Best Free Websites For Saving Money On Travel

Craigslist: get any travel supplies you need cheaply; search for a place to crash at your destination

Your local library's website: before you buy any travel guidebooks, see if your local library has an edition that's recent enough to be helpful. Take lots of notes, then return the books. You'll have all the information you need for free, and you won't have to cram and bulky books into your luggage.

Flyertalk: Bulletin boards loaded with money-saving tips from fellow thrifty travelers.

Priceline: In my opinion, Priceline is not worth it for saving money on flights because there are too many variables in what you'll end up with. For rental cars, it's almost a sure thing, though: you'll get a car in the class that you choose from the airport you fly into at the price you're willing to pay (if your offer is accepted, of course). The risks of booking a hotel through Priceline fall somewhere in between: some hotels take great leeway in assigning their class or star rating, and you can't know ahead of time what kind of neighborhood you'll end up in, nor will you have much control over how nice your room is. Priceline does work, though.

Kayak: One of the easiest-to-use travel search engines because it makes it easy to adjust your current search. You don't have to keep conducting new searches. This feature saves a ton of time and lets you easily see the financial impact of minor adjustments to your travel plans.

Sidestep: Basically the same as Kayak. The interfaces are slightly different, so try them both and see which you prefer. There is no need to use both, though.

Yapta: This is a fare tracking software that allows you to track individual flights so you can purchase them when/if the price drops to a level you're happy with. It also tracks flights you've already purchased so that if the price drops significantly, you can get a refund. In the nine months or so since I started using Yapta, I daresay I've saved close to $1,000 on airfare (most recently, $157). I've also made a couple of interesting observations: the closer it got to Christmas, the more bargain flights there were (I could have saved $200 by procrastinating!) and I could have purchased my plane ticket to Europe just weeks before my trip for the exact same price I paid booking it six months in advance.

Hostelling International: Do you really need the amenities of a hotel, or do you just want a place to crash? Hosteling can save you a ton of money. If dorm-style sleeping doesn't appeal to you, many hostels have private rooms. The private rooms cost more than the dorm-style rooms, of course, but less than most hotels. True, noise is an issue in some hostels, but it's also an issue in some hotels. It really just depends on who's staying there that night.

Hostel World: There are hostels other than those run by Hostelling International, and while HI does try to hold its establishments to a certain high standard, this doesn't mean that non-HI hostels are necessarily sub-par (I've stayed in more non-HI hostels than HI hostels and haven't noticed any difference). Hostel World allows you to find hostels all over the world, compare prices, and read reviews.

National Park Service park search: If you really want to go low-budget on your next trip, camping is the way to go. Campsites do have an entry fee that varies by campsite, but last time I went on a road trip, most campsites were only $5-$10 a night. Of course, if you'll need to buy a bunch of camping gear in order to go camping, that will eat into your savings, so try to borrow it or get it from a garage sale.

Couch Surfing: Not for the unadventurous, Couch Surfing allows you to track down strangers in foreign cities who are willing to let you stay with them for free. You couldn't pay me to take a chance like that, but it seems to work fabulously for hitchhiking types, and it can give you the opportunity to make friendships and experience local culture in a way that's impossible from the sterility of a nice, safe(ish) hotel room. The service does have a way to rate other members, but I never completely trust any anonymous review on the internet.

Home Exchange: This website allows you to trade homes with people. This arrangement not only gives you free lodging, it can also give you nicer lodging than what you could normally afford. This is a service that you have to join and it costs $100 a year, but that's the cost of one night in a hotel. You'll recoup your expenses very quickly. You don't have to be a homeowner to take advantage of this service, either.

Walkscore: This website is designed to help people find walkable places to live, but it's also great for planning trips if you don't want to rent a car. Type in the address of the place you're planning to stay and find out what's in walking distance. What Walkscore can't tell you, though, is whether you'll feel safe walking around an area or not, so keep that in mind.

Yelp: Ditch the hackneyed guidebook dining recommendations and use this popular review website to find cheap restaurants that the locals like at your destination.

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New Investopedia Article: Get Emotional Spending Under Control

Do you ever buy something only to regret it later either because you couldn't afford it or you don't really want it? If so, you may have fallen prey to emotional spending. This affliction hurts almost all of us from time to time, but there are some tricks you can use to keep unwanted spending in check. My new Investopedia article, Get Emotional Spending Under Control, will teach you how.

Photo by retinafunk

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Things Your AAA Membership Can Save You Money On

Did you know that your AAA membership is good for more than just emergency car services? The AAA website lets you search your area to see where you can save money. These discounts can be useful both at home and when you're traveling. Here are some examples of discounts you may not have been aware of (list is not exhaustive):

Entertainment tickets: concerts, amusement parks, sporting games, water parks, museums, zoos, college sporting events

Travel: Amtrak, Gray Line Tours, Hertz, airport parking, airport transportation

Accommodations: Many hotels including Best Western, Hampton, Hyatt, La Quinta, and all the Starwood hotels offer a special AAA rate. (Personally, I have found that the AAA rate is not always the cheapest rate at some hotels when you book online. Sometimes the online booking rate is cheaper.)

Dining: Champagne French Bakery Cafe, Circle K (does a convenience store really count as dining?), Chart House, Disney Dining, El Torito, Hard Rock Cafe, Joe's Crab Shack, Kelly's Coffee and Fudge Factory, Mrs. Beasley's, Sweet Factory, Wetzel's Pretzels

Services: 24 Hour Fitness, AAA battery service, AAA-approved auto repair, Bally Total Fitness, Brinks Home Security, DirecTV, Geek Squad, Online Traffic School, carpet cleaning, Supercuts, Termite Control, Penske Truck Rental

Retail: AAA Prescription Savings (cannot be combined with health insurance), Barnes and Noble online, Blue Nile, Circuit City, Dell, Discount Tire Centers, Enterprise Car Sales, FTD.com, JC Penney portraits, LensCrafters, Linens N Things, Motorola, Payless, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Sirius, Target.com

Photo by amishah

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Why You Should Donate Your Entire Stimulus Package Check to Charity

Almost all of us complain about taxes. Probably two of the most common complaints are that taxes are too high and that we aren't happy with where our tax dollars are going.

Why not do something about the latter and donate your stimulus check? It's money that you were expecting to spend on taxes anyway, and now you have the chance to take complete control over how a portion of your tax dollars are spent. Furthermore, with the current economic downturn, some charities are hurting for donations and could particularly use your money right now.

Photo by Daquella manera

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Treasure Finding Tips From A Garage Sale Junkie

I seem to have inherited the garage sale gene from my grandparents. Every time I went to their house as a kid, they would show off their latest garage sale finds -- puzzles, wall art, books, and whatever knicknacks struck their fancy. I never went to many garage sales as a kid, but now that I'm adult forever in search of ways to make life more affordable, I've begun to fulfill my genetic destiny as a garage sale junkie. Here are some tips and tricks I've picked up in my adventures that will help you get the best deals.

1. Timing Matters. Most garage sales occur on the weekend and will start between 7:00 am and 9:00 am. There are usually more held on Saturdays than on Sundays. Early birds will show up at sales as much as an hour and a half early (yes, at 5:30) so if you want to have the best selection or are after a specially advertised item, know what you're up against and plan accordingly (but don't be rude to the people having the sale). If you're envisioning with a sense of dread elbowing your way up driveways full of raving lunatics, don't worry -- even the most fervent garage salers can only be in one place at a time, so you're not likely to face a crowd. Also, people rarely spend more than five minutes at a sale, which further minimizes congestion.

For sales that are being held on both Saturday and Sunday, go on Saturday -- there's not likely to be anything good left on Sunday, and the people holding the sale might be sick of it after the first day and not even have the sale on the second day. The first day rule is more flexible when it comes to estate sales -- there's so much stuff to get rid of that they're unlikely to close shop early, and estate sales are often more expensive, so you'll have to wait until the last day if you're after garage sale prices.

2. Shop late and bargain to save money. The better deals at the end principle applies to garage sales, too. When people are faced with the prospect of hauling their stuff back inside and feeling like they wasted several hours not selling their stuff, they're much more likely to let you name your price for an item. Even if it's not the end of a sale, always remember that prices are never hard and fast at a garage sale, and that while the seller may not always agree to a lower price, it never hurts to ask. If something is being offered for $5 and you want it for $3, offer $1. If they're offended and say no, you always have the option of buying it for $5, but you might get it for $3 or even $1. Buying multiple items can increase your bargaining power. I've also found that many sellers do not price items, seem indifferent to how much money they make, and will essentially let you name your price even early in the sale -- so aim low.

3. Plan your route. It's best to be methodical in your approach to visiting sales so you don't waste precious time and gas driving back and forth. Pick one promising-sounding sale to visit first, and plan the rest of your stops to flow conveniently from there. You can do a fair amount of planning by looking up sales online in advance, but many people will not advertise their garage sales with anything more than signs posted around the neighborhood and on major streets the morning of the sale, so expect that any route you have planned out will have a lot of small detours. It's best to visit only one general area each week -- driving ten miles out of your way for one sale that may or may not be any good once you get there isn't a good use of your time or gas money.

4. Don't waste time overplanning. Though it's good to be methodical, don't make the mistake of overplanning. One weekend, I spent several hours planning the ultimate garage sale route. I searched Craigslist and a couple of smaller local publications and made a spreadsheet listing every garage sale's address, start time, and featured items (like I said, I've never been cool). Then I mapped them all using Google Maps. The entire process took me many more hours than I care to mention, and didn't really increase my success at finding bargains because there were simply no good sales that day. I've found that a better method is the one I described earlier: search the ads for a couple of sales that sound really great, go to those sales, then cruise nearby major streets looking for signs for other sales. At least in my neighborhood, certain major streets seem to get all the garage sale signs, making sign cruising a very effective use of time. Looking for block sales or neighborhood sales is a particularly good way to maximize your garage sale efficiency.

5. Choose your neighborhoods wisely. What part of town should you shop in? You might immediately think that it's best to do your shopping in upscale neighborhoods to find the nicest stuff. However, I've found that rich people own a lot of the same junk as everyone else and that they tend to overprice that junk -- you should never be asked to pay $30 for an old cell phone at a garage sale. Middle class neighborhoods seem to have the best ratio of good stuff to good prices.

6. Don't waste your money. As with all bargain-hunting, you'll want to set a budget in advance to make sure you don't defeat the whole purpose of garage saleing, which is to save money. My budget is usually $30 per week (which I don't always spend). Avoid buying things just because they are a great deal if you don't have a clear plan for how you'll use them. For example, unless you regularly refinish furniture, you're unlikely to suddenly take up the hobby and that antique chair will just collect dust. Don't let a neighbor's clutter become your clutter. For sales with unpriced items, make sure to ask about prices before you start getting attached to things, because some people think their yards are the physical embodiment of Amazon Marketplace. If someone tells you they want $5 for a Britney Spears CD, ask them if they accept PayPal. Don't get suckered by too-good-to-be-true deals, either. I once went to a "garage sale" that turned out to really be a black market held in someone's backyard. If you see some Mont Blanc pens for $15, there's a good chance they're fake.

7. Choose your sales wisely. Moving sales are the best places to get deals and good stuff, because people are limited by how much they can move and don't have much time to unload their stuff. Estate sales are best for higher end items, but you'll pay higher prices as well. Ordinary garage sales are a crapshoot. To some extent, you can try to pick out the best ones by reading the ads on Craigslist and seeing what's being offered, but most of the time you really won't know until you're there. Some sales you can just cruise by and decide it's not even worth getting out of the car for, but sometimes there will be good stuff in boxes on the ground that you can't see without pulling over. If you're looking for a specific item, like a baby stroller, you can try emailing and calling all the people who have actually posted ads in advance and seeing if anyone is selling that item. If so, they might be willing to set it aside for you until a certain time (say, 8:30 for a garage sale that starts at 8:00). Speaking of strollers, garage sales can be a particular boon to those with babies and small children -- constantly growing children can equal a constant drain on your wallet, but you can stop the cash outflow by letting other people's kids be a steady supply of new-to-you items for your kids.

8. Double your ammo. If you have a friend, relative, or significant other who is willing to wake up early on the weekend, bring them along. It's best to bring someone who won't be competing with you for the same purchases and who has a strength that you lack. If you aren't good at bargaining prices down, bring someone who is. If you don't know how to spot fake designer merchandise, bring someone who does. If your vision isn't exactly 20/20 even with corrective lenses, bring someone who is farsighted -- you'll be amazed at how many more garage sale signs they spot.

9. Keep your expectations in check. No matter how well you plan a garage sale trip, there will be some days when it seems like everyone wants eBay prices for their merchandise and you can't get a deal to save your life. You'll also have days when it seems like there is nothing for sale but mounds of wrinkled clothing, cathode ray tube monitors, and those ubiquitous 1990's AT&T cordless phones. If you go into garage sales with this understanding, you're a lot less likely to be disappointed or feel like you've wasted your Saturday morning. Never feel obligated to buy something at a garage sale -- it's perfectly acceptable to leave empty-handed, whether you've been browsing for three minutes or thirty. By the same token, don't feel obligated to spend a certain amount of time at a sale. Sometimes it only takes ten seconds, quite literally, to realize that a particular sale has nothing to offer you. If the sellers try to get you to stick around by asking if you're looking for anything in particular, you can be honest if you want, or if you want them to leave you alone, tell them you're looking for an original G1 Optimus Prime action figure.

My admirably frugal grandparents knew that garage sales are one of the best ways to get a bargain on pretty much anything if you aren't terribly short on time. Even Goodwill, Salvation Army, and flea markets don't sell their goods for as cheaply as people who are cleaning out their closets or moving do. Garage sales can be very hit or miss, but even if you don't find the specific item you're looking for on any given day, you'll probably find something else you can use at a price that's negligible.

For additional garage sale shopping tips, check out this recent article on Get Rich Slowly. If you're the one having the garage sale, you'll want to read these handy tips from Shannon, if you haven't already.

Photo by cleverswine

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Debt Reduction Mistake: An Expensive Car Purchase

I just finished reading an article on CNN Money's blog about two "millionaires in the making." The article lauds two young people, a married couple aged 23 and 25, for getting started so early in saving for retirement. However, in lauding their behavior, the article fails to point out a couple of major flaws in this couple's financial plan. Even the financial analyst quoted in the article seems to be off the mark.

Here's the rundown. The couple makes $56,000 per year. They live in a very low cost of living town in Arkansas. They own a home, on which their mortgage payment is only $570 per month. They have low credit card debt ($4500) and a low student loan balance ($5500). They have $25,000 in savings, almost all of which is in retirement plans. They are working on replenishing their emergency fund, which they recently used to pay down credit card debt. They drive a used car.

The crux of the problem is the used car, which is a four-month-old, $19,000 Mustang. These folks could have bought a very safe and very reliable used Honda for $5,000-$6,000 and used the $13,000-$14,000 that they would saved to obliterate their debt sooner and restart their emergency fund. To top if off, they would be paying auto loan interest for a much shorter period of time since they would be able to pay off a $5,000 loan much sooner than a $19,000 loan. (They lacked the liquidity to buy a car with cash and would have had to get a loan no matter what.) They would save even more money by decreasing the total interest paid when they shortened the length of time it takes to pay back their credit card and student loans.

Not to get too much into politics here, but it's amazing what the auto industry has done to convince consumers that they need a new car and that they need to take out a loan to do it. A new car is a luxury; a Mustang even more so. Getting to work may be a necessity, and I don't doubt that public transportation is limited in a small Arkansas town, but a fancy car is not the solution.

I guess this couple was not lucky enough to have my father teach them not to buy things they can't afford. It frustrates me to see a couple who obviously wants to build a solid financial future for themselves delay their progress substantially and burden themselves with extra debt with a large, unnecessary purchase. It frustrates me even more to see a website with a massive readership (CNN Money) fail to point out this major flaw in the couple's financial planning. True, the way the featured couple handles their finances is probably closer to the norm of how many Americans handle their finances, if not an above-average example, but it shouldn't be held up as a paradigm of sound financial planning.

Don't make the same mistake this couple did. If you're focused on paying down debt and saving for the future, don't get sidetracked by fancy toys. After all, how can you have the motivation to keep your eye on the prize when it's already sitting in your driveway? The sooner you get rid of burdensome debt expenses, the sooner you'll be able to comfortably afford the things you want without sabotaging yourself financially.

Photo by Paul Keleher

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Navigating Real Estate Listing Lingo

When you first start reading real estate listings, you're likely to encounter a few unfamiliar terms. It's important to understand the information presented in a real estate listing because it can prevent you from wasting your time and your agent's time looking at properties that don't suit you. Here are a few of those terms and what they mean.

Deferred maintenance - A nice term meaning that some aspect of the house has not been properly cared for over the years. These words can truly mean what they say, being something as simple as peeling exterior paint or old carpet that needs replacing, or they can be downright misleading, meaning that the house is trashed.

Bring your investors! - The ad is being directed at other real estate agents, not at potential owner-occupants. This property is not suited for the average retail buyer. It needs significant cosmetic improvements, if not structural improvements, before it will be a pleasant place to live.

Bonus room - It's not a bedroom, a living room, a sunroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a kitchen, a living room, or a den. It's an extra room that defies definition. Because it can't really be categorized, a bonus room can sometimes mean you'll get extra space without paying for the true value of that space. Of course, the bonus room could also be an awkward or poorly done addition to the house that you really wish wasn't there.

Outdoor living space - a porch, patio, or deck. Real estate agents like to tell you that these areas essentially add square footage to the home. However, this is only true if you actually like to spend time in your back or front yard. This area should not be included in the home's listed square footage.

Sliders – sliding glass doors, as commonly seen leading to a patio or deck.

HOA - Homeowner's association. If you live in a townhome or condo, you'll have to pay monthly dues to the homeowner's association so that there is money to maintain common areas like the exterior of the building, a community swimming pool, elevators, landscaping, and the like. Instead of correctly saying, "low HOA fees!" or "HOA dues are $250/mo.," listings will often be abbreviated to say something like "low HOA" or "HOA $250."

Foreclosure - When a homeowner stops paying his or her mortgage, the bank can seize the property. The entire foreclosure process tends to take 3-6 months or more. It is expensive for the bank, very damaging to the homeowner's credit, and should only be used as a last resort.

Short sale - When the mortgage on a home is worth more than the home can be sold for, the owner may get the bank to agree to accept less than the remaining balance on the mortgage and end the mortgage obligation. The lender can forgive the difference (and is required to in some states) or require the homeowner to pay back the difference. Commonly seen in today's down housing market. Also called a pre-foreclosure, this type of sale can be a financially distressed homeowner's last recourse before resorting to foreclosure.

REO - stands for "real estate owned," meaning real estate owned by the bank because the property was foreclosed on. Theoretically, banks want to get rid of these properties because banks are in the business of lending money, not owning real estate. There are holding costs associated with owning real estate, like property taxes and maintenance. In reality, banks often seem to drag their heels when selling a property. REOs tend to be priced below market, but since they have been abandoned, they will often have a lot of deferred maintenance. ;)

Photo by The Lebers

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Why You Should Use A Buyer's Agent

You have options when it comes to real estate agents. Traditionally, a real estate agent works for the seller. However, these days you can obtain what is referred to as a buyer’s agent or a buyer’s broker.

Getting your own agent is a good idea because when you’re making such a large purchase, you want to have someone who has been through the process before representing you and putting your interests first—not the seller’s. Your goals will be different from the seller’s in many ways; most notably, you’ll want to get the lowest possible price on the home, while the seller will want to get the highest price possible. If you use the seller’s agent, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage.

In some states, you can even get a buyer’s agent who offers a commission rebate. The standard commission for real estate agents is 6%, and a small but growing number of agents will split that commission with you as an incentive to get you to work with them. On a $300,000 home, a 6% commission (which is always paid by the seller) would be $18,000. Using a buyer’s agent who splits his or her commission with you means your share would be $9,000. That’s not exactly pocket change. You can put that money towards closing costs, renovation costs, decorating costs, or towards your first few months of mortgage payments. Zip Realty's agents offer a rebate of 20%.

Since you’ll be spending a lot of time with your agent and trusting this person with the intimate details of your finances, it’s a good idea to interview several agents before signing a contract with one. You want to work with someone whom you trust and who is dedicated to helping you find the best home for your needs, not the first home that will earn him or her a commission or the home that will generate the highest commission. You don’t want to work with someone who will waste your time dragging you to homes that are listed at $350,000 when the upper limit of your price range is $300,000, or someone who shows you homes that only have one bathroom when you must have two. A good agent should not pressure you into buying something that isn’t right for your wants and needs.

The HGTV show Property Virgins offers a great example of an ideal real estate agent. Some of their other shows do not, though-agents routinely show their clients homes that are outside of their price range, and the show acts like this is acceptable! Perhaps those episodes were filmed before the housing bubble burst. I think we've all seen what happens when people are pushed into homes they can't afford.

Photo by Joe Schlabotnik

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