Nothing taints the afterglow of a great trip like realizing you unwittingly overpaid for hotel Wi-Fi (small print can be a big bastard) or that your by-the-book habits caused you to miss out on amazing deals and experiences. That said, admitting that you’re an imperfect voyager is the first step towards perfecting the voyage. Step two? Reading our guide to smart, thrifty travel.
Mistake #1: Getting gouged by baggage fees when checking your bicycle
Fix: Fly bike-friendly airlines such as Frontier, which waives oversize fees (most airlines tack on extra for items larger than 62 dimensional inches) and charges its usual $20 baggage fee for bikes under 50 pounds. If you’re traveling within the U.S., another relatively cheap route is to ship your ride to your destination. We know a guy who once mailed his carbon Santa Cruz Blur to Minneapolis from Seattle for around $50 using shipbikes.com’s four-day ground option. Or avoid the point-A-to-B hassle and try a rental—an especially good choice in mountain-bike towns such as Winter Park, where shops lure customers with sexy, new demo equipment. P.S. This fix applies to other bulky gear as well, including skis, snowboards, and tackle.
Mistake #2: Paying full price at National Parks
Fix: Entry fees help keep the nation’s parks beautiful (not to mention operational), but depending on the size of your group and mode of transportation, those fees can add up. One solution for park groupies is the $80 annual “interagency” pass, which covers standard entrance fees for up to four adults at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. If you’re just plain cheap (hey, we don’t judge), get your fill of purple mountain majesties on annual free days. Upcoming dates for gratis entry to Yosemite, Mount Zion, and others include September 28 (National Public Lands Day) and November 9 to 11 (Veterans Day weekend).
Mistake #3: Overspending on overnights
Fix: We’re all for splurging on upscale lodging once in awhile, but we generally prefer to spend less on a bed and more on simply enjoying the wild. The next time you need temporary shelter that isn’t a tent, think outside the hotel. Take the Crash Pad in downtown Chattanooga. Located near the southern Appalachians and the Tennessee River Blueway, this “boutique hostel” is marketed towards hikers, bikers and kayakers, offering curtained-off bunks for $27, private rooms for $70, free Wi-Fi, and free breakfast featuring locally sourced breads and jams. Property rental site Arbnb offers similarly unique and affordable accommodations for rent (think Airstream trailers) or, if you’re feeling really brave, you could always crash on a stranger’s sectional. Niche couch-surfing sites are growing in popularity, including warmshowers.org, a “worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists.”
Mistake #4: Following the herd
Fix: The easy, obvious fix: avoid the crowds and travel just before or after high season. September, for example, is a great time to visit Redwood National Park (see note in “Mistake #2” about free dates). The not-as-easy-but-probably-more-interesting solution: Forget popular destinations altogether and explore off-the-radar spots such as Nicaragua, home to great surfing (try the remote surf zone of Chinandega for uncrowded swells and crazy-cheap lodging), and Myanmar, home to not a single Starbucks... yet.
Mistake #5: Over-packing
Fix: Compression sacks won’t always save you. Sometimes your load needs further slimming and lightening, whether for a backcountry getaway or to avoid having to check a bag. That’s when you leave your iPhone charger at home and invest in the Mophie Juice Pack Plus ($119.95), a slim, sleek case that adds 120 percent extra battery life to your iPhone 5—a great option for a quick weekend trip. That’s when you use hotel conditioner as a substitute for shaving cream (hey, those travel-size bottles take up space). And that’s when you pack a couple Metal Vent Tech Short Sleeves by Lululemon ($64) instead of a drawer’s worth of tees. These workout shirts boast anti-stink properties—a definite bonus when on the road—mesh venting, and are seam-free to prevent chafing.
Mistake #6: Wasting precious travel dollars on unnecessary purchases
Fix: A $5 bottle of artesian water bottled by Trappist monks? Unnecessary. Instead, pack a CamelBak Groove (from $20), an all-in-one water bottle and filter (just realize the filter is intended to enhance flavor, not keep you safe from microbes). Other avoidable on-the-road purchases include airport snacks (pack a mess of Lärabars) and overpriced pro shop golf balls (always travel with an extra box of balls). Tackle from fancy outfitters is heavily marked-up as well, so serious anglers should travel with backup line and lures.
Mistake #7: Overpaying for a lift
Fix: Buses, trains and taxis are a fact of life on the road, but if the time and setting are right, snagging a cheaper lift isn’t as tough (or scary) as you might think. National rideshare service ridebuzz.org connects drivers and passengers for “one-time trips, road-trips and commutes.” Or try unofficial modes of local public transport such as chiva buses and jeepneys—funky, repurposed artisan vehicles found in Colombia and the Philippines, respectively. Feeling really broke or adventurous? Thumb a ride. Hitchhiking is still a safe, socially acceptable option in certain parts of the world, including Cuba and Poland. For hitchhiking info and tips check out hitchwiki.org and digihitch.com.
Mistake #8: Booking everything online
Fix: You can’t haggle with a robot (we tried once and it got ugly), so always talk to a human when reserving lodging, transportation, etc. When calling hotels, ask to speak with the general manager or someone in guest relations and inquire about special rates or deals. If all else fails, cut to the chase and ask if the place is full. If not, that’s your negotiation cue. If a hotel is desperate enough to fill a room, and most are, you just might land a nicely priced night’s sleep. That said, never call 1-800 numbers, which are frequently staffed by outside contractors who don’t care about you and want you to have a horrible trip (we’re only partly joking here). Always call businesses directly.
Mistake #9: Failing to take advantage of loyalty programs
Fix: This one’s easy: be a selective joiner, get great perks. Enrolling in airline, car-rental, and hotel programs is a no-brainer (shout-out to Marriott Rewards and their no blackout date policy)—but almost every type of biz in the travel/tourism sector offers a club for frequent customers. One of our favorites is Vail Resorts’ PEAKS Rewards, whereby members earn points for spending money at Vail, Breckenridge and other ski areas, and are paid back in free lift tickets, ski school lessons, and other goodies. And don’t forget about credit cards for travelers—we’re digging the new Barclaycard Arrival, which pays double the miles on travel and dining purchases.
Mistake #10: Completely shunning your smartphone during your outdoor odyssey
Fix: Checking your work email while backpacking is obnoxious, but so is being a total luddite in the wild. Find a happy medium where digital tech complements or even enhances your vision quest. Download outdoor-oriented apps such as the SAS Survival Guide (for Windows, iOS and Android), packed with survival tips from a former British Special Air Service soldier. Speaking of survival, if you’re heading far off the grid, consider investing in the Thuraya SatSleeve ($499). This adaptor slips over your iPhone 4 or 4S, converting it into a satellite phone that can make calls and send texts in ultra-remote corners of the world. This fall, Thuraya plans to release a model that offers data as well, but we might suggest staying away from that one. After all, your Twitter followers can wait.