car. You may think you’re saving money by holding onto your good old clunker and driving it into the ground, but repairs are expensive, as is the time (and work) you lose when a car breaks down.
Amtrak isn’t cheaper than flying if your train doesn’t run
With our car in the shop, we had to figure out Plan B. We decided to take the train. The trip would be no shorter than driving but the tickets cost less than last-minute plane tickets.
Amtrak is notorious for running behind schedule so we were prepared for the delays we encountered on our way down. However, what happened on the return trip was beyond any of our expectations
We were supposed to ride the train home on a Sunday and return to work the next day. When we arrived at the station that morning we learned that our train had struck a car on the tracks. There would be a delay while police investigated, but eventually the train would arrive. We waited for three hours, at which point there was still no firm arrival time and we decided to give up.
Luckily, the friends we’d been staying with were able to pick us up and give us another night of shelter. We exchanged our train tickets and even received a $60 voucher from the price difference.
But there are costs to missing a day of work, even if you have paid time off. We paid for a day of childcare we didn’t use and I missed one of my two most productive freelance writing days. If we’d had a hotel room or a rental car, the costs of the cancelled train would be even higher.
Flights can be cancelled and delayed, too, but the longer your trip the less wiggle room you have to reschedule if something goes wrong. If you do decide to take the longer but cheaper route to your destination, give yourself an extra “cushion day” before your scheduled return to work.
“Nonrefundable” hotel rates aren’t always the best deal
Besides the Maryland hotel room we never made it to, we’d reserved a Virginia room for the way back that we no longer needed since we weren’t driving. Unfortunately, we chose the cheapest “nonrefundable rate” on both hotels. The first loss was unavoidable, but if we’d paid only a little (sometimes just $15-$20) more for a “free cancellation” rate on the second hotel we could’ve gotten a refund.
From now on I’ll choose the refundable rate and think of the price difference as my own personal travel insurance.
Think carefully about the value of a refundable hotel room, especially if you book it well in advance. You may also want to wait and make a last-minute reservation once you’re on the road. While you run the risk of “no vacancies” you can go at your own pace and stop when you’re tired.
You can spend a lot of money feeding a family on a long trip
Another way that a more expensive option like flying can actually end up being cheaper is the shorter travel time. We spent about ten hours on the train one way and nine the other. Although I’d packed some food, we still made multiple trips to the cafe car, out of hunger and boredom both. With prices similar to buying concessions at a sports stadium, the cost of feeding four people quickly added up.
The same would’ve been true had we driven down. Perhaps we would’ve spent even more stopping at restaurants. Of course, you always have a choice about how much money to spend eating out, and I could’ve done a better job of packing peanut butter sandwiches and the like, but for a person with an average amount of planning skills and discipline, it’s easy to eat your way through the amount of money you saved by not buying plane tickets.
Whether you’re traveling with a family, a friend, a partner, or by yourself, create a food budget for your trip before you leave. Buy what you can at the grocery store instead of grabbing snacks at convenience stores. When you do stop for meals, try to avoid sit-down places where you’ll need to add a tip to your check.
Everyone wants to get the best deal on travel, but sometimes it pays to spend a little more. A faster trip or a refundable hotel room limit the number of things that can go wrong and create unanticipated expenses. And the whole point of vacation is to have fun and relax, not stress over every penny.