I get tired of stuff I read about how to “save money” on travel. “Saving” money means putting it into an IRA or a CD or a kids’ college fund. This year, you’re going to spend money on travel — lots of money, given the near-universal inflation. What you want to do is spend it most efficiently — to get the most bang for the buck. And that doesn’t mean squeezing a few dollars out of your airfare cost, along with a few days out of your vacation, by flying midweek. It means making some basic trade-offs on how and where you spend.
One tried-and-true way to get the most for your money is to take advantage of deals. Some deals are perennials, broadly available over years and decades. Those Groupon hotel, resort and tour coupons are almost always good deals. Eurail Pass has been a good deal forever. AARP discounts aren’t big, but they’re almost always available, and to anybody, not just seniors. Road Scholar learning vacations have been good deals for folks age 50 or over for decades (since they started out as Elderhostel).
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Another way to avoid high costs is to go downmarket. Sure, a luxury hotel is nice, but you can get a good night’s sleep and enjoy a dip in a pool at even a modest budget property. These days, even in Europe, many budget properties offer air-conditioning and private baths.
Going downmarket isn’t a universal solution, though. The downmarket experience can never completely replace what you get by paying more. I see so many suggestions about avoiding the highest-cost cities such as Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Yes, living costs in Kalamazoo, South Bend, or Topeka are a lot less, but you can’t see a Broadway show, walk the Freedom Trail, or ride a cable car there.
Sometimes you can come close to closing the gap. Currently, if you aren’t staying at one of the affiliated hotels, you pay $675 plus a $50 cart fee to play a round at iconic golf mecca Pebble Beach. But you can enjoy a spectacular oceanside round at Bandon Dunes for about half that and at Half Moon Bay for $65 to $180.
You also find some good deals that come and go. Right now, for example, cruising can be a very good deal. I generally look at Cruise Critic to check on deals, and I see quite a few offers starting at less than $75 per person per night — a few even less than $50 per person — and a bunch with large on board credits and upgrades. My big beef with cruises is being off line for a week, but I’m weird that way.
Another idea for minimizing your cash outlay this summer is to use up your frequent-flyer miles. Airlines are steadily devaluing their mileage by raising the mileage “price” for award travel: The longer you hold your miles, the less they’re worth.
If high airfares give you sticker shock, consider a road trip. Gasoline prices are down from their earlier high; if your primary vehicle is a gas-guzzler, you can rent a more economical model. And small-town and highway hotels rates are almost always less than rates for comparable accommodations in big cities.
A road trip through the countryside has always been one of my favorite ways to tour Europe, and Auto Europe is currently running a sale featuring discounts up to 20 percent. The best available rates are pretty close in France, Germany, and Italy, and less in Portugal and Spain. Just make sure to rent with a credit card that covers you for collision damage in the country where you rent. For minimum rates, avoid surcharges for rentals starting at major airports or rail stations.
Cutting costs is always a good idea, but don’t cut so far as to compromise with what you really want to do. Prices are up for just about everything these days, so expect to pay for travel. Just don’t overpay for what you really want to do.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)