As a comedian, I spend a lot of time traveling, particularly by car. I often tell people they pay us to drive and we do comedy for free. Since I’m in the middle of a tour right now and thinking about all this stuff, I thought I’d impart a little wisdom on how to travel on the cheap.
Now I don’t go nearly as cheap as some of my brethren. I worked with a guy this last weekend that ripped out the back seats of his minivan and put an air bed back there. He just parks at a rest stop on nights he doesn’t have a hotel and sleeps there. I’ve certainly done my time sleeping in the back of a van, but I try not to anymore.
So here’s a few tips on traveling on the cheap:
1. Get a credit card that gives you either airline or hotel points. I had the Southwest Airlines credit card for a long time, but I won’t deal with Chase anymore. One I use is the Choice Hotels card. For the most part, my hotels are taken care of by the people booking me, but on off nights I’m on my own. That’s when I can whip out some points and not have to dig into my stash to pay for a room. You’ll love the feeling of being able to check in somewhere without paying for it. So find a hotel or airline chain that you plan to use on a regular basis and collect those points!
2. For flights, Google Flights is a fantastic tool. There’s a bit of a learning curve to it. But poke around and you’ll find great deals. And a tip for Southwest Airlines: If you book a ticket and they lower the price later, go into your account and click “change flight”. It’ll show you the price difference and you can sometimes book the same flight for less money. For their regular low end tickets you’ll receive the balance back as a credit to be used later.
3. Don’t take any upsells on the rental car. The prepaid gas is a scam. Unless you bring the car back exactly empty, you’re paying for more gas than the care will need. Just fill it up before you return it and you’ll spend the same or less. Also, don’t bother with the insurance packages they offer. If you pay with a credit card, there’s a good chance that the credit card company offers a complimentary rental car insurance program. Double check with your exact card to be sure. Your regular car insurance may also offer some coverage.
4. Return the rental car to the same city you got it in. They will charge you sometimes 300% more on the rental is you drop it off in a different city. Try to fly into a central city for your trip and use that as home base. You may end up with some extra driving, but you won’t have to pay nearly as much for the car.
5. One last recommendation on cars. AutoSlash.com is a great way to save on rental cars with very little work. They’ll shop the best deal for you and then after you reserve the car they’ll track price drops so you can cancel and re-reserve. I’ve often been able to knock 1/3 off the initial price this way.
6. As much as possible, buy snacks at regular grocery stores instead of gas stations and truck stops. They’ll be significantly cheaper most of the time. And if you are buying at a gas station, make sure they have price tags on the items. Some don’t put prices on any of their items (knowing people will buy anyway) and they’re always more expensive.
7. If you can, bring a cooler in the car and keep healthy snacks on hand so you’re not tempted to grab a Snickers at every stop. Some fresh fruit, a jar of peanut butter, nuts, and beef jerky will get you through the snack cravings. Also, bring a water bottle and buy one or two gallon jugs to refill it with. Cheaper than buying a bottle every time you’re thirsty. And refilling from the gallon jugs uses up less plastic than buying a case of individual bottles.
8. One can not live on nuts and jerky alone. You’ll want a real meal eventually. I try to keep the carbs down, so I have two recommendations for cheap and healthy eats. Wendy’s is my go-to place. For $5 or so you can get the half salad and a cup of chili and that will fill you up. Their salads are pretty good for fast food salads, and lower in calories that others. My back up plan is Subway. You can order any of their sandwiches as a salad instead. Unfortunately, they’re pretty bland. Another good choice is either Chipotle or Qdoba. The bowl or salad versions of their stuff will give you some good hot, filling food without breaking the bank or your belt.
9. To contradict myself, avoid chain restaurants as much as possible. If I’m going to have a sit-down meal and cheat my diet a little bit, avoid Applebees and Denny’s. Use Yelp or Trip Advisor to find a cool local establishment with good food and reasonable prices. You’ll be supporting small businesses, getting way better food, and soaking up the local color.
10. If your hotel does a free continental breakfast, look for boiled eggs and have a couple of those. Otherwise, don’t get caught up in the pastries and waffles. If you want to be real brazen like a friend of mine, show up at a Holiday Inn or some of the mid-level Choice hotels where they have a decent free breakfast of eggs and sausage. Yes, even if you’re not staying there. It’s always different people on the desk in the morning and they don’t know who’s actually staying there and nobody watches very closely. I can’t say I do this myself, but hey, there it is.
11. A great tip for staying awake while driving. Leave the vents open on the AC. You can change the temperature to whatever is comfortable, but having that fresh air circulating instead of the recirculated internal air will do wonders for keeping you alert. I just discovered this recently and it’s made my drives way more pleasant.
12. Audiobooks and Podcasts. Listen to something that keeps your brain engaged while driving. Heck listen to someone you don’t agree with and argue with them. It will keep you alert. Intersperse it with music when you get tired of listening to them drone on. But if you’ve got something interesting to listen to you can actually learn something while you’re driving.
13. Keep a notebook or voice recorder handy. While listening to that engaging content, you’ll probably get some ideas of your own. The kernels of some of my best bits appeared while driving. Pull over real quick and make a note so you don’t lose it.
14. There’s plenty of low cost stuff to do. Wherever you are, find something to do that you can only do there. Don’t just go see a movie that you can see at home. Go find that quirky little museum or town landmark that will be a better story later. I visited a saddle museum in Mile City, MT. And just yesterday I spent 3 hours at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, IA. Cost me all of six bucks. Every town has a little something like that. And if you do want to visit a larger amusement park or something, check the local grocery stores for discount tickets.
15. Bring an exercise band. Inexpensive hotels rarely have gyms. So if you’re have an exercise regimen, try to adapt it to an exercise band. They’re light and easy to stick in a suitcase. You can do it right in your room. There are plenty of hotel room exercise plans out there. Here’s two good ones:
There ya go kiddies! Get out and see the world! Nothing expands your worldview like traveling.
One of my favorite quotes… “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain