Monday, March 9, 2015

The Best Strategies for Cheap Travel


When we first started vacationing as adults, I always planned for a once a year trip, just as I had growing up. That gave us ample time to plan, save, and pay for any type of vacation. After the first few years of once-a-year trips, we realized that it just wasn't enough for us. We actively missed traveling throughout the other 51 weeks of the year. We looked forward to that one week all year long. We realized that we had to figure out a way to travel more, but within our time/money/work obligations/constraints. At the beginning of every year, instead of New Years resolutions, we generally plan out our travel itinerary. 

I (Magen) look at our travel goals and plans every year like a puzzle. How do I schedule a 7 day Disney cruise, a trip to Texas for my sister's high school graduation, a four day trip to Walt Disney World with my family, a birthday tropical vacation in the summer, and a way to see the Walt Disney World Christmas lights, all with only ten vacation days a year and a limited budget? Wizardry. Just kidding. Here are some of my strategies I use to get it done.

MAKING TRAVEL A PRIORITY

This is a personal decision that you (or you and your family) can make. In a nutshell: I personally feel that travel makes a big impact on my happiness and well being, so I make it a priority over other material objects in my day-to-day life. This isn't something that is important to everyone, and you may just want to travel once a year (or once in a lifetime even) on a budget, in which all of the tips below will allow. However, if you're like me and traveling frequently is important to you, start a travel fund. Evaluate your budget and expenses to see where you can cut back to put towards travel. It might be something small like morning coffee, or less/cheaper beauty products, or something large like cancelling cable. (we're not animals here, go ahead and keep netflix and hulu.) This is all a personal choice and is sometimes harder than it sounds. If I'm looking at a new handbag but also think about the fact that the same money will pay for one night at Animal Kingdom Lodge in Disney World, I will think twice about the handbag. 

BE FLEXIBLE

This is my number one trick for cheaper travel. No matter where you go or what you'll be doing, prices will fluctuate based on days and times. 

FLIGHTS

This is the easiest way to save money. Generally, if there are several flight options throughout the day, there will be large fluctuations in price. I saw a flight from Chicago to Houston the other day for $44. FORTY FOUR DOLLARS. It was at 7:00 AM, which is really early for a flight, but the 10:00 AM flight was more than four or five times that. Now, you won't see prices that low very often, but if you're flexible with times, it will be WELL worth a four AM wake up time. 

Lots of airlines or travel websites now offer easy viewing for different days when looking at flight prices. You can quickly click through to the day before or day after your original flight date to see if there are cheaper options another day. The exact same flight on a Wednesday may cost significantly less than the flight on a Friday. Being flexible really helps in this situation. If you can leave a day earlier or a day later to save $300? Worth it. 

HOTELS

Lodging is generally a big portion of your travel bill. Just like airlines, hotel rates are volatile. Rates can drop over $100 per night depending on the date. There are many other considerations when booking hotels. Here are some high level rules of thumbs:

- Check for "seasonal calendars" for your hotel, or manually check different dates. Hotel rates fluctuate just as much as airline fares do based on a number of factors that you may or may not be aware of, like a conference in town.
- Weeknights are generally cheaper than weekend nights.
- Hotel prices will be higher near holidays. 
- Travel sites like Expedia and Orbitz sometimes offer really great deals and you can easily check out different dates using these websites to get the best deal. Sometimes they're non-refundable so before booking a non-refundable hotel stay, check on flight prices and times to make sure you can make it there! 

RACKING UP REWARDS POINTS

This might make some people uncomfortable, but I use credit cards and frequent flyer programs to rack up rewards points. My top two tips are:

TRY TO USE ONLY ONE AIRLINE

Find an airline that flies out of your nearest airport. I chose Southwest Airlines because they are the most customer friendly. (They don't charge change fees, no baggage fee, no blackout dates or seats with rewards points.) Try to stick to that same airline for any trips you take to generate rewards points. We even make our destination decisions based on where Southwest flies. (They add more and more all the time!) We're huge Southwest Airlines fans.

GET A REWARDS CREDIT CARD

Here is the tricky part that might make some people uncomfortable. Not everyone likes to use credit cards, but if you use them wisely they can really pay off. I actually have three. But if you're nervous about the management of that, stick to just one. Chase Bank has a Southwest credit card that earns Southwest Rewards Points. There is usually some type of account opening bonus. It changes frequently but this landed me with 50,000 bonus Rewards Points. On top of the rewards that I earn while flying, and the continuous rewards earned on the card by using it, I have a pretty big stack of Rewards Points available. There are lots of credit cards out there that tailor to different airlines. Using the card and paying it off will definitely be worth it in the end. (For more info on the card and to apply click here.)

The other credit card I have is the Chase Preferred Card, which earned me 50,000 bonus points as well. This card allowed for a point for point transfer to a number of airline reward programs. Including, you guessed it, Southwest. This card will be a great option for anyone who flies other airlines. It has a number of ways to redeem points, including statement credits and cash, which could pay for hotels, flights, cars, food, etc. So now with my bonus points I have 100,000 rewards points which will pay for probably three of my trips this year. (Round trip for two people. More on how I get the cheapest flights below.) (If you're interested in this card, you can apply here. Note: this is a referral link.)

The above two had quite large bonus points at account opening, and that isn't always the case when applying. If they don't offer a promotion that large or you've already used the promotional points, how do you earn enough points to utilize? My best advice for that is to pay very close attention bonus points. The card member agreement and the rewards websites are very informative. For example, there are generally bonus point earning opportunities for certain purchase categories. I pay ANY Southwest purchases on my Southwest card. That means flights that I'm not using my rewards points for or paying for Wifi on the plane. I also try to book car rentals or hotels through Southwest Partners (through the Southwest.com website) when it makes sense, but I don't make is a priority if I find a better deal elsewhere. All of these will earn me double the points per dollar spent. There is also an anniversary bonus rewards every year. On the Chase Preferred Card, there are bonus points earned for all travel related purchases, as well as all dining. Any travel purchases that wouldn't garner me extra points on the Southwest card, I will use this card. It's also my eating out card. 

The third credit card I personally use is the Disney Premiere Visa card (also with Chase). These don't offer as much of a reward return as the above two, but if you're a regular Disney traveler, the perks might work in your favor. You get discounts off certain food and dining at Disney parks, and earn Disney Rewards Dollars (rather than points) that you can transfer onto a rewards card. The rewards card works like a refillable credit card. While this likely won't allow you to rack up enough to pay for a reservation (unless you work on it for a very long time!), I have nearly $150 in less than a year to use on anything Disney. It can go towards your room reservation, park tickets, meals, merchandise, cruises, etc. I get bonus points on the card for Disney purchases as well as gas and groceries. So I use this card for gas, groceries, and Disney. (For more info on the card and to apply click here.)

If you prefer a cash back credit card rather than points- I like the Chase Freedom card which gives you 5% bonus cash back on different "categories" each quarter. You can apply for this card here.


Do you have any tips to share? What allows you to travel cheaply and often? Please share in the comments!




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