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Friday, March 16, 2012

Thrifty Travels - How to save big on vacations and still feel like a high roller

Lately I've been doing a lot of traveling. This is due to the fact that my boyfriend, Malibu Ken, lives 1500 miles away. We manage to see each other about once each month, however this adds up to mega traveling. I've just completed my first trip where my airfare was fully paid for via frequent flier miles, so I feel like I now am officially an expert on the subject of travel. Let me share.

See, I'm clearly a trustworthy traveler... I take cheesy tourist photos in front of  Rodeo Drive signs in Beverly Hills, you should definitely trust me....

When people think about traveling, they mostly consider the major expense of airline tickets and hotels, and yes, this is expensive, but there are many other "gotcha" expenses that get added in. Airport parking, travel to and from the airport, meals out, convenience items at the airport or on the plane, and travel accessories are just a few of the extra costs of travel.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the costs incurred from traveling to see my honey. Did I mention, he travels just as much (if not more frequently) to see me. Plus it doesn't hurt that I get to travel to sunny Southern California to spend time with him. Not to mention that we both are lucky to live in big cities, so we get to plan to do some really neat things duirng our visits. And we have both been blessed with great jobs that allow us to carry on with this lifestyle. But with all those bonuses, it's important that we handle our finances with care. We certainly look forward to many years together, and after this special time period of 'jet setting' is over, then I hope we have done a good job of using our money wisely and preparing for our future together. So after all that rambling, here are some tips we have learned in the last year. 

Pick an airline and stick with it. My bff of the moment is Southwest (and no, Southwest is not paying me to promote them... I don't think that 18 followers on Google reader really constitutes this blog as worthy of paid advertising). For flights from HOU-LAX, we quickly learned that Southwest was the consistently the best value for our money, and with pretty frequent direct flights, no baggage fees, and flights from HOU instead of IAH (which is farther for me), they are the big winners in my book. When I first started dating Malibu Ken, I made the mistake of searching Expedia and booking a trip with Delta, and although I don't have anything against Delta, I wish I would have flown that trip with Southwest, adding to my airline miles. Because... After about a year of faithfully flying Southwest, I earned a free ticket! Imagine me rollin' through the airport with my hard side flower print spinner carry on... I'm all "High roller right here folks, coming through..." 
No not really (maybe a little bit). 
I thought you would want to know what my carry on looked like, so here it is (the one with the aqua flowers). I know you all want one now, so it's from Overstock. 

Plan Ahead. This is pretty much the theme of all savings tips. But it really really pays off when it comes to air travel. I'm signed up for the Southwest weekly emails announcing sales and deals, and like the deal stalker that I am, I check every. single. one. of those dang emails and perform a search from their website looking for the flight I'm interested in. This requires us to plan about 3 months in advance for all our trips and requires us to re-book flights sometimes 2 or 3 times before we actually ever make the trip, as sales sometimes fluctuate and prices continue to drop (another reason I like Southwest - no fees to re-book). In the end, we average about $230 per trip on airfare. For a 1500 mile direct flight, I'm thinking that's not too shabby. 
Planning ahead pays off when it comes to hotels too. We end up staying in hotels a fair amount. Not in Houston obvi, but when we I visit LA, because it makes more sense to stay in the city where all the action is instead of the desert where Malibu Ken lives, and there isn't even a Starbucks (sorry babe, you know I love LA). We've also gotten the unique opportunity to be able to meet up with each other when one of us is on a business trip in a cool place like Savannah or San Francisco. We typically extend the trip for a few days for the actual visit since one of us is working (duh, it's a business trip). So this also requires us to book a hotel. We usually book the hotels pretty far in advance as well. I'll get into that process a little later. 

Do your research. Also, another common tip for thrify-ness. This comes into play mostly in the hotel arena. Here is our scheme. We go on and sort on the hotels in the area we want to stay based on "guest rating". We find that the traveler reviews are better indicators than stars just because they are real people's reviews based on real experiences, not how many restaurants are inside the hotel or some other random point system that is used to determine how hotels get their stars. From the list sorted best to worst traveler reviews, I skip over the hotels that are out of our price range and open up each hotel in our price range starting from the one with the best ratings. The key here is to find the happy medium between price and and rating. When reading the reviews, I look for things like free parking, free breakfast, free coffee, free internet, noise level, cleanliness level, and customer service. When selecting a hotel, beware of fees for extras like internet and parking. When comparing hotels, choosing one that includes these things can save up to $50 per night.  I also look for manager responses to the reviews. It is a good sign when the hotel manager takes a moment to read the reviews and respond to the comments. 
As you can see hotels with virtually the same guest ratings have prices that vary greatly

Don't be afraid to ask. Once we have narrowed down the hotel we'd like, Malibu Ken makes a call to the hotel's direct line and asks to book the hotel at the same price they've advertised on (He takes such good care of me) We do this because we want to protect ourselves if plans change. Hotels are non-refundable or have a penalty fee for cancellations if booked from Expedia or So just in case something happens, we'd like to avoid these charges. 100% of the time, and sometimes after negotiating a bit (thanks, babe), we get the deal listed on the discount site. So far, we've never had to cancel, but you never know what can happen. 

Sign up for ALL the rewards memberships. Hotels, airlines, rental cars... ALL of them. And make sure your membership is tied to your reservation prior to your trip. I'm not particularly married to any particular hotel chain, especially because hotel prices vary so much. I just feel it's best to cover all my bases. We got a free night in Ventura (near the biggest outlet mall of my life) last year which we paid for by combining our hotel membership points for that certain hotel chain. We've learned our lesson by not doing this one or two times, thinking "oh when am I going to stay in a Doubletree again?". And I'm still kicking myself when I realized that I did indeed stay in a Hilton again on another trip. 
Another perk of the memberships is you get little freebies here and there.... free water bottles at check in etc. It's not a lot, but hey, who doesn't enjoy a free water bottle after a long flight?
Another place where this paid off big time was at airport parking. I use the preflight parking garage at HOU (there is also one at IAH) and get rewarded with 1 free day for every 5 days spent parked. Over the last year or so, I've earned 374 points, which equates to 9 free days of parking (about a $72 savings).

Sign up for Groupon and Living Social. As soon as you know you'll be visiting a city, sign up for  the Groupon and Living Social deals of the day. Sure, your inbox will be flooded with daily deals, and you'll spend about 5 minutes every morning sorting through them, but it's totally worth it. Have you caught on yet? SAVING MONEY TAKES TIME. Oh you wanted to save tons of money without having to lift a finger? That's super interesting because I'd really like to lose 10 pounds without ever having to exercise or watch what I eat...
So anyway, Malibu Ken and I have gotten some really sweet deals and enjoyed some very nice meals through these sites. Groupons, coupons, I got 'em all and I'm not afraid to use them!
Dinner in Beverly Hills? Ummm yes please!
So I think I've covered all the major lessons I've learned during this journey. Does anyone have any other tips that I haven't discovered yet?

Peace, Love, and early boarding,