Consider these invaluable tips to keep your travel costs as low as possible
by Max Berry
Travel can be hard on a small business owner's budget, especially now that airlines are charging fees for once-complimentary services like checking a bag. But with a little forethought and a willingness to root out the best deals, your next business trip could take you through friendlier-not to mention more cost-effective-skies than your ever imagined. Here are ten tips for business travelers on a budget.
Appoint a Travel Guru
Assign someone in your office the task of compiling a bookmark folder of Internet travel tools and discount sites. Sites like http://Priceline.com and http://Hotwire.com come in handy for discounted airfare and hotel rates, while http://Hopstop.com maps public transit routes and offers taxi-fare estimates for America's largest cities. When the need to travel arises, save yourself some time by letting your travel guru hunt for the cheapest fares and discounts on aggregator sites like http://kayak.com or http://bing.com/travel. Once they've narrowed the options, you can select the itinerary that works best for you.
Research Your Destination
Base your travel budget on realistic destination costs rather than an arbitrary per diem. If you maintain a set budget for every trip you take, you may find yourself running out of money fast. Likewise, if you bring a Manhattan-sized roll of bills to Tulsa, you may find yourself with far more than you need. Do some research on the city you'll be traveling to; how extensive is its public transportation system? What constitutes eating on the cheap in your destination city? Sites like http://Yelp.com and http://Citysearch.com will help you gauge just how much your stay will cost you.
Booking websites with a name-your-own-price option are a valuable tool for business travelers on a budget, but many hotel managers will also negotiate rates directly with customers. Most innkeepers won't advertise this fact, but if you'll be staying with them for a prolonged period of time, you can use that as leverage to get a better price. Angle for your own "corporate rate" by telling the manager that the slight discount you're seeking may make the difference between staying with them or going to another property nearby.
Take Advantage of Special Offers
Frequent flyer programs and credit cards that award points for hotel stays and airfare are smart moves for any frequent traveler. Also consider signing up for a mailing list or two. Sites like http://Orbitz.com send regular e-mails detailing featured discounts on airfare while most major hotel chains offer special deals to frequent customers. Not every offer will be of use to you, but if it gets you a deal on your next business trip, it will be well worth sorting through the bulk mail.
Plot a Course
If you are flying to your destination and will need to take a taxi or hired car from the airport, check the likely fare ahead of time (Hopstop is good for this). You may also want to use Mapquest or Google Maps to familiarize yourself with the most direct route. Some cabbies will take a more circuitous path to your destination in order to drive up the fare if they sense you don't know your way around.
This is sage advice now more than ever. Many airlines are charging $25 and up to check even one bag (For a handy rundown of baggage fees, by airline, go here: http://expedia.com/daily/flights/airline-fees.asp ). If you can squeeze everything you need into a carry-on, consider foregoing baggage check altogether. Or, if possible, fly one of the discount airlines (Southwest or JetBlue) that allow you to check your first bag for free. (A second checked bag is also free on Southwest.) Also keep in mind that if you must travel with two or more bags for business, these baggage fees to and from your destination might add up to the price of the airline ticket itself, so to choose the most affordable air carrier you must factor these expenses in.
Car Rental Tips
A general rule of thumb for saving money when renting a car is to reserve the smallest model at the lowest price. If the agency runs out of compact cars, they will be required to rent you a larger model at no added cost. You may also opt to waive the insurance. While the added precaution couldn't hurt, chances are you won't need it, since most auto insurance policies and credit cards already cover car rentals as part of their policies. One other tip: If you can, try to rent a car at a downtown location away from the airport, as most airport rental-car locations charge steep usage fees and tourist taxes that can add 10%-30% to your final bill.
Gotta Go Now
When traveling on short notice, check airlines' special offers pages first. If your schedule is flexible and you are open to the idea of odd departure and arrival times, you may be able to snag a last-minute deal. This is especially true for flights in the middle of the week. Some discount airlines also offer walk-up fares that are considerably cheaper than those of their large competitors.
Exercise Some Discipline
It may seem obvious, but resisting temptations like the mini-bar, room service, and in-flight meals and cocktails will add up to big savings. Just as small expenses you'd barely even factored into your budget account for much of your day-to-day spending, minimal services like these are designed to turn a profit on travelers who are tired, unfamiliar with their surroundings, and lack a better option. Don't fall for them. Instead, plan ahead by bringing plenty of snacks in your carry-on bag, identifying some restaurants near your destination, and possibly even swinging by a local grocery store to stock up on some basic provisions if your hotel room will include a refrigerator.
When in Rome...
Once you arrive at your destination, try to take some cues from the locals. There will be no better authority on how to eat, shop, and get around cheaply. If the people you are doing business with live in your destination city, ask them for some advice. If the city you're visiting has them, local blogs and Internet message boards-found through sites like http://virtualtourist.com are excellent sources for advice on how to do as the Romans do.
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