That’s why we pulled together this list of 8 tips and tricks to save money while traveling, regardless of how often or where you want to travel.
Table of Contents:
1. Pick the Right Destination
Saving money on travel has something in common with starting a business–it’s all about location. Choosing the right destination can get you the experience you want for a price that’s right. But how do you find the “right” destination? Here are a few tips and tricks in this arena:
- Shop around: Chances are if you’re choosing anything from a new home to a new vacuum cleaner, you’re going to shop around. Why not do that with travel destinations? Make a list of places you want to visit, and then make a quick spreadsheet comparing costs for big expenses like airfare or gas and accommodations.
- Ask Google: The internet is packed full of excellent travel blogs, and many are geared towards affordable travel. Just Googling “cheapest places to travel” might give you a great list to start with.
- Stay closer to home: If you can, consider staying closer to home but still getting the type of vacation you want. This seems less exotic, but can also be so much cheaper since airfare and gas are sure to be some of your biggest expenses. For instance, in the Midwest, we can get a beach experience at Lake Michigan for way less than getting to either coast for an ocean vacation.
- Choose a less touristy location: Some of our favorite family vacations have been in very off-the-beaten path places like Baraboo, Wisconsin. Did you know there’s a circus museum there? True. And it’s great. But because we stay outside the Dells and other major tourist areas, we get super cheap accommodation and a great experience.
2. Travel at the Right Time
The timing of your travel is probably the second biggest way, besides destination, to save money. But these two things hang together. If you have time to take a vacation in the middle of the summer, look at places for which summer is actually off-season, like skiing destinations. But if you can travel whenever, you can choose your location first, and then pick the time of year when you can get a great vacation there but also save money. Here are some ideas:
- Research shoulder seasons: You don’t want to plan your vacation at a time when your destination will be a ghost town. Shoulder seasons are the weeks or months between peak tourist season and the true off season. For instance, it’s cheaper to travel in Europe in the spring and fall versus the summer, but it’s still probably a better experience than you’ll get in the winter.
- Fly in the middle of the week: Flying mid-week can help you save a ton of money on your flights. Generally if you’re flying, you should play around with the start and end dates of your trip to see when you can get the best deals. The savings could be as much as a few hundred dollars per ticket.
- Check for deals on accommodations: Often hotels, hostels, and even Airbnb homes will have better rates during the shoulder season or off season, so be sure you also take that into account when choosing your travel dates.
- Look into free days for attractions: If you’re traveling somewhere specifically to get into certain attractions, see if those attractions have discounted or free days.
3. Be Creative About Modes of Travel
Sometimes you just have to get on a plane to go somewhere. But you might be able to save by using an alternative method of transportation, especially if you’re traveling within the United States. Here are some options to consider:
- Use a megabus or train: Getting from one major city to the next can be a lot cheaper with a megabus or a train. Sure, it takes longer. But if you pick the right route, you can also see some interesting sites while you’re on your way without having to be behind the wheel.
- Country-hop with a train pass: In Europe, it’s usually going to be cheaper to go between and around countries with a train pass.
- Consider renting a car: Don’t have a car reliable enough for a cross-country trip? If you’re traveling with kids, renting a car is still probably cheaper than flying. And here’s one tip: Renting a large sedan or even a small crossover is almost always cheaper than renting a minivan, so make sure you shop around.
- Take one longer trip: If you’re in the rhythm of taking two week-long vacations a year, consider consolidating your trips to a 10 to 14 day trip once per year. This can be a great way to fully experience the place you choose to visit, and it can also save you a ton. Since transportation to and home from your destination is likely to take up a big chunk of your vacation budget, doing it just one time instead of twice could cut that cost in half.
The key here isn’t to travel in a particular way versus another way. Just be sure you’re open-minded about this, too. Scope out the ways that locals get around, or ask other travelers how they’ve gotten around a particular city or country once they’re in it. You might be surprised at the cheap, creative solutions you come up with.
4. Think Outside the Box for Accommodations
Besides airfare, your next most expensive vacation cost is likely to be accommodations. But you don’t have to go with the traditional hotel option here, either. If you do, be sure you shop around so you’re at least getting a good deal on that! But here are some other accommodation options to consider:
- Home Sharing: Sites like VRBO and Airbnb are excellent places to find cheaper accommodations, even in major U.S. cities. I recently booked a master suite with its own entrance in San Francisco for $80 per night, which is much cheaper than decent hotels in the area. Home sharing sites are also a great way to find more flexible accommodations, such as apartments that can give you access to kitchen facilities–an excellent way to cut back on your food costs.
- Crashing with Friends: Are your college friends farflung across the country or around the world? Ask close friends if you can stay with them on vacation, maybe in exchange for a few dinners out on you. You’ll save a load on accommodations so that you can afford to treat your hosts while you’re there. Plus, you can get a local’s view of the area where you’re staying, which is a great option.
- Rent an RV: RVing can be expensive, depending on the current cost of gas. However, it can also roll in your travel and accommodations, making for a fairly affordable option overall. RV travel is an excellent option for outdoorsy types. Use the RV as a base camp for your adventures, and travel the country in one.
- Look at Hostels: Youth hostels are less common in the U.S., but they’re everywhere in Europe. And despite their common name, they aren’t just for young people. Anyone with a backpack and a dream can typically stay in one of these hostels, which typically offer dorm-style accommodations, really cheaply.
- Consider a B&B: If you think B&Bs are always more expensive than hotels, you might be in for a surprise. The fact is that they are often a more affordable way to stay. Plus, they come with a built-in breakfast, which can help you cut back on your food costs while you travel.
- Tent Camp: Here’s another option for the adventurous: pack a tent. Tent camping can work even if your ultimate goal is to see metropolitan areas. Many such cities have tent camping locations on their outskirts, just a short bus ride from all the main attractions.
5. Trim Your Food Costs
One of my favorite parts of traveling is eating good food. In fact, it’s sometimes worth cutting back on travel and lodging costs to splurge on food, depending on where you travel. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still save money on food. Here are some ways to do it:
- Talk to the locals: Ask locals where they take their family for dinner, preferably locally owned places. If locals eat there often, chances are it’s not super touristy or super spendy, but it’s probably good, unique food.
- Book a place with a kitchen: If you can, book accommodations that have at least a microwave and a fridge. Then you can go grocery shopping for some of your food, which can be a big savings. Leverage the money you save for a few nicer meals out.
- Shop local farmer’s markets: If you like to experience local food but also don’t want to blow your budget eating out, shop at local markets instead. This is a great way to get food that’s unique to the area without spending a ton of money.
- Keep a cooler handy: Even if you aren’t staying somewhere with an actual kitchen, keep a cooler in your vehicle as you go between sites. Then you can pack a quick lunch or snacks so that you’re not constantly dipping into your budget to buy overpriced food at attractions as you sightsee.
6. Prioritize Sightseeing
Of course if you’re traveling broadly, you want to see the sights. But that doesn’t mean you need to pay for every tourist attraction in a local area. Here’s how to save on sightseeing:
- Do your research first: You might find that some attractions are cheaper to get into at certain times of the day or days of the week. Put those on the calendar first and plan around them.
- Pick your must-see attractions: Choose one or two local sights you absolutely have to see, and make sure you plan the rest of the trip around those. Work them into both your vacation budget and your vacation calendar to ensure you can get there.
- Check out mutual agreements between museums: If you have memberships to museums or other attractions in your hometown, you can sometimes get discounts at other museums in the country. See if your museums have any programs like these.
- See if your credit card offers any benefits: Sometimes buying tickets to attractions on your credit card can get you those tickets more cheaply, so be sure you check this out.
- Make a list of free stuff to do: If you’re like me, you want some downtime on your vacation, too. So make a list of free things to do and see, like parks to visit or beaches to spend time at. Then fill out your loose vacation schedule by making time for these things as well as the paid attractions.
7. Use Airline Miles and Credit Card Rewards
As you’re saving up for your next trip, don’t forget to save up your airline miles and credit card rewards, too. If you don’t already have a favorite travel rewards credit card, check out this list to find one that might work well for your needs. These cards will let you rack up rewards and miles for everyday spending. (Just be sure you pay off the balance each month to avoid paying interest!) Here’s how to choose the right one to save you money:
- Choose a card that fits your spending patterns: If you rarely eat out when you’re at home, for instance, don’t choose a card that weights rewards for this type of spending, but choose one that gives rewards for grocery spending.
- Pick a card that works with your favorite airline or hotels: Be sure you can easily use the points you’re racking up at an airline or hotel you’ll actually use or visit.
- Consider a cash-back card: Not sure which airline you’ll fly or just want more flexibility? Consider a cash back credit card, instead. You can accumulate cash back until it’s time to start paying for your trip expenses, when you can cash it out to use for vacation.
Related: Best Airline Credit Cards of 2019
8. Stick to Your Budget
It’s tempting to think really big when it comes to travel. And there’s definitely a time and place for that when it’s in your budget. But don’t start going into debt or starving yourself on grocery expenses just to travel the world.
Instead, make travel a priority by cutting other budget categories. Cut back on how much you spend on groceries. Cut the cable cord. Spend less on clothing and everyday transportation. Then, direct your savings from these categories to your travel savings.
Once you’re ready to book a trip, stick to the budget you have available. This will keep you from going into debt to travel, which will just turn into a vicious cycle.
Even if your first few trips need to be staycations or very local vacations, you can start out on a shoestring budget. Then as you free up more money to save for travel, whether by starting a side gig or paying down debt, you can get to further and more expensive locations.
The bottom line isn’t that you travel to the most luxurious, exotic locations on the planet. Instead, the point is just to get out and experience something new. Who knows where that could lead?