I love to explore the globe. I detest spending money. Thus, I have a problem. My challenge is further complicated because my globetrotting tastes are more Chardonnay than Bud Light. When flying, I naturally gravitate toward the mysterious world on the other side of that curtain dividing first class and well … everyone else. (Does anybody know? … What are they doing up there?)
It is the same with hotels—the more stars the better. As quaint as it is for Tom Bodett to leave the light on for me, I would rather a British-brogued concierge provide me with nightly turndown service and a Godiva chocolate. Sorry, Tom. As a follow-up to CHEAP WAYS TO TRAVEL, here are a few of my own well-tested schemes for adventuring in style without burning the cash. I offer these in honor of every fellow dreamer who has attempted in vain to get bumped to first class.
In spite of a bad rap, online travel auction sites can offer great value. For hotels, my favorite is Priceline. While occasionally I ace a good airfare through them (saving 20-25 percent), I am absolutely giddy over the hotel deals I receive. My wife and I once stayed in Miami for an extra day after a cruise, and we snagged a classy five-star hotel for about the price of your average neon-clad motel. Driving past the valet’s stretch of Mercedes in our Honda Accord, we did feel slightly out of our element. But it was an adrenaline rush to know we had paid a fourth of the cost of the folks in the room next door. You must be flexible on your precise location, but I consistently save 40-60 percent (more if you compare it to the rack rate).
Priceline has a decent track record with rental cars as well. Unlike hotels, it seems fairly limited to metropolitan destinations.
A few hybrid sites are worth investigating. Ebay has stepped up their travel offering with the recently revealed ebaytravel.com site. It is an assortment of individuals working the system by trading travel vouchers and mileage points, mainstream travel auctions, and flat price “buy now” options. It may take a little more rummaging around, but steals are available. Another hybrid is Hotwire. Like Priceline, you must be flexible on flight times because both the name of the airline and flight schedule are not revealed until after the ticket is purchased. However, unlike Priceline, they give you a firm price for your selected itinerary and then give you an hour to make a decision. I usually check Hotwire’s price and then jump over to Priceline to place a bid for $50 less. I told you – I’m a cheapskate.
[MOVING ON UP]
Contrary to popular opinion, upgrades are available. It may not be the crown jewel – a leap from the cattle section deceptively known as “coach” to the lush nirvana of first class, but widening your search can pay off. Hotels will often upgrade your room if it is available – especially something simple like a king bed, a better view or a day suite. Rental car companies will sometimes upgrade if you ask in advance, and those coupons stuffed in your monthly credit card statement are always good for at least one move up the vehicle scale. You can upgrade your dining experience by grabbing the Entertainment Book, a coupon book available in most destinations. In larger cities, there will be a section of three or four-star restaurants with “buy one/get one free” offers. The book’s average price is $20, but one dinner at a classy establishment covers your cost.
[MAKE ‘EM WORK]
My wife Miska’s long dream had been to take a Caribbean cruise. I agreed it was a great idea until I priced the trip. Miska insisted I persist, and I found two cruise agencies, each advertising a low price guarantee. I called the first agent, asking for their very best package. I then called the second agency and the price moved lower. I only felt it fair sportsmanship to allow the first company one last crack. True to their guarantee, they again reduced their rate. I could have taken this too far, continuously playing one against the other. That isn’t the idea. However, if a company promotes its willingness to compete for your business, you should let them.
[JOIN THE CROWD]
This contrasts a popular—and true—caveat of budget travel. You can save airfare by picking “dead times,” the less frequented days or seasons of travel. However, if you pick the most heavily booked flights, you can switch your strategy. Airlines attempt to overbook every flight, and many of their most populated routes routinely require them to bump passengers. When they do, federal regulations require they provide compensation. It is common for them to offer a voucher for future travel (normally starting around $200 and going as high as $600, increasing the bait to entice volunteers), a food per diem, and a hotel room if you get bumped to a flight the following day. On one trip, Miska and I took their offer and paid for a cross-country trek later that year with the vouchers we received. We were hooked and now have a standing agreement to take a bump anytime it is offered. Some tireless travelers adjust their entire itinerary around an attempt to get bumped. I’m not that zealous…yet.
[DON’T JUST HANG UP]
Like everyone else, I am annoyed when telemarketers interrupt dinner, TV, my monopoly game, mowing the yard – you get the idea. If they plow through our subtle hints that we aren’t interested, we treat them to the dial tone. However, sometimes telemarketers do have something worth listening to. If you are willing to endure a high-pressured sales pitch for a couple hours, you can have a weekend getaway on them. Many new resorts offer two nights in one of their showcases just for sitting in your seat. They dramatically weave a tale of how different your life would have been if your parents had purchased a time-share in Orlando before Mickey hit the big time. The implication is that your life was ruined, but you don’t have to make the same mistake with your kids. We took advantage of a time-share sales pitch that gave us $100 in cash. We enjoyed an upscale Italian dinner on their tab – we had already picked up a $120 a night, bay front room for $35 through Priceline. Remember, though: don’t accept these tempting offers if you are too nice to say, “no.” But if you have thick skin, these can be a great way to explore without busting your budget.
READ MORE LIFE | POST COMMENTS BELOW