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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Lower Your Travel Costs- From the Basics to the Very Extreme

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Beautiful view from my airplane window on my recent trip to the US
Today, I was doing some thinking about the trip I took to the US in January for 2 weeks, and remembered that I had a post I wanted to write about cheap traveling that I just... never got around to writing. Until today. (You know how that works, life gets in the way.) So, at long last, here it is.

Fortunately, the money to pay for my trip didn't come out of my pocket, but even so, I don't like to be wasteful with other people's money, so I tried to make the trip be as cheap as possible. This post will cover a lot of frugal traveling strategies, many of them lessons I learned about frugal travel when planning and on my trip.

Transportation mode- plane, train, or bus- which is cheapest? 

Of course, the answer to this is- it depends. And obviously, sometimes there isn't really a choice. When I was traveling overseas to the US, it was quite clear that I'd be flying, not taking a boat or a train. But within the US there are many more travel options.
On my trip to the US, I had planned to stop in NY, Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, and Cincinatti. While I was searching for the best way to get from one city to another, I discovered that it often doesn't even save time to fly instead of drive.
I had looked up the cost of a flight from Kansas City to St. Louis- minimum 200 dollars, and they all had a stop over, with waiting time in between, so the amount of time from boarding one flight in one city, and getting off the flight at the destination city was upward of 6 or 7 hours! And that doesn't even count the extra time needed for checking in, security, baggage claim, etc... However, the buses that provided transportation between those two cities cost only 20-30 dollars, and had a total of 4-5 hours of travel time. It really was worth it, in a case such as that, to go by bus instead of flying, both from a financial perspective, and in terms of travel time. (In the end I didn't go to St. Louis for other reasons, but had I gone, I would have certainly traveled between them by bus, not plane.)
Even for larger distances, it may be worthwhile to go by bus instead of by plane. For example, from Cleveland to Chicago, to fly takes an hour and a half (plus security, check in, etc...) and costs around $240. Taking a bus costs between $30 and $40, and takes between 6 and 8 hours. This, obviously, is a harder decision than deciding whether to take a bus or plane between Kansas City and St. Louis. Factors to consider- how pressed for time are you? Are you able to sleep on buses? If so, can you travel overnight and sleep on the bus, so you don't waste many hours of your day traveling instead of doing other things? Are you shorter on cash and don't mind longer traveling time so your costs are 85% less?
Another option you might not have considered is taking a train, such as Amtrak. You don't necessarily save travel time by going on a train- it'll typically take as long to travel by train as it would by bus (Cleveland to Chicago is 7 hours travel time), but it is more comfortable, with larger seats that can recline, the ability to walk around to different cars on the train, but can cost twice as much as a bus ride (Cleveland to Chicago is $85-$110) though still much cheaper than airfare. Note that for some routes, travel time is even longer than traveling by bus (Kansas City to St Louis costs $30-$50 and takes nearly 6 hours.)
In short, before you travel, don't automatically assume that one option is the best- check train, bus, and airfare options to your various destinations, compare cost and travel time, and only then decide which is preferable.
(I know I didn't include transportation via car, because it really depends on current gas prices, whether your car is a gas guzzler or not, wear and tear on your car, and if you have to rent a car or have your own car...)


Buying Your Ticket Cheaply
In addition to choosing your method of transportation, once you've settled how you'll be traveling , here are some ways to keep down their costs.

Use a price comparison website to find and book your tickets. I used Orbitz.com to book my plane tickets, and Kayak.com is another that you can use, among others. These sites show you the many different flight options available from one location to another, and you can have them listed in order from lowest fare to highest, so you can make sure to pay as little as possible. For busing, GoToBus.com will price compare bus routes for some locations, but for many locations you'll need to do the price comparison on your own.
Fortunately, apparently because of the economy's downturn, it looks like more and more bus companies are opening up, providing more competition and lowering the prices, so there isn't generally that much of a disparity between the prices with different companies. Here are 4 companies and the fares I saw they had listed for transport between Washington D.C. and New York City- Boltbus- $15, Megabus- $11, Tripper Bus- $27, and Greyhound- $38- and purchasing much in advance lowers the price to $16. This, of course, isn't an exhaustive list of all the intercity bus lines- Google the name of the cities you need to travel between along with the word "bus company" and you'll be able to find out your available options.

With all travel options, it is almost always cheaper to book in advance. Last minute, prices almost always go up. I know that when I was traveling to the US, it took me about a week and a half from when I started looking at tickets to when I actually booked, and in that time, my flight went up about 300-400 dollars. Booking as much in advance as possible is nearly always guaranteed to save money. Even with bus companies, there often is a large difference in pricing if you buy at the bus station, vs buying online, vs buying online over a week in advance. Amtrak fares also are lower if booked in advance.

When traveling to one city, it may sometimes pay to fly from a different airport in a nearby city, as smaller airports often have cheaper airlines flying there, which can save large amounts on the fare. For example, in New York, flying to and from La Guardia typically works out cheaper than flying from JFK. In Cleveland, flying to Akron, Ohio, is often cheaper than flying to John Hopkins Airport. And getting flights to and from Midway Airport in Chicago is generally cheaper than to and from O'Hare. But none of these are a guarantee. In short, when flying from one destination to another, check prices and tickets from all the airports within the general area that you are flying to and from, and don't just limit yourself to the airports that people "typically" fly from.

Speaking of which... when I was in Chicago and needed to fly to Kansas City, I ended up missing my flight because I ended up going to O'Hare airport instead of to Midway airport. So while this isn't exactly a frugal tip, its a tip to help you hopefully not waste money- at the very least, a full day before you travel, check to see exactly where your flight is leaving from and where it is arriving, including which airport (don't automatically assume there is only one in a city- that was my mistake I made on my trip to Chicago), so you don't end up needing to book another flight with another company because taking a later flight with the airline you already were flying with would make you miss an engagement...

When flying, if you use a credit card like TD Aeroplan that gives you airline miles when you use the card, you might even end up with a free trip, though you'll want to be careful to not be tempted to overspend because it is much easier to do so when just swiping a card.

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No matter how you're traveling, whether by plane, bus, or train, before booking your ticket, Google the name of the company you're traveling with (like Greyhound) along with the words "coupon code" or "promo code" to see if there are codes you can apply to your purchase to give you a discount.
Additionally, take advantage of discounts you can get with any of your travel methods- check if they have a student discount, a senior citizen's discount, a military discount, etc...

When you're looking to book your tickets, try checking out a few different dates, if you are flexible in your travel time. Often, certain times of the day and different days of the week will cost differently, and you can save money by changing your travel dates.


Luggage

If you can, bring only carry on luggage, since most airlines are starting to charge money for checked luggage. You usually can bring a personal item and a piece of carry on luggage, so it pays to make your personal item be larger bag, like a tote, instead of a smaller pocketbook, since you can fit more things in it, and bring more that way.
Additionally, if you're bringing big and bulky things, like coats, heavy sweaters, boots, or other things that take up a lot of room, it is worthwhile to wear them onto the flight (you can take them off once you get on if you're too hot) to save room in your carry on luggage.
Another benefit of skipping the checked luggage is that you can then feel comfortable flying with cheaper airlines that may have a reputation for losing luggage. I did fly with a cheap airline when I flew to the US, despite my friends warning me that they'd lose my luggage. (Fortunately, they didn't.) In general, it is a good idea to not bring things with you in your checked in luggage that are important to you and that you worry will get lost- leave them home or bring them in your carry on.
It also is smart to sign up for some sort of luggage insurance/protection, like Blue Ribbon Bags (which, for 5 dollars, if your luggage is missing for 4 days, you automatically, no questions asked, get a check for $1000 in the mail), and once you have that done, you can go with cheaper airlines and not stress about the "what ifs" regarding potential lost luggage.

Alternatively...

And if you're really adventurous, you might want to look into car sharing, or lift sharing, or what is also known as pre-arranged hitchhiking. When I was living in the US, I posted in my local community's online message board that I was looking for a ride to x location, and was able to get a ride there with someone who was a friend of a friend, and therefore I could check out their references. I'm not sure I would be brave enough to try it with complete strangers, but if you don't mind traveling in a car with a stranger, either for free or splitting the cost of gas, if you're in the US, you can check out Ridester.com, WeShareLift.com, CarPoolWorld.com, and LiftSurfer.com. If you're in the UK, you can check out Carpooling.co.uk, in Australia, CoSeats.com, in New Zealand, CarPoolNZ.org, in South Africa FindALift.Co.Za. Whatever country you live in, Google the name of your country and "ride sharing" to find websites specializing in that. Most of these sites do require registering in advance, so it is definitely safer than just hitching with a stranger at the side of the road.

Safe travels!

How often do you travel, and for what purpose, usually? What are your tips to keep down the costs of traveling? Have you used any of these tips? 

6 comments:

  1. This is a good list of tips, and I just have a few to add: I agree that it might be cheaper to skip luggage checks, but on the other hand if you're flying as a family it might make more sense to pack one big bag than to take up 2 or 3 overheads. Certainly, if you're not travelling by plane, packing one big bag for 2 or 3 people will save you a lot of aggravation if your husband is as prone to leaving things behind as mine is ;-) Also, and this goes double if you're using a bargain-airfare company, check the baggage policies before buying the ticket. Read the fine print. You may find that what you thought was a $45 flight ends up costing $100 after all the fees have been accounted for.

    And, having ridden a lot of the so-called "Chinatown buses" in my day, you really ought to post a warning about them: yes, their cost to you may be bottom dollar, but that's because the bus companies skimp on a lot of things that they shouldn't--giving the drivers enough time to sleep and eat, basic maintenance, and I am 100% certain that the drivers break every speed limit they can get away with. My friend was once taking a Chinatown bus from DC to Philly to come visit me, but she ended up taking Amtrak because, in her words, "A police officer came on board and told everybody to get off, because the brakes were being held together with a wire coat hanger." Now, personally, I've never had a problem with the Chinatown buses, other than the fact that, at certain hours of the day, they tend to be free-for-alls and seating is not guaranteed. But their spotty safety record is the main reason I'll be sticking with Greyhound and Peter Pan for my bus trips in the US.

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    1. Thanks for your input. I'm not sure that the companies I listed, like MegaBus and BoltBus are the equivalent of what you're calling "Chinatown buses"- I am pretty sure they have as good of a reputation as Greyhound, if not better.

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    2. No, Bolt and MegaBus also fall under Chinatown buses. MegaBus has been involved in one or two grisly accidents a few years back that I know of, and probably more, since then. Greyhound, IME, tends to feel cheap and the buses can be a little...shall we say, pungent. But they're not running buses 200 miles every 30 minutes, and the drivers don't speed like crazy.

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    3. Unfortunately, Greyhound isn't any better in terms of accidents (according to google). Statistically, flying is safer than driving. Either way, everyone should do their own research before deciding how to travel.

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  2. Great tips...I'm hoping to figure out a way to use them this summer!

    I recently traveled by Boltbus. We arrived early in both directions, the bus was very, very clean (it looked like a plane's coach cabin from the inside), and the price was OUTSTANDING even before the Living Social price I secured.

    But I have to admit my absolute way to travel is by train. Best leg room, often great views, you can get lots of work done, the people are friendly. It doesn't feel like killing time in transit...it feels like part of the trip.

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  3. One thing that I have to factor when traveling with my husband is legroom... He is really tall and during our "poor student" days, we once travelled by bus with eurolines for 14 hours straight. There was even less leg room than in airplanes !!! It was a pain for him the whole time :'( So... no cheap buses for us anymore.

    During this trip, I was also quite worried about safety, the drivers started to break any road rules once we entered our country of arrival. Like not stopping at redlights... O__O The drivers also kept opening their window to smoke while still inside the bus. I was both cold & digusted by the smell of smoke. All in all, eurolines was a bad experince for me. It was cheap, but I don't want to go that cheap anymore :S

    I also tried long distance buses in UK. I was very unlucky to be there on the hottest day of the year (I think), the AC of the bus couldn't handle it anymore, and it was so so so hot inside the bus... I really thought I was going to faint. But... the driver couldn't take it anymore neither, so we ended up making an unplanned stop to get some air / water... I ended up buying a train ticket for the return... (which was much more expensive but I just couldn't imagine doing the same thing again).

    In Asia, I traveled just fine with long distance buses which were very confortable (and the driver stops like every 2 hours to allow to get to bathrooms / buy food etc.) :)

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