4 Frugal Tips for Surviving the Holidays at the Airport
Holiday travel is always a headache, and a pricey one at that. Flying is expensive, but it's airport prices that really grind my gears. No matter how many times I experience it, I will never think paying $8.50 for a Big Mac, or $7 for a bottle of water is OK. Couple that with the expense of actually getting to the airport, and the boredom-induced impulse purchases like magazines, books and souvenirs and pricey Wi-Fi I'll shell out for when a flight is delayed, it's not uncommon for me to get on my plane $60 poorer than I was when I arrived at the airport.
But I've decided to make this year different. I made a list of ways I can avoid the airport cash-traps, and I intend to stick with it. Are you with me? Here we go:
1. Take time to pack plenty of snacks, meals, books and magazines the night before your flight.
The day of my flight, I'm always running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I seem to always wait until the very last minute to pack at all, and as a result I forget things like socks and toothbrushes on a regular basis; so it's no wonder I can never remember to bring snacks and entertainment. This time, I'm going to make sure I pack the night before so I have time to both double-check everything on my packing list AND make myself a delicious and nutritious sandwich on the cheap. In order to avoid those $7 water bottles, I'll pack an empty bottle I can fill up at the fountain, and make sure to load up my backpack with plenty of books and magazines in case a flight delay gives me too much time to kill.
2. Utilize public transportation or rent out your car
A taxi ride to the airport from my house usually runs me upwards of $30, but due to my last-minute packing problem, it's easy to justify in the name of saving time. If I'm fully packed and ready to go the night before, however, the $30 cab ride seems excessive when weighed against a $3 train ride. It'll take me about an hour to get to the airport, but the money I'll save is well worth it.
If you usually drive to the airport because public transportation isn't available in your area, you're probably aware of how quickly parking fees can rack up while you're away. But if you hate the idea of paying for your car to sit in a garage, I've got a crazy solution for you: rent out your car while you're gone. Seriously, you can do this! Check out FlightCar, a service that lets people who park at the airport rent their cars out to incoming travelers. Rentals are insured up to a million dollars, and every car gets free parking, a car wash and a check if their car is rented out. So far this service is only available in a few airports around the country (Boston, Dallas, LA, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington), but if you live around one of these airports it's a resource you should definitely check out. When it comes to Chicago (and, ya know, when I actually have a car), I'll be all about it.
3. Don't check a bag. No, seriously, just don't.
Bag charges are the worst, and checking a bag also means an extra half hour of waiting around at baggage claim when you finally get to your destination. I know you have presents you have to bring home, but I recommend mailing them a week or so beforehand instead. Why? For one thing, the TSA might have to open your carefully wrapped presents during a security check. For another, I've checked my bags a total of three times in the past eight years, and EVERY SINGLE TIME my bags have been lost. They were eventually returned to me on all three occasions, but you don't have time for that on Christmas! I'm aware that my situation is probably the result of a gypsy curse and is in no way typical of the experience of the average airline customer, but if I can save $25 and make sure my suitcase is within five feet of me at all times during my travels, you bet I'm going to do it.
Pack light, bring travel-sized lotions, shampoo and conditioner and keep those baggage check fees in your wallet. It's just not worth it.
4. Avoid Wi-Fi fees (and be wary of free internet)
When you have some time to kill at your gate, you may be tempted to pull out your laptop and try and get some work done (or just mindlessly troll the internet). The vast majority of airports I've been to do have Wi-Fi, but most of them make you pay per hour for the privilege of using it, and these prices ain't cheap.
If you find a Wi-Fi network in an airport called something like "Free Public Wi-Fi," be VERY wary of it, especially if there is also an option to pay for Wi-Fi. You might be able to get online for free, but these networks are sometimes set up by hackers as a way to steal your personal information, so an hour of free surfing on one of these connections can result in thousands of dollars of stolen money, and years worth of legal headaches down the road. It's also important to note that you should never, ever use the Wi-Fi in an airport (even if you paid for it) to access important, sensitive personal information. Need to transfer money? Wait. Need to fill out a document that requires your SS number? Wait. Convenience should never trump security.
If you have to get work done, I'd recommend loading all the web pages you'll need before you head out to the airport, and referring to them sans internet connection while at your gate. If you absolutely need a working internet connection, use your phone. Most newer smartphones come with the ability to share service with laptops and tablets. Every phone is different, of course, and so the setup difficulty can range from two seconds to hours of sweat and tears. I couldn't figure it out on my old HTC One, but I've found it pretty painless with an iPhone 5. Take your phone and laptop into your service provider (i.e. Verizon) or phone manufacturer's (i.e. Apple) store if you need help with setup.
If you're smart with your time and money, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg during your holiday trips to the airport. So will you be following my lead? Do you have any money-saving travel tricks of your own? Let us know in the comments!