Stretch Your Vacation Dollars

 Rick Emerson, author of "Zombie Economics," knows how to make his travel dollars travel farther.  He stopped by to share his money-saving tips.

Q: One of the biggest vacation costs is air travel. How can families save money when it comes to flying?

  • Flexibility is key; if you’re able (and willing) to adjust your departure and/or arrival time, you’ll see the range of available airfare prices immediately broaden. How much you’re willing to adjust (from a few hours to a day or more) plays a part, but if you can handle some wiggle room in your actual trip dates, it can make a big difference.
  • If your bag weighs more than 50 pounds, most airlines will charge you extra – sometimes as much as $150. (And if it’s large and heavy, they’ll tack on another, separate fee.) If you absolutely can’t get the weight of your luggage down, consider shipping it via UPS or another delivery service – it might actually be cheaper.
  • As always, the factors are money, time, and your personal sanity....and sometimes, trading one for another just isn’t worth it. is a great website for calculating travel stress; the site lets you rank travel options by an “Agony Index”, which calculates a trip’s price, duration, and number of stops. This helps you decide, for example, if saving money is worth an extra layover (or two).

Q: During the summer, hotels often have travelers over a barrel, and rates can skyrocket. Is there a way to cut lodging costs (without staying in a dive)?

  • Don’t get hung up on stars. Many websites and travel guides rank hotels and resorts according to the number of stars they have. These rankings, though, can be arbitrary and/or misleading. For example: a hotel may gain (or lose) stars based on how vegan-friendly it is, or on the presence of a gymnasium...factors which may or may not matter to you. When in doubt, go with your gut instinct – don’t be swayed by stars.
  • Consider a private vacation-rental service. Many companies (such as Air BnB and match homeowners or property managers with travelers, providing short-term lodging in unoccupied homes, condos, etc. My wife and I used Air BnB on our last trip to New York; for the price of three nights in a hotel, we rented a furnished apartment for seven days. We saved money, we were more relaxed, and had a better “New York experience” to boot.

Q: A lot of vacations center around the car – either driving to get there or renting a car when you land. What should people know when they’re planning this out?

  • Prepay for your rental car (if possible). Some rental agencies charge a flat fee, provided you don’t exceed a certain amount of mileage on the car. Paying upfront like this can save you as much as 35% of the standard rental cost.
  • Rent a fuel-efficient car. Even if gas were only $2.00 a gallon, a 10-miles-per-gallon difference would add up to more than $600 a year. So, with gas prices at their current levels, saving money for even a few days can make a difference to your wallet. is a good place to get more info.
  • When driving your own car on vacation: Choose exits with more than one gas station – the competition will likely keep prices somewhat lower. (And if an exit has several gas stations, choose the one farthest away from the offramp – it’s most likely to serve the locals, and to have local prices.)\
  • Also, for whatever reason, rest stops named after regional or historical figures tend to have slightly lower prices – strange but true.

Q: Couples without kids (or whose kids are grown) have different options when it comes to a summer getaway, but may still want to save money. What’s a good approach?

  • Consider a cruise. Cruise lines are currently trying to rehabilitate their image after a couple of high-profile “incidents” over the past 18 months. As a result, their rates are lower than they have been in years, especially for couples. If you’ve had your eye on a cruise that goes to the Caribbean or Europe, this is a good time to look into that, because the industry badly wants your business.
  • Couples traveling without kids also have the benefit of added flexibility in terms of travel dates; this can make a big difference in the ability to shave costs off of airfare and hotel stays.

Q: A lot of vacation costs can feel like blackmail – items or services that you need right then and there. Is there any way to avoid (or minimize) these expenses?

  • Look for alternative sellers of certain products beforehand. Many theme parks and other large family attractions now offer their tickets (at large discount) through supermarket chains or club stores such as CostCo. Often, this can save you up to 25% off the face value...and you’ll avoid standing in line, to boot.
  • One of the biggest, most stressful, and (sometimes) unavoidable costs is paying for roadside assistance. A flat tire, a dead battery, or a pair of keys locked inside the car can ruin a whole day...or a whole vacation. Consider a roadside assistance club (such as AAA); many credit-card companies and cell-service companies (such as AT&T) also provide roadside-assistance plans for a few dollars a month. Make sure to read the fine print: many of these plans must be activated for 30 days before they can be used.


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