How I Book Cheap Travel

I’m on my way out the door, headed for California. What could have been a very expensive trip is going to be so cheap that even I am amazed.

This is a last-minute trip, so I did not have the benefit of booking well in advance. In fact, I only had five days advanced notice of this trip.

FLIGHT: My first choice in air travel is now Southwest. I try to keep all of my flights with the same airline to build up frequent flier miles. That usually works pretty well. I’ve found that it is a very competitive airline in most cases. The cheapest round-trip fare for flights that fit my schedule cost a whopping $742. Gulp! Granted, I knew I wasn’t booking 21 days in advance, but still. So, I started the search over. I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake. But no, it really was the best price. I put the reservation on hold to give me time to shop around. Most airlines will do this for 24 hours.

I went straight to the Kayak website (which searches thousands of flights of different airlines and gives results, lowest price first) and input the same itinerary. Within 30 seconds it had pulled up many options for the same date, time and destination. The cheapest: $146 round-trip including all fees and tax on Frontier Airlines. Realizing I was about to spend $596 less than the other itinerary, I booked it immediately but not through Kayak. I went on the Frontier Airlines site and booked direct using my account so I got the rewards.

I never book through Kayak or other similar sites because if I need to make any changes or something goes wrong with the flights, dealing with a third-party travel site to rebook can be a nightmare. I use Kayak as an information site. Knowing that the Southwest ticket on hold will simply expire if I do nothing, I go ahead and do nothing.

HOTEL: I don’t even go to specific hotel sites anymore. I rely solely on Priceline (and choose the name-your-own-price option, not the Priceline discounted hotel rooms). I find this to be so easy to use. I input my city of choice, and the site returns a map with regions of that metropolitan area. First I select the region where I want to be. Then I usually chose the three-star hotel (I know that Courtyard by Marriott, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Country Inns — my favorites — are all considered three stars in Priceline’s world, and that is my favorite kind of accommodation when I travel on business).

Next, I name a price. Here’s the tricky part: Priceline hints that I’d better input $70 per night or more if I have a prayer of my deal being accepted. Phooey! I know better. Fifty dollars is my target (knowing they will add tax and other fees on top of whatever price I name), so that’s the amount I bid. Of course, I got a pop-up message from William Shatner that I must be out of my mind with such a low offer and that I need to rethink and increase my bid. I laugh as I hit submit. Ten seconds later I get “Congratulations, your offer has been accepted!” That’s when they reveal which hotel I will be staying at. Bingo! My most favorite hotel for $59 per night, all inclusive.

CAR: My first stop in finding a rental car is the Hertz website, where I am a gold member (I have no idea why, but somehow years ago I qualified for this dubious privilege.) I want to get an idea of the going rate, so I input my itinerary, indicating I will need this car for just about 24 hours. I choke when I see the lowest option for an economy car will $82 inclusive for one day. Once I recover from the shock, I decide (as I always do, because this happens routinely) that if Priceline is good enough that I can name my own price for a hotel, it’s gotta be great for a car. And yes it is.

My boldness now surging, I go straight to Priceline rental car name-your-own-price option, which is a little tricky to find, and opt for a full-size model for — get this — $20 a day. Poor William. He’s very put out with my low bids. And do I care? No! All it takes for him to see things my way is about 10 seconds! Yep, I got the car, too. With fees it cost $29 for one day. When Priceline reveals which rental car company I’ll be dealing with, I am tickled pick to see I’m getting this steal of a deal from good ol’ Hertz!

BONUS: As I receive email confirmations for each part of my travel itinerary, I forward them to my TripIt account. It’s free, and is it ever slick. I simply add a new trip, and TripIt takes all the confirmations and builds my itinerary in chronological order, every detail included. The app makes sure I have every detail at my fingertips, including driving directions, estimated drive times, updates, etc.

They don’t call me the queen of cheap for nothing. If there’s one thing I know how to do (and love doing), it’s booking my own business travel. It gives me great practice for when I book personal travel. Because I make it a point to join every frequent flier/point program out there, no matter how little I pay for hotels, airfare and cars, I get lots of points and miles. And as a reward, Harold and I get fabulous vacations that are mostly paid for with all of the points and miles I rack up during the year.

——

Mary invites questions, comments and tips at mary@everydaycheapskate.com, or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.