8 Travel Hacks to Save Time and Money

Sep 24, 2014

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Obviously I love travel, but even under favorable conditions, there are times when getting from point A to point B feels harder than it should be. Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele shares some tips for making your trips smoother, less expensive, and more pleasant.

Having just returned from my fifth trip in the last four weeks, I’ve been pondering all the little things I do to make travel easier on myself. Like most things, the more you travel, the better you get at it, and I think what separates seasoned travelers from occasional tourists is their strategies for maneuvering through the travel world on the path of least resistance. While I know many readers are already travel pros, I thought I’d share with you all some of my favorite travel hacks that are just a little sneaky without crossing the line, and I hope you’ll share your own.

Finding award availability together can be tricky!
Putting kids in overhead bins to avoid buying them tickets is definitely over the line, and won’t be on this list.

1. Airport pickups at departures. I’ve found that the arrivals section of my home airport, Denver International, is often crowded and chaotic. Traffic can back up for a half a mile when approaching the terminal, and police are out in full force to shoo you away if you dare stop for a second while you look for the person you’re trying to meet. The problem is especially acute in the afternoon and evenings, when most flights arrive as residents return home en masse. It’s also a rather dark and dirty place tucked under layers of concrete parking decks.

On the other hand, the departures area, situated on the top level of the terminal, is bright, clean, and relatively uncrowded, with a more subdued police presence. I make it a point to arrange pickups there (for myself and others), and it makes getting home much smoother and more serene. This trick isn’t unique to Denver; TPG Points and Miles editor Peter Rothbart does the same thing in Seattle, and it should work at any airport that splits arrivals and departures into separate levels. I’d say this trick would cross the line if an airport specifically prohibited pickups at the departures level, but I’ve never seen such a rule.

Airport pickup areas can be crowded, but there is no reason why you can't pick someone up at departures. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If the airport pickup area is crowded, just meet your party at departures. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

2. Maximizing free shuttles. Every major airport is surrounded by hotels, rental car agencies, and parking facilities that offer free shuttle service to and from the airport. But on a recent trip to New York’s JFK airport, I found myself waiting uncommonly long for my hotel’s van to arrive. Consulting a map to see where my hotel was, I realized that it shared a parking lot with three other hotels whose shuttles were also coming and going. Since my shuttle appeared to have been lost in an interdimensional wormhole, it seemed reasonable for me to just jump on one of the others to catch a ride.

To twist this strategy further, you could take a free hotel shuttle to save money on rental cars by avoiding the additional taxes and fees imposed at airport locations. This works especially well since many hotels have their own car rental facility, or you can get an off-site Enterprise location to pick you up. Another popular example is using The Parking Spot’s free shuttle in LAX/Sepulveda to visit the In and Out Burger near the runway in order grab a bite and watch the planes land. Finally, a neighbor of mine even uses a free shuttle that delivers him to a hotel over 10 miles away from the airport, so his wife only has to drive a few miles to pick him up. I certainly wouldn’t call an on-demand shuttle just to pick me up if I wasn’t a customer, and I wouldn’t board a full shuttle if it meant denying a seat to one of their customers, but if the route is being run continuously and isn’t full, I feel it’s fair game. And if you choose to tip your driver, I’m sure he or she won’t mind either.

If a shuttle van is running continuously, you might as well get a free ride, even if you are not their customer. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If a shuttle van is running continuously, you might as well get a free ride, even if you’re not their customer. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

3. Checking a child’s car seat for free, and a little more. Avoiding baggage fees is a passion of mine, and I a few loopholes in the checked baggage system can help you do just that. Airlines allow travelers to check a child’s infant seat for free, and it’s a good idea to place it in a large duffel bag to ensure that it stays clean and doesn’t catch on any straps in the luggage processing system. Since you’re checking a duffel bag anyways, there’s no harm in using some of that additional space for items that you can’t fit or aren’t permitted to bring in your carry-on. Ideal candidates include bulky items such as an extra towel or beach blanket, as well as a bottle of your favorite shampoo that’s too big to bring through security. My wife and I have even found a way to strap a couple bottles of wine into the car seat in order to keep them safe. So long as the car seat is placed above anything else in the bag, you just need to unzip it slightly to show the check-in agent, and the rest of its contents will fly under the radar. That said, it would probably cross the line if you checked a child’s car seat to use this trick, but weren’t actually traveling with a child.

If you have to check a child's car seat, you might as well utilize some of the extra space to avoid baggage fees. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you have to check a child’s car seat, you might as well utilize some of the extra space to avoid baggage fees. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

4. Gate checking bags. When you still need to travel with a bit more  stuff than the carry-on allowance, but don’t want to be hit with checked baggage fees, another trick is to just bring your bag to the gate. Not only will most airlines gate-check bags for free, but they often encourage the practice to save space in the overhead compartments. So if you have a bag that’s just a little too big to be carried on, you can try to gate check it for free.

Just be careful with low-cost carriers like Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant, as they will charge for gate checked bags, and the price can be even higher than it would have been if you checked your bag at the ticketing counter. When does this cross the line? I would say trying to get through security with a huge suitcase that couldn’t possibly be construed as a carry-on is bending the rules a bit too much. If your bag could reasonably fit in an overhead bin, go for it.

If you have more bags than you can carry on, you can often avoid fees by gate checking. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you have too many carry-ons, you can often avoid fees by gate checking. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

5. Changing your frequent flyer number on an award booking. TPG and I both independently arrived at this little trick. I always like to add or change my frequent flyer number on my award bookings, if only to ensure that the airline has my correct contact information in case of any disruption. In addition, there’s also a chance that their systems will award you frequent flier miles for your flight, especially if you’re being reaccommodated as a result of a flight delay or cancellation. However, I think it would cross the line if you purposely tried to submit boarding passes for mileage credit after the flight.

6. Getting a free seat for an infant. Infants under two years old are allowed to travel as lap children, but as they approach two years old, having your child sit in his or her own seat will become increasingly more desirable. There are two ways to get this extra seat for free. The first isn’t very sneaky at all, as parents can simply ask the gate agent if there are any empty seats together and hopefully be resituated. The other way involves flying Southwest Airlines and simply placing your unticketed child in a middle seat with the parents seated in the aisle and window, just as you would if he or she was actually ticketed. In the event that the plane is completely full, you’ll have to give the seat up, but otherwise it’s unlikely your fellow passengers will be clamoring to evict your baby in order to squeeze into the middle seat.

7. Refundable backup reservations. On a business trip last year, I was unsure if I would complete my work a day early, so I booked two return flights home with advanced purchase fares, one each on different days. The flights were on award bookings on Southwest, which boasts no change or cancellation fees so long as you cancel before the scheduled time of departure. Sure enough, I completed my work quickly, departed on my first ticketed flight, and canceled the second reservation to have my points refunded. In doing so, I saved a full day of my time without having to pay thousands of points (or hundreds of dollars) more for a last minute booking or change fee.

This strategy can also be useful when weather or mechanical delays strike and you need a backup plan to get you to your destination. Often, these reservations can be canceled within 24 hours without incurring a penalty. Where this crosses the line is when people repeatedly make purely speculative bookings that they have no intention of flying, which is against most airlines’ contract of carriage.

Flight delays can cause for very stressful situations, know your options before heading to an airline representative for help.
If you’re stranded or uncertain of your schedule, a refundable backup reservation can save you from delays.

8. Back to back and hidden city ticketing. Sometimes airlines will charge far more for tickets to that do not include a Saturday night stay, on the assumption that those passengers are business travelers who aren’t flexible and can afford to pay more. Yet those who commute between cities eventually realize that they can purchase one round-trip ticket that covers their first outbound and last return, followed by round-trip tickets to return home on the weekends.

Likewise, hidden city ticketing is the process of booking a flight with a change of planes at your destination, and then not flying the remaining portion. This too can save you money, but is prohibited by by most airlines’ contract of carriage. Nevertheless, there’s nothing illegal about it, and I ‘ve read some very persuasive legal arguments that these terms are unenforceable. Simply put, when a customer purchases a service (or goods), the seller can’t compel the buyer to use every part of it. The airlines create these absurd fare structures, and travelers cannot be obliged to voluntarily purchase the higher fares to take the same flights. Just be very careful and use some countermeasures to avoid being caught and losing your frequent flier miles.

Thankfully, Southwest does not explicitly forbid hidden city ticketing, but it’s considered good form to notify the gate agents when you will not fly the remainder of your itinerary, so they can offer your seat to someone else and will not have to page you. Where this crosses the line, in my opinion, is when you book these tickets through a travel agent, as they can be held liable for any fare differences the airlines try to collect.

What travel hacks do you use to save time and money? Please share your tips with other readers in the comments below.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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