The interview trail can be incredibly expensive, so you want to find the best travel deals possible. Travel expenses over the interview season will likely set you back $2000-5000, although I personally know people who spent as much as $10,000 because they attended many interviews requiring flights and hotel stays (6). I found it helpful to make a packing checklist of required items for my travels which I frequently referenced to minimize the chances of forgetting anything. The free web service and smartphone app, TripIt, is invaluable for organizing your mountain of plane tickets, rental cars, and hotel reservations.
Expect some delays and other travel issues, especially since most of the interview season occurs during winter. For the programs in which you are most interested, I would make sure to arrive with plenty of buffer in your schedule to allow for these mishaps. This also has the advantage of giving you time to explore the region. If you do have to miss an interview secondary to unavoidable travel problems, just let the program coordinator know. During the 2013 interview trail, one particular applicant's flight was canceled the evening prior to an interview he was very excited to attend. As a result, he did not arrive until midway through the interview day and he missed the overview and tour. Fortunately, this candidate handled it with grace and he actually ended up matching at the program.
Everyone has their favorite fare-finding website, and mine is Kayak.com. It seems to consistently have prices that are equal to or better than competing search engines. It also makes it easy to specify takeoff and landing times and to search by flexible dates and nearby airports. Using this feature, those traveling from Iowa City will find it is almost always cheaper to fly out of Moline, IL than Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. I also recommend signing up for a free account and setting up daily email alerts to keep track of specific fare prices. These alerts create graphs of fare prices over time and email the data to you each morning. This helps you determine what a good price for a given ticket is and purchase them when there is a sudden drop in price.
Some budget airlines are not included in search engines such as Kayak. Two of these are Allegiant Air and Southwest Airlines. Allegiant offers amazing prices to limited destinations, but they have very few scheduling options. It is worthwhile to check Allegiant if you will be interviewing near one of their destinations. Southwest has the benefit of flexible scheduling. They allow you to cancel and reschedule flights for no fee which is invaluable during interview season when you will be frequently juggling interview dates.
Though debated, it has been suggested that Wednesdays may offer the cheapest airline fares on average (7) and work by economist Makoto Watanabe predicts that the best time to purchase airline tickets is 8 weeks in advance (8). I caution you not to wait too long before purchasing your tickets as prices tend to rapidly rise within 2 weeks of the flight date.
If you have to catch a plane the evening after an interview, let the program coordinator know as soon as you have your flight schedule and he or she may be able to arrange for your interviews to finish earlier in the day. Of course, this may not be possible at every institution depending on the way they schedule their interviews.
When flying, try to pack everything in a carry-on bag. You absolutely cannot risk delayed luggage if it contains your suit or other interview day essentials. If you can't fit everything in a single carry-on, you are also allowed to bring an additional personal item which can be a purse or backpack and this will hopefully give you enough space to pack your things.
Traveling with a suit can be difficult. Some flyers use folding garment bags even though they aren't technically within the size requirements for carry-on bags. This is getting riskier as airlines are cracking down on carry-on size requirements and you may be forced to check the luggage. I've heard of others asking to use the flight attendant's hanging closet with variable success. I ended up wearing my jacket and folding the pants carefully in the top of my carry-on which worked quite well.
This is a great time to sign up for free frequent flyer accounts if you do not already have them. You can typically find a link to do this from each airline's website. Since you will likely be doing a good deal of flying, you may as well start building rewards toward a free flight.
To cut costs and avoid travel delays, I drove to every interview within a reasonable distance rather than purchasing a plane ticket. If you are able to cluster your distant interviews together, you may also benefit from one-way car rentals. Rather than booking a short flight, you can often save a significant amount of money by renting a car and leaving it at your next destination. I saved hundreds by renting a car in the Northeast and slowly making my way down to the Southeast where I eventually left it and flew out. While this is almost always cheaper than flying, keep in mind that one-way car rentals are considerably more expensive than returning the car at the facility where you originally obtained it. Be sure to check the price before deciding on this option.
When you fly into a city, you also have the problem of getting from the airport to your hotel and eventually the interview site. You can grab a taxi, but with such high fares, you can probably save money by renting a car. Sometimes you can find them for under $15 per day and they have the added advantage of granting you the ability to see more of the city if you have time. Airport shuttles are another option if they are available to your hotel, but they obviously have a less flexible schedule.
When shopping for a rental car, I always start off at Kayak to get a general idea what prices are in the area. Then I compare with deal-finding sites like Priceline and Hotwire. These sites work similarly in that you don't know which rental company you are purchasing from, but they usually have better deals than you can find elsewhere. Priceline requires you to provide your best offer while Hotwire gives you the price straight-up. Using this method, I was almost always able to find cheaper rates than booking directly from the rental agencies' websites, especially for one-way rentals.
Unless you're set on a Mustang convertible, go for the compact model to save cash. If the rental agency happens to be out of compacts (which isn't uncommon), they will offer you a free upgrade. They will always try to persuade you to purchase upgrades at the counter – stand your ground and don't give in. You are trying to get a deal here! Look into your credit card benefits and auto insurance to see if you get free rental car insurance. I received free insurance through American Express and this led to considerable cost savings on each car. Bring your own GPS or use your smartphone rather than paying the rental agency for one of their outdated, overpriced models. If using your phone, make sure you have a car charger as the GPS app will drain your battery quickly. Voice-guided turn-by-turn directions and automatic direction "recalculation" are absolutely crucial when navigating new cities and unfamiliar areas by yourself. If using an iPhone, beware that the default Apple Maps app may lead you astray. I would highly recommend the free alternative, Google Maps, which offers much more reliable directions. Finally, do not pre-pay for the tank of gas as you are unlikely to use the entire tank. Tell them you will fill it back up prior to returning the vehicle and you should be set.
Trains can be a money-saving option where they are available, especially in the Northeast. I heard of other applicants using this option, but I ended up utilizing rental cars instead.
You will need a place to spend the night before an early interview. First, try to think of any friends or relatives you may have living in the city. If you don't know anyone around the area, the next option for Iowa students is the alumni host program. In this program, you apply for host positions in a given city and they will attempt to match you with an Iowa medical alumni who lives there. I initially thought this would be an awkward experience, but it was absolutely amazing. My hosts consistently exceeded my expectations by doing things like cooking meals and offering to provide any transportation I may need. They were all very kind and I would highly recommend the program as a way to gain insider advice on a city and to save money. If you end up using this program, please remember to write your hosts a thank you note and update them with your eventual match results. They will surely be curious and it's the least you can do in exchange for their hospitality.
Residency programs usually recommend a hotel which is located near the hospital. This may be the most convenient, but you can usually save a considerable amount money if you look elsewhere. Similar to rental cars, I recommend using Priceline or Hotwire. With these services, you will end up with a highly discounted hotel room in your chosen region of the city. Again, Hotwire provides prices on their website while Priceline lets you name the price you are willing to pay. Using these websites you can often book 3½ to 4-star hotel rooms for $50 or less.
Some of the recommended hotels will advertise free hospital shuttles. This seems attractive, but the interviews often start around 7:00-7:30 am, and the shuttles are often not running early enough for you to make it in time, so be sure to inquire about this when booking the hotel.