How We Do Family Travel on a Budget

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**
Since this time last week, we’ve been traveling around Puerto Rico on several work assignments. Covering a lot of ground with two kids during the island’s high season is no small feat, especially on a tight budget.

Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Here are some of the ways we’ve been stretching our dollars:

1. We bought one-way tickets.
Given that we were traveling to the Caribbean over a holiday, flights were going to be a big-ticket item for this trip, so we compared round-trip and one-way ticket prices. Though there was a wild-card element about the cost of the return flight, our gamble paid off and our tickets ended up being about $400 cheaper than they would have had we bought round-trip tickets. Remember that flight prices tend to be lower on Tuesdays, so try to book on that day. (And if you have kids and you’re booking through Expedia, use Upromise.com as your launch pad so you can get 6% back on your purchase; the funds are funneled to your child’s 529 savings account. I’ve written a more comprehensive piece about that here.)

2. We packed our own car seats.
The average daily rate a rental car company charges for car seats is $11 each. That’s $22 a day for two kids. Multiply by seven days and you get $154. Yes, they’re cumbersome when you’re getting them to and through the airport, but otherwise, but bringing your own car seats will save you money. They’ll save you time, too; since you already know how to install your own car seats, you won’t have to figure out another system.

3. We brought our own snacks.
Plane snacks and car snacks for road trips; these will help you contain costs and keep you healthier. We like to pack fruit and granola bars, mixed nuts, cheese sticks, crackers, and apple sauce. We also pack instant oatmeal, an inexpensive and fast breakfast. All of these pack well and take up little space in luggage.

4. We do our own laundry.
Well, I shouldn’t say “we”; the truth is, Francisco is the one doing the washing. Each night, he takes about 20 minutes to wash our clothes in the sink or bathtub. He’ll hang them up to dry in the room; if they’re still damp in the morning, we’ll lay them out in the back of the car to sun dry.

5. We eat brunch rather than breakfast and lunch.
Three meals for four people every day can be a big line item on the travel budget, especially if you like eating well. We’re not into deprivation at all, but by the time we’re awake and have both kids dressed and ready to go, it’s usually time for brunch anyway, so we take advantage and eat a larger meal in that period between breakfast and lunch. It usually holds us until dinner.

Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

6. We don’t order alcohol.
The average price of a cocktail here is $16. If two adults have just one drink, they’ve already exceeded the cost of an entree. If we want to drink, we buy a bottle of wine and uncork it in our hotel room before or after dinner.

7. We don’t pay for WiFi.
We stay at properties where WiFi is included. $12-25 a day for WiFi is an easy way for a hotel to make an extra buck, but not at our expense.

8. We don’t put down a credit or debit card for “incidentals.”
Like being charged for WiFi, being asked for a credit or debit card to cover “incidentals” is a practice that I find really annoying, especially because the hold on your card ties up funds you’d otherwise have at your disposal, and it can take up to a week or longer for the hold to be released. I’ve been refusing to put down a card for incidentals (which we never use anyway) and if I’m met with protest, I’ll put down cash instead and make sure it’s returned upon check-out.

What are ways you save money when traveling? Share your tips in the comments.

8 Ways to Stretch Your Travel Dollar in New York City

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**

New York City is a destination on many travelers’ bucket lists, but its reputation as an expensive city deters visitors from booking flights and making travel plans. They believe that if they save enough money they’ll be able to visit New York someday, and for too many people, that someday never comes around.

It’s true that New York is expensive, but there are lots of ways to stretch your travel dollar to ensure you make the most of your visit. Here are 8 insiders’ tips:

1. Skip the obvious tourist traps.
Guide books and hotel concierges don’t tend to encourage visitors to stray from the tried and true touristy activities. Not that any of those activities are bad; they’re just not all New York has to offer. Plus, they tend to take quick, deep hits on your wallet.

Instead, visit some of the places locals frequent. Some of the city’s most interesting museums don’t charge an entrance fee. Some of the best shows cost a fraction of a Broadway ticket. And some of the most photogenic views can be had for free. If you want to know where some of these places are, check out my article “What NOT to Do in New York City” on MatadorTrips. You can also read our “Overlooked New York” series right here on this site.

2. Book hotels offline.
Smaller New York City hotels, such as The Inn on 23rd Street, don’t sell rooms through online fare aggregators. You’ll get the best deal by calling directly and asking for the lowest available rate. Even hotels that do sell rooms through online aggregators will often match the online rate if you call directly and mention the site through which you were considering booking. Many hotels prefer that you book directly with them, so they’ll meet or beat the price you find online.

3. Take the subway.
Don’t let anxiety or fear prevent you from using New York City’s subway system. Millions of locals and visitors ride the subway every day (5 million + in 2009), and more than a billion people use the subway every year. Don’t waste your money on taxis or a rental car here; buy yourself an unlimited Metrocard and take trains or city buses.

4. Eat a heavy lunch…
Go light on dinner and eat a heavier lunch instead. One of my favorite quick, inexpensive lunches is the “Rickshaw Regular” at the Rickshaw Dumpling Bar on 23rd Street. For $9.00 you get six dumplings and a soup of your choice. The portions are generous and filling. Rickshaw has a strong social media presence, too; if you’re on Twitter or Foursquare, check out the occasional deals they post through their channels.

5. Or wait for the afternoon deals and have a late lunch/early dinner.
Some shops offer half-price specials once the main lunch rush has died down. Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market sells sandwiches 50% off after 4 PM.

6. Use your social media savvy.
Where do you want to stay? What do you want to see and do? Where do you want to eat? Check to see if the places you want to patronize have Twitter, Facebook, and/or Foursquare accounts. Hundreds of New York businesses do, and they often announce exclusive deals for their online followers.

Waterfront Museum

7. Take advantage of New York’s free attractions.
We shared 30 of our favorites in this list.

8. Find out what’s happening in the city.
Newyorkology and NYC GO are two comprehensive websites listing what’s happening in New York on any given day. By checking their online calendars in advance, you can plan to take advantage of free or low cost activities that won’t be mentioned in guide books.

Have you done New York Cit on the cheap? Share your tips in the comments!

How to Home Swap

A few months back, I wrote a post on MatadorPulse offering advice for stretching your travel dollar. Since accommodations are often the most expensive part of a trip, one of my recommendations was to look into alternative lodging. Today’s traveler has tons of creative lodging choices, from traditional hosteling and couchsurfing to home swapping.

My own favorite is home swapping.

The benefits? First, you have all the comforts of home: a kitchen, a bed not slept in by hundreds or thousands of people, and amenities and utilities that won’t cost you extra, such as internet service. Second, since you’ll be in a residential neighborhood rather than a zone designed especially for tourists, you’re far more likely to get a local feel for a place by home swapping. Third, you’ll meet really interesting people who know their area well and will be happy to give you insider’s tips. Want to know where the best market is? The laundromat? Budget transportation options? Your home swapping partner will usually be happy to clue you in.

Admittedly, home swapping is not for everyone. There are many travelers who feel uncomfortable moving in, even if temporarily, to someone else’s private space. And plenty of people worry, as one person who responded to my post did, whether home swapping is safe.

Yet with some common sense and planning, concerns about the potential downsides of home swapping can be minimized. Here are some tips:

1) Decide where you’d like to go, where you want to stay, and investigate local home swap options. Although there are lots of home swap websites that offer fee-based memberships, I’ve used craigslist exclusively and have always had great experiences. I click on the city where I want to travel, select home swaps, and see what’s currently being offered.

2) Don’t rush. Once you’ve identified some potential swaps, send an inquiry and start getting to know the person offering his or her property. What does he/she do for a living? Has he/she home swapped before? What is the specific offer and what are his/her expectations for the swap? Be sure to get an exact location as well, and request photos if they were not provided in the initial post. Take your time: you’re going to be staying in this person’s home and vice versa, so you want to get to know a bit about the person who will be in your private space.

3) Consider asking for references. I rarely ask for references because I’ve generally “read” the other person and either gotten a good or bad vibe about them already. Bad vibe folks get cut off; good vibe folks have generally provided enough information to make me feel reassured about the swap. But if you’d like, ask for references.

4) Make the swap official. Swap dates can be concurrent (meaning you’re in the swapper’s home and they’re in yours on the same dates) or not; the arrangements depend upon your respective travel plans and schedules. Either way, it’s a good idea to exchange all contact information (names, home and mailing addresses, e-mails, cell phones, emergency contact information) in writing and to complete contracts as well. The contract should absolve the host party of liability in the event of some sort of injury while protecting the host from damages or losses of property. Sample contracts can be found online.

5) Stay in touch. Once you’ve established a home swap relationship, foster it. Home swappers tend to be like-minded folks with similar interests. By nurturing your relationship with your swapper, you’re likely to benefit from future swaps and other inside travel information.

Have you home-swapped? Are you interested in it or wary about it? Share your thoughts below!

Photo: alykat (creative commons)

Where in the Web Are We?

It’s been a busy week for CollazoProjects!

If you’ve missed any of these projects we’ve just finished, just click on over and get caught up!

Why Travel is the Most Patriotic Act You Can Do: In celebration of July 4, Julie reflects upon why she travels to Cuba (hint: it’s not the rum or the sun) and why travel is the most patriotic act an American can make.

From the article:

I believe that the act of traveling and then sharing is the most American, the most patriotic, the most democratic act an ordinary citizen can take.”

On another Cuban note, we want to give you advance notice that Francisco will be teaching a Cuban cooking class at the Whole Foods Culinary Center on Bowery Street in New York City on October 24.

The three hour class (6:30 PM-9:30 PM) promises to be informational, hands-on, fun, and tasty– all in Francisco’s usual signature style! Be sure to keep your eye on the Culinary Center’s calendar and sign up page: tickets are sure to go fast and there are only 12 spots in the class!

Top 10 Tips for Stretching Your Travel Dollar : A two-part series on MatadorPulse with Julie’s suggestions about how you can make your vacation dollar go the extra mile. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.

Tips for Traveling in “Dangerous” Places: As we get prepared for a Colombia trip and hear “Be careful down there!” one too many times, Julie offers some practical tips for traveling safely in “dangerous” areas… and anywhere, for that matter. From the introduction to the article:

“…our perceptions of what make a place seem dangerous are shaped by many factors—the hyper-dramatic media more interested in getting a quick and juicy story rather than sticking around to figure out the complicated dynamics of a place; government agencies driving their own political and economic agendas; and rumors that have taken on a life of their own. All of these are dubious sources of useful information for the traveler getting ready to depart for a place that’s perceived as having a high danger factor.”

Finally, Julie’s guest blog about living your dream life appeared on Christine Gilbert’s website earlier this week. Be sure to check it out!

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!- Francisco & Julie

Cuba postcard photo: wedgienet
Colombian girl photo: Philip Bouchard

NYC on the Cheap

Okay. So you’re an expert when it comes to visiting New York City. You know about half-price theatre tickets from TKTS. You’re hip to all the city’s free summer concerts, movies, and sports activities. You even know about the cheap hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya.

But the travel dollar just isn’t stretching as far as it was this time last year and you need to save a few more bucks. Print out this pocket-friendly guide to NYC on the Cheap… you’ll see some new sites and have a great time, all without breaking the bank.

*First things first: Buy an unlimited Metrocard. Whether you’re around for a day, a week, or a month, the unlimited Metrocard is the best bang for your transportation buck. Each single ride on the subway or bus is $2. Each taxi ride starts with a base rate of $2.50. An unlimited card, by comparison, will save you lots of money. Use your debit or credit card in the station to purchase an unlimited Metrocard from a kiosk.

*Skip the typical sites. That trip to the top of the Empire State Building will set you back at least $18.00. Plus, the lines are long and you’re not even guaranteed that the view will be great once you get to the top. Avoid the touristy sites, which are overhyped and overpriced, and explore less frequented sites.

*Do due diligence regarding activities for the budget traveler. In addition to the tips on this list, many New York City newspapers and magazines have cheap and free listings in their events section. The New York Times, for instance, prints a weekly Spare Times column, full of low-cost activities and all the information you need to find & enjoy them.

*Remember: Samples are your friends. New York City grocery stores love to give out samples. Cruise through a Whole Foods any afternoon and you can likely make your own tasting menu–from appetizers to desserts–by snagging a sample from each department: charcuterie to chocolate, here I come!

*Pick up promos: New York City is every marketer’s holy grail, and there’s no end to the branding stunts staged in the city. Though I typically recommend avoiding Times Square at all costs, it is the crossroads for shamelessly creative product-pushers who are happy to press everything from a bottle of juice to a personal hygiene product into your greedy little hands.

*Still hungry? Can you wait til 4 PM?: Remember those pricey sandwiches you were drooling over at Amy’s Bread? Their Chelsea Market outpost sells sandwiches half-price after 4 PM. Wander through the other food vendors in the Market for similar afternoon savings (cookies 1/2 price at Eleni’s after 6 PM).

*Need to use the Internet?: Avoid overpriced Internet cafes and drop by one of the city’s Apple stores or Tekserve on 23rd Street. The stores are so accustomed to drop-in Internet users that you’re unlikely to be disturbed, but if you are, ask a smart question about the Macbook, won’t you?

*Need a live music fix at a low price?: Check out Ben Sisario’s great article, “Cheap Seats,” which was featured in The New York Times back in December.

*Need MORE tips? I can hardly imagine it, but if you do, drop by my favorite bookstore, Strand and snag yourself an NYC guidebook. The best and most useful guide? NFT (Not For Tourists), of course!

Do you have any tips to add to this list? Share your ideas in the comments!

Photo: James Seattle (creative commons)