$12.95The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less
ISBN 1-932361-39-1 200 pages
In this unusual guide to getting more for your travel dollars, value travel expert Tim Leffel passes on a winning set of strategies for cost-effective vacations. His sensible, easy-to-remember techniques show you how to avoid typical tourist mistakes and get far more for your money—every time you leave home.
Tim Will Show You:
- Which techniques can cut tour costs by 70%
- Which market forces cause tourists to overpay
- Which destinations will cut daily costs in half
- Ways that loyalty can improve your flying experience
- Ways to double your lodging space without breaking the budget
- Ways to spend more time abroad
- How to avoid travel traps that drive up expenses
- How to shave transportation costs in any location
- How to save 50% or more on hotels
- How to find quality souvenirs for a fair price
- How to eat better on the road for less money
- How to take advantage of seasonal price fluctuations
Tim Leffel is frequently quoted in the major media as a value travel expert. He has filed articles from five continents over a 15-year period, is the editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, and author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He has lived in Turkey and Korea and has a second home in Mexico.
HOW DO YOU MAKE YOUR TRAVEL DOLLARS WORTH A FORTUNE?
By Tim Leffel “I will go to my grave claiming that the less you spend, the more you enjoy, the more authentic the experience it is, the more profound, the more exciting, the more unexpected.”
—Arthur Frommer, interviewed in A Sense of Place by Michael Shapiro
A cartoon shows a couple exiting the airplane, suitcases in hand. The woman says, “That was the trip of a lifetime!” The man says, “Good thing, because that’s how long we’ll be paying for it.”
For far too many travelers, this isn’t a joke.
This book is a tale about two kinds of travelers: those who pay more than they need to by doing it the standard way, and those who make their travel dollars worth a fortune by choosing a different path. Those who travel like sheep and those who don’t.
Living somewhere in Anytown, USA is a very average American couple named Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Last year they took a very typical vacation. They talked about where they wanted to go and decided that London would be nice. They couldn’t put their finger on why, but they agreed that they had always wanted to go there. “Summer seems to be the time to go,” they agreed, “probably because the weather is nice then.” They checked into vacation packages soon after. “I didn’t realize it was so expensive to go to London,” said Mr. Smith. Neither had been reading the financial news and had no idea the dollar had declined 25% against the pound. They did not do any research about seasons, so they had no idea that summer is the most expensive time to fly.
After some cursory checking around, the Smiths booked a package containing a flight, six nights in a chain hotel whose name they recognized, and a rental car for three days. They were flying that airline for the first time and it wasn’t connected to any of their frequent-flyer plans. They weren’t quite sure where the hotel was, but the description said “central London.” Since they had a rental car for three days, they immediately set about making plans for day trips to Bath, Cambridge, and Brighton. “Might as well get our money’s worth,” said Mrs. Smith. Online they bought theater tickets for two nights and they made a detailed list of every museum and site they wanted to see.
The flight didn’t earn the Smiths any useful mileage and since it wasn’t connected to any program where they did have a lot of mileage, they could not upgrade their ticket. They sat in a cramped coach cabin for seven hours. The hotel room was tiny, routine, and far from any subway station. They spent hundreds of dollars on taxis and could not walk to anywhere for dinner in the evenings. The restaurants they did go to, mostly ones featured in their guidebook or the magazine in their hotel room, were forgettable. They found out they could have bought theater tickets to the shows they attended for half-price if they had waited until the day of the show. They were exhausted from their long day trips out of town and ended up scratching the car twice because they weren’t used to driving on the left side of the road. They ended up missing some of the London attractions on their list for lack of time, despite spending six or eight hours a day sightseeing. “Who knew the British Museum was so big?” Mrs. Smith asked.
The flight home was grueling and all the expensive souvenirs they bought made the trek through airports and customs even more difficult than it had been on the first leg. In the end, the Smiths spent a fortune on their vacation, but didn’t really enjoy it that much. Both badly needed to get some extra sleep for the following week and were dragging at work. They winced when they opened their hefty credit card bill.
Does any of this story sound familiar? Not to the Johnsons. They spend half as much and enjoy their trips twice as much. Come along and see how they do it.
A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that mice and humans react the same way when trying to escape a crowded room. The scientists set up a model based on where the exits were and it worked every time—mice and men both defy logic and rush together with a like mind. Another study conducted at Emory University found that chimps are conformists. When one chimp was taught how to retrieve food, he or she would teach that method to the group. Even if other chimps were trained individually on different methods later, they soon abandoned them for the more popular group technique.
Fortunately, when we take time to think, we can do better than mice or monkeys. A report on the September 11 terrorist attacks, written by the National Institute on Standards and Technology, found that at least 2,500 World Trade Center lives were saved because people ignored what authorities told them to do. They heard the official advice to stay put, decided it was stupid, and got the hell out of there.
Going against the tide does require a bit of sense and a willingness to think independently. Being “contrarian” is a common theme in the financial world when it comes to investment decisions. The typical individual investor sells low and buys high, time and time again. An academic study that looked at the actions of U.S. mutual fund investors over time classified them as “short-term-return chasers” who move as “lemminglike masses.” To get rich, the authors surmised, all you have to do is watch what the masses are doing and take a different path. Buy when there’s a panic, sell when there’s euphoria. The contrarian investor wins. Sounds easy, but most people can’t stick with it.
There is a similar lemminglike movement in travel. Nearly everything you read touts the same predictable, expensive path. There are good reasons for this, which I’ll go over in the first chapter, but the bottom line is that you are not likely to read a lot of advice about getting a truly good, “against the grain” travel deal in your local newspaper or glossy travel magazine. (There are exceptions, which I’ll point you to later.) What I will provide in this book is a base of solid principles you can use to get better values each and every time you travel.
This is a guide to saving money on travel by avoiding “the peaks”: peak crowds, peak seasons, peak destinations, and peak hotels, to name a few. This book will show you how to get the best deals every time by looking at each angle, not just at the most obvious costs, such as airfare. By following the easy-to-remember strategies outlined here, you will find ways not only to save money this year, but to save money each vacation for the rest of your life.
Here is a rundown on what you can expect to get out of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune.
- You will learn simple, easy-to-remember principles that will save you a huge amount of cash every time you travel.
- You will learn why most people pay more than they need to for travel and find out how to avoid the traps that can drain your wallet.
- You will learn how to see the big picture and determine which portion of your expenses can have the biggest payoff in terms of savings.
- You will learn how to prioritize your requirements or desires to figure out which items are priorities and which ones are open to more flexible options.
- When you are finished with this book, you should be able to make up for the cover price a hundred times over if you continue to follow just one chapter’s worth of tips.
The Johnsons, on the other hand, will be our contrarian travelers. They routinely use many of the techniques outlined in this book, generally doing the opposite of what the travel herds around them are doing. They think through the options and do their homework before they act. As a result, they spend a fraction of what the typical couple has spent and are able to travel better or more often as a result.
If your last name happens to be Smith or Johnson, don’t take it personally either way. These names were chosen to embody the everyman and everywoman whose research and choices determine how much they pay. Nobody of any name, race, heritage, hometown, or education level has an advantage over another when making money-saving and trip-enhancing travel decisions. (Unless you’re a citizen of Cuba or North Korea and can’t leave the country, of course!) The advice in this book is for any reader who will take the time to do a little research and make good decisions, whether you are going to a destination one town over from your own or going completely around the world over the course of a year.
Throughout this book, we will look at the basic decisions any traveler makes before and during a trip. We’ll examine the variables that factor into all aspects of travel. We’ll ask the key questions, such as, “Is there a more economical way to do this that will still provide the experience we want?” or “Could we find a better bang for our buck somewhere else?”
While a bit of the guidance contained in this book will be relevant to long-term travelers and backpackers, this is by no means a shoestring travel guide. In my younger days I stayed in more cheap guesthouses than I would like to count. I have ridden buses where one person was holding a live chicken, another man was selling grilled rats on a stick, and there was a live pig squealing on the roof. I have also been waited on hand and foot in some of the most opulent hotels in the world. I have traveled single and as half of a romantic couple, plus I have experienced the unique challenges of traveling with a small child—both within the U.S. and internationally. This book will cover all the bases. The principles here are aimed at anyone who wants a better value for their travel budget, whether that budget is tiny or lavish. The common denominator is attitude. This is meant to be a how-to guide for getting a great deal, whether your journey is for one weekend or one year, in bamboo bungalows or surrounded by marble.
I’ve traveled a lot, but there are plenty of people who know more than I do about some subjects. So you’ll also read lots of advice from experts with their own spin on specific aspects of travel, on subjects such as home exchanges, the value of loyalty, dining, and living abroad.
I can say with confidence that the money you save will be substantial. It is not uncommon to routinely pay half of what other people do if you make the right decisions on when, where, and how you travel. I know because I’ve been watching it happen over and over for two decades now, no matter where I visit. As a travel writer who publishes books and articles on value travel, I pay close attention to prices and get as much information as I can from people I come in contact with along the way. When people tell me how much they’re spending on their vacation, I just smile nicely and don’t let on what my own expenses have been like. But if you feel the urge to gloat later, I’m not going to stop you.
What I hope to get across, though, is that “the way it is done” is an option, not a given. You won’t get sent to the principal’s office for not following the norm. For the contrarian traveler, there’s almost always a better value route. As I’ll point out in the final chapter, there are times when you should just forget the price altogether and just do what you really want to do to make the experience special. This guide is for all the other times.
Like most writers on any subject, I have my own point of view and it’s only fair to admit up front that I’m biased in some areas. I do tend to favor locally owned hotels and restaurants when I travel overseas. Yes, they’re usually a better value, but I also repeatedly find I get a much stronger sense of place and meet a wider variety of people, including locals. I shy away from tightly scheduled group tours because I like to see things at my own pace. I don’t like giving up control over how I spend my day and how much free time I have. I like to spend some real time in a place and see what it has to offer, so a one-day port stop doesn’t cut it. In short, I like my options to be up to me, not someone in the travel industry.
If I seem to give short shrift to “Europe in Eight Days” tours or big Caribbean cruises, I hope you’ll understand. Even if you love those kinds of trips, you’ll still find plenty of advice in here that will help you shave costs. Just be aware that with these trips you have handed over much of the decision-making ability to someone else—someone who is getting a commission.
I could easily fill this book up with 1,000 very specific tips to save you money on travel, and probably another two or three books’ worth more to make a trilogy of it. But that’s monotonous for both of us and it’s too much for anyone to digest. You will not see detailed checklists on what time of night to buy your plane ticket, which hotel chain currently offers the best breakfast, or which frequent-flyer program can earn you a free ticket the fastest. All these kinds of tips are fleeting and would be out of date before the ink dried on these pages. I’d rather share principles that are simpler and more permanent. Besides, there are always going to be plenty of web sites to check out for an update on the deals of the week.
For the same reason, I will only mention a specific web site if it is a true “category killer” as they say in the business world. Priceline.com qualifies. CheapTicketJoe.com does not. The really key sites mentioned in the text can be found at the resources section in the back. All the rest will be listed and continually updated on the accompanying web site www.ContrarianTraveler.com.
While I’ve certainly learned more in my years of globetrotting than I ever did in four years of college, this is not going to read like a textbook. Travel is supposed to be fun, no matter how or where you go, so reading about it should be fun, too. I hope you learn a lot, become a little wiser, and become inspired to travel more and travel better. Let’s hit the road!
PART ONE: The Big Picture and the Big Expenses
1. Why the Words “Travel” and “Expensive” Are So Intertwined
Is Everyone Really Jetting Off to a Luxury Spa This Weekend?
2. Contrarian Destinations
Countries on Sale, Substitutions, and the CNN Effect
3. Contrarian Timing
Off-Season, Shoulder Season, and the “What Are You Doing Here?” Season
4. Contrarian Flights
Market Forces and Those Who Ride Them
5. Contrarian Lodging
Do You Really Need Turndown Service in Fiji?
PART TWO: Saving Pesos, Pounds, or Euros at Ground Level
6. Contrarian Dining
See Where the Tourists Are Eating, Then Go Elsewhere
7. Contrarian Ground Transportation
Suckers for Wheels and Wheels for Suckers
8. Contrarian Souvenir Shopping
How Much Would You Pay for That at Home?
PART THREE: A New Mindset for New Possibilities
9. Contrarian Planning
Reservations About Reservations
10. Contrarian Living
Blurring the Line Between Travel and Life
Epilogue: The Value of Independent Thought: When the Rules Don’t Apply
Resources and References
Is Everyone Really Jetting Off to a Luxury Spa This Weekend?
By Tim Leffel“Tales of unforgettable encounters and soul-stretching adventures don’t sell ads as well as tales of glitzy hotels and high-priced restaurants.”
—Don George, Global Travel Editor, Lonely Planet Publications
When Mr. and Mrs. Smith make vacation plans, they usually plan for “somewhere they’ve always wanted to go” and then look for a good deal. They usually find a nice package deal, plop down the money they have been saving up for a year, and spend a week in a nice resort, taking the occasional excursion on a group tour bus. On those occasions when they’re taking a short trip for a long weekend, they decide when they want to go and book something online at one of the most popular web sites. They usually pay the prevailing rate, despite the time they spend searching for the best airfare deal. They return home to a depleted bank account or lots of credit card debt.
The Johnsons, on the other hand, know there’s a better way. Before making plans, they look at which dates offer the best value and see if a mid-week departure will shave some money off their flight costs. They don’t tie themselves to a specific destination, keeping their options open to where there’s a good value. They choose a lesser-known independent hotel that is a better value than a cookie-cutter chain hotel. After arriving at their destination, they take advantage of local restaurants, local guides, and alternative transportation options. On those occasions when they’re taking a trip for a short weekend, they wait until the last minute to find a bargain offer, using a last-minute travel site or buying something at a travel auction. They know they got the best deal possible and return home to a bank account still containing enough funds for their next trip.
Are you a Smith or a Johnson?
Let’s first look at how you spend your money when you’re not traveling. How do you shop for other things? When you spend non-travel money, do you like to pay top dollar, or do you try to find a bargain?
Few people are willing to pay list price when they open their wallet. A survey conducted byMoney Magazine found that even among the wealthiest 25% of Americans, 92% said “they enjoy buying things more if they thought they got a bargain.” A survey from Visa found that three-quarters of consumers who have at least $125,000 in household income clip coupons, and two-thirds shop at discount and warehouse stores.
Despite our innate desire to uncover a bargain, even the most frugal shoppers will often throw caution to the wind when they make travel plans. Someone who drives ten blocks to save five cents per gallon on gasoline will charge $3,000 for a family holiday on the credit card without hesitation. A couple who agonizes over whether to spend an extra $12 per month to have HBO on their TV will spend ten minutes or less discussing ways to save money on their next vacation. A guy who spends a whole day trying to research how to shave $200 off the price of a new car will then spend ten minutes researching the hotel where he will be spending a week.
Contrarian travelers do their homework and travel more or better as a result. Unlike the conformists who do what the travel marketers suggest, contrarian travelers know the game and know how to get around it. They shop for travel as carefully as they would shop for a car or a sofa and they take advantage of the fact that most people don’t bother. By avoiding the herd mentality, they pay the full price only if they really feel that it is completely justified.
In my decades of travel in North America and abroad, I’ve seen plenty of travelers from both camps. I’ve circled the globe three times and spent at least a year out of the country each trip. One of the first questions most people would ask me and my wife was, “How in the world could you afford to travel for so long?” From their point of view, “travel” could only mean expensive hotels, rental cars, and meals in tourist restaurants. The fact we had routinely found nice beach bungalows with a bath for less than $10 a night was beyond their comprehension. Our tales of nice restaurant meals for less than $2 each were unfathomable. They couldn’t imagine how you would get from country to country without spending a fortune.
The world most vacationers see is far different from the world seen by contrarian travelers. For instance:
- You don’t have to spend $200+ per night on a hotel to have a nice room and enjoy your trip.
- There are plenty of transportation options beyond rental cars and group tour buses.
- Eating where the locals eat is not only cheaper, it’s usually better.
- A good vacation doesn’t have to mean staying in a sequestered resort with other sequestered tourists.
- Local costs at your destination don’t have to match what you’d spend at home.
- You don’t necessarily have to be some place when everyone else is also there.
In other words, the way most people take for granted as “how it’s done” is quite opposite of the way those who are in control of their budget think it’s done. As a result, the contrarian traveler is like the proverbial seatmate who is paying half what you did for his airfare, except he is also paying less for hotels, transportation, meals, and souvenirs.
In order to understand why the contrarian traveler is able to consistently get better deals, we have to look at why the typical traveler does what he or she does. For some background, here’s a brief tutorial on how the travel industry works. Trust me when I say this section will be brief and informative. The last thing I want to do is bore you to death with an economics lecture in the very first chapter. To understand how to make money-saving decisions though, you have to understand why it is much easier to make bad ones.
Done? Now, think hard and try to remember how many articles you saw about traveling on a tight budget.
Those two answers probably sum up everything you need to know about why people travel the way they do. Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel has done a good job of showing the mainstream reader how to get a better deal, but its circulation is dwarfed by that of Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler, magazines that are really aimed at the most affluent citizens of the world’s most affluent country. Big city newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune contain some great travel writing, but only a fraction of the typical Sunday travel section pays more than passing attention to finding the best values. When they do give a nod to value, their “bargain” tips usually focus on how to get a $400 hotel for $250, or how to get a package deal to Fiji for less than $2,000. This was true even during the travel slump and recession of the early 2000s. You see lots of luxury, luxury, luxury, as if every couple boarding a plane is on their way to a five-star hotel and spa treatment. Over time, this warps readers’ perceptions and makes them think every vacation has to cost a fortune.
A travel writer I know calls these luxury publications “travel porn” and I can’t think of a more apt description. I once saw a cartoon in a men’s magazine in which a woman is standing next to a pot-bellied man in an easy chair. “Why do you watch that stuff?” the woman asks, pointing to a pornographic movie playing on the TV. “Because it makes me feel like everyone in the world is having a wild and crazy time,” he replies. “Well, everyone except me.”
The idea of fantasizing about a life you can’t lead yourself is a big part of the “armchair traveler” appeal of glossy travel magazines. A typical issue contains dozens of advertisements for diamond watches, luxury sports cars, and handbags that retail for over a thousand dollars. Between the ads are stories about resorts we can only dream of frequenting unless we’re in that lofty portion of the population who has far more money than time.
It’s nice to look at the pretty pictures and read about lounging in luxury spas in the Maldives if that’s as far as it goes. For too many non-millionaire tourists, however, they look at those stories and think that’s how everyone travels—everyone except them. So when they pick up the phone or log on to make travel reservations, they go in with the mindset that travel is, and should be, expensive.
As a society we get more aspirational each year. A study done by Harvard found that money does buy happiness, but only if you have more of it than your neighbors. So those caught up in the “affluenza” cycle build bigger houses, buy more expensive cars, and travel like the luxury magazines tell them they should be traveling—whether they can afford it or not. Instead of the purpose of a vacation being renewal, education, experience, or inspiration, it becomes just another way for the Smiths to keep up with their neighbors.
Why does this happen?
In part, this happens because the bigger and better funded the tourism marketing and PR organization is, the better chance it has of getting its story into print. Most magazine editors probably don’t consciously pick stories to please advertisers, but you often see an eerie correlation over time between the subject of advertisements and the subject of stories. (Sometimes the two even join, in the “special advertising supplement” that is meant to look like the magazine’s editorial—except for the small print disclosure at the top of the page.) If you don’t believe me, go to the library and pull out the last half-dozen issues of one of these magazines. Then count the articles and ads for European cities, Caribbean beaches, spas, ski resorts, and fancy adventure tours.
The more a vacation costs, the more likely that resort or tour company has an ample marketing budget. It’s all about the quantity and quality of visitors. If more people come, that drives up revenue. If those people spend more on high-end lodging and services, that improves “margin.” Margin is the spread between cost and revenue, leading to gross or net profit. Nearly any business owner would prefer to sell high-margin goods or services over low-margin ones. Automobile companies don’t push all-wheel drive as an option because we each live on snowy hillsides: it’s because the profit margin on these systems is 40% (versus 26% for a sunroof and 12% for a full spare tire). That clerk at Best Buy is not trying to sell you an extended warranty because he is concerned about your future happiness: it’s because those warranties are four or five times more profitable than the actual electronics in your shopping cart.
High margins are a key factor in tourism marketing. It’s why very few magazines for budget travelers survive over time. There are plenty of budget travelers who are voracious readers, but the advertisers don’t care about reaching them. They would rather reach the aspirational traveler who spends freely and will contribute a lot to the bottom line in a hurry.
Well-funded tourism organizations are more likely to sponsor press junkets for writers. I’ll admit I’ve been on a few of them myself. Travel writers are notoriously underpaid, so most can’t go do a story on Patagonian horse ranches or a two-week trek through some new and remote Shangri-La unless a sponsor is helping with expenses. There’s a whole sub-industry that matches up travel writers with public relations firms and tourism bureaus, with annual conferences, several newsletters, and dedicated web sites.
If a fancy resort puts up Susie the travel writer and wines and dines her for a few nights, she is not nearly as likely to go check out Hal’s Hammock Hideaway down the beach, even if it is a better value. She may not even get much time to go exploring, so she won’t see many of the restaurants and bars where the locals hang out. The biggest magazines like to brag that their writers don’t take sponsored trips, but that only means the magazine is paying all expenses instead, usually at a negotiated discount rate. So the writer still doesn’t have any incentive to find the best values.
As in many industries, whoever spends the most on publicity typically gets the most press coverage. It’s not sinister and it’s not underhanded, but it is something most tourists don’t understand or think about. If you see twelve stories next year about some lake resort in Argentina, no, it doesn’t mean there’s some big trend you somehow missed out on. It doesn’t mean that region is heaven on earth and your local lake region down the road is just ho-hum. It only means the former has some talented people and ample resources in their visitors’ bureau.
After all these stories and ads hit, more people go there, then the resort or tourism agency has more money to spend, which results in more press and advertising, which results in more people going there. Then there’s even more press from the magazines and newspapers that don’t allow writers to go on sponsored trips because “it’s the happening place to go right now.” The circle continues to spiral up until some catastrophe hits and everyone stops going. (Then the contrarian traveler moves in to take advantage of the price drops. See Chapter 2 for more on this strategy.)
The system works very well for everyone involved. The Smiths and everyone like them take the bait—hook, line, and sinker. The Johnsons keep on swimming.
Yes, some wealthy people want fantastic service and the most plush surroundings all the time. They’re willing to pay whatever it costs to be pampered 24/7. They’ll buy and develop their own island if they have to. But I’m guessing that if you picked up this book, you’re not one of them. Even if you travel in style, you’re probably not willing to pay a week’s wages for a hotel room just because the place offers a pillow menu and sheets with a high thread count. You’re not going to go somewhere just because a magazine cover says it’s where all the fashionable people are going this year. You want to make sure your money is getting you a good value, whether you are spending $5 or $500.
Next time you leaf through a travel magazine, take a look at the non-travel advertisements. Do those products match up with the way you live your life? If not, try a different magazine—and a different kind of travel. For a list of travel magazines that are based on a more realistic view and budget, see the Resources section at the end of the book.
He has also contributed as a collaborator or ghostwriter to several business books and is the co-author of Hip-Hop, Inc.: Success Strategies of the Rap Moguls. He has at times been called a proposal writer, hotel reviewer, ESL teacher, sales manager, music biz marketer, ski instructor, and plenty more titles that will someday make a nice business card collage on the wall.
He splits his time between homes in Nashville, TN and a fishing village in the Yucatan state of Mexico.
Leffel appears often in the media as a travel expert and is available for interviews. To see more and to get contact information, go to www.TimLeffel.com.