How to travel better, smarter and cheaper

Some travel advice is timeless. Go in the off season if you can, midweek if possible. Be prepared to take red-eye flights. Don’t order room service. Take off your Dodgers hat.

The following advice is different. It’s tailored for this odd moment in history when inflation is galloping and the pandemic recovery is unpredictably faltering as most airlines, hotels and car rental companies charge more than they did before 2020. Thrills and insights await travelers out there, and we could use them. Here are some ideas to help you travel better, easier and cheaper in the year ahead.

1. Take a ferry

For real, almost every ferry. Prices are usually pittance, and in return you get the thrill of being on the water and the novelty of a new view of the skyline. Even if you’re prone to seasickness, most of these are quick, easy rides that probably won’t upset your stomach.

In San Diego, it’s $7 each way between downtown and Coronado (bikes free). In San Francisco, it’s $13.50 to $14 each way to Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island, or Larkspur; or $4.50 to $5.75 each way between the Embarcadero and Oakland. In Newport Beach, it’s $2.50 per car (and $1.50 per adult passenger) or $1.50 per foot each way between Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island. Journey length: about 800 feet.

Even for the 20+ mile trip between Long Beach (or San Pedro) and Catalina Island the loss is a relatively modest $83.50 round trip and you have a good chance of seeing dolphins. For this one, you might want Dramamine or Bonine.

2. Consider Avelo Airlines for flights to western airports that other airlines ignore

The airline flew its first flights in April 2021. From Burbank, Avelo flies direct to Sonoma/Santa Rosa and Eureka/Arcata; Medford/Rogue Valley, Eugene and Bend in Oregon; Boise-Idaho; and Paso/Tri-Cities in Washington. Like Southwest, Avelo only flies 737s. Note, however, that Avelo is playing the nickel-and-dime game. Besides the base price you see first, you should expect additional fees of $40-$50 for a second carry-on bag. $40 to $50 per checked bag; and $11 or more to select your seat. Still, the destinations and prices can save you time or money or both.

3. Before you book a flight, consider the cost of renting a car at the other end

Rental car prices have skyrocketed in the first year of the pandemic and are still well above 2019. Between July 2019 and July 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index found that rental car prices rose 48%. (Over the same period, hotel rates rose 7% and airfares rose 16%.)

Depending on how gas prices are behaving, you might want to drive to Las Vegas or the Bay Area or places further afield rather than fly. If you fly, you can still avoid rental car fees by using public transit or ridesharing to cover the distances you can’t walk or bike.

Lines of cars make their way around the Horseshoe at Los Angeles International Airport.

Lines of cars make their way around the Horseshoe at Los Angeles International Airport.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

4. Avoid LAX parking fees by taking a rideshare service or a cab

Using a ridesharing service or taxi for airport pickup often means navigating to the LAX-it parking lot (pronounced LA Exit), which opened in 2019 next to Terminal 1. This is where most drivers meet customers. It was designed as a temporary measure but is now set to remain in effect until 2023.

However, there are two taxi ranks elsewhere in the airport that don’t get as much attention. One is in Parking Garage 3, which serves many travelers using Tom Bradley International Terminal and Terminal 3. The other is at the east end of Terminal 7, outside the baggage claim area used by those flying into both Terminals 7 and 8.

LAX-it will close (and ridesharing services and taxis will once again loop through the terminal area) once LAX opens its long-planned Automated People Mover (APM), an elevated electric rail system with moving sidewalks and escalators. The APM – a major milestone after years of changes and construction at LAX – was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023. On February 16, LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said, “We anticipate that the APM will begin operations in 2024 and are working to have a more definitive operational date soon.”

By transporting passengers directly to car parks, public transport and a rental car station, the APM is expected to significantly reduce traffic on the “horseshoe” streets that bypass Terminals 1-3, Bradley International Terminal and Terminals 4-8.

5. But if you must head to LAX, here are the low-cost parking facts

The airport economy parking lot has been relocated twice in the last three years, so many people are confused. The LAX economy parking lot is now located in a 4,232-space structure at 6100 W. 94th St., a 15-minute shuttle ride from the terminals.

This structure opened in October 2021 replacing Lot E which replaced Lot C in 2019. To park there, drive-up customers pay up to $35 per day. (The limit was $30 through November 14.) You can often save 20% or more by pre-booking online. You can also check how full the airport parking lots are in real time. (Prices at off-airport facilities such as Wally Park and the car park may be lower or higher depending on facilities and demand.)

If you want to park as close as possible to the terminals at LAX, parking in the central terminal area is up to $70 per day (was $60), with advance booking discounts. Due to construction work, these spaces are unusually tight.

6. Don’t compare Airbnbs until you’ve found the bottom line

At an Airbnb home in the Bay Area that my family just booked for Thanksgiving, the base rate was $487 per night. When cleaning and service fees and taxes were added, the loss was $664 per night.

Given that almost every Airbnb guest turnover requires maintenance and cleaning, it seems more honest to consolidate those numbers into a single, bottom-line fee. But Airbnb and its hosts have fought back for years while generating revenue.

Things are a little better now. Customer complaints got so loud that on 1/12, the site began allowing customers to flip a digital “switch” so they could browse prices inclusive of all fees (excluding taxes). That’s what European Union consumer protection laws have required since 2018, so it’s nice for American consumers to catch up.

Rafters paddle down the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

Rafters paddle down the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

7. Congratulations, you are in a national park. Get off the street now.

Park rangers have complained for years that few travelers venture more than a few hundred yards from the road, even in places like Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree, where flat trails lead to incredible vistas. Now a group of cartography students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have added the data. Analyzing geotagged national park photos on Flickr, they found that 86% of the photos were taken less than a mile from the nearest road. For a deeper nature experience, cover the tarmac a mile or more (and remember to bring plenty of water).

That will be twice as much in Yosemite this summer. For the first time since 2019, the park does not require advance reservations for day visits during peak summer hours, which can cause heavy traffic in Yosemite Valley. You can limit that hassle by searching for trails and attractions in other areas of the park like Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows — and getting to the entrance early.

8. Be aware of hotel resort fees and address it

Hotels don’t charge cleaning fees like vacation rentals — at least not yet. But many hotels pad bills with “resort fees,” which are basically mandatory. This allows hotels to charge a deceptively low base rate to attract more web searchers, and then smack them with additional fees of $20 to $50 per night. This is particularly common in Las Vegas, Hawaii, Palm Springs, Anaheim, and San Diego, according to the ResortFeeTracker website.

How to fix? On February 10th, President Biden said the Federal Trade Commission had started work on a rule to reduce these types of misleading charges. On the other hand, federal officials have talked about it before with no result.

At the moment we are on our own. Always check a hotel’s fine print (or call and ask at the front desk) for resort fees. And whenever there is a survey or an opportunity to contact the front desk staff, let the hotel staff know what you think about these charges.

9. Bargain hunters should think twice about San Diego and think of San Francisco

In the first 10 months of 2022, San Diego’s average hotel rate rose to about $207 per night, up from $171 in 2019. According to calculations by industry analyst STR, San Diego’s hotel rates are among the fastest growing in the USA

In the San Francisco/San Mateo area, average prices have fallen from $252 to $215 over the same period. Demand for tickets to Alcatraz, the former prison island that has been one of the city’s most popular family attractions for decades, has also fallen. In years past, Alcatraz tours (including a ferry ride) sold out months in advance. Now the availability is much greater, so you might even be able to see the island at short notice.

The Lower Manhattan skyline as seen from New Jersey in 2021.

The Lower Manhattan skyline as seen from New Jersey in 2021.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

10. For an affordable New York hotel, turn to Pauline

That would be Frommers.com’s Pauline Frommer, who lives in Manhattan and has made it her mission to review the city’s cheap hotels herself. It’s a tough job — the average daily rate in Manhattan has dwarfed $300 over the summer, and she’s keeping an eye out for rates below that. But this is the bargain hunter whose father Arthur wrote the original Europe for $5 a Day in 1957. Here is her latest assessment. For a more comprehensive treatment of New York City (post-lockdown research), check out Frommer’s Travel Guide (about $20).

11. Time for Europe? Americans can now eat and shop cheaper because the dollar is stronger

Yes we have inflation. But others have it worse. As of mid-November, the dollar was around 13% stronger against the euro than a year ago. It is about 15% stronger against the British pound. As Forbes noted in an October story, airline tickets and hotel rooms are often isolated from these swings. The difference in purchasing power is most evident in restaurant and retail prices.

More ways to shake up 2023

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