The tip to travel off-peak – meaning not at the height of summer or during holiday periods – is well-known among travel hackers and price conscious travelers alike, but we’ve found our biggest cost savings by taking it one step further: by not just traveling off-peak, but by being completely agnostic on where we travel.
Let’s take our last big international trip, for example — the one we went on days after retiring early. We knew we wanted to go in January, because we’d be retired and I had some global upgrades that were expiring at the end of the month thanks to flying a gajillion flights a year on United while still working. But rather than get focused on going to one particular place, or even one region, I simply called United and asked, “Where can we fly for cheap in January and get our upgrades confirmed?”
The agent replied, “How about Taipei?”
I covered the mic on the phone and shouted to Mark, “Hey babe, you wanna go to Taiwan?”
“Sure,” he shouted back.
“Great. Let’s do it,” I said. And just like that, our trip was on. (That was also the instant, incidentally, when early retirement felt real. Knowing our dates didn’t matter and we could jump on opportunities like that without checking in with anyone else. In that moment, I felt like I could fly.)
Taiwan was spectacular, and if it’s not already on your list, please add it. It’s full of jaw-dropping natural beauty, fascinating history, delicious street food, modern infrastructure, friendly people and super affordable prices. But this post isn’t about Taiwan. It’s about what that trip taught us – and what we’ve learned since then – about the incredible cost-saving power of being a total opportunist on travel, not just when you go, but where.
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Get to Know Google Flights
Though I always recommend booking your flights and hotels directly through the company you’re traveling with (I’ve had waaaaay too many glitches when I’ve booked through third-party travel sites), there’s no reason not to do your research on another platform and then head over to your airline or hotel (or credit card points) site to book.
If you’re looking to figure out your least expensive options, your new best friend is Google Flights. Because here is the feature that blew my mind when I first learned about it: Google Flights lets you search for many destinations at once. So you can type in your destination, for example, as not just London or Rome, but as “Europe.”
Using this method, you can quickly see the best fare options in the whole region to narrow down your search. So if you’re truly opportunistic, you might look not just at Western Europe, where most Americans tend to go when traveling abroad, but also Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Or you can look at more specific regions like Southeast Asia or the Caribbean.
Our Agnostic Opportunist Travel Approach
We planned an upcoming winter trip to France exactly this way. We entered our general dates (Google lets you search a range), and we looked region by region at the best options. Our best choices by price for our date range were Paris, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney. We took Tokyo and Beijing off the list because we went to Japan last year, and China is too similar to Taiwan to make it the very next big trip. (Though I am dying to get back to Japan. So we’ll be back there in the next few years, I’m certain.) That left Paris, Seoul and Sydney.
To narrow it down to our destination, we did two things: we searched “Where is good to visit in [X month]?” and we did a cursory hotel search to get a sense of prices. Sydney was quickly out because our winter is Australia’s summer, and thus the hotels were priced for peak season. We found great prices in Seoul and all around South Korea, but also found that the weather and temps would significantly limit what we could do and see. France, on the other hand, has a relatively mild climate, and so even though it would be cool and occasionally drizzly, we found that it fell into the sweet spot: uncrowded, affordable lodging and decent enough weather to make for an enjoyable trip. Besides, we knew we wanted to explore the south of France more, and that has the best weather in the country.
Traveling off-peak is letting us do a whole bunch of stuff we’ve never done before: rent a car for more than two weeks ($300 total!), rent an entire stone house in Provence ($70 a night!), attend the Paris Opera Ballet and ride first class on the TGV train (same price as economy!).
Stay tuned for pictures in a few months, because you know I will have LOTS.
Searching Dollars and Points
Though every airline is different, I’m golden handcuffed to United until I cross over million miler status officially, and so that’s what I pay closest attention to. But something I’ve noticed while searching is that Asia is fairly inexpensive to fly to on dollars, but it’s expensive on points. And Europe is the exact inverse: cheap on miles, expensive on dollars. While other airlines almost certainly differ in their pricing, it’s worth the reminder that it always pays to search on both points and dollars, because they don’t necessarily align to one another, and you might get a dramatically better deal on one or the other.
Of course, if you’re into travel hacking and you’re paying with non-program-specific points like Chase Ultimate Rewards points, then dollars are what you care most about, because you’re doing a consistent dollars-for-points trade. And in that case, beginning your search on Google Flights to find the best deals, and then buying through Chase or your credit card company, is your best bet.
Broadening Your Horizons
My favorite thing about traveling opportunistically is that it forces you to consider places you may not otherwise have explored traveling to. It’s true that France is not so exotic, but given the high peak season prices, we wouldn’t consider going there most of the year.
And opportunism got us to Taiwan, which is clearly not frequented by Westerners, given how few other white people we saw while there. (When we visited Kinmen, a Taiwan-occupied island close to the Chinese mainland, big tour buses full of Chinese visitors would creep slowly past us on our rental bikes, nearly everyone on the bus gawking out the window at us, potentially the first white people they’d seen in real life.)
We’d never looked into traveling to Taiwan before the United rep suggested we fly there, and I don’t know if we would have otherwise. But as soon as we started researching it, we thought, “How have we never thought of going there before?!” It’s full of mountains and national parks, and a lake that rivals Lake Tahoe. Kinda exactly our thing. (Plus a beautiful, magical town often called the “snack capital of Taiwan.” Any country with a snack capital is deeeeeeefinitely our thing.) But we never would have known that if we’d only searched the travel destinations we’d heard a lot about.
It’s exciting to think about all the new places we’ll visit in the future, thanks to being open to going wherever makes the most economical sense. Not just the spots Rick Steves recommends, or the places where our friends and family have visited, but the less frequented and less touristy places that are no less life list worthy.
Have you traveled opportunistically before? I’d love to hear stories of places you’ve discovered while hunting for deals, instead of just going where everyone else goes. Any other travel tips you have to share? Comment away!
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Categories: we've learned