Travel has always been a part of my budget, but how I travel has changed over the years. When I was a broke college student, it was hostels and PB Nutella sandwiches. Nowadays, it’s about smart ways to save money so we can go more places!
I always say that when traveling, you have to sacrifice one of three things to make it work – time, money or convenience. The most efficient and convenient travel is generally the most expensive. So for all of my tips, I will point out where the trade offs are in (parentheses). Choose for yourself how much you value your time or how much effort you are willing to put in to save a little money.
High Level Travel Strategies
- For the best savings overall, timing it critical. If you can travel during the off season or shoulder seasons, you will save on flights, accommodations, and activities. In Europe, shoulder season is typically September and May, with off season from November through March, although certain locations peak during Christmas and winter months. In Asia, shoulder season is March, May, and early November with off season during the rainy season during xJune through October. South America has opposite seasons as North America, but check your specific destination. While winter months may be off season for non-skiers in Chile, dry season is peak travel time in Peru. I prefer traveling during shoulder season since even though it is more expensive than the off season, in many destinations the weather may not be great during the off season or attractions may be closer. The exception to this personal rule is European capital cities. I’m totally fine hitting those up during the off season to avoid the crowds. I always google my destination with “off season”, “low season,” and “shoulder season” to get destination specific advice. (The sacrifice here is usually minimum depending on your job and if you have kids. Obviously, not everyone can travel during off and shoulder seasons.)
- Likewise, midweek travel is typically cheaper than the weekends. (convenience)
- After timing, the next biggest swing factor on affordability is how you travel. Figure out the most affordable way to get to where you are going. Should you drive or fly? What about a cruise or other non-traditional means of traveling? Maybe you should fly to one location, take a train, then hop a ferry to maximize your money. Growing up my parents regularly drove us 16 hours to Florida so we could travel on the budget they could afford. Sometimes, once factoring in time to airport, security, and flight time, it may be a close call on if it’s faster to drive or fly. Buses and local trains are often cheap alternatives to flying or renting a car. When I was in college, I used to regular take overnight trains to save on transport and skip a hotel. This doesn’t work for everyone but if it works for you it can save a lot! (convenience)
- If you want to go to an extremely popular attraction that’s the only thing in town, it can be wildly expensive. I’ve found, you can often save a tremendous amount of money by staying in a more easy to reach location and taking a day trip to the site. For example, I desperately wanted to go to Uluru while in Australia and almost cried when I learned a flight and hotel to stay near the park was more than my round trip airfare from NYC! Then, I figured there had to be others like me who wanted to go but couldn’t afford the prices to stay in Yulara. Alice Springs, some 5 hours away offered cheap flights and hotels. I found Emu Run Tours running day trips to Uluru including champagne at sunset. We saved something like $800 a person and had one of the most memorable days of the trip! It was definitely a huge convenience sacrifice, and we gave up time at Uluru, but I still think it was worth it! (convenience is the big one here, but sometimes you have to give up some time as well)
- Think of your entire trip and see where you can give and take to save money. Perhaps you pay more for an apartment in a great location but commit to eating in 3 nights to make up the price difference from the hotel 20 minutes away. Or if eating out is a major part of the travel experience, maybe that cheaper hotel a subway ride away makes sense! Look at different departure dates and times. You may save hundreds by sacrificing some time and coming home a day early or a day late. My husband and I generally lay out an entire trip then see where we can give a little and take a little to maximize our time, since this is usually our most limiting factor other than budget. This might mean we book a cheaper hotel in one location so we can spring for the more convenient but pricier day trip at another. Or we may pay a little more for a better located hotel, knowing we will save on transportation costs by walking everywhere, sacrificing some time. In travel, as in life, it’s all about balance. (Give some take some, sacrifice what works for you)
- Take advantage of day rooms if you can. Whenever we have a late flight out, we try to avoid an extra night in a hotel by booking accommodations that offer a day rate. Often half the price of an overnight, usually day rooms require check out by 5pm, hours later than a late check out will get you. For late night flights, you can comfortably spend the day sightseeing, come back to the room to shower and pack up, then drop your bags downstairs, check out and go to dinner before collecting your bags and heading to the airport. We’ve done this in Lima and Bangkok for a wonderful, stress free way to end our trips before 11pm flights. A word of advice, you usually cannot book a day room online. You need to contact the hotel directly, or go through a travel agent. This is why I’m classifying this as an advanced travel move. (there’s not a lot of sacrifice here, except the time it takes to find a hotel offering a day rate if you don’t work with a travel agent)
- Keep an eye on exchange rates. While it can be difficult to track trends in exchange rates my personal rule of thumb is if we are traveling soon (less than 6 weeks) and the dollar is weakening (i.e. rates make things abroad more expensive) I will prepay for everything I can while the rate is good (think hotels and day trips). On the flip side, when the dollar is strengthening (i.e. Things abroad are getting cheaper) I wait to pay to get the best rate at time of travel. This has saved us hundreds on a trip to Peru when we waited to pay for our trips and accommodations based on the strengthening dollar and about a hundred bucks on our trip to Croatia because we prepaid our hotels and day trips to avoid a weakening dollar. You could also buy currency when rates are good and you know you are traveling, but that’s too much planning even for me! (time, you need to follow the markets and news to know which way the dollar is trending)
- Check exchange rates offered by your bank and fees charged by your credit cards. I travel abroad often enough that I choose both a bank and a primary credit card that offer good exchange rates and no foreign transaction fees. Those fees can add up over a trip abroad and why pay them if you don’t have to! (time to do research on what card and bank works best for you)
Depending on where you are going, airfare can be your biggest expense. Saving here can mean extra money left over for excursions or nicer meals. Because of this, everyone is always looking for a good deal and many websites exist to help you find it. Here are my go to tips and tricks:
- I love to use Kayak’s explore feature and travel alert services. I start every trip I plan by spending some time on Kayak to determine the costs of flights and hotels. You can use the location explorer to get an idea for what typical flights to a location cost. Or, if you have a particular destination in mind, search different days, times, or airports to find the best price. If you don’t need to book yet, set up a travel alert and Kayak will email when airfare drops. They also have a handy price projection tool that tells you if airfare will likely go up or down in the future. I’ve also recently starting using the app Hopper to explore flight prices and so far really like it. (You have to give up some time to spend planning out your options and doing research)
- Check airfare from all airports within 2-3 hours of where you live. I’m lucky that I am within 2 hours of 6 airports, 4 of which are major international hubs. To realize the full savings on the Croatia flights, we flew from a less convenient airport (JFK), but it was worth it to us. My in-laws have been getting insanely cheap flights to Florida out of Atlantic City. Sites like Kayak make it easy to search different airports. (The time it takes to explore options and the convenience of not going out of your home airport.)
- Similarly, when traveling abroad, check to see if it’s cheaper to fly into a major hub then take a discount carrier, bus, or train to your final destination. On our recent trip to Croatia, we saved $300 per person by flying to London, then taking EasyJet flights to Dubrovnik and from Split. You can save a good amount by sacrificing some convenience here. (same as above)
- Fly carry-on only baggage whenever you can. Almost everyone has checked baggage fees these days, even on international flights. When I went to Australia and needed to save every dollar I could, I took a backpack and a purse so that I didn’t have to pay $20-35 on each of 5 flights for a checked bag. Here’s what that looked like:
The rule of thumb is travel is cheapest on Tuesdays and Saturday, and evenings other than Friday and Sunday. (This usually requires a time sacrifice though, losing days at your destination.)
- Sign up for companies like Travelzoo, The Points Guy, and Scott’s Cheap Flights to get deal alerts. These are great if you are flexible with timing, can book trips further out (many deals are months away), or don’t have a particular destination in mind. I’ve gotten great deals to places including Australia, Italy, and Ireland through various deal alerts. I personally prefer Travelzoo, but I have travel buddy friends that have had great success with the other two, so I still subscribe. (Most deals require time or convenience sacrifices given off peak travel times or flexibility on departure dates.)
After flights, unless you are staying with family and friends, a place to lay your head at night is your next biggest expense. I’ve organized these by how fancy you need your accommodations to be. Almost all accommodation savings options require sacrificing some convenience or travel time, so I haven’t marked them individually.
- If you are comfortable bringing your own sheets and sharing rooms and bathrooms, you can find cheap accommodations pretty much everywhere in the world. Hostels aren’t just in Europe. I stayed at an awesome one in Key West. I’ve met incredible people staying at hostels. You can usually find hostels with kitchen facilities as well, helping you save even more. If you are traveling with a group, you can sometimes get an entire room to yourselves. My friends and I did this at an inn in Brugge that clearly had been in operation as a bar with rooms upstairs for several hundred years. Make sure to bring flip flops for the showers, your own linens, and a lock for your belongings. Keep your passport with you, or leave it with the front desk if they have safe facilities.
- Many budget locations you can negotiate pricing. I stayed with fellow volunteers on the beach in Zanzibar, breakfast included for about $5 per person per night. The power was questionable and you needed to ask for the water to be turned on, but it was great! Email or call small mom and pop inns and hotels and ask about lower prices, particularly as your travel dates approach.
- Consider camping, especially if you are driving to your destination and own your equipment. A night or two camping at a nice campground can give you access to wonderful facilities that you may not be able to afford from a hotel. Or, see if a campground has cabins to rent. Just be sure to check on if they provide linens or if you need to bring your own. Glamping–glamorous camping–could work too, and give you a real bed to sleep in.
- Couch surfing is a thing. I’ve never actually done it, but for the right type of traveler, it can save you a bundle.
Moderate Sacrifices Required
- Explore options such as house swapping, non-private air bnb rooms, and staying with family and friends. We live in the NYC area and while we aren’t the most convenient NYC accommodation, we’ve opened our house to friends and family traveling to the area to save on housing. Likewise, I stay with friends whenever I can to save on hotels so I can travel more. Just be sure to be a good houseguest!
- Choose a hotel that is a little bit further from the main attractions, but connected to mass transportation. When we went to Rome, we stayed at the end of a transportation line, but saved enough that we were able to go.
Ok, what if I want to travel like a normal person?
- Always compare hotels, bed and breakfasts, and apartment options. I generally check a lot of different sites for accommodations including kayak.com, and hotels.com for hotels; airbnb, homeaway, and VRBO for apartments; and bedandbreakfast.com as well as sites listing local small inns and bnbs that require emailing or calling to inquire about availability. I’ve scored some great deals in ski towns by reaching out directly to inn keepers. This requires a lot of time to do research, but can yield great savings.
- When traveling for a week or more to one location, booking a package (airfare + hotel) can often yield big savings. Likewise, an apartment rental for the week is often significantly cheaper than 6 nights in a hotel. It also comes with the bonus of potentially saving on meals (see below for more).
- Always compare a hotel’s website with a travel site like hotels.com or Expedia. Often you can get a slightly better rate and will generally end up with a better room by booking directly through the hotel.
- That said, keep an eye out for deals from credit cards or loyalty programs. Capital One Venture right now is running a promotion offering 10% cash back on qualifying rooms booked on hotels.com. We recently got 10% cash back on all of our rooms booked for our trip to Croatia! My husband also gets secret rates on hotels.com, often beating the best advertised rate on a hotel’s own website. My mom gets Orbitz rewards for booking with them. Pick what works best for you.
Champagne Tastes, Beer Budget
- Alas, if you want the nicest accommodations, you generally have to spend the most. That said, there are savings opportunities. Loyalty programs are your friend here. They often give you access to lower rates, added perks, and free travel once you accommodate enough points. We’ve gotten rates lower than wedding block rates through loyalty programs. Since most are free to sign up for, my husband and I pretty much have memberships in all of them!
- Off season travel is your friend here, just check with your hotel to make sure they aren’t planning any significant renovations or construction!
- You can sometimes luck out on a deal alert email and get a great deal on a baller hotel. Same advice as before, check to make sure there isn’t a nasty construction surprise that is driving the deal.
Rental Cars and Other Means of Transportation
- First of all, do the math to determine if you need a rental car at all. It might be cheaper to take ride sharing services like Uber/Lyft, rent bikes, walk, or use public transportation. Ask for advice from locals to determine if you really even need a car. Not having a car usually means giving up some convenience and time, but you can save a lot by relying on other means of transportation. Don’t just assume because you need a car where you live you will need a car where you are going!
- If you determine that you do need a car, there are ways to save. Using an aggregator like Kayak let’s you compare brands and vehicle types. Make sure you book a vehicle that meets your needs. My husband often reminds me a compact car won’t fit our ski gear!
- Price clubs like Costco and BJs offer discounts on travel including rental cars. Costco also allows a second driver at no extra cost. I suppose technically this is a money sacrifice since you do have to pay for the membership, but if you already have one, there’s no cost for exploring this option!
- Check with your personal car insurance and credit card companies to see what they cover as far as rental car insurance. You may not need to take out additional coverage from the rental car agency.
- You can sometimes get a great deal if you need a one way rental. Often, companies need to move cars from one location to another. If you happen to need to go that way, you can score a great deal. My husband recently paid $10 a day for a rental in Florida because of this! This usually involves a lot of luck, but if you are traveling from a less popular destination to a more popular one, it can save a lot. Make sure if you are doing a one way road trip to price a one way rental each direction.
- If you can plan accordingly, never pre-pay for gas at the end of your trip. It’s pretty much always more money. This requires a small sacrifice of convenience and time, but will save you decent money so long as you remember to fill up and leave early enough to do so!
- Check to see if it’s significantly cheaper to pick up your rental car off airport property. Even factoring in the cost of a cab or Uber, you may still save by going off property. This requires a time sacrifice in addition to convenience.
- When using public transportation, do the math to see if multi-day passes are a better option that single tickets. You usually need to take several trips to make it worth it. Also, know yourself. If you are going to run out of time and need to take cabs, don’t waste money on a metro pass you won’t end up using!
- When traveling between cities, always check local rail service, regional rail, bus, and flight options. For example, you can get from New York to Philadelphia via NJ Transit and Septa waaaaaay cheaper than taking Amtrak. It takes a lot longer, but if you have the time, it can be worth it. I once spent the better part of the day taking the trains from Hoboken, NJ to the Philly airport to catch a wicked cheap flight to Las Vegas I couldn’t afford otherwise.
Food and Activities
- The most obvious way to save money on food is to limit the amount you eat out. You can do this in many ways from choosing accommodations with a full kitchen to buying a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly. I spent a weekend in Portugal with a loaf of peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches strapped to my backpack that fed my friends and I for lunch all weekend. Even just a hotel fridge can help. Buy milk and a box of cereal. Or go all out and visit local markets and cook local cuisine in your apartment.
- Travel with a cooler if you can. Growing up the cooler provided us with breakfast and lunch leaving only one meal a day to eat out. Before leaving home, my mom would make a batch of chicken salad for sandwiches and load up snacks. My favorite lunch spot in the country might be this amazing Picnic table on the side of the highway next to the Mississippi River. My husband recently bought us the Ice Mule cooler which is great because it packs down and is easy to fly with. When we reach our destination, a quick trip to Walmart for ice and food and we are in business!
- In the same vein, BYOB when you can. We always pack a cooler with beer or wine and usually have a round or two at the hotel instead of going out. I’ve had many a great après ski beers and sunset glasses of wine from the comfort of my airbnb or hotel room. It’s also a super fun way to try local beer and wine! Ask for recommendations when you are at the liquor store.
- If you are staying in hotels, try to find an option that includes breakfast. You could save $10-15 per person per day. If the savings is enough, it might be worth more paying a little more a night to get breakfast included. Note: this only works if you will actually wake up for breakfast! Most hotels end breakfast around 9-10am on weekdays and 11ish on weekends.
- Eat where the locals eat. Touristy areas are almost always more expensive. The views may not be as good but the savings will be. Check sites like Yelp and Opentable for price points and reviews vs TripAdvisor.
- The best way to save money on activities is to take advantage of free ones or free days. Check what attractions in your destinations are free. Many art museums in Europe are free. The Smithsonian museums in DC are free. Many museums offer a free admission on a certain day or night each week. Spend some time doing research and save a bundle.
- Book in advance if you can. These days most major attractions offer 10-20% discounts when booking online. Sometimes, you may not even need to do advance planning to reap the benefits. I’ve booked online admission for activities while walking to the attraction and scanned a mobile entry pass!
- Do the math to see if a multi-attraction pass makes sense. On a recent trip to Paris, it was about breakeven for us to do a Paris pass based on what we planned to do, so we got the pass. We ended up doing 3 other attractions that were included for free and skipped the lines to the museums! On the flip side, in Dubrovnik, the pass didn’t make sense since we didn’t have time to do the activities on the pass. My favorite pass is an annual U.S. National Park pass. For under $100 you get access to hundreds of parks for a full year. Do your research and save where you can!
What other savings tips do you want to hear about? Let me know in the comments!