Monday, February 28, 2011

Budget travel: Not Just for Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves

(Cher knows what it is like to be a traveler on a budget)

I will not waste time here explaining the long silence between my last post and this* but will get right to "the good stuff," if you will.

So. Now that you have saved a nice little pile of your local currency** you are ready to start hemorrhaging said cash by way of your travels. Congratulations! The first thing that you need to think about buying is obviously some sort of transportation from where you are to where you want to be. Unfortunately, if you are planning on crossing any oceans, it is almost necessary to buy a plane ticket. It used to be quite easy to hop on to ships and work a bit to pay your way, thus both saving money and have a much more interesting experience, but now impromptu jobs like these are all but extinct. The trick to finding the lowest rates on international airfare is to be flexible and patient; compare lots of different dates and expand your search to neighboring airports, and you may just find a gem. And obviously, the sooner you book, the cheaper it will be. I use all the typical sites like Farecompare, Kayak, and Expedia, but also check the airlines' corporate sites once I see a trend. But buying airline tickets is so boring, so let us move on.

If you are staying on your continent (or, once you arrive on the continent of your choice) you are going to need some ground transit. Now, obviously I am a little biased when it comes to comparing different modes, but I do acknowledge the necessity of buses and cars at certain very specific times. If we conceptualize it as a pyramid of transit, we can build a base of the railroad, supplemented by bikes, horses, buses etc, with a very sparing usage of automobiles only when absolutely necessary. On the subject of purchasing Amtrak tickets, I have myriad tips for the attainment of the cheapest fare possible.

Are you a student? For $20 you can become a member of the Student Advantage rewards program, giving you 15% off all tickets and select other discounts as well. Over 65? A similar discount program exists for you. Travelers who will be completing their trip within a specific timeframe (15, 30, or 45 days) and plan to cover a lot of ground may save money by getting a USA Rail Pass which gives you a set amount of "travel days" within that period, for a flat rate. You may want to chat with an agent before making that purchase though, because they are a bit convoluted in structure and confused even me, a veritable railroad savant. Frequent travelers will be happy to know that there is a totally free Amtrak Rewards system that collects points from all of your tickets and puts them toward future travel or other less interesting things. Perhaps you are a businessperson, or just love charging train tickets and paying for them at a later date. You, big spender, may be interested in the Amtrak MasterCard, which gives you loads of kickbacks, rewards points, and, I've heard, personalized holiday greetings from a direct descendent of one of the Big Four. Lastly, if you have a streak of activism in you I would highly recommend becoming a member of the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP), a terribly underrated advocacy group for our endangered class of traveler. They have brokered a deal with Amtrak where as long as you book three or more days in advance, you get 10% off your fare as well. You also get a fabulous bumper sticker that says "I'd Rather Be on the Train," which is worth the $40 yearly membership alone.

In addition to these programs, Amtrak is always cooking up new ways to get cheaper tickets, which are advertised on their website and range from double rewards points on certain fare zones to contests where the person who can come up with the best trip wins a free ticket to anywhere***.

If you cannot find a trip in your budget with at least one of these tools, I respectfully recommend to you the book Hobo Sapien: Freight Train Hopping from Tao to Zen by Wayne Iversen.

On the subject of buses: I really do not enjoy even acknowledging this as an option, but a sadistic company called Greyhound does exist, and it connects terrifying and hepatitis ridden "stations" in almost every American city. Their tickets are always the same price, as far as I know, but they might not be, and regardless I have spent too many sleepless nights praying that the knife-wielding psychopath next to me will simply keep laughing softly to himself and not decide to make me his next victim**** to give Greyhound any more space or recognition in this entry.

There are also various budget private bus companies that run only popular tourist and commuter routes, for unbelievably low rates. Megabus and Bolt are two popular companies in the northeast, among others. When going shorter distances, another option for those who do not mind a few awkward transfers to save some monies, is connecting various municipal and regional transit systems, be they subway, bus, or rail. This usually takes a bit more research and coordination, but can save you quite a bit of money if you plan right.

Finally, I will give a nod to the Hitchhiking 2.0 phenomenon of Craigslist rideshares, a very adventurous mode of transit, not for the faint of heart. All you need do is either sift through ride offers from individuals traveling in your direction, or write your own ad describing your route/destination and what you can contribute to the travel experience. While I have heard stories about the potential dangers of these arrangements, I have had only positive, albeit not relaxing per sé, experiences thus far*****. Of course, there is always good old fashioned hitchhiking, but then you open yourself up to interactions with the truly insane, like the time I was picked up by the Golden Gate Bridge by a woman positively brimming with entertaining anecdotes about vehicular manslaughter and police chases.

Or, weather and quadriceps permitting, you can always hop on a bicycle, which almost certainly will be the cheapest, slowest, and most adventurous undertaking of your life, and will leave you with both weird tan lines and freakishly toned legs. If, like me, you fancy yourself just enough of an "active" traveler to want to take a bike along with you on the train for those unexpected fits of athleticism, you can box a bike on Amtrak for a very reasonable rate ($10-20 depending on facilities and box stock) or some commuter routes even have bike racks. Just check in advance to see what you are working with.

Soon, ten ways to spend 50% less on room and board in the touristic destinations of your choice, and later, the explanation of the age old adage that the best things in life are free.


*For full details, you will have to await my three-volume autobiography, to be published one hundred years after my death. For now, suffice it to say that I have been studying, working, and networking in true DC form, and am now a junior Congresswoman representing Delaware.
**I refrain from using the term greenbacks as I know I have a large, sensitive, international audience and the money in many other countries sometimes strays from the proper, classic shade of green we Americans all know and love.
***How have I never won that contest? Amtrak, how can you turn a blind eye to the suffering I endure through this unrequited love?
****I am too young to die!
*****For example: crossing the Canadian border with an Ethiopian man and being deemed very untrustworthy by all government officials from both countries, or spending six hours in a Jeep with an aspiring professional hulahoopist and her dog, while listening to electronic-dub-rave- jams at such a decibel that there is no question as to whether my ears sustained permanent damage. We stopped for juice at her mother's condo on the way.


  1. Glad to see you writing again!

    "No man is poor who can do what he likes to do once in a while! And I like to dive around in my money like a porpoise! And burrow through it like a gopher! And toss it up and let it hit me on the head!"

  2. Ah, it's good to see the old McDuck on here. I really liked all those times you stopped the Beagle Brothers from stealing your loot!

    As for NARP membership, you can always get the "student" rate for $20.

  3. I love it. Come back to Stockholm, you can even bunk with me. Doit! x