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Budget Travel: When to Scrimp and When to Save

while it’s important to keep an eye on your budget while traveling, there are certain parts of your trip where you may not want to cut corners. Following are my guidelines for when to scrimp and when to relax your budget a bit when traveling in a recession economy.

Let’s start by saying it’s not necessarily all bad news out there for travelers — the dynamics of supply and demand sometimes work for you and sometimes work against you. As more folks opt to take fewer trips, take shorter trips or even stay home, the opposite effect is that there are more empty seats, open hotel rooms and rental cars on the lot — in short, more good deals.

For me, an upcoming trip to visit family will turn out to be the least expensive such trip I have made in a decade. Just by doing very standard booking engine searches, I found low airfares, a great hotel rate (even in high season) and a rock-bottom rental car rate. Before you decide travel is too expensive at the moment, check to see what a trip would really cost you. You may be pleasantly surprised.


When to Scrimp: Advance purchase benchmarks
In the current pricing environment, when you are coming up on any of the advance purchase price-hiking benchmarks (usually 21, 14, 7 or 3 days before your flight), it is time to stop dallying and make your purchase — because by the next morning, fares are almost certain to have jumped upwards. For more information, see Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare.

When to Splurge a Little: Finding direct flights
For my money, the one thing worth digging a little deeper for — and paying more for — is a direct flight. I have three reasons for this: delays, cancellations and lost luggage (maybe that should really read “one reason”: airlines). A problem with any of these three increases dramatically when you have a connecting flight, and can very quickly get bad enough to ruin an entire trip.


When to Scrimp: Booking mid-range chain hotels
For most trips, lodging options vary considerably; from hostels to heavily-starred hotels, you can almost always find a room, and your wallet is your only worry. Your average chain hotel is a lot like the next, and it has become much easier to avoid real dumps by checking the reviews on a site like TripAdvisor. Unless one of these hotels consistently ranks low in user reviews, you are safe saving a few bucks when you make your final choice. For more tips on saving money on your hotel, see Get the Best Hotel Rate.

Another place to look for potentially considerable savings is by booking a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast. If you are traveling with a family of four, paying for breakfast could cost you $30 or more every day for the same food that costs you about $8 to serve yourself at home. Over the course of a long weekend, you can save into the triple digits by eating downstairs with the road warriors watching CNN.

When to Splurge a Little: Choosing an “official” hotel
The real estate agent’s mantra of “location, location, location” is the key to knowing when to pay a little more for a more convenient or expensive hotel.

For example, if there is an official “convention hotel” or “wedding hotel” that costs a few dollars more per night, I say go for it. You will have all your stuff right upstairs with no need for any additional driving, and will save on gas, parking, taxis, restaurant meals (by stocking your hotel room with groceries and snacks), even a rental car. This approach can save you both sweat and money in the end.

Car Rentals

When to Scrimp: At the time of booking
I have my own strategy for getting good car rental deals. My only rule is to avoid truly tiny cars, unless I am traveling alone and will not be in the car very much. (Of course, if the car is serving largely as an “airport and back” vehicle, then get the cheapest car you can, irrespective of size.)

When to Splurge a Little: Upgrades at the counter
You can often game the system by booking a subcompact car as cheaply as possible, and then requesting (or accepting an offered) upgrade at the rental counter. The upgrade will often be “X additional dollars,” but if you used some of my tactics for getting a very cheap rental in the first place, this is still only X dollars over a very low starting price. (Do keep in mind, however, that a larger car will also cost you more in gas.)

Traveling Internationally

When to Scrimp: Upon arrival, and when getting and unloading cash
The dollar is continuing to struggle against other currencies in popular destinations worldwide. There are two primary culprits to avoid in this environment: exchange desk fees and ATM fees.

With respect to exchange desks, you get hit both coming and going — the exchange rates there are worse than you’ll find anywhere else, and they take a commission as well. There is no real reason to use an exchange desk anymore; simply avoid them by getting all your money at an ATM. However, if you are not careful, ATM fees can pack quite a wallop as well. When traveling internationally, the local ATM will likely charge you a fee, as will your bank back home. There are two tactics to beat this — first, use no-fee ATMs whenever you can find them; second, take out enough cash on each trip to the ATM so you don’t have to keep going back every day, fees racking up with every card swipe.

When to Splurge a Little: In your day-to-day travels
When traveling overseas, don’t worry too much about your most mundane expenses such as snacks, transportation or a visit to the best attractions; you’ll drive yourself and your traveling companions nuts. I once had a budget-fussy traveling companion, and eventually had to go my own way at least once every day in order not to miss out on everything to save a few pazooties.

Attractions, Shows and Tickets

When to Scrimp: When coupon-clipping looks promising
Tourist bureaus are a largely untapped source of discounts on attractions great and small, famous and obscure, and most tourist bureaus have a passable Web presence these days, so they’re not hard to find. With a little research, coupons here and there can start to add up. More sources of locals-only discounts:

  • Coupons and offers show up in daily and weekly local publications that no outsider would usually see; pick up a few local papers (often for free) at delis, convenience stores and other small establishments.
  • Consult with fellow travelers on money-saving tactics. For example, type phrases like “Disney on the cheap” or “save money in Paris” into a search engine and you’ll find dozens of great ideas.

When to Splurge a Little: At big-ticket attractions
Finding good deals on popular attractions can be tricky business, and let’s face it — if you’re going to Disney, you’re going to Disney — it’s not like the special on pony rides at the local petting farm is going to make its way onto your radar. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find discounted tickets to Disney from the local tourist bureau — check out for the proof.

Editor’s Note: is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.


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