Business travel can be very stressful and very expensive. When I’m away from home, I’m usually shuttling between meetings, seminars and dinners. Sometimes the nice hotels and dinners out with colleagues can make me feel posh and I want to keep up this fancy lifestyle seemingly led by my more affluent colleagues. Maybe I'm in a new city I've never been to so I want to tour around, go shopping and justify my expenses as "souvenirs." Maybe I'm lonely and homesick or looking to spend money out of boredom. It sure sounds fun until I find I’ve derailed my efforts at getting out of debt and sticking to my budget. So what's a frugal business traveler to do to save money while away from home?
1. Sign up for rewards programs
My company allows their employees to accrue frequent traveler rewards from airline, hotel and rental car programs that they can keep for later personal use. If your company allows this and is paying for you to take that airplane, stay in that hotel and rent that car anyway, why not benefit from it as well? If you book your own travel, try to select companies that you already have a frequent traveler rewards program with, or sign up for a new one. Those rewards points add up, and even if the points aren’t for your favorite hotel or airline, getting a free flight, hotel night or car rental can really save you some cash on your next trip.
My favorite travel rewards programs
My favorite travel rewards programs are United Mileage Plus and Delta Sky Miles because they both are part of a huge network of airlines including many international airlines like British Airways, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic. Both these airline rewards programs also offer reward miles for staying at partner hotel chains. I can stay at the Hyatt, Sheraton and Marriott as well as rent cars from Hertz, Alamo and Enterprise—all while earning points. I can also earn reward miles by shopping through their reward program websites or by signing up for their credit cards.
Most hotel and car rental chains have their own rewards programs, so if you would rather earn rewards like free nights and free car rentals instead of frequent flyer miles, sign up with the chain that you stay at most and watch those free nights add up.
- The Marriott Rewards program includes offers for: Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Ritz Carlton, Renaissance, Gaylord, Residence Inn and more. They also partner with Hertz so you can earn Marriott Rewards points on your car rental.
- Intercontinental Hotels Group offers a rewards program for their group of hotels including: all Holiday Inns, Crown Plaza, Intercontinental, Staybridge Suites, and Candlewood Suites. Their points don't expire and can be used for reward nights, flights, car rentals and even merchandise and gift cards from their website.
2. Eat the free food
If my hotel offers complimentary breakfast or the conference caters lunch, I eat it. If there’s free coffee at the hotel, even in the little coffee maker in my room, I drink it rather than make a separate trip to Starbucks for a $3 coffee every morning. Even if my colleagues turn their nose up at the generic coffee offered by the hotel, it's still free and that's $3 a day more money in your pocket that you can use to pay off debt. There's no sense in paying for a meal that’s being offered to you free of charge or being paid for by your office. I'm in debt, and I'm not too good for hotel breakfast, generic coffee, and catered boxed sandwiches. Just because you may have some colleagues who complain about the boring free food and go to buy their own meals doesn't mean you have to as well. For me, saving money and getting out of debt is more important than bland lunches.
3. Get a mini fridge and microwave
If my hotel doesn’t offer a complimentary breakfast, I still save money by calling the hotel ahead of time and requesting a mini fridge and/or microwave for my room. Many hotels will give this to you free of charge. Planning ahead and requesting these simple amenities can allow you to eat oatmeal and have juice and coffee in your hotel room with minimal cost. When you arrive at your destination, a simple $5 stop at the grocery store for a box of oatmeal and fruit can afford me simple breakfasts for a week. Even if breakfast is the only meal you eat in your room, it can still add up to great savings.
4. Be smart about your per diem
If your company offers per diem to cover your meal costs, be smart about how you use it. My company will give me a check for the remainder of my per diem even if I don't submit receipts because they assume that I spent cash. In that case, I can actually make extra money on my business trip by not spending all of my per diem money. If I eat the free meals I’m given and have simple breakfasts or other meals in my room, I’ll save at least 1/3 or more of my per diem by only having to spend it on two meals a day rather than three.
5. Plan ahead for entertainment
If I will be on business travel for an extended time period or over a weekend, it can be tempting to spend money seeing the sights or shopping, even if out of sheer boredom. Spending money because you’re bored or lonely is a surefire way to derail your budget. To combat this, I plan ahead for frugal ways to entertain myself for the evenings or while in a new city over a weekend.
TripAdvisor can give you recommendations for walking tours, museums to visit, and historical sites to see that are often free or low cost. If you’re a runner looking for a route in a new city, use Map My Run to find a route recommended by others in the area.
6. Make money with apps on the go
Even when in a new city, I can make some money in my free time with apps like Gigwalk, EasyShift, Mobee and Field Agent. These apps allow you to complete quick and easy mystery shopping and market research gigs. Sometimes you’ll buy a specific product and note the associate's sales pitch or advertising for the item; other times you simply take a photo of the product on a store shelf along with the price tag. These gigs can pay $2 – $7 for just a few minutes of work, so it can really pay off to check the app and see if there are any gigs near you!
This is a post by Alice S.