This is my second post with tips for how to save money when you travel for races. In this post, I’ll cover hotels and rental cars. My first post covered race schedules and flights. You can find that one here.
Like I said in my last post, 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 details for each specific trip. So some of my tips might seem to contradict each other. That’s because you won’t be able to do every one of these things every time you travel. 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.
Be flexible with your travel dates
I think this one is pretty straightforward: Sometimes flying home on a Monday instead of Sunday or flying out on a Thursday instead of a Friday can be cheaper. Airlines know that most people who take weekend trips fly out on Friday and fly home on Sunday so that’s when their rates are the highest. Adjusting your schedule might mean paying for an extra night in your hotel room, but hotels usually charge lower rates during the week so staying an extra day might still be worth it. If you’re able to take the time off from work, do the math and see how that extra night compares to the money you’ll save on your flight.
Book your hotel room early but make sure you can cancel it later
Hotel rates fluctuate, but not as much as airline fares. Generally speaking, hotels tend to drop their rates a few days in advance to try and sell any rooms that haven’t been booked on a given night. This is good to know, but it doesn’t do you any good if all the rooms do happen to sell out before the hotels drop their rates. So here’s how I handle this risk:
Book your hotel room early but find one with a policy that allows you to cancel for free up to a few days before your stay. Then a week before your trip, check out hotwire, hotels.com or some of the other sites that give discounted rates on late bookings and see if you can find a room at the same hotel or another one that’s close by for less money. If you can, then book it and cancel your original reservation. If not, you still have your original room reserved.
Don’t assume that the hotels listed on race websites have the best deals
Races usually list a number of “sponsor” hotels on their website. Sometimes these hotels offer discounted rates for runners (more on that in a minute). Usually the hotels are close to the start and finish lines, but not always.
Here’s the thing though: the hotel list on the race website is usually not an exhaustive list of every hotel in the area. They’re just hotels whose management the race organizers have made deals with. A lot of times, you can look online and find cheaper hotels that are just as close to the start and finish lines as the ones listed on the race website (or sometimes even closer). There’s an easy way to check this: go to maps.google.com and do a search for “hotels in <cityname>” to find all of the hotels in the city the race is in. You might be surprised at the number of options you have.
Don’t assume that discount codes offered on race websites will get you the cheapest hotel rates.
This is an extension of my last tip. A lot of times, the hotels that are listed on race websites offer discount codes for runners. Many times these codes provide legitimate discounts (although you still might be able to find cheaper rates at other hotels in the area). You still have to be careful though because occasionally hotels raise their rates so that the “discount” they give you really just brings your rate down to their regular price.
Before you complete your booking, compare your hotel rate to the rates on Kayak or some of the other travel sites to see if you can the same room for less money through a different source.
Call the hotel before you book your room online.
Sometimes the people at hotel front desks have access to additional discount codes that aren’t posted on the hotel websites. So while calling the hotel to make a reservation isn’t as convenient as booking a room online, in some cases it can save you money. You usually have to specifically ask if any discounts are available though. Sometimes the person at the hotel front desk can’t get a better rate for you but they can get you other perks like coupons for free meals at the hotel restaurant, room upgrades, or free tickets to local attractions. It never hurts to ask.
Don’t assume that you need a hotel at all
In a few weeks I’m going to be doing the Grand Teton Half Marathon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The cheapest hotel rates I could find were $150 per night and that was for a one star hotel I had never heard of. So instead I was able to find a lady who was renting out her guest house on Airbnb for $70 per night. So… a crappy one star hotel room for $150 or an entire guest house all to myself for less than half of that price? Guess which one I picked.
If you haven’t used Airbnb yet, you really should check it out. Every time I’ve looked for a room on Airbnb I’ve been able to find something a lot nicer than a hotel room and usually for a lot less money.
Another tip I have is that if you do a race in a city whose economy relies heavily on tourism (most coastal towns fall into this category), you might be able to use the dates of the race to your advantage. Race organizers in cities like this often purposely schedule their races during the off-season to attract visitors on days when tourism is traditionally low. This helps to stimulate the local economy. Most of these cities have Bed and Breakfasts that would be extremely expensive during tourist season but are quite reasonable during race weekend. When I did the Outer Banks Half Marathon last fall, I met a group of people who rented a six bedroom house with a full kitchen and a hot tub for four days and it only cost them $400. My hotel was only five minutes away from where they were staying and I spent $300 for three days for a single hotel room. We both paid the the same price per night, but obviously they got the better deal.
Plan your trip logistics out ahead of time
By logistics I mean how you’re going to get around while you’re there. Do you really need to rent a car? Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Call your hotel and ask if they have an airport shuttle. Then find out how close they are to the start line, finish line and race expo. If they can pick you up and drop you off at the airport and everything else you’re going to want to do throughout the weekend is within walking distance (or a short cab ride, etc.) then skip the rental car.
Also check out the public transportation in the area. Bigger cities usually have a lot of options. In Seattle I paid $180 for a rental car and it sat in the hotel garage for the entire trip. Complete waste of money. On the other hand, in Philadelphia, having a rental car was worth it because I got a really good deal on a hotel that was a little bit outside of city limits. I was able to find a parking garage downtown that was only $5 on race day and the money I saved on the hotel more than made up for the money I spent on the car. Plus the car gave me the freedom to explore the city a little more. The key is to know what you want to do ahead of time.
Haggle with the rental car salespeople
A lot of people don’t realize that you can haggle with the salespeople at rental car places to get cheaper rates on your rental car. Whenever you rent a car, the person behind the front desk will usually ask you some form of the following three questions:
- Do you want to upgrade to a higher vehicle class?
- Do you want the rental car company to pay for gas or tolls?
- Do you want to purchase insurance for the vehicle?
This is because rental car places require their agents to try to upsell these things to their customers. If you know how to negotiate, you can take advantage of that.
My trick with rental cars is to always reserve the cheapest car I can on the rental company’s website ($15.95 per day? looks good to me). Then when I go to pick up my car, I use the additional stuff the salespeople try to offer as leverage to negotiate with them.
“Sure, I’ll pre-pay for my gas… but if I do, I want a better car”.
“Sure, I’ll spend a few extra bucks to upgrade… but then I want you to cover the insurance”
In most cases the salespeople will be open to deals like that because their performance isn’t rated on how much money you spend as much as how many extra services they were able to sell to you.
My favorite story about haggling with a rental car salesperson was when I did the Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon. I flew in to Fort Worth, Texas for that trip because I had a few other things I was planning to do on race weekend and I needed a car to drive to Oklahoma City when I was done.
So I went online and booked the cheapest car I could find… and then when I went to pick it up, I kept negotiating with the sales guy until I finally got him to agree to let me upgrade to a Camaro, to have the rental car company pay for my gas, and to give me insurance on the rental. I got all that stuff for five days and it only cost me $80.
When I returned the car, it was literally running on fumes. The fuel gauge needle was past E and the engine was sputtering while I pulled it into the driveway. The lady who checked me in even made a comment that was something along the lines of “wow you really took advantage of your opportunity to bring it back on empty”. Yes I did. I doubt that there was even enough gas left in the car for them to make it to a gas station to fill the tank back up. There was also a small dent in the passenger side door. I’m not sure how it got there, but that wasn’t my problem.
If you’re not a good negotiator, another option is to simply ask the rental car place for a discount. This tends to work better if you have a membership with them. Last year my friend Alfred and I did a race together in Anchorage, Alaska. Alfred is a consultant who travels every week for work and he had a membership card on file with the place we rented our car from. When we went to pick up our rental car, after the lady behind the counter told him the price he simply asked her if she could do any better than that. She knocked $25 off of his bill just because he asked.
Don’t get rental car insurance
Here are two things that a lot of people don’t know:
- If you have full coverage insurance for your regular car, your insurance company will most likely cover you if you’re driving a rental car that gets damaged too. Call your insurance company to double check this, but it is written into most policies.
- Most credit card companies insure rental cars. If you don’t have this coverage already, all it takes to add it on is usually a quick call to customer service. There are some stipulations that go along with this, like limits on the types of cars they’ll cover and a requirement to submit claims to your insurance company first… but there is coverage available.
Rental car companies like for you to not know this because it means they can talk you into paying extra to purchase insurance for your rental car through them. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of people who get rental car insurance don’t realize that they’re already covered.
That said though, feel free to still use insurance to negotiate a lower overall price for the rental like I mentioned above. The key to successfully negotiating is to have a wide variety of options that you can leverage. So if you can get the rental car company to give you an upgrade or pay for your gas in exchange for purchasing their insurance package, it might be worth it. Just make sure not to purchase rental car insurance solely the sales person at the rental car counter tells you that you should really have it “just in case”.
Bring your own food
This one is pretty straightforward too. You don’t always have to eat at a restaurant when you travel. If you bring your own food, you’ll not only save a lot of money, but you’ll also be eating a lot healthier. Another option is to go to a local grocery store when you get there and buy a couple days worth of food so you don’t have to lug it through the airport on your way to your destination.
Forget About Brand Loyalty
If you travel a lot, chances are that you have membership cards for hotel chains, airlines and rental car companies. These are nice and they can occasionally get you a free flight or hotel room, but unless you also do a lot of business travel, it usually takes a long time to build up enough points to get anything worthwhile.
Something important to keep in mind is that loyalty cards aren’t really about customers saving money. Companies issue them because they’re a good way to collect customer data that can then be analyzed to determine who is purchasing what products and services when. That data can then be used to help determine the best adjustments to make to maximize profits. I speak from experience on this, having spent the better part of the last 15 years implementing CRM systems for Fortune 500 companies.
So my best suggestion about loyalty programs is to go ahead and sign up for them and use them when you can. But you should still always look for the best deal even if it’s offered by someone other than the company whose loyalty program you’re part of. Don’t let yourself get locked into always using one particular brand when there could potentially be less expensive alternatives available.
So those are my travel tips. I’m sure there are a few more that I’m not thinking of because I’ve been doing this for so long that some of these things are second nature to me at this point. If I think of any others though, I’ll add another post. Also, if you have any of your own money saving tips to share, I’d love to hear them!