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For richer, for poorer: Travel to a wedding inexpensively

SmarterTravel

In the past year and a half, five of my friends decided to get married out of town (four of them gave me the honor of being a bridesmaid), leaving me with a cost-cutting challenge. While celebrations for such occasions are indeed joyful, they also tend to be mighty pricey, especially if you don’t live near the festivities. However, traveling to and from the wedding need not be an expensive endeavor. Here are some money-saving strategies to get you to the church on time.

Airfare

If you’re traveling to a wedding that’s far away, you’ll most likely have to book a flight. Luckily, several airlines offer wedding discount programs for 10 or more guests of the bride and groom who are flying to the wedding. American Airlines Wedding Travel program, Hawaiian Airlines Wedding Wings, and US Airways Weddings discount program provide savings for wedding guests, with five percent off published fares, and an additional five percent off if you book in advance. American Airlines and US Airways’ wedding discount programs, for example, provide an extra five percent off fares when booked at least 30 or 60 days in advance, respectively. With most brides and grooms announcing their wedding months before the date, you should have no trouble meeting the one- or two-month deadline. Speak with the bride and groom to see if they have arranged for a group discount, then call the respective airline to book.

Even if a discount has not been prearranged for the wedding, you may be able to save with a group rate, should you and several friends and family members be traveling by air together. Southwest offers savings with its Group Program, where 10 or more people traveling together may qualify for a better rate. If you are just bringing a date, ask your preferred airline if companion fares are available. JetBlue is one airline that offers special prices for two or more people traveling together on the same itinerary.

Although convenient, group rates might not be your cheapest option. It pays to compare all fare types before booking any rate. To begin researching airfare, visit SmarterTravel.com to check for regular air deals, and use our fare-comparison tool to compare available fares simultaneously. Use the results as a basis to determine how the group rates stack up.

Note that you may also want to avoid opaque sites such as Hotwire or priceline for airfare because you won’t know the time you’ll be flying until after you book. You wouldn’t want to take the chance of missing the ceremony or arriving late.

In some cases, you simply may not be able to find a cheap flight, and in a pinch, frequent flyer miles can be a saving grace. When I traveled from Boston to Los Angeles for a spring wedding, airfares floated around $300. I was less than keen on spending upwards of $600 just for airfare for myself and my boyfriend, not to mention the expenses I accrued from my bridesmaid’s duties, so I decided to cash in some frequent flyer miles. Using miles for my portion of the trip, I paid a total of $10 for my airfare, which covered taxes. I then booked my boyfriend’s ticket at the $300 price, and we split the cost, enabling us both to travel cross-country at the more affordable $150 apiece. And with what we saved on airfare, we were able to get our newly married friends a snazzy wedding gift.

Hotel

Once you arrive at the wedding destination, you’ll also be responsible for finding a place to stay. It is common practice for brides and grooms to select a hotel for their guests (often very close to or in the same place as the reception), with rooms offered at a discounted bulk rate. Booking the bulk rate can be an easy and convenient option, especially if the reception is at the hotel and other guests are staying there, too. Just be sure to reference the names of the bride and groom so you are included in the discounted rate, as well as receive a room near the other guests.

However, you can often find a better rate at a different hotel. Being pressed for time, I was not able to research in advance for the Los Angeles wedding, and quickly booked a room at the hotel with the group discount. Had I done my research, I would have learned that the hotel’s group discount rate was actually more expensive than if I had stayed in one of the more modest hotels in the area. If you decide to try your luck elsewhere, make sure the hotel you choose is still close to where the wedding and reception are being held. While you may save money on a hotel that’s a bit of a drive away, you’ll pay dearly if you’re stuck in traffic during the wedding ceremony, or if you need to take an expensive cab ride to get there.

Start researching your hotel options by visiting SmarterTravel.com’s hotel deals and step-by-step hotel guides. Also use our price-comparison tool to compare several hotel prices at once.

Rental car

I’ve rented a car for nearly every wedding I’ve attended, and have found it a lifesaver in hauling dresses, gifts, and other items to the wedding. It’s also my main mode of transportation to see the local sights when I’ve extended a wedding trip into a mini-vacation.

Many leading car rental companies know you’ll need a rental car when going to a wedding, and like the airlines, offer a group discount rate for several family members, bridal or groom’s party attendants, or friends. Alamo’s Small Groups and Events program, Budget Weddings, and Hertz Group/Meeting Services program (800-544-0058) offer discounts and more; call your preferred rental company for details. You can also check SmarterTravel.com for the latest car deals, or use our price-comparison tool to compare rental car rates. Unlike airfare, opaque sites like Hotwire and priceline might also be a good option for car rentals. You just won’t know the name of the rental company until after you’ve booked, but you can select pick-up and drop-off times and locations.

Other tips

Plan ahead: According to Rosie Amodio, executive editor of The Knot, a popular wedding website, “10 percent of weddings are now destination events, and as they’re often planned during holiday weekends or peak travel times, they’re expensive.” To reduce costs in attending a destination wedding, Amodio recommends booking early. Otherwise, you may not be able to find affordable, much less available, seats and risk the chance of missing the wedding entirely.

Last minute: However, unlike the airlines, hotel and car rentals can be more forgiving at the last minute. This is because there are usually more available options—more properties, rates, classes, and amenities—to choose from, and sometimes you can save a bundle on a “distressed” last-minute rate. However, before deciding whether to book your accommodations or car rental at the last minute, make sure to take location, season, and demand into account. For example, if you are traveling to a wedding in Duluth in winter, a low-demand area, a last-minute hotel may be a good option. However, if you need to go to nuptials in Santa Barbara in early summer, when demand will be high, advance planning is a safer choice.

But if you’re attending a “shotgun wedding,” received your invitation late, or just need to book travel on short notice, you can often save money by booking accommodations and rental cars through a travel provider specializing in last-minute deals. LastMinuteTravel.com and Site 59 both offer discounted prices on accommodations nationwide; Site 59 lists packages including airfare, hotel, rental car, taxes, and fees.

Shorten your trip: To save further, Amodio also recommends cutting corners by shortening your trip where you can. “Keep in mind guests don’t need to participate in every single activity that’s planned,” Amodio advises. “By skipping the rehearsal dinner Friday night, you can fly out on a cheaper Saturday a.m. flight before the wedding, and then you’ve also saved an extra night on hotel accommodations.” A word of caution however: This strategy may not get you to the wedding on time if your flight is delayed or canceled. Weigh your options carefully when planning your flights.

Make the best of it: No matter how much you spend, you can make the trip more enjoyable and ultimately cost-effective by combining the occasion with a mini-vacation or extended getaway. With this idea, you’ll save time and money by not having to plan and purchase tickets for two separate trips. Research the area where the wedding is being held and find some area attractions (spas, antique shops, sporting events) that appeal to you, and plan some fun things for yourself. The best gift you can give the couple is to keep yourself happy around the big day; you can’t expect them to plan activities for you. And by having a vacation (plus the wedding) to look forward to, you’ll be able to make the most of your trip.

Before you head off to celebrate the wedding, check out additional websites that may help you plan your trip, plus learn how to be the perfect guest. Wedding Channel, Love Tripper, and The Knot all offer travel advice, tailored for guests as well as brides and grooms.

Final vows

Sooner or later, you may find yourself invited to a destination wedding on faraway shores, a modest affair across the country from your home, or a multi-day extravaganza that requires a road trip. And although it can be tough to get there, your presence at the wedding, and the effort you’ve made, will contribute greatly to the couple’s happy day. And you’ll be happy too, knowing you saved money in making it all happen.

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