Travel Tricks: How to get the most out of your holiday
The ultimate getaway advice from a expert travel hack...
Pulling your hair out trying to book the perfect holiday? Pól Ó Conghaile knows a thing or two about going away, and here are his top travel hacks...
Nab a cheaper flight
In my experience, it's cheaper to fly Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The reason is simple – most travellers jet off on Thursdays and Fridays, returning home on Sundays. Those flying against the traffic stand to make savings. Charter flights that you'd get from a travel agent or with a package are different, as these tend to be weekly departure with cheapest rates in shoulder season.
Before booking your flight, check websites like kayak.com or skyscanner.ie to compare prices and routes, cross-checking your results with airline websites. Airlines can be cheaper as they look to encourage direct bookings, but it pays to shop around.
Never book a flight at the last minute – this the absolute worst thing you can do. Not only is it stressful, but the only people booking flights or train journeys the day before travel are those who have no flexibility with their arrangements, and they pay handsomely for the pleasure.
Enter your flight number into seatguru.com to find the best seats.
Blag an upgrade
Successful blagging comes down to status, timing and charm ... in that order. Sadly, there's no silver bullet or foolproof formula (if there was, I would be sipping champagne in business class, and not writing tips about blagging upgrades). The only guaranteed way to get an upgrade is to pay for one ... in cash or points.
Upgrades don't have to cost the earth, mind you. Aer Lingus passengers may have noticed 'Upgrade Yourself' emails pinging in advance of long-haul flights, for example. These invite passengers to bid on an upgrade (on a sliding scale of €350 to €950, based on a flight I'm about to take to Chicago), with top bidders awarded any available seats.
Free upgrades, the traveller's holy grail, generally happen when economy is over-booked (as opposed to business class seats being empty), with upgrades either automatically allocated or given to customers with high points in the airline's frequent-flyer scheme.
Airlines can handle upgrades differently, but as a rule of thumb it pays to a) join a loyalty programme and, b) accumulate as many air miles as possible. The more points you have, the more desirable your status within the programme.
Beyond that, you've nothing to lose by asking. Dressing well definitely helps – although if your request fails, it's no fun flying economy in a three-piece suit – but the trick here is to make a polite request at check-in (rather than the gate). Airport staff deal with a lot of frustrated and demanding passengers, so a pleasant approach is much more likely to win favours. And you didn't hear this from me, but mentioning a honeymoon, birthday or anniversary never hurts.
Flying solo and looking smart helps too.
Hack your hotel
Few of us have the luxury of being able to travel midweek. That's why those who do stand to make substantial travel savings outside of school holiday periods, with the best hotel rates routinely bagged from Sunday through Thursday.
Savvy travellers also know to check hotels directly for special offers. Sites like Hotels.com and irelandhotels.com regularly throw up tempting sales and have great deals, but it pays to compare with the individual hotel website (or pick up the phone) before you book. Sure, the bottom-line may not be cheaper, but you'll be surprised at the various packages the hotel might be prepared to throw in for those who ask nicely.
Sunday is a good night for hotel upgrades – there tend to be fewer leisure guests and business travellers have yet to check-in. Dress well and make your request politely and enthusiastically at reception ... forget name-dropping.
Left it late to book? Check your hotel's cancellation policy. If it's 24 hours, then call 24 hours before your stay ... you may get a room, or an upgrade.
Get the best deals on attractions
City cards aren't free, but they do offer significant savings – particularly if you're planning on taking public transport and seeing several attractions.
A New York City Pass costs $80 for one day, for instance, but that includes access to 80 attractions, including the Empire State Building Observation Deck, the Grand Central Terminal Audio Tour, the New York Skyride, Walkin' Broadway and the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, which would normally cost around $150.
Another tip is to look for free days. In New York, for instance, MoMA waives its $25 entry fee on Friday afternoons (4-8pm). In Paris, the Louvre is free to visit on the first Sunday of the month from October-March, and free year-round to EU residents aged 18-25.
Are you over 65? Or under 26? You'd be surprised at the number of age-based discounts available ... but make sure you have the ID to back up your claim!
Free up your food ...
Food is the big travel expense after flights and accommodation. That said, there are lots of ways to reduce your bills – not least by planning ahead to avoid having several hungry mouths to feed in Disneyland Paris at 1pm.
Bringing packed lunches, snacks and water bottles, or booking self-catering accommodation and eating one or two daily meals at a home base can stave off cravings and save considerably on impulse splashes.
Of course, eating out is one of the great pleasures of a holiday. Nobody wants to spend their well-earned vacation eating crappy sambos. So why not consider lunch? Lots of restaurants run set menus at lunch, offering similar food at a fraction of the dinner prices.
Street food, buffets, checking local publications for coupons and eating at hotel bars rather than restaurants can all make a difference to the bottom line – you'll get served quicker too, which can be helpful for families or travellers on the clock.
Can't resist the minibar? Making a morning run to replace items from a nearby convenience store is one of the oldest skimping tricks in the book.
Live like a local
One of the best ways to save money overseas is to do as locals do.
This applies across the board – from buying a local SIM card for your phone to finding free Wi-Fi hotspots, from avoiding tourist trap restaurants to tapping into deals and coupons available on local websites from Groupon, LivingSocial, Yelp and others.
Local intelligence can also be helpful when it comes to your itinerary. Sites like Le Cool, spottedbylocals.com and inyourpocket.com are good for local bar, restaurant, events, pop-up, club and cultural happening tips, and you can tap into local accommodation with sites like airbnb.com, couchsurfing.com and campinmygarden.com too.
It's worth remembering that many hostels offer private rooms these days – putting guests at the core of fun travel communities without sacrificing their free space.
Dublin's Generator Hostel (generator hostels.com) is a prime example, with private singles and doubles starting from €35 per night. It runs bloc parties, pub crawls, acoustic sessions and much more, so you can plug into the city scene without breaking the bank.
Using G-Maps for your trip? Open it and pin the attractions you want to see while in a Wi-Fi zone. You'll be able to access these offline when you're out and about.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent