You can really go down the rabbit hole on some blogs when it comes to flight booking strategy and playing the airline credit card game. Here are some simple, bite-sized tips I’ve learned along the way to help you trim costs on the most expensive parts of traveling: flights and lodging, especially on a big trip. I realize that a “big” trip to one person could mean going more than a few states/provinces over, or a big trip to someone else could be a three-month backpacking trek across South Asia. For my purposes, something I consider a “big” trip is: more than a week, or out of the country, or some combination of the two.
I’ve gone abroad 4 times since 2005. Some things have changed and some things have stayed the same. Hopefully, even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, you can find something of value here. I opened the question to some of my friends on facebook and got good talking points and tips from them as well.
I like to book whenever I’ve made my mind up that I’m serious about the trip and have the finances in order. Then again, I am a big-time planner. So, for our last Europe trip, I did my research all throughout January and booked the tickets at the end of the month. For my post-Christmas trip to Mexico City, I watched prices for a couple of months, and went ahead and locked my tickets down in early August. If you are able to plan six months ahead, you can get a great price for going abroad since the cheap seats have not been booked up. For domestic trips, about three months ahead has been a pretty good time to make plans. Of course, sometimes airlines have flash sales, so if you aren’t as much of a planner, but more of a money hoarder, you can look for sales or Groupon Getaways and get some good deals.
Always plan ahead. I use Kayak.com fanatically. Their predictive tool shows you the way prices have fluctuated and recommends you to “buy” or “wait.” Kayak doesn’t show you all carriers, so go straight to the source for budget airlines like Southwest or Spirit. The rule of thumb is “always book on a Tuesday.” This is when airline websites announce sales, and the rest of the market reacts to this. If you are wanting to save every dollar you can, you can follow this advice—or you can refer to the paragraph above and just book as soon as you’re ready.
If you plan to travel at least a couple times per year, it is worth it to sign up for a loyalty plan. OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance are the “big three” that span the globe. Before you sign up with one, you can think back to which airlines you happen to have flown the most regularly and consider if that trend will continue. Personally I’ve signed up with Alaska Airlines because they have lots of flights out of San Diego and their points can be used on a broad variety of carriers. I also collect OneWorld points too—all of my overseas flights have been on American Airlines. They key to accumulating airline points is to make sure you don’t let them expire. Look into alternative ways of earning points to keep them “fresh.” With Alaska Air, I can shop through their website and take online surveys to make sure that the minimum number of points are added per year. I’m a member of a handy website called Award Wallet that tracks amount of points and expiration, but a spreadsheet or Google Doc could work too.
I’ve got a cousin and a few friends who play the credit card game—opening up cards and reaching “minimum spend” to get mileage plan credits then cancelling (or setting aside) the card. This is attractive because sign-up bonuses are usually enough for at least one round-trip ticket. However, airlines are increasing minimum spend or reducing miles, making “the game” harder to play since there are some devoted people on the web teaching others how to work the system at the airlines’ expense.
I never purchased “travel insurance,” but back in June when our Air France flight got cancelled, I wished I had. We ended up getting our money back a month later, but with post-Brexit exchange rates we lost about $10 on each ticket. For our upcoming trip to Mexico the travel insurance was only about $3 per ticket so I added it on. From my friend Wayne: “Check if the credit card you used to buy the flight includes travel insurance. Might include compensation for flight delays or cancellations. For cancellations, don’t automatically accept hotel/food vouchers from the airline if it requires an overnight stay. The credit card company usually will give you more than the airline.”
Hotels, I have found, are one of the biggest question marks when traveling. From my aunt: “Some of the hotels look wonderful but when you get there… Not everything is as glossy as the brochure.” This is so true! Sometimes a place looks good online, but when you arrive it’s the size of a shoebox and is dingy (this happened to me in Paris, 2012).
There are a couple different directions you could go with hotels: book something really cheap and take what you get (you will free up more spending money this way) or, if creature comforts are important to you, diligently read reviews: and not just one or two of them. Some fussy people leave a bad review for minor infractions (sub-par breakfast maybe), and some people give a high-star review but couch a few gripes in their written portion. I don’t spend too much time on the Tripadvisor forums, but I do check their reviews on hotels since the site is so widely used. This site, trivago, is a search aggregator and has parameters you can use to narrow down lodgings. When I was searching for places in Europe, the trivago engine brought up the greatest number of places at a wide variety of price points (even including hostels).
Of course I’ve been singing the praises of airbnb for a while now, and it’s what we used on several of our latest trips. When I search airbnb, I always set the parameters for “superhosts.” This way you will be matched with highly reviewed hosts—by using this to narrow down my rentals for safety and accuracy, I have yet to be disappointed. To me, searching airbnb and trivago are interchangeable to help me find the right room, in the right part of town, for the right price, so I don’t lean one way or the other. We are definitely going to book an airbnb for the group trip we’re doing in December, so I guess if I was traveling with a group regularly (like, a family) I’d go with airbnbs because you’ll get more space to spread out and not be in each other’s hair– for less than booking two or more rooms at a hotel.
This post originally appeared on My Friend Staci.