Traveling? Cut every corner possible

07/20/2009 11:51 AM

07/20/2009 11:51 AM

It has become chic to be cheap. It is dumb to spend recklessly. It has never been more important to economize: using public transportation, hostels, apartments and guesthouses, inside cabins, sightseeing passes, cut-rate carriers and all the other devices of cost-conscious, sensible vacations.

Those are the lessons the current economy teaches us. The background for our travel decisions — our incomes, earnings and assets — have turned down. If we are to continue enjoying the international world or the great sights and attractions of America, we must return to the practices of an earlier time — the era of budget-price travel.

Consider the U.S. dollar. After surging in value at the start of the current economic crisis, it has again retreated — as I discovered to my dismay on a recent cruise tour of the Mediterranean. The price of the euro is once again about $1.40, but that's without the fees and commissions you pay to money-changers or banks. Realistically, you now lay out nearly $1.50 for a euro, and at that rate, the continent has again become pricey. Taxi rides are prohibitive. Standard hotel rooms are a minimum of $150-$175 (for fairly basic properties). Meals can mount up.

The moment your plane arrives, you must set out to use public transportation — trams, trolleys, local buses, subways — for getting around. These will cost from 70 cents (as in Istanbul) to $1.50 (in Greece and Italy) for the average ride, compared with the $20 taxi fares that have become all-too-frequent for medium-length trips. (Paradoxically, you will improve your trip by acting like a local. The decision to travel in the same way that residents of the area do will immediately put you in contact with the community, making each such ride a memorable experience.)

In Britain, touristic conditions have gotten worse. Having plunged to a happy low a few months ago, the British pound has now recovered to a rate of about $1.63 (to the delight of the Brits themselves, who are once more able to affordably travel to our Orlando, Fla., and New York). But for us Yanks, the new exchange rate is only the start of a sad tale. Adding commissions and fees to the money-changers or banks, we actually pay around $1.75 nowadays for one pound, a rate uncomfortably close to the budget-breaking value of $2 a year ago. Unhappily, Britain is again costly.

Airfares are a mixed picture, but one that is getting worse. Although trans-Atlantic fares have plunged, domestic airfares are strengthening. In an article called "The Incredible Shrinking Airline," Travel Weekly (the key trade publication) has recently reported on the growing determination of the airlines to reduce the number of their domestic flights by upward of 10 percent to 15 percent, enabling them to raise their rates (as they seem to be doing every week).

The airlines also have discovered the glories of "a la carte pricing." They now charge you extra for everything — checked luggage, extra suitcases, snacks, drinks, aisle seats, using the telephone to make bookings, and on and on. Air transportation within the United States is about to become far more costly, and international airfares will undoubtedly firm up as well.

So what do you do? If you're a savvy traveler, you now search the fares of such cut-rate outcasts as Southwest Airlines, AirTran and Spirit Air (not all of which appear on the big Internet airfare booking engines). Internationally, you check to see what Air India and Aer Lingus are charging, what Eurofly is asking and what Air Europa is offering. You even consider flying on the dreaded Ryanair and EasyJet within Europe. You go to several aggregators (Kayak, FareChase, Momondo) in testing the airfare market. You use "flexible searches" and alternate departures, to find the best days to go. You use every wile, every bit of cunning.

And the same cautious, prudent approach is today needed in the world of lodgings. You can go to Venere.com to find lower-cost European hotels, or even to Hostelworld.com. You downscale your hotel requirements, making do with economy hotels or every form of alternative lodging. You rent a vacation home or condo for resort stays in the United States; you seek out kitchen-containing apartments on visits to London, Paris and Rome.

And when it comes to renting a car, you go to Breezenet.com to find the hungry car-rental firms and the dates on which they're willing to deal.

To repeat: It's now chic to be cheap. And necessary, too.

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