One of the biggest roadblocks to enjoying the vacation of your dreams is feeling that you don’t have enough money. But travel doesn’t have to break the bank. Despite the overwhelming perception that travel is expensive, there are infinite resources available to reduce travel costs so you can travel cheaply on any budget. Simply follow a few savvy money-saving tips and learn how to budget your travel dollars.
Save money while planning your dream trip:
- Choose an affordable destination. Whittle down your travel bucket list to three or four destinations. Then spend some time researching to come up with a budget for your entire trip in each destination. Include the costs of getting there and any extra ground transport costs, hotels and foods prices, plus any fees for vaccinations, travel insurance and visas. Having an overall idea of the entire cost of your trip will give you insight to where you can cut back and save.
- Find out your average cost per night. Although flights are a considerable cost, sometimes it’s your accommodation that is your biggest expense. What you pay for where you lay your head can range from super cheap ($5 per night) to exorbitant (several hundred dollars per night) to somewhere in between. Since amenities, location, comfort and included features can range drastically between levels of accommodation, be honest with yourself about what’s important to you. Need a kitchen? Fancy a bathtub? Want a spot in the center of the city? Write down your “must haves” and then find the types of accommodations that suit your needs. Perhaps trade off between luxury accommodations and hostels. Try a city apartment on AirBnB or an agriturismo in the countryside. couch surfing. If you want to try free accommodation, look on Home Exchange or Couchsurfing, an excellent way to meet residents and experience the local culture.
- Be flexible with your vacation dates. If your vacation time is flexible, play around with your departure and return dates. Flying Saturday to Saturday is probably the most expensive option, while flying Tuesday to Tuesday is usually the least expensive. Try not to travel during the high seasons such as May-August in Europe or Winter/Spring holidays in the Caribbean or Mexico. Instead, look into traveling during the shoulder seasons, perhaps even the off-season when you’re certain to find incredible deals for accommodation and tours. (Plus, the destination is usually less crowded during shoulder and off-season travel.)
- Be picky when buying plane tickets. I like to research my flight on three or four different booking engines, plus the actual airline’s website, and I always begin researching at least three months out from my travel dates. For example, I’ll check Kayak, Expedia and Skyscanner, all of which are popular search engines that yield results for both budget and mainstream airlines. If I find an appealing deal on American Airlines or Frontier, I’ll then go to those individual websites to compare costs.
Be smart with your money:
- Use credit and debit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. You may not realize that your credit card charges your an additional 2-3% for every credit card transaction you make in a foreign currency. This may not seem like much on a USD 10 dinner abroad, but the fees certainly add up, especially if you’re paying using your card to pay for accommodation and local transport. Avoid these fees by applying for a credit card that doesn’t charge you these fees. Companies like Capital One, Chase and Citibank all offer cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, plus additional benefits like insurance coverage of rental cars and lost luggage reimbursement. Similarly, find a debit card that forgoes the typical foreign transaction fees and ATM usage fees. Using a debit card that doesn’t charge you for using an out of network ATM machine, regardless of bank or location, will save you bundles by the end of your trip. My Charles Schwab debit card actually reimburses me any fees charged by international ATM as well.
- Embrace the value of travel rewards cards. Nowadays, there is no excuse to not have a travel reward card! These travel-savvy cards allow you to bank points, get cash back or save miles that you can use towards your dream vacation. Some awards cards give you up to 60,000 miles just for applying for and making a purchase with the card in the first three months (American Advantage Citibank). This is enough miles for a round-trip flight within the United States or a one-way flight overseas! Just be sure to not carry a balance on your card as the interest rates usually skyrocket after the first year.
- Always use the currency of your destination. Sometimes, though not always, you’re given a choice of paying in your home country’s currency or your destination’s currency. Always, always choose your destination’s currency to avoid additional charges. If you’re really tempted to seeing what your purchase is costing in home currency, carry a calculator.
- Take advantage of membership discounts. Have an AAA membership? Are you a teacher or travel agent? Are you a senior? Don’t be afraid to ask about the availability of discounts for certain members. Many hotels and rental car agencies offer discounts for AAA members and seniors. Art galleries and museums may have “pensioner” rates, a.k.a. senior citizen discounts. If you’re a travel agent and belong to IATA, ask about discounts for local tours, hotel rates and local transport discounts. Any type of discount can add up to real value!
Saving money along the way:
- Eat within your budget. This one seems like a no-brainier, but I’m always amazed when I see the amount of money travelers spend on food. This is one travel category where you can really pinch pennies while still experiencing the local flavors and authentic foodie culture of your destination. First of all, only eat at restaurants located outside of the touristy areas. Walk a few blocks away from the main square and avoid establishments near the city center and tourist highlights. Also, look for places with non-English menus. You’ll also find that these restaurants are usually packed with locales and may actually make authentic food instead of catering to tourist tastes. Another way to save money on your food budget is to eat your main meal at lunch. Since restaurants usually charge more for dinner plates (and you’re more likely to drink alcohol with dinner), reduce your overall costs by eating your heavier meal during the noon hour and a lighter meal for your evening meal. You may wish to grab a bottle of wine, some fresh bread and a block of savory cheese and relax in a neighborhood park for dinner. Or buy ingredients and cook in your apartment or hostel’s kitchen, a great way to make friends and gather advice for local sightseeing. If you’re staying in a Bed and Breakfast, hostel or hotel that offers free breakfast, take advantage and make sure to eat a hearty meal to begin your day. While you certainly shouldn’t binge or eat more that your share, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing an apple or muffin for the road too.
- Shop where the locals shop. Check out shops, book stores and grocery stores outside of the touristy areas. Prices will be lower and you may find products or ingredients that aren’t readily available in the tourist center. If you’re shopping for souvenirs, try the same tactic. You’ll be surprised that you can find the exact same products in a neighborhood market that you find in a touristy boutique downtown.
- Avoid hidden hotel fees. Always ask about extra fees when booking your accommodation. Hotels, hostels and Bed and Breakfasts can be sneaky about adding in “tourist” fees and additional taxes. There may also be fees for early and late check-ins as well as Internet fees, breakfast buffet fees and “resort fees.” Also, make sure you research the cancellation fees for your specific facility. For example, AirBnB has three different cancellation fee options ranging from full refunds to absolutely no refunds.
Research the freebies:
- Find the free tours. There are free options available in any destination. For instance, many cities offer free walking tours. While you are often expected to give your tour guide a small tip, these tours are an excellent introduction to the city structure and tourist highlights. Ask the local tourist company about these options.
- Find free WiFi. Most accommodation facilities today offer free WiFi. If it’s not available in your private room, check in the common areas. Also, free WiFi is readily available at public libraries, tourist bureaus, cafes, restaurants, and many other public buildings. Sometimes the city offers a free HotSpot in the town center too. As always, be cautious about what you access on your device when using public WiFi.
- Free breakfast and happy hours. We all like free food! While planning for your trip, look into accommodations that offer free breakfast. Included breakfast can range from a full-range buffet in the United States to croissants and coffee in Europe to pastries, fruit and spreads in South America. Also, some hotels and hostels offer a happy hour with free drinks and/or bar snacks. Yum!
- Partake in free outdoor activities. From hiking and laying on the beach to packing a picnic and enjoying an outdoor concert, there are limitless options for taking in the local culture, scenery and lifestyle in a way that doesn’t break the bank. Simply wandering through a local market and pausing to nibble local delicacies is a wonderful way to fill a few morning hours. One of my favorite memories from my recent Paris trip was enjoying a bottle of wine and snacks in the Parc Du Champ De Mars. We munched on cheese, fresh baguettes and olives while the sun set and the lights of the tower danced before us.
- Seek free indoor activities. Many museums and public buildings around the world are absolutely free. All of London’s major museums are free, the Louvre in Paris is free on the first Sunday of every month and Chicago offers a range of free days during the winter months for its world-class museums.
Money doesn’t have to be your number one obstacle to exploring the world!