Saturday, January 11, 2014

Travel Tips for 2014




Break a resolution yet? If any were travel-related, here’s some good news: In 2014, you can save while staying the traveler that you are.

In other words, set your nonnegotiable standards, then minimize costs and maximize value. For example: Let’s say you refuse to sleep in the same room with a stranger. That means you won’t be staying in hostels, so concentrate on lowering costs on hotel stays or short-term rentals.

Here are four issues about which budget travelers of good faith can differ, and some tips on cutting costs no matter which side of the debate you’re on.

A Room of One’s Own?

This is no longer just a hostel versus hotel debate. Private rentals throughAirbnb have long been in the mainstream, and hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing and BeWelcome are thriving — two visitors from Lyon, France, who found me through Couchsurfing, are staying in my living room even as I write this.

Hostels, however, will still be the mainstay for backpacker types. Many use the big booking sites Hostelbookers.com or Hostelworld.com, but it’s also worth getting to know Hostelz.com, a search aggregator not unlike Kayak. You’ll get to compare prices for Hostelbookers and Hostelworld (as well as the Eurocentric site HostelsClub). But even better, the site also shows ratings from all the sites, as well as lengthier reviews Hostelz pays travelers to write. That’s especially important, because hostels vary as widely as hotels in comfort and cleanliness.

For those who need their privacy, don’t write off Airbnb; you can set filters to show you only private rooms or even entire houses. And despite the name, I’ve found that many Couchsurfing hosts (though not me) offer spare bedrooms.

If you really want to stick with just hotels, there are ever more ways to save. Two new sites monitor hotel prices after you reserve in case prices go down: TripRebel simply refunds you the difference, and TripBAM alerts you if the price drops in the same or nearby hotels and offers to rebook your reservation. For the truly picky, TheSuitest uses hotel features and amenities to calculate a room’s value relative to its price, so you can find the best deal on a place with, say, a gym or great views.

And finally, a compromise of sorts: the growing Britain-based Camp in My Garden (campinmygarden.com), on which users can offer their backyards to potential campers. It’s dirt cheap, and tents are, after all, completely private.

Connecting the Stops

On a flight from New York to São Paulo last year, I sat next to a young guy headed to Buenos Aires quite indirectly. He had long layovers in São Paulo and Montevideo, lengthening a 10-hour trip to more than 24 hours. But to him it was a no-brainer — he’d save a few hundred bucks.

If that sounds familiar, you probably already know how to list flights by price and set filters to allow multiple layovers on sites like Kayak and Bing Travel. And here’s another tip for flights in Europe: The WhichAirline app and site (whichairline.com) can help you find inconvenient but very cheap connections that other engines don’t. For example, it found me a $119 flight from Paris to Budapest on the budget carrier Ryanair, with a layover of about five hours in Milan each way. (The cheapest option on the usually dependable Vayama.com was $280.)

If you’re anti-layover, consider making your dates more flexible. It’s far easier than it used to be. About a year ago, Google introduced Flight Explorer (google.com/flights/explore), which displays a bar graph for the best prices to a specific destination over any specified time range. Even better, be flexible about your destination: Pick a region (“Western Europe”) and it will show you those same bar graphs for multiple destinations, starting with the cheapest options. You can also set the maximum length of the trip.

Miles Mania

There are two kinds of fliers: miles obsessives who pay more upfront for airlines in a specific alliance and shuffle miles-accruing credit cards to reap free flights at the end; and others who can’t be bothered, who just look to save on each individual flight, car rental and hotel, regardless of the brand.

Being a miles maniac requires a steep learning curve in a world that seems to be both endlessly complicated and constantly shifting. Navigating this world requires a lot of help, and many turn to smart sites likeThePointsGuy.com. Two new ones are also worth a look: Altimetr.comdebuted in June, and though it often takes a higher-end approach, evaluating business class service and private jets, it includes plenty of articles for the rest of us, like comparisons of frequent-flier programs and a useful intro to the whole points game.

If it’s all about frugality for you, try RichmondSavers.com, courtesy of a husband and wife team of C.P.A.s in Virginia, which focuses more closely on how to save big. Their step-by-step guide to a free family trip to Disney World is a good test of whether miles mania is right for you.

The Grid: On or Off?

I post to Twitter and Instagram wherever I go, but not without feeling conflicted: It’s fun, but it’s also part of my job. I’m not sure I would do it if I were traveling for pure pleasure.
But for fans of social media — and other sorts of data usage — it’s undeniably getting cheaper to stay connected. Last year, T-Mobile became the first major carrier to include international data in its regular domestic plans; customers can now check their email in Mongolia or post to Facebook from Frankfurt with no additional charge. (There is one catch: the free data comes with a promise of only 2G coverage, though you can pay for 3G and 4G, as with other carriers.) And there’s no reason anymore to pay for international text messages; that’s what WhatsApp and its ever-growing list of competitors are for. (Of course, you can also use local or international SIM cards.)

Those who do pay for data now can use it to save money more easily than before. Last year saw Google’s Field Trip (fieldtripper.com) make the jump from Android to iPhone. The app alerts you when you are near attractions, restaurants, sales and the like, using information from an ever-growing list of sources. It’s customizable, and I’ve been teaching mine to stick to the cheap stuff. Now, among other things, it alerts me when I’m near a restaurant reviewed by master hole-in-the-wall-finder Robert Sietsema for Eater.com.

Of course, those who prefer to stay out of touch and find things the old-fashioned way don’t require any fancy technology tips to help them save. In 2014, as in 1914, they’ll get their budget travel advice from handy analog devices called human beings.

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