We all want to get away from the 9-to-5 and the daily grind, even if for a weekend if not a week or two. The problem? Not enough funds to really do what you want to do. Sometimes, when we have the money, we don’t necessarily have the time to do what we really want to do. But the main thing is money, especially in an age where the price of everything goes up but our salaries stay the same. That doesn’t stop a person like me from getting out whenever I can. Now, I may have worked in the transportation industry for about 5 year now and make more than twice what I made doing entry-level IT jobs, that doesn’t always mean I have more to spend on trips, mainly because my living expenses have gone up along with my salary. Not to mention only having two weeks of vacation which feels like close to nothing, probably because I have overtime, long hours, and schlepping to close and sometimes far out locations which means my commute to work can be as little as 15 minutes or as long as 2-3 hours. All without a personal vehicle. With all of that said, here’s some ideas, tips, and tricks on how I manage to get some travel done throughout the year with budget and time constraints. Note that many of these concepts are feasible for anyone on a tight budget and not enough time to take vacation or days off from work.
- The Under-4-Hour Rule: When I choose a quick weekend getaway destination, it must be a place that I can reach within 4 hours door-to-door, from my doorstep to my hotel room or from city center to city center. Being that I live in New York, places like Boston and Washington, DC are just over the 4-hour rule but are still viable places to get away for a weekend. You can spend 3+ hours on Amtrak and spend around $150 round-trip on the Northeast Regional service or go Greyhound for four hours for about $60-80 round-trip. Also an option is utilizing the discount curbside carriers such as Megabus, Bolt Bus, DC2NY, BestBus, or TripperBus for as little as $2 or as much as $60 round-trip from various locations in the DC area and Manhattan. yes, I said $2 round trip, on Megabus and BoltBus. The catch? Booking well in advance so that you can catch a deal before more demand for service drives the price higher closer to the travel date. Flying to Boston or DC is not for the budget conscious even though the ride is an hour plus. Reserve short flights for trips that would otherwise fall beyond the 4-hour rule using any ground transportation. Such places would include Chicago (2 hours), Atlanta (3 hours), Miami (3 hours), and Toronto (2 hours). Bear in mind that you need to also factor in the travel time to and from the airport, check-in lines, and airport security. Airports such as JFK in New York, Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago are often 1-2 hours away from the city center and, depending on the location of your hotels and venues, will cause you to spend most of your weekend traveling.
- Packing light: It’s not so much what you pack, but how you pack it. Okay, maybe a lot about what you pack. What and how I pack depend on how many days I play to be away and what I plan on doing in that time frame. For a weekend getaway, I might just pack a change of clothes or two plus a toiletry bag, my small camera, and my chargers…all in a backpack or a small piece of luggage. For any travel 3-5 days, I might bring a medium-sized luggage bag or a duffle bag with two to three outfits, both my small and big camera, my chargers, my toiletries bag, and my laptop for photo processing and internet browsing. Anything longer than 5 days may require a larger piece of luggage or two smaller pieces. It is all more important to pack light and small because of the price of checking bags on different airlines. Some allow you to fly your bags free, while others charge you to check your bags if they’re too big for the overhead bins. Even if you’re not flying, packing small makes it easier to get on even buses and Amtrak trains as their overhead compartments are roughly the same size if not smaller than on airplanes. If you aren’t driving or flying, certainly getting around by transit or taxi after getting off a coach or train is made that much easier since you aren’t lugging these behemoth luggage bags around. I love packing light because when my train, bus, or plane gets to its platform or gate, I can easily skate right out and go about my business while everyone is getting their stuff together to leave and find out where their checked bags are. So after a 4-hour trip on a Megabus double-decker would be a quick snack break and then a train, bus, or taxi ride to my hotel to put my stuff down and enjoy my getaway in half the time it would take with big pieces of luggage.
- Location, Location, Location: I book trips based on the type of transportation I would think necessary based on distance and speed. I book my hotels to be accessible by transit either once I get to the city or after I have put my bags down and settled into my hotel room. Each time I fly to Dallas, I try to get a room either in Downtown Dallas with access to the DART light rail or by the airport with courtesy shuttle service to and from the hotel. If a hotel room has no transportation nearby, I would utilize the hotel shuttles to get back to the airport where I would find some transportation to get Downtown, or I would simply ask to be driven to a car rental place. Access to transportation is one of my reasons to continually visit such cities as San Francisco, Toronto, Washington DC, and Chicago. Places like Houston, Ottawa and Pittsburgh have decent transit networks but have poor transit access to hotels unless you don’t mind spending the extra money for a room in the downtown area. This is not to say that I always look for hotels near city centers or airports, but those are merely easier to find than hotels in other parts of town. (The exception to the rule is when I am driving and I need a room near a highway to get in and out of town easily.) In Washington, DC, my usual hotels are within walking distance from Metro stations or along a thoroughfare with frequent-service bus routes or corridors; my preferences for Toronto include anything by the airport, downtown, or along the Bloor-Danforth and Younge-University-Spadina subway lines.
- Online market research: Websites like Kayak.com, Hotels.com, and Raileurope.com are my friends. They allow me to see a laundry list of flights, hotel rooms, and train trips all at once and allows me to compare prices and find the best deals. It also helps to research the best and worst times of the year to visit certain places, in terms of plane tickets, ridership demand, and any upcoming major events that might cause huge congestion or traffic. Going to Chicago in the spring or fall is better than going in the summer or winter, unless you don’t mind lake-effect snow and below-freezing temperatures in the winter or 100+ degree heat and long heat waves in the summer. Riding Megabus or Boltbus in the early morning (like the first two buses of the day) or later at night (the last two or three buses of the day) might be cheaper than riding during the day when everyone is traveling. Airlines offer cheaper prices if you fly before 8am or after 9pm from the New York area. Flights coming back from the Midwest after 7pm are cheaper than those during the peak flying hours, roughly 9am-7pm, and afternoon flights from California are often cheaper than those in the morning. Also, most flights with layovers are actually cheaper than non-stop flights since they are often spokes from a smaller hub airport for that airline. Non-stop flights are most desirable since it involves one takeoff and one landing, but airlines anticipate the demand and charge more if you’re willing to pay for it, so flights with layovers look more and more appealing if you want to save a buck.
Well, that just about sums it up. It’s actually not really that hard, it just takes a lot of reading, clicking, patience, and a moment to dream. Sometimes it takes a commercial on TV that constantly comes on when you’re watching, a certain special person in your life talking about a past trip, or even your favorite dish or restaurant from a place other than New York to get your imagination going. I get inspiration from everywhere, whether it’s a previous trip, a new transit line or service opening up, a new restaurant whose original location I look forward to visiting, or even a last run of an old-time favorite train or bus fleet. My Chicago trip this year is primarily to ride the CTA Holiday Train which runs around the CTA “L” network in December fully equipped with decked-out subway cars, a Santa sleigh, and Santa and his elves. I plan to visit Dallas one more time, probably next year, to finally ride the last piece of the Orange Line, the extension into DFW Airport, since my last three visits saw the Orange Line inch closer and closer to the airport. Just to name a few plans I’m itching to draw up. What’s your inspiration?