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How to Avoid Rising Travel Costs

Photo: caribb

Every time I sit down to plan a trip, it seems I have to pay more. Prices are going up, and not just for the actual product or service. Airlines add on fees to check bags, have an in-flight snack, and talk to a live reservation agent. Hotels add on extra resort fees and charge for WiFi. Museums and attractions offer free admission, but then charge you for the special exhibits. None of this is new, or unexpected, but the extra costs do add up quickly.

Here’s how to plan ahead and avoid many of these charges.

Hotels, motels and other traditional lodging options

Booking hotel rooms is so tricky these days, one could write a whole book. When I book lodging, I triple-check the prices through several different sources before making the final reservation. I start with the hotel’s own web site, then move to Expedia or Priceline to check for discounts, and finally check AAA or any other associations I belong too. When all this is said and done, I book the room, and more often than not, I chose the Internet-only discount on the hotel’s website. It pays to shop around – I traditionally save $25-$60/night off hotel rack rates.

When booking your hotel room, be sure to ask about extra charges, including resort fees, extra-guest charges, and taxes and fees. It is not uncommon to have $45-$100 worth of extra fees tacked onto the base hotel room charges.

My biggest pet peeve at hotels is paying for WiFi. Because of work requirements, regular check-ins via email are often required when I travel. Sure, I can pass these charges onto my company, but I would rather save us all a dime. JiWire offers a Free WiFi Finder for iPhones and WiFi Free Spots helps locate free WiFi near you, and has a great list of airports with Free WiFi. Use your judgment to determine if the WiFi is secure – if you have any doubts, don’t enter your credit card into any website while on that network.

Never, ever, use the phone in your hotel room. Hotels charge exorbitant amounts for calls placed from your room, even if you are using an old-school calling card. Better to use your cell phone or head outside to a payphone. And I am sure you have warned your children of the dangers of eating the in-room candy snacks from the mini-bar. Ask the hotel to clear out the mini-bar if you want to use the fridge for your own items, or refuse the offered key and decline mini-bar options on your account.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Do you really need to take 10 pairs of shoes on your trip to Hawaii? Take a hard look at what you are packing: traveling light will save you money. For the $25-$50 in extra luggage fees, you can take advantage of hotel dry-cleaning (or, better yet, find out if your hotel has coin-operated laundry machines, many do) and wear some items more than once. Unless you are a designer in Milan during fashion week, no one is really going to be keeping tabs on your outfits.

Business and travelers with bulky items might decide to take advantage of a service that ships your luggage separately. Not only can you get through security faster, you can bypass the luggage carousels and head straight to the taxi stands. Luggage Forward, Luggage Free and Luggage Ahead are just a few of the options. SeatGuru has a nice chart to help determine the potential cost savings.

Get used to packing a snack for the airplane if you want to avoid charges for in-flight food. Almonds, apples, high-protein bars, and even a bag of M&Ms can go far to help stave off hunger. Don’t get on the flight hungry, which will make it worse. And if you are traveling with kids, snacks are often the difference between a comfortable flight and a screaming nightmare in the air.

This Cheap Flights video highlights the problems of booking with the discount airlines, including baggage fees, airport taxes, priority boarding, trip insurance, and even extra fees to use the bathrooms!

Attractions and things to do

To save money on attractions and places of interest when you travel, do your homework ahead of time. Find out if the museum has a free-day (sometimes the first Tuesday or Wednesday of the month) or if there are discounts through your company or association. Check on family discounts, or search for 2-for-1 offers online. If you belong to AAA or other automobile associations, check on their discount offerings. And if you still have your student ID, bust it out when a student discount is offered. I took  a few classes at our local junior college and the best part was the student ID that allowed me discounts at museums, aquariums and even the movies.

When booking big ticket items, such as Disneyland Park Hopper Passes, check with your hotel for discounts, as well as the local Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (Anaheim in the case of Disneyland). Or buy your tickets as part of a package that includes hotel and airfare and save on all three. Check with your favorite IRL travel agent for these deals.

Take advantage of your credit cards

Finally, if you have a credit card that offers travel rewards, using miles or points to book your flights or hotel might offer considerable savings. For example, with the Blue Sky card from American Express you can redeem 7,500 points for $100 credit on travel purchases, 33% more than the standard redemption rate (10,000 points for $100).

But be on the lookout for booking fees, which may be higher — and be sure to do a price-to-miles comparison. If you have to spend 50,000 points for a ticket that normally costs $350, and that same 50,000 could also be redeemed for a $500 gift certificate, then paying cash is clearly the better option. Some cards also charge airport fees separately, even if you’re booking a flight through their rewards program.

When traveling abroad, use the credit card with the lowest foreign exchange fees (call your credit card company to find out how much they charge). One issuer known for waiving these fees altogether is Capital One.

Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.