There are those people who don’t like to be called cheap. They feel it’s an insult. They feel that their financial well-being is brought into question. They appreciate the finer things in life and are willing to pay more to get them. I am not one of those people. When someone calls me cheap, I take it as a complement. Because in my book, being cheap is akin to being smart. It’s akin to being conscientious. And I see it as one of the great challenges of travel – a challenge I welcome. In a series of posts to follow, I’ll lay out a number of ways one can travel on the cheap, or simply cut costs when heading to an expensive destination. The first post in this series is about transport.
Often the priciest part of traveling is…traveling, i.e., getting from point “A” to point “Paradise”. The plane ticket is the first real test as to whether a person will become a ‘traveler’. But buying that plane ticket doesn’t necessarily have to cost an inordinate sum of money. Call in the miles/points cards. Miles/points cards, as I call them, are credit cards that give their owner a high amount of airline miles (or bank card points that can easily be converted into airline miles) after spending a certain amount of money – usually between $2,000-$5,000 in the first three months of card ownership. For a lot of people, myself included, spending this kind of money on a credit card is not easy. (Remember, I’m a cheapskate!) What I suggest doing is timing large purchases that were going to be made anyway, such as tuition payments, home improvements, car/computer/insert-big-ticket-item-here purchases with the arrival of a new miles/points credit card. This way, you don’t have to spend anything extra to rack up minimum spending. Over the course of a single year in graduate school, I amassed over 200,000 airline miles by charging my tuition to four of these cards and paying it off the next month. There also used to be this thing called manufactured spending that people would do to make it seem like they spent the money but they really didn’t and although it’s still possible to pull this off, it’s said to be exceedingly difficult and a little expensive, so there’s little point in going into detail on it here. The best cards for domestic flights are the Southwest Premier and Plus series and the best cards for international travel are the Chase Sapphire, United Plus Explorer, and Ink series along with the Citibank American Airlines card. There are sure to be other deals out there but I’d recommend checking these out first and sometimes it’s beneficial to wait for promotions (which are generally known about well in advance and carry over from year to year) to increase the size of the sign on bonus (generally, promotional offers increase bonuses from 10,000-20,000 miles). Even after earning your big sign-on bonus (usually between 40,000 to 60,000 miles), the cards will continue racking up miles with each additional purchase. And if your travel game plan is not “if” but “when” and “where”, these points are worth significantly more than the penny on the dollar cash back cards promise you. So, step one: Apply for a points/miles card…or two.
Once you’ve got those big sign on bonuses burning a hole in your pocket, it now becomes a matter of putting them to use. Naturally, the best use of these miles is to use them to buy flights. Transit costs between certain places using points is not always intuitive, so I would recommend analyzing award maps to see which flights provide you the greatest bang for your mile. For instance, a one way flight to Pohnpei, Micronesia would cost around $1500 if purchased traditionally using dollars. The same flight can be had using United miles for only 35,000 miles. This breaks down to the miles being worth 4.3 cents each. Let’s say you were also thinking about flying to Thailand. You look into one way flights to Bangkok and find that they are only $600, but to buy them using miles would cost you 40,000 miles. This equates to your miles to Bangkok being worth only 1.5 cents each, still better than a 1% cash back card, but not nearly as good a deal as the flight to Micronesia. Can you tell I’m big upping Micronesia? It’s an amazing place that most people will never visit. But you can for only 70,000 miles round trip!
This isn’t to say that I’m suggesting flying to whichever place provides you the best return on your miles, but it’s a good idea to hash it out to get as much value for your assets as possible. Speaking of adding value, if you are flying internationally, the best way to enhance your trip is to extend a layover. Depending on which airline you fly with, you can choose to extend a layover on a round trip or open-jaw international flight at no extra cost. This is like getting a free vacation tacked on to your existing travel plans. The first time I did this, I spent three weeks in Hawai’i on my way back from Micronesia…for free. The next time I stopped in London, and the most recent time doing this we spent 10 days in Japan. It should be noted that by extending layovers, you may incur airport fees/taxes (London’s fee to deboard the plane was something like $200, while Japan didn’t charge a thing.) but the airlines don’t charge you anything to do it. You just have to find the right agent to book the flight for you (some will have no idea what you’re talking about, but the more seasoned reps know what’s up) or be familiar enough with the online booking system to do it yourself. If you elect to book your tickets the old fashion way, using Kayak or Skyscanner, the easiest way to find the cheapest flight dates (provided your dates are flexible) is by using these sites’ monthly view feature. Step two: Book that flight!
Once you’ve found that perfect destination and booked your ticket using miles earned on your miles/points card(s), you’ll probably be looking at a long layover or two. One of the unfortunate consequences of award flights is their proclivity for long flights with multiple long layovers. For instance, I just flew from Micronesia to South Korea, a distance as the crow flies of just over 2000 miles (less than the distance from NYC to LA). It took us 30 hours to make that flight. We were in 6 different airports and spent the night in China. Tick off another country from the list!? Prolly not, she says. But is it even worth buying an award ticket if you’re just going to be paying for a hotel room for the night? And to that I ask, how many times do I need to say, “I’m a cheapskate!?” There will be no airport hotels…only airport air mattresses. These posts are about skimping and I’m going to tell you how to get to the extremes…but do it in the easiest, most comfortable way possible. First, the airport lounges are never open when you want them to be so you’ll be waiting in the terminal overnight. The best thing to do in this case is to find a dark, quiet corner and whip out that blow up air mattress and start huffing and puffing until you’ve blown your bed up. Mine only takes 11 breaths, so it’s ready in under a minute. Then, carefully slip the eye mask over your head, put the earplugs in, pop a melatonin for peace of mind, and snuggle up under one of those nice blankets they give you on the plane. You did take that blanket from the plane with you, didn’t you? Ok, good. I hoped we were on the same page about that. Sleeping in airports not only saves you money but time as well, given that you are already in the terminal and don’t have to make the trip from and back to the airport. Step three: Buy that air mattress!
Once you’ve reached your destination and step foot outside the airport/train station/bus terminal, prepare to be swarmed by taxi drivers and other ‘pimps de transport’. Taxi drivers, in particular, are almost never to be trusted. Moments ago, I argued with a taxi driver over a fare – he wanted to charge $10 when the fare should have been closer to $5. I knew this because earlier I simply googled “taxi from Hanoi Train Station to Giap Bat bus station price” and found that an Uber should cost around $4. When the first Uber driver cancelled the trip after about 5 minutes of waiting, I decided to take a taxi. First he tried to charge $10; I countered that Uber charges only $4. He claimed the bus station was 30 km away (I knew it was only 7 km). I said I’d give him $5; he came down to $7. I started walking away; he came down to $6. I figured that the ‘walk away price’ is the best price I could get out of him. When I got into the cab he again tried to charge me $7. I said, “Let’s just see what the meter says.” He pushed a button on the meter and it started ticking up quickly and by the end had reached a ridiculous $50. He pointed to the meter; I dismissively told him that it was broken. He purported to not understand me; I said, “The meter is wrong.” We pulled into the bus station about 9 minutes after leaving the bus station (Earlier, he had claimed that it would take 25 minutes.) and before getting out of the car, he asked me for “the money.” Ignoring him, I got out and got my bags; once I had them in hand, I gave him the $6 we had settled on back at the train station. He started complaining; I followed suit, calling a bus station attendant over to settle the dispute. I asked her how much per km; she said $.50 after a $1.50 door fee. Easy math led me to $5, case settled; the $6 we had earlier negotiated was more than a fair price. I couldn’t be sure whether his “Thank you very much” was genuine or not, but you could tell he certainly was used to this kind of thing. As was I – this is a typical example of what local transportation is like, especially in developing countries. Lesson #1: Don’t trust taxi drivers. Lesson #2: Research taxi/transportation costs ahead of time. Lesson #3: Negotiate like a mofo. Note: the same may apply to buses, particularly local buses. Also, recruit people in the airport baggage claim area/on plane to share a taxi with you to the center of town, old quarter or wherever most of the hotels are.
Once you’ve reached your lodging destination and explored the big city to your satisfaction, I hope you will venture out into the hinterlands to experience local culture and natural beauty. One of the most time and cost effective ways to do this is via the dreaded night bus. The first time I took the night bus (a.k.a. “sleeper bus”) from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam, I was “seated” in what can best be described as ‘the coffin’ at the back of the bus next to the bathroom with people sleeping right up against me and right above me. It was about 100 degrees in the cabin and my aircon vent wasn’t working. I couldn’t stand it. I sucked it up, literally, and slept on the floor in front of the shitter until we arrived. I must say, it was worse than trying to sleep on the deck of a shipping vessel in a storm on the open ocean with people puking all around me. I’m really playing this night bus thing up, aren’t I? Sometimes night trains are available but they are generally much more expensive, often slower, and not much less rough a ride than the busses. The key to the night bus is to buy your ticket early and get a good seat on the ground floor near the front of the bus. This will limit the amount of back and forth and up and down jostling you’ll experience and make your sleep that much sweeter. Another nice thing about sleeper buses is that they are super efficient (assuming you’re able to sleep while on them) in that you board in one city and wake up in a far off place, having paid little more than the cost of a hostel for the night. In this way, sleeper buses allow you to take full advantage of your time in country and are especially useful on short holidays. Did I mention they save you money? As you have probably deduced by now, by sleeping on the bus, you totally cut out the need to pay for a hostel for the night. This, combined with their efficiency, makes me a fan of sleeper buses, acknowledging, of course, the possibility of complete and utter discomfort while riding them.
While I was explaining the taxi fiasco above, you may have wondered how I knew the distance from the train to the bus station. Sure, I could have googled it ahead of time, but there’s only so much googling one man can google. Instead, I relied on this handy app: Maps.me. Maps.me is free and works with the GPS on your phone or wireless device to provide you a navigation system without the need to use data or have a cell signal. Country maps are downloaded ahead of time and pins can be dropped or addresses entered to gain turn by turn navigation for both walking and driving. This is most useful when finding your own way around a place via foot, bike, moto, or rental car. Even in very remote places (without cell towers), this app still provides a zoomable map, with detailed information on all that surrounds you, but you may not have a GPS location to guide you. Note: Also, hostels/hotels can provide you some advice on what to do and how to get from place to place, but in some cases, they may direct you to more expensive/more touristy/crowded options.
Walking is fine for most cities, especially when they have good local public transportation systems. This is often some of the most efficient and inexpensive travel possible and buying a one-day use pass in lieu of a single fair each way will save you even more dough. It’s prudent to download a copy of the city’s metro map to your phone/tablet ahead of time and study it to determine what stations you’ll be using and how to get around, making the whole process that much less intimidating and time consuming. Renting bicycles is another option for cities or rural areas where attractions are densely clustered, and in some cases, hotels will provide use of bicycles for free if you ask about them. I’ve never rented bikes from the stables seen in some cities, but depending on the city, this looks to be a sweet deal as well. If a destination is further afield, motor bikes are a good option. Although costs vary, they can be rented for as little as $4 per day and use little more than a single gallon of gas over an entire day of riding. Most bikes are fairly intuitive and don’t even have a clutch – just gas and brake. If you’re traveling with a partner, the two of you can even share a motorbike and cut costs even further. Your bum may yell at you though if you ride for more than an hour and a half at a time, so prepare to break up your trip somehow with lunch or an intermediate destination.
The final, and usually most expensive, way of finding your own way around a foreign place is by rental car. In most cases, it’s easier, cheaper, and ultimately faster to get from hotel to attraction by public bus, metro, or any of the methods above. But in some cases, cars can be rented for a surprisingly low price. For instance, because parking in Mexico City is some of the worst in the world, no one rents cars there. But for some reason, there are plenty of rental car agencies and rental cars. This imbalance in the supply of cars with the demand for them creates an astonishingly low price. It may be hard to believe, but I paid less than $3 per day for a mid-sized rental car there and since it was so cheap, I added the (possibly legally required?) insurance for another $8. I wanted to get to some far afield trailheads for some more extreme hikes/climbs and visit a nature sanctuary in between, so this was a great option allowing me to make the most efficient use of my short time there. And remember, Maps.me has got your back on the navigation, but just be prepared to wait in Mexico City traffic for about 3 hours before getting on the highway. Did I mention you can sleep in them too? Obviously this isn’t the accommodation of choice, but it works in a pinch, and with the back seat down can be comfortable enough with the help of that airline blanket and air mattress you’re carrying. It’s also a good fall back for when you arrive in a town after all the hotels have been shuttered for the evening or when you get kicked off the beach you were trying to sleep on. Rental car prices can vary and you’d be surprised where you can find deals – my upscale rental car in Hawai’i was only $15 per day. Googling is fine to source rental cars internationally, but I’ve found hotwire.com to have some of the best deals for domestic rentals.
In the preceding paragraphs, I explained how to get a plane ticket to the other side of the world for free using miles/points cards, extend your layover to add a vacation to your vacation for free, how to most comfortably endure the overnight layover, once again, for free, how to negotiate your way to your arrival city accommodations as cheaply as possible on taxi or local bus, save time and money by taking night buses to destinations far afield, use apps like maps.me to find your own way around via foot, bike, motorbike and car, thereby negating the need to join crowded, cheesy, pricey, and fast-paced tours. Transportation tends to be one of, if not the most expensive components of travel, and sometimes, there’s really no way around paying for it. It just makes more sense to pay $300 for a flight from Delhi to Dar es Salaam instead of forking over 50,000 points for it. It’s worth it to jump on the express bus to Xela and spend $5 more for it than to sit on a local bus for three hours longer. And sometimes, you just want to experience certain modes of transportation, whether it’s a lightening fast Japanese bullet train or the ancient Himalayan Express to Darjeeling. But the cost of getting somewhere shouldn’t stop you from following your dreams. Anywhere is within reach for far, far cheaper than you would think.
Postscript: The Realities of Transport
It should be noted that, in spite of all our efforts, we are often flummoxed by transport. When reliable information isn’t available ahead of time/online, the only option that remains is winging it. Though anecdotal evidence exists suggesting that on the spot planning can be a breeze, more often than not, this is not the case. Even when we’ve researched the bejesus out of a place, things can go awry. This is why transport is not only the most expensive part of travel, but also the most frustrating. Be prepared to haggle and shop around, research and then walk away, but also prepared to be disappointed, overpay, and eat crow.
Case in point: Only days prior to publishing this piece, having just laid out the budget transportation sitch from A to Z, we faced a transit decision. Though not the biggest decision by any means, it turned into as much a fiasco as we’ve had to date. Having just spent the last three days in Bagan without quality internet, we hopped on a bus to Mandalay, from where we would catch another to the remote mountain town of Kyaukme. The bus station at which we were dropped in Mandalay was not the same bus station servicing Kyaukme, so we’d either need to catch a taxi 20 minutes to the other station or take a shared taxi all the way to K-town. Getting off the bus in Mandalay, we were told the bus to Kyaukme would be 1500k (about $1). As it turns out, the bus was actually a shared taxi that would cost 15,000k each ($25). Trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the price down, and not feeling like waiting 3 hours to save what would have amounted to $9 to take a local bus there, we opted to suck it up and take the more expensive shared taxi. However, after driving around Mandalay on what appeared to be errands for an hour and a half without leaving, with each successive stop supposedly the last, we were fuming. Finally, I got out of the car and asked for our money back. After arguing for a few minutes and having them refuse to discount the rate, they finally agreed to give us our money back but wouldn’t tell us how to get to the Kyaukme bus station. Being in the middle of a city with a non-functioning GPS and no one around that speaks English is an experiment in exasperation, so what did we do? The only thing we reasonably could at that point: swallow our pride, get back in the car, and pay the previously agreed upon price.
Did we get there safe and sound? Well, I’m drafting this as we careen around switchbacks on a potholed road leading up into the Shan Highlands, but let’s assume the answer will be yes. The point, however, is not about simply getting there, but getting there as effectively as possible, meaning with as little frustration, time, money, discomfort, and risk as possible. At this we failed, and this certainly won’t be the last time we fail, spending too much money, getting too frustrated, or being all too uncomfortable in the process. Yet, we push onward, learning from each encounter, because an unwillingness to do so would mean that we’re relegated to big cities or resort towns, and that’s simply not how we do.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “How to Travel the World on the Cheap. Part 2: Accommodations”