You probably don’t fly first class if you want to save money on business travel. And if you’re checking several websites before booking flights and hotel rooms, you’re already doing better than many travelers. But are you doing flexible-date airfare searches before scheduling business trips? That strategy, explained below, can save you hundreds of dollars.
What else can you do to save money on business travel? Use a few of the tricks in each of our five categories of travel savings.
Editor’s note: watch a video featuring 10 Ways to Cut Business Travel Costs.
Ways to Save Money on Air Travel
Find Your Flight First
If you can choose when to travel for business, you can save hundreds of dollars on airfare. Start by doing a flexible date airfare search on several travel websites before you schedule the trip. After you find some inexpensive flights, see if the dates and hours work for your purposes and buy the tickets.
For example, find several inexpensive flights and then call the person you’re meeting to suggest a time that fits your cheapest flight dates. If that doesn’t work, try the second best.
Travel With Carry-On Only
Skip the checked baggage to avoid charges. Smart packing makes it possible to go with just a carry-on bag for most short trips, and you’re allowed other items as well. For example, Delta Air Lines allows a carry-on bag of up to 22 by 14 by 9 inches, and a “personal item” (briefcase, large purse, laptop). You can even take an “additional approved item” (jacket, umbrella).
Check Airline Websites
The travel sites are a great place to start your search, but you may not see all the available tickets. For example, none of Southwest Airline’s flights show up on Expedia and similar sites. Other airlines may not have all of their flights listed in these outside booking systems.
Also, the flights are sometimes cheaper on the airline websites. So start with the big travel sites, and then check a few airline sites as well to see if there are other fights or if you can book the ones you found for less.
Try the Hated Airlines
Spirit Airlines is the most hated airline in the U.S., and yet they thrive because they’re cheap. Spirit, Frontier, and other budget airlines have low base prices and then charge for almost everything else — often surprising travelers. But if you’re flexible enough, you can save a lot. Don’t choose your seats, print your boarding passes at home, pay for luggage online, and read the fine print.
If you’re really intent on saving and it’s just an overnight business trip, go with less than carry-on. These airlines typically charge for carry-on baggage. For example, Frontier says your free “personal item” can be a backpack, purse, or briefcase of up to 18 by 14 by 8 inches. A briefcase or backpack of that size might be sufficient for a short trip.
Use Off-Site Parking
Are you driving your own car to the airport? Check one of the discount airport parking sites like Premier Parking. You will have to spend a few minutes more riding shuttles, but you can save up to 70 percent versus parking in the lots operated by the airport.
Rent Out Your Parked Car
If you want free parking when flying, use a service like FlightCar. They charge nothing and rent out your car. They say, “On the average 5-day trip, members save $100 in parking fees and make $30 in rental earnings.”
Use Airfare Email Alerts
Set up Airfare Alerts on Airfare Watchdog for all routes leaving your home location or for specific city-to-city routes. When airfares are offered at prices “much lower than the norm,” you’ll get an email. This setup works well if a business trip to a specific destination would be useful but is optional. Just go when and if you get a cheap fare.
Ways to Save Money on Ground Transportation
Try Airfare or Car Rental Packages
Expedia and other travel sites give you the option of packaging your car rental with your airfare. See what they have to offer. Then check for car rentals separately to see if you can save by bundling or if you’ll be better off paying for your plane tickets and car rental separately.
Use the Right Credit Card to Rent a Car
If you have a credit card that provides rental car insurance, use it to pay for your rental. Then decline the collision damage waiver coverage offered by the rental car company. This can save you an average of $20 per day.
Don’t Prepay for Rental Car Gas
Car rental companies typically offer three choices when returning their car. Return it with the gas tank full, pay an outrageous price-per-gallon to fill it when you return, or prepay for a full tank and don’t worry about it. But as a previous rental car agent admits, “Unless you push the car back onto the lot with an empty tank, you lose money prepaying for gas.” Just fill the tank shortly before you return the car.
Learn How to Use Uber
Many users have found that Uber is often cheaper than regular taxis, and the company website makes it clear that there’s no need to tip. Learn how to use the tools on the Uber app so you can check rates and confirm your fare quote.
Book a Hotel That Provides an Airport Shuttle
You can easily spend $35 or more on a taxi ride from some airports to a city-center hotel. Use TaxiFareFinder.com to check rates for your destination. Then check your hotel options and see which ones offer a free shuttle to and from the airport. It’s worth paying $25 more for a room if you save two $35 taxi fares.
Ways to Save Money on Hotels
Do a search for “hotel” plus the name of your destination. The cheapest may be below the standards you want, so check the reviews and work your way up in price until you find a place you can be happy with.
Try Coupon Websites
HotelCoupons.com offers printable coupons for many different hotels. Just enter a ZIP code for your destination and see what they have. Then, search for the hotel by name online and check rates to be sure you’re getting a deal. The coupon deals are typically better.
Use Highway Coupons
Many hotels still publish coupons in traveler discount books found at gas stations along major highways. Look for them during any stops prior to arrival, and then check reviews online with your smartphone to see if the place is acceptable.
Start a Bidding War
Hotel reservations can usually be cancelled without charge up to 24 or 48 hours before arrival. Prior to the deadline call other hotels and say, “I have a reservation at (name of hotel), and I was wondering if you can beat their price.” If they offer a better price, book it, and then go back to the first to see if they’ll drop the price even further.
Sign Up With AAA
The cost of a AAA membership varies around the country, but is typically under $80 for a basic plan. In addition to roadside assistance for car troubles, the AAA card gets you other travel-related discounts, including 10 percent off at many hotels.
Ways to Save Money on Meals
Take Advantage of the Hotel Breakfast
If your hotel offers a full breakfast or even just bagels, coffee, and orange juice as part of your room charge, eat enough so you can have a lighter or later lunch. In fact, take this benefit into account when choosing a hotel. If the prices are about the same, the one with breakfast can easily save you $10 to $20.
Make Lunch Your Main Meal
Most restaurants charge less for lunch than dinner, even when the meal is identical. So, when traveling on business, make lunch your main meal of the day. Eat late, and eat enough. You might get by with a snack for dinner.
Use Online Coupons
RetailMeNot.com makes it easy to search for restaurant coupons. Just enter a name and see what they have. For example, a search just now yielded a free appetizer at Chili’s and 15 percent off the bill at Outback Steakhouse.
To keep it cheap and simple, look out your hotel window for a restaurant within walking distance and Google the name plus “coupon.” You might save on the meal and on gas. Print coupons using the guest computer in the hotel lobby or bring your smartphone for the cashier to scan if that option is offered.
Investigate Menus Online First
If you are going to be paying for a business meal with others, check out menus online before choosing a restaurant. That way, you can find the most affordable place that meets your requirements. Most restaurants now have full menus posted online with prices.
Get Grocery Store Meals
To keep that meal budget really low, find a grocery store near your hotel. Buy prepared salads and the makings for sandwiches. For a hot meal, head to the deli section and see what you can take back to your hotel room. You might spend as little as $15 per day for meals on business trips if you dine from grocery stores.
Ways to Save Money on Taxes
Take the M&IE Per Diem Allowance
For meals eaten during business-related travel, the IRS says you can report the expense using actual cost or a “standard meal allowance.” That is determined using the per diem rates published on the website of the General Services Administration (GSA). Enter your destination to find the “meals and incidental expenses” (M&IE) allowance. If you think you’ll spend less than that, use the allowance as your deduction.
For example, suppose you’re in Denver for five days on business. Your hotel room includes a large breakfast and you otherwise eat at sandwich shops. As a result, you spend about $20 per day for meals, for a total tax deduction of $50 during your trip (half of your $100 expenditure). But the per diem M&IE rate for Denver is $66, so you can use that for a $165 deduction (half of $330). If your combined federal and state tax rate is 35 percent, you would save about $40 on your taxes using the second method versus the first.
Use the Standard Mileage Rate for Economical Cars
If you use a car for business purposes and meet IRS criteria for using the standard mileage rate, it may save you a substantial amount on your taxes, versus reporting actual expenses. This is often true when you drive an economical vehicle and you haven’t borrowed to buy the car, in which case interest would be deductible. The standard rate for 2015 is 57.5 cents per mile.
If you’re not sure which method is better, track actual expenses and the miles used for business purposes. See which method will give you the biggest deduction. If your deduction for the year is $1,500 higher using the standard mileage rate and your combined federal and state tax rate is 35 percent, you would save $525 at tax time.
Make it About Business
The IRS makes it clear your trip must be primarily about business to deduct the costs of getting to your destination. You can have a personal side trip (with no deduction for those expenses). However, if the trip is primarily personal, getting to your destination is not a deductible expense, even if you conduct some business while there. So, feel free to mix business and pleasure, but to save money on taxes, be sure you document that the business part was the primary purpose.
What are your favorite ways to save money on business travel?