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A Noob’s Guide To Affordable Travel

December 24, 2015

Traveling on a budget isn’t difficult. The method is a simple combination of knowledge, geography, and timing. By placing a trickle down emphasis from the most expensive aspect of travel to the least, any American should be able to afford a memorable vacation, even those on a teacher’s salary.

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Airfare

Airfare is by far the most expensive overhead and should be the principal item to minimize. As the saying goes, timing is everything. Nothing will have a greater impact on the cost of your flight than when you decide to fly. The difference between traveling during the middle of May versus the middle of June could sometimes be twice the cost. In addition, flying between the days of Tuesday-Friday will yield a much better fare than between Saturday-Monday. Saturday has high demand since it is the official start of the weekend. Sunday is when many people return home ahead of the new work week, and Monday is when business travelers often take off.

Below is an example of the price disparity by utilizing the two extremes on the same Delta flight from DTW to LON (London). The top flight is booked in the middle of May, departing and returning on a Wednesday. The bottom flight is booked for the middle of July, traveling during the weekend. As you can see, the summer flight cost nearly 100% more than the spring flight.

London

Keep in mind, however, that peak travel season is not static globally. Places located between the tropics will experience high volumes and prices during the winter months for departing locales in the upper latitudes. I tend to only fly during the off-season (because not just flights, but lodging, and everything else is cheaper, too) and just road trip somewhere during peak season.

In regards to the most ideal time to book, a recent study by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Center, found that booking 57 days prior to your flight- or two months out- will yield the best prices. Conventional wisdom tells us that booking your flight during weekdays is best, but recent research argues that the weekends are actually the best time, because airlines want to entice the causal, spontaneous, weekend vacationers with deals. Regardless of when you decide to book, many reservation websites now offer price trend data for you to evaluate anyway

Price Trends

Using sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, etc., is great to get a general idea of what’s available, but it is advised that you do not actually book directly with these sites. This is because in case you need to cancel a flight, airlines will deduct an additional $50 from your ticket credit since you booked through a third party. So just use reservation websites to find and compare flights, but book them directly on the airlines’ websites. Additionally, Southwest, a semi-budget airline is not listed on all these sites, so by concentrating your research solely on Expedia/Travelocity, you might be missing out on a good deal. This past summer, I bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for $170 on Southwest, when everyone else was charging $250+.

There are many airlines to choose from and each have their own set of pros and cons. Delta is considered the gold standard in aviation, with a solid track record and customer service, covering a large network of places. If prices are relatively constant across the board, then you should probably fly with Delta (or JetBlue). If you are on a budget, don’t really care about comfort or amenities, and can pack lightly, then Spirit will offer the cheapest fares, because nothing is included in their initial price. For example, below is a flight I recently booked from DTW to NOLA, in mid-February. As you can see, Spirit’s flight is almost half the price of United’s, with a similar departure/arrival time. What you might or might not know, is that Spirit is pretty much the only airline that does not permit a free carry-on item. Therefore, if you have to bring anything more than just a personal purse or backpack on-board, you will be charged an additional $35 each way. Furthermore, with Spirit, unless you’re willing to pay extra, you cannot select your own seat, and no beverages or snacks will be provided on your flight. That means, United is actually the cheaper flight in this regard. But, because I am only staying in NOLA for three days, I can pack everything I need into a single backpack, and with the flight being less than 3 hours, I certainly don’t need any beverages or snacks (I can also just bring my own; or as a tip, instead of buying expensive bottled water inside the terminal, just bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it at a drinking fountain inside).

NOLA Flight

Spirit is the way to fly if you can travel minimally- although I will admit, I hate supporting this company because their marketing is always full of lowbrow, raunchy innuendos (the original ad below actually has the reindeer thrusting).

Spirit Airlines

Also while booking, pay special attention where the layovers are. Sometimes, it is cheaper to book two separate round trip flights to a location rather than an single round trip flight. What I mean is, if you’re trying to fly from DTW to ANC (Anchorage), you will almost certainly be making a stop in SEA (Seattle), since there are no direct flights between these two cities, and SeaTac serves as a hub for Alaska. Two summers ago, when I looked at flights to Alaska, round trip tickets were going for about $900, with a mandated layover in Seattle both ways. Instead of just committing to that price, I decided to look at the cost of a round trip flight from DTW to SEA, and then separately, a flight from SEA to ANC- essentially the same flight, but broken into two parts. The combined cost of these two round trip flights with the same end destination in mind: $700.

Sometimes, it is also beneficial to check the price of flights from and to various neighboring airports. If you live in the Detroit Metropolitan Area like me and you don’t mind some extra driving, then see how much tickets are from Gerald R. Ford International (Grand Rapids), Bishop International (Flint), Toledo Express, or even Windsor, Canada.  When I went hiking at Zion National Park in Utah, it was $200 cheaper for me to fly to Vegas- due to major competition from carriers- than to Salt Lake City. Car rentals were also cheaper in Vegas compared to SLC.

Lastly, if you have a lot of time on your hands (say you were laid off or recently finished college), one of the best ways to see a lot of places for cheap is to book a flight with a huge number of stops and request an extended layover. The most efficient way to secure this type of schedule is to contact a travel agent; they can do wonders. And although it will cost you more money for their services, it’s still a lot cheaper than booking 4 different flights. You can also try calling your airline and request an extended layover, but keep in mind, airlines are under no obligation to grant this and they may charge you a fee for this accommodation. There was a story that went viral this year about a person who managed to travel the world on Air Emirates by gaming this exact system.

Lodging

The second major obstacle to minimize while traveling is lodging. Unlike aviation, deciding where to stay is a far more subjective affair, with a lot more options to choose from. Unless you’re a wealthy individual, most of us will have to compromise between value, safety, location, and cleanliness.

If your main concern is price, then there are almost no better alternatives than AirBnB (use code PINGZ202 to get $40 in credit for your first night). AirBnB is the Uber of the lodging industry, where everyday people can essentially rent out their homes/rooms to you for a fair price.  The prices are comparable to hostels except you won’t have 3-7 other strangers sleeping in the same room as you. Fees are also way lower because you do not have to pay local taxes.  For example, in Canada, the lodging tax is a whopping 20%, but for AirBnB, you just need to pay the company’s service charge, which is way lower.

There is a customer review system to ensure quality and safety. What’s nice about AirBnB is that the website and housing options are extremely customizable. You get to meet real locals, who could offer you tips, and some of the houses are incredibly charming and unique.  What’s bad about AirBnB is that it doesn’t follow the same kind of standards that major hotel chains have to follow.  It is essentially federally unregulated. Furthermore, even with a review system, spending a night in a stranger’s home can still be a bit daunting or awkward, and you sometimes have to negotiate a time to check in and out with the host, since most of them work day jobs.  Some people will rent out property they own and you would have the whole house to yourself, but this obviously cost a bit more than the conventional method of staying with the host.  Overall, AirBnB is a great alternative for people who do not mind some social awkwardness in exchange for a bargain.

Hostels are similar in that they are affordable because it is usually a shared sleeping and bathroom space. They are great in that they are usually in good geographic locations, and can cost even less than AirBnB. You could find a decent hostel in the center of a major city for sometimes less than $30 a night. It is also a great way to meet people from all walks of life. The biggest problems with hostels is that they tend to be more applicable for individual travelers. If you’re traveling with 3 or 4 people, splitting the cost of a Marriott would be just as viable. Also, it suffers from a similar problem as AirBnB in that you’ll likely be sharing a room with a stranger (as opposed to a house on AirBnB). Lastly, hostels are also quite limited within the United States and Canada. Unless you’re in Europe or a developing country, you’ll probably have an easier time finding a regular hotel.  Now with AirBnB around, there is very little reason to stay at a hostel besides geography.  Why share a room with 3-7 strangers when you don’t have to?

For the rest of us, the go-to-option is usually the standard hotel. The best site to use is hotels.com, since for every 10 stays, you are given one free night. When booking, it is best to prioritize your values, by filtering out options one-by-one until you settle in on a place that fits your parameters of needs. First, set a maximum price you’re willing to spend, then filter out only those with decent reviews, then lastly, check all of their locations on Google Maps to find the one with the best geography (near subway station, airport, downtown, etc). Obviously, depending on the city or country you are staying, prices will vary dramatically. For example, when my friends and I went to Mexico City, our hotel was in the heart of downtown with good reviews and it only cost $30 a night. At this point, why even bother looking at hostels and AirBnB?

There is always camping, too, which is either free or cost next to nothing. But of course, that is assuming you enjoy sleeping outside and/or are geographically able. I doubt you’ll want to pitch a dent in the middle of Time Square. Finally, there is couch surfing, which is also free and perfect for people who are not afraid of potentially getting stabbed at night.

Transportation

The best form of transportation by far is the subway system. Unfortunately, many travelers don’t use it because they don’t understand or care to learn the system.  This is such a shame because nothing will get you around a city faster and cheaper than a metro rail, and once you learn it, you’ll be able to navigate any major city in the world, since they all follow the same basic principals, regardless of language or culture. For individuals who would like to learn, I recorded a video to teach you how to read a subway map.

How cheap is the subway? In Chicago, you can get a single-day unlimited use pass for just $10 (the cost of one taxi ride), and it even includes unlimited bus usage. In Mexico City, each individual ride only cost a nickel USD. Traditionally, what I tend to do is look up the location of every site I wish to see and mark it on a subway map, so I’ll know which station to get off at. No need for taxis or driving through hectic traffic.

Intercity bus systems can be tricky to navigate and a lot more complicated than the subway. What I have discovered through experience is that it is usually easier just to ask a local which bus to catch instead of trying to figure it out yourself beforehand. Riding the bus is also a lot cheaper than a taxi. In regards to seeing places outside of the city, instead of paying a hefty sum for a personal tour guide, just figure out which bus will take you there. Both WikiTravels and TripAdvisor have great guides and forums dedicated to this. Even though we didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, when we went to Teotihuacan in Mexico, we knew which subway station to get off at, how to get from there to the bus terminal, which station sold those specific tickets, and even what to say to the counter agent. A round trip bus ride to the famous Aztec pyramids ended up costing us $5, which is 1/10th the cost of the cheapest tour group I could find.

The only time you should rent a car is [obviously] if you plan on driving around a lot outside the big city, otherwise just stick with public transport. Parking fees can be painfully high and you also have to deal with traffic. Moreover, there is a very good chance you’ll end up lost because most GPS will not function properly within the central business district of areas with tall skyscrapers. If you must rent a car, I recommend you bypass the “full coverage insurance” based on the principals of probability. I’ve been driving for over 15 years and have had maybe 3 fender benders. Basically one every five years. Therefore, what are the chances of me damaging this rental car in the next few days? Unless you’re a terrible driver or you plan on going off-road, there is really no reason to pay that extra money. This is especially the case if you have a “Visa Signature” credit card, which require good credit to obtain. The Visa Signature series will cover your deductible in case of a rental car accident. The only thing you’ll be liable for is the premium bump to your personal auto insurance in the case of an accident.

Misc

  • Get a Capital One credit card; they have no international surcharges
  • If you have time, exchange your currencies at a casino instead of the airport or bank. They offer much better rates
  • Sign up for frequent flyer programs with every airline you fly with. It’s free and they don’t expire, so there’s really no reason not to, even if you don’t fly often.
  • No need to drop $15-$20 on a travel guide book like Lonely Planet, just borrow one from your local library right before the trip.  On a personal note, I find Fodor’s to be the best guides.
  • Use Groupon
  • If your schedule is flexible, use Google Flights
  • Eat as much street food as possible. Not only are they cheap and delicious, but I consider them the truest form of a culture’s cuisine.
  • When you’re trying to haggle over the price of an item in a foreign country, take out a calculator and use that as a communication device
  • If you have WiFi or data service in a foreign country, use Google Translate’s photo feature to quickly translate signs and entire menus.

There you have it; everything I know about cheap travel. My goal with this article is not only to save you money, but to inspire you to start traveling more.  As the great Bill Waterson once eloquently said: “It’s a magical world. Let’s go exploring.” – Ping Zhou


14390988_10103173138522064_6032624619294796465_nPlaza Simón Bolívar, Bogota, Colombia  

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2015 1:44 pm

    I had the pleasure of traveling with the author on one trip and like article states: did it on a shoestring budget. He writes from experience.

  2. December 29, 2015 7:41 am

    I like your recommendation for Mexico City. There are plenty of hostels outside of the US and Europe that are less that $30 US a night. I was looking at one the other day for a splendid beach town in Ecuador for $10 shared room and $20 private. A lot of hostels have private rooms. Thanks for the advice.

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