Travel Hacks to Save Money on Your Next Trip, with Barry Choi
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
My guest this week is Barry Choi, a travel and personal finance blogger at Money We Have. In this episode, Barry shares his secrets to help you win at the travel game. If you want to travel for free, or cut the cost of flights, hotels and tropical vacations, then this episode is for you.
Barry explains why flights are cheaper in the U.S than in Canada, and why saving money on hotels is far easier, especially if you’re willing to roll the dice on a non-refundable booking.
Barry shares his tips for navigating your way through airports and explains how passengers can avoid long security lineups when flying in the U.S and Canada. Barry also gives us his take on Airbnb, and why it doesn’t always offer the best value.
Smart Savings is a new offering from our sponsor, Wealthsimple. Smart Savings is a better way to save, with no-fees on deposits and withdrawals, and they offer higher interest rates than the big banks. You can find out more about Wealthsimple here.
- Is there a cheap way to travel within Canada?
- Why last minute deals on flights don’t exist anymore.
- The value of setting price alerts through Kayak or Google Flights.
- Airfare in the U.S vs. Canada.
- How hotels reward travellers who book early.
- Airbnb: Is the value still there?
- Why you should use caution when booking an all-inclusive vacation.
- Barry shares his preferred sites for finding the best travel deals.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Want to travel for free or at least cut the costs of flights, hotels and tropical vacations? Barry Choi is a travel and personal finance blogger at, Money We Have and I wanted to bring him on the show to show us how to win this travel game. I also wanted to let you know about Smart Savings a new offering from our sponsor, Wealthsimple. Smart Savings is a better way to save with no fees on deposits or withdrawals, plus higher fees like the big banks. You can find out more at maplemoney.com/wealthsimple. Let’s talk with Barry…
Tom: Hi Barry, welcome to the Maple Money Show.
Tom: I wanted to have you on because you’re my Canadian travel expert. Privately, I’ve asked you everything when I’m looking to save on travel. One of the first questions I had was just traveling within Canada is there a way to save money? I live in Calgary and when I want to go to Toronto it costs me more than going to Anaheim or Florida with the family.
Barry: I totally get it. It’s the same reason why don’t visit Vancouver when I can fly to England for cheaper air. It’s really tricky but recently it’s getting a little bit better. By better I mean it’s a little bit cheaper but you can also factor in your time. There’s Flair Airlines which is based out of Edmonton who do a lot of destinations within Canada. They do Edmonton to Hamilton which is a way to save, but at the same time, if you’re in Calgary you’ve got to drive to Edmonton or you’ve got to drive from Hamilton to Toronto. So yeah, you save $200 but if you add four hours to your time—is it worth it? Probably not. Unfortunately, it’s really tricky. There’s no real cheap way to travel within Canada. That’s just a reality.
Tom: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. How about airline flights in general. One thing I was interested in was the timing. I never know whether I should be buying on a certain day of the week or buying half a year in advance or last minute.
Barry: To me, there’s a few things for timing here. A lot of times there’s these articles that come out that say, “Hey, this is the best time to book your flight.” And then all of a sudden you have a ton of people who are weighing in on a Wednesday night during a full moon at 2:00 a.m. just to book their airfare. It’s almost impossible. I just don’t think it’s true. Now, if you were comparing flights like these search engines have the data for, technically you could say which is the cheapest time. But, for the average person, it’s a giant aggregate. You can’t really factor that in. When we talk about last minute things, people still say, “Oh, I can fly standby,” or, “If I get a last minute flight I can get a deal.” That does not exist anymore because the computers have modeled everything up. They know exactly what’s going to sell and when. Generally speaking, when you fly the last minute you’re going to pay double because they know you want to fly at the last second. That being said, it doesn’t mean there’s not cheap airfare available. Normally, there’s two things you consider, your destination and the time. You can have one or the other. You just can’t have both if you’re looking for low airfare. If you’ve got set dates in mind and you want to go to New York, odds are you’re not going to get a deal. Now, if you want to go to New York and you don’t care what time of the year it is, or if you only want to travel during the month of October and you don’t care where you’re going, you’ll likely find a deal right. You just can’t have it.
Tom: Let’s say I want to go to New York on a certain weekend. Does it help to book as absolutely early as possible? If I know about this a year out, does that help?
Barry: Yeah, generally speaking, the best idea to do is set up a price alert. A price alert is when you set your dates and Kayak (or any group of flights) will just send you an email whenever the price drops. But again, realistically speaking, it’s not like the flight’s going to drop hundreds of dollars. To give you an example, if I were to fly out of Pearson with Air Canada it might be $600. Right away I’ve already got one option to save money. Now the odds of that flight dropping in price could happen. There’s no doubt about that. But again, it’s if it drops $40, $50, $60, I’m waiting months for it, so what’s the point? Isn’t it a little bit easier to just book your flight and find a way to save $50 on the ground instead?
Tom: One of the things I’ve never been able to figure out is, I hear about people getting into first class or some kind of upgrade for next to nothing or nothing. How does that work? Because whenever I see it—even at the last minute it’s $70 for a two hour flight. It doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Barry: Yeah, so we’re talking about first class, business class flights for cheap. For most people it’s if you’re lucky it’s overbooked and they happen to bump you up. Those are the stories you usually hear. At the same time a lot of those people who apply for a ton of credit cards and get a lot of points eventually have enough to book a flight for cheap. The problem is, here in Canada our credit card bonuses and point system isn’t as lucrative as the United States so it’s not as easy to get a huge amount of points. It can be done. It just depends on what you want to do and how many credit cards you want to sign up for.
Tom: Yeah, I’m always a little jealous. I read American sites where it seems like people are traveling for free.
Barry: Oh yeah, it’s nuts. You look at the sign up bonuses in the United States and they’re literally double what you get in Canada. So you could be getting 100,000 points right away and that alone is a business class flight to Europe. I would sign up in a second for that but it’s just not available in Canada.
Tom: Yeah. Plus they seem to have cheaper flights. Like, if I fly within the United States I can do it for $250 maybe.
Barry: That’s right. So there’s more competition in the United States, there’s more population so it’s easier for a lot of airlines to find routes that are profitable. At the same time, there’s increased competition, more carriers, less taxes. And again, it’s just a greater population. When there are more people there’s just more demand. In Canada, it’s a bigger country and there are fewer people so it’s harder for airlines to make money. They can’t offer lower prices because they just won’t make money.
Tom: Yeah, good point. You touched on credit cards. Normally I like to keep the show as open and not date specific as possible but are there certain credit cards right now that would be good choices? I know they’re not as good as the US ones but are the certain ones that you think would help?
Barry: Yeah, it just depends on what you’re trying to do. A good example is if you happen to be based in Calgary or Alberta, WestJet has their own MasterCard. It’s got an annual fee of $120. But one thing people tend to forget is, number one, there’s a $250 WestJet sign up on this. And on top of that there’s a $99 companion fare once a year within Canada. That alone makes it worthwhile because, for example, if I were to fly from Toronto Vancouver it could cost me $600. Well, if I came back on my fare and I fly WestJet with a companion ticket for $99, all of a sudden it’s costing me $700 for two people. That’s pretty reasonable. And that’s actually a really good price. And people also forget if you want to fly to the United States, WestJet has got some destinations there. All of a sudden it’s $199. They do service some international destinations too. You could get that companion fare for $299. So, it’s not just the credit card itself. It’s also bonuses that come with it. Another good card that came out recently is the Scotiabank Passport Infinite card. You know it’s got no foreign transaction fees. You get a sign up bonus of $120 or $130—something around those lines. You get six airport lounge access and a comprehensive travel assurance package. So again, people sometimes focus on the signup bonus but it’s worth looking at other benefits such as travel insurance and figuring if you’re going to use it and is it worth your while? A lot of times the answer is yes, because you should not be traveling without travel insurance. So, if your credit card already comes with it you basically paid for it in advance and all the other perks just come with it.
Tom: One card I use for a lot of my personal spending is the BMO World Elite MasterCard.
It’s got the two percent which is the same as cash so I don’t have to play the points game—something like Air Miles.
Barry: Yeah, it just depends. BMO World Elite MasterCard which is a travel credit card is also very good but they’ve devalued it recently so it costs more points to make a redemption. But same time it’s still a decent card. You’ve got to look at the overall package. I don’t want you to forget these points you collect can be devalued at any second so you shouldn’t be trying to hold onto as many points as you can. You should try to burn them when you can.
Tom: Yes, exactly. Even a year or so ago when Air Miles was looking at canceling everybody’s points, that shows why you don’t want to hoard them too long.
Barry: Exactly. Of course, the problem with Air Miles is, even when you wanted to make a redemption it was near impossible. That was the problem right there.
Tom: Yeah, I bought a TV and these headphones I’m actually using right now.
Barry: Probably because you had to use those points and then you realized how many points it was.
Tom: Yeah, I was getting a little concerned towards the—
Barry: It’s funny; you look at the Air Miles at Metro grocery store in Toronto where you have to spend $20 for one point. It’s ridiculous. If I got a Coke-branded credit card I’d earn more. But at the same time, what am I going to use those points for? Sometimes you’ve just got to look at where you’re doing your regular everyday shopping. Maybe for grocery stores look for a Coke-branded credit card. I shop at a lot of Loblaw’s branded stores so using the PC Financial World Elite MasterCard really benefits me because I basically get three percent back and 4.5 percent at Shoppers Drug Mart. At the same time, if you shop at other stores where they’ve got a Coke-branded credit card or certain gas stations where you can sometimes get four times the points. That could really be worth your while.
Tom: For sure. One more thing… It’s not so much a money tip but within this airline part of our talk, what are your tips about dealing with airports? I’ve always looked the people jealously as they go through the fast lines and stuff. How do you get that and save some time when you’re traveling?
Barry: Well, it’s easy because right now there’s NEXUS available for all Canadians but you don’t necessarily need to be traveling to the United States on a regular basis. It’s $50 and it gets you five years but it allows you to skip all the lines. It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you’re flying within Canada and the US, obviously, you get that party line right away. So that makes things a little bit easier. At certain airports also, like Pearson, if you have one of the American Express platinum cards, they also let you skip the lines. At the same time you need to be a frequent traveler and know what you’re doing. What good is having these express lines if all of a sudden you’re carrying bottles of water, sharp objects in your luggage—you’re constantly being stopped, right? You need to be an efficient traveler and just use these tools like the NEXUS or credit card to help you speed up the process. That being said, you clear these lines and you’re still waiting for the plane anyway. So, does it really matter? I do agree though, that when I’m able to skip the lines I do kind of laugh at the people who are lining up for an hour. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.
Tom: I feel like the person lining up. But the thing is, I only think about getting NEXUS about two weeks before my flight.
Barry: That’s exactly it. Unless someone is telling you to get it most people forget about it. I wasn’t doing a ton of traveling but I just got NEXUS because I go the US enough so why not? And by enough I mean once a year. Again, people also forget it is not just the United States. Whenever I come home from an international trip, every Canadian airport has a NEXUS line. So you bypass all of customs lines. You just go to the next machine and it’s literally a few seconds. Now, if you checked your bag, you’ve still got to wait for your bag but if you do carry-on only you can be off the plane and on the road pretty quickly.
Tom: Yeah, I’m a big fan of carry-on only as often as possible. So let’s switch to a little here. I was wondering about hotels. Are there certain ways we can save on them?
Barry: Yes. Unlike airlines, hotels are one of those few places where if you book as early as possible quite often you can get a discount, especially if you’re willing to pay off the entire amount that’s nonrefundable they’ll give you bigger discounts. But I don’t see that as a big enough incentive because often it might only be 5 percent—something like $10. And that’s like, you give up everything and if you change your plans you lose all the money whereas paying $10 more means you can cancel at any time. So, pay $10 more. Who cares? That’s one tip. The thing with hotels is there is so much in options. Obviously, if you’re staying a big-brand hotel it’s going to cost you more but, boutique hotels, smaller chains, or even motels, you can get decent value if you’re just looking for a place to stay. That’s not to say that the big chains don’t offer value. Both Marriott and SPG, if you book four nights they give you the fifth night free so there’s decent value in that since one night is worth a few hundred dollars. On top of that the big chains have loyalty programs. Marriott’s merging with SPG formally—all of a sudden you can have access to 6,500 properties all over the world. So if you’re using a corporate credit card and staying at those hotels often you can get a lot of free stuff. Again, because it’s a big chain, they’re more expensive on a regular night-to-night basis but there are opportunities to save at the same time.
Tom: I’ve always used my credit card rewards for airfare but I’ve heard sometimes that works out better for hotels or at least maybe more flexible?
Barry: I always find hotel and corporate credit cards seem more flexible. With Marriott Rewards there are no blackout dates. When you’re trying to book a flight on rewards you’ve got to pay taxes and there may not necessarily be a seat available. It’s crazy to think that you saved that 100,000 points to get this business class flight and you just can’t get a seat because there isn’t one available. To me, that is silly. I just like hotel rewards because there’s always going to be a room. Many of these major hotel chains have multiple properties in the city so if one doesn’t have availability in the room type you’re looking for you see what else is available. What’s also nice about a lot of the hotel reward programs is they let you transfer to airline partners. Oftentimes it may not be as good, value-wise, but you do have that option. And to me that’s incredible. Also, loyalty with hotels—you’ve got to think about the small things. By joining the loyalty programs you might get free breakfasts, free lounge access, free Wi-Fi, or free parking. There’s all the small things. You’ve just really got to know the details.
Tom: Have you personally tried or do you at least recommend airbnb at all?
Barry: Yeah, I use airbnb on a pretty regular basis. Back in the day when it was first announced—this is probably like seven years ago, people weren’t really using airbnb so I was getting some really good deals. I was able to get a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for $140 Canadian that I split with two friends so it cost us about not even $50 each. It was a great opportunity. My wife and I got a room for about $70 a night. In Seoul, five years ago, it was $50 a night. In Shanghai it was $65 a night. And now, if I were to the exact same thing it’s double the price. Airbnb is one of those things I love but at the same time the prices have gone up significantly over time. So I’m looking for a kitchen or a little bit more space I would consider it but the prices now are similar to hotels so if I’m looking to be pampered or want a better location I’ll just pay for the hotel instead.
Tom: I’ve always done hotels. The only time I’ve even gone in that direction is when I used the site, HomeAway. Maybe airbnb has got this too but HomeAway had big houses that could hold a lot of people. And it was very rental-based. It was run through a rental company and everything.
Barry: Yes. Airbnb has similar properties available. There’s so much at the RBL or vacation rentals so to me it’s just a personal choice. If you use airbnb that’s great. At the same time, you’ve got to be careful about who you’re booking with. We’ve all heard horror stories about an airbnb house where people have rented a house at where other people were already staying or the house wasn’t what they expected. That’s why whenever I do use airbnb I make sure I’m using a room, an apartment or a house, that is highly reviewed and I can verify the identity of the person.
Tom: That sounds good. That reminds me of things like eBay or Uber where you can use the reviews to know exactly what you’re going to get. Have you tried Turo, the car rental?
Barry: I haven’t used Turo myself, personally, but I’m pretty familiar with it. I find it to be pretty interesting because it’s great in a sense that it’s cheaper than car rental companies, but in the end you have to return it to the same owner. I like it more for the fact that if you’re at home and you want to drive a nice car or test other cars for a special occasions, say like a anniversary dinner or something, renting a car on Turo is probably cheaper than renting a car from an exotic car rental agency.
Tom: Yeah, that’s what caught my attention was that you can rent a Tesla for $150 for the day.
Barry: Exactly, and to me, that’s way better than waiting a few years after purchasing a Tesla. You can have fun with that.
Tom: For sure. So we kind of covered airlines and hotels. Another thing I was interested in was, I want to go somewhere warm. Either and all-inclusive or a cruise. Do you have tips for either of those? I haven’t done an all-inclusive since my honeymoon and we’ve never been on a cruise. So we’re interested in both of them.
Barry: Yes, they’re two different things. An all-inclusive is pretty much exactly like what it sounds like. If you want to sit on a beach and be pampered for a week, that’s great. But you’ve also got to be smart about what location you’re picking. I’m thinking about the day activities. So if I said Jamaica has one great day trips where you could cause zip-lining, mountain-biking, etc., or if you went to Cuba you could go into town. But you know you’ve got to think about what you’re getting and what their food is famous for. Jamaica has some slightly better food and also depends on the resort property. If you’re going to name brand properties you’re definitely going to get high quality food and service. But, if you’re booking the cheapest place possible—three stars, $1,000 a week (including your airfare) sometimes you get exactly what you pay for. That being said there’s always up-and-coming destinations somewhere like the northern part of South America or Central America. Destinations where the resorts are coming up. The beaches may not be as sexy but the same time you’ll get good service and good food for a reasonable value. Cruises are interesting just because you have so many different options. You can do a short three-day cruise, New England and New York. You can do a cruise of Scandinavia, through Asia and the Middle East—whatever you want. They have them in so many different sizes. There’s also bike and cruises where you cycle down the Rhine or smaller rivers in Europe. You just really need to do your research and figure out what you want to do. You’ve got to be comfortable with it. My wife does not like being on oceans or large bodies of water so she would never consider a cruise whereas I think they’d be a lot of fun and I’d do it.
Tom: With either of those, do certain timing rules apply? Similar to a hotel, are there benefits to booking early?
Barry: With cruises it’s one of those things where you just sign up for the mailing list and quite often they’ll have promotions running which can benefit you. But overall there’s just not really a ton of deals you can get. Quite often what they’ll just do is give an onboard credit as an incentive. If you’re looking to save money you technically can but getting huge discounts for cruises only applies if you’re willing to do something like a repositioning cruise. That’s where the cruises are moving from one area of the world to another because of the seasons. For example, right now it’s getting close to hurricane season in North America so eventually what the cruises will end up doing is position themselves in Miami and then go across to Europe and start doing Scandinavia. You jump on in Miami, stop in a few ports, you’ll have a few days at sea and you end up in Europe, it’s actually relatively inexpensive. But, you also need to factor in the two one-way flights you’ve got to purchase.
Tom: That was interesting. I didn’t know they even existed. It’s something I’ll look into personally. The last question I had for you is, are there certain sites or apps that you’d recommend? I found one I think it was called YYC Deals but I think there’s a certain one for every airport.
Barry: I used to like YYZ Deals until I realized that he steals a lot of his content from other people so now I prefer nextdeparture.ca which is a very similar site. The funny thing is he used to provide a lot of deals for YYZ Deals and once he started his own site the owner of YYZ started banning him. If you signed up for Pulse newsletters you’ll see Next Departure with his alert and then 10 minutes later all of a sudden YYZ Deals has it.
Tom: Yeah, as soon as the information is out there—
Barry: Yes, it’s a bit of a scummy game because a lot of people are just competing for referrals and nobody gives the other credit. But it comes down to is, if you’re totally flexible, you can get it. But if you’re expecting those exact dates, no you’re not going to get it. To me there are also other sites to consider. Google Flights has an explore tool where you basically you put in your budget and how many days you want to go for and it will tell you the cheapest airfare you can get right then. There’s also, Hotels Tonight, where you can book hotels in advance and sometimes literally the same day. Normally when you’re booking last minute it’s expensive but with hotels on Hotels Tonight you can book last minute and get some pretty decent deals. There are a lot of sites you can play around with. I actually still like Travelzoo because they negotiate a lot of deals directly. They’re very specific but at the same time they’ve always got good deals. I remember about two years ago they had great Iceland seven-day package that was only about $1,200 which I thought was a great deal.
Tom: I know Travelzoo is well known. It seems like they get enough deals that are similar. Like you said, if you’re okay on your date but not your destination you can pretty much book a week off and just wait for that right deal to come.
Barry: Right, exactly. I think the problem is that most people need to request their vacation time months in advance. If you happen to have a job that gives you flexibility or you’re self-employed then great, but the majority of people do not have the flexibility.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Well, thanks for being on the show. Can you tell people where they can find you?
Barry: Yeah, you can me on my personal website, moneywehave.com or on Twitter @barrychoi.
Tom: Awesome. Thanks for being on.
Thanks again to Barry Choi for the great travel tips. You can find show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/barrychoi. If you’re a new listener, search for Maple Money in your podcast app and hit subscribe so you don’t miss out on future episodes. I’m looking forward to you coming back next week.