How To Save On Myanmar Domestic Flights

If you’re looking to travel within Myanmar, you generally have three options: flying, taking the bus, or taking the train. All of these have questionable safety records. Train tickets actually include life insurance because the trains derail so often. Buses have hair-raising names such as “Hot Rod Grand Prix” with sometimes questionable braking systems.

Myanmar train ticket

Trains derail so often in Myanmar that the tickets include life insurance

Flying, while usually safe, isn’t much better in Myanmar. Myanma, the national airline of Myanmar (and formerly known as Burma Airways) had, until recently, one of the poorest safety records of any airline. If you’re from the US, you aren’t allowed by the Department of the Treasury to fly Yangon Airways because it’s owned by drug traffickers. The same goes for Air Bagan. Only one airline is sort of normal in Myanmar; Asian Wings Airways which is 49% owned by ANA of Japan (and their flights almost always sell out).

If you ignore the safety issue (after all, flying is still relatively safe compared to other options) it’s still really expensive to fly. Most flights within Myanmar cost over $100, and are rarely more than one hour. Making matters worse, the only airline that regularly shows up on some (but not all) online booking sites is the airline with the worst safety record and most checkered past: Myanma Airways. “Don’t do it!” said the owner of my guest house, shaking her head and tut-tutting like a mother hen. “Too dangerous!” Locals know best and I took her advice.

Fortunately, there are two other airlines with a nationwide network that offer online booking: Asian Wings Airways and Air KBZ. If you want to fly with Asian Wings Airways, you need to book in advance. They’re the only airline in Myanmar with an (as of yet–note they’ve only been in business since 2011) unblemished safety record. ANA provides training for their pilots and crew and technical assistance, and they are generally considered the most professional airline operating in the country. Their flights sell out consistently.

Asian Wings plane

Want to fly on this plane? Book early!

The next-best option is Air KBZ. They’re owned by one of the largest banks in the country (KBZ Bank) and are relatively well capitalized. It may seem odd that a bank owns an airline, but a different bank in Yangon owns one of the larger bus lines in the country. Transportation just seems to be something that banks do here (maybe Chase and American Express will copy them given their affinity for travel rewards cards). One of the nice things with Air KBZ (apart from only one non-fatal safety incident) is that they offer discount fares if you book with them directly online. What’s more, their Web site actually works for payments with American credit cards! Given that sanctions against Myanmar were only lifted recently, a lot of Web sites haven’t been updated to reflect this.

Being able to pay online with a US credit card–much less getting a discount for it–is a massive convenience in Myanmar. Most airlines in the country can be booked only through local travel agents, and fares are quoted and paid in USD. Unfortunately, businesses will only take absolutely pristine, crisp, new USD notes. In cash. Preferably in high denominations. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Myanmar, so paying with USD either means you brought it with you (in new, uncirculated bills) or you’re withdrawing kyat and changing it to dollars (taking a double hit on the exchange rate plus an ATM fee).

When I factored in the currency exchange shenanigans on a $114 fare, the $5 ATM fee, and the savings for booking online, I saved $30 by booking a $101 online-only fare with Air KBZ. And a whole lot of hassle! What’s more, given the size of the aircraft, I’m safe: I won’t be flying in Seat 31B!

Myanmar Tourist Visa Fees Double

Most visitors to Myanmar (apart from certain ASEAN countries) need a visa. Since 2014, e-visas have been available to citizens of a fairly large number of countries, but the pricing has always been a little strange. It costs $50 for a single-entry, 28 day tourist e-visa. However, it typically only costs $20 for a single-entry 28-day visa sticker issued at an embassy.

E-Visas also have some odd limitations, although these are gradually diminishing. You can use a visa sticker to enter Myanmar at any legal border crossing. However, you can only use E-Visas at designated points of entry. So in effect, by using the e-visa, you get less flexibility and it costs more.

Nevertheless, for many people, paying an extra $30 has been worth the faster issuing time and lesser hassle versus sending your passport and an application form to an embassy. However, budget-minded Seat 31B travelers have been happy to fill out a form and drop their passport in the mail to save about $20 (factoring in postage both directions). Unfortunately, this loophole is no longer available. Myanmar has raised its visa fees across the board, and it now costs $40 for a visa sticker. When you factor in mailing costs, a tourist visa sticker now costs the same (or more) as an E-Visa.

myanmar passport stamp image

There’s now no reason to apply for a Myanmar visa in an embassy unless you want a visa type that isn’t available in E-Visa (e.g. multiple entry or religious visa), you want to enter the country at a checkpoint where the E-Visa isn’t recognized (these are typically in border regions where travel is restricted anyway), or you need a visa in less than 3 days (express service is available at some Myanmar embassies and consulates by special arrangement for an additional charge). While I’m disappointed to see the price go up, the only thing that is really surprising is that it has taken so long to happen.

Thanksgiving In Phoenix On Points

My parents own a home in the Phoenix area, and since they’re now retired they spend the majority of their winters in Arizona. As of late, they have started spending Thanksgiving in Arizona, since this provides a nice change of pace (and much better weather) from typically gloomy November weather in Seattle.

cactuses

Typically sunny and pleasant Arizona afternoon in November

Over the past two years, it has been relatively easy for me to get to Phoenix because I was a short drive away in Los Angeles. However, I’m spending much less time in California this year, and will be starting out from Seattle. This means flying, and flights during peak holiday periods are expensive. While flights to Phoenix have been spectacularly cheap as of late (as low as $59), it was over $400 for the dates and times I wanted.

However, I had five different types of miles that I could use, so I thought it was worth checking to see whether using them was possible. When you’re going to a popular destination during a popular time, it generally isn’t possible to use miles. However, it’s sometimes possible if you have some flexibility in both the points you use and the way you book. Here’s how I actually did it.

Outbound: Wednesday, November 23

Southwest was out. The number of points required on Southwest is based on the price of a ticket. Because the ticket was expensive, there were no bargain fares using Southwest points.

Avianca was also out. They partner with United in the US, who had no availability for the dates I wanted. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Delta had availability for a silly number of points: 32,500. This is just shy of the points required to fly to Japan.

Alaska could get me there on a 12,500 mile partner award using a combination of American and Alaska flights. However, they charge a $12.50 fee in addition to the taxes when a partner is involved. For Alaska’s own flights, the cheapest redemption was 20,000 miles. And all of the return flights were 30,000 miles. When you consider that this is what a ticket to Europe in the summer costs, it just wasn’t good value.

However, I could book the very same outbound flights using American Aadvantage points – a flight to Las Vegas on Alaska connecting to an American flight onward to Phoenix–for no fee. And I had just barely over the necessary 12,500 points with American. Given that American points are less flexible than many (a 3-week advance purchase is required to avoid a $75 last-minute booking fee), this was a good redemption for me. The paid flight would cost over $200, so the redemption value was about 1.6 cents per point. This is slightly above the average value of 1.5 cents per point. And it was a relatively rare case of a domestic redemption I could do with more than 3 weeks of pre-planning Booked! My American account is now cleaned out.

Return: Saturday, November 26 or Sunday, November 27

The big problem was getting back. There was far less availability.

Alaska had no low availability coming back on either the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. It would take 30,000 miles, which isn’t good value–it’d be less than 1 cent per mile.

Southwest was based on the price of the flight, which was stupidly high. So this option was out.

American didn’t have any availability, and I was out of Aadvantage points anyway.

Avianca didn’t have any availability.

Uh-oh. It wasn’t looking good. Then I checked Delta, and they had availability on Saturday! It was a Delta flight to Los Angeles, connecting to an Alaska flight to Seattle. 12,500 miles. Booked.

Techniques Used

I used a number of techniques when booking these flights:

  • Search One Way: A roundtrip search yielded no availability. One way searches also yielded no availability on some airlines in some directions, but I was able to find a combination that got me there and back.
  • Know The Rules: Delta allows booking one-way flights when combining an Alaska and Delta flight. However, Alaska Airlines doesn’t; you must book a round-trip flight when a Delta segment is included. While I could technically have used Alaska Airlines miles to book this itinerary, the Delta segment wasn’t showing up as available on the Alaska Airlines Web site. This sometimes happens (particularly when inventory is in flux) so having more than one points currency helped.
  • Have more than one points currency: If all of my miles had been locked up with one airline, I wouldn’t have been able to book this itinerary.
  • Ignore people who say you have to book a year in advance: Frequent flier seat availability changes all the time. If you want to take an expensive flight, it almost always pays to try to use your miles. Even if you can’t find a round-trip fare to your destination, you may still be able to book one way on points and save half of the cost.
  • Be flexible with flight times and willing to take a connection: I have to fly through Las Vegas on the way to Phoenix, and back through Los Angeles. I had very limited choice of flight times. This wasn’t as convenient as a nonstop at exactly the times I wanted, but it’s only a couple of extra hours and the times were close enough. For $400, I could be flexible.
  • Fly alone: There was one seat available on this itinerary. It gets a lot harder to use miles during peak times if you need two seats traveling together.
  • Spend points, don’t sit on them: American miles are expensive to use if you don’t book in advance. Delta miles are notoriously hard to use (at reasonable rates). This was a trip where the stars aligned and I could realize good (although not amazing) value for my points. Rather than wait around for another devaluation, I used my points and scored free tickets to a popular warm-weather destination at a peak time.

I’m looking forward to a fun Thanksgiving in the Arizona sun. And I’ll be going for free! If you’re still making holiday plans, don’t count out the opportunity to use your miles, even if you’re going somewhere that is popular and expensive.

HOT: Save On Flights And Hotels Booked In Pounds

Occasionally, a massive currency swing allows an arbitrage opportunity when booking flights, hotels, and other travel products priced in a declining currency. This is certainly true this evening. As of this writing, it looks like the UK has voted to leave the European Union and panicked currency traders are dumping the British pound.

The last time this happened was in December, 2014 when the Russian ruble suddenly plunged. However, this was harder to take advantage of last time, because you had to book through a Russian travel agent and book a fare that was listed in Russian rubles. There were some great deals, but mostly on Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines.

Sterling-USD chart

The largest drop in the GDP… ever.

It’s a whole different ball game this time. It’s fairly unusual that the currency of a modern, developed European economy collapses by 10% overnight. All sorts of travel products are priced in pounds and virtually every airline in the world has pound-based fares. Hotels sell rooms priced in pounds. Tour packages are available as well. And at least until prices reset tomorrow, you can save 10% off or more if you book on a UK travel site and pay in pounds. Note that you need to book and pay now to lock in the savings. I like LastMinute because their prices are generally very good anyway, and they’re especially so right now. Opodo is another good option.

Remember if you’re buying things priced in pounds, your bank may charge you a foreign currency conversion fee. Capital One cards don’t have this fee, HSBC Premier WorldMastercard doesn’t have the fee, and several airline credit cards also don’t have this fee. If you’re not sure, check with your bank: you’ll still come out ahead, but conversion fees can eat 3% of the savings.

Also, Rapid Travel Chai points out that using a MasterCard is the best option to leverage this arbitrage opportunity: http://rapidtravelchai.boardingarea.com/2016/06/23/brexit-fueled-pound-crash/

Save Money, Drive Instead: LAX Flyaway Fares To Increase 1/1/16

One of the biggest criticisms of the Los Angeles area is that public transportation is fairly poor. Although the LA Metro goes to the airport, it requires several transfers and more than an hour to get to the more central parts of the Los Angeles area.

A few years ago, LAX Airport began to plug the gap with its own buses called LAX Flyaway. The buses leave LAX and go to relatively central parts of the Los Angeles area. Initially, you could travel to Union Station downtown (with easy Red Line connections to the most popular tourist areas) but you can now travel directly to Hollywood, to Westwood (near UCLA), Long Beach, Van Nuys and more. These buses are a fairly convenient and relatively inexpensive option if you’re going to anywhere near where they stop.

LAX Flyaway station map

Newly expanded LAX Flyaway service

Unfortunately, since the launch, the cost of the LAX Flyaway has gradually crept up and it’s going up again on the 1st to $9 per passenger, per ride. At this point, it’s worth rethinking whether to use the Flyaway service for shorter trips. Parking in the LAX area is extremely competitive and costs as little as $3.75 per day at some lots. You can even get free street parking for short trips in some locations, if you take advantage of free hotel shuttles nearby. At a cost of $72 for a family of 4 (plus the cost of transit to and from the bus stop), driving to the airport and parking for a week costs about the same as using the LAX Flyaway. However, it’s a lot less hassle. For shorter trips, you can save money by driving instead.

I like the LAX Flyaway service, but the cost has crossed the threshold where I can really recommend it, unless you’re taking a long trip by yourself and you are within easy walking or subway distance of a bus stop. Door-to-door shuttle anywhere in the Los Angeles area costs just $21 each way with Shuttle2LAX, so you don’t have to schlep your luggage on the subway. From many parts of the Los Angeles area, using Lyft or Uber costs only slightly more.

So, hop in your car. Clog up the roads. Spew out some smog. It’s one of those “only in LA” things, but driving–believe it or not–can actually be cheaper than the bus.

Deep Dive: Finding Low Priced Flights During The Holidays

Did you ever notice that airlines don’t have Black Friday specials? Actually, on Black Friday, they’re busy raising prices. Accordingly, a lot of people ask me this time of year how they can book Christmas flights without breaking the bank. As with any busy travel season, airlines tend to increase fares around the holidays, and this year, fares are particularly high. There are still some tricks that you can use to get a good deal, though. Here are a few of my favorite ways to avoid overpaying for airfare during busy travel periods.

Twitter And Facebook Flash Sales

It used to be that airlines urged you to sign up for their email newsletter. They still do, but the best deals often aren’t sent in email anymore. If they are, by the time you receive the email, the best deals may already be gone. These days, it’s all about social media. You need to follow airlines on their Twitter accounts. This is by far the best way to get notified of deals immediately. However, if you don’t use Twitter much, it’s easy to miss these. Facebook also works, but simply clicking Like on a page isn’t enough anymore. You also need to click the drop-down arrow next to the Like button and set the page to See First. Otherwise Facebook is likely never to show you the post. Note that even if you do this, Facebook still isn’t 100% reliable.

Set a page to See First or you'll miss deals!

Set a page to See First or you’ll miss deals!

The two US airlines that seem to be most prolific with flash sales are Alaska and Southwest but other airlines have also offered them. So, follow every airline that you’re likely to fly from your home city in order to be notified when there is a sale. Also keep in mind, not all sale fares are good! They are sale fares, but don’t just blindly book these on the airline’s Web site without comparing first! Airlines do tend to match each others’ fares, so you might find better prices or flight times on another airline.

TheFlightDealAnother great Twitter account to follow is @TheFlightDeal. They’ll often post unusually cheap fares that they find. While these fares usually depart from big cities with major airports (such as Los Angeles and New York), there are occasional deals to and from smaller cities as well. You never know what they might uncover so it’s worth watching the deals. An incredible adventure I enjoyed in Ecuador and Mexico City started with a post from TheFlightDeal simply because it was so cheap.

Comparing Southwest

Remember, Southwest doesn’t list their fares with online travel agencies like Expedia and Orbitz. You can only buy tickets directly from their Web site. It’s rare that you’ll find a better fare with Southwest (most other airlines match their fares), but they do allow free checked bags and other airlines charge for them. So, be sure to compare the all-in cost for the flights that you’re considering. You might find that Southwest, even with a higher fare, is a better deal overall.

Using Miles

Airlines often play a game of “chicken” with fares. You’ll often see an impenetrable wall of high fares listed with every airline serving a given city pair. However, the real story begins to be told when you check frequent flier seat availability. The availability of seats with most frequent flyer programs generally isn’t based on the fare being charged in a given market, but how many seats the airline has already given away and how well the flights are selling (they really don’t like giving away seats they could sell). You might find that a really expensive seat is available at the “saver” award level in your preferred frequent flier program. If there is more than one such seat, it’s a possible clue that seats aren’t selling fast at the current price (conversely, no frequent flier seat availability, or availability only at the “high” redemption rate, signals a flight with genuinely high demand). So, you could wait and hope that prices go down. I don’t advise this: instead, use your miles! It’s for situations like this that you have them. Also don’t forget to search your award tickets as one-way tickets rather than round-trip. This is because you might find that there is availability with points one direction, but not the other. Even if you end up paying for half of your trip, using miles can save you real money.

I generally recommend redeeming points only at the “saver” level, which is typically 12,500 miles in each direction for a domestic US flight with most frequent flier programs. Depending upon the program, the value of points is anywhere from 1 to 1.5 cents each, so you can use this as a rough calculation as to where you’ll “break even” booking on points. Ignore travel bloggers who urge you to optimize for first class experiences. In my mind, being home with my family for Christmas is a far better and more personally fulfilling experience than a fancy seat on an international flight.

Date and Time Flexibility

Generally speaking, you’ll find the best deals for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and you’re better off booking an early departure and a late return. Starting from December 18 through January 3rd, you’ll find the highest fares; this is the holiday peak travel season and airlines have little trouble filling seats at premium prices. However, there are a few off-peak dates during this period:

  • Christmas Day (December 25th)
  • December 30th
  • New Year’s Day

If you’re willing to fly on one of these dates, you can get a cheap fare.

Consider Alternate Airports

In some cities, many people seem to reflexively use certain airports. In New York, it’s JFK. In Los Angeles, it’s LAX. These are big airports with a lot of flights, but they may not be the airports with the best deals. Consider smaller airports nearby:

  • MDW in Chicago instead of ORD
  • LGB, BUR, SNA and ONT near Los Angeles instead of LAX
  • EWR, LGA, HPN and ISP around New York instead of JFK
  • PVD and MHT near Boston instead of BOS
  • FLL north of Miami instead of MIA
  • TPA in Florida instead of ORL, a short drive away
  • DAL in Dallas instead of DFW
  • HOU in Houston instead of IAH
  • BWI in Washington DC instead of DCA and IAD
  • OAK and SJC in the Bay Area instead of SFO

In Canada:

  • BLI near Vancouver instead of YVR
  • BUF near Toronto instead of YYZ

Other Places:

  • Tianjin instead of Beijing – just a short train ride away.
  • Shanghai Hongqiao instead of Pudong. It’s more convenient!
  • Guangzhou and Shenzhen instead of Hong Kong, particularly for destinations within mainland China.
  • Tokyo Haneda instead of Narita.
  • London City, Gatwick, Stansted or Luton instead of Heathrow.
  • Rotterdam or Eindhoven instead of Amsterdam
  • Rome Ciampino instead of Fiumicino.
  • Milan Linate instead of Malpensa
  • Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen instead of Ataturk.

These are not the only cities in which alternate airports are possible. They’re just some of the larger ones with more available flights and options. Using alternate, less popular airports often means lower fares, but these airports can also be incredibly useful when it comes to redeeming miles on inbound flights. Why? People flying to Los Angeles are less likely than the locals to be familiar with, say, Burbank airport. So there isn’t as much competition for limited seats. You can use this to your advantage with a combination of one-way tickets. Traveling from Washington DC, you might depart from DCA and take a flight to Burbank. On the return, you might fly from LAX to Baltimore instead. One-way tickets give you the flexibility to mix and match, so take advantage to find both frequent flier availability and lower fares.

Consider Connecting Flights

There is usually a price premium for nonstop flights, but this becomes particularly true during the holidays. Airlines who are dominant in a given city (for example, Delta in Atlanta, American in Dallas and United in San Francisco) will charge significantly more for their nonstop flights than connecting flights on different carriers. So, if you’d normally prefer a nonstop flight, consider taking a connection if it saves you a significant amount of money. An hour on the ground in Dallas or Chicago isn’t much extra time on a coast-to-coast flight, but it could save you hundreds of dollars.

Book First, Ask For Time Off Later

Let’s face it: most of us can’t take time off without clearing it with the boss in advance. However, if you wait to clear your proposed vacation days, that great flash sale will evaporate! Those free tickets you could score with your miles will be gone. And that perfectly timed flight at a price you couldn’t believe will disappear. If you find a great deal, book it right now. Airlines allow you a full 24 hours to either cancel your ticket and receive a full refund or to hold your ticket prior to purchase (the Department of Transportation mandates that one or the other be allowed). So, book first and ask for time off later. Your boss will probably let you go if you already booked tickets (you can use this as leverage) and if she won’t, you can ask for a refund. Just be sure to do it within 24 hours! If you fail to do so, your purchase is locked in.

Good Luck

Best wishes from Seat 31B for a happy holiday season. We hope these tips will get you home safely without breaking the bank!

HOT: Save At Least 20% On All Flights Right Now

As you have probably heard, the Russian ruble has effectively collapsed. This has created a tremendous arbitrage opportunity, but only if you take immediate action to leverage it.

ruble chart

The ruble effectively collapsed today

Airline tickets are quoted and priced in GDS systems, and currency conversions aren’t adjusted real-time. With the rapid collapse of the ruble, this means that you can effectively get a discount of 20% or more by paying in rubles versus dollars.

So, let’s look at a nice peak season flight from Los Angeles to Costa Rica on anywayanyday, a Russian travel agency:

lax-sjo price in usd

A typical peak season flight price to Costa Rica

As you can see, it’s $792 in US dollars. This is a typical non-sale fare price to Costa Rica during the peak season. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn this into a good peak season sale fare instead?

Currency selection menuIf you change your currency selection on this menu from USD to RUB, you can pay in the Ruble currency. Note that it’s a good idea to call your bank before you do this, because there is a slight possibility that they might consider it unusual that you are paying for things in rubles on a Russian travel site. By this, I meant that they will panic and block your card, which will cause you an endless amount of hassle. Why use a Russian travel site in the first place? It’ll be very hard for anyone involved to argue later that you shouldn’t be able to pay for things in Russia using rubles.

Now, let’s see what happens after you change the currency:

Yikes, that's a big number!

Yikes, that’s a big number!

The price becomes 41,638 rubles. So, let’s see how much that is worth in dollar terms:

ruble to usd conversion

Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s $196 cheaper to pay in rubles.

Folks, this sort of arbitrage opportunity almost never happens and it will not last. Take advantage while you can!

UPDATE: Many airlines are starting to correct this by repricing their tickets in the GDS systems. With British Airways, it is actually less expensive to book in dollars or euros now. Double-check the conversion before you book!

Don’t Get Stung By Fuel Prices In Europe

I wrote earlier about the unexpected hassle of getting between Budapest and Zagreb. Renting a car is the easiest way to do it, but it’s certainly not cheap. Actually, the cost of the car rental is the cheapest part of the equation. If you’re coming from essentially anywhere else in the world, you’ll probably have to sit down when you find out how much the fuel is going to cost you. Fuel prices range from about $6 per gallon to over $9 per gallon in Europe.

Gas station in Hungary

When you do the conversion, the price might knock you off your chair.

Still, while fuel isn’t a bargain anywhere in Europe, there are still ways to save. Here are a few tips that I have learned from experience driving all over Europe:

A car can be a liability. Consider whether you really need a car. If you don’t, skip the rental counter. Public transportation is much better in European cities, parking is an expensive hassle, and traffic cameras lurk everywhere waiting to cite you for even the smallest transgressions. It’s really better not to have a car at all, if you can reasonably avoid it.

Think small. A smaller and lighter vehicle not only saves fuel, it’ll be a lot easier to navigate and park on narrow European streets. Keep in mind, though, that the smallest European vehicles are tiny–and they’re not particularly fun to drive. Also don’t trust rental agencies’ promises regarding the number of bags a car can accommodate. Subtract one from the published number, unless you travel extremely light and carry only small bags.

Choose a diesel vehicle if possible. Diesel fuel is usually cheaper than gasoline, and a gallon of diesel takes you farther than a gallon of gasoline. Even if it costs more to rent a diesel vehicle, you can more than make up the difference in fuel cost savings.

If you can drive stick, rent a manual transmission. Not only is it cheaper to rent a vehicle with a manual transmission, but it’s also more fuel efficient.

Don’t fill up along the motorway. Granted, it’s hard to beat the convenience of fueling along the motorway, where it’s a breeze to pull off and back on. This convenience will really cost you, though. Fuel costs an extra 10% or more versus filling up in town.

Buy fuel in major cities. Transportation costs more in Europe than it does in other places. Accordingly, the farther you are from a fuel transportation hub, the more you’ll pay. This is different than, for example, the US where fuel can cost much less in the countryside.

Run for the border. If you’re near Andorra, Luxembourg, Bosnia or Ukraine, it might be worth ducking across the border to fill up. These countries have some of the lowest fuel prices in Europe (Russia and Belarus have relatively low fuel prices, but also officious borders and visa hassles–they’re probably not worth it). However, you can still save money–even if you’re not in one of the cheapest countries–by paying attention to which side of the border you are on. Diesel is much less expensive in The Netherlands than it is in Germany. Gasoline is cheaper in France than in Belgium.

Pay with local currency, or use a no foreign transaction fee credit card. Traveling from Austria to Hungary? Cheaper Hungarian fuel prices might end up more expensive if you pay in Euros. The currency of Hungary is the Forint and you won’t get a good exchange rate at a gas station. Ditto in Bosnia. They use Bosnian Convertible Marks and most gas stations don’t take credit cards. However, they’ll gladly take your border currencies (euros or Croatian Kuna) at a horrible exchange rate. If you can pay with a credit card, you’ll get a semi-honest exchange rate by using a credit card with no foreign transaction fee. I use a Capital One Visa card which not only has no foreign fee, but also pays me 1.25% cash back. This card isn’t at the top of my wallet in the US, but it’s great for international use.

What was the bottom line? I rented the smallest car available from the rental agency, which was an Opel Corsa. My trip from Budapest Airport to Zagreb, round-trip, cost about $160 in gasoline. The 7-day car rental cost me a few dollars less on top of this, for an eye-popping grand total of $317 in transportation cost, not counting parking and tolls (which added roughly another $40 to the total). Granted, I did drive around Zagreb some, but it’s not a large city and I didn’t use a lot of fuel. I put about 500 miles on the car, total, for a cost of 32 cents per mile driven. Your mileage will vary, obviously, depending upon the number of people in the car and the speed you drive. I was alone in the car and drove strictly at the speed limit (the majority at 130KM/h), wary of speed cameras.

Was it worth it? Marginally. I was able to travel more or less exactly on my schedule, but it was a colossal hassle with the rental agency. An hour after renting the car, I discovered that the headlight had burned out, so I was unable to travel any farther than the outskirts of Budapest. It was an epic battle with the rental company to make things right. While they eventually did, having to battle over a maintenance issue was really the last thing I needed after 15 hours of travel from Los Angeles. It would have been a net loss versus arranging other forms of transportation, but having the use of the car in Zagreb with my team there (in my real life I am the founder of a mobile applications company) made up the difference. We had immediate and convenient transportation whenever we wanted to go somewhere. And I actually saved travel time versus flying in from Budapest, because the airport in Zagreb is neither close nor convenient to the city.

I hope these tips help you save money on your next trip to Europe. Happy driving!

How I Save Money Renting Cars In Europe

I’m off to start a round-the-world trip on Saturday. As you might remember, a few months ago I landed a phenomenal deal, and the trip is costing me under $219. One problem, though, is that it’s not taking me exactly where I want to go in Europe. I could only get the deal to Budapest, and I’m actually going to Zagreb. Now, you’d think that this would be a relatively small problem. After all, it’s only 343km between the two cities, and they’re two of the most major cities in the region. So, I figured I’d just buy a cheap ticket on a low cost airline and take the 55 minute connecting flight down.

Well, my brilliant idea that would have been perfectly rational in western Europe totally didn’t work between Budapest and Zagreb. There are lots of cheap flights to and from Budapest on low cost carriers, but none headed to Zagreb. Low cost flights tend to go to the Croatian holiday destination of Split, a few hours away from Zagreb. However, these flights are also seasonal. The Dalmatian coast is beautiful but it’s pretty cold in the winter, and there is essentially no demand for leisure flights. Sure, you can fly between Budapest and Zagreb, but it’ll cost you. The flight was actually pricing out at more than the rest of my entire round-the-world trip. Obviously, this was impractical.

“OK, fine then, I’ll take the train” I thought. Except that isn’t really an option either. There is only one train a day, which isn’t particularly reliable and it takes a circuitous route that takes nearly 11 hours to complete. It’s also a surprisingly expensive ticket. Ultimately, I couldn’t get the times to line up at all with when I needed to be in Zagreb, and I wouldn’t have wanted to pay the price anyway.

Picture of Croatian train

Trains in the Balkans are slow and infrequent.

I started looking for bus options, with some trepidation. In this part of Europe, bus travel makes riding Greyhound in the US seem fancy. Usually, people won’t get on the bus with a live chicken (which is pretty common in some parts of the world) but bus travel seems to attract elements of society you don’t really want to interact with if you can possibly avoid it. There is one bus company operating between the two cities, but the way that you buy a ticket–from all the research I was able to do–is to find the driver and buy a ticket directly from him. No way to buy the ticket online. And there is one bus approximately every other day. While this would have worked for me, these arrangements tend to work best when you know the local area really well, and I don’t.

Ultimately, the best option was to rent a car. However, this is usually a very expensive proposition in Europe. You have probably heard that fuel is more expensive (costing as much as $11 per gallon, depending upon which country you’re in), but it’s also a lot more expensive to rent a car, particularly if you’re in eastern Europe and you intend to cross a border. If you plan to do this, your car needs to have a “green card” and it’s a virtual guarantee that the rental rate you’re quoted doesn’t include this. Add an extra 20-30 euro a day to the rate in some cases.

European green insurance card

You need a “green card” to go across borders with your European rental car. It specifies the countries in which you’re allowed to drive.

Unlimited mileage, also typical on car rentals in the US, also isn’t a typical option. Distances tend to be shorter and you won’t want to drive much inside city centers (where a car is more of a liability than an asset), but you can still get stung by overage charges if you’re not careful. And this is before you get into fines for missing vignettes in postage-stamp sized countries (I was fined $250 in Slovenia for this–it’s a complete and total scam) or questionable traffic violations. Overall, it’s enough to make you never want to drive in Europe, ever.

Still, there are occasions where this will be necessary and I recommend that you never pay retail if you can possibly avoid it. Two companies consistently offer very good “voucher deals” where you pay in advance and receive a voucher for the car rental. These are Economy Car Rentals (a Greek company not to be confused with the generally scammy rental agency using the same name in Latin America) and UK-based Travel Jigsaw. These companies technically operate as tour companies selling tour packages, so they can sell special rates on rental cars. With either of these agencies, be sure to read the fine print! You can cancel your reservation, but you won’t receive a refund if you cancel less than 48 hours in advance. Also, they email you a voucher and you actually do need to print it out and present it when you pick up the car. In exchange for prepaying, you can get some pretty good deals. You won’t always know the company you’re renting from in advance, but I have typically gotten cars from Sixt and Enterprise. In Budapest, my car is coming from a smaller local company.

The upshot? I am paying 139 euro for a 1 week car rental from Budapest including the notoriously difficult and expensive to arrange “green card.” This is about half the price that I was able to find anywhere else. I also get unlimited mileage. I’ll enjoy the convenience of getting around Zagreb easily and my overall cost will be about half what I’d otherwise have paid for a flight. It’ll also take about the same amount of time, all things considered; the Zagreb airport isn’t particularly convenient to the city center and transportation connections are slow.

I’m almost fully packed for my second trip around the world this year. It’s going to be an interesting month of November!

Saving At Budget Motels In California

As I write this, I’m enjoying the spectacular weather in sunny southern California. Nothing beats 78 degrees and breezy at the end of October, but as you probably know, California isn’t a very budget-friendly destination. Even a campground will set you back as much as $35 per night! Most brand-name hotels in the downtown areas of cities start around $200 per night, which is strictly unaffordable for the average Seat 31B traveler.

Many travel blogs encourage you to play elaborate points games in order to stay in expensive hotels. Even if you do this, you’ll still end up spending as much as $100 per night. You have to consider the cost of credit card annual fees, the opportunity cost versus earning other types of points, and the taxes you have to pay (which are often billed based on the retail cost of the room). “Free” isn’t really free when it comes to this stuff.

Alternatively, you can look at lower cost options. California is the world’s seventh largest economy, and it’s well known for having unique local businesses. In addition to famous local fast food chains (such as In-N-Out Burger), there are three local motel chains offering clean, comfortable and decidedly budget-friendly rooms throughout California. I’d like to introduce you to Good Nite Inn, EZ-8 and Premier Inns.

Good Nite Inn has locations throughout California, and often advertises in coupon books that you can pick up at rest areas and Denny’s restaurant locations throughout the state. These coupons will almost always save you money. It’s worth picking up the book. They also occasionally have deals on their Web site. You’ll usually pay about the same price for two people as you would for a single room at Motel 6, and you’ll usually find a Good Nite Inn near a Motel 6 location (in Sylmar, there is a Motel 6 next door). Rooms typically look like they are from the mid-1990s, with a tube television and funky carpet. However, the beds tend to be comfortable, everything works, rooms are somewhat clean and there is air conditioning. Like Motel 6, Internet service isn’t available at all locations and it’s not free if it is available. Coin laundry facilities are typically available on site and there is an ice machine available as well. Motel 6 locations fill up fast (being some of the only reasonably priced accommodations in many parts of California), so Good Nite Inn is a good alternative.

Good Nite Inn room

A typical 1990s-inspired room at Good Nite Inn

EZ-8 Motels and Premier Inns are another good alternative. They don’t advertise at all, have no coupon specials, and they only offer a small AAA discount. Their Web page pretty much says as much. As well, these motels are typically located a little off the beaten path. In the Bay Area, you won’t be staying in the center of San Francisco. Instead, you’ll be staying in a bedroom community like Concord or Newark, but you can quickly and easily take the BART from there to San Francisco. When a room in San Francisco will easily cost you $200 or more per night, it’s worth staying a little out of town.

Image of E-Z-8 motel room

E-Z-8 Motel room – basic but comfortable

How much could you save? A lot! A room for a single person this weekend will cost you just $35 per night in San Diego. The W, not far away, has rooms starting at $170 per night (for the most heavily restricted, prepaid, non-refundable rate) and doesn’t even include parking! If you cashed in points for your stay at the W, you’d pay nearly as much just for parking and taxes as you would for an entire room at the E-Z-8.

Budget motels don’t offer frequent guest programs, concierge service or fancy amenities. Some offer watery coffee in the lobby, served in a Styrofoam cup. However, how much of your California vacation do you really want to spend in your room? Get out and enjoy the sun! That’s why you came, isn’t it?