Thank you to Capital One for sponsoring this post – the second in my series of Smart Money posts. The first, with my Pre-Travel Checklist, is here.
Getting Past My Backpacker Mentality
I studied abroad three semesters in college, in Italy and Germany, and traveled around Europe as inexpensively as possible over weekends and breaks. I took overnight trains with my Eurail passes, never spent more than $20/night on a hostel, and rarely paid more than $10 for a meal. As I got older and could afford to spend more on travel, I fought myself – it was difficult for me to spend $5 on a taxi when I could walk somewhere in 30 minutes, even with luggage.
Over time I started to regret some of those money-saving choices, and I slowly became ok with spending a little money to improve a trip. Sure, I still made mistakes from time to time, but it would only affect me. Until I got married and had kids. Then the consequences of asking the kids to walk an extra mile on a hot day to avoid $10 in metro tickets were far more pronounced. Why make the entire family miserable to go home with a few extra dollars?
So after a lot of self-examination, a lot of mistakes, and a lot of hours with unhappy kids, here are the things we’ve determined are worth the extra money, and the things that we’re still unwilling to spend more for. I’d love to know your tips as well. How do you get the most return for your vacation dollars?
What We Splurge On
Every time you add extra flights to a travel itinerary, you increase the odds of a delayed flight and possibly a missed connection. If you’re in no hurry to get to your destination, or if you don’t have a non-refundable hotel reservation, then maybe the risk is worth it to you. But we’ve been stuck at airport hotels too many times, and missed events/activities at the start of our vacations, so we now book the best/easiest flights to our destinations – even if they’re more expensive. An added tip: book the earliest flights (e.g. 6am) that you can. They’re rarely delayed.
A lot of foreign airports are confusing when it comes to figuring out transportation to your hotel. There could be train, taxi, bus, shuttle, or other options. And having more than four people (we’re a family of five) adds additional complications, since sometimes there are taxis that can fit all of us, but in a lot of locations we’ve needed to split up into two taxis. And then there are the scams around the world – easy to fall for when you’re jet lagged and in an unfamiliar place. I’ve figured out that having a driver waiting for us upon arrival, with a correctly-sized car or van, saves us stress, saves us time, and makes getting to our hotel as easy as possible after a long day or two of travel. And sometimes it’s not any more expensive than five train tickets or two taxis would be – just far easier.
A Hotel in the Best Location
We find that life is easier when we can return to our hotel often – to drop off purchases, to use the bathroom, and to have a little downtime. Typically that’s in the central walking district. And even though a better location may be more expensive, it saves us transportation costs since we’re moving around less.
Anything for Under $10 That Keeps the Kids Happy
A stuffed animal at the airport? A small souvenir? An extra gelato? Cat food from the grocery store to feed the homeless kittens near our hotel? Absolutely. Everything in this category usually adds up to less than $100 over the course of a trip, but the kids are a lot happier, the trip is better, and we go home with some fun memories.
We always search out the local culinary specialties when we travel, and we love learning how to make them. I don’t think we’ve had a bad cooking class anywhere in the world, we’re increased the kids’ appreciation of food, and we’ve taken all of the lessons home with us – where the kids have then made their favorite dishes. An excellent investment.
Kid-Oriented Walking Tours
Self-guided museum or walking tours are fine, but we’ve found that booking a family-friendly walking tour makes things a lot more interesting for the kids (and adults), it lets us skip lines a lot of the time, and it’s overall a better use of our time.
Global Entry / TSA PreCheck
Global Entry lets you skip immigration lines when you come back into the US and head straight to a kiosk instead, and it comes with TSA PreCheck, which gives you expedited security screening. It’s $100 for five years, and you need a separate membership for everyone in your family, but it’s saved us dozens of hours waiting in lines over the years – not an exaggeration. If you’ve been to Orlando lately you likely had to wait at least 30 minutes to go through security. The TSA PreCheck line is typically under two minutes! And some credit cards, like Capital One Venture, give you a credit up to $100 for the Global Entry fee.
What We Skimp On
I hate spending money on water in airports, or when we’re walking around somewhere. So we always pack our own water bottles, and then fill them up on the other side of airport security, and at our hotel in the morning. I don’t mind carrying them around all day given the savings. Plus it’s better for the environment not to constantly be purchasing single-use plastic water bottles.
We’re a foodie family, but a three-hour dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant is rarely going to be an enjoyable experience for us. We would far rather ask the hotel staff for their favorite places – where they go with their families. Or we’re great exploring the street food scene, or having picnics with breads, meats, fruits and veggies from local markets. Not only are casual dining experiences more fun, but the food is often better and they save us a lot of money.
We always want to stay in the best hotel – for us. That could mean the best location (above), or the kid-friendliest, or the iconic hotel that’s been around for 100 years with an amazing view. Rarely is that going to be the most expensive or the nicest hotel.
Hotel and resort breakfasts over the years have gotten increasingly more expensive – routinely over $40 for adults and $20 for kids. Add in gratuities and taxes, and breakfast for a family of five could easily be over $150. That’s not worth it! None of us eats that much. We would far prefer to walk somewhere and pick up pastries and coffee, or if there’s nothing within walking distance, simply get pastries and fruit at the hotel’s coffee shop. Of course if the breakfast is included in our room rate we’ll take advantage of it, but there’s a cost/value line where anything over $10-15/person is (to us) a waste of money.
Bank and Credit Card Fees
At ATMs I withdraw as much as I can in one transaction to minimize the fees (a $2 fee for withdrawing the equivalent of $400 is far more acceptable to me than a $2 fee for withdrawing $20). And when using credit cards overseas, I make sure I have a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee on every purchase, and I always choose to pay in the local currency instead of US Dollars. One example: last week in Brazil I paid for a hotel room using my Capital One Venture card. During the credit card processing, I was given the choice of having the charge go through in dollars (at US$71) or Brazilian Reals (R$250). I chose Reals and then checked my Capital One account. The charge, as it was converted by Capital One, came through as $66.26. The USD charge would have been 7% higher! That adds up over the course of a trip – basically throwing money away.
How about you? What do you skimp on when you travel? When is it worth splurging?
Per Berger says
Eric, this is a great article. Terrific tips, some that we already follow, others we need to start to adhere to. We still travel in the constantly “try to save too much mentality”, which, you’re right, does make the traveling more complex at times.
One great tip we use – and I know its a competitor to capital one…we pick a hotel chain and pound our charges on it. The loyalty from our stays and our card use gets us elite status that also gives us nice perks during our travels (best room, club lounge access, etc). The club lounge access is key: great, free breakfasts; snacks all day; sometimes a light dinner; and a place to stretch out and play games, etc. We have always been impressed with the Marriott lounges and our kids usually rate their time in the lounge as one of their highlights. Food and downtime, sometimes their two favorite activities.
Keep the great ideas coming, all us fellow family travelers appreciate it!
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Per! Interesting point on hotel loyalty. I’ve never built up major hotel status anywhere, since we stay in a lot of smaller places that aren’t associated with major brands, but I’ve had mid-tier/gold status over the years with Hilton and Marriott through credit cards and reciprocal agreements and haven’t seen much benefit. I’ve literally never been upgraded because of status. The lounge access is a definite perk, but lounge quality varies greatly. In Houston recently we were at a Marriott and the lounge had a coffee machine, some apples and a few tables. Depressing! I think I need higher status!
For family travel, we often find hotels offer poor value compared to renting a home or apartment. Of course, this is not an option everywhere, but very good rentals are available many places. They typically offer much more space, plus kitchens and laundry, both of which provide further savings opportunities. We almost always eat dinner out when traveling, as enjoying the local food is important to us, but just having breakfast at the house makes things easier and saves a ton, as you said.
Eric Stoen says
Absolutely – there are good aspects to both hotels and rentals/apartments, but I completely agree on being able to eat breakfast at the apartment and having laundry. We do the same on dinner – dining out 90% of the time, but a kitchen lets us easily reheat leftovers, and sometimes we’ll get inspired, download a local recipe and head to the grocery store. In our tiny apartment kitchen in Santorini last year my wife made a Greek specialty that impressed the heck out of our hostess!