How to Travel On a Budget
Travel is the one thing you can buy that makes you richer. -Anonymous
Do you dream of sandy white beaches and daquiris in the sun? Maybe your ideal getaway is a cabin in the mountains, instead. Or perhaps you’re the type who would rather backpack through Italy, eating your weight in pasta and visiting the Roman ruins.
No matter your ideal type of travel, it’s one of those things for which everyone should try to find time. No matter the flexibility in your budget or the demands of your job, visiting new places can definitely be a possibility.
At some point, everyone needs to take a break from their regular routine. What better way than to venture away from home and see some place new? But how can you possibly afford pricey plane tickets when you’re trying to save for retirement or pay down debt?
Well, whether you stay nearby, take a car trip to Grandma’s house, or fly across the country, there are ways to travel without spending all your hard-earned savings. Yes, traveling can be expensive, but it’s almost always worthwhile (assuming you spend smart), and there are ways to make it more affordable than you might think.
Well, I have a trip coming up soon. I’m not an experienced traveler, so I searched for ideas and tips and compiled the best I found. Here are my favorites.
Check for Discounts
My grandmother has a saying (and believe me, she lives by this): Why buy it full-price when you don’t have to? Well, believe it or not, this doesn’t just apply to groceries and blue jeans.
Whether it’s a hotel room, flights, or tickets to an attraction, there are a slew of discounts to be found.
Don’t pay the rate on the hotel’s website without thoroughly checking around. Sites like Priceline, Orbitz, and Hotels.com offer discounted room options almost year-round. If you book with Orbitz, you’ll also earn points which can be used on future travel plans.
Learn More: 10 Ways to Avoid Hotel Fees
Want to stay in a specific hotel but can’t find a low enough price? Give them a call and ask if they have any sort of discounts available. Assuming it’s not a weekend where they’re sold out, they might be willing to offer you a cheaper rate just to keep you from going elsewhere. You can also offer to prepay for the room, as some hotels allow this option. (You can usually still cancel within 24-48 hours if needed and get a refund — be sure to ask about their own policy!)
Lastly, depending on your (family’s) needs, renting a room in someone’s home — or the entire home! — for your trip might be ideal, instead of just a hotel room. Airbnb is the most popular site for finding home-sharing accommodations; while they likely won’t offer you a continental breakfast, the discounted rate may easily make up the difference.
Depending on how specific your travel plans may be, you can get away with cheaper flights if you look hard enough.
Fly during off-peak times to save; most of the time, taking a red-eye is cheaper than that late-morning departure. You can also utilize sites like Priceline here, and use their Name Your Own Price Tool. The caveat with this is that you enter the price you’re willing to pay (committing to the tickets if your offer is accepted), but you don’t know the actual flight times yet. You may get that super cheap price that you want, but it could also be a 5am flight or have a 3hr layover in Detroit. If you’re flexible, though, and are more concerned with the cost, this is an awesome option.
You can also look into the “no frills” airlines, like Frontier (or if you’re traveling overseas, Ryanair is the cheapest — and simplest — I’ve ever flown). No, you probably won’t be on the newest jet with complimentary snacks and headphones, but you will be saving quite a bit on airfare compared to the other commercial giants. Be careful, though, as some of these airlines charge extra for a second carry-on, even going as far as to charge more at check-in than if you’d prepaid for your bags online.
On that note, if you know that each person will be bringing one or two suitcases along and your flight prices are in the same general range, an airline like Southwest might be your best bet. The airline hands out basic refreshments on board, allows two carry-on items per passenger, and includes two free checked bags.
I often choose SWA when flying with my kids because once you factor in those hefty checked bag prices, this airline is usually the cheapest. Oh, and things like checked car seats and strollers are also free (and not counted as part of the two checked bags, either).
Concerts, Shows, and Events
Finding cheap tickets can be a little tricky, depending on the event, but definitely not impossible.
Your best bet is to try to buy tickets in advance from the venue directly. This way, you’re more likely to pay face value. If the event is sold out, you’ll have to resort to other avenues.
These can include sites like StubHub or even eBay. Just be careful; while you can sometimes find a great deal (especially if you’re willing to pay a little bit over face value in order to snag seats to an in-demand event), reselling tickets is an income source for some ticket brokers. Be sure to look around before clicking that Order button.
Related: The Latte Factor: Your Spending Reflects Your Priorities
If you’re staying at certain resorts or casinos and have some very strong willpower, there’s also another option: timeshare presentations. These are not for those who are easily persuaded or give in to high-pressure sales. However, if you know that you can resist the salesperson’s charm, these are great ways to snag free tickets to in-demand events, earn spa passes, and even get complimentary nights added onto your stay.
Are you a member of any groups, clubs, etc.? You may qualify for discounts as a student, government worker, resident (if you are traveling within your own state), AAA member, or any number of other memberships.
As with anything you purchase, you should compare prices before you book airplane tickets or plan a vacation. In some cases you can plan a whole vacation around an inexpensive destination at the time of year you are planning.
It may feel touristy, but guidebooks will often give you great money saving tips. Some even offer per diem plans, recommend out-of-the-way hotel deals, or tell you about views or attractions you would have walked right past otherwise.
Depending on the area you’re visiting, you might also want to check into Living Social, Groupon, or other local discount sites before making plans. You can often get great deals on restaurants, attractions, museums, and events, and it might entice you to try something you wouldn’t have looked into otherwise.
This tip is not just for parents! Prepping meals, packing snacks, and bringing along your own refillable water bottle is an easy way for all travelers to save.
I am a perpetual grazer, for instance, so I always bring a meal along for flights. A big sandwich, fruit, an empty stainless steel bottle (don’t try to go past TSA without drinking it all first!), and some protein bars got me through my entire cross-country venture. I didn’t want to pay $10 for a terrible in-flight meal or $5 for water in the terminal, so this saved my budget. I wasn’t tempted to buy a bunch of junk food as I walked past the newspaper stands, either.
Pack your own entertainment
Traveling with kids always means packing toys, books, and DVDs that will keep them occupied. But you can use this tip if you are childless or traveling solo as well.
I pack my own books, download movies, and make a playlist before I leave to keep myself occupied when I travel. You can even download many of your movies, shows, and songs from your online streaming services (like Netflix and Spotify) to enjoy offline.
Check the weather forecast and pack appropriately
There is nothing worse than packing too much and having to pay extra for your suitcase. While I’m the type of person who will always overpack to some extent, checking the weather ahead of time saves me a lot of wasted space.
Try to pack versatile items that can be worn or used more than once, in different ways. If you’re going on a long trip, you can use the hotel or your Airbnb’s laundry room to wash clothes and wear them again. Oh, and be sure to include some layers for cooler nights.
Leave room for souvenirs
Make sure you leave some room for souvenirs in your bag! You don’t want to have to pay for a second bag or for an overweight bag.
Of course, souvenirs can eat into your budget, too, so try to limit the tchotchkes that you buy. Save programs from shows, bring home seashells that you and your kids find on the beach, and take plenty of family photos. Years from now, these might be much more special to you than that plastic snow globe in the gift shop.
Walk as much as possible
Part of visiting a new place is seeing the sights, so throw on some tennis shoes and go see them!
It is much better for your health, and wallet, if you set out to see them on foot. While Uber and public transportation will save you money over a rental car, it still adds up. Try to walk wherever you can. You can also ask your hotel if they have bikes available for guests to use — depending on where you stay, it might be an easy way to snag two free wheels for the afternoon.
Stay close to home
We’ve all heard of the “staycation”: sticking close by and seeing the sights right in your own hometown or the biggest local city.
I admit that this is something my family needs to be better about. We’ve been into D.C. (since we are right down the road) to tour the monuments and such, but there’s so much more we could explore. We are also only a handful of hours from a number of big, exciting cities — like Philadelphia — which would make for an excellent weekend trip.
These types of close proximity trips are great because you can cut so many costs. You may have family in those towns that would allow you to stay in their spare bedroom. Maybe there’s a wonderful bus line that can get you there for less than the cost of gas and parking for your own vehicle. Plus, you can ask around with friends and neighbors to score plenty of insight into affordable tourist options, lesser-known restaurants, and local deals on food.
Learn More: Taking a REAL Vacation
If you, your spouse, or even a friend travels a ton for work or pleasure, you can cash in on their points for free hotel rooms.
In fact, I use this tip all the time when traveling back home to Texas to visit the family. Since my dad is always living out of a suitcase during the work week, he has a slew of airline and hotel points, and is always willing to send them my way when I need.
Mix pleasure and business
I am traveling to Salt Lake City, where I’ve never been, for work in early August. I’m extending my trip by a few days so I can enjoy the sights and scenery, though, and finally hike MOAB. The flight home is paid for through work — I just bumped the return date down — and the extra couple nights added to my hotel stay were pennies compared to the cost of making this trip separately.
This is how my family had vacations when I was a child and young adult; we tagged along with my dad on his trips to places like Atlanta and even Hawaii. It’s a great way to save on airfare, and your family can bunk in your (paid) hotel room for free.
What are your favorite tips and tricks to save money while traveling? Do you recommend any sites, books or tools for travel?