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piggy bank airplane air travel vacationYour vacation is planned, your bags are packed and you’re ready to fly. But did you know that even after you’ve purchased your plane tickets, you could still incur fees on your flight? It’s true. Baggage fees are the best-known a la carte charges, but there are many others, big and small, that can crop up once you reach the airport. Here are five ways to avoid them.

1. Pack light and save up to $50 in checked bag fees each way. While a few airlines still allow you to bring checked luggage without a fee (such as Southwest and many international carriers), most U.S. airlines will charge you to handle your bags. The best way to bypass this is by taking fewer things and packing them all into a carry-on bag. Do you really need a dozen shirts for a five-day trip? Chances are, you’ll only wear half of those and wish you had left the rest at home. Bring pieces that mix and match with each other. That way all the tops go with all the bottoms, and you can make three or four days’ worth of clothes last two to three weeks without wearing the same outfit twice. Women can toss in a simple dress and use easy accessories to make it seem totally new if it needs to be worn again. For men, it’s even easier: just bring a variety of ties, which take up almost no room.

Limit yourself to two pairs of shoes that look great whether dressed up or down and that are comfortable to walk in. Shoes can take up way too much space in a travel bag, which isn’t helpful when you have limited space to work with. I find shoes that go with everything in my bag and then I pack one pair and wear the bulkier of the two on the plane.

Editor’s Note: Get more space-saving ideas in What Not to Pack.

2. Bring your own food. Most flights don’t offer free meals anymore. Heck, you’re lucky if you get a free drink and a snack. If there are meals or more substantial snacks offered on a flight, they generally cost quite a bit more than you would pay if you picked them up at the grocery store (think $8 – 10 for a sandwich, $6 for a “snack box”). These are things you could make for a fraction of the price at home and bring with you. Security has no problem with food, as long as you aren’t trying to also pack pudding and a drink. I tend to stock up on 100-calorie packs before my trips and then take a nice variety in my carry-on to snack on throughout the flight. Granola bars are also easily packable and can keep you full until you reach your destination.

3. Go totally wireless. Almost all the airlines offer Wi-Fi services on their planes, but it isn’t free. Is it really that necessary to update your Facebook status mid-flight? Keep your credit card in your wallet and opt for a good book or magazine. You’ll save a minimum of $10 for each leg of your flight.

4. Bring your own headphones. If you’re lucky enough to get on a flight that offers onboard entertainment, you’ll need some headphones to participate. Remember just a few short years ago where the flight attendants practically threw handfuls of headsets through the cabin like Mardi Gras beads? Well, no more. Now if you want to watch the movies or listen to the same 12 songs on their airline radio station, you’ll be expected to shell out $3 – $5 for a pair of those less-than-optimal headphones that practically break before you’ve touched down. Most people bring an iPod or handheld gaming device on their trips, so make sure you include your own better-constructed pair that doesn’t have to be vacuum-sealed for freshness.

5. Skip the upgrade. If offered an upgrade upon check-in, think twice — especially if it’s for a relatively short flight. Being in first or business class would be nice, but the upgrade fee can leave you $50 – $100 poorer. Gripe about your loss of extra legroom if you must, but that money could go a long way toward doing something more fun than sitting while you’re actually on your trip.

— written by Shereen Rayle, Editor of Shereen Travels Cheap

aruba Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Ever since snow dusted (or, in some regions, buried) 49 out of 50 U.S. states last week, the Caribbean, with its balmy temperatures, pink sunsets and skin-warming sunbeams, has been looking downright mouth-watering. But with spring break just around the corner, you can safely expect prices for tropical hotel stays and flights to the Caribbean islands to rise in February, March and April.

If you must travel to the Caribbean during the busy spring break season — and really, we don’t blame you — one of the best ways to save money is by picking the right island. In Top 25 Ways to Save on Caribbean Travel, IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter writes, “Airfare is one of the key expenses of any Caribbean trip, and some islands are much easier — and cheaper — to get to than others. For the lowest fares from the U.S., look for destinations served by low-cost carriers such as JetBlue (Nassau, Montego Bay, Barbados) and AirTran (Aruba, San Juan). Keep in mind that more competition usually leads to lower fares; you’ll pay less to fly to Jamaica, which is served by dozens of airlines, than you will to fly to an island like Dominica, where the only major carrier from the U.S. is American Airlines.”

We’re not denying that each Caribbean island has its own unique, worthwhile array of attractions. If you want to see rolling sugar cane fields and drink home-grown rum, head to Martinique. Seeking Vegas-style casinos and duty-free shopping? Nassau‘s a good pick. But if you really just want to sit on a beach with a sugary pina colada and you’re on a tight budget, price flights to various islands, and then pick your destination based on whichever’s cheapest. We promise you won’t be disappointed. There are no second-banana islands in the Caribbean.

— written by Caroline Costello

vacation cottage britain england united kingdom travel house cozyTravelers can find cozy, convenient lodging for $50, $20 or even free in virtually every destination — as long as they know where to look.

Aside from airfare, lodging is typically the expense that takes the biggest bite out of a vacation budget. But there’s no need to rack up hotel stays for $100 – $200 a night or more. Creative travelers who are willing to consider alternatives to hotels could pay a fraction of that price — or nothing at all — by taking advantage of the following options.

Short-Term Room Rentals
This is a relatively new trend in the travel world — a cross between vacation rentals and homestays. Using Web sites like Airbnb.com, iStopOver.com and Crashpadder.com, travelers can rent a room in someone’s house, a cottage or a private studio apartment for low nightly rates (it’s not uncommon to see prices under $50 per night). It’s a way for hosts to open up their homes and make a little extra money, while giving travelers a great deal and a local’s-eye view of a destination.

Religious Housing
Depending on where you’re traveling, there may be affordable lodging offered by religious organizations — such as convents and monasteries in Italy (see MonasteryStays.com), or Christian or Jewish guesthouses in Jerusalem. An Internet search or a visit to the local tourist board’s Web site can help you find these options.

Hostels
Though they’re commonly known as “youth” hostels, this form of accommodation can be ideal for budget travelers of any age. Even if you’re not up for the cheapest option — a bed in a shared dorm — you can often get a basic private room at a hostel for significantly less than the cost of a low-end hotel.

Homestays
Sleeping in someone’s spare bedroom or on the living room couch is by far one of the cheapest ways to travel. In many cases, it’s free, and it’s also a great way to meet locals. You can organize a homestay through long-established hospitality networks like Servas International, or check out newer sites like CouchSurfing.com. For more information, see our guide to Homestays and Farmstays.

Vacation Rentals
A Paris apartment, a villa in the Caribbean, a log cabin in Vermont … vacation rentals offer unique and affordable lodging around the globe. Because they tend to be more spacious than hotel rooms, they’re a particularly good bargain for families and groups who can divvy up the cost. And having your own kitchen can save you big bucks on restaurants. Learn more in Vacation Rentals: Right for You?.

Academic Housing
When students go home for the summer, many colleges and universities open their dorms to visitors. Expect basic but very affordable accommodations (bathrooms may be down the hall, for example). There are few central databases of this type of lodging — University-Rooms.com is one to try — but it’s worth calling a few local campuses directly to see if anything might be available during your trip. The local tourist board may also be able to help.

Farmstays
From rural B&B’s to working ranches and cattle farms, this type of stay can cover a wide range of accommodations — and you don’t necessarily have to be willing to milk a cow to take advantage of it. Farmstays are particularly popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Learn more in Homestays and Farmstays.

Camping
Sleeping under the stars can be a magical experience — and it’s one of the cheapest options on our list, especially if you cook your own meals over a campfire instead of eating in restaurants every night. And don’t worry … you can opt for cabins or luxury tent camps if you’d rather not be slapping mosquitoes away all night. Get inspired with our Top Seven Spots for a Camping Trip.

B&B’s with Shared Bathrooms
Bed and breakfasts can often save you money over hotel rooms, especially if you’re willing to use a bathroom down the hall. And it may be less inconvenient than you think: A few years back, I stayed in a New Mexico B&B where the bathroom was supposed to be shared between my room and one other down the hall — but because the other room wasn’t booked for either of the nights I was there, I ended up having the bathroom all to myself.

Home Exchange
Swapping houses with another traveler is an ideal way to enjoy the comforts of home while traveling — and it’s practically free. To become a member of a home exchange network, you’ll typically pay an annual fee that costs about as much as a night in a hotel room, so after the first couple of nights of your vacation, your membership has paid for itself and then some. Learn more in Home Exchange: A How-To Guide.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

thanksgiving turkey meal mashed potatoes asparagus side dishes holidayThis Thanksgiving, a trip to enjoy turkey and all the trimmings with your loved ones will cost you — especially if you choose the wrong days to fly.

Travelocity has analyzed average domestic airfares for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday to see which travel days offer the best deals for fliers. The results?

The lowest average fare that Travelocity found was for flights departing on Thanksgiving Day and returning the following Tuesday, November 30. Flights on these days would set you back just $293 roundtrip. Compare that to the most popular dates to fly: depart the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Sunday after, and you’ll pay $463 — a difference of $170. (You can see the full fare chart by visiting the link above.)

If these numbers look a little high, it’s not your imagination. Travelocity reports that fares are about 10 percent higher than they were at the same time last year.

Unsurprisingly, avoiding the most popular travel days is the key to finding an affordable flight — but for some of us, a lower fare isn’t worth an inconvenient schedule (or a few extra days with the in-laws). What’s your Thanksgiving travel strategy? Will you be flying on peak days or off-peak days … or will you be staying home to avoid the whole mess?

–written by Sarah Schlichter