Sunday, July 6, 2014

How I Saved Over $1,000 on My Last Vacation

This week I returned from my week long vacation in Montreal, Canada. The original purpose of going was for a business conference but my husband and I stayed 3 extra nights to enjoy the city. I am only sharing my savings from decisions that further reduced the cost of this trip from what my employer would have paid for. Want to saved $1,000 on your next trip? Learn from me.

1)   Affordable Accommodations: The conference was at the Queen Elizabeth Fairmont hotel ($272.49/night with the conference price) and it was lovely. However, my husband (Scott) and I opted to switch to a value oriented hotel, Hotel Abri du Voyageur ($72.38/night), after the conference. This was a savings of $200.11/night for 3 nights.

Additionally, we often used wi-fi and would have paid $16/day at the Fairmont for Sunday and Monday whereas it was free at our new hotel. It is amazing how the cheaper places tend to offer you the most benefits.

Our choice to change to a more economical hotel after the conference saved us $632.33.

Disclaimer: Hotel Abri du Voyageaur cost $70/night and this was because we shared a bathroom, sort of like a college dorm where there are a couple bathrooms on the floor for everyone to use. Except the bathroom was still nice, like one you would have in your own house. We also took advantage of a hotel like this in San Francisco, California a couple years ago as well. Be aware that this is an option and in my opinion it is really not that bad - our hotel is the image for this post. It looks nice, doesn't it? However, my husband advised that in the future we need our own bathroom.

2)  Minimize Baggage Fees: Pretty much every airline charges for checked bags these days, so always be aware of the baggage fee. Switching airlines probably won’t change much so the best thing to do is minimize the number of bags you check. Fortunately for me, my employer will reimburse me for that bag. Had my husband checked a bag as well, we would have paid an extra $50.

Also, we forgot to weigh the suitcase at home, but when they advised it was overweight, we opted to remove some of the items into our carry on suitcase to avoid paying the extra $75 overweight bag charge.

3)  Feelessly Exchange Currency: Prior to the trip we exchanged our US currency for Canadian currency with no fees. Our credit union did not offer this service, but I gave my mom money ($250 was the minimum without fees) and she was able to have it exchanged at her bank for free. Canadians did accept US money, but the exchange rate favors the US slightly so we would actually be paying more than we needed to if we paid in American dollars. Also, it just seems more respectful to use the proper currency and you never know when you'd run into a situation where they wouldn't take your money. 

I’m not exactly sure what the fees would have been had we exchanged our money at the airport, but from everything I’ve seen it ends up being an awful deal. The best way to spend money in other countries is  to use my CapitalOne Venture card so I only wanted a small amount to cover those situations where I needed cash. Airport money exchanges tend to require that you exchange a greater amount of money. I’ll assume I saved 10% ($25) loosely based on this.

4)  Smart Shopping: When traveling there are three main types of things people buy: souvenirs, gifts and personal items.

The only souvenirs we bought were 2 post cards for my scrapbook, a magnet (so practical, I love seeing my magnets from around the world on my fridge) and a Christmas ornament (we purchase one new one every year). The total? Thirteen Canadian dollars. I always tried to take it easy on souvenirs, but more recently I decided to stop collecting playing cards from places I visit. Additionally Scott and I determined that we regret t-shirt and tote bag purchases. Cutting back on the souvenirs saved us about $40.

It is a great idea to buy gifts for those you love while traveling. It shows your loved ones that you were thinking of them while you were away. However, buying cheap little trinkets is a waste of money. Unless they would really enjoy it; don't buy it. I've concluded that I will only buy things that are valuable enough to actually give as birthday or Christmas present. I don’t even count this as part of my vacation budget because I would have bought a gift eventually. The difference is that it comes from somewhere new and special instead of Oklahoma City. I never went too crazy with the little gifts, but I’ll say I saved $20 through this gift-giving adjustment.

As for personal shopping, again I do not include it in the vacation budget. It just counts as shopping for me. I’m not going to count any savings in this category, but I will urge anyone watching their costs to avoid shopping solely for entertainment. Chances are there is some item that you are yearning for; you might as well seek that out rather than buying whatever random item catches your eye. For example, my husband has been wanting me to buy a strapless dress, so when we found some extra time, I shopped around and found one that was no more expensive than what I would have paid in the states. 

5)  Strategic Dining: Scott and I ate well. We really did. We delighted in dessert at least once a day, sometimes twice. We experienced various international cuisines. I would rate most of our meals as excellent. I personally don’t enjoy alcohol but Scott indulged in a “beer tour” at Les 3 Brasseurs and relished the wine at one or two other places. What I love about how we dined was that we thoroughly enjoyed the cuisine without our costs spiraling out of control. There were several ways we achieved this.

Minimize drinking: Both alcohol and soda cost money and we never thoughtlessly ordered either. Deciding that vacation calls for alcohol at every meal can be extremely expensive. Conservatively, we retained $100 during this trip by only ordering drinks when we really felt the need for one. For me, I literally never paid for a drink except at the airport on the way back home when I was sick and really wanted a bottle of water.

Be choosy with where to dine: We stuck to places with one or two dollar symbols on trip advisor. This freed us to choose the best (and often more expensive) items on the menu. We were not missing out at all – one of the restaurants had lobster tail stuffed with shrimp. Bon appetite! At some fancy place we would have paid double or triple with a much less generous portion. Had we been less selective with our restaurants, we could have easily spent an extra $150 without any extra value.

There we have it: I saved over $1,000 from affordable hotel accommodations (that extra effort to switch hotels after the conference sure paid off), minimizing baggage fees, avoiding currency exchange fees, cutting back on souvenirs, avoiding small gift purchases that loved ones probably would not enjoy much anyway and strategic dining.

Do you intend to implement any of my suggestions on your next vacations? What other ideas do you use to save money (without compromising value) on vacations?

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