Fare Finders: Best Sites for Cheap Travel

From the moment that I first told people that I was going to start traveling all the time, I got one question from everyone:

“How are you going to pay for it?”

That’s a good question. Logically, a 21-year-old writer a year and a half out of college shouldn’t be able to afford traveling the way that I do.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m lucky – since I can work from anywhere traveling around isn’t a challenge for me. But the answer that all I need to work is my laptop and an internet connection didn’t seem to placate the people who kept asking this question.

There’s a perception out there that traveling is expensive. That you need to have some money saved up to travel at all. And while it’s true that traveling can be pricy – that assumption is simply incorrect.

There are a ton of ways to save money while you’re traveling – even traveling in a group. Of course, as someone who always travels alone, it’s far cheaper for me than for people paying for an entire family. But there are still ways to keep things cheap.

The problem is, people are used to luxury travel. Well, if you’re traveling on a budget, it’s not always luxurious. In fact, it’s very rarely luxurious.

But I’m not traveling for the luxury. I’m traveling for the experience. As long as I can afford it, I don’t need to be comfortable to travel.

Deciding where I travel is a process for me – because when I decide where I’m going, I have to compare the prices of transportation. How much does it cost to stay? Then I create a budget with whatever is left over for my bills and – of course – food and activities.

So, I have a myriad of websites and apps that I use to help me plan my trips. Without these, I wouldn’t be able to manage my finances nearly as well – and certainly less efficiently.

Transportation:

The one that people are more curious about is transportation. How can I afford to pay for transportation from place to place? Flying is expensive, after all.

Yeah, that’s true. But I very rarely fly. It’s usually only if I’m traveling a long distance all at once, or all of my other options turned out to be the same price – which has happened before, but rarely.

Mostly, I take buses. There are several bus services that run really cheaply – even if you buy last minute. Of course, it pays to know where to look for deals.

Ground Transport

I normally use a website called Wanderu to book my bus trips. It’s my choice because it lists prices across several different bus companies – and trains, so you’ll know that you’re getting the best deal for where you’re going.

I also use another site called Go To Bus if I suspect that there’s a better deal – or if I can’t find a direct bus from one destination to another. Since they use different services, they sometimes have different lines. So, I make sure to do some double-checking before I make my final purchase.

For trains, I mostly just stick to Amtrak.com and just play around with the dates and times until I find a good deal. This can be annoying and time-consuming. But since traveling on a train is generally more comfortable – in my opinion – than most other forms of long-distance travel, it’s generally worth the hassle.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, some of the bus sites that I use will compare rates with Amtrak, so you can use those to ensure you’re getting a good deal as well.

Air Transport

When it comes to flying – as I said – I don’t often fly because it’s just not cost effective unless you’re hopping coasts, islands, or countries. And I try not to do that, because it’s much cheaper – and it’s also more fun, in my opinion.

It’s more of a challenge to plan bus rides across the country, seeing what the cheapest possibilities are. Planning it this way makes me add places I may not have even considered before to my itinerary – and sometimes unplanned stops are the best stops.

But, when I do fly, I usually check my fares on Kayak. I like using it because – as someone who rarely travels with exact dates – I like that they have flexible departure options.

And, like the other websites I use, it checks fare prices across different airlines. Not to mention it gives you information on legroom, baggage, layover, airports, etc.

Honorable Mention:

I also follow a blog called the Thrifty Traveler – which is always promoting flight deals. I keep an eye on their blog so that if a really good deal pops up (and it does, from time to time) I’m ready to pounce on it and change my plans if necessary.

Lodging:

The most important part of planning where to go is to find where you’re going to stay. I may be adventurous – but if I have my way, I won’t ever sleep on the street. That’s a no-go for me. So usually when I start deciding where to go, I start looking at hostels.

Hostels are my favorite part of traveling, hands down. That may surprise my friends who know me – but I really enjoy brushing elbows with other travelers the way that you can in a hostel.

It’s a unique experience – and I deeply enjoy it. It’s not really comfortable – in fact, it’s very rarely comfortable.

I’m not a picky person. I can put in earplugs or headphones, pull a hood over my eyes, and fall asleep. And once I’m asleep, I stay that way. So staying in a dorm-style room like in a hostel doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But I’ve heard that it can be annoying.

Sidenote: You also see some really… unique things when you stay in a hostel. I spent a fair amount of time trading weird stories with some of my friends I made while staying in Philadelphia. So be aware that sometimes, you may see things that you weren’t expecting…

I normally use hostelworld.com to find places to stay, as you can search by place to find good prices, as well as see the location of each hostel on a map. I’ll also use hostels.com to cross check prices.

If you can’t find hostels in your destination on those sites, you can do a quick Google search. Sometimes cities don’t have hostels. Sometimes they’re just not listed on the other websites. It doesn’t hurt to check.

Now, if you’re really on a tight budget, there are some cities that can be unmanageable. For example, in America: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many others, hostels can be an upwards of 40 USD a night.

For people who aren’t familiar with hostels – in other countries, hostels are closer to 10 USD per night – or less. Some countries it can be less than 5 USD.

Other Options:

I’m a stubborn person. So, looking at cities that are pricy like that doesn’t stop me from planning to go. Step number one is usually to figure out if I have friends in the area that might let me crash with them.

I’m lucky – I have friends and family all over the country, so usually, I can find someone to stay with if I look hard enough.

But I know not everyone has the same network as I do – and I don’t have connections everywhere. So if I’m looking at a tight budget, I often check up on Couch Surfing.

Couch Surfing can be a little weird at times. You are, quite literally, sleeping in a stranger’s house, after all.

But as long as you know what you’re doing, it can be just as safe as staying in a hostel. And it’s free! Yep, that’s the best part about it. Couch Surfing isn’t an exchange of money – it’s an exchange of knowledge.

You can update your profile with things you know how to do and are willing to teach, and you and your hosts teach each other things while you’re there.

You can also offer to help with chores, cook meals, or whatever else. It’s completely up to you. I highly recommend it for the traveler on a tight budget.

Be careful, but as long as you take precautions, you’ll do just fine.

Wait, That’s It?

That’s the secret, friends. I’m very careful with my budget and look for the best possible deals. I’m not picky about where I stay (though I’m careful), and I’m willing to make sacrifices to achieve what I want.

That’s how I make it work. It’s not easy – nor should it be. I wake up every day to a new adventure and I love every minute of it.

If any of you are thinking about taking a trip in the near future, I encourage you to bookmark those websites to help you find the best deals you possibly can.

In a future post, I’ll talk about how exactly I manage my budget each month to ensure that I can afford everything, on top of saving. But for now, I think that’s enough.

I always welcome comments and suggestions if you know of some travel sites that I don’t! ***Header image credit: Shutterstock***

When a 4 Hour Trip Takes 8…

Everyone who travels will tell you – you get into your fair share of trouble while you’re at it. I don’t know what about traveling long-term tempts fate so much, but when you’re on the road for a while, interesting things are bound to happen. And if you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve already had my fair share of difficulties. But, as any good traveler, I tend to go into any situation ready for the unexpected.

Sometimes there’s no preparing for it.

When you ride on a bus – particularly between major cities – you expect delays. It’s part of the gig. It’s one of the cheapest ways to travel, so it’s really not surprising that there are sometimes problems. Traffic happens. Accidents happens. Buses break down. So, I tend to expect some delays when I ride on a bus – no matter where I’m going.

I don’t expect my bus to turn around, though.

So, here’s the story: my friend and travel buddy Jackie and I were on our way back from New York (the second time), and we decided to take a bus. It’s only about a four-hour trip, and it’s easily the cheapest (and least stressful) way to manage the trip. Getting even the cheapest Amtrak tickets are usually about 3-4 times as much as a bus ticket. So, for the traveler on a budget, it’s the logical choice.

Our bus left New York City at 12:30 PM, and was scheduled to have us in Washington D.C. by 5:00 PM the same day – counting time that we spent at a rest stop in New Jersey. I don’t know why, but it was a fairly empty bus. There was one person per every pair of seats, and still some open pairs afterwards. Jackie sat one seat in front of me, which allowed me to put my computer on the seat next to me and lean against the window while I worked I generally make sure I have at least an hour’s wiggle room when planning to take a bus – or really any form of transportation – anywhere. Because it seems like any type of long-distance ride has some form of complication when I’m on it.

(The last time I rode Amtrak, the train I was supposed to get on was 12 hours late. And one of the last times I flew the plane was delayed because the flight attendants couldn’t get the door to close – which is sort of important when it comes to flying.)

So, I figured we’d probably be back in D.C. anywhere between 5 PM and 6:30 PM. Jackie and I could take the Metro back to my aunt and uncle’s and get dinner at a reasonable time.

And we were actually making pretty good time. I kept an eye on our projected arrival time as we traveled using Google Maps – it tends to be fairly accurate – and we were projected to arrive in D.C. around 6:15 PM with traffic. We had our pit stop in New Jersey, right at the border into Delaware. The bus driver made all of us get off the bus so he could refuel. We were given very clear instructions:

  • Be back in fifteen minutes.
  • The bus will be right here.
  • If you’re not here, we’re leaving without you.

That’s the way buses work. You are responsible for getting yourself on and off the bus on time. If you get left behind, it’s really your fault. I’d never been on a bus with people who were stupid enough to get left behind at a gas station. Most of us are self-aware, and know that if we got left behind, we’d be pretty much screwed, as we all had places to be.

So, we all get back onto the bus – 25 minutes after we got off. We actually ended up having a longer rest break than planned. Which was fine with me – I enjoyed being able to stand and pace for a little while. I got some food and stretched a little bit. The bus picked us back up, we all boarded, and we headed off again.

Fast forward an hour. It’s about 4:15 PM and we have a projection to arrive in D.C. about two hours after that. Not amazing time, but for rush hour into Washington on a Friday, it’s really not bad. So I was happy.

Then the driver comes on the intercom.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Uh, when we took our rest stop, we left some people behind. So, I have been – I have been ordered to turn around and go back for them.”

Stunned silence. The woman in the seat across the row from me looks over at me. “This is a joke. Right?”

I don’t know why she thought I would know. But I was pretty sure it was not a joke.

Jackie sends me a text as soon as the intercom turns off: Idiots. I can’t help but agree. I had so many questions:

  1. How do you miss getting back on your bus when it takes a 10 minute longer stop than planned?
  2. Why did it take them an hour to get us to turn around?
  3. How could the bus company prioritize those few people – who could have taken the next bus a couple hours later – over all of us, who were on time, and all had places to be in the evening?

Luckily one of the people sitting near me took the initiative to call the bus company immediately. Apparently, we were informed, we had left not one person behind, but five. And the company felt that the most compassionate thing to do would be to turn around for them. And while I respect the business for sticking to their values – after hearing everyone around me complain about what they were missing – I had to disagree. The most human thing to do would have been to get us to D.C. in some semblance of on time. What if one of us had been going somewhere really important? A funeral? A hospital to visit a dying friend or relative? What if we were trying to catch a plane or train? A delay of another 1.5 hours would ruin all those plans.

The people around me all started to talk – you could call it bonding, if you would like. The girl sitting across the aisle from me is a teacher, and she was going to D.C. to meet up with some friends to take a mini-vacation before school starts again. She’d been expected at a dinner at 7:15 PM, and now we weren’t going to get in until 8:00 PM.

The boys sitting two rows in front of me are DJs, and because of the delay they missed part of a gig at a club in D.C. Both of them were pretty easy-going people, and only looked a little disappointed, but accepted the delay.

The girl sitting in front of the teacher was on her way to a music festival in Baltimore for the weekend and would miss her ride there. She also hadn’t eaten all day, and now was resigned to being stuck on a bus for another 4 hours before she could get food. I – luckily – had a couple of spare granola bars, and I gave a couple to her to help her, but I doubt it did very much.

I was angry, I’m not going to lie. Not because I was delayed myself – no, that didn’t matter. I had things to do (like write blog posts that are long past due). But because these 5 people felt entitled to make the bus turn around when it was their own fault that they missed it.

Anecdote: My much kinder, and more compassionate best friend Jackie has pointed out that they could speak English as a second language and have heard “50 minutes” instead of 15, and just assume that things work that way here in America. And I mean, she could be right – but I don’t think so. I don’t think the bus company would have made the bus turn around for anything less than an absolute demand from the people left behind. So maybe it’s unkind. But I don’t care.

It’s now 5:05 PM, and we’re nearly back in New Jersey. We’re all sort of resigned to our fate now. I’d decided to do the mature thing and simply bury my nose in a book, and not look at who got on the bus. Because I couldn’t truly, deeply resent them if I didn’t have faces to match them to. We were nearly at the border when suddenly, the bus pulls off the highway, turns around, and gets back on going the opposite direction.

I think I’m one of the few people who noticed that right away. I’d been staring out the window for a while. I’d lost my internet connection and needed a break after working on the bus earlier. I know one other person noticed because he went up to ask the driver what was going on, then came back to inform us that the people who’d made us turn the bus around had contacted the company to tell them that they no longer needed to be picked up.

I can’t even tell you the momentary chaos that ensued. I was swearing and threatening these people who I had never seen and would never see again. Jackie was silently fuming and staring out the window. The teacher next to me was in hysterics – laughing and saying, “I can’t handle this, guys. I can’t do it.” The girl in front of her was muttering a string of steady curse words under her breath. The DJs said, “Are you f***ing kidding me?” and groaned.

This was incredible. I will never know if Jackie was right or me. I’ll never know if those people were simply very entitled and didn’t feel guilty about inconveniencing many of us for their own benefit, or if it was truly a string of weird coincidences. And I don’t know that it matters – it didn’t deeply inconvenience me in any conceivable way, and I met some cool new people out of it. So, I can’t complain. Not really.

***

Note: You’ll probably notice that I didn’t put the name of the bus company in this post. That was purposeful. I spent some time reflecting on everything that happened. Yes, the company inconvenienced me. But they also fully refunded both of my tickets, as well as gave me a voucher for another ride. And when it comes down to it – I’d rather ride with a company that chooses to help its passengers – even if they’re idiots – than one that would just leave them behind. Now if this same thing happens again – obviously I won’t ride with them again. But when I spoke to their representative on the phone, he was both kind and helpful. So all around, as weird of an experience as it was, I don’t really consider it a bad one.

New York City: The Pulse of America

I’m sure this will surprise exactly 0 of you, but I loved being in New York City. So much so that I went back again this week for three days. Well, that was actually because of an appointment, and not because I just really wanted to go. But it was fun nevertheless.

I can’t even tell you how much I love it there. The pace, the people, the atmosphere, the art and music scene – it’s all amazing. Not to mention – of course – the book scene. So many major publishing houses call New York City home, as do many writers. Maybe that’s why I felt at home the second I stepped off my bus and onto the street. I knew, when I took that step, that I would live there someday. And maybe sooner than I thought. But more on that later.

My first day in New York, I met up with a pair of friends and we went to do some of the touristy things that I desperately wanted to do – starting with the Brooklyn Bridge!
Okay, we didn’t actually walk the bridge. We went to Pier 17 in Manhattan. From the end of the pier, you get this view:

 

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge, taken from Pier 17. Pulled from my Instagram.

 

Amazing, right? I still want to walk the bridge someday – but that can come later. For now, I’m happy that I got to see it. From that pier, we walked up to the Staten Island Ferry – which is honestly my favorite thing that we did that day. I love water, I love boats, and I especially love being on a boat on the water. But the best part of that ride was this:

 

Lady Liberty
Yes, we could have gotten a better picture from the island itself. Or if the tourists in front of us had moved to allow us to see it… Pull from my Instagram.

 

Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close was the moment that it sank in that I was in New York City – that place that everyone reads about and sees in movies. It didn’t feel real until then. I felt almost like the New York you see in movies was a fantasy, and not what the real New York City would look like. But I was wrong on that front.

The Ferry was awesome – we took it to Staten Island, then back again and got off. From there, we walked to see the Bull of Wall Street and the Fearless Girl – but since it was a weekend, it was swarmed with tourists all trying to get a picture. My introvert came out and I ducked out of there after catching a glimpse of both, rather than stand in the middle of that crowd just for a picture.

Speaking of introversion – from there we caught the subway to arguably the best place in the city: the Strand bookstore.

If you like books and you’ve never heard of the Strand you need to find out now. It’s a huge bookstore – and I mean huge. Like, miles upon miles worth of books. I almost wish we’d gone there first instead of last – because by that time I was hot, tired, and hungry. Not to mention a little bit broke after buying lunch, so I couldn’t buy any books that day. Well, I shouldn’t have bought any books at all, but that went better in theory than it did in practice as I ended up leaving New York with one more book than I came with.

And that was it for day one. I spent the next couple of days mostly working from coffee shops and exploring the streets in the evenings. On Wednesday I took the day off so that I could see some more sights – but this time without as many crowds, hopefully.
So first thing Wednesday, Jackie and I head to Times Square:

Yet another truly incredible experience. Since it’s such a popular place for events, television, movies, posters, and more – it felt almost surreal to be there in person. As you may be able to see from my pictures – it’s clear that it was still pretty crowded despite it being mid-morning on a Wednesday. I expected as much, though. It’s still Times Square, after all.

After that, we did a bit of walking. We walked to Rockefeller Center and looked around, then past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. From there, we – unfortunately – had to walk past Trump Tower. I stopped for a picture even though I still have a nagging feeling that taking a picture is just giving the building too much credit, but what the hell.

If any of you know New York City well, you may know what direction we were headed in – our next stop was Central Park.

Let me just say: as someone who had never been to Central Park before, I had no concept of just how big it is. That park is enormous! And this is yet another time where I’ll say that I almost wish that we had gone a little earlier in the day, because I was pretty tired and wanted to get back to where we were staying to rest.

Apparently I also shirked my duty to take pictures of food while I was there. The only item of food that I took a picture of was my pizza – and let me just say, if you haven’t had New York pizza, you are missing out. It was so good we ended up ordering two entire pizzas and eating them both during the week that we stayed there.

 

IMG-0702
No regrets.

But despite not taking pictures – we ate some amazing food. From picking up food at Central Park on our walking trip, to going to West Side Market and grabbing whatever we felt like – everything we had was amazing. Other than pizza and hotdogs – I think I ate exclusively Chinese and Japanese food while we were there, simply buying whatever I felt like from West Side Market. It was amazing.

I’ve now been to New York City twice – but my second trip can wait for a future post as it was far less interesting. Though our bus ride home had some interesting incidents – but, again, more on that later.

To keep you all in the loop, there’s a distinct possibility that I’ll be cutting my traveling shorter than I planned, in favor of moving to New York City when the opportunity arises. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in that regard yet – but when I know, you’ll know.