Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tips for traveling cheaply, part I

Jon and I do a lot of international travel. Why not? I come up with such good deals, it's stupid to stay home! Because of this, many of my friends ask me to find similar deals for them on the spot. Can't be done. You need to do your homework and that can take weeks or months.

Since 2003, here's some of the prices I've come up with for airfare and hotel:
  • Pasco, Washington, to London, 7 nights in a three-star hotel in great location, breakfast included, $800 pp.
  • Pasco to Nice, France, 7 nights in a tourist hotel, $800 pp.
  • Pasco to Munich, 7 nights in a three-star, $735 pp.
  • Portland to Beijing, 5 nights in a three-star, breakfast included, $750 pp
  • Pasco to Shanghai, 10 nights in a three-star, $1,050 pp.
  • Portland to Beijing, 12 nights in a three-star. $1,230 pp.
  • Pasco to London, 6 nights in a three-star in Birmingham and 7 nights in a four-star in London Kensington, $1,100 pp.

When we start thinking about an international trip, I start checking prices about three months ahead. If you're flexible on dates, you can pick up some really great bargains. When I was working a full-time job, I could only get a week off at a time, so we tried to leave on Saturday returning the second Sunday, which would give us nine days. But sometimes this was too expensive, so I looked at leaving other days of the week.

All but two of the trips were booked with online travel agencies, such as Go-today.com, Expedia or Travelocity. They'll give discounts if you buy a hotel/air fare package; sometimes, the combined price is cheaper than what the airlines want for just a ticket. On the long Beijing trip, we bought air tickets separately, and I negotiated a discount directly with the hotel because there were four of us going and we wanted to spend the whole time in one hotel. On the longer English trip, we used frequent flyer miles for the tickets (we still had to pay taxes and fees); I booked the Birmingham hotel through Expedia and the London one through priceline.com.

The cheap trips are after exploring all possible pricing options. I've booked a couple of trips through Go-today.com. When we travel, we like to base ourselves in one city, and then take day trips. Go-today.com sometimes has great prices for short trips, if all you want is airfare and hotel. They include breakfast in any package, and you can make up your own tour program with tours they have available. We don't go for any of the extras, because they're quite a bit more expensive than what you pay if you book at your destination. But I usually start my travel pricing with them so I'll have ball park figures to work with.

I always check the airlines' websites to see what they're charging for tickets. I like it that you can stipulate flexible dates for travel. I'll then run the cheapest dates by online travel agents to see what they can come up with in an air/hotel combination. I'll do this maybe once or twice a month in the early planning stages of our trip, then weekly and finally daily the closer it gets to our desired departure date. I'll also run price checks on leaving on different days of the week as well as the same day in weeks before and after. For example, the Munich package was only good on one specific date. Prices for the day before or after were almost $1,000 per person more. So guess when we went!

Finding cheap deals takes a lot of work. It depends on how much your time is worth to you. For us, the extra time is worth it because we save so much money. It means we can spend more at our destination or on our next trip.

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