Free* (with purchase)

asterisk

Much like only paying once (see previous), one of the easiest and best ways to save on travel is by understanding the perks or benefits of the things you already have.

I have AAA. Because I don’t want to ever have to change a flat tire or pay for a locksmith or walk along the side of the highway when I’ve run out of gas. But AAA also offers tons of free travel information, cheap (or free, depending on your AAA membership type) passport photos, advice, travel agents and more free… with the purchase of a AAA membership.

But what about the discounts I can get from other companies? My AAA membership gets me discounts with car rentals, hotels, florists… the list goes on.

That Costco membership you got to save on toilet paper and cereal? That card will get you discounts on cruises, airfare, rental cars, amusement parks, travel insurance and more.

What else do you subscribe to/belong to/own which could mean spending less on vacations?

Before you start looking to buy something new, start by taking a better look at what you’re already entitled to. You might not realize what discounts you’re already paying for!

Hotels, Part 2

When traveling, the options for where you will sleep are pretty varied. Where you stay opens, or closes, you to different options. There is nothing wrong with any; this is your vacation. Do what you want, and what works for you.

The main question you’ll have to answer is: what are you looking for this ‘place’ to do for you? Will you only be sleeping here? Will you use it as a base camp, where people will rotate in and out during the day? Will you eat there? Will you prepare meals there? What, really, are you looking for?

A friend’s couch, or spare room

If you are making your decision completely by budget, you’re probably going to wind up staying with people you know. While you may not have to pay as much actual money, this type of lodging may come with a more personal ‘cost,’ potentially adding stress to relationships and requiring a loss of privacy. I believe this situation only works when you are traveling to a city to visit that person, not traveling to see the city and stay for free with someone you know. Sure, you don’t have to spend 100% of your time with your hosts, but they should be the best thing you see while in town. No one likes a free-loader. No. One.

A stranger’s spare room (or more!)

There are a lot of great resources which allow you to rent a room in someone’s home while you are on vacation. The most popular is Airbnb.com. For a fraction of what a traditional hotel room might cost, you can search tons of options. But it’s not just the random spare bedroom in the basement. Oh no! Airbnb also includes full apartment sublet and results from local bed and breakfasts. Recently scams involving postings for properties which are not actually for rent have been in the news. (People ruin everything. Jerks.)

A condo, timeshare, apartment or house

For me, when you’re staying more than a couple of days or when you’re traveling with a group of people, renting a condo or timeshare is the best way to stay. When Trisha and I went to the Cayman Islands in 2002, we rented a condo and it was perfect. Separate bathrooms were a savior in the morning. We had a kitchen and a grill, and ate most of our meals in. We spent $90 on food for the week, including charcoal. THE WEEK! This saved us over $1,000. The luxury of having snacks on hand, and being able to grab a piece of fruit in the afternoon was great. Each time we ate out, it was over $30. Including the time we ate at the beach bar across the street and only had a hot dog and a bag of chips! Eating cereal for breakfast on the patio did not lessen the magic of our vacation. Again, do some research. There are some great options that offer both U.S. and foreign options, including vrbo.com.

A hostel

When we went to Europe in 1999, there were conversations about staying at hostels and we knew those options were there for us if we needed them. Planning a vacation around a hostel stay does require a lot of flexibility, but if it works out you will be rewarded in the wallet. Contrary to the thinking of many U.S. travelers, hostels are not just for college kids. Do some research; there are hostels for many types of travelers. Keep in mind that you may be required to bring linens or towels, but as you are planning ahead that won’t be a problem.

A traditional hotel

There are a lot of great reasons to stay in a hotel. Maid and room service not being the least of them. There is a fair amount of security in hotels and, for the most part, you can trust that your belongings will be safe while you are out for the day/evening. The concierge at your hotel may be able to help secure excursions or event access which would otherwise be impossible for you to get. And let’s not forget the endless supply of towels. With the variety of hotel amenity levels, you will certainly find one within your budget. Whether it’s also within your comfort zone, I cannot guarantee.

Planes, trains and boats

While not traditional, there is no reason you can’t make the most of your travel situation and sleep too. Clearly, you can’t be driving. But if your vacation will occur in more than one location, why should you pay for a hotel and spend an entire sunny day watching the world zip by your window? This is the premise behind the cruise industry: see many places, unpack once. When Trisha and I were in Europe, we basically stayed at a hotel every-other day. On the alternate days, we were on the train, moving our adventure to a new location. Best sleep I ever had? Definitely not. For most people traveling from the U.S. to Europe, a PM departure has you arriving bright and early the next morning. Your days on vacation are limited; make the most of them.

Fact: The government loses things

Recently, I’ve had several friends lament stories of replacing paperwork submitted to the government, never to be returned.

It’s so bad that one of those friends may not be legally married — for the last 19 years! — as she cannot confirm that her Jamaican marriage certificate was ever recognized by the providence of Ontario. She does know they lost the first copy, and when she sent the second/last one she had…. and never heard back…. they just hoped for the best. A possible return/relocation to the U.S. has shined a big fat light on this problem.(update – resolved! And married! lol)

More common and less dramatic stories include the passport office failing to return a birth certificate. Apparently, it’s easier to prove you were born in the U.S. than it is to prove you were married in Jamaica. Let this be a lesson to you.

Relinquishing important documents is a necessary, and uneasy, part of many processes. Before you ship off the sole, ragged copy of your birth certificate, take the fifteen minutes to what it would take to get a backup or replacement.

An ounce of prevention, and all that…

Vicariously traveling

I have quite a few friends who have taken some amazing vacations recently. Among the more exotic/ enviable locations were Playa del Carmen, Mexico; a Hawaiian cruise, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Austria; and the Czech Republic.

Being there is always better than hearing about it, there is no denying that. But there is nothing better than a personal reference – pro AND con – when considering future vacation spots. You don’t have to pretend you were there too to get the most of someone else’s vacation.

One of the most misleading things about travel and hotel websites are the ratings. Let’s say you book a hotel with a 4.5/5 stars. Amazing pictures, modern room, beautiful beach. No mentions of clothing optional… You’re sold. But you get there and everyone is much, much older. Or kids. Or swingers. Or college spring-break-orgy-holders. Or whatever isn’t you. The rating wasn’t relevant because the raters weren’t like you.

You know who’s like you? Your friends!

When you’re considering a vacation, ask your friends of their previous travels. But don’t stick to what they “liked,” and what they didn’t, dig deeper. Why didn’t that vacation work out? What had they hoped to find/do/get out of it that they didn’t? A “too quiet” location might be perfect for your “I need to get the $#^% out of here!” long weekend. A coworker’s “most disappointing country” might actually be perfect for the getaway you’re planning for the inevitable stir-craziness of another February in Michigan.

So ask questions and listen to the stories. Try not to get jealous. And remember, it could be worse. At least you won’t have to sit through the three-carousel slide show. Or you shouldn’t anyway. They probably have all the pictures on Facebook already.

 

*photo credit

Just stop freaking out!!

Perhaps I should have said this earlier, so forgive me if I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

When planning a vacation, of any kind, no matter the budget, the key is to remain calm and not get overwhelmed.

This is, after all, a vacation. I don’t get to take vacation as often as I would like to. If I can make the planning fun, it’s like the vacation lasts longer. It’s not the same, I won’t pretend to say that it is.

Try to enjoy every part of the process and look forward to it. Why would you want to take a vacation which is annoying or a pain? I wouldn’t, I know that.

Just relax. If what you’re doing is too big or overwhelming, break it down into smaller sections, if you can, or ask for help. This is supposed to be fun, remember? There is no “right” way to plan a vacation, and there is no “right” vacation. It’s ok. You’re fine.

Holiday (noun): exemption of requirement

Whether its over the river and through the woods, or to the international terminal, many of us will be traveling for the holiday. Celebrating the nation’s independence with some independence from real life?

I live eight hours from my hometown, where most of my family including my parents live. For the last 20 years, I’ve only gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not both, and it rotates.

Sometimes I make it for Easter. About half the time, I visit on or around the 4th of July. The European whirlwind was over a Thanksgiving I didn’t go home; the Cayman get away was over a Christmas.

For family, and sanity, the every-other routine has worked wonderfully. And for travel, there are some real blessings. Let’s take a look at the benefits if striking out, with or without family, during the holiday.

FREE days off!
Ok, don’t get excited. I don’t mean no-cost vacations. I mean taking advantage of company-provided, paid time away from work. This can also mean weekends, if you only work during the week. For each of the big vacations mentioned above, Trisha and I took a 12-day vacation and were only required to use about six days of vacation time.

There ARE deals to be had
Traveling at the holidays doesn’t have to be the most expensive and daunting experience, especially if you are willing to try something different. You’re probably not going to find the best deal of your life on two weeks in Disney for you, the significant other and your four kids. But you may get a deal you didn’t expect to another great city. Thanksgiving offers amazing deals with international travel. Which makes perfect sense… It’s only Thanksgiving here. Explore some off-season options, and keep an open mind.

Deals ahead — WAY ahead
A few years ago, my brother-in-law rented a car for part of our journey home for Christmas. When he arrived at the rental desk to pick it up, the attendant asked in shock how he got the new 7-passenger car for such a low price. “I haven’t seen prices this low since summer,” she told him. And that made sense… He had made the reservation in August. Price is relative and “a good price” is even more so. Want that dream holiday at the fancy resort? Do it! If getting it all for a great price is key, or the only way you can afford it, plan ahead. Just think, Thanksgiving airfare will be out before you know it! (Sorry)

Finding a hotel could be the easiest part – Part 1

Niall sleeping in a suitcase

See that guy? He’s a famous singer. Really. Really famous. If he can get stuck at the airport without a hotel… well… you’re screwed.

Well. Probably not. And it doesn’t mean that you’re at the mercy of the major hotel chains or hostels? Nope. And that’s great news!

Let me just say, staying at a chain hotel or a big, shiny, glitzy hotel while on vacation can be a wonderful, necessary, healing thing. Lovely large beds and spacious bathrooms will do wonders to revive a weary body and soul after too long in rickety singles and train seats. (Yes, that’s the voice of experience.) And it’s even possible on a budget. If you’re careful.

Take Portugal, for example. Pre-recession, pre-Euro, my stay in Portugal was made all the better by a wonderfully large hotel room. At the time the exchange was 19/1 in my favor! Arriving in Lisbon from London, this was a welcome change.Without exception, London has the smallest, most expensive rooms of any city I’ve ever been to.

If you’re up for a bit of adventure, the train stations in every major European city I have been in are repleat with resources to make your stay the best possible. Inside the station, you can find a very helpful, English-speaking, attendant at the Hotel office. This office, so aptly named, will find you a hotel. For free. (Well, the service is free, the hotel costs what it costs.) You tell them what part of the city you want to stay, how long you’re staying, and your rough budget, and minutes later, you have a map with a circled location and directions. Boom! You’re off to drop your bags and begin your journey.

On my five city tour of Europe, in the pre-smartphone days of 1999, the hotels in four cities were acquired with this service. And when we had to switch hotels after the first night in Lisbon, the departing hotel found us the new place. Again, free service. Two nights in the museum section of Barcelona? Done. Three nights in the shopping district of Paris? Sure. Yes, you can find answers on the internet… but do you want to spend your time trying to find free wifi and poking around the internet or BEING in that great city? Exactly.

Asking questions is free, so before you run off and assume you understand how things work in a city or country you’ve never been to, ask some questions.

A second bag is HOW MUCH?!

Airfare, by in large, is expensive. Adding a bag? On an international flight? Yeah… Here are some tips to getting the most out of your suitcase.

Know the rules.

Every airline has a size restriction for carry on bags. Know it. As difficult as it may seem, stick to it. If you wind up having to gate check your bag, you may save a few bucks but you’re increasing your risk of never seeing that bag (or some of its contents) again.

Be realistic.

If you’re going on a four country, five city vacation using the train, hauling a large suitcase is going to be a pain no matter how many wheels are on that thing. You don’t need fifteen outfits for a five day trip. You don’t need six pair of shoes. Really. But if you do, budget for extra bags and plan on lost bags. While statistically rare, 26 million — MILLION — bags are “misdirected” each year. Of those bags, 1 million are never located and the rest take an average of 2 days to locate and return to the rightful owner. (More info here.) Are you only going to be at your hotel 2 days then moving on? Perhaps checking isn’t for you. Be sure to give the airline your full itinerary; if they ‘misdirect’ your stuff, you’re going to want them to get it to you when they find it.

How to pack.

There are a lot of philosophies on how to best pack a suitcase. Perhaps you’re a ‘roller,’ neatly rolling every piece of clothing into a tube to stack inside your back. Maybe your a ‘toss and stuff,’ just hoping all of your necessities make it inside the zipper. I have come to rely on 3 different types of packing apparati. The first is packing cubes. They have zippers, are soft-sided, and come in a variety of sizes. These allow you to keep like items (like socks) or entire outfits together. Zippered compression bags are especially handy with cold weather wear. Insert your clothing, seal the bag, roll the air out. I have found that both of these can result in wrinkles, however. For a more polished look, I use packing folders. These are great, and I have 3 sizes. I can put several days worth of clothes together in outfits — and they stay next to each other! I can be weird to neatly fold your dirty clothes for the trip home, but it’s worth it.

Choose a family.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received about packing for travel was to only pack items in the same color family. Black. Navy. White. Brown. Whatever color tones you choose, keep them all the same. Think Geranimals. If everything goes well with and compliments everything else, you’ll be able to mix and match for more outfit choices and less boredom.

What to bring, what to leave

I’ve never regretted having comfortable walking shoes, no matter how “American” they are. I rarely use my workout clothes, despite a fairly serious routine at home. When I went to Hawaii in 2010, I  wore less than half of the clothes I brought. The issue was that the other clothes smelled of mildew when I returned home from all the humidity. Sure, a pile of tank tops and skirts don’t take up a lot of room, but I didn’t need to haul them around the world only to return them to my wash pile. Take the clothes you know you’ll wear, not the ones you hope to wear.

Planning for lost luggage

No one wants to lose their luggage. Fact. But someone will, and it could be you.  Whether it’s a sundress or a pair of shorts, have two outfits in your carry on. Whatever you can’t replace reasonably at a local pharmacy or hotel gift shop should not be in your checked bag. If you can’t afford to lose it, and you can’t carry it on… just leave it at home.

Let’s get real for a minute

Bad things can happen on your dream vacation. There. I said it. It’s ok, you’ll get through it.

 

If you plan. It’s easier to plan and prepare in advance than it is to react and recover outside of your comfort zone.

When we went to Europe in ’99, Trisha and I did a lot of planning. As a professional photographer, she was incredibly concerned about her camera. And rightfully so. Because it got stolen.

Not kidding.

We know it was taken from under our noses in the McDonald’s inside the Barcelona train station. We don’t know who took it, or exactly when it was taken. What we do know is that anything someone wants to take, they will. (We also know that if you get robbed at 11:45 pm in the Barcelona train station, you will spend the first 25 minutes at the police station getting yelled at for being at the train station so late. Sigh.)

Before we left the States, Trisha got extra insurance on her camera. Extra? Exactly. Many insurance policies don’t cover international travel. So if you are traveling with costly items you don’t want to pay to replace, investigate your insurance well in advance. And if something happens, be sure to get a copy of the police report. Even if it’s in Spanish.

When you start your packing list, ask yourself: will I really use it? Can I afford to lose it? Is it worth the risk?

While you’re meeting with your insurance agent about your property, you may also want to explore supplemental life insurance for your vacation. I’ve never gotten travel life insurance, but it may be right for you. Any number of factors could make it the right choice in the future.

In addition to insurance, there are a few things which you should get together in preparation for mayhem. Domestic travel requires less planning, which isn’t surprising. Here are a few items which you should consider gathering to leave with someone trustworthy (and whose name and number can be found in your baggage and in your cell phone)

Domestic
– A list of your credit card numbers, with expiration dates, and their billing/contact numbers.
– A copy of your itinerary, with flights, hotel and transportation. If you know it, someone else should know it. If you don’t, try to give realistic estimates.

International
– Everything mentioned above.
– A photocopy of the inside of your passport. (If you have extra photos, good on ya. Leave those too!)
– Copies of all the prescriptions you’re taking with you AND any you’re leaving at home which you may need in an emergency or delay (including glasses/contacts).
– A copy of your homeowners/supplemental property insurance.
– A copy of your medical insurance cards.