Fabulous Trips, Super Cheap (Part 2)

In this 2nd installment of looking at how I plan great trips on the cheap, I will show what happens when I’m forced to take a completely different approach.

Martiniqué, West Indies – January 2016

  • People traveling: 2
  • Length of Trip: 6 days
  • Destinations: 3
  • Total combined cost: $961

The trip to Martiniqué was a different animal altogether from Colombia. I was supposed to fly to Turks and Caicos in September but that trip got canceled in July.

Side note: My airline ticket for that trip was nonrefundable. That doesn’t mean that it’s strictly nonrefundable, it only means that if you cancel the ticket you’ll have to pay a “ticket transfer fee” (around $200) in order to credit the value of that ticket toward a different flight.

A lot of people have a problem with this policy.

I understand that the airlines are in business to make a profit so I may not like it but I don’t entirely begrudge them their ticket transfer fee.

Airlines have to be able to predict how many passengers they will have on a given flight in order to efficiently manage their operations. If large numbers of passengers canceled frequently, it would mess with the airline’s profit model.

One might argue that if you cancel your ticket early enough and the airlines can resell your seat, you shouldn’t have to pay the transfer fee. However I can see where, logistically, that would be difficult to implement.

After all, how long does it take to resell a ticket? 3 days? 5 days? 6 weeks? I’m sure that tickets to Ft. Lauderdale sell much faster than tickets to Fairbanks.

Given the complexity of implementing such a scheme, I can resign myself to the necessity of the airlines charging a ticket transfer fee. Where I do have a problem is when they will refund the value of the canceled ticket only to the traveler whose name was on the original ticket and not to the person who actually paid for the ticket. (These aren’t always the same.)

Airlines’ claims that giving the credit to the original traveler is fine but giving it to the original purchaser would cause them to go bankrupt are disingenuous at best.

At any rate, because of my canceled Turks and Caicos trip, I had such a canceled ticket credit. That meant I had to narrow my search to a specific airline when planning a new trip so I could apply that credit.

I also had to find tickets that cost at least $400 each. Because I excel at finding cheap flights, the original Turks and Caicos ticket only cost me $383. After paying the $200 ticket transfer fee, I had a $183 credit. If I had found a flight for around $183, I would be paying a $200 fee to get a $183 flight for “free”. The only way that using my credit made economic sense was on another ticket of at least the same cost as the original that was canceled.

Given these constraints, and a couple of others noted below, I had to limit my search to:

  • a specific airline
  • tickets costing as close as possible to $400 each
  • a long holiday weekend so I could minimize time taken off from work
  • departure after December 28, when my daughter comes home from college so she could go with me

Being around the dead of winter, I also wanted somewhere warm and tropical.

Now, instead of starting from a map and looking at all destinations in a certain region, I started from the airline’s website. I looked at a listing of every destination they fly to.

As I scanned down the list, I skipped over almost all destinations inside the US, all that were too far away to reasonably do in 4-6 days, and all that were going to be too cold at that time of year.

Even for a very major airline such as the one I was using, that many elimination criteria meant that I found only 21 potential destinations. That’s a perfectly reasonable number to investigate.

From there, it was back to Orbitz to look at date ranges and flight costs. Only this time I used another neat feature they offer: limiting my search to specific airlines.

My primary target was New Year’s weekend. Using that as my baseline, about 2/3 of my possible destinations were eliminated. If not because the flights were prohibitively expensive, then because the only departure/return combinations in the right price range would have made the trip longer than I wanted.

With my options narrowed down to about a half dozen choices, I then looked at the costs of lodging and local transportation.

Taking these into account, I now had four destination possibilities whose total trip cost would each be more or less the same. From there, it was simply a matter of picking the one that carried the most appeal.

My daughter and I are both off-the-beaten-path type travelers. There is nothing at all wrong with the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands but, given a choice between those and someplace equally appealing but less traveled, we’ll take the less traveled destination every time.

So it was in this case. Our final four were St. Thomas, New Orleans (the only US destination we considered), Costa Rica and Martiniqué. The first two were eliminated for not being interesting enough. Costa Rica holds a strong appeal but ultimately lost because the trip would have required me to take 4 extra vacation days beyond just the holiday weekend.

And so it was that we decided to go to the overseas French province of Martiniqué.

The only real downside to this trip is that the layovers aren’t very good. We have stops in Charlotte, NC and Miami, FL in both directions. The Charlotte layovers are about 4 hours each so we may or may not get to do anything there. The Miami layovers are both less than 2 hours.

Our final cost: $961. This is fairly expensive for the kind of trips I generally take but remember that I knew going in I would have to pay $200 in ticket change fees. I also knew that my daughter’s ticket would be at least $400.

In the end:

  • My ticket: $25 (plus the $200 ticket change fee)
  • Her ticket: $406
  • Lodging: $178
  • Rental car: $152

We’ll be staying with a French woman who lives on a hilltop in more or less the center of the island. The views look to be spectacular and the location convenient to everything.

As near as I can tell, she speaks no English and neither of us speaks French. This is going to be a great adventure!

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