I love to travel. I love to to stay in nice hotels, eat delicious food, drink good wine (or beer or cocktails) and take cool tours. Unfortunately, I am not a millionaire, so friends will understandably ask, “How can you afford to travel so often?” There is no one simple answer to this question, but there are some tried and true strategies we’ve employed over the years that I’d like to share with you. (If seven strategies aren't enough for you, then here are five more.)
What is shoulder season? It’s the transition time between peak and off-peak season for a popular destination. For example, where I live in Southern California, peak season in the Palm Desert area is December through March or April. This is when the “snow-birds” from around the U.S. and Canada come to the desert to thaw out from their icy winters. Rates at the best hotels start at $300 a night, and that’s for a parking lot view in the room next to the elevator. If you are willing to brave the desert heat in off peak summer months of June through September, then you can find some excellent deals at four and five star hotels, often starting at $125. Do a little research and the deals might include credit towards the resort’s restaurants, waived resort fee or free parking. For avid and determined golfers like my husband, green fees during the summer are ridiculously low. We’ve taken advantage of these sort of deals and just accept that we will walk (or run) quickly from our air conditioned hotel room straight into the pool with a swim up bar. Shoulder season in the desert are those few months outside peak and off-peak, and hotel rates will vary accordingly. It all depends on your preferences for price, level of accommodations and weather.
In addition to the cost savings, traveling during shoulder or off-peak season can reward you with the additional benefit of no crowds. Several years ago we took a family vacation to Costa Rica the week after Easter which essentially meant that all the spring breaks in the U.S. were over. The weather was lovely, the hotel rates were low and we had tours completely to ourselves. For the first time in our lives we were able to afford a hotel room that included our own plunge pool and an ocean view--I felt like we joined an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The resort was so empty that we didn’t see another guest for two days.
Maximize Points on Your Credit Cards
My husband and I have only recently dived into the world of “points hacking,” or “travel hacking”, but we’ve already reaped the benefits. So far our favorite cards are from Chase. First we acquired the Chase Sapphire Card and were rewarded 50,000 points after a $3,000 spend and then we acquired the Chase Reserve Card and were rewarded with 100,000 points after another $3,000 spend. While this specific promotion is no longer available, I encourage you to look out for similar deals. I’m not going to cover this topic in depth since there are so many great blogs out there that provide terrific details. But if you have a good credit score, and are disciplined enough to pay off your balances, then this money saving strategy could be for you.
Deals, Discounts and Promotions
Every morning my email inbox is full of travel deals, discounts and promotions from companies like TravelZoo, Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial. Now I must admit that I become a bit obsessed reading these and start to plan trips to places I did not previously know existed, but I have also found some amazing offers. The Costa Rica trip mentioned above included a hotel promotion purchased through Groupon. Our trip to Costa Rica was already in the works, but the discount offered was to a hotel that I knew nothing about. After doing some research, I realized that the Groupon offer was a really good deal and I purchased it. To this day, my kids rate that trip as their favorite, due in part to the hotel.
I’ll admit that I don’t use these types of sites often to book airfare or hotels, because I prefer to book with loyalty programs (airlines frequent flyers, hotel rewards programs, etc.). Where these deals and discounts are most interesting to me is in the tours, entertainment, spas, and dining area. TravelZoo is especially helpful for trips to Las Vegas. Several times we’ve purchased discounted show tickets and dinners to top restaurants. Searching Groupon in the area I’ll be visiting can net discounted food tours, dinners and other local entertainment. San Diego has become a hub of the craft beer scene, and Groupon regularly offers special deals to breweries and brewpubs in the area.
There are some membership groups--like AAA and Costco--that offer their members discounts on hotels, tours and attractions. If you belong to one of these, then definitely look into their discount programs.
Take Advantage of Loyalty Programs
Airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and cruise lines all offer loyalty programs. These are worth your time to sign up for and do the research on how to maximize them in order to receive discounts. Some of the programs can be quite complex and cross over into the points and travel hacking category described above. But since these are always free to register, it can’t hurt to sign-up and then figure out how it can save you money.
Two of my favorite loyalty programs are Hotels.com and Rapid Rewards (the frequent flyer program of Southwest Airlines). Hotels.com has one of the simplest propositions; purchase ten hotel nights through their site and get one free. The value of the free night is determined by the average of the ten purchased nights. I have traveled the world with Hotels.com and am rarely disappointed. While I am deeply devoted to TripAdvisor for reviews, I have found Hotels.com ratings to be quite accurate. I have also found their customer service to be excellent. In the past seven years that I’ve been using Hotels.com I estimate that I’ve earned almost $1,500 in free hotel nights.
Rapid Rewards is probably the most straight forward frequent flyer program in existence. Accumulate points and use them for any flight they offer. Need to cancel a flight booked with points? No problem, it can all be done online and the points are returned to your account immediately. While I think highly of Southwest Airlines customer service agents, I’ve never needed one to assist me with booking rewards travel. I wish I could say this about other airlines.
Look for Free and Low Cost Activities
During our trip to Copenhagen last year, Jason and I had an unplanned day and were searching our computers for options. He discovered a free walking tour later the same day. We signed-up and set off to check it out. We thought that if we didn’t like it, we would just leave the tour. It turned out to be one of our favorite parts of our trip to Denmark. Daniel was our guide and he was excellent, both funny and informative. The way these tours work is that you tip your guide at the end in the amount of your choosing. While I realize this isn’t completely free, it is well worth the tip in exchange for how much you can learn. This summer we tried again in Iceland and were also pleased with the tour given by Johannes. I have since found a website, Freetour.com, that links to cities all over the world.
Its also worth doing your research before starting your trip. In some parts of the world, museums are quite pricey while in other places, they are free. In Seoul, South Korea, most of the museums are free. In Washington D.C., all of the Smithsonian museums are free. A few years ago I visited the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and discovered that admission and the audio tour were free. Even in a city like Los Angeles you can find excellent free museums like the Getty, Getty Villa, and the Broad. I recently read a great blog post about 62 free things to do in the very pricey city of New York.
Weather permitting, many major cities also offer beautiful, large parks that are free--Stanley Park in Vancouver, Central Park in New York, Millenium Park in Chicago, and Balboa Park in San Diego are just a few examples.
You’ve probably noticed a common thread through all of these recommendations--they can be time consuming. The research necessary to find better priced airfare, hotel rooms, tours and attractions takes time. But the investment of time over the course of a year can save you thousands of dollars. What I like in this trade-off is that I get to travel in comfort and I get to travel more frequently. That’s worth it!