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The Hidden Travel Cost You Should Never Ignore

A lot of travelers don’t seem to realize how much they pay just to be somewhere other than home. I call that cost “travel overhead,” the daily or hourly cost of just being in a destination. Here are two examples:

  • Trip 1: Two people visit New York from Little Rock, Arkansas, for four days, three nights. Let’s say the round-trip airfare is $300 each, plus $100 in checked baggage; the hotel rate is $250 a night (including taxes and extras), and they spend $150 a day more, total, for food than they would at home. The total cost is $1,900. Out of the four-day, three-night period, they have 34 total useful sightseeing/activity hours each. So their travel overhead—the cost of just being in New York—amounts to about $28 an hour, each, or $56 an hour for the couple.
  • Trip 2: Two people visit London from Chicago, Illinois, for a week in June, seven days, five hotel nights (plus one night on the overnight flight to London). Let’s say the round-trip airfare is $1,200 each, the hotel rate is $250 a night for a hotel room, and they spend $200 a day more for food then they’d spend at home. The total cost is $4,950. On a seven-day stay, they each have 84 useful sightseeing/activity hours, so the overhead cost of just being in London is about $29 an hour, each, or $59 for the couple.
  • Related: 10 Most Overpriced Destinations in the World

    Of course, that rate can vary widely depending on traveling lifestyle, location, length of trip, and such. I’ve seen calculations as low as $10 an hour or as high as $100 an hour. But whatever the level, the basic idea is the same. Just being in a destination entails a substantial hourly cost, before you factor in any out-of-pocket costs such as theater tickets, admissions, taxis, and such.

    Travel overhead figures into quite a few travel decisions. You’ve probably seen “tips” that you can “save” money by staying in the suburbs. Yes, room rates in suburban locations can be a lot less than rates in the center of just about any big city.

    Take the New York trip as an example: Figure you can pay 40 percent less on Long Island or in Jersey, which would lower the hotel stay by $300. But in an offset to that reduction, you would pay, say, $120 for commuter tickets to Manhattan. Then figure that you would spend an extra three hours per day, for three days, riding commuter trains subways or buses, for an overhead cost of $306. Suddenly, instead of “saving” you $300, that suburban hotel costs you an extra $226.

    Another disadvantage: Staying in the suburbs means you must either remain in town the entire day and into evening, with no chance to go back to your room to rest or take it easy for an hour or two between, say, the museum and going to dinner, or making two or more suburban round-trips.

    Travel overhead applies in many other decisions that involve a tradeoff between cost and time. Often, a cab trip that cuts a half-hour off public transit time is well worth the extra cost. Conversely, during rush hour, coping with the public transportation crunch may be a much better choice than being gridlocked in a taxi, no matter how comfortable.

    Taking an hour to travel crosstown to get a better price for something may look like a bad idea when you factor in the overhead. Ditto standing in line rather than paying for a premium ticket. You get the idea.

    Related: 10 Hotel Booking Mistakes You’re Probably Making

    I don’t suggest that you subject every little decision to a rigorous cost analysis. Nor do I recommend “throwing money” at every turn. But I do suggest that you consider travel overhead whenever you face a significant time vs. money choice in your travels.

    Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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