To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
One thing that I’ve come to love is budget travel, for so many reasons. First, and most obviously, I can afford to travel more when I travel cheaply. Second, I’ve found that when I’m traveling on a budget, I often have a more authentic experience. For me, this part of the experience is really important, particularly when I’m traveling internationally. This is the aspect of travel that I truly love. With that in mind, I do want to say that there are definitely times when saving a couple of dollars isn’t worth it, and I don’t go as cheap as possible just to save a buck. I’ll mention some specific times below. Here are some very general tips for saving some money when traveling.
1. Be Flexible with Flights
I’ll write even more on this later, but my number one tip for finding cheap flights is to be flexible. The more flexible you are, the more you can potentially save on one of the two biggest expenses in travel.
Don’t just consider the closest airport, but consider several. For example, when I search for flights, I don’t just search from the super-close, super-convenient, tiny, easy-to-use Akron-Canton airport or the closest large airport in Cleveland. I also look at Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Toronto.
Why Toronto when it’s 6 hours away? Because it can save major money. This is a point when you have to decide if the potential savings outweighs the extra drive time. Sometimes it does, sometimes, it doesn’t.
Do the same with your destination. Check multiple airports, particularly when you’re flying to a different continent. For example, you can get to Europe by flying into an airport where you have found a good deal, and then take a separate flight, train, etc. to your actual destination.
When it’s possible, depending on schedules, I also check multiple dates and times. Sometimes, coming back a day later saves you so much that you basically get a free day of vacation. Sometimes, cutting out a day saves so much that it’s worth it.
Here’s a good example of being flexible with dates and times: The first time I flew to China, I went with my friend Jenn who was also a teacher and summer was really the only option for both of us. I started in Cleveland and paid about $1,200 for my flight. The second time I flew to China, I was on my way to Japan, but stopping in China and booking a separate flight to Japan. I went in the fall (the off-season) and chose my dates based on when I could find the cheapest flights. By that time, I had realized that it’s often much cheaper to fly out of Toronto than Cleveland when leaving the Americas, so I started there and only paid $500 to get to China, essentially getting 58% off my flights by being flexible.
There are tons of travel blogs about cheap airfare. The one that really got me started into budget travel and that I personally have learned the most from is Nomadic Matt.
2. Don’t Discount Accommodations that aren’t Hotels
Along with flights, accommodation is the other place where you’ll spend the most money. I do stay in hotels, but I often stay in other places. Again, this depends a lot on where you’re going and on the purpose of your trip. I personally love bed and breakfasts, hostels, Airbnbs, VRBOs, etc. and I’ve had great experiences overall. When you’re going to a new place, don’t just search for hotels. (If you’re thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time, use my invite link here to get 15% off your first stay.) However, if you can get a good status and rack up points at a specific hotel chain, you can also get great deals, upgrades, and free nights.
Another thing that I love to do is to stay with people. This, of course, isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but staying with people will usually give you a richer experience in a place you don’t know a lot about.
3. Be Open to Different Forms of Transportation within the Country
This one really varies depending on where you go. My first tip is to be wary of taxis and rental cars. These are usually the most convenient form of transportation, but in most places, also the most expensive.
However, taxis can be pretty inexpensive in some places, such as developing countries, and therefore more worthwhile. They can also be very convenient in specific situations.
As a general rule, in a city, I take public transportation or walk. This is where a little bit of prep before a trip and knowing what to expect can save you a ton of money. Public transportation, especially in cities with subways or trains, can also save you a lot of time, too.
A big exception to this rule is when you’re going somewhere rural or to a city that’s not very big. For example, when Greg and I went to the UK, we were mainly in cities and we didn’t rent a car for that entire trip. We went to Belfast for a night because we wanted to go to the Titanic Museum for Greg’s 30th birthday. It turned out that the museum didn’t take up a lot of our time, and if we’d had a car, we probably would have gone to some other places outside of the city, like the Giant’s Causeway.
4. Don’t be Afraid of Credit Cards
We have gotten so much free travel out of credit cards. Our favorite is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. It does have a high annual fee, but what we’ve gotten in return has far exceeded that cost. My favorite website for figuring out what credit cards are right for me at the moment (this changes, based on what’s out there and their current offerings) is The Points Guy.
When talking about credit cards, I of course have to mention the first, and most important, rule of using cards to get free travel (or free whatever, or just using cards in general), and that’s to NEVER pay interest. If you’re putting more onto your credit card than you can pay off that month, it’s not worth it and you’re wasting money. If you’ve got a balance that’s higher than you can pay off this month, cut your spending and stop making excuses. Never carry a balance.
5. Don’t Blow your Budget on Food
How much you spend on food can make or break your budget. I really enjoy going to new restaurants, so I’m going to when I travel, but it can add up quickly.
After spending a few days in London, Greg and I realized how much money we were spending on food. We were in a hotel without breakfast, so we were stopping at restaurants every morning on our way out, plus we were eating at restaurants for lunch and dinner. The amount we had spent on the first few days of our trip was ridiculous.
Our solution was to start buying lunch deals at convenience stores, which has worked out for me in other countries as well. It was easy to find convenience stores with £3 lunch deals that included plenty of food. A second option is to make lunch your main meal. You’ll likely get better restaurant prices than at dinner, when you can go lighter and cheaper.
Another way I often save money on food is to pack granola bars for accommodations where breakfast isn’t included. I don’t like getting up just to sit at breakfast because it usually makes me anxious to get going, but I’m grouchy if I skip breakfast, so this is an easy solution. Plus, all of the space the bars take up on my way there will be emptied out for whatever I buy on the trip.
One final thing to keep in mind is that when you’re in a place where you’re going to be visiting well-known landmarks, any restaurant or store near the attraction is there for the tourists, not the locals. Walk a few blocks away from the landmark before choosing a restaurant and you’ll be able to find more authentic food at a fraction of the price.
6. Know When Saving Money isn’t Worth It
The tips above can help you travel more cheaply, but it’s also important to know when something isn’t worth it. Most of the time, budget travel isn’t quite as convenient. Weigh the pros and cons, and decide from there.
For example, we usually drive to Toronto when traveling to Europe or Asia. Once, I had a layover in Toronto that was so long that I could have actually driven home faster than doing the layover, flying to the Cleveland airport, and then driving the hour home from there. At other times, flying out of Toronto has added an extra day onto our trip because we had to drive up the night before to catch an early-morning flight.
Sometimes taking the taxi and spending a little extra money is worth the convenience or the time it’ll save you. Each situation is different, and my priorities on some trips are different from my priorities on others. My point is to think about how much money you’ll save, versus how much time or convenience you’ll loose, and decide from there.