Travel can be Expensive
At the time of this post, I’ve completed marathons or half marathons in 32 different US States, three different countries and two different continents. I do an average of 7-8 races per year that involve some type of travel (along with whatever local races I decide to sign up for). Whenever I mention this to other runners, the number one question they ask me is how I can afford to travel so much. So I put together a list of travel tips. I’m hoping that people who like to travel for races the way I do will find some of this information helpful.
A couple quick notes before we get started:
Whenever someone asks me how I can afford to travel as much as I do, the best answer I can give is “good planning”. The list below goes into a lot more detail but as you read it, you’ll notice that all of my suggestions involve starting early and doing research to make sure that you’re really getting the best possible deals on all of your travel related purchases. I usually spend several hours planning everything out way in advance. The time pays for itself though because my planning typically results in a few hundred dollars worth of savings on each trip.
One other thing to note is that every trip is different. There’s no single template I can provide that says “if you do X, Y, and Z, your trip will always be $500 less than it would cost if you didn’t do those things”. It all depends on the area you’re traveling to, how you’re planning on getting there, how long you’ll be staying, etc. That’s why you might notice that some of my tips seem to contradict each other. You won’t be able to do every one of these things every time you travel. So try to think of my list as more of a general set of guidelines for what to do when you find yourself in certain situations.
Lastly, I had originally typed one super long post with all the travel advice I had learned over the last 10 or so years. But when I finished it, I realized that it was over 5000 words long. I don’t want to bore anyone, so I’m going to split it up into a couple smaller posts. This is Part 1, which talks about the races themselves and some tips for saving money on flights. Part 2 talks about saving money on hotel rooms and rental cars. I’ll post that one tomorrow.
And. Here. We. Go:
Plan your race schedule well in advance
Believe it or not, but I already have all of the major races I want to do roughly planned out for the next three years. By “roughly” I mean that I have a good idea of what races I’m going to be doing in which cities and when I’m going to be doing them. At the beginning of each year I’ll know about how much money I’ll need to set aside for the races I’m going to be doing that year. Knowing all of this information ahead of time allows me to register for my races as soon as registration opens and get the lowest rates. It also gives me plenty of time to think through the logistics of how I’m going to travel to each location.
Now, I realize that there’s no way to know exactly what you’re going to be doing three years from now (or even three weeks from now in some cases). Unexpected life events, schedule changes and new opportunities are all going to come up. So rather than being super rigid, the list that I keep is more like a guideline that I can use to finish all of my goal races as quickly as possible. But it’s also flexible enough that it allows me to move things around if I need to. In fact, I’m constantly making adjustments to it. Sometimes it’s for a non-running related event that I find out about (weddings, graduations, etc). Other times I find a different race that I want to do that happens to fall on the same day as a race I was planning on doing. No big deal – I just push one of them out a year or look for an alternate race to do that’s a better fit for my schedule instead.
My only point here is that you should be thinking about these things in advance as opposed to just randomly picking races that you want to do a month before race day. The more time you have to plan, the more money you’ll save.
Don’t do too many local races
I love neighborhood 5Ks just as much as the next person, but the problem is that their $25-$50 sign-up fees start to add up after a while. That’s money that I could be putting towards travel costs for the bigger races I have on my list.
This suggestion isn’t for everyone. It works for me because I happen to have specific goals that are mostly travel related (half marathon in all 50 states, full marathon on every continent, etc…). I have a lot of friends who don’t care about travel and just like to do local races. That’s fine too (although if that’s what you like to do then this post isn’t going to benefit you very much). Sometimes I feel bad when I have to tell those friends that I can’t do a race with them. But everyone’s goals are different and I know that if I don’t follow through on my own personal goals I’ll ultimately feel worse than I feel about missing that one race.
I should also point out that I’m not saying you should never do any local races at all. I’m just saying don’t go overboard and sign up for one every week if your goals are travel related. If you only have a limited amount of money to spend on races, you’ll be better off doing a smaller number of really cool unique ones that you’ll be telling stories about forever than doing a bunch of small ones that you won’t even remember the names of after a few months.
Don’t do the same races more than once
This is another suggestion that’s not for everyone. Personally, I’ve done a lot of races that I’ve loved and wouldn’t mind doing again. But in most cases I simply can’t justify spending money to run them a second time because it would blow my budget.
Besides, I like to run in different places and see new things when I do my races anyway. Doing the same race that I already did a year earlier with the same course, same expo, same post race festivities, etc. starts to get boring after a while. I don’t like to spend money on things that bore me.
I do have a couple exceptions where I’m guilty of breaking this rule (remember, flexibility is the key). The Race of the Dead 5K in Pilsen is an example of a race that I do year after year because it’s Day of the Dead theme has a personal meaning for me. There are also a couple other running events that I do every year because they raise money for charities that I support. I still try to keep repeats to a minimum though.
Don’t do different races with the same course
This is kind of an extension of the last one. You can find examples of this all over the place: different races in the same city run by different groups at different times during the year sometimes follow the same (or very similar) courses. Sometimes this is because the city that’s hosting the race will only allow for certain streets to be closed, which limits the race organizers’ ability to be creative with their course layouts. Other times it’s because the race organizers are lazy and it’s easier to just reuse an already established route for their race than to try and come up with a new one.
I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about: If you live in Chicago, you might have noticed that the courses for the Chicago Quarter Marathon, Cinco De Miler and the Soldier Field 10 are pretty much all the same. The medals are different, the distances are slightly different, and each race may have one or two unique features (i.e. finishing on the 50 yard line at Soldier Field or a big fiesta at the finish line). But in general, for all three races, the start line is between Soldier Field and the Lakeside Center. The course starts out by heading south on Lake Shore Drive for the first half of the race. Then it turns around and heads north on the Lakefront Path for the second half and finishes back where it started.
If you sign up for all three of these races, you’ll end up paying close to $200 to run the same course three times within a two month period. That’s enough to pay for a hotel room and a race entry in another city. If you really like running on the Chicago lakefront path that much, you can go run there anytime for free. And if you like all of these races I mentioned above, that’s fine too – you can still do them all. Just pick a different one to do each year and rotate instead of doing all three of them every year.
Book your flight 3-5 weeks before your trip
A friend in the travel agency gave me this tip years ago and it seems to work pretty well. Airlines constantly change their rates based on a variety of factors, one of which is timing.
- If you book your flights too early (i.e. 6 or more weeks in advance), the airlines will charge more simply because they can. They haven’t sold many seats at that point but they’re not in a big hurry to sell them yet either. So they raise their fares in the hopes that some poor sucker will actually book a flight that soon.
- If you wait too long to book your flights (i.e. 2 weeks or less in advance), you’ll get charged even more. At that point the airlines know that even if they have 50 open seats available on a flight, they can still take advantage of the fact that your trip is right around the corner and you’re scrambling to make sure that you’ll have a way to get to your destination.
The sweet spot for booking flights is typically between 3 and 5 weeks in advance. This is when airlines start coming out with special deals and dropping their rates to try and fill the flights that still have a lot of open seats.
Book your flights on Saturday night
Have you ever seen an airline commercial advertising low fares on flights? Have you ever gone online and tried to book a flight for the advertised price only to find out that the fares are actually much higher? Here’s why that happens:
When airlines advertise rate specials, government regulations only require them to make those rates available for a certain number of hours during whatever month the rates are being advertised. They also have to be available at reasonable times (so 3:00 am on a Tuesday morning is out). It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone actually books a flight during the time when the rates are advertised though. And for the rest of the month, airlines are allowed to charge whatever they want for the same flights.
So that $99 flight from Chicago to LA that you saw on a billboard on your way home from work is a great deal as long as you happen to book your flight at the right time. The airlines have done a lot of research on this over the years and they came to the conclusion that Saturday evening is still a reasonable time when people might book a flight (which meets the government requirements), but that’s also a time when very few people are realistically thinking about making travel plans. So that’s when they’re most likely to make their best rates available online. And that’s when you should book your flight and take advantage of those rates.
Clear your browser cookies before booking a flight
One of the most annoying things in the world is having to deal with salespeople when I’m shopping for a car. Their techniques always come across as underhanded and shady, and even if I’m able to negotiate a good deal, I still feel like I want to go home and take a shower by the time I’m done talking to them. Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that airlines use some of the same tricks that car salespeople use. They just use them behind the scenes. Have you ever told a salesperson at a car dealership that you wanted to look around at a couple other places and then come back before making a final decision? If you have, chances are that they suddenly gave you a quote on a car that seemed too good to pass up and told you that they couldn’t guarantee that the price would still be available when you come back.
Here’s an example of how airlines do something similar: let’s say that I want to book a flight from Chicago to Orlando. The first thing I’ll do is go check out rates on the American Airlines website. Maybe I’ll find a round trip flight for $150. The fare is awesome, but the flight doesn’t exactly fit my schedule. So before I book it, I’ll go check and see if United has anything better. So I go to United’s website but their flights are all around $250 and I keep thinking back to that $150 flight I saw earlier. So I decide to go with the cheaper flight even if it means rearranging my schedule a little bit. But lo and behold, when I go back to American’s website, the same flight is now listed for $200.
Airlines know that most people who search for flights online don’t book anything on their first visit to their website. So a technique that a lot of airlines use is to post teaser rates that only show up the first time you search for flights. Then they put a cookie in your web browser that tells their website what flights you recently searched for. Then if you leave and come back and search for the same flight later, they’ll show you the higher rate.
Usually when people see the higher rate, they say “wow, they raised the price…. I better hurry up and book this flight now before it goes up again”. This is exactly what the airlines want you to do. If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, try clearing your browser cookies and re-running the search. There’s a pretty good chance that you’ll see the original lower rate that you saw the first time.
Look for alternate cities and airports
I figured this one out by accident when I was putting my travel plans together for Rock n Roll New Orleans a few years ago. It’s been useful a couple other times since then. Round trip flights from Chicago to New Orleans on race weekend that year were close to $450. Ridiculous. So I decided to look around and see if there was anywhere else close by that I could fly into instead. It turns out that Baton Rouge is just over an hour away from New Orleans and round trip flights from Chicago to Baton Rouge on the same days were only about $160. I was going to have to rent a car for that trip either way so I wasn’t out any money. A little extra driving saved me close to $300 on the flight. I’ve noticed that this trick works particularly well if you’re flying to the East Coast where there are a lot of airports within a short distance of each other (i.e. if you want to go to Myrtle Beach, check the prices on flights into Charleston, SC… for Savannah, GA, check flights into Jacksonville, FL).
Along the same lines, if there are multiple airports within a reasonable driving distance from home, you can be flexible with the airport that you’re flying out too. I live in Chicago, but I’ve found that flights in and out of Milwaukee can be less expensive. The Milwaukee airport is about an hour and a half north of Chicago, and it gives me another option in addition to O’Hare and Midway when it comes to finding the cheapest flight to wherever it is that I want to go.
Use offsite airport parking
The cheapest place to park at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is the economy lot. This is a huge uncovered parking lot that’s about a mile away from the terminals and costs $15 per day. The lot is so big that I once lost my car in it and had to ask a security person riding a horse to help me find it. After you park your car, you have to walk across the lot to get to a train which brings you to the terminals. It’s a far walk across the parking lot, particularly if the weather is bad (and yeah I totally get the irony that I’m a runner but I’m complaining about walking across a parking lot – it still sucks though).
So instead of paying $15 per day for crappy parking spots at the airport, I use this website to reserve spots in the parking garage of a hotel that’s within a mile or two of O’Hare instead. Parking this way costs a fraction of what it does in the official airport parking lots (it depends on the hotel you park at but the average is only about $6 per day). The parking spots are also in covered garages and there’s a shuttle that picks people up right outside of the garages and goes directly to the terminal every 20 minutes. The garages are monitored by hotel security so they’re safe to park in too.
Most airports have parking services like this and utilizing them can save hundreds of dollars over the course of several trips.
Tomorrow I’ll publish another post with the rest of my tips. In the meantime, if you have any travel tips for runners, feel free to share them in the comments section.