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In January I wrote a blog post about how I make the lifestyle of “digital nomadism” work. I mentioned a couple of websites and strategies to score good travel deals. However, it was not the focus of the post. Since I occasionally get asked whether I have tips on how and where to book the best fares and hotels, I decided to share my ideas and strategies in a separate post.
Note that compared to some “professional” travel hackers my knowledge and experience is rather limited. Still I hope I might be able to point out some good resources and approaches. Let’s begin!
1. Be flexible
This is crucial! Flexibility is the key to travel for less. If you only have 2-4 weeks a year when you can travel, if those weeks overlap with the main travel seasons between June and August or between Christmas and New Year, or if you only can begin a trip on a Friday/Saturday, you will have to accept significantly higher costs. The obvious rule of thumb is: If you travel when nobody else travels, you pay less. Because planes and hotel are being operated anyway.
2. Join an airline loyalty program
It took me a while to realize that collecting miles really can pay off big time. And even though the overall attractiveness of these programs for the average traveller is slowly getting worse, there is still a lot of value that can be accessed. My advice: Join the loyalty program of one of the three big airline alliances, depending on which airline you usually fly with – but only if you are flexible in regards to your travel schedule. If you solely are able to travel during certain weeks and days of the year, you might end up paying much more for the fares than what you can “earn” with your loyalty to one airline alliance. In that case, it is better to skip the miles hunt and simply go for the most desirable fare, no matter what airline or alliance. For U.S. based travelers, one additional (or even main) source of miles could be credit card sign-up bonuses.
3. Follow deal blogs for airfares
It can be both inspiring as well as generate significant savings to follow websites that list fare deals. For trips starting from the U.S., The Flight Deal as well as the FareCompare Deals blog are good sources to keep an eye on. For trips starting in Europe, Flynous.com has good deals. If you know other sites worth recommending, feel free to share them in the comments.
4. Use the right tool to find the best airfares
The best search engine for airfares is the ITA Matrix Airfare Search. Read tutorials (here and here) to learn how to make best use of it. It’s extremely versatile. Note: You cannot book flights through it, so after you found your fare you need to search it on a booking site or meta-search engine or the airline website (see point 5). Also: Some low-cost airlines are not included. Thus ITA Matrix is best for long-haul flights and complex itineraries. In case you do not only want inexpensive but also convenient, you might want to have a look at Routehappy, a site that offers you a “happiness score” for flights.
5. Use the right tool to book the best airfares
There is an abundance of sites to book flights as well as meta-search engines that direct you to booking sites. I like Skyscanner and Kayak (both meta-search engines). The former includes many obscure and low cost airlines, which can be a plus. Unfortunately Skyscanner sometimes links to rather sketchy booking sites that have earned a bad reputation and bring you lots of hidden fees. I would advise you to only book with reputable names. If you are in doubt, do a research for the site that you are about to book a flight on. Rule of thumb: If a specific flight fare is significantly cheaper on one site than anywhere else, this is red flag. Unlike with hotel rooms, the price for a specific flight usually does not differ too much across different booking sites.
In case you are wondering when the timing is ideal to make a booking to your desired destination, read this article.
6. Hotels are different than flights
Booking a hotel room is different than booking a flight, because the prices for the same room on the same day can vary a lot, depending on where you book, if you have a coupon, if you choose non-refundable or with free cancellation, and so on. A good way to start is getting yourself an overview about the overall price situation. I prefer to do that on Tripadvisor. To each hotel room, it shows all the booking sites and their rates.
7. U.S. sites are often cheaper
Provided that you own a credit card that does not impose fees for bookings in foreign currencies and that you are fine with dealing with customer support in English (if an issue arises), I recommend U.S. booking sites for hotels (even for hotels in other countries). Not only are rates often a bit cheaper than on European sites. Also those sites have interesting loyalty programs and usually offer coupons that you can apply during the booking process to bring down the rate. Obviously this requires that you have informed yourself about the current rates and are willing to invest some time for research. For a list with (mostly updated) coupons, have a look at this thread on Flyertalk before making a booking.
Personally, when it comes to making a hotel booking, I prefer U.S. based Orbitz or its sister site Cheaptickets, where rates often are better than on its European brand Ebookers. Currently, Cheaptickets has quite a rare promotion by offering $75 in hotel booking credits for each flight you book through its mobile app. I have not made use of that offer yet but it seems pretty intriguing if you anyway have a hotel/flight booking coming up.
One caveat: Orbitz, Cheaptickets and most U.S. based sites always charge your card at the time of booking, even if your rate includes free cancellation (which in that case would mean that you get a refund). If you do not like that, or if for a certain destination U.S. sites lack a selection of good accommodations, European competitor Booking.com might be the best alternative. Booking.com also has a bigger variety of accommodation types, including hostels, bed & breakfasts and apartments. Obviously, when talking about apartments, one should not forget to mention Airbnb.
8. Cancel and rebook
If you made a hotel room reservation with free cancellation, just have a look at the rate a couple of weeks later (or a couple of weeks/days before your stay). Rates are very fluctuating and sometimes get cheaper over time, depending on the occupancy. It can totally be worth it to cancel a booking for free and book again, if rates have dropped. Just make sure you really can cancel for free and that the desired room is still available.
9. Final thoughts
It’s really up to each to decide how advanced strategies one wants to use. Generally I think flight and hotel booking is a typical case for the 80:20 principle: With 20 percent of a time investment you can leverage 80 percent of the possible savings. Some people (like me) might enjoy researching for future trips so much that they decide to invest an extraordinary amount of time to make the perfect booking (an especially cheap one or one that gets you a slightly better flight routing or hotel class for the same amount of money). But this approach is not for everybody.
10. Further reading
In case you want to get really serious about travel hacking, here are a couple of blogs you could follow: The Points Guy, Nomadic Matt, Loyalty Lobby, Hack My Trip, Frugal Travel Guy. They are quite U.S. centric and write a lot about the credit card-based “miles game”, so it won’t be completely relevant to people from outside the U.S. Still, these sites keep an eye on the industry and regularly notify about the latest news, approaches, offers and deals.
In case you have any questions, comments or additional recommendations, please leave a comment.
And a final Disclaimer: Whatever you do after reading this post, there are no guarantees that these strategies, tips and resources lead to the best result in your specific case.
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