The 25 Absolute Best Money-Saving Travel Tips Ever
When I tell people that I'm editor in chief of Budget Travel, I always get the same response. Whether I'm chatting with a twentysomething on her first overseas adventure, a seatmate on a fixed income, or a well-heeled TV personality at a dreamy ski resort, they invariably reply. "Cool! I'm a Budget Traveler myself!" I love the notion that each and every person I speak with understands that being a Budget Traveler doesn't just mean saving money, but also traveling in the smartest, most stylish way possible. It inspired me to jot down a few—well, 25—of the things that we Budget Travelers know. Did I leave any of your personal travel tips out? Drop me a line!
1. A REASONABLE PRICED HOTEL ROOM
Budget Travelers don't snap up the first appealing room at a decent price that they find. They research location—how close will they be to a city's major sights?—and make sure that a good price doesn't also come with a time-wasting long-distance schlep every morning. Budget Travelers call the hotel and ask for the best price, the most appropriate room options, and for a free upgrade. And in a pinch, they turn to HotelTonight for last-minute deals. We're also pretty proud of our own hotel research-and-booking tool.
2. THE "BEST" DAY FOR AIRLINE TICKETS
This is the question we get asked most often at Budget Travel. Traditionally, the simple answer has been: Buy your airline tickets about two months before you fly, and you'll likely get the best price by booking early in the week, when airlines often adjust fares. The "real" answer is, of course, "it depends," and you must arm yourself with an array of information to make an informed choice. That said, we also recommend that you follow all the major airlines on social media, sign up for their rewards programs, and subscribe to their free e-newsletters to get the inside track on deals.
3. PICK UP YOUR RENTAL CAR EARLY
Budget Travelers book the smallest possible rental car and a pickup time as early as possible because in this case the early bird gets the free upgrade. At, say, 8 a.m., most customers won't have returned their cars yet and it's likely that the lowest-priced compact cars will be out of stock. The rental agency is obligated to give you an available car at the same price.
4. BOOK YOUR CRUISE EARLY - OR LATE
Nabbing a cruise six months to a year in advance usually means getting the best price. At that early point, supply is high and demand is relatively flat, so you'll find appealing prices. As rooms get snapped up, of course, demand rises and so do prices—with one exception. Once you get down to the final few weeks before a cruise, the line may scramble to fill empty rooms, and you can again swoop in and find a deal.
5. KNOW THE RESORT FEES
Resort fees are quite a bit like the old joke about the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. The reality is, there's not much you can do if you've already spent your week at an all-inclusive resort and are staring at a bill that includes a hefty resort fee (which typically covers things you thought were free—those comfy poolside towels, the wi-fi in your room, the newspaper delivered to your door). The only thing you can do about it is to ask before booking so you understand the resort's fee policy. Don't care for it? Try another resort. (While you're at it, find out what beverages are included in an all-inclusive package and which you'll have to pay for out of pocket.)
6. CHECK OUT VACATION RENTALS
When faced with the notion of shelling out $1,400 per week for a beach house, some travelers will blanch. That's $200 per night, right? Way more than a Budget Traveler wants to pay for a hotel room. But consider the size of your brood. A rental home that comfortably sleeps five and includes a full kitchen is going to be much more comfortable and likely save you money on food.
7. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IS YOUR FRIEND
Those of you who don't live in major cities may regard life without a car as a bit like that nightmare where you arrive at work and realize you forgot to put on any clothes. Those of us who dwell in urban areas know better. When visiting New York, London, Paris, or just about any major city, learning the routes and pricing systems of the light rail, underground, and bus systems can save you tons of time and money compared with renting, gassing up, and parking a car. These days, even notoriously auto-loving Los Angeles is playing the public transportation game. Get in it.
8. PSST! MOST MUSEUMS ARE FREE!
Sure, the world's most beautiful museums often have an admission price (or suggested donation) topping $20 per person. But they also typically offer free hours each week and a free day each month. Budget Travelers don't necessary schedule their vacations around a museum's free days, but they do weigh the option and decide if they can put that money to better use. They also take full advantage of everything a museum has to offer on a given day. There's no need to high-tail it from room to room trying to see everything—instead, find out when there's a guided tour, a hands-on class for the kids, or evening hours when the joint if often much quieter than during the day.
9. GO TO NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS
When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns called national parks "America's best idea," he probably didn't have Budget Travelers in mind. But compared with any other vacation spot on earth, our national parks—and many state parks for that matter—deliver serious bang for the buck. Sure, there's an admission price (usually per car rather than per person), and you've got to line up lodgings (inside a major national park that can be around $200 per night), but once inside the park the wildlife, trails, ranger talks, evening presentations, junior ranger programs, and just about everything else is on the house. To paraphrase Verdi's famous quote about Italy: You may have the universe if I may have a fire-lit ranger talk at Glacier National Park on a crisp late-summer evening.
10. LOOK FOR PACKAGE DEALS
Don't tell! Airlines and hotels are willing to practically give away their inventory rather than see it go empty. That's right. Airlines sell their seats at rock-bottom prices. Hotels do the same for their rooms. Why haven't you heard this before? Because they don't exactly go parading down the street announcing it to the world. Instead, they roll those empty airplane seats and hotel beds into package deals. When you book a package deal, you'll get a good rate on airfare and hotels, some meals, often guided tours, and some ground transportation. Don't believe us? Take a look at a package deal and then try to book the airfare and hotel separately—the package will almost always be significantly less.
11. PACK LIKE A PRO
Budget Travelers know that a light suitcase is not just easier to travel with but can also save you money on baggage fees. Pack early so you're not in panic mode, and put some thought into packing matching tops and bottoms (rolled, not folded), as few shoes as you can handle emotionally, and wearing your heaviest layers on the plane. When in doubt, leave it at home. You never regret the things you don't pack.
12. WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE
Honeymoon? Romantic island getaway with your sweetie? Engaged? Tell everybody! It may seem counterintuitive when you're trying to get some alone time with your Sig-Oth, but mentioning your romantic status to flight attendants, waiters, and hotel managers can yield complimentary wine, upgrades, private balconies, and other surprises.
13. GO TO SMALL TOWNS
Budget Travelers know that some of the coolest places to visit in the United States are towns with populations under 20,000. Whether you want a warm welcome, a vibrant main street, a craft beer, cutting-edge gallery, or tasty bowl of chili, America's small towns make for some of the finest—and affordable—vacations on earth.
14. ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
Problem: You booked a hotel room with two king-size beds at a decent rate for your family of four, but now you have dreams of an unaffordable suite where the kids could have their own room. Solution: Ask for a free upgrade. Worst case scenario: The hotel manager says no. Was that so hard? You'd be surprised at how few people bother to ask for upgrades, late checkouts, complimentary breakfast, and other negotiable perks. You're a Budget Traveler. Go for it.
15. TRAVEL WITH A SMILE (AND CHOCOLATE!)
The announcement just came over the loudspeaker: Your flight has been canceled due to bad weather. You jump on the airline's website to find out what your options are, and you get in line at customer service. When it's your turn to speak with the ultra-harried airline employee, you're going to do two things: Smile and offer him/her chocolate. Because Budget Travelers aren't just the smartest people at the airport. They are also the nicest. Make the difference in that beleaguered airline rep's day and he might make the difference in yours.
16. KNOW THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE
In general, Budget Travel has not always recommended travel insurance. Instead, before you travel, check all your existing insurance policies to make sure you'll be covered wherever you'll be traveling—including health, auto, and any possessions (which are sometimes covered by home insurance). That said, if you're booking a package tour or cruise make sure you understand the cancellation policy and consider paying a small premium if you think there's a chance you'll cancel.
17. KEEP THE LITTLE ONES BUSY
Keeping traveling children "happy" may be impossible. But keeping them busy is a breeze. You just have to travel with plenty of activities, games, art supplies, and patience. Old standbys like license plate bingo and I Spy still get plenty of mileage—and the fun of playing together (instead of losing themselves in a tablet screen) is priceless. Some Budget Travelers hit the dollar store right before traveling with little ones. Stock up on affordable activities and hand them out whenever the kids get restless.
18. SENIORS HAVE MORE FUN
Start with the fact that travelers 55 and up can usually get a cruise discount by mentioning their age, then consider the boatloads of seniors taking off for the Caribbean in a few weeks. Book a package tour of any European country and you'll see busses packed with empty nesters and retirees. Sure, Millennials and Gen-Xers are happily checking off their bucket list items, but these days it looks as if the Boomers are the ones having a blast out there. You know who you are, and we know you're proud Budget Travelers.
19. GET YOUR SHOTS
In addition to T-dap, measles/mumps/rubella, and annual flu shots, Budget Travelers know to check the health risks of the region they are planning to visit. A travel clinic is a one-stop-shopping option for obtaining vaccines for serious risks such as typhoid and hepatitis before visiting a developing region.
20. GO ROAD TRIPPING
Budget Travelers know that a plane or cruise ship is optional when going on vacation. Some of the best trips are to be had on America's highways. And to celebrate the Great American Drive, we regularly cover accessible getaways, including itineraries, directions, lodgings, attractions, and food along the way.
21. KNOW YOUR HOME'S "ONE-TANK ESCAPES"
Looking for something between a staycation and a road trip? Budget Travelers love "one-tank escapes." You can start by exploring locales within a two-hour drive from your home. For most Americans, that includes gorgeous parkland, cool small towns, food you won't find at home, and often the kinds of surprises that most of us travel for.
22. LEARN CULTURAL ETIQUETTE
Don't be "that guy." You know, the one hitting McDonald's in Rome. Or wearing an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt to a museum of tolerance? Learning how to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank-you in a foreign language will yield more goodwill than you can imagine. Learning the ins and outs of a culture's body language, hand gestures, food customs, and tipping will help you fit in, avoid embarrassment, and possibly nab you a deal at a bazaar or shop where haggling is expected and even encouraged.
23. TRAVEL FRIENDLY WITH CREDIT CARDS
No, Budget Travelers don't charge trips they can't afford. (One rule of thumb: If you wouldn't ask your parents or close friends for a travel loan, don't borrow the money from a credit card company!) But there are credit cards that partner with airlines to deliver rewards points, mileage, free upgrades, free baggage checks, and more.
24. FASTEST WAY THROUGH AIRPORT SECURITY
Ok, this isn't exactly a secret—and we don't have a magic wand to get you through security any faster than this—but we're seeing more and more people using the TSA's Pre-Check program, which allows pre-approved individuals to bypass much of airport security for a more efficient arrival at their gate.
25. KNOW WHEN AND WHERE - OR NOT- TO DRINK THE WATER
Water and food safety is an issue in most parts of the world. When traveling outside the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia, there are many countries where tap water should be avoided, including ice cubes and mixed drinks unless you're on the grounds of a resort. When in doubt, drink bottled water or other bottled beverages, and don't eat fruit or vegetables unless you peel them yourself. Avoid street food unless the food is hot out of the oven and the cart is free of flies.
Best-Kept Secrets of Priceline
We all want to be that person who swoops in at the last minute, bids low, and scores a ridiculously good deal on Priceline—then brags about it for years. Flying blind can be scary, though: You don't know for sure which hotel you'll be staying in, what car rental company you'll be dealing with, or what your flight times will be—and they're often non-refundable. (Type-A planners, we can practically hear you hyperventilating right now.) It's normal to feel uneasy about pulling the trigger immediately—if at all—but the risk could be worth it. "I think everyone knows Priceline is pretty much almost always 5 to 10 to 15 percent cheaper than Hotwire," says travel expert John DiScala, better known as Johnny Jet. If that's the case, think of the potential for savings on widely published rates. So take a deep breath. We've got a strategy. These little-known features and expert tips will help you nudge the odds in your favor when you're bidding on Priceline. 1. Scroll through non-Priceline-affiliated bid-helping sites first. Are they comprehensive and foolproof? No. Are they helpful as a general guide? Yes. Message boards like BiddingforTravel.com and BetterBidding.com, and sites with simpler interfaces such as BiddingTraveler.com, report recently accepted and rejected bids, along with hotel lists with their best guesses at which properties you could end up with based on star rating and geographic area. DiScala says he always visits BiddingforTravel.com before he bids. Not long ago, he scored a major deal on a rental car in Seattle after finding $80-per-day rates with Hertz on conventional booking sites—higher than he wanted to pay. "I went to Bidding for Travel, and I saw someone was getting a $20 deal around the same dates," he says. "So I went in, and I put a $20 bid in, and sure enough it was accepted, and it was by Hertz." DiScala notes that the site warned him that his bid was too cheap, but it went through in the end. When using these outside sites, bear in mind that the Priceline's offerings, star ratings, and geographic regions can shift without warning, and some info could be outdated. And the boards can be a pain to sift through if patience is not one of your virtues. 2. Beat the system and bid again immediately by making one small tweak. Priceline prevents you from bidding again for 24 hours on the exact geographic preference and rating when you use the Name Your Own Price feature, but you can get around that if you're flexible. "If you change the star category or add a neighborhood, you can bid again right away," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations. Same goes for switching up other itinerary items, like travel dates, car types, and airports. You can get something that Priceline users call a "free rebid" on hotels by adding a geographic area that only offers properties with fewer stars than the rating you selected, making your rebid essentially identical, as Priceline won't "demote" you to a lower-rated hotel. Proceed with caution on this one, especially if the added geographic area is one you emphatically do not want to be in. 3. Pit the Express Deals feature against the Name Your Own Price feature. Priceline offers different types of deals. Let's use hotel rooms as an example: Priceline's "Retail" deals reveal both the hotel name and the price, so you know exactly what you're getting. "Express Deals" shows you the exact price of a hotel in the geographic area and with the star rating that you want, but you won't see the hotel's name—that's called a "semi-opaque" deal. The "Name Your Own Price" feature lets you bid on a hotel price, but you won't see the hotel's name either—that's called an "opaque" deal. Search Express Deals first, then try this strategy that we heard directly from Priceline: "For hotels, travelers should find the lowest Express Deals hotel bid being offered, then take an additional 5 percent off and use that as their Name Your Own Price bid. Chances are you'll get a room," says Brian Ek, Priceline's travel expert. "If not, no harm done, and you can always go back and make a reservation using Express Deals as well. With airline tickets, try going 20 percent below the typical published fares. And with rental cars, go 20 percent below the published rates." 4. Download the Priceline app for last-minute deals that aren't published on the website. For (very) last-minute getaways, install Priceline's free app and scroll through the hotel listings for Tonight Only Mobile Deals—they're highlighted in orange. (Think of it as Priceline's version of Hotel Tonight.) Here's the cool part: There you'll find special deals that aren't listed on the desktop site. "We upload new inventory daily and travelers can save up to 50 percent at more than 800 hotels for day-of reservations," Ek says. 5. Once you arrive at the hotel, never underestimate the power of a friendly attitude and a greased palm. As we've mentioned in past stories, the hotel's front desk clerk wields immense power. Get in good with her, and your discounted stay could take a luxe turn. "A few times in the past I would get a cheap room via Priceline and then would slip a nice tip to the front desk person and get upgraded to a better room," Leffel says. "This is easier to pull off if you're arriving late in the day and the occupancy is set for the night." Offering a bar of chocolate to the desk attendant has also been known to work well in these circumstances. 6. Speak up—loudly—if you believe the staff is giving you the shaft because you bought a Priceline room. Your Priceline hotel is required to treat you the same as it does its guests who have paid full price. It's the law. "Our agreements with hotels stipulate that our customers receive the same treatment as any other customer," Ek says. If you get the sense you're being mistreated or ignored because you're a Priceline guest, contact Priceline immediately either via their customer service email form or at 877-477-5807.
The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
1. House-Sitting Take up residence in someone else's home Instead of waiting for your rich aunt in the Hamptons to go away and ask you to watch over her place, look into a service that lists house-sitting opportunities. If things work out, you might be chilling out at a Caribbean villa or caring for cats and hens in an adorable French farmhouse. Since retiring as a university administrator 10 years ago, Grant Thomas of Edmond, Okla., has kept an eye on houses (and pets) in Seattle, Santa Fe, and San Rafael, Calif. "House-sitting has opened up new worlds to me," he says. "I get to know a place much more in-depth, and my experiences have given me a new circle of human, canine, and feline friends across the country." Before signing on for any assignment, ask questions. Namely, who pays the bills? Many homeowners state upfront that house sitters pay for utilities, at the least. If there are pets, find out how many and what their special needs are. If there's a garden, ask how big it is and how much attention it requires. At some point, the work may make the "free" lodging not worth the trouble. Also, ask the owner for the names and contacts of previous house sitters, and grill them about the experience. Where do you find these gigs? Caretaker.org posts more than 1,000 house-sitting openings per year, most of which are in the U.S. ($30 per year to see online listings). At last check, housecarers.com listed 298 opportunities, including 117 in Australia ($45). There's also housesitworld.com, where homeowners can search for registered sitters with availability and skills that match their needs ($40). And sabbaticalhomes.com is a site where the houses are all left behind by academics on teaching assignments (free for house sitters, from $35 to post a home online). —Sophie Alexander 2. Hiking Trail Volunteers Get fresh air without paying for it Most volunteer vacations charge participants for the chance to do grunt work without pay. A few regional trail associations, however, gladly welcome anyone willing to work on hiking paths and don't ask for a dime. As thanks for volunteers' hours of sweat spent clearing debris, building rock steps, or reconfiguring switchbacks, the associations provide free campsites at a minimum. Cabins, bedding, food, and transportation are sometimes included, too. The Continental Divide Trail Alliance runs two-to-seven-day trips with catered meals at A-list national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier (303/838-3760, cdtrail.org). The group's goal is to complete the trail it's named for, which is about two thirds of the way done. Some programs run by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association—which focuses on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana—are free (877/854-9415, pnt.org). From Maine to Georgia, volunteers can join one- or two-week trips organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304/535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). At some locales, workers sleep in cabins with cots and electricity. —Nick Mosquera 3. Sister City Exchanges Spend time with family you never knew you had With a primary goal of promoting cultural understanding, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit network that partners hundreds of U.S. cities with international "sister" cities that have similar climates, industries, or populations (sister-cities.org). The local governments of sister cities might exchange ideas about health care, traffic circles, or playgrounds. There are also opportunities for residents to visit sister cities—sometimes totally on your hometown's dime. Every year, several Tempe, Ariz., high school students are selected to go on five-week trips to sister cities (towns can have more than one) such as Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; and Zhenjiang, China. All expenses are paid, including airfare. "Within a few hours of arriving in Ireland, I felt completely at home," says Sara Bernal, a Tempe high school senior who went to Carlow, another sister city, last year. "I'd give anything to have another experience like it." Sister city visits aren't just for high school kids. Every year hundreds of groups from U.S. towns head overseas to foster bonds with international "family." Participants are expected to be active in sister city projects and host counterparts when they come to town. Travelers should expect to run fund-raisers for trips—most cities don't foot the bill, at least not entirely—though room and board are usually covered by local hosts. —Laura MacNeil 4. Workampers Use your RV to get from one job to the next Millions of RV owners are on the move year-round, and an estimated 750,000 of them couple their travels with short-term work. The wages are enough to get by (typically $8-$12 per hour), and gigs sometimes come with free places to park, including free electric hookup and other perks. The folks on the move are called workampers, and may find themselves checking in guests and overseeing ice cream socials at KOA campgrounds, or dressing up as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. At last check, more than 700 employers posted summer jobs aimed at RVers at workamper.com, the online home of Workamper News, which has been around since 1987. Jobs tend to be at state and national parks, seasonal vacation spots, and big events such as the Indianapolis 500. Most workampers spend fewer than 20 hours per week on the job, so there's plenty of opportunity to relax and explore. —Lisa Rose 5. Driveaways Go on a road trip in someone else's car Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, has hopped behind the wheel of around 50 cars, none of which were his. He's neither a valet nor a thief. Ever since reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road in college, Jankiewicz has volunteered for driveaway duty whenever he could. A driveaway situation arises when a car owner needs his vehicle moved to a new location and either can't or doesn't want to do the driving. Rather than pay to ship the car, the owner signs his ride up for a driveaway program—essentially giving a free car rental to a volunteer. "You encounter places you never knew existed, and meet people with the most interesting stories," says Jankiewicz. "It's cheaper than any other kind of travel. No one believes this even exists anymore." Drivers usually need only to fill out an application form and present a valid driver's license and references, though some situations require that you be fingerprinted or submit a driving history (available through your DMV). For insurance reasons, drivers probably need to be at least 23. Once approved, you're handed the car keys and given a free first tank of gas. All other expenses, including gas and lodging, are yours. With 43 U.S. locations, Auto Driveaway is the country's biggest player, listing about 150 opportunities per month (800/346-2277, autodriveaway.com, $350 deposit). Some offices will even take requests for specific routes and call you if there's a car that's a match. Start inquiring a month in advance of when you'd like to hit the road, and continue checking in. Don't expect to have a completely unrestricted, carefree joyride, however. There are limits on mileage (point-to-point road distance plus 15-25 percent extra), driving time (with Auto Driveaway you're not supposed to be on the road between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 400 miles per day). A driver on a typical 3,000-mile cross-country road trip is given seven to ten days to complete the journey, with a maximum of 3,500 miles logged on the odometer. To eliminate headaches and maximize the opportunity for fun, Jankiewicz carefully maps out his routes ahead of time, checking the Internet for construction delays and weather forecasts. —Michele Schwartz 6. Hospitality Exchanges Crash on couches and make friends along the way To most people, the idea is crazy: heading to a stranger's house to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. Perhaps even loonier: welcoming someone you've never met into your house. But thousands of people take part in hospitality exchanges, as such visits are known. Konstantinos Chalvatzis, a 25-year-old teaching assistant who lives just outside Athens, Greece, joined hospitality club Couchsurfing.com last March; the online community knows him as "Promitheus." Since then, he has welcomed about 40 strangers into his apartment, and stayed on the couches of more than 60 club members. "When people stay with me, they get a real sense of what living in Athens is like," he says. "If I have time I'll show them the big monuments, as well as residential areas, taverns, and underground art galleries." Participants come in all ages, colors, and cultures, though they tend to be male, English-speaking, and in their 20s and 30s, and hail from America, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The upside is not only free lodging but the chance to meet people who tend to be open-minded, curious, and generous. But it's not the equivalent of a free hotel, says Bryan McDonald ("Duke"), a 28-year-old musician born in Mexico who now calls Amsterdam home. "The best thing a Couchsurfer can do is spend time with his host," he says. "I've had guests cook their favorite food, or make something special from their country for me. These little things mean a lot to hosts." There are three major players in hospitality exchanges, none of which charge a membership fee. HospitalityClub.org debuted in 2000, and currently has more than 328,500 members. It features the most comprehensive security procedures; before being accepted as guests, travelers must provide full names and passport numbers. Globalfreeloaders.com, with nearly 62,000 members, pushes the idea of hosting as much as freeloading, advising members not to accept a free stay unless they can host within six months. Couchsurfing, in business since 2004 and home to 754,146 members in 229 countries, has the most technically advanced search ability. Travelers can view every possible open couch in a specified radius, rather than only by city or country, which is how the other two work. For all three clubs, hosts and couch crashers are paired up based on profiles that include languages spoken, location, and interests (from Björk to Frisbee and beyond). Many members clarify what's not acceptable—"no drugs" is a common refrain. Though safety can't be guaranteed, members post messages about how visits went. A recent note on Couchsurfing, from a Californian about an Austrian host: "Joe was my 'host with the most' in Vienna. He likes to cook for guests and even has ketchup for Americans!" —Chelan David 7. Volunteer Farm Workers Trade a day in the fields for room and board For a month in 2003, Gungsadawn Kitatikarn, of New York City, harvested kale, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and fava beans in exchange for food and lodging at a Portuguese farm named Belgais. She worked 9 to 5 most days, with an hour lunch break that usually wound up being a communal buffet for two dozen people, and stayed in a furnished bungalow with hot showers a short walk from the main farmhouse. Someone from the ranch drove her into the nearby town of Castelo Branco when it was time for a break. "The people were lovely and respectful, and the ranch was breathtaking," she recalls. "Since I was out in the middle of nowhere in Portugal it was sometimes too quiet for a city gal. But I became comfortable with the silence, and thoroughly enjoyed it." Belgais is one of more than 4,500 organic farms around the world that provide free food and lodging for guests willing to weed, plant seeds, plow fields, dig trenches, and harvest crops. Nonprofit organization World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms compiles a country-by-country list of participating farms (wwoof.org). Once you pay an annual membership fee, you receive either Internet access or a mailed booklet with contact information for farms in the regions you've selected (fee varies by country; in the U.S., it's $20 for one person, or $30 for a dual membership). You then get in touch with the farm directly to negotiate how long you'll stay, what kind of work you'll do, where you'll sleep, and how much you'll be required to work. Each farm is different, but the standard for volunteers is six hours of work per day, six days per week. That doesn't leave all that much free time, but for many people, working the land in a beautiful, simple setting makes for a nice, healthy respite from their hectic lives. —Laura MacNeil 8. Rotary Club Trips Network your way to somewhere exciting Most people are vaguely aware of the Rotary Club as something local businessmen join so they can trade business cards over lunch. The truth is, the organization is huge and international, with more than 1.2 million members and 33,000 clubs in 200 countries (rotary.org). Rotary International also sponsors travelers on special trips abroad, and there are a few ways even nonmembers can take advantage of the programs. The Group Study Exchange sends groups of four business or professional people—anyone from architects to police officers—to learn about their respective professions in Mexico, Thailand, and dozens of other destinations. Rotary International pays for transportation, including airfare, and local hosts provide meals and accommodations. Applicants are required to have at least two years of experience in their field and, since the idea is to foster future business leaders, be between 25 and 40 years old. Another possibility comes in the form of Rotary clubs that pay for visitors to come into their communities as volunteer consultants of sorts. According to Rotary International, host cities look for people with "a proven level of professional or technical skills," and, depending on the situation, restaurant owners, plumbers, computer programmers, teachers, and business managers may fit the bill. An online database allows you to search the options. Finally, Rotary clubs organize some 8,000 youth exchanges per year, in which students 15 and up are hosted overseas in private homes and camps for stints of few days to several months. Room and board are covered, though airfare is not. Don't expect to jump on any Rotary-sponsored vacation right away, however. Competition for program openings is stiff, and involves a lengthy application process that can take up to a year. —Laura MacNeil 9. Home Swapping Exchange houses and live like a local The concept of home swapping is as simple as it sounds. You trade your pad for someone else's, and everyone gets a free place to stay. "If you have a sense of humor and go with the flow, home exchange will work for you," says T.T. Baker, co-author of The Home Exchange Guide, who has swapped homes five times. "If you have a narrow comfort zone, stay in a hotel." Checking references, talking over the phone with your counterpart, and having contracts clearly spelled out—especially when it comes to bills and damages—alleviate the anxiety. The right situation may require months of planning and a dose of luck. It certainly makes things easier if you live in Miami Beach, or some other spot popular with travelers. Home exchange services charge $35-$110 per year, and by joining more than one club you obviously increase your chances. Reputable companies with listings worldwide include: digsville.com; gti-home-exchange.com; homeexchange.com; intervacus.com; ihen.com; and swapnow.com. —Sophie Alexander Here's to the kindness of strangers After joining one of these clubs, you'll stay for a few dollars or free at members' homes. Most clubs also expect members to host travelers. —Lee Uehara Educators 800/956-4822, educatorstravel.com, $36 annual fee Gays and Lesbians 011-49/30-691-9537, lghei.org, $40 annual fee Mensa Members 800/666-3672, us.mensa.org, $52 annual fee (plus $40 for intelligence test) Motorcyclists 877/408-0471, motorcycle-travel.net, $30 annual fee People Over 50 815/456-3111, evergreenclub.com, $60/single, $75/couple annual fee Tandem Bicyclists tandemclub.org, $15 annual fee Women 011-44/1494-465-441, womenwelcomewomen.org.uk, $67 annual fee
Best-Kept Booking Secrets of Hotwire
Ah, the sweet victory of scoring an amazing Hotwire travel deal: In your face, widely advertised prices! With "opaque" deals, however, not knowing where you're going to end up for the night—or the details about how you'll get there—isn't exactly reassuring when you're springing for a big trip. No one wants an unexpected three-hour layover or a dated hotel room, but if you play it too safe, you could miss out on potential savings. Even though Priceline's rates are reputedly cheaper by around 5 to 20 percent, Hotwire's opaque Hot Deal and Hot Fare prices are already listed, so you won't accidentally bid way too high—and there are other perks too. "Hotwire is much better than Priceline for families," says Randy Greencorn, founder of HotelDealsRevealed.com and ResortFeeChecker.com. "You can't book a room on Priceline that is guaranteed to accommodate more than two guests. Plus, you know what amenities you're going to get. For example, a swimming pool is a must-have when I travel with my kids." With a little fancy keyboard work before you click "book now" on Hotwire, you can prevent both overpaying and that sinking feeling when you get stuck with a hotel room, car rental company, or flight schedule that is so not what you had in mind. Let BT be your guide: 1. First, make a beeline for non-Hotwire-affiliated data-collecting sites to see what everyone else has been booking. You can't completely eliminate any doubt about what opaque offers you're scrolling through, but you can form a general idea of what other people are paying—and for what—by scouring crowd-sourced websites and message boards like BetterBidding.com and BiddingTraveler.com. Those sites help predict what hotel you'll get and share specifics about recent Hotwire deals, including hotel names and prices, car rental company and rate information, and flight details (layovers, stops, airlines, etc.). Know, however, that they're not gospel: Geographic boundaries are often redrawn, and offerings change. Even Hotwire itself is telling users up front what hotels previous Hot Deal takers have nabbed: For example, we searched for a three-star hotel in Reykjavík, Iceland, for five nights in March, found one for $72 per night, clicked on it, and a blue flag popped up, saying, "Book soon! The last person got the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson." The Leifur Eiríksson is a small, basic boutique hotel smack in the middle of the city, with views of Hallgrímskirkja church. Booked through the hotel's site, the daily rate would have been $126; Hotels.com showed $114. That's almost a 37 percent discount for a well-rated, centrally located crash pad, assuming that's the hotel you do end up with. The takeaway: Don't feel guilty about DIY-ing your own research; everyone is doing it. 2. Google the amenities to guess opaque hotel choices. "Although Hotwire does not reveal the name of a hotel before booking, it does provide a lot of information about a hotel, such as vicinity, hotel amenities, resort fee (if applicable), hotel class, and TripAdvisor rating," Greencorn says. "This information acts like a fingerprint, describing unique characteristics of a hotel. It is fairly simple to use other sources—Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Resort Fee Checker, etc.—to find hotels that fit this description. It's not perfect, but I can usually narrow it down to two or three likely hotels before pulling the trigger on a purchase." 3. Download the mobile app! The last-minute hotel deals are the best ones. Above all, Hotwire considers its last-minute hotel savings—including day-of arrival—to be significantly better than Priceline's. Hotwire's in-house experts say that of the people who book their travel on Hotwire’s free mobile app, two-thirds of them book on the same day. It's completely worth a shot to download the app and scan the inventory, even—or especially!—if you happen to be idling in the parking lot, deciding which nearby hotel to choose. Plus, Hotwire just updated its iPad and iPhone app to include car rentals and launched car rental bookings for Android too. 4. Create your own Hotwire vs. Priceline cage match. This might not be the nicest thing to do, but it's one strategy: "Many travelers use Hotwire to find out opaque pricing, then see if they can get a better deal on Priceline's Name Your Own Price system," Greencorn says. "For example, say I see a five-star Las Vegas Strip hotel for $100 on Hotwire. Why not bid on Priceline and see if you can do better?" In that same vein, he says, you can use Hotwire in conjunction with Priceline Express Deals to get the best price. Glance at that section of Priceline before you buy on Hotwire, since Priceline Express Deals follows the same transaction model. 5. Take advantage of a little-known Hotwire tool to plan your trip around the best rates and weather. Not everyone knows about the site's TripStarter feature, but if you type in your destination and the airport you're flying from, it quickly tells you when flights and hotel rates have historically been the cheapest, based on Hotwire searches, along with average temps and rainfall. For example: We found that flights from Chicago to Orlando usually hit rock bottom (around $200 or less) in late April, early September, and early December, and average hotel rates dip to around $85 in early September as well. The beginning of the school year might not be an ideal time to take the kids, but for an adult getaway that will more or less let you have the theme parks to yourself, you can't beat the prices and the weather—the high is 90 degrees, cooler than June, July, and August. 6. Be realistic about what your hotel needs are, then book accordingly. Are you traveling to a major metro area on a solo work trip that will leave you with little free time? Then you probably don't need a leisure hotel famous for its package spa treatments and activities for children. In cases like these, a typical four-star hotel in the city center will do, which is where sites like Hotwire excel, says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. "Unless you're racking up lots of loyalty points, does it really matter if you're in a Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, or Sheraton?" he says. "If you're going to catch eight hours of sleep at an airport hotel before a flight, does it really matter which three-star airport hotel with a shuttle you're in? You're just going to sleep, shower, and leave anyway." That said, even if you're craving a true vacation, you can still make out like a bandit, provided you manage expectations and are specific about what's important to you, Leffel says: "I have used Hotwire for a last-minute all-inclusive vacation in the Bahamas. It was a three-night getaway, and we didn't much care where we stayed as long as it was on the beach." 7. Use Hotwire for car rentals if nothing else. If any degree of hotel or flight uncertainty freaks you out, you can still get a deep discount on auto rentals. Travel expert John DiScala, a.k.a. Johnny Jet, told us that he usually uses Priceline for its across-the-board savings, but recently, he's seen Hotwire's car rental prices plummet to what he calls "really" good rates.
10 Things Every Foodie MUST Know About Food Festivals
You can always spot the ringers at a destination food event like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (known as SBWFF) in Miami. While noshing newbies in fancy footwear are literally sinking in the sand as they queue up to crowded booths, pro festival-goers are lapping the floor in flip-flops and sinking their teeth into the tastiest morsels before sidling up to celeb chefs for requisite selfies. While there's no "right" way to experience your first food festival (or your 50th) there are specific strategies you can use to get the biggest bang for your buck (tickets at SBWFF and similar festivals run from $20 for a kids event to $500 for an exclusive dinner). Put these expert tips into action, and you may get even more than you bargained for: a coveted invitation to one of the legendary SBWFF after-parties. 1. HAVE A MISSION Most food festivals span several days and feature several dozen events, from intimate dinners to walk-around tastings to late night parties. "You can't hit every event—you'd be tired, woozy, and overstuffed," says Robert Irvine, author of Cook like a Chef and host of Restaurant: Impossible. Decide which experiences are most important to you, and then purchase tickets to those specific events. 2. DRESS CASUALLY You've paid handsomely for tickets and you're in a glamorous location, so it's tempting to wear your finest duds to the festival. Resist the urge. "Remember that most SoBe events are on the beach, on sand, and exposed to the elements," says Franklin Becker, executive chef of The Little Beet in New York City. "Check the weather report, and dress for comfort." If you absolutely can't bear the idea of skipping out on your high heels, get creative and wear them as an accessory, as this festival-goer did (pictured above). 3. ARRIVE EARLY Show up at least 15 minutes before your scheduled event begins, recommends Irvine. "Otherwise you could be standing outside in a big crowd, waiting to get inside when the food is already being served." 4. FLOW AGAINST TRAFFIC "When walking into an event, it's human nature to gravitate to our right and move around the room counterclockwise," says Mark Gregory, former Food Network executive. "That's everyone else's instinct too—which is why there's often a logjam by the front door." He recommends escaping the early crowds at any event by walking directly to the far back corner of the space, then moving clockwise to hit as many booths as possible before the crowd catches up. 5. CHECK THE MENU No matter how early you arrive, or how strategic you are about your sampling, you're eventually going to wait—and wait—to grab some grub. "Before you step into an epic line, read the menu to see what's being served," says Ani Meinhold, Partner at The Federal in Miami. "So often people get to the front and realize that they can't or won't eat what's being served." On the flip side—if you're really a fan of a particular chef, don't be deterred by a mob of people queued up to see them. "In that case, be patient and wait," recommends Meinhold. "It'll be worth it for the opportunity to be served by someone whose food you're really excited about." 6. SAMPLE BEYOND YOUR COMFORT ZONE While events like Best of the Munchies and Burger Bash are loaded with comfort food nibbles you know and love, don't be afraid to try something that feels a little "out there" for you—like tripe or barbequed pigs ear. "If a top chef offers you a bite of food he or she has just cooked up, don't turn it down. Try a small bite!" says Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Grocery Games. "You might just discover something new that you love—and you'll show your respect for the chef." 7. GO LIGHT ON THE LIBATIONS Tickets to many food festival events also come with special extras like unlimited refills of wine, beer, or mixed drinks. "Whatever you do, don't drink too much on the first night," says Iron Chef Marc Forgione, chef proprietor of American Cut steakhouse in New York City. "Otherwise, you'll be limping around for the next two days. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint." 8. BUDDY UP Unless you're the next Kobayashi [a world-famous competitive eating champion], you can't eat a full plate of everything served at the larger festival events, like Best of the Best and Meatopia: The Q Revolution. That's why Becker recommends grabbing a friend or two and sampling your way around the room or tents together. "Not only can you divide and conquer, waiting on different lines and picking up bites that appeal to everyone," he says, "but you'll reduce how much food you end up throwing out." 9. WORK UP AN APPETITE With so many tasty morsels to choose from at each food festival event, it's pretty easy to overdo it. Work up an appetite for the next eating orgy by going for a walk, jog, or bike ride along the boardwalk between events, suggests Paul Wilson, General Manager at the Biscayne Tavern in Miami Beach. This part-wood, part-paved stretch of sidewalk runs 40 blocks along the coast between Indian Beach Park at 46th Street and 5th Street in South Beach, a span of about 4 miles. 10. MAKE A MEMORABLE APPROACH Not only is it okay to chat up the headliners at the festival—it's actually encouraged. "Stand out from the crowd of fans and admirers by having a smart question or two to ask your favorite chef or food personality," suggests Irvine. "We want to help answer those questions and give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it is that we do in real life." Want to take a photo with your favorite food crush? That's fine, too. All you have to do is ask—respectfully. "Fans have helped put us where we are, so we're almost always happy to snap a picture," says Anne Burrell, host of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and co-host of Worst Cooks in America. "Just wait until there's a break in the action or conversation, and make the request."