Monday, February 29, 2016

Guest Post: Saving money on race travel

Have you ever thought about traveling for races?  Do you think that traveling for a race would be too expensive?  It doesn’t have to be.  Tom Leddy who owns the website Runs and Places writes stories of life, running, and traveling.  Tom also raises money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and a charity that he started, Ran’s Animal Care Express (R.A.C.E.), which helps displaced animals find new homes.  He has some great advice on how to save money when traveling for races.  Here is Tom's guest blog post.

Dewey Beach, DE

I typically do seven or eight out of state marathons and half marathons each year.  The number one question that other runners always seem to ask me is how I can afford to travel for so many races without going broke, so I thought I would share some of my travel tips.  Note that this is just a sample.  There are many more tips available in my first book, Southern Fried Running.  I’ll also be adding some to my upcoming book Running the Southwest, which should be published in mid-March, 2016.

I don't do too many local races. I love neighborhood 5Ks just as much as the next person, but the problem is that their $25-$50 sign-up fees start to add up after a while. I could put that money towards travel costs for the bigger races I have on my list.

This suggestion isn't for everyone. It works for me because I happen to have specific goals that are mostly travel related. I have friends who don't care about travel and just like to do local races. That's fine too. Sometimes I feel bad when I have to tell those friends that I can't do a race with them. But I know that everyone’s goals are different and if I don't follow through on my own goals, I'll end up feeling a lot worse than I feel about missing that one race.

I should also point out that I'm not saying you should never do any local races at all. I'm just saying don't go overboard and sign up for a race in your town every week if your goals are travel related.

I book my flights 3-5 weeks before my trips. Airlines constantly change their fares based on a variety of factors. One of the biggest is timing.

         If you book your flights too early (six or more weeks in advance), the airlines will charge more simply because they can. They might not have sold many seats at that point, but they're not in a big hurry to sell them yet either. So the fares stay high and if someone happens to book a flight that early, they’ll pay more for the same ticket they could have gotten for less money a few weeks later.
         If you wait too long to book your flights (two weeks or less in advance), you'll get charged even more than if you book too early. This is because the airlines know that even if they have 50 open seats available on a flight, they can still take advantage of the fact that your trip is right around the corner and you're scrambling to make sure that you'll have a way to get to your destination after waiting until the last minute.

The sweet spot for booking flights is typically between three and five weeks in advance. This is when airlines start coming out with special deals and dropping their rates to try and fill the flights that still have a lot of open seats. This is the best time to book a flight if you want to save money.

I look for alternate cities and airports. I figured this one out by accident when I was putting my travel plans together for Rock n Roll New Orleans a few years ago. Round trip flights from Chicago to New Orleans on race weekend that year were close to $450. That’s ridiculous. I decided to look around and see what other cities were nearby that I could fly into instead.

Baton Rouge is just over an hour away from New Orleans, and it turns out that round trip flights from Chicago to Baton Rouge on the same weekend were only about $160. I was going to have to rent a car for that trip either way, so a little extra driving saved me close to $300.

A couple other examples:

         If you want to go to Myrtle Beach, check the prices on flights into Charleston, SC.
         If you’re going to Savannah, Georgia, check flights into Jacksonville, Florida.

Giraffes in Moshi, Tanzania
I use offsite airport parking. The cheapest place to park at Chicago's O'Hare Airport is the economy lot. This huge uncovered parking lot is about a mile away from the terminals and costs $17 per day.

The lot is so big that I once lost my car in it and had to ask a security person riding a horse to help me find it. She took me to the parking lot security office, compared my license plate number against the nightly scans they do of the lot and told me where my car was. Not only was the experience silly, but it wasted close to an hour of my time.

After you park your car in this lot, you have to walk across the lot to get to a train, which brings you to the terminals. It's a far walk, particularly if the weather is bad. Now, I totally get the irony that goes along with writing a book about running marathons but complaining about walking across a parking lot, but it still sucks.

Instead of paying $17 per day to park in a crappy spot and risk not being able to find my car when I get back, I use a website called This site lets you reserve spots in the parking garages of hotels that are within a mile or two of the airport. Parking this way costs a fraction of what it does in the official airport lots. The rate depends on the hotel you park at but the average is only about $6 per day. The parking spots are also in covered garages, so you won’t have to worry about your car being out in bad weather while you’re gone. A shuttle picks people up outside of the garages and goes directly to the terminal every 20 minutes.

Services similar to this one are available in almost every major city. You should take advantage of them. Not only are they cheaper than standard airport parking, they’re also more convenient.

Glacier in Anchorage, AK

I try to be as flexible as possible with my travel dates. Sometimes flying home on a Monday instead of Sunday or flying out on a Thursday instead of a Friday can save you a couple hundred dollars on airfare. Airlines know that most people who take weekend trips fly out on Friday and fly home on Sunday so that's when their fares are the highest.

I never assume that the hotels listed on race websites have the best deals. Races usually list a number of sponsor hotels on their website. Sometimes these hotels offer discounted rates for runners (more on that in a minute). Usually the hotels are close to the start and finish lines, but not always.

Here's the thing though: the hotel list on the race website is usually not an exhaustive list of every hotel in the area. These are just hotels whose management made deals with the race organizers. Many times, you can look online and find cheaper hotels that are just as close to the start and finish lines. Sometimes they’re even closer.

I never assume that I need a hotel at all. Staying with friends or family members is an obvious way to save money, but there are other options as well.

Not long ago, I did the Grand Teton Half Marathon near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When I was booking my travel, the cheapest hotel rate I could find in Jackson Hole was $150 per night and that was for a one star hotel I had never heard of. However, I was able to find someone who was renting out the entire bottom floor of a split-level house on Airbnb for $70 per night. Let's see... a crappy one star hotel room for a hundred fifty bucks or the entire lower level of a house all to myself for less than half of that price. Guess which one I picked.

If you do a race in a city whose economy relies heavily on tourism, you might be able to use the dates of the race to your advantage. Race organizers in cities like this often purposely schedule their events during the off-season to attract visitors on weekends when tourism is traditionally low. This helps to stimulate the local economy during the “shoulder seasons”. Cities like this tend to have Bed and Breakfasts that would be expensive during tourist season but are probably a lot more reasonable during race weekend.

When I did the Outer Banks Half Marathon, I met a group of people who rented a six-bedroom house with a full kitchen and a hot tub for four nights and it only cost them $400. My hotel was about five minutes away from where they were staying and I paid $300 for three nights. We both paid the same price per night, but obviously, they got the better deal.

I haggle with rental car salespeople. Many people don't realize that you can negotiate with the salespeople at rental car places to get cheaper rates on your rental car. Your rates are not set in stone until you sign the contract. The people behind the desk might not want you to know this, but in most cases, they can drop your rates below the advertised rates. Here’s how to haggle with a rental car salesperson:

When you rent a car, the person handling your rental agreement will usually ask you some form of the following three questions:
1.    Do you want to upgrade to a higher vehicle class?
2.    Do you want to pre-pay for gas or tolls?
3.    Do you want to purchase insurance for the vehicle?

Most rental car places require their agents to try to upsell these things to their customers. You really don’t need any of them but if you’re a good negotiator, you can use them to your advantage. My trick is to reserve the cheapest car I can find on the rental company's website. Then when I go to pick up my car, I use the additional services to negotiate with the salespeople.
         "Sure, I'll pre-pay for my gas. But if I do, I want a better car".
         "Sure, I'll spend a few extra bucks to upgrade from a compact to an intermediate vehicle. But if you want me to do that, you need to knock a couple bucks off of the intermediate rate…. Oh and I also want you to cover the insurance".
         Etc… you get the point.

In most cases, the salespeople will be open to deals like that because their company rates their performance, at least partially, on how many extra services they’re able to sell to their customers each month.

My favorite story about haggling with a rental car salesperson was from when I did the Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon. I flew in to Fort Worth, Texas for that trip because I had a few other things I was planning to do on race weekend. I needed a car to drive to Oklahoma City when I was done.  I booked the cheapest car I could find online. Then when I went to pick it up, I kept negotiating with the salesperson until I got him to agree to:

         Upgrade my economy car to a Camaro
         Have the rental company pay for my gas
         Give me insurance and have the rental company pay for that too

I got all those things for five days and it only cost $80.

When I returned the car, it was literally running on fumes. The fuel gauge needle was past E and the engine was sputtering while the car rolled into the driveway. The person who checked it in made a comment that was something along the lines of "wow you really took advantage of your opportunity to bring it back on empty". Yes I did. There was also a small dent in the passenger side door. I'm not sure how it got there, but that wasn't my problem.

So there you have it.  As I mentioned earlier, this is just a small sample of some of my money saving tips for race travel.  You can read more in my books or on my website.  You can also follow Tom on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Instagram

I hope to be able to take advantage of some of Tom’s tips in the near future.  I would love to do the Rock and Roll Las Vegas and hopefully someday the Boston Marathon.

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