The most stressful part of a photography trip starts before takeoff: booking and travel logistics. Since my first international trip 4 years ago, I’ve learned several booking strategies to minimize stress and maximize bang for buck.
Unless you need the flexibility of booking day-to-day, taking care of your reservations ahead of time will help ensure a smooth trip. If you book too far in advance, you’ll pay full price on transit, accommodations, and rentals. But if you don’t book out far enough, your options will either be too expensive, or third rate. When you just want to enjoy some much needed downtime, both extremes will stress you… or your wallet.
Here are 5 tips I’ve learned that help me save money while keeping my options open. You’ll need to wittle your packing down to leverage some of these tips — here’s my entire packing list for one carry-on bag.
1. Subscribe to Flight Deals
Depending on your flexibility and how far out you’re booking, you can land killer flight deals. If you’re paying >$1k for any flight, you’re probably paying too much.
Since your photography trip plans may be flexible, decide on:
- Trip duration. Aim for a flex range of 6 days — like a 14 to 20-day trip — so you can take get the best price by day of the week. It seems impossible to find deals on long-term roundtrip flights, so if you are planning a trip longer than 4 weeks, watch for deals from one way budget airlines.
- Departure date. Aim for a flexible departure day within a 30 day range, like May 15–June 15. If you are flexible for an entire season, you’ll likely snag an insane deal, but it may not be far enough out to get your job on board with your vacation plans.
If you have that flexibility, subscribe to flight deals from sites like Secret Flying and Airfarewatchdog. A daily digest is frequent enough, but if you aren’t ready to jump on a deal within 24 hours, it will be gone. So you have to know exactly what you’re willing to take. For top European destinations, you should be able to land a sub-$600 on good flights if you book immediately. I missed a sub-$600 flight to Zurich by a few days and ended up paying $800.
But what if you don’t have that much flexibility? Especially when working around business travel, I may only have 1 to 4 days of flexibility. You can still land some good deals, though they won’t be Reddit-worthy. I haven’t found any one search engine that does a solid job, so I use all 6 of these search engines to discover the best flights, but always book directly with the airline:
- Google Flights. The daddy of them all, and it’s hard to rival for raw speed. However, it doesn’t include a lot of the budget airlines, and I find the interface frustrating when I have flex requirements in mind. Still, you can set up email alerts to watch for deals from less sketchy airlines.
- Kayak. Great interface for working with flexible departure and duration. I’ve discovered most of my flights through Kayak, but I don’t book through them: some of the advertised prices are through some sketchy agencies.
- Kiwi. Great for finding one way flights and includes budget airlines. They can also fake a cheap roundtrip flight by pairing flights from airlines that don’t cooperate with each other, and include insurance in case you miss a flight leg. I booked a flight through Kiwi last year and the customer support was great, but it didn’t end up being much cheaper. I’ll use their site for searching, but probably won’t purchase through them again.
- Fly.com. Landed on the perfect dates for a non-budget airline? Hop here to make sure you’re getting the best price. That’s all.
- Expedia. Expedia is the one place I do recommend booking through if you don’t want to deal with the airline’s customer support. This saved me big time when I booked a flight with Turkish Airlines, and they completely changed the arrival date. I had trouble understanding their representatives, so I got in touch with Expedia’s fantastic customer support: I called them three times in 24 hours and rebooked twice without fees — they helped me find an even cheaper Air Canada flight!
2. Book and Rebook Your Rental Car
Once you’ve landed the flight, book a rental car immediately. If you weren’t planning to rent a car in the first place, read about how to discover unique landscape photography spots to make sure you shouldn’t reevaluate.
Car rental prices are extremely lucrative and can vary by 400% over the period of a month. Because of this, I never book directly with the rental company. Instead, book it through Expedia or Priceline: they require no credit card, so cancellation is 100% free until forever. Your “reservation” is basically just locking in a price.
Reserve a vehicle a couple month in advance, then check the rates a couple times a week. The week before you depart, check rates daily. Since there’s no penalty for rebooking, I’ve easily landed rates that were 50% less than my initial reservation for the exact car. If you prefer automatic rebooking when prices drop, many of my travel buddies have recommended Autoslash. In my limited testing, it definitely found the best prices — but for now, I prefer to book manually.
Rebooking can also help cut down hotel prices. Unless I’m booking for a reservation just a few days from now, I always pay extra for free cancellation. You won’t save nearly as much as car rentals: in practice, I might save 15% on a hotel, but more importantly I can keep my travel plans flexible for more substantial savings.
3. Don’t Book Accommodations Directly
It’s true: if you book a major hotel directly, you can take advantage of loyalty points. So if you’re on business travel, I do recommend booking directly with the hotel.
But for photography trips, you probably won’t be near major hotel brands anyway, and inserting an extra layer of customer support is invaluable. In particular, I book everything through Booking.com. I promise this is not a promo piece, but in my experience they curate the most reliable and extensive reviews. Their search engine is exceptional, and it’s trivial to make reservations. In descending order of priority, I typically filter for free cancellation, 8+ review score, and complimentary breakfast.
Booking.com does charge hotels a commission which can bump the price compared to booking directly, but I’ve not been able to find a cheaper direct price anyway.
Keep in mind that when you enter your credit card on Booking.com, it’s usually just to secure the reservation and you’ll pay directly once you arrive. When you do, pay in the local currency and don’t use the convenient “pay with USD” option on the credit card machines: you’ll get a horrible exchange rate plus fees. Chances are your credit card has no foreign transaction fee anyway!
Many bed and breakfasts take cash only. Cash locations are often cheaper, but may require you to wire a deposit — the fee cost me an additional $60 for one reservation, but it was still cheaper overall.
When I can’t find a good option on Booking.com, I fall back to AirBnB. The AirBnB experience can be amazing, but there is an overwhelmingly strong positivity bias in the reviews due to the mutual review process. I’ve stayed at many 5-star AirBnBs with surly hosts and sketchy rooms. So comb through the reviews — many of the complaints masquerade as apologies. To date I haven’t saved money using AirBnB over Booking, but the experience can be memorable if you read the reviews with a giant salt shaker.
4. Check Your Credit Card Benefits
How good is your credit card? Do you pay a 3% foreign transaction fee? Do they inherit travel benefits from their payment provider?
One of the best benefits is the Collision Damage Waiver. When booking a vehicle, I’ve had rental agencies misinform or outright lie about the insurance you need to purchase from them. In most European countries, you can waive their insurance and use your card’s collision benefit.
Best yet, your credit card’s CDW coverage becomes primary outside the US. That means your domestic insurance won’t be billed a penny or affect your premiums if you’re in an accident.
The downside? CDW is usually a reimbursement benefit, not insurance. That subtle difference means the rental agency will bill you directly for damages, and it’s up to you to submit a claim to the credit card company with all the requested information. I was billed for a €2000 deductible after an accident in Ireland, and it took 9 months to get all the information I needed from the rental company to complete my claim. However, the Visa benefits folks who handled my claim were fantastically helpful. They didn’t cover $100 or so in foreign transaction fees, but considering it was my only crash in five years of travel, it was pocket change compared to purchasing insurance for every rental.
Since rental car companies have their share of fast-talking salesmen, bring a printed copy of your credit card’s CDW. My first car rental refused to let me decline their insurance, and then refused the insurance I had purchased from Expedia. Since I didn’t have cheap cell service, I couldn’t contact my credit card company for assistance — I would have learned that the rules are a bit different in the UK.
5. Avoid Travel Agencies
Be careful with packages from booking agencies. I used to sign up for travel deals from Travelzoo and European travel agencies, but all told I didn’t save any money once I customized the route. Meantime, I locked myself into the agency’s hotel options and couldn’t rebook during the trip. If you live near a major international hub and enjoy short trips, you can snag an incredible deal. But in practice, it’s never worked out for me.
There is one pro to booking with an agency: you add an extra layer of customer service, which can be invaluable when the airline or hotels are difficult to get in touch with.
How Do You Save Money?
Obviously your mileage may vary, but hopefully one or two of these tricks will help you save money on your next photography trip while keeping stress levels down.
What is your most effective technique to save money on photography trips?