The Cheapskate's Travel Guide

By staff May 1, 2007

Traveling around the world to beautiful, exotic, exciting, historic or even scary places can be a lot of fun. My wife and I have found that doing it in first-class luxury can make it even more fun; however, paying first-class prices for everything can take much of that fun away.

Getting the most bang for your buck takes some effort, but in the computer age, it’s a lot easier than most people think and well worth the work. We’ve discovered several ways to travel like royalty at close to peasant prices.

Rule No. 1: Be flexible and ready to go on short notice. Through the miracle of the laptop computer and the Internet, we can take our work with us almost anywhere in the world. So if a good deal comes up, we are ready to go with minimum business disruption.

Many cruise lines and tour companies give discounts for early booking. You can save from 5 to 25 percent if you know months ahead of time that you want to take a particular trip. We find that we can do much better by taking last-minute deals, where the savings can be 75 percent or even more.

Empty cabins on cruises and empty or canceled slots on land packages produce no income for the operating company, and once the ship has sailed or the tour begun, the money is lost forever. A deep discount to fill a cabin is better for the operator than a vacant cabin. Of course, by waiting until the last minute, you may not get to go to a destination you had in mind, but you also may get to go to some wonderful places you had never even considered. 

Rule No. 2: Make friends with a good travel agent. Experienced travel agents often get limited offers on bargain trips or can get you last-minute deals on unsold tour or cruise space. These are offered to favored customers first, and we try to be favored customers.

Last year, a large group from New York canceled out on a trip to the Cannes Film Festival. The trip included seven days on the Crystal Harmony sailing from Rome to Monte Carlo, tickets to film festival parties and events, gourmet meals on the beach and a fabulous private apartment overlooking the red-carpeted entrance to the festival. The original cost of the trip with all of the extras approached $20,000. A month before the trip, it was offered to us at half price. We loved the idea of going, but it was still too pricey. Ten days before the trip, the price came down to less than $5,000, and we were off on a star-studded, memorable week that was almost cheaper than staying home.

This past February, we had a fabulous trip to Rio to see, and, it turned out, participate in the city’s famous Carnival. Tickets to the Sambadrome, where incredible floats parade and thousands of costumed revelers march, run anywhere from $800 to almost $2,000. And during the four days of Carnival, hotel rates usually double or triple. Near the end of January, we got an e-mail from our agent, Admiral Travel Gallery, informing us they had access to two box seats and four nights at the Rio Intercontinental Hotel at less than the usual cost of the seats alone. The only thing missing was the plane tickets.

And we are particular about those plane tickets. At six feet two inches tall, I am a little too big for a coach seat on any flight over four hours, and we’ve gotten used to quality service. Coach seats can be acceptable if you can get the emergency row, which, by law, must have more leg room. Watch out, though: If there are two emergency rows, one after the other, the first row of seats will usually not recline, which can make a long flight torture.

We usually use frequent flyer miles on long trips. It rarely pays to use points for short trips, but they can save big bucks on international flights. But we didn’t have enough miles on any of the airlines that fly to Brazil, so we would have to pay cash if we wanted to fly there.

Rule No. 3: Search for special fares. Over the years, we’ve learned a number of tricks to get discounted air fares, and we needed them all for this trip. Business-class tickets to Rio are over $4,000 each, which would kill the bargain for four days at Carnival.

Years ago, financial officers of big corporations stopped allowing employees to fly first or business class because the expenses didn’t look good to shareholders. Airlines, anxious to keep the loyalty of their best customers, devised special coach fares that guaranteed an upgrade.  Depending on the airline, these fares are called “Q up,” “Y up” or “Z up.” They’re not always available and sometimes they’re not even a great bargain, but most of the time, you can use them to save big on first- or business-class flights. It takes a little work to find Q, Y and Z class tickets, but they’re on most Web sites. Unfortunately, there were none available for Rio.

Rule No. 4: Don’t rely on only one travel Web site. Next, I checked the usual travel Web sites—Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Cheapo, etc. You must check them all, because they invariably have different prices for the same tickets, and no one site is consistently better than the others. Sometimes the airlines’ own sites have better prices than the discounters.

You should also check for code shares. Code sharing is a system that allows one airline to sell tickets on another airline’s planes as if it were their own. I discovered that even though the plane we were going to be on was operated by American Airlines, it was a code-sharing flight with TAM, a Brazilian airline. As is not unusual, the TAM tickets were cheaper than American Airlines on the exact same flight for the exact same seats.

Unfortunately, the best I was able to do on these sites was almost $3,000 per person, still too expensive for a short trip. Coach seats were available for about $1,500 each.

Rule No. 5: Try the online auction sites. Finally I went to a site called Here I discovered that they were auctioning off up to eight tickets on TAM airlines to anywhere in Brazil or Argentina. The highest bid was $480, and the auction would be over in two hours. I put in a bid of $481 and went to dinner. When I returned I discovered that I had won the auction and had two tickets to Rio at $481 each, plus the usual taxes that brought the cost to a little under $600 each. I got my emergency row seats on three of the four flights.

We were off to one of the most fun-filled trips we have ever taken.

Before he retired to Sarasota, attorney Howard Tisch provided legal services to the Attorney General of the State of New York for the bureau of Consumer Fraud and Protection and served as Deputy Commissioner of Consumer Affairs for the City of New York.

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