Smart Money Podcast: ‘This or That’: Lightning Round

Meghan Coyle
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles and  Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.


Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode is part of our new series called “This or That,” where the NerdWallet travel team compares different ways to travel.

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

Our take

The travel Nerds have all sorts of opinions on when to get to the airport ahead of a flight, what sorts of upgrades or perks are most valuable to them — and of course, whether to check a bag or go carry-on only. In this episode of Smart Money, the travel Nerds answer some lightning-round questions on their takes.

The throughline? They all want to save money. Travel writer Elina Geller does that by opting for chain hotels, instead of boutique hotels, so she can redeem hotel points for an award stay. Sally French and Sam Kemmis, both travel writers, avoid extra fees on flights by not checking bags and choosing their seat. And editor Meghan Coyle has been known to rely on friends and loved ones to get her to the airport for free and will literally walk outside of the airport to catch a cheaper rideshare.

No matter what your strategy is for saving on travel, aim to earn perks that you’ll use frequently or for a longer period of time. For example, Elina and Sally usually prefer hotel room upgrades rather than seat upgrades on a flight, because they’ll get to enjoy the experience for longer and maximize the value of their points.

Our tips

  1. Don’t pay extra fees. Seat selection and checked baggage fees are avoidable if you don’t mind sitting in a middle seat or packing light.

  2. You shouldn’t feel rushed at the airport. Flying can be stressful, but you can cut down some hassle with lounges, TSA PreCheck or just getting to the airport early.

  3. Book a hotel that matches your vacation style. If you’ll be gone all day and just need a place to sleep, location is probably more important than amenities. If you plan on sitting by the pool and never leaving the resort, book one that’ll keep you comfortable and entertained.

More about points and miles on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where you send us your money questions and we answer them with the help of our genius Nerds. I'm Sean Pyles. 

Today we have the final installment of our “This or That” travel series and it's a lightning round. Our travel Nerds have been doing deep dives with us over the past month with all kind of tips and tricks on travel credit cards, points and more. So we decided to put them on the spot, like any good TSA agent would, and fire off a bunch of either/or decisions for them to ponder. OK, we actually didn't let them ponder at all because it's a lighting round.

So let's start with Sally French, NerdWallet travel writer, who joined us to talk about the benefits of a travel credit card versus a cash-back card. Here we go, 3, 2, 1: Sally, carry-on or personal item?

Sally French: OK. I am one of these wild people who, not only do I not check bags, but I intentionally try not to put bags in the overhead bins either. One, it's just kind of out of spite that they're so full all the time, but also I'm 4-foot-10, so I can impressively go on a four-day trip with everything that fits in a backpack underneath my seat.

Sean Pyles: OK. I have a family of very small people as well, and I think there's a benefit to that. Your clothes are smaller, you can fit them in a smaller space.

Sally French: That is true. I sometimes troll people who bring five rolling suitcases, but I do need to be honest that I can fit way more stuff into a smaller space.

Sean Pyles: For sure. All right, hotel points or airline miles? Which one would you collect if you could only collect one?

Sally French: I really don't mind having the middle seat or the tiny seat with horrible no legroom. So I'm going to go with hotel points because I do like all those fancy hotel upgrades.

Sean Pyles: Early check-in or late checkout?

Sally French: Probably early check-in because I always have lounge access, so I don't mind just hanging out at the airport lounge instead.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, and for late checkout, I want to get my day going. I don't need to hang around a hotel room.

Sally French: Right. I'm totally an early-to-rise, I'm not laying in bed all day.

Sean Pyles: For sure. Priority Pass lounges or restaurants?

Sally French: Well, I do find that lounges can be really relaxing, but I do think the quality of the food at the Priority Pass restaurants is almost always better than the lounge food. So if I'm trying to actually eat a meal, I will say restaurants. But if I'm in a flight delay and I just want to hang out and work, then lounges.

Sean Pyles: Got it. Premium travel credit card or a no-annual-fee credit card?

Sally French: Sean, can I have a premium credit card with no annual fee or is that not an option?

Sean Pyles: I don't make the rules. If that's an option, potentially, but there's going to be a compromise somewhere, right?

Sally French: I will say I don't mind paying the annual fee because I almost always maximize the benefits. In which case, premium travel credit cards always deliver me way more value than the no-annual-fee credit cards.

Sean Pyles: Hotel pool or hotel gym?

Sally French: Sean, did you know that I was a total gym bro? In fact, I can deadlift triple body weight. 

Sean Pyles: You're still a gym bro.

Sally French: I'm still a gym bro, but that said, I obviously love working out on vacation, but usually hotel gyms just don't cut it. There are a few that are amazing, but usually they're just sad, the dumbbells go up to 20 pounds, in which case I love me a good pool.

Sean Pyles: OK. While Sally is checking out the pool, our next contestant is travel writer Sam Kemmis, who helped us evaluate whether it's better to book an Airbnb or a hotel room. 

Premium economy or economy?

Sam Kemmis: Economy, I'm a cheapskate.

Sean Pyles: I'm with you there. OK. Do you buy your seat or just pray for a good one?

Sam Kemmis: Pray for a good one. I can't bring myself to pay for a seat.

Sean Pyles: All right. And do you book last minute versus far in advance?

Sam Kemmis: Hotels I always book last minute. It's often cheaper. And flights, I usually book in advance.

Sean Pyles: How far in advance?

Sam Kemmis: Anything between two weeks and several months, doesn't really matter.

Sean Pyles: OK maybe you can correct me on this, but I've found that two months is the sweet spot for me when I'm trying to book air travel. Are there any rules of thumb around that?

Sam Kemmis: Earlier is usually better, but anything between six months and a month is usually pretty good.

Sean Pyles: And Global Entry or TSA PreCheck?

Sam Kemmis: Global Entry — it includes TSA PreCheck.

Sean Pyles: Oh, and what about Clear? It seems like a scam to me; is that legit?

Sam Kemmis: It's not a scam, but it doesn't get you that much for the cost.

Sean Pyles: OK. What's the benefit of it?

Sam Kemmis: You get to skip part of the security line.

Sean Pyles: Doesn't seem better than TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to me.

Sam Kemmis: It's an add-on to this, so it's actually a separate thing.

Sean Pyles: I see. Budget airlines or full-service carriers?

Sam Kemmis: I do full-service carriers mostly because of the cancellation policies.

Sean Pyles: I've been burnt by budget airlines and so I am a never-againer when it comes to those. 

All right, thanks Sam. And next up, we have travel writer Elina Geller. We talked with her about the choice to stay loyal to one airline or hotel while you're trying to accumulate points or spread out the love to give yourself more options. Let's see about her options today.

Hotel room upgrade or airline seat upgrade?

Elina Geller: It depends on how long the flight is and how big of an upgrade we're talking for the hotel room.

Sean Pyles: OK, I need some details.

Elina Geller: OK, so if the hotel room upgrade is going to be from no view to city view, but I'm never going to be home, then that's not really helpful. But if I'm going from a regular room to the master suite with a sunken tub, then yes, I'm going to take that.

Sean Pyles: Nice. Booking two one-ways or round trip?

Elina Geller: Normally I would say booking two one-ways, because it just gives you a lot more freedom and you don't have to do anything else if let's say you need to change your return leg. With the two one-ways, everything is independent.

Sean Pyles: OK, but can that also be more expensive sometimes or no?

Elina Geller: Yeah. So just wanted to mention, my answers are really about points. When it comes with cash, two one-ways could be more expensive than a round trip, so it really just depends on where you're going and how you are paying for your ticket.

Sean Pyles: All right. Early flights or end-of-day flights?

Elina Geller: How early?

Sean Pyles: 6 a.m.

Elina Geller: And what is end of day?

Sean Pyles: 7 p.m.

Elina Geller: 7 p.m. for sure.

Sean Pyles: Why is that?

Elina Geller: Because 7 p.m. means I can work until, let's say, 4 p.m. and then head to the airport to get there by 5 and then fly at 7. So in a way I've had one full day in a normal, calm setting, and then I could just go to sleep and enjoy the next day fully. Versus a 6 a.m. flight, you have to be at the airport at, what, 4? That means you're waking up at 3 so your whole previous evening and the whole day you're going to be super tired.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. Well, what I worry about with an end-of-day flight is that all of the delays will stack up and there might be a cancellation or a delay on my flight and I just don't like dealing with that level of anxiety.

Elina Geller: Oh, that is true. I guess I roll the dice.

Sean Pyles: OK. Boutique or chain hotels?

Elina Geller: I think chain hotels, because what I find is with boutique hotels, I can't use points at those. So I feel like, yeah, on Instagram it looks really cute when people are staying in these boutique hotels, but they're paying for those hotels. I prefer just a free stay and maybe my room is not as cute and Instagrammable

Sean Pyles: Because you are deep into the points game.

Elina Geller: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: Do you pick a hotel based on amenities or on location?

Elina Geller: I would say location.

Sean Pyles: And why is that?

Elina Geller: Because the amenities are only so helpful. So if you need the location because you want to be in the center and you want everything to be 10 minutes walking distance from wherever you're going to be going, that's going to matter much more than if the hotel is going to have some fancy amenities. 

I mean, of course it depends on the trip, right? If I'm going to a resort, that would be a different answer than if I'm going on a long weekend to a brand new city.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. But if you're going to be in a city, you don't want to be Ubering everywhere because you had a hotel all the way at the outskirts of town.

Elina Geller: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: Well, now I want to book a resort. 

All right, and our final contestant in our “This or That” lightning round is NerdWallet travel team editor Meghan Coyle, who joined us earlier in the series to weigh using points versus cash for your travel bookings. All right, Meghan, are you ready?

Meghan Coyle: I'm ready.

Sean Pyles: OK. First up, carry-on only versus checked bags?

Meghan Coyle: I'm a carry-on only girl. I cannot wait for my checked bags at the end of a long flight, you know what I mean?

Sean Pyles: For me, it's a trust thing. I want to see where my bag is. I want it to be by my side. And also, it's the timing. I don't want to have to get there early and have it go through the entire system. So I'm totally with you.

Meghan Coyle: Yes. Oh my gosh, one time I actually did not get there in time by one minute and it was terrible.

Sean Pyles: Oh no. So what happened?

Meghan Coyle: It was Christmas and my mom had given me an expensive bottle of wine and I was like, I had to go through normal TSA security check with that bag. And I was like, can someone please drink this? It's a really nice bottle of wine, I just can't take it.

Sean Pyles: So you mean you didn't just chug it right then and there?

Meghan Coyle: I wish. But it was 5 in the morning.

Sean Pyles: Oh, yeah. OK, well next question. Early airport arrival or last-minute arrival?

Meghan Coyle: I'm a last-minute girl. I just don't really like waiting at the airport. I know there are airport lounges, but the whole place just gives me stress.

Sean Pyles: I feel you. But arriving last minute gives me stress, too. Hearing this answer just made me feel stressed out. I like to be there at least an hour before my flight.

Meghan Coyle: Oh, no.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, I'm the kind of person who's going through TSA — I have PreCheck so I'm not even waiting in a long line most of the time — get there, go, visually see that my gate does exist, and then I find somewhere quiet to sit and read a book. And that's fine.

Meghan Coyle: Isn't it funny that we all have to see where our gate is? As if we can't count to 48 and you're like, oh, there it is.

Sean Pyles: Next question. Public transportation to the airport or an Uber?

Meghan Coyle: OK. I live in LA — there is no public transportation to the airport that's really feasible. So I Uber to the airport. Or honestly, my other big hack is, if you have a partner or a very good friend, the best thing they can do is drop you off at the airport.

Sean Pyles: All right, Meghan, favorite in-flight beverage?

Meghan Coyle: Oh, I love having ginger ale on flights. I don't know why. I'd never drink them in real life besides when I'm sick maybe. But in the air, that's my beverage of choice.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. I got to say I'm a big fan of the spicy tomato juice, which people put in bloody marys, but for me it's like having a little snack. A little bit of spicy tomato soup while I'm in the air. Gazpacho, if you will.

All right, and that is it for our lightning-speed round. And all four of our contestants are winners because they gave us all such great advice. And that is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-N-E-R-D. You can also email us at [email protected].

This episode was produced by Meghan Coyle. We had editing help from Tess Vigeland. Kaely Monahan mixed our audio. And a big thank you to the pros on the NerdWallet copy desk. Visit for more info on this episode and remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Here is our brief disclaimer: We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances. And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.