Guided by big data and sophisticated algorithms, large travel suppliers are increasingly able to control pricing by the second; as a result, many previously reliable money-saving tactics have lost some punch.
One example is the way many travelers used to stockpile miles over time in order to splurge on big vacation trips, finding free flights and upgrades easily if they booked far enough in advance. Of late, the airlines are much more savvy (and stingy) about allocating seats for reward travel, and are also changing the way miles are earned, making it harder than ever to use your miles to get a seat on the plane.
It's not just the old tricks that are fading away; even some Web 2.0 tactics are disappearing. How about this one: Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" service -- the feature that pretty much defined the brand -- is no longer available for airfares, having been discontinued in September 2016.
As travel provider tactics evolve, so must yours if you hope to make your trips more affordable. Here are some money-saving travel tips that you can lean on in the year ahead.
Save on Hotel Wi-Fi
Travelers in the 21st century depend heavily on Wi-Fi, but costs range from $10 - $15 per day at many hotels. To make matters worse, some properties charge per device, or impose fees if you want a faster connection.
There are a few ways to avoid these extra charges.
At properties that charge per device, you can connect with your laptop and then share the connection with your phone, your spouse's phone, your kid's tablet, etc. There are a bunch of different methods and products to help you do this, and it sometimes takes a bit of advance planning. Here's a primer.
If you are not traveling with a laptop, you can turn your phone into a mobile hotspot and simply connect to the internet via your cellular connection; note, however, that this will add to the price of your cellphone bill. It can be worth the money if you need this kind of access frequently and in a variety of situations.
The simplest and least tech-heavy approach is to join the hotel's loyalty program. Many chains offer complimentary Wi-Fi to their loyalty members as a benefit of signing up, so you won't need to accumulate points or stays before you qualify. You might have to ask specifically for the benefit to be applied at check-in or by calling the front desk; I have found that booking a hotel through your loyalty program does not always automatically "turn on" all the benefits of membership.
Use the Sharing Economy to Save on Flights
On a recent trip to a wedding in Jacksonville, Florida, I was having trouble finding affordable and convenient flights from the three airports within an hour of my home. The cheapest options I found were at terrible times -- a 6 a.m. flight with a 10-year-old is just wrong -- and the flights at better times cost hundreds of dollars more.
The solution: Purchase one-way tickets departing from one airport and returning to another, and use a car-sharing service to get to and from each one. This avoids the obvious problem of stranding your car at your departure airport and then having to figure out a way to get it after you get home. And ridesharing apps are much more affordable than taxis or car services in most places.
In the end, I paid $75 for the two car rides (one using Uber, one using Lyft), but saved about $450 on flights that fit our schedule. That, and we got door-to-door service at both ends of a short, packed trip. Admittedly, this strategy took a bit more research and time, but I had already lost most of that time staring at flights that didn't work, so the additional hassle was minimal.
Even if you don't have multiple airports near your home, you can try this tactic at your destination as well. You might fly into LAX and out of Long Beach, or mix and match among London's numerous airports.
Use Car-Sharing as Your Main Mode of Transport
While you're at it, you might want to price out using car-sharing services as a replacement for a car rental entirely. Unless you will be driving a lot, the cost can be similar or even less after you consider the cost of gasoline, parking, insurance (and the risk of claims), taxes and fees.
One area where you can really save is at your hotel, particularly if you're staying in a downtown location. For the wedding we went to in Jacksonville, we paid $20 a night to park our rental car. Meanwhile, an Uber ride from the airport would have been about $13 each way.
Additionally, using a ridesharing service saves you the hassle of picking up and returning a rental car, including waiting in lines, resisting rental counter upsells, finding a gas station to fill the tank and getting lost trying to find the car rental office in a maze of airport ring roads.
Forget Miles; Focus on Credit Card Points
Even hardcore mileage experts are bearish on airline miles these days; it seems like every few months the airlines devalue our hard-earned miles a little more, and some veteran travelers are moving on from chasing miles.
Credit card points, however, are a different story. Some cards will outright refund travel expenses after your trip is completed; you merely log on to your credit card's website, choose Redeem Travel Purchases, and the credit card uses your points to issue a refund up to the value of your points.
I have also written in the past about focusing on hotel points rather than airline miles. For now this is still a decent tactic, although it only works if you book directly with the hotel. Use your points while you can!
When Using Miles, Think Small
If you're having trouble finding reward flights to top tourist destinations, you may do better searching less popular routes. I used miles to book a round trip to Cleveland for a memorial service just a few weeks ago, and did the same for my hotel booking. Set your sights on less popular and/or off-season destinations, and you might have a similar success rate.
Try Alternate Lodging
Most of our readers know about alternative lodging sites like Airbnb and VRBO, but many of us peg such services for bookings during vacations, and not for more focused trips such as family visits or business travel.
This is changing quickly; Airbnb is giving traditional hotels a run for their money, with even corporate travelers giving it a try. Airbnb is encouraging the trend with a newly instituted "Business Travel Ready" designation on many listings.
Seeking out alternative lodging can be especially effective when you are booking in a very popular destination or during a big event around which hotel bookings become scarce and expensive. It's also a good bet when traveling with larger groups, as you can search for lodging that is large enough to sleep larger numbers of people than even the biggest hotel rooms can accommodate, typically at very reasonable prices.
Play Exchange Rates to your Advantage
U.S. travelers haven't always been able to lean on the strength of the dollar to stretch their funds while traveling overseas, but that's the reality right now. You can get more for your money in places like the post-Brexit United Kingdom, post-Olympics Brazil, Mexico and others. Check out a full list here.
Find Free Stuff to Do
The tourist industry's presence on the web (and in apps on your phone) is mature and advanced, and searches for "free things to do" will be successful almost anywhere you want to go. Often these searches take you to the very best a place has to offer -- parks, beautiful open spaces, even top attractions.
Use the 24-Hour Cancellation Rule
All airlines are required to refund any booking in full if canceled within 24 hours of booking, and I have found this a great help when I need to purchase an airfare but am pressed for time to apply some of the price comparison tactics mentioned above. When in this spot, go ahead and book the best flight you can find at the time, and then when you have more time, finish up your research and cancel the standing booking if you find something better.
Saving money on travel isn't getting any easier, but if you keep up with the changing times and technology, you can still have some money left in the bank when you hit the road. If you have any 21st-century tactics that I missed, let us know in the comments below!