How I Eliminate or Minimize Miscellaneous Travel Costs
In my first two articles in the FI Travel series, I described how I economically travel on airline miles/rail points and how I maximize hotel points at mid- and lower-tier properties. Doing so removes what would otherwise be my two biggest travel expenses. As I so eloquently stated in the article title, what about all of the other stuff? Indeed, the financial savings from using miles and points for transportation and lodging are substantially decreased by the other miscellaneous travel costs that quickly pile up. How can we minimize miscellaneous travel costs, or maybe avoid them altogether?
Getting to the airport cheaply can be challenging; getting there for free is seemingly impossible. The sprawl across our country, for better or worse, has led to airports and residences in not-so-convenient locations, bringing on considerable transportation costs just to get to and from the airport. But we have options to do this free or cheaply – here are just a few:
Uber and Lyft Credits
Many of us hold cards, like personal Amex Platinum cards, which provide $15 in monthly Uber credits. Depending on your situation, you can use this credit to entirely cover airport transportation, or at least take a bite out of the normal cost. World Elite Mastercard holders can receive a $10 monthly Lyft credit after taking five Lyft rides in a month. Of course, this is primarily an option for those who already use Lyft often, anyway. Nonetheless, it’s free money out there, so take advantage of it if or when you are eligible!
Using metropolitan public transit, including subways/trains and buses, can be one of the cheapest and most time-efficient transportation around a city and to/from airports. For instance, I love traveling from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to downtown on the L’s blue line train for a few bucks. You can also buy passes in many major cities for blanket use of all public transit for a very reasonable fee. Visitors to the Washington, DC area can buy a $13 daily pass for Metro rail and bus rides free of time restrictions. I remember the days when this was only $5, but it’s still not a bad deal today.
Growing up, my parents had a deal with neighbors who also happened to be good family friends. They agreed to take our family to the airport when necessary, and my parents did the same for them. Sure, the gas cost was unavoidable, but it’s much cheaper than Uber, Super Shuttle, or (gasp!) taxi fare. If you are visiting friends at your travel destination, they can take care of your transportation in some cases. In these situations, I always plan to buy dinner during the trip as a thanks for their transportation help.
In certain situations, I have to swallow hard and use airport parking. The Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $300 annual travel credit can be used on parking. But when you do have to actually pay for parking, you can also use the Sapphire Reserve and Preferred to earn 3x and 2x Ultimate Rewards points, respectively. Longtime holders of the Citi Premier card continue to earn 3x ThankYou points on broad travel categories, including parking, but this earning decreases to 1x in April 2021.
I’ve long been a fan of redeeming points currencies for cash back to save for my specific travel goals and needs. If I absolutely must pay for parking, I happily use my cash back rewards to cover the expense.
Often, our great travel memories involve dining experiences. The unique flavors and feel of local restaurants are a huge reason we travel in the first place. Consequently, I know that my discounted Chili’s gift cards don’t really play a key role when we travel. Here again, I dip into our cash back rewards savings to pay for dining. I prefer to use my Amex Gold for all dining charges while earning 4x Membership Rewards points, but many excellent credit cards exist for dining spend as Ian describes here.
I have a few exceptions where I use free or discounted restaurant gift cards on travel dining. First, I love using Disney gift cards for all of the unique dining experiences at Disney World. Second, I always bring a few gift cards for fast food joints on our trips, particularly for use at airports. We don’t fall for the inflated prices of local establishments with the substandard airport experience; we’re fine with fast food fuel at airports.
Looking at dining costs from another angle, we have cut out lunch during our trips at times based on enjoying late, big hotel breakfasts/brunches. This is part of the reason we love full, cooked-to-order breakfasts at Hilton Garden Inn, which is complimentary with Hilton Gold status and above. While we don’t skip lunch often, once in a while during an off-day of a trip, we eat a late breakfast and have no need to shove in a lunch before our early dinner with small children.
I will give the obvious plug here that buying groceries locally and eating out of your hotel room is an option. For our style, that takes a bit of the charm away from travel. But there’s no doubting it’s an easy way to minimize dining costs.
Probably my least favorite travel planning activity is reserving a rental car. Rates vary widely, terms can differ, and a ton of low-rent, tricky rental car companies are out there. Regardless, I know I want to use points currencies to pay for my rental; I never want to go out-of-pocket on a lot of stuff, including rental cars.
First, I search AutoSlash to get a general sense of how much one can economically rent a car for in a given location and timeframe. Once I know that number, I review bank travel portal prices for rental cars in the same location and timeframe. Many portals exist, but I primarily use Citi ThankYou portal to book rental cars. I easily amass ThankYou points, and their rental cost basis is competitive with the best rates of reputable rental agencies.
But what are we going to do at our destination? Obviously, activities play a central role in any trip we take. Indeed, we go to specific locations for these unique experiences. What activities are free in those locations? With Bank of America’s Museums on Us program, we can visit many local museums across the country for free. We also love our country’s National Parks. While even a day trip can be cheap to a National Park, the annual pass is a heck of a deal. The pass, which gives access to all National Parks and Federal Recreational lands in the country, costs $85 and covers the passholder, three others ages 16 and over, and anyone ages 15 and under.
So many events and experiences are worth paying for during travel. Again, I dip into cash back rewards to pay for those activities. A few of my favorites are the following:
Chicago Architecture Center: I’m a huge fan of the various activities and events the Center offers, particularly the River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady. I’m also a Frank Lloyd Wright buff, so I naturally loved the Center’s guided Oak Park walking tour.
Alcatraz Island Tours: Visiting Alcatraz is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. The audio tour is stellar, and the views of downtown San Francisco and surrounding area from the ferry are excellent. After the guided tour, we enjoyed exploring the island at our own pace – there was no time limit on the island when we visited, except not missing the last ferry!
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel: Memphis is one of my favorite American cities. Among the many worthy experiences while in Memphis is this enlightening museum housing a variety of exhibits and experiences.
One expense I always plan for are gratuities for the many deserving workers in the tourism and hospitality industry. I’ve admittedly increased my involvement here as I’ve grown older. From my perspective, these employees are some of the hardest working, underpaid, and underappreciated individuals out there. Interestingly, it seems that hotel industry workers are particularly forgotten here, based on my experiences. Regardless of sector within the tourism and hospitality industry, any gratuity I give is the least I can do for their services which all too often go ignored.
Use Cash Back Rewards to Eliminate or Minimize Miscellaneous Travel Costs
I’d like to give one more shout-out to the flexibility and utility of cash back rewards for financing all the miscellaneous travel costs that can’t otherwise be covered with points and miles. Cash back rewards have gotten more attention in our hobby recently, but it’s always been a great option from my perspective. I look forward to focusing even more on cash back rewards in future articles.
Minimize Miscellaneous Travel Costs – Conclusion
Obviously, not all costs are avoidable during travel. But plenty of options exist to eliminate or defray these costs. And cash back is a great catch-all currency for covering those expenses. What are some other unavoidable costs you’ve encountered during your travel? How do you minimize miscellaneous travel costs otherwise?