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Suppliers these days typically push any price cut as "a saving" or, even worse, the illiterate "a savings." But a price reduction is not always a genuine "saving;" you enjoy a true saving only if you spend less than you would otherwise pay. And the best way to "save" on travel is not to buy at all. That's not to say you shouldn't travel. But it is to say that not buying at all is the best way to save when not buying doesn't diminish your travel experience. And actually paying less than you otherwise would also results in a real saving.
This topic was suggested by a recent study released by ABTA, a large British online travel agency. According to this company's research, the average British "holidaymaker" wastes 42 pounds (about $68) on unnecessary purchases. While I wouldn't conflate British with U.S. traveler experiences, I believe both groups face similar problems. And in addition to succumbing to pushy entreaties from local merchants, many travelers waste money without even being slightly nudged.
The Six-Month Rule
As I noted recently in a different venue, probably the most egregious waste of tourists' money is for useless souvenirs—gewgaws that looked "cute" or "fun" in the store. I suggested a "six-month" rule: Before you buy anything to take home, ask yourself, "Where will it be six months from now? Will I actually be using or enjoying it, or will it sit somewhere out of sight and out of mind?" Even a really good price isn't a good deal, much less a saving, if you don't actually use the product. This simple test should probably save you some real dollars on your next trip—dollars that you actually keep, not spend at a lower price. Other examples of times when you can avoid buying entirely are desserts you don't really need or even want and buying stuff from street vendors where the chances of finding knockoff merchandise are very high.
Of course, you find even more opportunities to pay less than you otherwise might. Any time you're in a captive or semi-captive situation, you can expect to be gouged. Hotel minibars are the prototypical captive gouge; your obvious defense is either to buy somewhere else or forego the item entirely. Hotel laundries are often so expensive that you'd pay less to go out and buy new items—I've occasionally done that when a hotel's price list showed $7 for a pair of ordinary socks. You can also expect to be gouged at any port-area shop "recommended" by a cruise line's "port lecturer" or any store where your tour bus stops for a "break."
Saving on Accommodations
At a more significant level, on most trips, your best opportunity to pay less and still retain the experience is when you arrange hotel accommodations. Hotel prices in many big U.S. and foreign cities these days range from outrageous to out of sight. As I've often noted, the best way to fight high hotel prices is to book through an opaque site. Travelocity and Quikbook have joined Hotwire and Priceline, the two originators of the concept. Lately, I almost always book that way, and I've never encountered a problem. Also, for really upscale properties, sign up for such "private sale" operations as SniqueAway and JetSetter.
Where Are the Airfare Savings?
Oddly enough, these days, probably the hardest place to find a real saving is on airfare. The fare comparison sites have become so comprehensive and ubiquitous that you seldom see a better deal than what you find on the airlines' own systems or places like Kayak. The main exception to this rule is on business-class tickets, where discounters can still often undercut published fares. Keep in mind, however, that if you pay $3,000 for a $5,000 business-class ticket, you "save" $2,000 only if you'd really buy the $5,000 ticket absent a discount. If, instead, without the discount you'd fly premium economy, at $2,000, that business-class ticket didn't "save" you $2,000, it cost you an extra $1,000. And that's the true difference between a "saving" and a good price. Remember that.