originally appeared in USA Today:
During the holidays, family travel usually involves visiting friends and relatives or that much-anticipated vacation destination. But the holidays are also high season. That means top hotel rates, restaurants serving expensive meals, and stages hosting sparkling ballets, plays and rock concerts at premium prices. Here are some tips on how to stretch your holiday budget by saving money on food, lodging and fees.
Cheap eats on the go
Eat the street food. Take advantage of the food truck revolution to cut your lunch costs. In Boston, New York, Washington, D.C, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin and other urban locales, skilled cooks serve up imaginative fare from their mobile kitchens. The vendors tend to specialize in one main dish, tweaking the ingredients. Empanadas can be beef with potato or Jambalaya style with shrimp, sausage and rice. Tacos come filled with chicken, beef or even lobster. And for dessert, look for trucks selling waffles, cupcakes or custom-made ice cream sandwiches. These mobile meals-on-wheels rove the downtown districts, parking for awhile and then moving on. To track the trucks, check the destination's official visitor website for links and for apps.
Browse the green markets. Indoor farmers' markets bloom in major cities from Toronto to Los Angeles. Although winter might mean fewer home-grown vegetables, the markets lure neighbors and visitors by selling aromatic breads, fresh-baked pastries, crisp apples and other seasonal fruit as well as organic salads and deli meats. Dine in at the markets' inexpensive cafés or bring some goodies back to your hotel room or to your relatives' house.
Rooms with meals
Pick a property that includes breakfast. When rates include complimentary breakfast, whether it's a cooked-to-order meal or a Continental spread, you start your day saving money.
Make sure your room has a refrigerator. Stock your fridge with milk, juice and bottled water purchased at a nearby store, thus saving money on costly honor bar items. When traveling with little ones, buy plastic bowls and spoons as well as cold cereal and baby food. Tots can then eat breakfast when hungry, even if it's before the hotel restaurant opens. If refrigerators aren't standard features, hotels may supply them for a fee. Like all extras, availability is limited, so request a fridge when you make your room reservation.
Book a condo. Not only do these lodgings offer more space for the money than hotel rooms, but they also come with kitchens. That makes it easy to cook breakfasts and dinners, thus saving on restaurant bills.
Cook for the relatives. Instead of taking Aunt Sally, Uncle Bill and their families out to a restaurant to thank them for their hospitality, cook dinner for them. This is less costly and often less hectic than requiring youngsters to sit through a multi-course meal at a restaurant.
Consider a home exchange. By swapping your vacant place for someone else's, you can enjoy a getaway in Europe, the Caribbean or anywhere else you can find a family to live in your home while you live in theirs, all for much less money than renting a hotel or villa. Depending on what you want, trading places can get you multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, maybe a backyard and possibly extras like a car. Home exchange companies typically charge a membership fee and/or a monthly listing fee. If you've always wanted to treat your mom and dad to Christmas in Rome, then swapping homes can make this dream trip an affordable holiday gift.
Try an all-inclusive resort. The upfront cost covers all meals, activities and often children's programs. Especially with always hungry and active tweens and teens, all-inclusives can save you money.
Share a condo or villa with another family. Sharing a three-bedroom condo or villa with another family costs less than booking a two-bedroom unit yourself. But beware: nothing tests buddies like living with someone. The key to a successful trip that maintains the friendship is honest talk ahead of time. Discuss who will cook and clean; which couple gets to bunk in the master bedroom with the private bath; and what house rules will govern the kids' television viewing and bedtimes.
Price various travel options. Compare the cost of driving, versus flying or boarding the bus, especially on the East Coast where discount bus services sell promotional seats sometimes for as little as $1.
Consider travel insurance. For that guided safari in Kenya, Caribbean family cruise, or other prepaid, big-ticket item, if your 8-year-old pops out with measles the day before you leave, you won't get your money back unless you're covered by the appropriate travel insurance. As always, read the fine print.
Use the right credit card. Don't add to the amount you owe by putting meals, lodging and other purchases in a foreign locale on a credit card that charges for converting non-U.S. currencies into dollars. Pick a credit card that foregoes these fees.
Look for package deals and passes. During the holidays, hotels bundle admission to special attractions into their packages and big cities offer combination passes that discount admission to several attractions for one fee. The caveat: This is only a deal if you expect to visit most of the museums and places featured within the allotted time frame.
Play with coupons. Check out social media for slashed prices. LivingSocial.com, Groupon.com and other digital discount sites may have just the money-saver you need to make that water skiing excursion or dining at a fine restaurant affordable.
Friday, December 14, 2012
originally appeared in USA Today: