Updated April 2020.
Greetings, my readers! For this post, I’m addressing a question that I typically find to be tacky and even rude, unless it comes from someone who truly wants to travel, but believes it’s just too expensive. Here I’ll be sharing my tips and secrets for travel bargain hunting!
1. Flights: Sign Up for Alerts
Flights are by far the most expensive thing you’ll purchase for any long-distance trip… usually. So how do you combat that? Alerts! Go to Hipmunk, AirfareWatchdog, BookingBuddy, Kayak, and any others you like and sign up for their alerts. Type in a search for any place you want to go, and usually an option pops up asking if you want to get emails when there are deals to that destination.
Here are some examples:
A. I once bought a flight from DC to Columbus to visit friends for $63, roundtrip! Yes, that’s $63 roundtrip, including tax, from an expensive airport (DCA). The only catch was that I had to change planes in Michigan, and I had to go in the potentially snowy off-season and travel certain days of the week. Luckily, my friends were very flexible!
B. I got an alert one lovely Tuesday in August to fly to Nashville (my family’s home airport) for less than $150, but I had to fly that weekend. As luck would have it, my cousin’s 10th birthday was that weekend, so I got to surprise her! Sometimes it’s fun how things like that work out!
C. I used to have dear friends in Switzerland, and they wanted me to go there as often as possible. Two different times I found round-trip, non-stop tickets to Zurich for less than $500. The catch? Again, in the snowy off-season. But there are tons of fun things to do in Switzerland in the winter, and I had free lodging and food the whole time I was there!
Read more: How to Find Cheap Flights
Also, sign up for the frequent flier programs of absolutely every airline you fly, even if you don’t think you’ll fly with them again or you think it’ll be a waste of time. You never know!
And lastly, Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning is the best time to buy, no matter when you’re actually flying. Keep an eye on flights those days!
2. Lodging: Friends and Hostels
As I mentioned above, any time I went to Switzerland while my friends were there, I stayed with them for free! And they always wanted to feed me authentic Swiss food, so I ate well, too. They were even so glad I came, they often let me use their train passes or just bought me a pass so I could travel with them while I was there. No matter how I protested or assured them I could buy my own transportation and food, they wanted to do that stuff for me. The takeaway? Travel where you know people!
Also, do not be afraid of hostels. Sometimes you can really find some good deals on chain hotels, too. I once spent two weeks traveling around Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, and I spent less on decent hostels than I did on rent for my apartment in that same time period–a LOT less! I spent an average of $20 per night for safe hostels in the middle of town, but my rent back home at the time equaled $55 per night. I also met my husband on that trip. Travel will always surprise you! Just make sure to check if your hostel provides towels or sheets, and bring shower shoes and your own toiletries for community showers.
More info here: The Ultimate Guide to Accommodations
and The Ultimate Guide to Vacation Rentals
3. Find the Freebies!
There are millions of free things to do in the world! Just do an Internet search for free things to do in your destination city. Free Tours by Foot and other free tour companies give free walking tours in cities all over the world, and all the ones I’ve taken have been excellent. The guides do work on tips, so if you can spare some cash it’s appreciated, but if not, you will probably never see these people again, so don’t feel pressured.
There are also tons of other things to do and see for free pretty much anywhere you go. It’s always free to walk or run and to look at the sites around town, and there are probably some free (or cheap) museums to see. Just search “free things to do in ______” and fill in the blank with whatever city you’ll be visiting, and check Trip Advisor or other review websites to see what’s worth going to and what’s maybe not worth your time, even for free!
Charleston is one of the most expensive U.S. cities I’ve visited, but I still found FREE Things to Do in Charleston!
4. Save, Save, Save!
This one is perhaps the most difficult. This is where the truth comes out and you have to ask yourself, “What are my money priorities?” For me, travel is more important than eating out (yes, even morning coffee at Starbucks)! It’s also more important than shopping for new clothes, shoes, purses, accessories, etc. It’s much more important than having the latest gadget or gadget accessory, too. And it’s way more important than name brand anything–clothes, toiletries, etc.
This doesn’t mean I don’t take care of myself, it just means I ask for new clothes and life essentials at Christmas and birthdays, and I shop the bargain rack at the grocery. It’s amazing how much money you can save by just buying the deodorant in the bargain bin because of a banged up box instead of the full-priced one in the perfect box on the shelf!
Along with saving, work hard! I worked hard and saved all the money I could during high school and college because I figured I would probably need it one day. And then, I started traveling and discovered that was my passion! At one point in my mid-20’s, I was working three jobs and working hard at all three. They were all fun jobs, but they paid the bills and even gave me some fun money left over each month. During that year, I took trips to Turkey, Nashville, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, two trips to Switzerland, New York City, Crystal River (FL), Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic!
Read on: Budget Blunders (You May Be Making)
Here’s another secret: I don’t use a budget. My policy is to buy the least expensive option for things that I need, and just don’t buy things I don’t need. I pay my rent, health insurance, phone bill, electric bill, and credit card, then I save the rest in a special savings account so I’m also earning interest. If I make a little more than usual one month, I don’t splurge, I save it. Then when I see a great deal on a plane ticket or find an experience like a hot air balloon ride while I’m traveling, I can buy those things without any problem!
5. Pack Your Food and Visit the Grocery
OK, so this one goes along with Save, Save, Save!, but I think it warrants its own heading. Food is a pretty significant cost when traveling, and eating is one of the things you have to do no matter where you are, so you’re kind of stuck spending money on it! So how do you combat that hefty overall cost? One way is to bring your own food.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches travel well, as do snack bars (perhaps some you got in the bargain bin because the box was messed up or they were a day out of date?), baked sweet potatoes, cereal, oatmeal packets, tea bags, even leftover turkey from Thanksgiving or other holiday meal. Just make sure they won’t leak–ziplock bags are your best friend! Also, try shopping at the local grocery store. Just check the exchange rate before you go! And if you pay with a credit card (which I recommend you do), and you have the choice to pay in US dollars or in the local currency, go for the local currency so you can get the best exchange rate.
Still hungry? Check out my World Foods Page!
6. Deals that Maybe Aren’t
I’ll round out this post with a couple of tips for avoiding deals that maybe aren’t really good deals. And culprit number 1 is the “budget airline” industry. It’s fine to enjoy that $30 airfare from Istanbul to Basel on EasyJet, RyanAir, or WOW Airlines, but be aware of all those extra fees! You have your ticket, but you may need to choose a seat for an additional fee (I made the mistake of not knowing that on a train from Warsaw to Krakow, Poland).
Perhaps you have your two carry-on bags that were just fine for your international flight to Europe, but now you have to consolidate them into one bag that is also under their 5 kg (11 lb.) luggage requirement or be faced with a heft $50 overweight fee. Check ALL your airline’s rules! Oh, and don’t expect friendly service. That’s a luxury!
Keep reading: How to Get Your EU-261 Compensation
And my #1 rule of traveling? Do NOT plan to check any bags–those get even more expensive, very quickly! The lowest fee I’ve seen for a checked bag is $20, and the highest for just one bag that I’ve seen is $200! (On a “budget” airline, by the way.) You can go without that third (or fourth) pair of shoes if it means you save $100, and you can use that money to buy a new pair of shoes from the country you’re visiting! Not so sure how to pack light? Check out my Packing Page!
What are some of your cheap travel tips and tricks? Feel free to share below! And check out my Saving and Money Page for my best tips and hacks!
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