1. Use Public Transportation. This can be one of the more intimidating steps for the uninitiated. What if I take the wrong bus? What if it’s dangerous? In the internet age, there is really no excuse for not answering these questions well in advance. In many European cities, for example, a taxi will cost you an arm and a leg. A bus or metro ticket will be a couple of euro, and they’re usually clean, safe, and efficient.
Of course this it won’t always be a better deal. Buses in Rio can still be dodgy for foreigners. And some countries are so affordable that taking a cab is a no-brainer. Always consider the costs and benefits.
2. Wake up for the free hotel breakfast. This is not so much an American tradition, although many mid-range hotels like Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites are making strides in more elaborate breakfast buffets (as well as evening cocktail receptions) included in the room price. Overseas, “breakfast included” is more the norm, although the quality and quantity may vary. For all of its foodcentric culture, Italians seem to find toast and coffee sufficient. Yet many hotels and guesthouses take pride in the spreads they lay out in the morning. I am not a “morning person” (meaning I’m a normal, healthy individual), but on the road I make an effort to wake up and smell the coffee, danishes, eggs, bacon, cheese, croissants, and cereal. When you know you’re going to be out on your feet all day, why not indulge?
A side note: Just because you don’t have to leave the hotel to eat, doesn’t mean you should show up to a dining room in your pajamas. This is not something you would see in most countries, but sadly it’s an all too common occurrence in the good ol’ USA. C’mon – it takes 20 seconds to throw on a pair of blue jeans and a shirt. Although I suppose I could be scolded for wearing a hat to the table in the morning. You’ll have to take my word for it that a baseball cap is far less offensive than my morning hair.
3. Buy groceries or eat take out for at least one meal per day. Restaurants prey on your hunger and fatigue. They can sense your exhaustion and desire to be served. They’re clever bastards, always setting up shop at the exact location where your feet get tired and your stomach starts growling.
Don’t give in. Your travel budget will balloon if all of your meals are dine-in. Lunch is the perfect meal for cost-cutting since you’re already out and about. Stay out and about. Stop in a market or bakery and pick up some fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. There are plenty of places to sit down, nosh, and people watch. I had one of my most memorable meals in Italy sitting in a random square in Rome’s Centro Storico and wolfing down a sandwich made at a local deli. In Puerto Rico I eschewed $12 burgers for $4 empanadas. If you know the food’s safe you can even try a little “street meat” from the local food vendors. Save your money for a relaxing dinner to cap the day.
4. Stick to Bed & Breakfasts and guesthouses. Not that I’m against hotels; sometimes they offer great deals and when they do you should nab them. But B&Bs and guesthouses often offer affordable alternatives in hotel districts – or better yet, in neighborhoods that are a little less touristy and a little more local. Since they make their money by reputation and service, a good B&B will go out of its way to pick you up, point you in the right direction, and yes serve you a terrific breakfast. You’ll give up some creature comforts like room service and maid service, but those are inessential luxuries if you’re not planning on spending your time hanging around the hotel.
I used to hold the notion that B&Bs were lame, invasive, and corny. I imagined them as cramped, creaky, and old, and their proprietors as nosy and bothersome. No doubt this perception was shaped by pop culture, especially films like Groundhog Day, where the guests and owners at the Pennsylvania B&B that Bill Murray stays in are half-witted, slack jawed yokels meant to be the butt of his wisecracks. Of course, that’s just a movie, but the image always stayed with me, until I started staying in them. I’ve found them to be pleasurable places to lodge, and incredibly diverse in their personalities than most chain hotels. Sure, there are some bad ones, but that’s what TripAdvisor.com is for. And yeah, I love a good Hilton or Marriott. But if I’m looking to save money and have a more interesting experience, give me a B&B.
5. When staying in a bigger hotel, make use of things like shuttle service, upgrades, and the laundry room. The big chain hotels offer perks too, of course. When you check in, be sure to ask about upgrades. It helps to be a member of whatever club they have, so sign up in advance. You may get thrown into a King Suite with a jacuzzi, or be offered free breakfast (which might otherwise cost $12 and up per person) just for asking. Many chains have complimentary shuttles that run at least to the airport and back. And you may be aware of a hotel’s (expensive) laundry service, but were you aware that most hotels have a laundry room tucked away on some random floor? You can do a wash for the price it costs in a regular laundromat.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine James Bond doing his own laundry, but look at it this way. You want to travel and have adventures, and MI6 isn’t footing your bill. Save your money on laundry when no one’s looking, and that night when you’re out on the town, you can indulge in a delicious martini. Shaken, not stirred, of course.