Friday, January 3, 2014

Travel: Getting There Thriftily

Bogus title, I know.  Oh well.

Getting there seems to be the toughest place to cut $$ in my travel.   Here are some things I try but I'm really and truly open to suggestions on this topic.  This is a weak spot for me.

It's convenient, fast, etc, but it also means you have to get to an airport.  When you live in a populated area it's a bit easier.   You can take public transport, or a cab, or a shuttle, or whatever.   I live in the boonies.  Taking the bus to the airport would be cheap, but for a 6am flight, I'd need to leave the house at about noon the day before the flight.  If I arrived back at the airport anytime after noon, I'd be lucky to be home before 10pm.  Still, I may try it sometime.

As it is, I end up driving to the airport, often the night before if it's an early flight, and paying to park.  The convenience and safety and flexibility outweigh the cost for me.  There are two hotels within walking distance of the airport which allow you to park your car for up to 1 or 2 weeks (they differ) for the price of a room.   I calculate that cost vs parking in the airport lot and walking to the hotel.  The benefit is, I don't miss flights.   Counting on driving in the wee hours of the morning isn't a good idea for me.  6 months of the year we risk bad roads from ice, black ice, freezing fog, freezing rain, snow, fog, etc.  And I'm just not up for driving at 3am anymore.   Much safer to pay for the hotel.

Since I'm not near a major airport, it can be quite expensive to fly.  Especially when you add in parking.  When the inconvenience of the flight schedules and the time to get to the airport, arriving 90min before the flight, etc, is added in, I often drive to places even when I could fly.   For example, Seattle.   There ARE cheap flights, but, I would need to drive to the airport, more than an hour each way, and pay to park, arriving 90 minutes before my flight.   90 minutes of wait time at the airport plus 90 minutes for the we're at 3 hours.  The drive to Seattle is 5 hours.   Once I would fly to Seattle, the airport is a good hour from where I need to be in the city.   There is another hour.  Now the total is 4 hours of drive/transit time and we haven't even added in flight time and tarmac time yet.  It's basically faster to drive.

I found a similar issue when I calculated a trip to Portland.  The flight times were  extremely inconvenient and would have meant a night at a hotel in Spokane.  For the cost of the hotel, I could drive and park at the Portland airport.   So I did.

I haven't taken a cross country bus lately.   One issue is the boonies location noted above.  About 2 years ago regularly scheduled bus routes started up in this area again.  Since then the number of trips through has steadily decreased.   Then there are the connections.  It would take me about 11 hours to get to Seattle by bus given the bad connections.   I could cut 5 of those hours off by driving to Spokane, but there is no where to park in the vicinity of the bus garage.  I COULD park out at the airport and take the city bus back into town to the cross country bus terminal...but now we're paying for parking and adding hours to the trip again.    There is a possibility of driving south to Moscow Idaho and catching a Seattle bound bus and I may try that sometime.  If someone will let me park in their driveway.  I can't just leave the car on the street in the winter due to snow plowing.  I won't just get plowed in, I'll get towed.

I love the train in Europe.  I'd love to take the train here.  It leaves Spokane, for Seattle, at 2am.  From a scary part of town with coin-op outdoor, unmanned, parking!   By the time I add in the cost of getting a new car and the aggravation of dealing with the insurance after my car is stolen/stripped/smashed (or all three), it wouldn't be worth it.   Taking the bus into Spokane...see above.  I'd arrive about 8 hours before the train left.   And then there is the cost.  It's cheaper to pay for gas and drive myself.   The train to Iowa would be fun too.  I could possibly catch it in another town, also in the week hours of the night.  It takes a day and a half to two days to get within 3 hours of my folks' house.  So that is not particularly convenient.  Trying to carry food for that long and to keep clean would be gross.  Again, I'll pay less to fly or drive.

From all that it seems there is no cheap way to get places, distant places, when one lives in the boonies.   So, here are a few ways I minimize the costs:

Flying:  I keep "alerts" on cheap ticket prices for places I go regularly.   I've never bought a ticket when one of these alerts emails me, but it gives me an idea of the lowest price I can get on a flight to that area so when it's time to go, I can shoot for something in that range.
I also keep track of websites that tell the best day to buy tickets and explain the current trends in flexible pricing (e.g., right now purchase on Tuesday and be ready to travel any day of the week.  It used to be cheapest T-Th, but not always anymore).    That also shows that I keep my dates somewhat flexible.  I have a job and can't travel just any time, but I can usually shoot for anytime within a 2 week window.  I use the aggregator sites like Travelocity and Orbitz, and I also call the airlines and check their websites and purchase whatever is cheapest.    NO ADD-ONS.   Not even a checked bag.   I'll wear two sweaters and a coat onto the airplane but I will not pay 25$ for someone to kick my bag around the tarmac.    For 25$, or whatever the bag fee is, I can go to a thrift store and buy several outfits if need be.   I take whatever seat I can get and I suck it up.   I will not pay to get on earlier, more leg room, marginally more edible food, etc.   I carry nuts and a refillable water bottle so I don't starve on the flight. 
And of course there is finding the cheapest parking, taking into account everything from delays, shuttle times, etc.   Since I have a bit more $$ now than when I was in college, I no compromise a bit for convenience.
If you have the time and the airline offers, take the $$ to get off the plane.  I could have done this on the way back from my most recent trip to Iowa, but the offer wasn't real cash, just flight vouchers that had to be used in a limited time frame, and would have meant getting back a day late.   I skipped that offer but when I was in college I would have run off the plane for that sort of thing.
 Find the most cost effective way to get from the destination airport to the final destination.  Talking someone into picking you up for free is the cheapest.  Check into shuttles and other group transportation.  Not always the fastest, but it might work.   And of course, public transportation. This worked fabulously in DC, will not work well in Waterloo, Iowa.

Driving:   Keep the car in good shape with oil changes and air filters and proper tire pressure.  Carry drinks and food from home to save $$ on road snacks (and the inevitable dose of Imodium from ill-advised road snacks).  Drive slower.   I gain 10-20% on gas mileage if I drive 60 or slower.   That really adds up on long trips as well as regular driving.  Leave plenty of time to get where you're going.  I find that this cuts down on stress, which cuts down on snacking and speeding so indirectly, it saves me $$.    Once you get where you are going, still use public transportation if you can.  In Seattle I have a hotel that is thrifty and includes free parking.  I take the bus and walk once I'm there.  Driving downtown means gas, aggravation, and parking fees.  Riding the bus means seeing strange people and getting good stories.

OK, that's a lot of information. 

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