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Fun for the whole train car!

Understand the Hidden Costs of Travel and Avoid Them Like the Plague

Like traveling ladies of yore, we daintily but enthusiastically wave our kerchiefs to our Patreon supporters. They selected this week’s topic in our monthly donor polls, and I’m thrilled. Because I have some things to get off my chest. Other than my bra, which has already had its ceremonial end-of-day removal and flinging.

Gentle readers, I come to you straight from my biannual trip back home for Christmas.

It fucking suuuuucked.

It’s not that I hate spending time with my family (though the inclusion of the Commander in Chief in this year’s Christmas dinner prayer was more than enough to ruin my appetite). But visiting them during the holidays is an expensive logistical nightmare.

We have to buy our flights, get to and from the airport four times, feed ourselves during a long day of travel, arrange for pet care while we’re away, and even pay for lodgings and transportation once we’re there if my in-laws are inexplicably remodeling the house again during our visit.

Again: it sucks. And I’ve realized that traveling to visit family is the thing that most often puts me at risk of overspending my budget.

Fortunately, this cheap bitch has learned a few tricks along the way to cling to my hard-earned pennies.

Spend time to save money

My family lives in a rural area about two thousand miles away from me (which is just where I like them). To visit them, I can fly into a Small City Airport thirty minutes from their house, or a Big City Airport about an hour and a half away.

It always costs about $200 more to fly into the Small City Airport, and there are vanishingly few direct flights there.

Whereas if I fly into the Big City Airport, I can catch a direct flight and a $9 bus ride from the airport to their town.

I spend a little more time on the road once I arrive, but I save about $191. So if you’re flying, check the prices at nearby airports and see if public transit is an option once you’re on the ground. You might be able to get a better deal with a slightly more circuitous trip.

When possible, be flexible with your itinerary

Airlines know when you’re most likely to travel, and you best believe those capitalist motherfuckers price flights accordingly.

Same goes for ride shares like Uber and Lyft. (Fucking prime time and surge pricing. WOULD YOU RATHER I DRIVE MY DRUNK ASS HOME MYSELF?)

But if you know about this opportunistic pricing, you can avoid it. Airlines like Southwest have a low fare calendar, so if your travel dates are flexible within a few days, you can fly a little cheaper. And there’s always Google Flights, which helps you to find the cheapest flight on any airline on any date.

There are also several ways to beat Uber and Lyft’s surge pricing. You can wait a bit or leave early, walk to a different location, check the ride-hailing tab in Google Maps, order a Lyft in advance, or download a sneaky app like SurgeProtector.

Airport food is highway robbery

Ever pay $60 for lukewarm beer and shitty burgers? For that is the price of a sit-down meal at an airport. And no matter how travel weary and grumpy you are, that shit ain’t worth it.

Avoiding the jacked-up prices of airport food just requires a bit of preparation. Hit your local grocery store the day before a flight and stock up on cheap, filling snacks to take with you: granola bars, almonds, dried fruit, white cheddar Cheez-Its with the extra cheese dust. (BGR’s dark secret is that Kitty and I have an ongoing feud concerning the best cheese-based cracker snack: Cheez-Its or Cheese Nips. If you prefer somewhat less delicious cheese crackers, I guess you can substitute Cheese Nips here. But we all know I’m right.)

Pack an empty reusable water bottle as well and fill it up at the airport water fountain once you’re through security. It’s cheaper than the $5 Evian you’ll otherwise buy to avoid dying of thirst.

And never ever buy food on the plane itself. It’s yet more expensive than the airport, it comes in tiny portions, and it’s barely discernible as food.

Comparison shop for gas before you’re desperate

Gas prices spike in the middle of summer and right around the winter holidays. Which is, y’know, when people are most likely to take a road trip to visit family or go on vacation.

So before you drive anywhere, download one of these apps. They search the surrounding area, no matter where you are, for the cheapest gas. Plan when to fill up along your route accordingly and laugh in the face of our fossil fuel-based economy all the way home.

Always gate check your bag

I’mma let you in on a little secret: airlines are desperate for people to check their bags.

The overhead bins are a war zone of petty opportunism and willful obstruction of justice. No matter how many times the flight attendant says “Listen you selfish motherfuckers, put your damn coats and purses under the seat so roller bags can fit in the overheads,” there’s still Cynthia from Albany who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. (I SEE YOU, CYNTHIA. I FUCKING SEE YOU.)

They want you to check your bag. And if you didn’t bother to pay for it down at check-in, no sweat! They’ll gate check your bag for free.

So if you know you need to check your bag, wait until you get to your gate. It works most of the time, and it’s worth it to try. Sometimes the gate agent will even ask if anyone is willing to gate check their bag, in which case you can look like a selfless hero of the sky peasantry.

Friendship is magic

Recall the noble yet delicate art of the friend trade.

Sending our dog to the kennel when we travel is expensive. So we always ask a friend to keep the little shithead alive at his place while we’re gone. We drop the dog off along with a handle of decent bourbon and some homemade goodies, which is always significantly cheaper than boarding him at the kennel. Our friend isn’t available every time, but it never hurts to ask.

Similarly, you should ask a friend to get you to the airport or train station rather than hiring a ride, taking public transportation, or—heaven forfend!—paying to park.

But remember: you have to be willing to return the favor. Don’t be a shitty friend just to save money.

Take the train

Traveling by train is one of the best kept secrets of frugal travel. It’s almost always cheaper than flying. The baggage weight limit is significantly higher, you don’t have to arrive early to get through security, it’s way more luxurious than being crammed into a flying cattle car and forced to breathe recycled air, it’s a lot easier to pack your own food and drinks, and it’s much more eco-friendly than flying!

As an added bonus, you can pretend you’re Hercule Poirot and interrogate your fellow passengers about crimes! Fun for the whole train car!

Renting a car doesn’t have to be expensive

Much to my displeasure, some places just don’t have adequate public transportation. Enter the exorbitant pricing of car rentals.

One way to save on rental cars is to rent one at anywhere other than an airport. And before you commit, you should absolutely ask about the “all-in price.” Because surprise! The price you’re quoted on the website often doesn’t include shit like the concession recovery fee, the tourism fee, the airport access fee, the county business license tax, and the good old fashioned sales tax.

In general, you’ll want to go with one of the discount car rental companies. It’s not like you’re sacrificing quality, as they’re all owned by the same companies that run the more respected brands like Hertz and Avis anyway. That’s right: if you choose Avis over Budget you’re literally spending more money to rent the same car from the same company because marketing.

Or you could just tell the big car rental companies to fuck right off and use Turo or HyreCar to rent from a private owner.

Be hella nice

None have seen an uglier side of humanity than transit workers.

Gate agents, flight attendants, bus drivers—they have the dubious honor of getting yelled at by every person who’s ever been mildly inconvenienced while traveling. They have steeled their hearts to the outrage and indignant sense of entitlement of travelers who maybe should have planned a little better. They’re used to being blamed for the weather, for mechanical malfunctions, for traffic, for the behavior of other passengers, for the price of wifi on an airplane (note: never buy wifi on an airplane what the hell do you think you’re doing read a book for fuck’s sake).

They have been through all of this… and they are taking none of your shit. They have no patience for your rude shenanigans and they can make your life a living hell.

These people hold the fate of your travel in their hands. Don’t you want them to be happy to help you? Don’t you want them to go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable and happy? Or would you rather they throw every fucking fee in the book at you for the mere courtesy of rebooking your canceled flight?

Needless to say, a little bit of honey and a lot of planning ahead can save you a metric buttload when you travel. What are your best tips and tricks for avoiding the hidden costs of travel? Share them in a comment!

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26 thoughts to “Understand the Hidden Costs of Travel and Avoid Them Like the Plague”

  1. This passage spoke to my soul:
    “No matter how many times the flight attendant says “Listen you selfish motherfuckers, put your damn coats and purses under the seat so roller bags can fit in the overheads,” there’s still Cynthia from Albany who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. (I SEE YOU, CYNTHIA. I FUCKING SEE YOU.)”
    I’m going to be getting on a plane tomorrow, and biting my tongue as Cynthia does her thing is hands down the most challenging part of traveling for me.

    1. Yes. Oh my god yes. Fuck YOU, Cynthia!

      I typically only agree to gate check if baggage will be returned at the gate, not when they’re shipping it off to be sent via baggage claim. Any time I have an increased risk of getting my baggage lost, no thanks. That said, I always throw all my necessities in my carry-on tote so if I am forced to check my bag, I don’t have to go digging for my dopp kit, meds and so forth.

      I have stopped doing friend trades with pet sitting because everyone has a busy life, not an easy subway ride away and some people travel more than others. I have had friends (who do RESCUE and live 2 BLOCKS AWAY) not feed my cats dinner on Xmas Day because they didn’t remember they were supposed to go over then and didn’t text me to check when they were unsure. I have had old and on/off again failing cats almost fail on me when I was in Amsterdam and need to be force fed, increased pain meds/extra visits, etc. Now I ONLY trust my very dependable vet tech sitter who knows what to do in emergencies and will be able to add on days last minute when I miss my flight at freakin’ Charles de Gaulle (all of the circles of hell combined) and get stuck in Parish for an extra day when my cats need food and meds. My bf insists I pay her too much but she is worth every damn penny.

  2. I wish train service here was like the stuff we enjoyed in Europe. What we have in the Southwest is a cruel joke compared to that.

    Hooray for snacks on a plane, too. (And Cheeze Its are where it’s at. Sorry, Cheeze Nips. My mother tried to convince me for years you were ‘just as good’ and cheaper, too. But, no, you are not.)

  3. Lol I have no shame about overhead bins. If I need to put my carryon in the overhead bin and someone’s coat/purse is there, I flat out ask whose it is and if no one answers I follow up with “well it’s about to go on the floor while I put in my carry on. I’ll try to shove it back when I’m done.” Oddly enough I’ve never had someone not claim it. I usually get a smirk from the flight attendant and once I got a thumbs up. Apparently it irritates them too 😛

  4. The Megabus. It can save you a ton of money and it might not even take very long. For example, to get from Philadelphia to New York costs as little as a dollar* and takes about two hours. A train from Philly to New York costs a lot more — and takes about two hours.

    Last year I took Bolt Bus for the first time. Believe I paid about $7 and all the stars were aligned because here’s what happened:

    I boarded the bus across the street from the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, NJ.
    Encountered very little traffic and zero delays getting to NYC.
    Walked a block away and got on the subway, rode one stop and switched trains.
    Was checking in at the HI Hostel near 103rd and Amsterdam just under two hours after getting on the bus. It was…magic.

    Bonus: Both buses have free wi-fi.

    And speaking of hostels: I’ve used them in NYC, Chicago, Austin, Tex., Philadelphia, London and Cardiff, Wales. Obviously you have to read the reviews and pick your spots, but I’ve gotten some amazingly cheap housing and not a single bedbug. Scope out locations for the nearest supermarkets and drugstores, because most (maybe all?) hostels have kitchens. Some give you free breakfast and some have free or cheap evening events with food as well. The hostel kitchens usually have at least some food for free, i.e., stuff left behind by other travelers; consider leaving behind any food you can’t finish up, too, in order to keep the karma points flowing.

    Here’s something I ask at the hostel front desk: “If your mom** were visiting on a budget, where would you send her to eat?” Sometimes it’s regional: “If your mom came to New York looking for really good pizza, where would you suggest?” I’ve also asked police officers where they’d suggest a tourist-on-a-budget might find a good meal; maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve never had this NOT work, and sometimes found real gems that only the locals would know about.

    Here’s one more tip that doesn’t work for everyone: buddy passes. They’re vouchers good for up to 90 percent off the published airfare. If you know someone who works for an airline, politely suggest that if they ever have passes they can’t use, you’d be delighted to receive one (and to provide something in return, e.g., you’ll watch THEIR pets when they are away). Flexibility is key, as you are flying standby (“non-revenue passenger”) and might get bumped. In fact I have been bumped from time to time, but usually get to where I need to be on the next flight (or the next-next flight). Only once have I had to go back home and try again the next day, and I’ve been doing this for more than a decade.

    Being courteous to airline employees is vital here as well. Once I checked in at the desk and the employee told me it didn’t look good for me to catch that flight, because it was pretty full. I replied that I’d wait my turn like a big girl, and in fact felt very lucky to have even the CHANCE to get the flight, because I was going to see my daughter. Sure enough, the few available seats were all taken so I settled in to do some work (I’m a freelance writer) until the next flight. But then the employee motioned me over: Seems that the last person to get a seat was another airline employee, who agreed to fly on the jump seat so I could get on the plane.

    Would the gate agent have asked him to do that if I’d been a total anus about things? Seriously doubt it. (And bless that off-duty employee’s heart for being willing to sit on the jump seat for a couple of hours.)

    *At least some $1 tickets are available, but you’re more likely to pay from $3 to $10. Still cheaper than the train.

    **I’m older, so this works for me. Younger travelers might try, “If your sister/brother were in town….”

  5. Hey Piggy. You have a keen mind and an acerbic tongue. What a delightful combination! Anyway, for all the reasons you cited, I despise air travel. I now practice a 10 hour rule. If my destination is a 10 hour or less drive, I drive. If it’s more, I suck it up and deal with security, overpriced fast-food, and the legion of Cynthias that invariably gets to board before I do. Cheers.

  6. I too would like trains like in Europe. They are so civilized. And inexpensive. And on time. Here in Canada land, the trains basically suck and are not a viable mode of transport if you dont want to pay all the money and arrive late.

    I’m not much into cheese crackers. The best cheese snacks IMHO are Hawkins Cheesies. They are gloriously crunchy and deliciously coated in faux orange cheese.

  7. A wee reminder for whenever Uber and Co start surging: there is a point of no return where getting a regular cab makes no difference anymore. Sure, if it’s the difference between paying $20 v $50 for the same way – duh, $20 it is. But $40+ v $50, no car available in less than 4 minutes, and there is a cab right in front of me? No brainer.

    Also, years of having to fly multiple cross-continental trips each holiday taught me that (at least in Europe), the 29th is the cheapest day to fly around the holidays (maybe because it’s the lull between people needing to get back home immediately after the 26th and people going away for New Year’s on the 30th).

    Oh and depending on how first class works at your local train company (i.e. is food – and drinks – included etc), it’s always worth checking out if you can get a reasonably priced upgrade. Because let’S face it, if you are about to spend 5 hours on a train you’ll spend too much money on snacks anyways (it’s five hours and yet you feel like you need at least two meals worth of food and snacks with you – what’s up with that?) so whenever I had a chance to upgrade for under $40 I would because it gives you food (and in some countries alcohol) and free wifi and better seats.

  8. Our most recent plane trip I had brought a giant bag of Cheerios for our son, but turns out, it’s the best plane food ever, because you can get milk for free and then have a bowl of cereal during the flight! Okay, maybe not everyone loves cereal like I do, but I’m totally planning ahead for this on future trips.

    Also – at least returning home from Hawaii, you can check your bags FREE at the standard terminal check in counter. Apparently since the flights are normally super full, they just bypass the whole gate check thing and take them for free up front.

  9. Yes to trains! (And buses!) Unless that bus takes you through the Port Authority. Don’t take it unless you want to live in the Port Authority. The pigeons aren’t as receptive to adopting stranded humans as you’d think.

    Budget airlines will treat you like literal livestock and also sometimes pay for you to check any bag bigger than a purse but even factoring in that they’ll charge you for air it is often still cheaper then some of the non-budget airlines. WOW has some dirt cheap prices to Europe and my god they are MONSTERS but I am too poor to fly with kind souls if the monsters can get me there for less than $100. Obviously compassion shopping is important. Same goes for booking hotels/hostels/airbnbs. People tend to think AirBNBs are the cheapest, and that’s not always the case! If you’re booking a hotel or hostel sure, check the big aggregator site but also look at the direct site for the place, I’ve missed out on some good discounts/free food by not thinking to book direct!

    I flew a Canadian budget airline to Europe this summer. Going to Europe in general was not budget friendly, even though I did it as frugally as possible, but you know, sometimes you have to do something you’ll enjoy. It was cheaper for me to take an overnight bus to Montreal and fly out of their airport then it was to fly out of BOS or JFK. Which is absurd, but it’s what I did. Bonus: direct flight AND that budget airline still provided me with a meal and free wine. Definitely check many surrounding airports. If something is less than 8 hours from me and I’d have to get a connecting flight through that city, I check if flying direct would save me money. In some cases it does!

    Other weird downside to budget airlines is that people seem to really, really want to connect with you. Like “haha we are all in this together let’s be friends!” No, let me drug myself and sleep quietly. Don’t interrupt my viewing of The Boss Baby.

    Downside to flying internationally is that sometimes they make you trash all your open food/beverages, even if you bought them in the airport.

    I wish my family was 2000 miles away! Instead I live in the same house as them, which sure is one way to save money… or something.

  10. I usually carry my own snacks and buy something to drink at the airport but I like your suggestion of carrying a reusable water bottle and filling it up after going through security. It will save me a couple of bucks. Thanks.

  11. I don’t know what it is about travel that just exploits the wallet. I’ve never traveled anywhere where I didn’t have spend money I didn’t expect to spend! Something always come up – an unexpected Uber you have to take or a meal that you didn’t plan to eat. I always carry extra cash and fly on Wednesdays when my schedule permits. It is always cheaper. Definitely following your water bottle suggestion. Thanks!

    https://scribblesandtostitos.com/

  12. Yes to buses and trains! I will never forget almost having to cash out on my Spring Break in Argentina to go see Patagonia because flights were so expensive and my peers could not afford it. So, we took a bus for 40 hours. Yes, 40 hours to the very southern tip of the country. We made sandwiches with fresh bread, cheese, and tomatoes (about 25 cents per sandwich), and equipped ourselves with 7 books between the 4 of us. By saving money on the way there, we splurged for a glacier trek that is still one of the coolest things I have ever done. And on the way home? We opted for a “layover” and stopped mid-way for a whale watching excursion and to get spitting distance to some feisty penguins and seals. Saving on the travel to have moolah for experiences once in destination? Yes, please!

      1. We started from Buenos Aires, then to Bariloche/Calafate, and our layover was in Puerto Madryn. Argentina was inexpensive to live/visit while I was there and I do think that the exchange rate is still really favorable. It is a HUGE country obviously and there are so many different landscapes to experience- Buenos Aires is a wonderful capital city, Mendoza for wine country, Igauzu Falls in the Northeast, Salta/Jujuy is practically indigenous in the Northeast and it blew me away, and then Bariloche/Patagonia in the South. We were there for 6 months for study abroad so we could spread out the long bus trips to these regions. Buses will likely be inefficient for a 1-2 week trip to try to tackle all of this but their bus system was really robust and orderly. I would highly recommend it to anyone once you get your flight down there.

  13. PS: I save money on rental cars by booking however (refundable, I like Costco) and then using Autoslash! It’s a little bit of work, but I consistent save a ton, as long as you book the car in advance (which isn’t a big deal since most don’t have cancelation fees)

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