Thanks to excessive TSA rules and sequester-fueled flight delays, we've all learned to be much more patient when it comes to travel inconveniences—not to mention savvy about what's really worth paying extra for ... a $30 baggage check-in fee, really?!
But when are certain compromises just not worth the hassle?
Case in point: Is booking a 4:00 a.m. flight in order to save $100 really in your best interest if it means having to get to the airport at 2:00 in the morning?
We decided to look at six common concessions that travelers make to save money—and then asked experts to weigh in on whether they really make sense for you.
1. Is it cost-effective to buy overpriced, travel-sized toiletries to avoid paying a baggage fee?
The quick answer: yes. There’s no question that TSA-approved toiletries will make your trip smoother—and save you money.
Even if you spend an extra $20 for travel-sized items, don’t forget that the alternative is paying to check your luggage on both legs of your trip. With baggage fees continually rising, this could translate into at least $50 total on most airlines.
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An even better option, recommends Chris Lopinto, co-founder of ExpertFlyer.com, is to buy a set of reusable, three-ounce, travel-sized containers, which you can buy at most pharmacies for a few dollars. Fill them up with your own shampoo and mouthwash each time that you travel, and you’ll never have to shell out for special travel-sized toiletries again.
For frequent fliers like Lopinto, this question is a no-brainer because checking bags doesn’t just cost money—it also slows you down. “I don’t like to check bags, even when there's no fee,” says Lopinto. “It’s easier to keep your bags with you, especially if you have a connecting flight and you run the risk of losing it. For me, you can’t put a price on time saved."
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2. When should you settle for a layover in exchange for a cheaper plane ticket?
“You have to think about what will cause you more grief or regret—the extra money or the inconvenience—and that is relative, depending on your circumstances,” says Eileen P. Gunn, founder of travel website FamiliesGo!. “A teacher who has the whole summer off might be O.K. with an extra layover because she can take a longer trip to make up for it. For a business owner who has a hard time getting away, saving time is more important.”
When making the decision about whether to book a layover, keep in mind that the time cost of a layover is actually more than it may appear. “Even if a connection is only an hour and a half, you generally end up losing more like three hours total travel time,” says Lopinto, who recommends calculating the total hours that a trip will take without a layover—from the time you leave your home until you reach your final destination—and then see how much longer it will be with the layover.
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3. Is booking a 4 a.m. flight to save $100 worth losing a night of sleep?
Think of lost slumber in the same way you would lost time. The value varies for each of us: Some folks can function on a few hours of sleep while others can't. Is one ruined day of a long weekend getaway worth saving $100? Probably not.
“For me, that trade-off is not O.K. because I value my sleep,” says Lopinto. “If you’re gonna be walking around like a zombie all day, that’s not really worth it.”
Travelers with less of a time crunch may find it acceptable to lose a night of sleep in exchange for a trip that would otherwise have been unaffordable. “Before I had my daughter, I was willing to put up with a fair amount of inconvenience to save money,” says Gunn. “I survived major jet lag on long weekend visits to Lisbon, Brussels and Dublin using last-minute discount fares. But, with kids, even small inconveniences or delays can be stressful, so the trade-off is harder.”
4. Do bidding sites deliver enough savings to book a trip without having all the details about flight times?
One reason why bidding sites have focused more on hotel sales in recent years is due to the fact that many consumers have already calculated that the savings aren’t big enough to justify horrible flight times. Sometimes these sites can indeed deliver deep discounts, but don’t gamble with the hopes that you’ll end up with a cheap ticket and a good ticket.
When considering putting a bid in, assume that you’ll end up with a flight that leaves at the worst possible time. Then decide whether that would be worth the money saved compared to booking with a site that gives you all of the details up front.
Lopinto notes that search engines like Kayak and Hipmunk now include deal sites like Orbitz in their results, so you should be able to find a price that doesn't cost much more than what a bidding site can deliver. “With airfares, you shouldn’t really have to rely on bidding sites,” says Lopinto. “Kayak’s the biggest, so a search there should cover everything—and, in most cases, will find the cheapest option.”
With hotels, bidding sites can often deliver significant savings, but there's a trade-off: You could end up in a less-than-ideal locale, which brings us to our next question …
5. Is booking a cheap hotel that's not centrally located worth the commuting hassle?
It depends on how much time you have in a destination, and what percent of it you’re willing to dedicate to commuting. If you’re jetting to Paris for a romantic weekend, you probably won’t want to spend half of your morning taking the Metro in from the suburbs. (And it's definitely not a good idea if you end up blowing your hotel savings on taking cabs back to the hotel!)
If you're a business traveler, “time is money,” says Lopinto. “You’re not going to be in the hotel room that much, so convenience is important.”
On the other hand, a far-flung hotel for leisure travelers can sometimes have unexpected benefits. Depending on the experience you want, that pricey city center stay may not even be the best place for you. “Seeking out less touristy neighborhoods can save money, and give you insights into local culture and specialties that you wouldn't find otherwise,” says Gunn. “For example, heading out of central London to explore Camden market was fun, and the local pub we found nearby for lunch was by far the cheapest meal we had—and it was good!”
6. Does brand loyalty ever really pay?
Probably not. If you travel frequently enough that you’re earning free flights once a year or more, sticking with the same brand might be worth it. But, for most of us, the rewards are so few and far between that it’s not realistic to base your travel plans entirely on the options offered through one company.
For example, a free one-way flight usually runs somewhere around 20,000 miles—you’d have to travel round-trip between New York and California four times before earning enough miles to earn that flight. Plus, with blackout dates and expiring miles, being able to get that free flight is never a sure thing. If the price of a ticket is the same, go with the airline that you have more miles with, but if there’s a significant price difference, pick the cheapest fare.
Of course for business travelers who fly often enough to earn status with airlines, loyalty can have other dividends. “I go with the airline that I have status with because it gives me perks that I don’t have to pay for,” says Lopinto, who enjoys the chance to board before other passengers, as well as book an exit-row seat for no extra charge. “I wouldn’t pay $500 more for these perks, but for a few dollars more, it’s worth it.”