Stretching every dollar while vacationing

(Robert Neubecker / For The Times )

A recent trip to Europe was an exercise in saving money. Here is some of what I discovered.

Ground transportation: Taxis may seem like the most convenient and civilized way to get around, and sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re expensive and annoying. They’re also subject to all the traffic everyone else is sitting in. Subway systems are efficient and traffic-proof (unless there’s a problem on a line). They can get you to most tourist destinations faster, and they are actually easy to use — easier than figuring out the rules for hailing a cab in the same city.

From an airport on the Continent, the magic words may be shuttle van. Book a shared van, not a private one, in advance. If you’re arriving or leaving at an off-hour, you’ll be the only one in the van anyway.

Shop like a tourist: The one-of-a-kind crafts, artwork and other creative mementos I’ve brought back from trips are some of the most meaningful, especially if I’ve been able to meet and deal directly with those who made them. But when I’m hunting for basic souvenirs — something that just serves to remind of the destination — I don’t need the finest materials, the made-by-hand, the rarest or the status brand name. I need good — no, great — deals. That’s why I head for those tourist-targeted enclaves, the ones with the tacky T-shirt shops lined up one after another, the heaps of scarves and hats and espresso cups and yeah, even T-shirts bearing the name of the destination in every conceivable font and design. Selection? Absolutely. Inventory? They’re stuffed to the rafters. In other words, these guys are ready to make a deal. If they don’t make you a little happier, they know you’ll just amble over to the next shopkeeper (and maybe cousin). You’ll pay maybe half of what the same stuff goes for at a department store or an airport shop. And while you know this stuff is mass-manufactured, when you get it home, voilà, it’s turned into one of a kind — and a steal to boot.


Cancel that: When you were planning your trip, maybe you were shopping around for accommodations and eventually found a hotel that looked good and was priced within (sort of) your price range. The booking site said, “Only one room left!,” so you snagged it, filled in your information and credit card details, even checked to make sure you could get a refund if you canceled by a certain date.

If you find something cheaper or better rated, you can always cancel that first hotel room, but don’t assume generous cancellation policies, which are becoming more like those of the airlines. Many hotels offer better rates for prepayment, but generally that also means no refunds if you have to cancel. So be sure to read and understand what the policy is. And if you have the leeway to cancel, make sure you do.

Get a break: Ask for auto club, AARP, student (bring your ID), military and family discounts. See whether these apply to hotels (although sometimes the standard booking rate is cheaper). Most cities have pass cards that usually save you money on attractions, public transportation and shopping. Some passes — or museum/attraction passes — allow you to skip the lines and go right in.

The big discount? A free night at the museum. Most museums have one night a week when they don’t charge a thing. Better yet, in some places—London springs to mind—the museums often are free. It can be crowded, so go at an off-hour (very early, very late) or to a big museum.