I’m pretty late to summer vacation planning this year, but I’m not letting it stop me from getting a solid deal. Here are three often-overlooked things I made sure to check before finalizing any plans:

  1. Park-Stay-Fly hotel packages
    Airport parking can add up, even if you’re using an off-site long-term lot. So, especially if your flight leaves in the morning, consider booking an airport-area hotel room with a parking package. For a slight premium — as little as $10 to $20 sometimes — over the regular room rate, hotels will throw in 7 to 14 days of parking. It’s almost like buying your parking and getting a hotel room thrown in for free. (Almost.) Most parking packages are found only on hotels’ own websites. There’s a site that focuses on this — parksleepfly.com — but it’s not completely authoritative. Still, a good starting point.
  2. Vacation Rentals
    In some well-touristed areas, hotels book up quickly. But vacation rentals — houses, apartments, condos — are often still available. You won’t get maid service, and the decor will not be the standardized fare you’ll find in a hotel, but you might find a gem. I’ve been looking at lodging in a small city at the gateway to a national park. The hotels are full. The motels are dumps. The vacation rentals, on the other hand, are promising. Check out sites like HomeAway, VRBO, ABetterStay, Belvilla, or Vacation Home Rentals. Check them all, frankly, as inventory varies tremendously.
  3. Z-Fares
    Traveling internationally? Don’t settle for buying a coach seat. I’ve beaten this drum before, but summertime is when international business class airfares drop significantly, as business travel scales back. It’s not the same price as coach, but it’s a big discount to the usual charge. Look for so-called “Z-fares” by searching for business class airfares on the airline or travel agency website of your choice. It used to be that you could also look for deals with the all-business class airlines, but only OpenSkies remains. Shop around before you settle for coach.
Categorized in: advice

eternal clock Rental car advice: Be sure to update your checkout time

Reader Thomas writes:

I rented a car with Alamo last week. My scheduled pickup time was 2:00pm. My flight didn’t get in until 3:30, and I picked up the car around 4:00. When I returned the car three days later (at 3:00pm) they charged me for an extra hour’s rental. And that one hour cost more than the daily rate.

I complained that I hadn’t actually picked up the car until 4pm, so it was less than 3x 24-hours, so why were they charging me for 3 days plus one hour? They insisted that the reservation started at 2:00 pm. What gives?

This issue has come up before, in a discussion of the decline of grace periods from a few years back. There was one comment in particular, from a reader named Jason, which is particularly prescient, and bears repeating:

A little tip for renters from someone who’s been on both sides of the rental counter. Make sure the rental agent updates your pickup time if you arrive after your scheduled pick up time (i.e. scheduled to pick up at 2pm and you don’t arrive until 3pm). If you arrive early, the computers will likely set your pickup time to the actual time you pickup the car, but if you arrive late it’s up to you and/or the agent to update your pickup time. This little trick has caught a lot of renters who return at the same time they picked up the car, but still get the late fees.

There you have it. Once you drive it off the lot, the timestamp on the contract is the time that counts. So be sure to verify that the time is the time you actually rent.

(Of course, with some companies, you can be handed a contract but still wait… and wait… and wait for the car… If that happens, let the exit gate agent to mark and initial the contract with the accurate time, as a last resort, if you can’t get it updated in the computer.)

As an added heads-up from Jason’s comment, advice for tail end of the rental:

One other nasty suprise of Alamo, if you return the car more than 24 hours early you may be subject to a $15 early return fee. It’s stupid, but it’s on the contract the renter has to initial. Don’t try to argue with the agent, we couldn’t take it off and we never could figure out why it only appeared on some rentals and not others.

Forewarned is forearmed: Watch the clock, and watch your contract.


Posted by: Mark Ashley

airport car rental Avoiding airport rental markups

It’s well-known that picking up a rental car at the airport will lead to numerous taxes, surcharges, and fees. The surtaxes can be mindblowing, with local governments soaking out-of-towners to fund expensive capital projects like stadiums with fees extracted from transients who can’t vote in local elections. So how do you avoid the exorbitant fees?

1) Skip the airport
This is the somewhat obvious answer: Take mass transit or a taxi and pick the car up at a downtown location. You’ll avoid the airport concession tax, and you’ll spend a little less time maneuvering in unfamiliar local traffic. Of course, this isn’t always possible, if the airport is poorly connected, or if you have a ton of luggage. Note that dropping off at the airport in the same city you picked up the car is generally not charged a one-way rental fee.

2) The two-rental solution
Let’s say you need to pick up the car at the airport. That doesn’t mean you have to be on that contract the entire time you’re renting. Reserve a car for pickup at the airport and plan for a dropoff the next day downtown. Then start a new rental at the downtown location. You’ll pay airport surcharges for only one day, and pay lower fees for the rest of the rental. The longer your trip, the more you save.

I quickly priced out a sample one-week rental in Dallas at Budget Rent a Car (the results could be replicated, give or take a few bucks, with other brands):

Option 1:
1 week rental, pickup at DFW airport, returning to DFW.
Lowest rate is for an intermediate SUV, total cost with taxes: $347.79.
(FYI: A more fuel-efficient compact car rents for $464.07!)

Option 2:
1 day rental, pickup at DFW, dropoff downtown Dallas.
6 day rental, pickup at downtown Dallas, dropoff at DFW.
Lowest combo: 1-day SUV: $53.69 all-in; 6-day compact: $189.19.
Total: $242.88. (Substituting a compact for the SUV in the 1-day rental raises the cost by $8.93.)
Total savings over Option 1: $104.91.

One major car rental company’s employee reminds me that this can be particularly useful in Europe, where one-way dropoff fees are not as prevalent as in the United States, as long as the car is picked up and dropped off in the same country. (The employee didn’t want to be named or have his company identified, for obvious reasons.) And the taxes are significant: 19% for Frankfurt Airport pickups, for example.

3) Half-day rentals, where available
This is not very widespread yet, but Hertz and others are rolling out half-day car rentals in some European locations. Otherwise, similar to #2 above.

4) Pre-pay
Pre-paying a car rental is much like buying an airline ticket from a consolidator. You give up on flexibility (and take on more onerous change fee policies) in return for a discount. It’s not for everyone. This is obviously not something which business travelers would benefit much from, but for leisure rentals, it’s a viable alternative if your dates are fixed. I’ve had good experiences with Auto Europe in, well, Europe, and with Hotwire in the U.S. The total price quoted has typically been 10 to 30% less than the retail rates quoted by the majors themselves. The car itself has always been provided by one of the big name brands.

Got any other tips for avoiding these fees? Hit the comments!

- Reader mail: What happened to car rental late-return grace periods?
- Reader roundup: More tips for car rental deals
- Upgrade declined: Travelers turning down car rental upgrades
- Reader mail: Watch your prepaid rental car fees
- Chicago to align short-term car rentals and mass transit

Categorized in: advice, car rental, rental cars

survival pak Thinking about worst case scenarios: Saving your skin if your hotel were a target

When I’m at an unfamiliar destination, I tend not to focus on the negative. Sure, I keep my eyes open, and I try to avoid getting hit by traffic, but I don’t obsess about the ways I could be hurt or killed. But the dreadful attacks on the hotels in Mumbai, on top of the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott in September, have made worst-case-scenario mindsets a little more palatable, or even appropriate.

In that vein, allow me to recommend a no-nonsense post by Jeffrey Goldberg in his blog at the Atlantic: “How to Stay Alive in a Terrorized Hotel.”

Importantly, he offers this important reminder: Much like you’re more likely to be killed or injured on the way to the airport than in a plane accident, “it’s foolish even to worry about hotel safety, because the chances of something happening on any particular night in any particular hotel are vanishingly small. The taxi ride to the hotel is invariably more dangerous than the hotel itself.”

Ok. With that caveat out of the way, how do you avoid danger, or how do you save your hide in a worst-case scenario? Goldberg offers a number of suggestions. Avoid big hotels, as they’re big targets. Stay at hotels that have been attacked before — they’re unlikely to be hit again. Order room service, to avoid being off the lobby in an easily-attackable restaurant. Get a room on floors 4, 5, or 6, from which you could potentially survive a jump (umm… this tip I’m not quite comfortable with). Keep shoes, passport, and money handy at all times, in easy reach in the dark. And much, much more. Read the whole thing.

Got any survivalist tips of your own to share? Hit the comments?


Categorized in: advice

I often get asked about bereavement fares or other last-minute emergency travel discounts. My answers had previously been entirely academic, but this past week, I unfortunately had to learn about bereavement and compassionate airfares for myself.

It’s obviously a trip that I didn’t want to take: My grandmother passed away late last week, just weeks after celebrating her 99th birthday. I flew to her home — in Germany — and was fortunate enough to see her, talk with her, and bid farewell before she passed away. I am very glad I went. I will deeply miss her.

The trip was an education, in more ways than one. But thinking back to this blog’s modus operandi for the moment, let me share what I learned about booking flights under such circumstances. (more…)

Categorized in: advice, airfare, airlines

The countdown to the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin is on. (T-minus 36 minutes as I type!) In the spirit of the moment, I’m passing along this information for American voters who might be traveling on Election Day (November 4).

The folks from Election Protection, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supported by 100 different political groups, wrote in to offer their services — free — to those travelers who might be on the road, and away from the ballot box, on November 4.

For starters, there’s the website. Beyond just telling you to apply for an absentee ballot, the site walks you through the voting options, state by state. It’s quite comprehensive.

Or, if you’ve got questions, or problems, you can get a phone consult:

Potential voters can call the 866-OUR VOTE hotline to obtain critical information and advice on how they can beat voter registration deadlines and use early or absentee voting to make sure their vote counts.

However you decide to vote this cycle, don’t lose the opportunity to vote just because you’re traveling. Yay, democracy!

Categorized in: advice