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Cheap Trips

Going abroad doesn’t mean you have to go bankrupt

By Jeff Wuorio

Travel, so they say, broadens the mind. That’s all well and good, as long as it doesn’t bust your wallet in the process.

Whether en route for business or pleasure, many of us spend a good deal of time on the road. If the trip is being underwritten by your employer, handling your travel in a cost-efficient manner is usually no tough nut—your flight and hotel expenses are taken care of, you know how much you can spend on other types of expenses and you generally try to toe the line as much as possible.

However, if you’re the one who’s paying the bills—maybe you’re traveling for an important job interview or a dream vacation to some sunny tropical isle—it pays to keep a few ideas in mind so you can get the most out of your trip without incurring crippling expenses.

First, it’s helpful to start saving for travel long before you even set foot on an airplane or cruise ship. That means regularly setting aside a portion of your income in a separate account, such as a money market account or money market mutual fund. The amount you should save depends on how expensive your travel might be. If, for instance, you expect to spend as much as $3,000 on travel in a given year, you should save at least $250 a month. Even if you can’t save all that you anticipate you’ll need, earmarking a portion of the expense will lower the amount you end up owing down the road.

Many folks turn to their credit cards to pay for travel. If you’re going overseas, credit cards often offer the best exchange rates, not to mention buyer protection plans and protection against fraud. But be cognizant of the interest rate you’ll be paying. If your regular card’s rate is rather modest (say, in the 8% range or so), that’s great. However, if the rate is a bit higher than that, consider getting a card with a teaser rate to pay for your trip. These can run as low as 2% or so. But bear in mind the low rate doesn’t last forever, so be prepared to pay off your bill as aggressively as possible.

The next step in cost-effective travel is finding the cheapest way to get there, the best accommodations for your travel dollar and other similar costs. Here, a good travel agent can be of inestimable help, as many will know of little-publicized travel deals, packages and other programs. Equally important, a competent travel pro will get to know your likes and dislikes and tailor recommendations that match your needs.

The Internet is another powerful source of cost-conscious travel planning. From expansive travel Web sites that handle airline, hotel and car reservations to sites that address more specific travel needs, the Internet offers an unparalleled array of cost-effective suggestions, insight and information. For instance, if you’re interested in traveling to a particular destination at a certain time of year, many sites let you plug in specific information such as the number of people traveling, your travel budget and whether you prefer to travel during the day or evening. These sites then display a selection of itineraries within your price range.

Another advantage to the Internet is its speed. If you like what you see, you can usually book your trip right there online. However, you can also use the Internet for pure research to find the best deal you can. You can always book it there or, alternatively, take the information back to your travel agent to see if she can do better.

Some of the better known and more useful Internet sites include Expedia (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), and Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Online (www.frommers.com).

A couple of final thoughts on cost-conscious travel: While bringing cash to spend may seem like a good idea to hold down your expenses, don’t rely solely on greenbacks. If they’re stolen, you’re out of luck. Instead, stick with a blend of cash and traveler’s checks which, by themselves, can keep your budget in line. For emergencies, credit and ATM cards can be real lifesavers.

Finally, what about deducting the cost of your trip? While the IRS doesn’t let you write off trips taken purely for pleasure, you can deduct most business-related travel expenses. The rules become a bit fuzzier if the trip is for both business and pleasure. For instance, if you go on a pleasure jaunt to San Francisco, you can’t deduct any of your transportation costs. However, if you take a business associate to lunch and pay for a cab back and forth while you’re there, some of those expenses may be tax-deductible. If you’re unclear as to what you can write off and how you can best tailor a trip to your tax advantage, talk to a tax pro for a clear rundown of what works and what doesn’t.

Jeff Wuorio is a correspondent for Money magazine and writes columns for several other national publications.

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