How to Save Big Money This Travel Season
This column is called Stocks to Watch, but I often use it to share personal finance tips. It’s all related, because if you save money you have more money to invest.
I have traveled a lot in my adult life. I have lived in Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Hawaii, and several other states. My travels have taken me to 40 countries. During that time, I have picked up quite a few tips on saving money when traveling. I am often surprised to learn that many people don’t know these simple tips, but I want to share a few of them with you today.
Last weekend I booked Christmas travel for my daughter and me. I ended up saving over $1,000 on airfare and a car rental because of the tips I will share with you below.
I will typically start looking for airfares at a general travel site like Expedia (NSDQ: EXPE). However, I will then cross-check fares with Google Flights. This is a fantastic site for comparison shopping. It has a feature that can give you ticket prices from your home airport to destinations all over the world (in case you are just looking for a cheap flight to anywhere).
For example, I can specify a one-week trip from my home airport (Phoenix) at any time in the next six months, and it brings up a map that looks like this:
You can customize your trip to a specific date or duration and zoom into any part of the world. Sometimes the cheapest tickets are undesirable for one reason or another, but you’ll find good prices.
Another useful function at Google Flights is the date grid, which tells you when flights are cheaper or more expensive:
This function tends to be consistent across multiple airlines. In the graphic above, you’d generally find that the higher priced dates are the busier dates and consequently more expensive regardless of which airline you choose. If you have some flexibility in your travel, you can save money by traveling on cheaper days.
Once you find a flight you like, it pays to cross-check the site of that particular airline. For example, I wanted to book a round-trip ticket for my daughter from Honolulu (where she is a teacher) to Dallas. The initial options I found at Expedia were about $600, but there was a connection in Los Angeles.
However, when I went to the payment screen, Expedia announced that the trip price had increased to $880. This is a frequent problem I encounter with Expedia. This specific ticket was on American Airlines (NSDQ: AAL), so I went to their site and found the same ticket for $705. But I still didn’t like that price and decided to wait until the next day.
Incidentally, one tip is to go ahead and book the ticket, and then check the price the next day. If the price has dropped, you can cancel that first ticket for free within 24 hours and then re-book the cheaper ticket. I suppose you could do this every day to get the lowest possible price, assuming you want to spend the time doing it.
The next day I checked and the price had changed again. I went back to American’s site, and decided to check the “Book With Miles” option. Of course, you have to have frequent flyer miles to use this option, but you can buy them if you don’t have them. It’s not usually a good deal, but I always check.
In this case, I found two direct flights between Honolulu and Dallas that would have cost $1,200 for less than 30,000 frequent flyer miles. That is a tremendous deal. You often have to use 25,000 miles on a ticket that costs $300, so this was a huge savings. I only found this deal by checking individual one-way tickets. (Sometimes buying two one-way tickets will be cheaper than a round-trip ticket, but usually not.) There was a special on a one-way ticket from Honolulu to Dallas for 10,000 miles (a huge bargain) and a return for 19,500 miles (still a pretty good deal to Hawaii).
So instead of spending at least $700 for a ticket with connections, or $1,200 for direct flights, I used less than 30,000 in frequent flyer miles and paid a $10 service charge. This deal was only possible because I knew to jump through the right hoops.
Oh, and be sure to check those bag fees. Some airlines charge $60 to check a bag. Some discount airlines even charge to carry on a bag. Make sure your fare comparisons account for those extra charges.
In summary for getting the best airline price:
- Check Expedia
- Check Google Flights
- Compare those same ticket prices at the airline sites
- Check the price of individual one way tickets, and look at the frequent flyer options
- Be aware of those extra fees
The general advice here is similar. Check Expedia, and then check the individual car rental websites. Usually I find the best deals at Expedia, but I have saved a lot of money at times by renting straight from the car rental company.
However, there is some advice specific to car rentals that could save you money. I always slightly adjust the pickup and drop off times to see if the price changes. Sometimes, even a half hour change can make a big impact on the rental price.
For my upcoming trip, I found a mid-sized rental car for $480 a week. I adjusted the pickup time an hour earlier and an hour later and the price didn’t change. But then I changed the drop off time to an hour later, and the price dropped to $311. So I saved nearly $200 just by keeping the car an hour longer (even though I will still drop it off at the same time). I have no idea why this sort of thing happens, but it happens often with car rentals. It pays to go through this exercise.
A few other helpful tips on car rentals. If you have personal car insurance, don’t opt for the overpriced insurance at the rental counter. You may want to check with your insurance company, but you will typically be covered by them anyway when renting a car.
Don’t prepay for a tank of gas. You probably won’t return it exactly empty, and therefore you paid for gas you didn’t use. Always fill it up yourself. One thing I always do is map my return route to a gas station within 10 miles of the airport. The gas should be cheaper there than it will be near the airport, and the rental car companies are fine with fill ups that occur within 10 miles.
Also be sure to walk around your car before you drive off the lot. I have caught damage in the past that they may have tried to charge me for later if I hadn’t flagged it before leaving.
Hopefully these tips can save you a few dollars this holiday season.
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