Friday, May 27, 2011

Traveling on the cheap

Out of nowhere I seem to have become a person who travels. Okay, I've been a person who travels for awhile now, since I don't live in the same country as most of my family, but now that I have a good job I'm actually going to...


...places where my relatives don't live!

I know... it's shocking.

Okay, it's not shocking at all... I'm just trying to build up some excitement here. Give me a break, it's Friday.

Traveling a lot AND being a massive cheapskate at heart does give you some serious insight into ways to cut costs, though, so that's at least a bit adrenaline-boosting, right (well, if you're a budget nerd, at least)?

Most people have their own tricks so, with the summer travel season approaching, I thought I'd share my main ones for traveling in a way that's not going to leave you completely broke, but is still reasonably time efficient as well.

Booking your travel
Where loyalty, a lack of loyalty, and flexibility will pay off.

  • Are you great at paying off your credit card each month? Can you put most of your expenses on a credit card? If so, go get yourself a great travel points card (I have an Airmiles one myself), charge everything you normally buy (no buying yourself extra stuff just to get more points!), pay the thing off immediately, and then let the credit card points pay for your travel. Yeah, you may still have to pay the taxes on your flight (although some cards don't have this annoying feature... search them out if you can), but you'll still save hundreds of dollars this way.
  • When I'm looking for flights, hotels, and car rentals, I rely pretty heavily on It's a travel search aggregator, which, in simplest terms, means it collects its data from other travel search sites (like individual airline sites as well as discount sites like and then puts all the results in one place. This keeps you from going mad trying to chase down the best deal across dozens of individual sites. Nifty, eh?!
  • I'm lucky that for some of my travel I can be flexible about airports. For example, my mom lives pretty much directly between two major airports, so I can pick which one to fly into based completely on convenient flight times and cost. Whenever you're flying, do some research into whether there are nearby alternate airports that you might be able to fly in and/or out of... but remember to factor in additional travel times and costs when you're making your final decision. For example, I live in Canada, but if I'm willing to drive an extra 2 hours I have access to a US airport with MUCH cheaper airfares. Looks like a no-brainer on paper, but going to the US has a lot of additional costs, especially now that I live so close to a Canadian airport. If I fly out of the US airport I have to add gas, time, and parking... and as of late the final savings have become so negligible that I've been choosing to go for my home airport instead.
I'm a long time believer in traveling with carry-on only. Not only do you save an obscene amount of time not having to check and pick up your bags, but there's no chance of your luggage getting lost if it's with you the whole way. It takes a few tricks to make it work, but it's worth the hassle, especially now that airlines are starting to charge for every piece of checked luggage. Here's how you can make it work.
  • First, pick a carry-on sized piece of luggage. Not all pieces of carry-on luggage are built equal, though, so be careful. The available volume inside a suitcase can be drastically reduced by features like poorly-designed telescopic handles or oddly-shaped compartments. If you're looking for the most available volume, a light duffel bag is your best bet. However, it's often exhausting to drag a full duffel bag around, so I switched to an efficiently designed roller suitcase like this one. Yeah, it's  got a bit less space, but the ease-of-use makes up for it (I can't say enough about how fantastic roller suitcases with 4 spinner wheels are... splurge on a nice one of these if you can), plus it expands slightly if I need more room in a pinch.
  • Pick what you bring carefully. You need to pare everything down to the basic essentials. For me, that means traveling with only my iPod and eReader and leaving the laptop behind. 
  • When choosing clothing, pack matching separates. Strategic clothing planning is key... if you can mix and match all your tops and bottoms, that means you can bring a lot less. A versatile, comfy pair of shoes is ideal here too as traveling with only the pair you're wearing saves massive amounts of space.
  • Look in to the weather and your events... you don't need to bring two sweaters and an evening dress if it's going to be boiling hot the whole trip and all you're going to do is swim and tan. 
  • Wear the bulkiest things you're bringing on the days you're flying... that way you don't have to try and get them in your suitcase (plus, the damn airplanes are always freezing cold anyway).
  • Leave room in the bag. Come on... you know you're going to buy stuff while you're away. Prepare in advance rather than trying to overstuff your suitcase for the trip home.
  • Bring snacks... the stuff at the airport is ridiculously overpriced and the options for things to buy on the plane are limited at best.
Getting your luggage there cheap
Okay, you've got your luggage down to a carry-on... what's next?
  • Best choice: fly on an airline that offers at least one bag checked for free. Yeah, you're not going to use it, but most people will, which leaves you ample room in the overhead for your bag. You want this room.
  • Second best choice: if you're stuck on an airline that charges for every checked bag, then be aware that people are very aware of this now and everyone will try and do carry-on only. This means that overhead storage is at a premium, and if you don't manage to get your bag in first, you'll end up having to last-minute check it. You don't want to do this if you don't have to. In this case, there's two options. If you can pick your seat and it's a larger plane, pick a seat in the back of the plane. You'll be one of the first people called to board, so you'll be guaranteed a spot for your bag. If you're on a smaller plane with just general boarding (no zones), get to the gate early and then plant yourself as close to the gate line as possible without being a pest. Jump in line immediately after they start boarding and you should be able to grab a coveted spot in the overhead.
Those are my main tricks... anybody have any other good ones?

Remember, the less you spend on travel, the more you have to spend on ridiculous whale Santa hats at Sea World!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shopping Rules: "It doesn't come home unless you love it"

I've decided to start a new feature here: Shopping Rules. It's where I talk about some of the rules that I use to try and get the most satisfaction from my limited funds.

The first rule I wanted to talk about is my cardinal rule: it doesn't come home unless you love it. Basically speaking, you should never EVER buy something unless you're head over heels for it.

This was not always the way I shopped. Back when I was younger I was notoriously bad at passing up a good deal. Maybe it was a sweater that wasn't quite the right colour or a skirt that was mostly flattering or a poster that was pretty, but not quite my style... if it was a decent item at a good price (especially if it was a well-made item), I had a rough time passing it by. Inevitably, though, this led to a closet full of clothing I was never satisfied with and a home full of decor that wasn't cohesive. Once the thrill of the deal was done, I was stuck with a bunch of stuff that wasn't quite right for me.

I wanted to buy beautiful things (there's that expensive taste thing rearing its ugly head again), but I never felt like I had enough money to pull it off. Instead, I settled for cheaper items that were mostly there, but not completely. The crazy thing, though, is that I was actually spending quite a bit of money on clothes, shoes, and home items... it just never felt that way because I was making lots of smaller purchases instead of a few larger ones.

Over the last five years or so I had been dabbling with buying less (partially thanks to getting addicted to John Fluevog shoes... it's hard to go back to other brands once you start wearing Fluevogs, but even on sale they're a bit pricey), but it only stuck more recently.

A year and a half ago I bought a wallet that shook some sense into me. Yeah, a wallet... just go with me here for a minute. It was Boxing Day and, thanks to a massive sale and an influx of holiday money that made me feel richer than I actually was, I bought a stunning green Kate Spade wallet for $50. Yeah, that's not ridiculously expensive, but I should point out that this was more than double what I had ever paid for a wallet ever in my life. The entire experience felt almost shamefully decadent, especially since I was a poor grad student at the time.

I'll tell you what, though... it becomes very hard to spend money on, say, a pair of slacks that are baggy in the waist when you have to whip out the most perfect green wallet ever to do so.

The wallet inadvertently pushed me to wanting other perfect things. However, I had to find a way to outwit my natural tendency to jump on good sales regardless of good sense (and, let's be honest, it's very hard for most people to afford perfect things if you aren't strategic with your purchases).

And so, an internal dialogue was born (one my friends have become pretty familiar with, as it tends to become external dialogue I hassle them with every time we go shopping together... you guys know I only hassle out of love, right?): "Yeah, but do you really love it?"

For example:

Me: "Wow, this grey sweater feels awesome... plus it's 40% off!"
Sensible me: "Yeah, but do you really love it?"
Me: "Well... the fabric is fantastic, but I'm not completely sold on the neckline, and I'm trying to avoid wearing grey..."

See. "Do you really love it?" plants fantastic seeds of doubt unless you're 100% sold on the item. As long as you can make a commitment to be totally honest with yourself when you ask the question, then you can be assured that nothing comes home that you aren't delighted to have. And if you're spending less money on things you don't use a lot, then you can reallocate that money to things you're going to want to use all the time (or, alternately, other things like travel or a car or... well, if you become overwhelmed with a sense of fiscal responsibilities there's always your crippling student debt, home loan, or retirement savings. You could pay my student loans if you're running out of responsible categories... *sigh*).

So you save money (well, in my case you reallocate that money and spend it on fewer, but higher quality things, but that's a topic worthy of its own blog entry), but that's not all You also save space in your home (no more trying to find space for yet another t-shirt you'll never wear), make getting dressed easier (no more weeding through your closet trying to find something to wear that you dislike the least), and have home decor that actually works together (no more uncomfy office chair that doesn't match your ugly couch).

What's not to love? I'll be honest, it'll feel godawful awful for awhile when you start. If you're anything like me you'll likely be seized with crippling anxiety at first for fear that you're leaving behind something fantastic... but after awhile you realize that if you rejected the item because you didn't 100% love it, then you don't end up missing it... if you even remember a week later that the item existed (this will happen. A lot).

Trust me, the anxiety lessens.

Eventually one day you'll look in your closet and realize everything in it brings you obscene amounts of joy. I'll tell you, it's worth the nausea-inducing stress you originally felt at the start (oh... the nausea... it's horrifying!).