T+L's Top Travel Tricks 2009
Book backward for the best airfare.
When it comes to finding a great rate, flexibility can make all the difference. Search for deals from your home airport and choose your destination that way. Try websites like bing.com— Microsoft’s newly launched search engine—which lets you look for reduced airfares and saves your finds for seven days.
Upgrade with a Y-up economy-class fare.
You’ll spend about the same as you would for a full-fare coach ticket but be automatically upgraded to first class upon check-in. Caveat: Y-up fares are not available on all flights (never for international travel) and can be highly restricted, making changes expensive or impossible. Book through a travel agent or use the Y-up tool on farecompare.com.
Time your flights to avoid crowded airports.
Travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays for less congestion at the counter and at security, which means smoother sailing to your gate. On other days, early morning flights are your best bet.
Avoid long lines at economy-class check-in.
Always request an upgrade when booking a coach ticket. At the airport, check in at the business-class counter to “see if the upgrade went through.” Even if it didn’t, you can still check in there and avoid the long economy-class lines.
Combine online hotel research with direct bookings.
A colleague of mine from T+L’s Southeast Asia edition finds the best hotel rates on sites such as hotelscombined.com or wego.com, then calls the property to ask if they’ll meet or beat that price. He almost always gets the reduced Internet rate, as well as the personalized service that comes with booking directly.
Don’t pay extra for hotel Web access.
Avoid ATM fees overseas.
Many banks charge a flat fee for international ATM use, plus a currency exchange fee. Ask if your bank has free overseas cash-machine locations or no-fee partners.
Know the taxi fare to your hotel.
Call your hotel or the concierge prior to your arrival to determine the average one-way rate from the airport. On my last trip to Shanghai, the taxi driver tried to charge me double the estimated amount. I challenged him—and ended up paying half the inflated price.
Hire a car and driver.
Sometimes a chauffeur is cheaper than a car rental, especially in developing countries. Some sample rates (including gas) for 8–10 hours: Bali, $35; Cairo, $38; Hanoi, $42; New Delhi, $18.
Sleep on the train.
If you’re traveling long distances between major cities—especially in Europe—consider an overnight sleeper car. You’ll save on airfare and hotel costs, and when you wake up, you’ll be arriving at your destination.
Check out sooner, not later.
Don’t wait until the allowed check-out time of 11 a.m. or noon to leave your hotel. Invariably there will be a long line of other patrons waiting to settle their bills, especially at large hotels. And if you’re heading to the airport for your return flight home, a long line at the front desk is the last thing you need.
Take public transit from the airport.
Most major cities have direct airport-to-city buses or trains that not only are far less expensive, but often get you to your destination faster than a taxi or hotel limo. The savings can be astounding, even if you have to take a taxi from the train terminal to your hotel. Some examples:
- Dallas: Round-trip taxi fare from DFW Airport, $80 plus tips. Round-trip Trinity Rail Express fare, $5. Savings: $75 plus tips.
- London: Round-trip taxi from Heathrow Airport, $170. Round-trip fare on the Heathrow Express train, $48. Savings: $122.
- Tokyo: Roundtrip taxi from Narita Airport, $416. Round-trip fare on the Narita Express train, $61. Savings: $355.
Clear out the mini-bar.
Use the mini-bar to store your own purchased food and beverages. This is especially useful for traveling families like mine, who can easily spend $100 a day on breakfast and lunch at restaurants. When you check into your hotel room, call housekeeping and ask them to remove all the items from the mini-bar. If they say they can’t or won’t, purchase an inexpensive Styrofoam ice chest to use in your room. Whatever you do, avoid breakfast in the lobby restaurant—probably the worst value in the world of travel.
Don’t change money at the hotel.
You’ll almost always get the worst exchange rate at the front desk of your hotel. I’ve had desk clerks tell me so, even going so far as to advise me where I can find the best rates at shopfront money changers. Check the rates and fees at several currency exchanges before choosing one. And remember that there is often a minimum fee, so changing a larger sum of money may be less costly than making several smaller exchanges.
Use online coupons.
I never book a hotel, rent a car, park at an airport, or take my wife to a restaurant without first going online to search out discount coupons that I can print from home or coupon codes I can use when making online purchases. Search for specific companies if you know them, or, if not, use sites like CurrentCodes.com, Valpak.com, and, for airport parking discounts, LongtermParking.com.
Don’t drink the water.
What may look to be a complimentary bottle of water on the dresser of your hotel room is more than likely an expensive—sometimes very expensive—bottle of connoisseur water. My rule of thumb: never eat or drink anything in a hotel room unless there’s a signed note from the management that includes the phrase “with our compliments.”