There Is No Such Thing as a Free Trip (But You Can Get Darn Close)

Free travel is the best!

Whether you travel for work, spend on rewards credit cards, or just travel occasionally for fun, it pays to belong to airline and hotel rewards programs so you can collect miles and points. Over time, these points build up and can be redeemed for a free trip.

Here’s the deal. Even though points can significantly reduce the cost of travel, there is no such thing as a FREE trip.

That’s because no matter how many points you have, some things simply cannot be covered with points. This means every trip takes more money out of your pocket. Think of it this way: for every trip you take, you’re spending money on incidentals (no matter how much you save on airfare and hotels). Money is still going out the door that could be saved if the trip wasn’t taken.

Now, don’t get us wrong, the less money you must spend on hotels and airfare, the more trips you can take and the more things you can do. Instead of taking one trip a year, you can take two or three with the same money spent. However, we want you to be aware of the unavoidable costs of travel, as well as ways to minimize these costs to save even more!

Fuel Surcharges

Alas, not even the airfare is free!

Less experienced rewards travelers may not realize this, but most airline rewards redemptions (maybe even all of them) do not include fuel surcharges. In fact, we’ve read travel blog posts where fuel surcharges for international flights were hundreds of dollars!

While using points to pay for the fare will reduce the cost of the flight significantly, it’s important to consider and plan for the cost of fuel surcharges, so you aren’t surprised by them. Some airlines (like Southwest) charge minimal surcharges for flights within the U.S. but typically charge more on international flights.

Side note: This is also true of extras on budget airlines. While the reward redemption (or cash cost) of a flight might be reduced, most budget airlines charge for services that come free of charge on other airlines (cough*Spirit*cough).

Resort Fees

Did you know that the points you use to book the hotel may not cover all the fees?

Well, now you know.

This may be especially true when you book a resort-style hotel and may drive your out-of-pocket costs up $30 or more a day. While there may not be much you can do about hotel fees, it is important to pay attention to precisely what is and is not included when you book with points to avoid unexpected expenses.

Read the fine print, call the hotel/rewards program if needed, and take a picture of the room terms and conditions in case of a dispute. It is essential to know what you are getting with your points, and if fees are not included, consider booking a different place to keep the cost down. You may even want to book the same hotel anyway, just factor the daily fees into the total cost of the trip.

Car Rentals

Renting a car is a big-ticket item that can drive the costs of a trip up, despite how much money you save on airfare and hotels. A basic economy rental will typically run you around $30 a day and up, plus gas. This means a rental of 3-5 days could cost you between $90 and $150 at minimum, not including the cost of gas.

Another factor to consider when you have a rental car is parking. We both have personally experienced the horror of paying an outrageous amount for parking (over $50 for a couple of days!) in a garage when staying downtown in a big city. Valet parking isn’t any better. While convenient, it’ll typically run you an extra $30 or more daily (bringing your total to $120 to $180, plus gas). Even if you decide on street parking, you may find yourself walking a long way back to the hotel, not to mention that you’ll have to move the car every couple of hours to avoid a ticket!

So, how can you save money on car rentals?

The good news is that most car rental companies also have rewards programs, so if you use the same company many times you may build up points to use toward free rentals. You may also have some status with the program, which carries perks.

Additionally, rewards programs (like Chase Ultimate Rewards) can be redeemed for rental cars for a good value. Thus, there are ways to get the rental itself for free or at reduced cost using points and programs, just like airfare and hotel. Another tip is to book the smallest available car. Most people book the cheapest cars, so often you can get a free upgrade on the spot because they’ve run out of small cars!

But what about parking?

We’ve both been burned on parking, so this is a big one for us. One option is to book a hotel that offers free parking. That way, you know you won’t have the hassle or expense of parking your rental. But beware, if it doesn’t say FREE parking (just parking or parking available) it is likely not free. Another idea is to simply forego the car altogether. In this case, you can either utilize a ride-share service like Uber or Lyft, take public transportation, utilize free airport and hotel shuttles, or walk.

If you’re staying in and around town, using a combination of the options listed above will likely cost half what you would spend on a car rental, parking, and gas.

Food

No matter how much you save on airfare and hotels, a girl (or guy) has to eat! Money spent on food can also really drive the price of your vacation up, especially if you’re spending a lot on fine dining. Spending money on food is unavoidable, but there are some tricks to saving as much as possible on your meals.

First, stay at a hotel that offers a complimentary continental or buffet breakfast. However, similar to parking, if it does not say complementary or FREE breakfast (as opposed to breakfast available or something similar), it is likely not free. This tip has saved us TONS of money on food over the years.

While fancy hotels are nice, they tend to nickel and dime you on items you can get for free at lower-priced places, especially regarding food. As a result, we prefer to stay at less expensive places like Hyatt, La Quinta, Best Western, Country Inn and Suites, and any others that include breakfast. Not only is breakfast included (saving you $10 to $20 a pop per person), but you’ll save on the cost/points of the hotel too!

Oh, and don’t forget to save some of your breakfast for a later snack. That way, you might not even need to buy lunch!

Another tip to save on food is to stay in a place with a kitchen and make your own meals. We’ll admit, the last thing we want to do is cook on vacation, but making your own meals is a super effective way to save big on food. Even if you don’t want to go all the way to making your own meals, ensure your hotel room has at least a mini-fridge so you can store drinks and leftovers.

I learned this trick the hard way my first time in Las Vegas. The hotel I stayed in (and many others) purposefully neglected a mini-fridge, so my friends and I were forced to go out and eat all our meals and regularly buy cold drinks in the hotel/casino. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Won’t happen again.

On a side note, a Vegas-specific meal trick is to go to a buffet at the end of lunch and stay until dinner. That way, you’ll pay the lunch price but get to eat the dinner food as well. Naughty, but it saves money!

Lastly, you can eliminate the cost of meals altogether by staying at all-inclusive resorts. Now, this option will likely cost you more in points (and don’t forget those resort fees!), but if you have enough to get the room for free, staying at a place where all meals are included is a great way to cut this incidental cost out and get you closer to a free trip.

Activities

What’s the point of going on vacation if you’re not going to do anything? (this is also why staying at a less expensive hotel is a good option, as theoretically, you won’t be in the room that much).

If you’re anything like us, you like to explore the area on vacation. Unfortunately, this also means you’ll be forking out money to pay for your activities.

Bummer.

But wait! There are tricks to saving on activities too!

First, look for free activities. Lots of sights can be seen by simply taking a walk around town. Historic sites, buildings, bridges, and more can be experienced for free (photography anyone?). One of my favorite activities is to see cathedrals. I love the architecture, stained glass, and how different (yet similar) each is.

If architecture isn’t your thing, try experiencing well-known tourist areas, many of which are free. Think Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Time’s Square in New York, and so many others. Each city has something special, and many of these activities are completely free.

Take Las Vegas for example. While Sin City is known for drinking, gambling, and super expensive shows, most don’t know you can get first-rate shows for free all over the strip! Check out the Bellagio Fountains (my favorite) or the sinking of a pirate ship (yes, really) at Treasure Island, to name a few.

Another option for free activities is to take advantage of nature. Hiking or simply enjoying the scenery in and around a new city is free. This is especially true of a beach vacation.

Lastly, you can enjoy many reduced-cost activities by knowing where to look for discounts. Many cities offer coupon booklets on their tourism websites which contain coupons for tours, activities, and restaurants.

Another option is to check out Groupon, Living Social, or a similar discount site for deals in the city you are traveling to. While not free, utilizing coupons will cut down on the money you will spend on your must-see activities.

Final Thoughts

There is no such thing as a free trip, plain and simple.

No matter how many airline and hotel points you have, there will always be some incidental costs, and you must consider these when planning your vacations. Luckily, many tricks reduce unexpected expenses, getting you as close as possible to a free trip.


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