Make it Cheap!

Round trip business class tickets to Europe - with miles - $200.  Cheap travel is awesome.
Round trip business class tickets to Europe – with miles – $200. Cheap travel is awesome.

Last year I visited six European countries and three African countries.  I also visited four American states, one of those for the first time.  It was fun.

It would have also been very, very expensive if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve for just such occasions.

At a party this weekend I was talking to quite a few people about the business of travel.  I hear a LOT of arguing about the methods it takes to get free, or nearly free travel.

  1.     I don’t travel enough to earn the miles necessary. (who does?)
  2.   My family is too big for a decent hotel room, and hell sounds like three kids and two adults in one Holiday Inn room.  ( I feel you on this one, it’s not my favorite situation either)
  3.   I’ve always wanted to train across Europe, but the Rail Europe site my google search defaults to is so expensive! (note – NEVER use Rail Europe!  NeverNeverNever!)
  4.   I don’t know where to start. (On this website!)

Every single one of these issues is super easy to fix!  It doesn’t mean that you can suddenly travel anywhere you want, whenever you want for free, because no one can do that.  Although if a genie asked me what super power I wanted, I’d jump on that one.  Just sayin’.

So, let’s do a crash beginner course on traveling the cheaper way:

1)  You hear about people with those multi-hundred thousand point balances in their airline miles account and want to hit them.  How on earth do they do it?  And why do airlines give people who obviously already travel a lot even more travel for FREE?  NOT FAIR!

Okay, fair.  Those people are spending a buttload of money and the airlines want to keep them loyal.  My husband is a frequent business traveler, and we’ve certainly benefitted from his trips.  However, the majority of our point balances do not come from his flights, but from judicious use of points reward credit cards.

Now, don’t go hog wild.  If you can’t pay off the balances you run up every month, maybe the credit option isn’t for you.  However, if you have the self-control to do so, and even better – if you’re willing to check what the monthly specials are every thirty days – you can earn HUGE amounts of points through double and triple points.  Our trip to Hawaii cost just 40,000 points per person and $10.00 from the East Coast of the US.    That’s one round trip ticket to Hawaii just as a sign up bonus from United!  Throw in the points you earn from gassing up a car at today’s prices, and you’ll be on your way to Bangkok soon enough.

A picture is worth 40,000 points
A picture is worth 40,000 points

These cards often have other options for earning points as well.  Look out for them – surveys and things like that can bring in as much as 1/4 of a domestic ticket somewhere.

And don’t rely solely on points.  If you have a flexible schedule, you can grab some amazing last minute deals – like NYC round trip for $98, or some $9 flights on airlines like Spirit Air.

And never, ever, ever underestimate the travel that can come your way through sites like Hotwire and Priceline.  If Shatner isn’t enough to convince you (and really, he should be), let me try.  I once got a hotel room on Cannery Row in Monterey for less than $40 a night.  Dude.  That’s less expensive than taking the whole family to Chili’s for dinner.  If your destination and dates are set in stone, you might only save a little.  But if you’re willing to be flexible, you might have the trip of a lifetime.

2)  The next person that tells me, “Oh, the hotel is only a place for us to sleep, right?” will get the patented Icy Mom Glare of Death.  NO.  The hotel room is not a thing you only spend a few night hours in when you have kids.  The more kids you have, the more chance someone will tantrum, someone else will get traveler’s diarrhea, one more will not want to eat any of the food, and the stupid TV will only be playing fuzzy reruns of Sex and the City.  And that’s just not appropriate.

The hotel room needs to be relaxing when you have kids.  Period.  Done.

That said, one of the most awesome hotels we have ever stayed at was in the Red Light district of Brussels.  Rather than the several hundred dollars a night of closet-sized rooms in the city center, a 10 minute walk away was a $100 a night room when we stayed,  with two bedrooms and a kitchen.  Added plus – decorated like a theater with incredible staff at the front desk.

Speaking of Brussels, Surly was not impressed with Manequin Pis
Speaking of Brussels, Surly was not impressed with Manequin Pis

Are you still kind of wary of something in the Red Light District of Brussels?  Don’t be.  It’s more safe and cleaner than Times Square in NYC.  Also cheaper.  And better decorated.

The first place I start when looking for a decent place to stay is Trip Advisor.   This gives you a great idea of where you might want to stay and how each place stacks up.  I post reviews on Trip Advisor regularly and I use it religiously.  *THEN* check Expedia, Kayak, Hotwire, Priceline.  You might get a shockingly low price.  The first time we stayed in Cape Town our Expedia rate was $100 lower than the advertised rate!

And this brings us to hotel points.  Use them if you can.  But as far as using points to score hotels?  Feel free, but that’s too much work for me.  I get much better deals working airline points.  We keep the hotel point earning to actual business trips and still build up a tidy sum.  My favorite?  IHG – which is Holiday Inn/Staybridge/Intercontinental.  You earn FAST.  And you can spend CHEAP.  Holiday Inns run a mere 10,000 points a night for rewards nights!

And when traveling with kids we tend to do a lot withHomeAway and AirBnB.  Does it cost?  Yes.  Less than a hotel, but it still costs.  Our apartment in Greece cost 500 Euro for a week.  But it also had two bedrooms, new renovation, air conditioning, 2 bathrooms, a jacuzzi, free unlimited wifi, a fully stocked kitchen, and a bathtub jacuzzi.  It was totally worth it.  And the jacuzzi was worth mentioning twice.

The worst pictures are my favorite pictures.  Here Mr. Dirty makes faces on Mt Lycabettus in Athens.
The worst pictures are my favorite pictures. Here Mr. Dirty makes faces on Mt Lycabettus in Athens.

3)  Don’t ever use Rail Europe.  Buy your tickets in the station when you get there.

4)  Start before you want to take a trip.  Start playing with the different travel websites to get familiar with the layout.  You’ll start to notice contests, sudden deals, and all sorts of enticing things popping up.

Start with being comfortable just going.  Travel is awesome.  And while it’s awesome, it’s really no bigger a deal than driving to the store.  It’s just a really long drive to get the milk.  And sometimes you have to fly.  But still.  It’s no big deal to do, and once you get past that mental block, it becomes a lot easier.  If you *really* want to make it a part of your life, you can.  Five nights out for the family at Outback equals the cost of a hotel for two nights in Williamsburg, VA.   You don’t have to go big every single time.  Start with what you can do, and you’ll be amazed at what you find you will do.

Start with taking a few small steps to bank points.  If you’re consistent, those points will start adding up quickly and before you know it you’ll be walking across the Danube in Budapest.

Know what's awesome in Budapest?  Budapest.
Know what’s awesome in Budapest? Budapest.

It does take more work to travel cheaply than it does to pay full price for everything, I’ll totally own that.  But is it worth it?  You mean the Gluhwein in the Vienna Christmas markets and watching  a Muay Thai match in Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok?  Hearing your kids say things like, “Remember that time we visited the KGB Museum in Prague?”

Life imitates Barbara Bach in Prague.
Life imitates Barbara Bach in Prague.

Oh yes.  Yes, it is worth it.  Every bit.