Couldn't you rather spend $100 for a great meal on the road than for getting from one place to another? I would, and in years of travel, I've picked up a few tricks for saving money on airport transport, car rentals and air fares.
I live in Manhattan and do not own a car. From my home on the West Side via taxi it now costs about $25, including tip and tolls, to get to LaGuardia Airport, $30 or $35 to get to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The cheaper and usually more reliable way is to call one of the many "private car" companies that will pick you up at your home, hotel or office at a specific time and, for a flat fee, deliver you to the airport.
The listings are under "limousines" in the phone book. A plain sedan can cost as little as $15, plus tip and bridge or tunnel toll (about $2.50, although there is no toll on the Queensborough Bridge) from Manhattan to LaGuardia, $25 to JFK. Some companies will also agree to meet your flight for the reverse trip into the city, although they often extract extra money from you for waiting time and garage time.
Many times, I have found that these entrepreneurial drivers are more pleasant to deal with than taxi drivers, with cars that are more comfortable than the standard broken-springs New York cab. But I have also heard stories of cars failing to show up, or drivers who want to take additional passengers. In any event, it is good to call a day in advance.
Very little or no luggage? Take the (gulp!) subway. Especially during rush hours, it is just as easy to get to or from LaGuardia, especially, for two tokens -- $2.30 total -- as it is for 10 times that. From Manhattan you take the E or F trains to the Roosevelt Avenue/Jackson Heights station. From the bus depot there, the Q-33 bus takes you through the generally quiet streets to the departure terminals. From, say, the Fifth Avenue stop on the E or F train, the entire trip on a weekday (weekends are chancy) takes between half an hour and an hour, including waiting. I am less keen on the bus-subway connections to JFK -- the trip seems interminable.
Newark International Airport used to be a secret reserved for New Jerseyans or West Side Manhattanites. It is bustling now, but it is still a handy gateway to the city. There is reliable bus service between the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue and the passenger terminals via New Jersey Transit every 15 minutes or so from morning until early evening daily for $7 -- or $12 when you buy a round-trip ticket. (The service is less frequent at other hours.) The trip takes about half an hour and the price compares with $30 or so via private car, $50 to $60 via taxi. (Take note that the Port Authority has become a haven for homeless people, some of whom are aggressive beggars.)
Renting a Car
When I need a car on the road, I am willing to sacrifice convenience for savings. That means choosing an off-airport rental-car company such as Alamo or General, my two current favorites. There is no disputing the fact that you can check in and drive away with a Hertz, Avis or other major company car more rapidly. But I don't mind spending a few minutes waiting for another company's van, or returning a car to a location on some boulevard beyond the airport boundary, if the weekly rate is $30 to $50 cheaper.
I also have found that it pays to call at least two weeks ahead of time (at peak holiday periods these companies can be sold out) and to reserve the smallest car available. Alamo seems to have an enormous small-car fleet, but I have been known to opt for General because they often are out of those little bitty things and I wind up driving a Chrysler LeBaron, complete with driver air bag, for the micro rate. (Another school of thought suggests asking for the cheapest car available, rather the smallest, in case a special is being offered, but my tactic has usually worked best for me.)
Marking the Miles
When I first heard of getting a Visa or MasterCard connected to an airline mileage program, I disdained the idea. But after less than a year of charging as many of my bills as feasible -- hotels, rental cars, airline tickets, office supplies, restaurants, even groceries -- to a Visa First Card associated with United's Mileage Plus frequent-flier plan, I'm a believer. I've been credited a free mile for every dollar I've charged to the card.
If you charge several thousand dollars a month, you can accumulate enough miles for a free trip remarkably fast, even if you don't actually fly that much. Let's say the card has a $75 annual fee and you pay the bill in full each month (avoiding interest payments -- the rate is over 19 percent). In return, you might get two domestic round-trip airline tickets worth more than $1,000. Of course, check the annual fee, interest rate and grace period before signing on.
My favorite means of transport is skiing. Discount lift tickets to some great Colorado resorts are for sale at supermarkets, sport shops and convenience stores in the Denver area. Thus, if you are an out-of-towner planning to extend your stay in the Mile High City to include a weekend on the slopes, you can buy a Copper, Keystone, Breckenridge or Winter Park day ticket, among others, for $27 or $28, instead of the $32 to $35 standard price. Among the retailers participating: Safeway (Winter Park, Copper, Breckenridge), King Soopers(Keystone, Winter Park), Vickers and Diamond Shamrock.
Did you say you don't know how to ski? Well, if you're already gotten to the airport by subway, rented a General car and billed it to your United Mileage Plus credit card, you will already have saved enough pennies to hire a private instructor to teach you, right?
Grace Lichtenstein, a New York-based writer, is working on a history of New Orleans popular music.