Cheap travel tricks: Get off the grid


Sure, websites and aps offer lots of great deals, but don’t forget about these old-fashioned tactics that can save you big.

New York Times

You’ve mastered the art of modern travel savings: Your airfare alerts are set up on Kayak; you flit around Europe on cheap carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair (with vacuum-packed clothing in a carry-on to avoid baggage fees). You stay in apartments rented through Airbnb when you’re not bunking with locals through CouchSurfing, bidding on Priceline or snapping up last-minute rooms on HotelTonight. From the remotest corners of the earth, you stay in touch with your significant other over Gchat and your folks over Skype — when Grandma will let you off FaceTime, that is.

You could probably shave a few more cents off travel costs by downloading five new apps and bookmarking 10 new sites. But in 2013, the real savings will come to those who go retro — not by sending postcards with actual stamps (that’s what the Postagram app is for), but by stepping away from the screen, or using it differently, to find old-fashioned tactics that can save you big.

Here are nine old-school tips for getting the most out of your travel buck this year.

•  Pick up the phone. We think we can get everything done online these days, but sometimes a simple phone call is your best bet for saving money.

Speak with an innkeeper and learn of potential discounts on extended stays or information on how to get there from the airport by public transit. Contact the specific location where you’ll pick up your rental car and reserve a compact to avoid getting “upgraded” to a bigger vehicle that will increase (sometimes even double) your gas costs. Call travel agencies that strike special deals with airlines to get you prices below anything you’ll find online.

•  Choose cheap countries. Goodbye Norway, hello Bolivia. Or as Gary Arndt of the Everything Everywhere blog put it, “Cheapest dorm bed in Zurich = nice room in Bangkok.” Extrapolate that to tour guides, museum entries, food and more, and the savings start to add up.

Of course, keep in mind how much it will cost you to get there in the first place. Luckily, a lot of the cheaper countries are also cheap to fly to; Matthew Kepnes, the blogger known as Nomadic Matt, put together a list of 10 “Cheap Places to Travel on the U.S. Dollar,” which includes Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru, Hungary and Romania.

Another option: put together the 10 places you’d most like to go and price out the basics — a task most easily done by browsing guides in the travel section of your local bookstore.

•  Splurge when it matters. Most travelers will never be across-the-board cheapskates. Street food, nosebleed theater seats and bunk beds are not for everyone. But you don’t have to be a purist. For each trip, decide on a themed splurge or two — transportation, food, arts, lodging — and save on the rest.

You don’t need to fly business class, stay at the Four Seasons, sit in the front row on Broadway and have the 27-course tasting menu at Chez Truffle. You’ll be surprised what a thrill it is to ride a crowded public bus to a Michelin-starred restaurant, or step out of a Vienna youth hostel gussied up for the Opera Ball.

•  Pick up the local paper. No listings are more up-to-the-minute than Friday arts supplements, alternative weeklies or the local editions of Time Out magazine (now free in London, by the way). Get ’em on actual paper while they last. You’ll not only find the nontouristy (read: cheaper) scene laid out for you in one handy package, but often come across coupons or specials you certainly won’t find on Yelp.

•  No More SIM swaps. Cellphones aren’t exactly old-school, but here’s what is: attempting the complicated dance of swapping out SIM cards as you cross borders or choosing among the confusing options for international SIM cards. In 2012, though, most big American cellular providers came out with reasonably priced international overseas data and texting plans. I once used SIM cards from around the world; my collection is now gathering (tiny amounts of) dust atop my bureau now that I’m a happy customer of AT&T’s international package.

Actual phone calls are still expensive, though, so be sure you’ve got money in your Skype or Google Voice accounts to call for that restaurant reservation.

•  Adjust your mental budget. Appalled that a romantic weekend getaway for two will cost you $1,000? Don’t worry; it won’t.

For some reason, people always assume that the alternative to travel is to stay home and spend nothing. Instead, you should be subtracting what they save by not being home. Surely you would have gone out for dinner and a movie one night, at least, so knock off $100. Add in gas, groceries, electricity, etc., and you’ve got at least another $50. Your weekend now cost $850.

•  Use a guidebook — your own. I still carry a Moon or Lonely Planet or Frommer’s travel guide around when I travel — as backup, if nothing else. But those books are pricey, and there’s so much free information online that, with a little copying and pasting (and printing out), you can come pretty close to matching them with your own bespoke travel guide. So, in a retro twist, no Wi-Fi needed.

Even better, turn it into a PDF file (easily done through programs like Microsoft Word) and send it to your tablet device. I’ll admit that some additional technology can make things even easier: helps you create a guide with maps that can be printed or retrieved on your mobile device, and TripAdvisor’s new City Guides allows you to download 60 cities’ worth of maps, information and user reviews to be used offline, free.

•  Buy direct. There was a time not so long ago when we bought airline tickets by calling airlines instead of logging onto sites like Travelocity and Expedia.

Southwest long ago opted out of those online travel agencies, but other airlines are edging away from them as well. In other words, buying direct is coming back, only nowadays in online form. George Hobica, founder of Airfare Watchdog, has been seeing more and more airlines offer special fares that show up only on their own websites, or restrict certain features (like seat selection or discounts on checked luggage) to those who book directly through them.

“It’s more important than ever for consumers to sign up for the airlines’ email feeds to get promo codes and sale fares,” Hobica said.

•  Stay put. No, this is not another call for the by-now cliched “staycation,” in which you explore your wonderful home city as a tourist. (This is why we have weekends.) It’s simply a call for less frantic trips.

Sure, you could use discount airlines to dash between London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Florence during your two-week break. Instead, try staying a week in just two of the places you most want to go. You’ll reduce transportation costs, get discounts on metro passes and longer-term lodging and, best of all, find local spots you’d never come across on a rushed attempt to tick off top tourist attractions.

Frequent the same restaurant and you might even get a dessert on the house once the staff starts to recognize you.

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