It’s estimated that 42 million Americans traveled last summer. At an average cost of $1200 per person, that’s a whole lotta dough. Traveling with a family or even friends can add up quick, making a family vacation cost about as much as your health insurance deductible. Ouch.
And that’s just for a summer vacation. What about girls’ weekend trips, holiday travel, and travel with your kid’s soccer team throughout the year?
With all of the commitments we make to spend more time with family and friends (and the soccer team), it can really put a dent on your budget or on your credit card.
Luckily, there are about a million and one ways to learn how to plan a trip on a budget. Whether you’re traveling on a budget with a family or you’re traveling in your mid 20s, here’s some great budget travel inspiration.
How to Travel on a Budget
When traveling, there are three main pieces that create the trip of a lifetime:
- The dates you pick
- Your budget
- Your destination
If you can be flexible with dates or destinations, you can save money. However, if you’re set with a specific weekend or place, then we’ll have to trim the budget with some outside the box ideas.
Create a Travel Budget You Can Stick With.
Start by creating your travel budget. This can be a rough guestimate of how much you think your vacation will cost, based on the number of days, people, and destinations.
Wondering what to include in a travel budget? Depending on how you’re traveling, and with whom, you’ll want to plan for:
- A place to stay
- Car rental, taxis, Uber or public transportation
- Travel insurance
- Snacks, eating out or groceries
- Tips for hotel staff, drivers tour guides, etc.
- Activities such as theme parks, ziplines, etc.
- Spending money
- Must have trinkets or souvenirs
Obviously, a weekend trip budget is going to be much cheaper than traveling around europe with a family. However, it’s about deciding what’s important to you. Some people are foodies and want to dine at the finest restaurants. Others are all about the activities and couldn’t care less what their hotel room is like. Take some time to rank what’s important to you, and then work on cutting the costs on items that aren’t a priority.
The number one rule of traveling on a budget is to be flexiible. If you can be up in the air on dates or destinations, you’ll save a ton of money.
- Check out price variations on flights depending upon the days traveled. When searching airfare, there is often a calendar with pricing for each day. Traveling mid-week tends to be cheaper.To find cheap airfare, check out Google Flights. Not only can you view a calendar of flights with pricing, but you can set alerts that will let you know when the price dips for the dates and destinations you want. I love using this to keep an eye on flights for dream vacations.
- Consider staying over on Sunday night. Sunday night rates are usually cheaper than Friday or Saturday nights, since everyone heads home on Sunday.
- Try picking your destination based on where you can get a cheap flight to. If you’re stuck with traveling during a certain time, use Google Flights or my favorite, Scott’s Cheap Flights, to find cheap travel destinations that fit your schedule.
If you’re not able to change locations or dates, you can still save money by finding ways to trim your budget. There are four main categories where you can cut your budget and still have a great time: food, activities, transportation, and accomodations.
How to Save on Activities & Food During Your Vacation
Depending on your vacation plans, most of these great budget travel tips will work for you. It’s just picking and choosing what makes sense for your family, trip and budget:
1. Research your destination.
Before heading out on your trip, find travel bloggers, facebook groups, instagram accounts or local websites that can provide you with cost effective activities and places to eat. Do your research and find out what touristy activities are worth the money and which to skip.
Once you’re on vacation, don’t be shy. Make friends with the locals and find out where they go to relax or have a great meal. Chances are you’ll find something off the beaten path that you never would have found otherwise.
2. Find free events in the area.
Often you can find free activities through local websites. Some attractions have free days, or you can get free admission through your credit card, AAA membership, AARP or with a student ID.
3. Use attraction coupons found in brochures and tourist booklets.
You know the giant case I’m talking about – with a bazillion brochures and flyers in the hotel lobby. They’re hard to miss, since you’re usually staring at them while checking in. You can also find them in local restaurants or you can ask for extra brochures at the hotel’s front desk. Or, check out ShowTickets before you leave to get your attraction tickets early!
4. Talk to the concierge.
The concierge can not only help you get tickets or find activities, but they can help you find savings as well. They’ll know the cheapest ways to attend events and attractions, and where to find discounts.
5. Eat out for breakfast or lunch.
Since breakfast and lunch tend to be cheaper than dinner, you’ll save money by only eating out for the less expensive meals. Then grab something from the grocery or have leftovers for dinner.
6. Take advantage of continential breakfast or snacks provided by the hotel.
On the other hand, free breakfast is free breakfast, right? Often times there are some great snack options as well during continential breakfast that you can grab and use as snacks for later. By timing it right, you could eat a late breakfast, a snack and an early dinner, and save by skipping lunch altogether.
7. Find restaurants off the beaten path.
Main tourist streets – like the Strip in Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans – are going to cost much more because they’re smack dab right in the middle of the tourist area. A rule of thumb is to walk 4 – 6 blocks away from the main tourist areas to find cheaper restaurants. (Of course, it goes without saying to avoid risking your safety for some cheap grub!)
8. Eat street food.
Depending upon how you feel about food carts and food trucks, these can be a great cheap option for a lighter lunch or dinner. Plus, you’ll get authentic local food that you might not easily find elsewhere.
9. Book a room with a fridge and a microwave.
If you’re staying for more than one night, booking a room with a fridge or microwave can be a perfect way to cut down on food costs. Whether you’re storing leftovers for later, cold water to take with on outings, or preparing meals, it’s a great help in trimming your food budget.
10. Use Yelp to find great eats in your price range.
Yelp is the perfect app/website for finding exactly what you’re want to eat. You can search by price, type of food, or location. Yelp reviews help to take the guesswork out of finding a great restaurant that’s in your budget.
11. Bring snacks with you.
Whether you’re hiking, roadtripping, or cruising the Riveria, bring snacks and water with you, always.
Carrying a refillable water bottle will also help to avoid spending extra money on overpriced drinks. Often there are ample opportunities to fill it up. For example, bring your reusable water bottle empty to the airport, and then fill it once you’re past security. It’s a great way to avoid spending money in the overpriced gift stores that can be found at the airport.
12. Pack a picnic.
My sister packs a picnic to take on car trips, which is brilliant. It gives the kids a chance to get out and stretch their legs and saves money on food at the same time. A total win-win!
This is also a great way to save while on vacation. Finding a local grocery and buying snacks to have a picnic is a great way to enjoy your destination’s parks and monuments.
13. Shop at farmer’s markets and local stores.
While in Switzerland and Paris, my husband and I stopped at the grocery and picked up cheese, bread, and salads, rather than eating at yet another restaurant. It’s a great alternative to yet another overpriced restaurant meal, without the waiting for seating and having to pay extra for tips.
13. Figure out food prior to being hungry.
Or, hangry. If you get hangry, you know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing worse than trying to find food when you’re starved and angry. Try to plan at least a couple of hours ahead so that you have a general idea of where your next meal is coming from.
Otherwise, you’ll just eat anything, anywhere in order to curb your hunger (and anger). Planning ahead means your stomach and wallet will thank you!
14. Take advantage of happy hour.
Plan ahead to have dinner during happy hour. While it is a bit early, chances are you can find a restaurant that has happy hour pricing. It’s the perfect time to split some appetizers, have some drinks, and not pay an arm and a leg.
15. Look for city tourism cards.
We used these city tourism cards in NYC, and I thought they worked out great. You get entry into over 100 attractions for a fraction of the price. Plus, it helped us to plan out which activities we absolutely had to see while we were there.
They were easy to use, and only a few attractions you had to register for. Otherwise, they covered everything from city bus tours to the Empire State building! These are two of my favorites:
Transportation on a Budget
While traveling by car is the cheapest way to travel with family, the recent drop in cost of flights makes flying a close second.
No matter how you chose to get there, transportation is generally the biggest cost. Here are some great shortcuts to help you trim down your transportation costs.
1. Go directly to the airline website to purchase your tickets.
While I’ve never tried it, some people swear by booking directly on the airline’s website once you’ve found the flights you want. The idea is that you’ll be more likely to hit any additional deals or sales by booking directly.
2. Compare the cost of booking two one-way flights.
Sometimes booking open flights, or one way flights, can be more cost effective than booking round trip. Using a comparison website should be helpful in figuring out whether this budget travel method will work for you or not. Some websites to try are:
If you’re wondering how to travel on a budget in Europe, consider open jaw fares. Open jaw is where you fly Point A to Point B, then on the return trip fly Point C to Point A. This is a great way to save if you’re traveling internationally or are planning a vacation with multiple destinations.
3. Book your flights on the weekend.
I’ve never thought to try this, but it’s rumored that booking your flight during the weekend means that it’ll likely be cheaper. The idea is that corporate travel bookings tend to happen during the week, so prices are up.
4. Consider alternate transportation.
Once you’re at your destination, consider alternatives to renting a car. You can Uber, walk, rent a bike, or use public transportation.
Consider booking a hotel that’s central to everything you want to see, so that you can walk when possible and take public transportation the rest of the time.
5. Make sure your car is in tip top shape.
If you’re headed out on a road trip, make sure your car is just as ready as you are. It’s important to check tire pressure and get an oil change if needed. While you’re there, have the attendant top off any fluids and check your air filter as well.
To make your car as fuel efficient as possible, try to keep your speed under 65. Studies show that going faster than 65 lessens your car’s fuel effiency.
And for the love of pete, don’t pull a Griswold and overpack or drag something behind you!
How to Save Big on Travel Accomodations
One of the best budget travel tips that I know of is to consider alternate places to stay. While hotels are nice, they tend to be the priciest. If you are up for a little adventure and trying something new, I recommend considering one of these accomodation alteratives:
1. Go camping.
If you want to know how to travel cheap in the USA, look no further. Camping is one of the best ways to cut travel expenses and enjoy the great outdoors. You can stay in a national park, at an HOA campsite, or somewhere in between. To get started finding the perfect spot, check out Camping-USA.com.
2. Rent an AirBnB.
Depending upon how many people you have and your length of stay, you can easily rent an entire house through AirBnB for much cheaper than several hotel rooms. With more people to split the cost, it turns out a ton cheaper and you often have more options than you would at a hotel.
Even better, you have a kitchen so you can cook (or at least use the fridge to stash your booze). With some easy meals and drinking at the rental, you’ll save a ton of cash. All of this makes AirBnBs are the perfect for cheap family vacations!
3. Crash at a friend’s or family member’s house.
We’re not all lucky enough to know someone in Italy with an amazing guesthouse, and who’s willing to put up with a family world travel adventure (dang it). However, chances are you know someone that lives in a pretty amazing place and is willing to let you crash.
Obviously offer them some form of compensation in return – whether it’s money, cooking for the week, or rewiring the electric in their entire house – so that they don’t regret ever opening the door.
By bypassing having to get a hotel room, and being a polite houseguest, you’ll save a ton of money and hopefully become closer to someone you wanted to spend some time with anyway.
4. Stay in a hostel.
I stayed at a working commune type place in Switzerland once. I would like to think that hostels tend to lean more towards that than the horror movies that I avoid watching. If you’re brave enough to try it, hostels are a great cheap alternative to hotels.
And really – you’re not likely to spend much time in your room. So what’s the big deal about sharing a room with some fellow travelers? If you’re comfortable enough, check out your options on sites like Tripadvisor. Tripadvisor is full of great reviews so you can get realistic feedback about everything from places to stay to activities in the area.
If you’re still planning on staying in a hotel
Ok, fine – you’re not the super adventrous type. That’s totally cool, I get it. If you still want the security or luxuries of hotel living, here are travel on a budget tips that will still help you save on hotel rooms:
1. Don’t get the best room.
How much time are you really spending in your hotel room anyway? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
If you’re just looking for a place to crash in between outings, don’t get the best room possible. You can easily trim your budget by not opting for the penthouse suite and getting something that’s clean, simple and budget friendly.
2. Always stay at the same place.
Staying loyal to one particular brand of hotel means that you can sign up for their hotel rewards program and earn points.
However, if you find that their pricing is always higher than other options, I would stick with the immediate savings of a cheaper room than versus the earning of points. Hotel reward programs really only work if you frequent the hotel enough with a year to accumulate enough points to redeem them for free stays.
3. Stay longer.
Staying over a Sunday night is cheaper, and staying more than one night can sometimes work out to a discount. Some hotels reward customers with a free night or discounted nights if they stay longer.
4. Call the hotel directly to book your stay.
By calling to book your stay, you can ask for a discount while you’re booking the room. If you like to live dangerously, you can try to book the a couple of days in advance. Chances are they could have empty rooms that they’re happy to fill at a discount, rather than let them sit empty and make nothing on them.
If you go this route, you’d better have a couple of back up plans just in case there’s a cheerleading competition in town that weekend, and every hotel is booked up!
Additional Traveling on a Budget Tips
These are some tried and true additional savings ideas to get your within your travel budget. While they didn’t quite fit into any of the categories above, they’re still absolutely worth mentioning!
1. Travel during off peak times.
If you’re wondering how to travel cheap in Europe, try off peak times. Off peak times, or shoulder periods, can be a great time to travel for dirt cheap.
For example, we went to Ireland at the end of February. Their high tourist season is April, May (spring flowers), July, August, and October. However, the weather was great (a little rainy) but warm enough that we didn’t freeze. We were able to get around easier and avoid the crowds for a lot of the attractions.
While there were a couple of attractions not open, it was well worth it. We even ate dinner at a restaurant one night and were literally the only patrons in the entire place!
Flights, hotels and car rental were much cheaper because it was off season as well. So instead of looking for cheap places to travel internationally, try figuring out when the off season is for your international destination. If you can grab that window right before or after the tourist season, you can save thousands.
2. Cash in those credit card points.
Assuming you have a credit card that offer frequent flyer miles or some sort of travel benefits, cash them in.
Or, consider travel hacking. It’s not for the faint of heart, but travel hacking is opening credit cards at the right time to score a ton of points and get free flights or hotel stays. Another popular option is to optimize your flights on an airline like Southwest, so that you fly enough to earn not only a free companion pass for the year, but free flights as well.
3. Find discounts through everyday places.
You’d be surprised at some of the places you can find discounts for travel:
- Costco or Sam’s Club: While I’ve never looked there, I hear great things about the vacation packages through membership clubs. If you’re looking for an all-in-one option, this could be worthwhile if you already have a membership.
- Groupon: Groupon has great discounted travel package deals all the time, especially for budget travel destinations and international locations.
- Your employer: Some employers off perks such as discount travel packages through their corporate travel agent. Ask around and see if they offer any programs to their employees.
- Travelzoo’s Top 20: This is a weekly email that goes out and has discounted hotel, flights, and activities that are flash sales. You can sign up here if you want to receive the weekly top 20 deals email.
- Social media & newsletters: Follow your favorite brands so you’ll know when they offer an epic discount on a trip you’ve had your eye on.
4. Use your age (or cash) to get even more discounts.
Whip out your student ID or AARP membership to see if they offer student or senior discounts. Hey, it’s always worth a shot, right?
Also, try asking for a cash discount. See if paying with cash can get score you an extra discount as well. If you’re feeling really brave, try bargaining. In some countries bargaining on a purchase is expected.
Try shopping where the locals shop to get better deals. Buy your souvenirs from a local store rather than a tourist shop.
Have you tried any of these travel on a budget tips? Have you figured out how to travel the world with no money (or just a little money)? If so, leave your comments and tips below!