How to save money while vacationing

Travel journalism conferences this spring took me to Georgia, where my increasingly frugal nature revealed itself more than once.

I hopped a Greyhound from Savannah to Atlanta, instead of renting a car for three times the price and much less stress. Having a good book made the five-hour bus ride fly, although other passengers easily turned me off to the thought of lengthier rides.

One couple, already in buses or stations for 30-plus hours, lamented the cancellation of their early-morning leg of travel. The domino effect sounded particularly awful to a young man whose 2,500-mile ride to Long Beach, Calif., had just begun.

But boarding a bus sure is one way to save money, and this week I’ll let the Society of American Travel Writers do the lion’s share of my work. Here are the nonprofit organization’s tips about how to stretch dollars while traveling.

Travel in the off-season or on the edges of popular seasons.

“Traveling in the off-season saves big bucks on hotels and transportation, but there are other pluses too, such as fewer crowds and hence shorter lines at museums, churches, restaurants and so on,” says Susan Farlow, freelance travel writer in Orono, Maine.

Get to know local bus/metro transportation for city stays. Ask about multi-day specials and special one-day tourist cards.  Some international rail and travel cards must be purchased before you arrive in that country.

“Look at transportation Web sites for the cities and countries you will visit,” SATW adds, in a press release.  “For instance, the Visitor Oyster Card, good on all public transport in London, must be purchased before you arrive in London.”

“Using public transportation is not only less expensive than car rentals or cabs, but can also be ‘green,’ helping a community keep open streets and clean air,” says Martin Hintz of Milwaukee, widely published author and former SATW president.

Picnic instead of eating every meal in restaurants. Visit markets, bakeries, local shops and delis … but avoid uncooked street food and wash fruit with bottled water. 

“Shopping at local markets is not only a less expensive way to eat, it can be healthier (who needs all those sauces?) . You get a local’s view of the area and you can try lots of interesting foods and then eat them in parks and gardens,” says Christine Loomis of Lafayette, Colo., family travel writer and editor.

Eat your big meal at lunch – when prices are cheaper, and go light on dinner.

“Lunch at the Tour d’Argent in Paris, a wonderful restaurant, is half the dinner price. Same ambience, same service, same duck,” says Alan Solomon, former Chicago Tribune travel writer.

Use public transportation between airports and cities. Don’t rent cars in a city and pay for parking.  If traveling to the countryside afterwards, pick up your car at the end of your city stay.

“Stay in a big city’s suburbs and use public transportation to save money. You can catch the efficient Metro subway just outside Washington’s Reagan National Airport and ride it to the nearby suburbs for accommodations, then take it downtown to enjoy the museums or the National Zoo,” says Robert Jenkins of Florida, former St. Petersburg Times travel editor.

Make your first stop the local visitors center and collect coupons, brochures, free maps, etc. 
Ask the staff about insider tips – free days at museums, matinees, free parking, and money saving programs like City Pass,

SATW adds: “Also, be sure to visit the Web sites of convention bureaus and state tourism offices before your visit.  They often offer special rates, coupons and discount information.

“To my delight, an early stop at the Visitor Center in London coincided with their free continental breakfast AND they had great deals on half-price and last-minute theatre tickets,” says Christine Potter of British Columbia, who specializes in business travel coverage.

And, my own two cents: A hop-on, hop-off city tour is a wonderful way to ease into a new part of the world, especially when you’re tired, jet-lagged and have been told your hotel room won’t be ready for hours.

Stay in accommodations that offer free breakfast and have a refrigerator, so you can store snacks.

“If you really load up at breakfast, you can skip lunch altogether, perhaps getting by with a snack if necessary,” says Robert Haru Fisher of Seattle, columnist and contributing editor for

Go to less well-known destinations.

“Across the world, less well-known destinations – i.e. getting off the beaten track – is cheaper as well as more fun,” says Chris Tree of Cambridge, Mass., guidebook author.

Do a home swap or rent a vacation home rental rather than a hotel.

“Renting a real home in a small town, or better, village, gives you a chance to feel that you live in the place – you meet more people, find out more about they live and more about their culture,” says Catherine Watson of Minneapolis, freelance writer/photographer.

From me: Check out and (Vacation Rentals By Owner) for ideas, or seek an exchange through church or other organizations that seem like-minded and trusting to you.

In cities, stay at business hotels on the weekends where there are often better room rates and restaurant deals.  Shop for hotels near, not on, the most popular streets. 

I always check rates in multiple ways, from AAA and AARP discounts to and other online search engines. But read restrictions carefully before booking. My impulse to commit to a low ($104) online rate for a suburban Chicago hotel turned into a major irritation two weeks later, while trying to alter the check-in date from a Friday to a Wednesday.

No problem, if I wanted to pay an extra $180. My rate was unchangeable and nonrefundable. It didn’t matter that I sought a less-popular check-in day and a lower-tier room style.

For more about SATW, the world’s largest association of professional travel journalists:

SATW’s 1,300 members are divided into five geographic subsets, including the 20-state Central States Chapter.

“Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers,” earned me a first place in the travel book category of the annual SATW Central States Chapter writing contest. The late 2008 release also earned the top book award during annual competition within the 13-state Midwest Travel Writers Association.

This weekly travel column is a registered “Something Special From Wisconsin” product. Content emphasizes Wisconsin, its global connections and its border states. Your feedback and ideas are welcome. Write to Midwest Features, PO Box 259623, Madison, WI 53725 or, or consult