In this time of high inflation when we can all afford less than we could only a couple years ago it’s more important than ever to maximize the value that you get with everything you spend, particularly on travel and related hobbies.
Over the years I’ve come to realize there are some expenditures that are more worthwhile than others. And rather than be selfish and keep all my advice to myself, I’ll share a bit of my acquired wisdom with all of you. Some of my advice doesn’t directly lead to spending less (at least initially) but it does lead to a mix of savings and a generally better experience (and memories).
- Worth the Money
- Not Worth the Money
Worth the Money
Gear and Equipment
I always find that when I buy good gear and equipment it pays for itself over the long run and helps me better enjoy my time traveling and experiencing the outdoors. Gear covers everything from hiking boots, to ski equipment, to cameras, and various electronics.
Be choosy about the equipment and electronics you buy and really learn how to use them well. Practice really does make a difference with cameras, etc. Wear in your gear but take good care of it. Don’t worry about name brands and don’t waste your money on fashionable items that are usually more expensive for no logical reason.
Read the reviews on items you are considering and make sure you filter out the 5 star and 1 star reviews to get the most honest opinions. Understand that nothing is perfect and anything can break if overused or abused. Also check on return and warranty policies. A good product should always be able to be replaced or returned if it fails.
I once paid what I thought was a lot of money (over $100) for a pair of hiking boots from Hi-Tec. I ended up wearing the same boots for 10 years on hundreds of miles of trails covering mountains, deserts, snow fields, and more. When they finally broke down I felt like putting them on a shelf.
Always remember too that if you are willing to travel long distances to see the amazing sites of the world, including it’s wildlife and fleeting moments of beauty, you ought to have the camera equipment to capture it all too.
This one comes with a lot of caveats so let me explain. When you have the choice between a reasonably priced hotel and another that it much more expensive, but which offers little value over the more reasonable choice, choose the less expensive option.
But there are many considerations beyond just the immediate cost, starting with location. I usually find that hotels located in the heart of a highly desirable area (in the middle of national park or on a beautiful beach) are often more expensive than options further away. I would still recommend paying the extra money more often than not. Let me explain…
Time is also money. And if you are willing to spend the money to travel to a special place, you should place yourself in the most ideal location to enjoy it. Is it really worth saving some money if you have to drive 50 miles each day, to sit in long lines of traffic, to find parking, just to arrive at the place you could have literally spent the night? For me, no it isn’t.
And often just by paying that extra cost you get to enjoy those extra hours, which tend to be the best hours of the day. Nothing is more rewarding than being able to walk right out the door and see a sunrise over the ocean or wildlife meandering nearby. Those early morning and late afternoon hours are when the crowds disperse and you get to really enjoy the place you came to see.
Another thing to keep in mind beyond location is room size and the number of actual beds. A lot of hotels have really small rooms and bathrooms. If you are staying longer than one or two nights and have more than two in your traveling group, a suite with multiple rooms is usually worth it. Some often come with small kitchens too and that can save you a lot in time and dining costs.
Another thing to keep in mind is that actual beds are a lot more comfortable than pullout beds, even for kids. And sometimes the linens aren’t fresh for these beds either (make sure to ask for clean sheets if you use a pullout bed).
Room consideration also goes for cruise ships. Get a balcony cabin if you can so you have a private space to enjoy the breeze. Especially if you are like me and get overwhelmed by crowds.
And yet another consideration, especially coming out of the Covid era and with inflation sky high is that many lower-end hotels are cutting costs by cutting corners. Quite honestly the maids and other staff are having to do more work with fewer people and rooms at cheaper hotels are just not as clean as they used to be. It was once rare to enter a room and find dusty furniture and dirty sheets. Not so much anymore. Higher cost places do tend to pay their staff better, and they are happier and nicer as well.
On the same topic, I’m finding the free breakfasts at most lower-end hotels/motels are getting cheaper and more sparse. I used to book hotels that specifically mentioned a free breakfast but lately it’s rare to even have hot waffles, eggs, and bacon. It tends to just be toaster waffles and yogurt. The hotels that include breakfast for a reasonable fee in a restaurant setting tend to have much better food.
I’m going to talk more about food and drinks later in this post as it pertains to resort hotels.
Renting a Car
If you are traveling by plane you might have to give consideration as to whether to rent a car or not. There is a bit of overhead in renting a car, which makes this a complicated decision.
The value in renting a car is that it gives you freedom of movement beyond a certain area. You can visit more places and go off the beaten path. You can make quick trips to the grocery store or the drug store or the department store. You aren’t reliant on taxis or driver services and can come and go as you please.
If you are just visiting a city and everything you want to see is in walking distance or easily accessed by public transportation, skip the car. But if you plan to see many places spread over a wide area, you can save money by renting rather than by using driver services and taking tours (see the bus tour section below).
Of course the disadvantages are 1) The cost of the rental 2) Paying to park at a hotel (depending on where you stay) and 3) Insurance and the headache of a claim if something happens.
Generally I can find reasonable rental rates and I would advise no one to ever rent a car that costs more than what you drive at home (for insurance purposes).
Also, have a good credit card that covers the SLI portion of your rental and be sure to actually take the time to verify with your credit card the actual coverage.
If you are driving within your home country also check with your auto insurance to determine if you are covered in the rental.
I’ll be talking more about auto insurance below.
Now I don’t mean the cheap crap that your kid begs you to buy that he’ll play with for maybe an hour or two and forget he ever owned. I’m talking about the unique souvenirs that you’ll keep for years and that will be mementos of your journey.
I have a shot glass collection that I’ve been adding to for two decades. We have souvenir shirts from all over. Most of my t-shirts and coffee mugs are souvenirs from places we’ve been.
Sometimes souvenirs serve a higher purpose too. They may help fund conservation or historic preservation or provide important income to the locals. So go ahead and spend a little in the gift shops.
For souvenirs I also include photo packages which tend to be a massive ripoff in terms of the cost of the product versus the cost to produce the images, but hear me out. I’m the primary photographer in my family and either I’m not in a photo, or my wife is taking a photo of my sons and I. Rarely are all four of us all in a picture together, especially when we are doing stuff fun together.
So if it costs $30 for a package of photos of us having fun that we otherwise wouldn’t have, it isn’t the end of the world. We have many of these vacation photos hanging on our walls and sitting on our bookshelves.
Adventures, Museums, Historic Sites, Etc
This should be the number one reason you are traveling. So go ahead and spend the money to see and do all the things you really want to do. Prioritize on what matters most to you (what might be on your bucket list) and on your allotted time, not on the cost of the activities.
Depending on where you go, you can’t always assume you’ll come back any time soon. Thinking you’ll be back within a few years might actually turn out being decades later, or even (gasp) never. So don’t go cut out these activities to save money.
Not Worth the Money
Ok, when we travel as a family we tend to dine out. A lot. We aren’t home and we get tired after long days and want a delicious meal and usually alcohol too.
The thing is that most of the time I’ll look back and feel that the expensive meals we’ve had just weren’t that good and the cost would have been better spent on activities, nicer lodging, or even souvenirs.
I like to find the less expensive meals that are real values and that don’t take hours out of your day. Sometimes the best option is just fast food.
If you are staying in a place that has a refrigerator you can keep leftovers and even stock up on some groceries. With the decline in the quality of the free breakfasts, you can instead keep some food in the refrigerator and save quite a lot of time getting out the door in the morning.
Of course, there are restaurants that are truly worth it. And if you love brewpubs, like we do, trying out the local brews is part of the fun. Just don’t let the cost of dining destroy your budget.
With rare exceptions all-inclusive packages are a rip-off. Unless you are a complete raging alcoholic I cannot fathom why you would spend $250 per day to eat and drink alcohol all day. And what exactly are you going to remember other than passing out and feeling sick the next day if you did drink enough to make it worthwhile?
And while there are places where staying on the resort is the only safe place to be, there are usually activities you can do instead that are more worthwhile than eating and drinking all day.
Maybe I’m just not relaxed enough to see the point of All-Inclusive resort deals. Stay in a nice place and then explore what’s around you. That’s my motto.
Travel and Rental Car Insurance
This is such a complicated question and rarely can anyone find a straight answer to the myriad questions that come with travel and rental car insurance. But I’ve read quite a bit over the years and better understand it myself (and what a scam most of it is).
I’ve spent many hundreds in the past few decades on useless travel and rental car insurance that I didn’t need and that wouldn’t have helped me if I did need it. Most people simply pay the extra money because they don’t want to have to worry, but more often than not this peace of mind is a facade.
Generally credit cards cover auto rentals and in many cases auto insurance policies that you already have cover rental cars. If you pay extra for the policy offered by the rental car company you cannot use the usually better coverage you already had.
If you are traveling internationally, your credit card probably covers the SLI portion (liability insurance for other vehicles and people), but your car insurance won’t cover the cost of the CDW (Collision Damage Waiver for the vehicle you are driving) so in this case you would want to buy just this portion from the rental agency. Be very careful about scams and rent from reputable agencies.
As for travel insurance, it’s really a waste of money (with a few caveats). Never pay all the costs up front for lodging and activities unless you have no choice. It is always easier to get a refund if you haven’t paid anything first. Sometimes this costs a little more but it saves you headaches if you need to change your plans. There are tons of horror stories online of people never getting refunded after paying thousands up front. If your hotel won’t let you pay in person when you arrive, don’t stay there.
If you do have to pay up front, do so only with well-known reputable companies. Don’t just Venmo someone a lot of money.
Book airline tickets that at least give you flight credits to use later if you have to change plans. We’ve had to cancel flights and used credits later.
Sometimes you can pay a little extra to ensure that you are fully refunded and in that case I would advise that you go ahead and pay the extra. But this should be part of the booking and not third-party insurance.
As far as health and accident insurance, if you are traveling in your home country you are probably fine (check with your insurance agent of course) and do not need to pay for a health policy. If you are traveling internationally you may want to get a basic policy that covers emergency visits and anything worse that can happen.
And finally, don’t bring anything super expensive that you can’t afford to ever replace or that won’t serve a specific purpose while traveling. Leave the jewelry home, the laptop computers home (unless you are working), etc. That way you won’t have to worry so much about theft.
This is kind of like the other luxuries of fine dining and drink packages. It tends to be really expensive and unlike all the other things you could spend your money and time on you won’t have any photos to look back on (hopefully).
My wife and I once got a couples massage on a cruise ship that lasted an hour and costed $300 (or close to that). Not really worth the money.
Guided Bus Tours
This one is a bit of a debate. Sometimes tour guides are really, really worth it. The guides can point out animals that you’d never see on your own or take you to places that are otherwise impossible to visit. In those cases, they are worth it.
But so often I see people herded onto and off of buses as part of a tour to places that they could have visited for a lot less money if they just rented a car and went on their own. They could have taken as much time as they wanted and gone at their own (usually faster) pace.
This is one of the big reasons I like to rent a car. You can explore on your own and don’t need to share your experience with a lot of stinky, grouchy people you won’t ever see again.
If, however, you can get a small private tour, it just might be worth it. We have had some great ones over the years that we really enjoyed and learned a lot from.
If a bus tour is the only way to get to a place you really want to see, by all means go on the tour!
Yes, the Mouse will get some more of our money this coming year in various ways, but I cannot fathom why people throw so much money at this company’s amusement parks, hotels, and merchandise.
Our last visit to Disney World in 2021 was so bad we complained and we got free voucher tickets for any park within a five year span. Since we will be in Orlando in March 2023 we’ll use them. If we didn’t have them would I spend the $800 to get in for one day for four people? Literally that is the cost for one day.
We went to Disney World in 2015 and stayed at the Orleans resort hotel with a dining package. It was actually reasonably priced at that time and we had a good time. I priced out what we would have had to spend to do the same trip in 2022 and it was literally double the cost.
So yes, I could handle $4000 for a family with two young children with 6 days in the parks and a dining package. But $8000? No. Seriously NO! I could go to Europe or beyond for less than that.
So yes, the Disney Cruise line charges $1000-2000 more for Disney characters to walk around the ship. The Disney resorts like Aulani in Hawaii are much the same. Why? I know there are literally 30-50 year old adults who are obsessed enough with Disney to go even without kids. It’s really weird to me.
Go to Disney World or Disneyland and enjoy it with your little ones and maybe go back if the price is right. But don’t do it more often than that. Take your hard earned cash elsewhere and see more and do more around this great big world.