People always ask me how I afford to travel as much as I do. The answer: I travel for cheap but still in style. I’ve gotten extremely savvy at optimizing my travel budget and have some incredible proven tips that will help you make that dream vacation a financial reality.
1. Be open to Travel Various Places– I have a pretty long travel wish list so I am generally open to traveling to many locations. I plan my trips based on the deals that find- (See my blog on how to find travel deals) I recently found a $280 flight to Cuba. Cuba is on my must see list but not up near the top, but guess what, I going to Cuba in November. If the deal is there, take it. The money you save can go toward another trip and eventually you’ll find a deal on most of your must see places.
2. Travel Off Season– I traveled to Greece in April. I stayed in AMAZING hotels….but paid significantly less than I would have a mere month and half later because I traveled off season- like 70-80% less in some cases. The weather was a bit cooler than summer, but it was still nice, and the same hotel room that cost me $105 in April was $780 in June. Make sure you understand the off season for the area you are going to. Just because it’s off season where you live doesn’t mean it’s off season on where you are going. For example, most Europeans travel in August. While that may be a slower time in the US due to kids going back to school, this is one of the busiest times to travel to certain areas of Europe.
3. Plan Ahead– I often start planning my trips 6-9 months in advance. Often a great airfare will come up that I can catch that if I waited to book, would be much higher. I can also find a better selection and price for available hotels. It’s simple supply and demand, if a hotel has many rooms available they often will have better rates to get bookings. As you get closer to the time of travel, if they have fewer rooms available and it’s a popular time, the rates may go up. I often book in boutique hotels that have few rooms, by booking ahead I make sure I get a room in the hotels that I want versus waiting until the last minute when the only rooms left are in generic, boring hotels.
4. Use Rebate Sites– When I am booking airfare, cars, and hotels, I use Ebates.com. I typically get a cash rebate of 1-4% back after my travels. That adds up if you travel a lot, plus they often show your discount promo codes to save even more money. My rebates go back into my travel fund. I even use ebates to save an extra 3-6% when purchasing Groupons which can save me money on activities, restaurants, and even hotels in many cities. Sign up for a free account here and get $10 bonus cash:
5. Use Google Flight Tool– I love to use Google Flights to look at the cost of airfare on various dates. I can often save big money by changing my dates by a day or two or even looking ahead to see if there are any special deals going on in the future. The Google flights tool lets me easily see the costs of flights on each day of the month and if I have the flexibility, I will take the lower cost flight. Click here for a video tutorial of how to use Google Flights
6. Use TripAdvisor to Compare Hotel Costs – I was recently planning a European Christmas market trip. Part of that trip involves us staying in London (expensive!!). I looked everywhere for an average hotel or airbnb near Hyde Park that wouldn’t put me in the poor house. One hotel I was considering was $150 a night on all the major booking sites (Expedia, Booking.com, and Hotels.com), but TripAdvisor also showed a price if you booked direct from the hotel chain. That same hotel was $63 a night if I booked direct through them. Yep, $63 a night in London for a decent hotel near Hyde park with breakfast. That trick just saved me $87 a night.
7. Only bring a Carry-On Bag– The obvious is that I can save the baggage fee that many airlines impose by only packing in a carry-on bag. If I really want to check the bag, I can offer to check it at the gate. The agents typically will not charge you at the gate. It also gives me a lot of flexibility on planning my flights. I sometime piecemeal my flights together to save money (see tip 9), and by only having a carry-on, I can skip picking up my baggage and rechecking it at the connecting airport which saves me time and effort. If packing with only a carry-on bag seems impossible to you, check out my Travel Packing Tips Series and see how I pack for a three week trip with only a carry-on.
8. Consider alternate airports– This has saved me a lot of money. I live in Dallas, but Houston and Austin are within a 4 hour drive. That may sound like a lot of driving but if I can save $400-600 dollars on tickets for 2 people, it’s worth it to me to make the drive. This same advice holds true for your destination. I had to go to Asheville recently for a wedding. The tickets where crazy expensive for some reason, so I looked a nearby airports. I saved $600 on 4 tickets by flying into an airport within a 2 hour drive. The Google Flight Tool will let you search nearby airports.
9. Piecemeal Your Flights– I could probably write a whole article on this topic alone. I live in Dallas and flights deals exist but I never see the kind of deals you’ll see out of New York, Boston, and Atlanta. What I have found is that there are cheap air carriers who fly to these destinations. I can almost always find a $200 round trip ticket to New York or Boston from Dallas if I plan ahead. If I find an amazing $300 ticket to Europe from New York or Boston, it’s a much better deal for me to book my own flight to New York or Boston and then take the cheap Europe airfare than it is for me to book the flight from Dallas to Europe even with stopovers. I find that if you try to do a multi-city search on a tool like Google Flights where you add several one way tickets together, it is more expensive typically than if you just piecemealed each leg together yourself. You need to make sure you plan time for possible delays and terminal changes, but the savings can be huge.
10. Consider a Travel Credit Card– I actually save a lot of money using travel credit cards. Now while the two cards I am going to talk about have a cost ($450-$550 a year), the savings and perks I get from the cards I believe exceeds their cost. Again, I could probably write a whole article on this, but I’ll summarize the benefits.
I earn points that I can use for travel on every purchase I make with the card and can typically get huge card sign up point bonuses- sometime as much as 100k miles (Hello, free trip!). Another perk is that I get trip accident and evacuation insurance, trip delay or cancellation insurance, lost or delayed baggage protection and even trip delay protection. Basically if something goes wrong, I can get money refunded for these type of items. These cards do no have a foreign transaction fee which will save me 3% on any charge made in another country. These cards gain me access into many airport clubs which saves me money on meals and just makes air travel more pleasurable ….cue the free drinks. Many clubs even have bottled water and snacks that I can take on a flight, saving me from having to purchase those at expensive airport stores.
I get automatic VIP status in many car and hotel clubs that get me discounts, free internet, free breakfast, and other credits. For example, I get Hertz gold status from one card, which beyond the free upgrades also saves me from having to wait in line to pick up my car. I estimated this saved me almost 2 hours in Milan recently when I arrived and the queue was 40 people long. Additional perks, I get $15 of Uber credits that I can use each month and I can get the 4th night free at many hotels (however my experience is the nightly rate offered is often higher than I can find on my own). On top of all this, these cards also give me a direct rebate on travel or airfare purchases of $200-$250 which makes that yearly fee seem a lot less. The $100 cost of application to the Global Passport Program or TSA Precheck is refunded which saves me time going thru immigration, customs and often even airport security. To top it off, I also get price protection, extended warranties, and all sorts of other benefits.
The two cards I use (I should probably narrow it down to one but I love them both) are American Express Platinum Card and Citi Prestige® Card. If you sign up with American Express right now, they are offering a 60,000 point bonus here
11. Use Gift cards– You can purchase gift cards for many travel related companies such as Airlines, Hotel Chains, Car Rental Companies. This tip can even be used for travel gear you may purchase at Amazon and can be used in conjunctions with discounts from Ebates on tip #4.
Buy Gift cards at Grocery Store: My local grocery store- Kroger- often offer special rewards for purchasing gift cards such as 2x and even sometime 4x point credit for each dollar spend that can be used for gas discounts. So let’s say I know I’m about to book $500 worth of hotel stays for a trip and I know I’m going to book through Booking.com which has the best variety and service. I can go to Kroger, buy $500 worth of Booking.com gift cards that I can use on their site. Kroger would then give me a minimum of 2x the dollar value in points (so 1000 points) and sometimes they offer 4x bonus so that would be 2000 points. Every 1000 points equated to a $1 discount per gallon of gas purchased for a maximum of 35 gallons. So every 1000 points is like a free $35 extra savings on something that I was going to purchase anyway.
Buy Gift Card via Gift Card Granny. You can browse unused gift cards sold at a discounted rate which can save you up to an extra 2-22%. They even sell Groupon gift cards for meals or other activities or even package vacations you may purchase for your trip.
12. Get a Charles Schawb Debit Card– If you are going to a foreign country, using your debit card at an ATM to get local currency is always the best option and you’ll receive a better exchange rate than if you converted cash. Plus, it’s safer. However, you will incur debit card fees typically from the bank who provides the ATM machine and often from your own bank back home as well. On top of this, your bank back home will most likely also charge you a foreign transaction fee for the conversions of your money to the local currency. All of the above adds up…often in the tune of about 8-10% loss on your money.
Hands down, the best bank Debit card is Charles Schwab, they do not charge an ATM fee at any ATM, they refund the ATM fees charged by bank providing the cash, and they do not charge foreign transaction fees. I’ve never seen another bank provide all three and it’s the only ATM card I use while traveling because of it. As an added bonus, their checking account pays way higher interest rates than most banks. You can open an account here and get $100 free when you deposit your first $1000. (I make nothing off this, just an added bonus of reading this blog)