Do you love to travel, but struggle to fit it into your budget? You’re not alone. Learning to stretch your funds and travel on a budget can help you increase the quantity and/or quality of your trips. And traveling on a budget can mean very different things to different people. Whether your personal travel style is geared more towards budget travel or luxury travel, paying attention to costs will help ease any travel budget anxiety so you can focus on enjoying your vacation. And that’s what truly matters.
Choosing Your Destination
- Go where the dollar is strong. While flights may be more expensive, choosing a destination where your money will stretch further can be a great way to save, especially for longer trips.
- Look into visa costs. Some countries don’t require visas for entry as a short-term traveler, but other do. Make sure you’re taking visa costs into consideration when comparing destinations.
- Be open to new places. We all have our wish list destinations, but if they’re out of your budget at the moment, it’s okay to get creative. By doing some digging you may find an awesome off the radar destination that will fill your travel urge while you save up for your big trip.
Optimizing Your Destination
- Travel in the shoulder season. Typically, the weather is still really nice, travel and lodging will be cheaper, and most stores and restaurants will still be open. While you can travel in the off-season for even steeper savings, if you go that route make sure the things you want to do will be available.
- Book cruises early, or late. If you know you want to take a cruise, booking a year in advance usually means getting the best price. As the ship fills up, demand and prices rise. If you can’t book early, waiting to the last minute can also be a great way to find a bargain. Cruise lines often discount remaining rooms steeply in the last few weeks prior to sailing.
- Explore less popular destinations. You’ll find some of the best places a little farther afield. The most popular destinations can charge steep premiums for the experience of visiting. Look into nearby spots and towns where the locals go for fun, rather than sticking to just the big name destinations that always draw a crowd. We often find these trips to be so much more relaxing, since we’re not surrounded by other tourists 24/7.
- Compare prices to nearby airports. Sometimes the ticket price can vary considerably. For example, New York City has three major airports nearby. I’ve seen ticket prices to NYC vary by as much as $400pp depending on which airport and airline I’m looking at. Savings like that can really add up!
How to Find Cheap Flights
- Track your flights. Use sites like Google Flights and SkySkanner to watch for deals and figure out when its the cheapest time to travel to your wish list destinations.
- Be flexible with your travel dates. Often times you’ll find it’s cheapest to fly mid-day on a Tuesday. Traveling to and/or from your destination on the cheapest day of the week for that route is a great way to travel on a budget.
- Give up some comforts to save money. Make sure you’re checking the budget airlines as well as the big name brands. Depending on which airline you’re flying, you can often save money by choosing seats with less legroom, or bringing fewer bags.
- Look into indirect flights. When traveling with young children, we avoid these at all cost. But pre-kids, when we had more time than money? Layovers and connecting flights often offered significant savings.
- Check for hidden extras. Make sure you’re comparing similar products. Some discount airlines look cheap at first blush, but once you add in the fees they tack on for bringing a bag aboard, picking a seat, etc. you may find they’re not the deal they’re made out to be. Do your research before booking.
- search for flights in incognito mode. Websites track your previous searches using cookies. If you don’t delete your browsing history, or search in incognito mode, they’ll be able to know what deals they already offered you. By searching incognito you’ll see the latest prices.
Saving Money on Accomodations
- Search for deals early and often. Be sure to explore both the hotel sites and larger aggregators. Many hotels will offer equal or greater discounts if you book direct and they’re often more likely to give you a better room or upgrade you upon arrival.
- Pay attention to location. Every choice has trade-offs. You may find a lovely, cheap hotel option, but if your trip is short and its far from your location you may appreciate the slightly older, but much closer option more.
- Check cancellation policies. Some hotels will allow you to cancel for free up to a day or two before arrival. In these cases, I’ll often book something early to know I’ll have a room, but then watch for better deals and offers.
- Consider renting a home. Especially when traveling with a group, it can be cheaper to rent a place through sites like AirBnB. Not only will your nighty rate be lower, but having access to a full kitchen can help bring down your food and entertainment costs. And some kid friendly rentals provide supplies like cribs and strollers that you would otherwise need to rent or bring.
- Look out for resort fees. Some resorts tack on a big resort fee, often to cover things that are free elsewhere (poolside towels, wi-fi access, etc.) And sometimes those fees are per person, rather than by room. Make sure you check before booking and consider the added cost when comparing different resort options.
Managing Transportation Costs
- Look for early booking discounts. In some countries, advanced fares for train tickets are cheaper than day of.
- Use public transportation. Especially in major cities, you can save a bundle by utilizing the local bus, train, and subway systems. Often times it’s cheaper than renting a car, parking your car, or taking taxis.
- Check your weight. Are you flying? Make sure your bags are under the airline luggage weight limits before heading to the airport. And if you’ll be taking more than one airline, be sure to check them both since international limits can vary. I learned this lesson the hard way in college and had to purchase a ridiculously overpriced duffel bag to move some of my luggage to in order to get under the weight limit.
- Save with daily or weekly passes. If you know what you plan to do each day, you can figure out if it’s cheaper to pay by trip, or to buy a travelcard.
- Bring snacks. Food sold at airports and on trains is often really expensive and mediocre. While there are some great dining establishments popping up in airports these days, they’re still tough to find. Make it easy on yourself and save money by packing food for your major travel days.
- Consider a road trip. Especially as your family grows, the cost of gas is often much cheaper than flying or cruising. You could spend years just exploring all the cool destinations within a few days drive.
- Take a night train. If you’re planning to travel by train between two distant destinations, look into overnight train options. You’ll save a night’s accommodation costs and maximize your tourist time.
Save on Food & Dining
- Cook some of your own meals. We LOVE eating out on vacation. But it also takes a bunch of time and is harder with toddlers. By cooking some quick and easy options in, we can bring down our food expenses. We also feel less guilt about splurging on some nicer meals out.
- Pack lunches and snacks. Having food ready on the go is a huge help with kids, but something I’ve always done anyway since I know I can get hangry fast.
- Have a picnic. This is one of my favorite things to do in a new country. Going to the local grocery store is often an adventure in itself and we love to gather up a basket of whatever looks appealing and then spend a lazy afternoon in a local park snacking and people watching.
- Carry your own water. Whether you bring along a water bottle with a filter, or buy a case of water when you reach your destination, you’ll save by not buying single serve portions on the go.
- Look for deals. Some cities offer discounts at happy hour, or great deals at lunchtime that can run as late as 4pm. With a flexible schedule you can travel on a budget but still enjoy a luxurious meal by finding the cheapest times to dine at the coolest locations.
- Try the street food. Look for a cart popular with locals and give it a try. The meal will be cheap and often delicious.
- Order local drinks. The local beer, wine and liquor will often be much cheaper than imported international brands.
- Book a hotel with complementary breakfast. It’s be one less meal a day that’s an extra out-of-pocket expense. And some of these breakfasts have gotten really good.
- Avoid ordering room service. While I love room service and have found it to be a life saver at times on business trips, it can be crazy expensive. The menu prices may look tolerable, but often once the delivery fee, hotel fees, taxes and tip are added in you’ll pay an exorbitant amount. I once paid $28 for two slices of dry toast and a banana when I came down with food poisoning in a hotel.
- Shop at local markets. Just like at home, you’ll find better deals by eating seasonal and local markets. They’re also a great source of affordable and unique souvenirs.
Save with the Right Travel Gear
- Borrow and share gear with friends. We don’t fly with our toddlers often, but we bought cheap, lightweight car seats for when we do. While we only use them once or twice a year, we’ve lent them out to numerous friends. We also borrowed big suitcases from family for a few trips, before investing in our own. Especially for items that’ll be used infrequently, it pays to get creative.
- Save on mini toiletries. Pick up some travel bottles and portion in product from full sized containers you have at home. It’s cheaper than buying mini versions and has less environmental impact over time.
- Invest in packing cubes. I resisted packing cubes for the longest time, but they’re a smart travel purchase. Not only do they make packing easier and help you fit more stuff in less space, but they help keep your costs down by minimizing wear and tear on your items.
- Bring a water bottle with a filter. A portable water bottle with filter is a cheap and easy way to have fresh water on the go. Water quality varies by destination, so be sure to check out whether you should take any additional precautions.
- Pack a first aid kit. You’ll never need to touch it for most trips, but when you do? You’ll save a lot of money by having the basics on hand and not purchasing them at a steep markup in some hotel gift shop. We have a full kit for our car and a mini kit for plane travel.
Saving on Attractions While Traveling on a Budget
- Check discounts through your current memberships. We have a family membership to our local zoo, which gives us access to many amazing zoos throughout the country at steep discounts. I’ve heard the same is true through some of the local museums.
- Take a free walking tour. Most cities have all sorts of options where you can get a lay of the land, as well as advice and recommendations from a local guide for the rest of your trip. While you should definitely tip well, they’re a much better deal than the bigger, expensive tours.
- Research free options. Most destinations have all sorts of fun, free things to do. And even pricey activities often have times when they wave or discount their entrance fee. Planning will help you travel on a budget.
- Visit national and state parks. While there’s typically an admission cost for each car, once you’re at the park there are lots of activities to keep you busy. And if you plan strategically, you could save a bundle by purchasing an annual pass and visiting a few parks in the same calendar year.
- Ask the locals. You’ll often come up with the coolest cheap activities by talking with locals, either in person or online. It’s the easiest way to avoid the tourist traps and find the best experiences.
Miscellaneous Travel Budget Savings
- Check your insurance. Life happens and eventually it’s likely you’ll need to change or cancel a trip. Make sure you know what your options are in advance. Many credit cards offer some level of protection and we often rely on this for smaller trips. But for big trips? It can pay to spend a bit more for travel insurance when booking your trip.
- Travel light. Most airlines now charge for checked baggage. And if you bring too much gear along you may need to spend more for a larger rental car to transport it. Traveling with carryon luggage only also gives you greater flexibility to do things like accept an offer from an airline to be bumped to a different flight in exchange for cash or flight credits.
- Think strategically about souvenirs. So many people say to skip them completely, but I love the pick up a little something to remember our trips by. The secret for us? I try to go with something small and/or something consumable. We pick up an ornament for our Christmas tree on most trips and every time we visit Disney we bring back their delicious Mickey rice crispy treats to enjoy in the week after our trip. We also try to be diligent about printing photo albums after our travels.
- Celebrating? Let people know. Mentioning your honeymoon, anniversary, or other celebration to people could lead to some complementary surprises. This is a tip I don’t often follow myself, but I have seen it work. Our family was walking into a restaurant at Disney World when we received a phone call telling us we had an adoption date for one of our children. The hostess was so excited for us that the staff brought out cupcakes and serenaded to the kids! And when my husband and I went out for a date night that evening, the restaurant staff met us with champagne and the head chef took us on a tour of the kitchen.
- Look into package deals. Airlines and hotels often don’t want to advertise how deeply they’re willing to drop their prices. If you have time to shop around, you may find a package deal that offers a great discount off of the going rate for booking the same flight and hotel separately.
- Do your research. While impromptu trips can be fun, the best way to travel on a budget is to not rush into plans. By shopping around and seeking out tips and tricks specific to a location you can save a bundle.
- Clarify your priorities. Know yourself and what makes a vacation special to you. Once you know what you value, it’s easier to allocate your travel budget accordingly. Choosing where to splurge and where to save will create a trip that fits your budget and feels luxurious. If you love luxury hotels but could care less abut what you eat, you’re not going to be happy staying in a budget rental and scoring all the top restaurant reservations. The things we prioritize when traveling are personal, so you need to decide what feels best for you.
Traveling on a Budget with Kids
- Prepare for the unexpected. Flight delays happen and you will run into unexpected lines. Be prepared to keep little ones busy with some new activities if they get restless. I grab little coloring books and games in the $1 section at Target throughout the year and stash them in our travel bags. Whenever we run into a delay and/or the kids start to unravel, there’s something fun close at hand to distract them. It’s much cheaper than grabbing something at the nearest souvenir stand or airport kiosk out of desperation!
- Stay longer. Your cost per day will drop with longer stays and it allows you to build more time to rest and recharge, which is key when traveling with little ones.
- Look for deals geared towards families. Often times you can find discounts where kids stay or eat for free. Taking the time to find these deals in your dream destinations can mean big savings. Many hotels, and even some all-inclusive resorts, don’t charge for kids under 12.
- Embrace camping. Camp sites are so much cheaper than hotel rooms. Camping can also be really fun and most kids adore the chance to spend more time outdoors.
- Slow down and enjoy the moment. Traveling as a family can be tough, but it is so worthwhile. Kids are masters of enjoying the little things and it helps to stop and soak in their joy. Our kids had a blast in Bar Harbor and we didn’t even make it to any of the must-see sites. They fell in love with a small pond that locals recommended and the neighborhood playground.
- Visit local libraries. Most have a play space for children and they’re a great place to get the scoop from other parents on things to do in the area.
- Set daily goals. It can be tough to stick to a schedule when traveling with little ones. If you prioritize your must do items and tackle one first each day, everything else you fit in is a bonus.
Money While Traveling on a Budget
- Consider a travel rewards card. Using one card for travel makes it easy to track all your expenses. Cards specifically geared towards travelers often have additional perks, including extra points spent on airlines, dining, or hotels. Some also wave international fees and provide some travel insurance.
- Be strategic about cash withdrawals. There are definitely places where cash is king. In those instances, it helps to stock up on small bills early on. And if you know you’ll be charged fees for using foreign ATMs, try to cut down on the number of fees by making fewer, larger withdrawals.
- Know the local customs. Who receives tips and the standard percentage can vary by country. And in some places bargaining is expected. Knowing what is typical for your vacation destination will help you budget appropriately.
- Earn while you travel. Looking to take a longer trip, but nervous about your budget? Consider taking a working holiday. Teach skiing in a mountain town, sign up to teach a language abroad, or freelance from the road. You can stretch your travel budget further by picking up work along the way.
Interested in learning more about traveling on a budget?
Do you have any tips for traveling on a budget that I missed? Please share them in the comments!