Photo: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

6 Ethically Dubious Ways to Save Money on the Road

by Carlo Alcos May 15, 2009
There are plenty of ways for frugal travelers to sneak an extra discount or two. The question is: should you?

I WAS AT THE LOCAL curry shop near my office to grab some butter chicken and naan to go. Their lunch time special offered students a $1 discount.

At the cashier, the petite Indian girl asked me if I was a student. “Yes,” I replied.

Now, I am about as far away as student as you can get. There I was, 33 years old, dressed in pin striped slacks, brown dress shoes, and a collared button down (with silver cuff links no less). I was clearly lying.

Didn’t matter anyhow — she asked for my student ID and I had to back out of my master plan. “I don’t have it with me,” I said, as she rung up the regular price.

I felt somewhat ashamed. Up to now I have no idea why I even said yes. It might have been traveler’s instinct.

This got me to thinking about the ethics of travelers and our schemes to save money while on the road. Hard-bargaining aside, there is a plethora of dollar-saving tricks that are out there, and many travelers use them without a second thought.

1. Student discounts

This is a popular one. Almost every attraction around the world offers students of accredited schools a student discount. I have it on good authority that it is possible to acquire false student IDs to take advantage of this practice.

Maybe more common is the use of an expired card. I have never owned or used one myself, but I can say I’ve claimed student status to save a few Euros.

2. Act like a local

Some countries have two-tiered pricing for attractions, which means it’s one price for citizens and an extravagant price for foreigners. In Russia, a visitor can expect to pay anywhere from two to ten times the local’s entrance fee.

The museum island of Kizhi is a tiny piece of land on Lake Onega. Once on the island, you must pay to wander around the fascinating wooden structures.

As an experiment, my wife sauntered up to the window and, in her best Russian, simply said dva (Russian for two). A silent exchange of tickets and rubles was then made. She passed the test.

We paid 1/5 what we should have. (I would have done this myself, but her German heritage was a safer bet than my Filipino background to pass as a Russian.)

3. Bypassing admission checkpoints

Word of mouth among the traveler’s circuit is a great way to spread information. You learn all sorts of things that aren’t in a guidebook.

In a cafe in Lijiang, China, while thumbing through a visitor’s diary, most entries were about the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, which we were about to embark on. One entry caught our eye. It was a tip to save money.

The gateway town to the start of the hike is Qiaotou. As you enter the gorge you must pass through a checkpoint where a fee is collected. The tip in the diary was this:

In Qiaotou, get a taxi to take you to Jane’s Guesthouse, which is just past the checkpoint. If you and the taxi driver play it right, the guard won’t know you’re in there and hence, no fee.

We decided to give this a try. Upon our arrival we found a driver who understood what we wanted – it was clear this is a common tactic. He got us to duck down in the back as we drove through the checkpoint undetected. (An alternative to this is to go very early before the guard starts his shift.)

4. Free rides on the Eurail and other public transit

I’m not sure if this has changed at all, but when I bought a 10-trip pass back in 2004, to validate the trip all you had to do was write the date in one of the boxes on the pass. I’ve heard through the grapevine that there are some travelers who use pencil and then erase and reuse. (Or they don’t validate the ticket at all).

This also applies to other transit systems around the world. It’s a risk getting caught, but if you don’t speak the local language, the frustration experienced by the transit worker trying to book you usuallys mean you get off scot-free.

5. “Surprise” guests

A way to save money on accommodation is to spread the costs across a lot of people. Makes perfect sense. But what about when you straight up lie and book a room for two of you, then sneak three others in under the cloak of night?

Or, what about sneaking guests into your hostel and sharing a bunk with them?

6. The faux complaint

There are those who invent complaints about service in order to get upgrades or freebies. Our own Julie Schwietert even followed someone’s Twitter that shamed an airline. The person ended up with a seat upgrade and, later, a free flight, by unleashing a stream of real-time bitching about the company’s service.

The question of right and wrong

There are 1001 more ways out there that travelers can (and do) use to scrimp on some dough. While my wife and I have never considered ourselves overtly devious, at times we have taken advantage when the situation presented itself.

I would say there is a line to be drawn. Not a black and white Sharpie fine line, but a blurry, wavy, grey line that is dependent on the circumstance.

Have you ever misrepresented yourself in order to save money? And have you ever thought about its ethical and moral implications? Share your thoughts below!

Discover Matador