Traveling can be an amazing experience that expands your horizons and helps you grow as a person. It can also be incredibly expensive if you don’t know how to find the best travel deals. We have all been in a situation where we have wanted to take a trip, but we just couldn’t find a way to make it work with our finances. Believe me, you are not alone.
The travel industry, like any other industry, is competitive. Because of that, there are deals to be had. With the right information, you can make travel to even the most exotic locations affordable. All you need to know is where to look and what to do (and not do) when making your travel plans.
In this article I am going to share with you the wealth of travel experience I have gained over the last decade and a half. I have made my fair share of travel mistakes, and have been lucky enough to have others pass along their tips for traveling cheaply with me. With these tips for saving money when traveling, you should be able to take that dream trip you have been thinking about.
The airfare you book for your trip will often be your largest trip expense. It is also the area where you have the most potential to save money on your trip. The airline industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and with that competition has come increasing opportunities to save on airfare. Below are some of the best tips I have on how to save money booking airfare for your trip.
Be Wary of Budget Airfare Deals
Every once-in-a-while you will see some airfare deals that appear too good to be true. Before booking these airfare deals, make sure you do your due diligence, because in many cases they are. Often times these airfare deals, which typically involve basic economy fares, do not disclose many of the hidden fees associated with them.
For instance, an airline might give you a great deal on the basic economy fare you book, but then charge you for such things as reserving your seat, checked and carry-on luggage, In-flight entertainment, and more. These extra fees can cost you as much as $250-$300 on top of the fare you purchased. For this reason, understanding the associated fees with any budget airfare deal is crucial when trying to save money on airfare.
You will also see a lot of what are called “bait and switch” scams online. For instance, you might click on an advertisement for a $99 flight to Las Vegas, only to find out when you go to pay that you were too late and the price has now increased. These scams aren’t just confined to the shady parts of the Internet as some bait-and-switch behavior has also been reported on some of the more popular discount travel sites as well. So be wary of any deal that sounds way too good to be true.
Be Creative in Flight Booking
When most of us think of booking a flight, we have been conditioned to think of round-trip, direct flights to and from home and our destination. This is what we are used to, and typically what we look for when booking a flight. The problem is that when you limit yourself to just these flights, you may be missing some of the best deals that can be had.
Look At Two One Ways Instead of Round Trip
One way that you can sometimes save on airfare is by booking two one-way tickets instead of a round trip ticket. This isn’t a conventional way to book airfare, but when you are trying to save money it pays to think outside the box. This approach doesn’t always lead to cheaper fares, but airlines do offer periodic promotional fares on one-way tickets and this allows you to take advantage of those promotions. This approach allows you to do more fare shopping then you are able to when booking a round-trip ticket. You might even end up booking flights with two different airlines for your trip.
A great example of this is Southwest Airline’s “Wanna Get Away” fares. Southwest offers some ridiculously low fares with this program, but I typically find that these fares are only available one way. Instead of booking a round-trip ticket with a more expensive return leg, you might be able to find a cheaper fare for a return flight with a different airline.
Take Advantage of Free Extended Stay-overs
Another way that you can get creative with your flight booking to save money is to take advantage of free extended stay-overs. If you are going to be traveling to multiple locations, most people would automatically think to book several different flights. Again, that is what we are conditioned to do. Instead of booking different flights, another approach would be to look for one flight with an extended stay-over.
Many international airlines offer reduced rate, if not free, extended layovers in their hub airport locations. What this means is that you can book your airfare so that you can spend a few days, not just a few hours, on layover in one of their hub airport cities. This allows you to visit multiple locations without having to pay for multiple flights. If you are interested in booking an extended layover flight for your trip, Orbitz has some great instructions on how to use their website to book one.
For example, Delta Airline’s big airport hub in Europe is Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam. If you are planning to visit another destination in Europe, you could book an extended layover in Amsterdam and see it as well without having to pay for a separate flight. This can be a huge cost saver when booking airfare.
Book Flights at Strategic Times
You might think that you are paying the same price for a flight as the person sitting next to you, but the reality is that is probably unlikely. Airline ticket prices are not static, and more-likely-than-not most people on your flight paid a different fare to fly on the flight. This may be confusing if you aren’t used to booking airfare, but once you understand why airlines charged different fares and constantly adjust their prices it will make a lot more sense. Not only will it make more sense, but you will understand how to use these fluctuating prices to your favor.
On average, most airlines offer somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 different fare classes. The highest fares are typically purchased by business class passengers who tend to book their airfare on short notice. On the other end of the spectrum is the vacation travelers like you, who tend to shop around a lot and plan well ahead for their travel.
Because the airline industry is so competitive, airlines have employed a high tech strategy referred to as Yield Management, by which they charge different passengers different prices in an effort to maximize the money they make on each flight. It’s a very complicated process, but I am here to make it a little easier to understand.
Let’s say you are an airline, and you have to sell 300 tickets for a flight from New York City to Los Angeles. On one side, you have a small group of business class passengers who are willing to spend $3,000 to take your flight. On the other side you have a larger group of cost savvy travelers who are shopping around for the best flight prices, and probably aren’t willing to spend more than $400 to book your flight. Do you price your flight at $3,000 and take advantage of what the business class passengers are willing to pay you, but miss out on getting many of the cost savvy travelers? Or do you charge a much cheaper fare and lose out on some of the extra money that the business class travelers were willing to spend?
As you probably guessed, the answer is neither. And with this example, the rational behind airlines charging different fares for different classes probably makes a little more sense. It may sound insane, but the person sitting next to you on your flight, getting the same service as you, may have paid up to 10 times more (or less) than you did for the flight.
So that explains why airlines charge different fares, but I am sure you are wondering why they change their fare prices so frequently. Again, the motivation is to maximize their profits. Airlines employ complex applications that are constantly looking at the demand for tickets, not only on their flights, but on the flights of other airlines as well. You might see a fare for a flight from New York City to Los Angeles for $500 one day, but see that price increase to $550 the next day because a number of tickets were recently booked on that flight.
On the other hand, if there haven’t been any flight bookings recently, you might see the fare prices for the flight drop. It all depends on what the airline’s yield management system determines is the optimal price point for that fare class on that day. The key for you is to understand when it is the best time to book your ticket based on past fare pricing in order to get the cheapest airfare for your trip as possible.
When exactly is that, you might ask? According to industry research that I have read, and supported by my experience booking airfare, the best time to book airfare to get the lowest fare can be summarized as follows:
• Book your airfare roughly 7 weeks in advance
• Book your airfare on a Tuesday afternoon
An analysis of past fares by the Airlines Reporting Corporation has shown that you can save as much as 10% on the price of your airfare by booking your flight 50 days before it departs. This isn’t a guaranteed cost saving approach, but based on past fare pricing this window is your best bet for getting a reduced fare.
There is also a lot of conjecture on the Internet as to which day of the week is best for booking your airfare. According to a study by FareCompare.com, the best day and time to book is on Tuesdays at around 3pm. I am not as sure about the afternoon timeframe, but I have personally noticed that I have had better luck finding better fares on Tuesdays than any other day of the week.
Another option would be to use an app like Hopper to monitor a flight you are looking at and recommend the best time to purchase that flight. Hopper will automatically look at the fare history for that flight and recommend whether you should wait for a lower fare or book your flight right now.
Use Rewards Programs
This tip might seem like a no-brainer, but I am constantly surprised at how many people I talk to who do not take advantage of airline loyalty programs. They only take a moment to sign up for, and they can save you a whole lot of money in the long-run. In my opinion, using these loyalty programs should be an automatic for anyone looking to save money on travel.
I am a member of many airline frequent flyer programs, but I have setup a priority in which airlines I look for travel on first. I like to fly Delta, so they are always the first airline I look at when booking a flight. If I can find airfare significantly cheaper elsewhere, then I will go with the other option. However, if I am only going to save a little bit of money by flying on a different airline, I always pay a little bit more to fly Delta. Why, you might ask? Because by following this strategy I have earned at least two free flights a year. In the long run, paying a little more for a flight is outweighed by the cost savings from free flights.
If you are weighing a choice between paying a little more to fly on an airline you are a rewards member of, or booking a cheaper flight elsewhere, here is a rule of thumb you can use to decide which choice to make. Use the value of the frequent flier miles you could earn to determine the opportunity cost of choosing not to earn them, then compare that to the savings you would get by choosing the cheaper flight.
Before making your decision, find out how many frequent flier miles you will get for booking the flight with the airline you are an rewards program member of. Then, determine what the value of each frequent flier mile is with your airline. If you aren’t sure, both The Points Guy and One Mile At a Time have really good articles outlining the value of rewards points for most airlines and hotels.
Then multiply the number of miles by the value of the miles to get the opportunity cost of not choosing to earn those frequent flier miles. If the opportunity cost is more than you will save by booking the cheaper ticket with the other airline, then pay a little bit more to earn the frequent flier miles. If the opportunity cost is less then you will save by booking the cheaper fare, then book the cheaper ticket with the other airline.
For example, let’s assume I am a frequent flier with Delta Airlines. If I am looking at airfare for a flight between New York City and Los Angeles, and I find the following flights, which should I book?
• Delta Airlines Flight for $438.40 with 3,056 miles earned
• Flight with another airline for $415.60
Believe it or not, the better value is the Delta Airlines flight. If you do the math, the miles you would earn for the Delta Airlines flight are worth an average of $36.67 in future flights. This means the opportunity cost for not choosing the Delta flight is higher then the savings I would get by choosing the cheaper flight.
If airfare is typically the largest expense of a trip, then the cost of accommodations isn’t that far behind. According to Hotels.com’s Hotel Price Index (HPI), the average cost of a night in a hotel in the United States is roughly $129 at the time of this writing. That means, not including taxes and fees, a ten night stay in your average hotel room is going to cost you approximately $1,300. That is a big chunk of change.
But fear not, as I have some tips that you can use to minimize the amount of money you need to fork over for your next night of accommodation. Using these tips, you can save a little more money that you can use elsewhere on your trip.
Use Hotel Rewards Programs
Again, this is something that really should have to go without saying, but it is again something that I am surprised to find some people don’t take advantage of. Not only do hotel loyalty programs allow you to earn free nights, but they also allow you to access other benefits that I will discuss in this article.
When shopping for accommodations, you will want to go thru the same opportunity cost exercise we went thru with shopping for airfare. First determine what the cost for a hotel room would be at a hotel you are a loyalty member of, then determine how many loyalty points you would earn for staying there. With that information, you can use the value of those rewards points as outlined by The Points Guy and One Mile At a Time to determine the value of those points.
Any other hotel you look at must be cheaper than the value of those points for the cheaper price to be worth your time. For example, if I am looking at booking a 1 night stay, and Hilton is going to give me 4,269 points for staying with them, then any other hotel has to be more than $17 cheaper (4,269pts x $0.004\pt) for it to be worth not booking with Hilton.
Book Directly With Hotels
Another great tip for saving money on hotel bookings is to let your rewards programs work for you. Most hotel chains offer discounted rates for loyalty program members when you book directly thru them. Sometimes these discounted rates can be quite large. For instance, I did a search for a hotel room in New York City and found a significant discount for Hhonors members for Hilton’s Double Tree Suites at Time Square. A room with a king sized bed typically goes for $359\night, but is available to Hilton Hhonors members for $334\night. If I am staying for 4 nights, that is $100 is savings.
In addition to lower rates, most hotels are now offering their loyalty program members additional perks when booking directly with them. Everything from free Internet (yes, it is increasingly being charged for by hotels), to late checkouts, to free breakfast are perks you can get that will save you money versus booking elsewhere.
Sign Up For Hotel Rewards Credit Card Programs
I know you are probably thinking, not another credit card. However, if you have the credit to obtain one, a credit card thru a hotel rewards program can help you not only earn rewards points faster, but they can be the key to helping you hold on to them.
Most likely you are aware that you can earn hotel rewards points by using a hotel rewards program credit card, like Hilton’s Honors American Express Ascend Card. Not only that, but most hotel rewards cards will give you a big bundle of bonus points just for signing up and using the card. What you might not be aware of is that your hotel rewards points can expire.
That’s right, unlike airline awards miles, most hotel rewards points can and do expire if you don’t book a hotel room with them or earn points in a certain time period. For instance, in order to keep your Hilton Hhonors points, you have to earn or redeem Hhonors points within a 12 month period. If you have a 12 month period of inactivity, the points you earned over 12 months ago will expire.
This is where the hotel rewards credit cards become extra valuable. Not only do they allow you to rack up a lot of new points, all you have to do is spend a little bit of money with your card every-so-often and the points you have earned won’t expire. This can be a huge deal because, as I mentioned before, these points can be quite valuable.
Take Advantage of Internet Booking Rewards Programs
If you aren’t interested in signing up for hotel rewards programs, there are other rewards options available that give you more flexibility in where you stay. Most Internet hotel booking sites have rewards programs of their own. These sites give you rewards for booking hotels thru their website.
My favorite Internet booking site rewards program is that of Hotels.com. With Hotels.com’s rewards program, every 10th hotel night you book you get a night for free. If you book a lot of hotel nights, then the value of this reward can be quite significant.
Other Internet hotel booking sites, like Orbitz.com, reward you with points that you get for booking hotels, flights, etc… using their site. Those points can then be used to pay for future bookings. Be aware, like most hotel rewards points, these points also typically expire with account inactivity.
Check AirBnb or VRBO for Deals
If you aren’t finding any affordable hotel options in the area you will be traveling, another option is to look for a rental property on AirBnb or VRBO. If you aren’t familiar with these sites, they are online marketplaces that allow people to rent spare rooms, apartments, or houses to travelers looking for accommodations.
There are some amazing deals to be had on these sites. I have used both frequently and will be using both again this year. In addition to being able to find some great accommodations at much more reasonable rates than you will find at hotels, sometimes they can even be helpful in finding a place to stay where there aren’t any hotels.
A great example of this is an upcoming trip I have to Nova Scotia this August. We are going to be staying in a pretty remote part of Cape Breton Island, and there aren’t hotels really close to where we will be visiting. Not only that, but the closest hotels we could find were quite expensive. Instead of booking an expensive hotel that is far away, we ended up finding a 3 bedroom cabin for rent that is only a 6 minute drive from where we will be visiting for less than we would have paid at a hotel. Now that is a deal!
Don’t Be Afraid to Stay in a Hostel
If you need to lighten the expenses for your trip even more, the other option for accommodations that you have is to stay in a hostel. I know the word “hostel” has some connotations that are difficult for some to get past, but I think you would be surprised at how rich of an experience staying at one can be. In fact, I would rank quite a few of the nicer hostels I have stayed at over some of the cheap, bargain hotels that I have booked in my lifetime.
Or course, not all hostels are equal, so you do have to do your due diligence before booking one. I would make sure you do some research on exactly what the hostel offers before booking. Two very good Internet resources you can use are HostelWorld and Hostelbookers. Some of the important factors that you will want to consider include the following:
• Sleeping accommodations – How many people per room?
• Shower situation – Stay away from push button showers
• Is breakfast included?
• Does the hostel have free internet access?
• Are the sleeping areas equipped with air conditioning?
• When is check-in and check-out?
• What common areas are available to guests?
• Does the hostel include a concierge service?
• The hostel’s location – Is it close to where you want to be?
• Guest reviews – These can be invaluable!
Another category of cost that can quickly add up when you are traveling are those expenses that relate to travel. It isn’t enough that we simply fly to our destination, we need to figure out how to get around when we get there. This can mean renting a car, using taxis or a car service, or even using public transportation and rail to get around. Which ever option you choose, it is going to cost some money.
By using the following tips to reduce your travel expenses, you can save money that you can in turn use on other travel related expenses. Every dollar you save on transportation is another dollar you have available for food, drinks, or having fun.
Be Strategic in Where You Stay
The best piece of advice I can give you to minimize your transportation expenses while traveling is to be very strategic in where you stay. The closer you book your accommodations to what you want to see, the less money you will spend getting to those things.
Typically, I will map out all of the things I want to see at my destination, and then start my search for accommodations near the center of the cluster. I have included a map below for the city of Dublin. My ideal location for accommodations would be somewhere within the highlighted circle.
Know Where to Go for Car Rentals
If you have to book a car, you are going to want to make sure that you go to the right place to rent it. By far, the best place to go for car rentals is autoslash.com. They have been around for a long time and have a history of generating prices that are so good that the car rental companies once revolted and tried to stop taking their reservations.
Their dispute with the car rental companies have forced them to do away with instant pricing online, but they will send you an email quote on any car rental that you want to reserve. If you are serious about saving some money, this is the site that I would recommend using to rent a car if you need one.
Use Ride Sharing Apps
If you need to get someplace, but don’t necessarily need a car for your trip, another option to save money would be to use a ride sharing app. Ride sharing apps, such as BlaBlaCar, allow you to share a ride with someone else. The BlaBlaCar app is a trusted network of drivers and passengers that allows people to share the cost of traveling between cities.
Long car rides can be expensive, not just in the cost of car rental, but also in the cost of gasoline. If you are up for meeting new people, these carpooling apps can help you mitigate some of the expenses for transportation.
Take Overnight Trains and Buses
If you are really in need of saving some money, another option that you can take to save money on accommodation charges by taking an overnight train or bus. In essence, a night that you spend traveling is one less night that you will need to pay for a hotel or hostel. This can be a big cost saver, not only in money, but also in time you have to sight see.
Granted, some overnight transportation options are more comfortable than others. With some overnight train rides, you have access to a free sleeper car. While other transportation options, like most buses, you will need to be able to sleep in a seat. So I would suggest doing your due diligence to understand the accommodations before booking any overnight transportation.
Walk Where You Can
Arguably the best way that you can save money on transportation costs when traveling is to walk wherever you can. Every taxi or Uber ride you forgo in favor of walking is money that you save for other tourist activities. This can be a huge money saver when traveling, and it is great for your health.
This is why it is important to book your accommodations in the right place when traveling. If you book your hotel or hostel correctly, you won’t have to walk too far to get to what you want to see. If you plan your accommodations poorly, you might be in for some very long walks.
Food and Drink
This may not seem like a category that will cost you a whole lot when traveling, but you will be surprised by how fast these expenses can add up. This is especially true if you like to go out for nice dinners or enjoy the night life. If you tracked the money you spend on food and drink when you travel, I think you would be surprised by how much these expenses can cost you when you travel.
Now, I am not saying that you should avoid going out for nice dinners or enjoying some cocktails when you travel. These are some of the things that make travel so enjoyable. However, if you are strategic in how you spend your money on food and drink using these tips, you might be able to afford a few more trips throughout the year.
Use the Six Block Rule
The Six Block Rule is a travel guideline that suggests that you not eat at any restaurant that is within a 6 block radius of any popular tourist area. The premise of this rule, which I have found to have some merit, is that establishments located within these popular tourist areas tend to charge more than establishments you find in less touristy areas.
So instead of looking for your next restaurant in the popular tourist zones, be adventurous and roam outside of the usual touristy areas. In addition being cheaper, I think you will find some of the best local food available is outside the tourist areas as well.
Eat Where the Locals Eat
This guideline goes hand-in-hand with the Six Block Rule, and the premise for this suggestion is the same. If you eat where the locals eat, you will be avoiding the expensive tourist traps that tend to charge more.
This goes a bit further though in that eating where the locals eat means to immerse yourself in the local customs and traditions, which includes the food. Don’t just seek out a cheap restaurant with poor quality food. Look for the restaurants that are the favorites of all of the locals. These are the restaurants that will provide the best travel experiences. And chances are, they will be cheaper than touristy joints as well.
Explore the Local Markets
Another great way to save some money on food and drinks when traveling, and also get a really good taste of the local culture, is to frequent the local markets. There is typically a bounty of freshly prepared food that you can enjoy, and it is typically much cheaper than what the restaurants will charge you.
We have covered some of my favorite tips for saving money on airfare, lodging, and food and drink in this article, but there are many general travel related tips that I would like to share with you as well. Use these tips to help keep your travel expenses low and your travel budget in line.
Time Your Travel Strategically
One of the best, if not the best, general travel tips that I can give you to help lower your travel costs is to strategically plan when you travel. If you are traveling to a location during the prime tourist season, you are undoubtedly going to pay more for airfare, lodging, excursions, and even food and drinks.
That doesn’t mean you have to travel to these locations during the worst possible times. Instead, what you can do is target the shoulder seasons. The shoulder seasons are the periods of time in between the off-season and the peak tourist season. These shoulder seasons typically have as good of conditions for visiting and are much cheaper.
For example, if you want to visit Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, you are going to pay an arm and a leg if you decide to visit during the summer months. And unless you are visiting to ski or snow shoe, you probably aren’t interested in visiting during the winter. In this case, the best times to visit would be during the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall. This is when you will find the best rates and still have good weather.
Be Careful When Booking Online
If you are going to book your airfare or hotel online, make sure you are clear out your internet browser’s cookies before you do it. While I have not been able to duplicate this with my own testing, I have read enough accounts from others whom I trust that the evidence to support the fact that companies increase their rates with repeated searches has become quite compelling.
If you aren’t familiar with what Cookies are, they are your web browsers way of tracking where you have been on the Internet and what you have searched for. They are typically used to help identify you to the website you are visiting and prepare any saved login credentials or site customization you have set.
These cookies are also being increasingly used by advertisers to help target their advertising towards you. You might have noticed after shopping for shoes on a dozen different websites that you all of a sudden start seeing more ads for shoes on other websites you visit. This is all accomplished by looking at your Internet cookies to determine your past Internet browsing history.
There are conflicting reports out there on whether or not airlines and travel websites are using these same cookies to target the serious travel shoppers. The premise being that the more you search for a flight to Hawaii, the more it can be assumed that you are very serious about visiting.
Whether the reports are true, clearing your browser’s cookies is an easy enough process to do and it is better to be safe than sorry. If you aren’t sure about how to clear your cookies, Google has a very good help article on the topic.
Always Withdraw Money Instead of Exchanging
A really easy way to save a little money when traveling is to always withdraw the money you need instead of exchanging currency. If you are traveling overseas and need some cash, it doesn’t pay to bring a lot of cash with you. The best exchange rate you will find is with your own bank.
To avoid paying a lot of money in fees, I would take money out it a few larger withdrawals. This way you will get the local currency you need, avoid paying high conversion rates, and minimize the amount of money you spend on ATM fees.
Use Skype or FaceTime to Call Home
If you have ever made a long distance call from overseas, you are probably intimately familiar with how expensive that can be. Those charges can rack up and rack up fast. As an alternative, try signing up for a Skype package or using Facetime to call home instead.
You can find Skype plans for as little as a few dollars a month and the Skype phone app is as easy to use as your phone app on your phone. Using Facetime, or an Android equivalent app, is free as long as you are on WIFI, so it can be an even better alternative.
Great tips Josh. I am planing my trip from Phoenix to San Diego. This post will surely help me. Or I could say much needed
Thank you so much! Safe travels 😀