I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately asking for tips on how to travel cheaply, and so I figured that maybe I should do a quick post that just covers the basics!
Let me go on record saying that I’m not a travel expert, and that there are lots of really good ones out there whose blogs and websites are useful beyond anything I could ever share with you.
But since you’re here, and since I have several emails to respond to, here it goes. . .
- Join some listservs . . . here’s a few for starters:
- Holiday Pirates is a great one. From last-minute deals, cheap flights, and all-inclusive packages, it’s a pretty sweet site!
- Gate 1 Travel constantly does flash sales that offer entire trips cheaper than standalone airfare would cost you. You can add on various excursions and guided tours, or do the entire thing at your own pace and just pay for hotels and airfare. I used them for an impromptu Iceland getaway, and am using them again to spend Thanksgiving in London because they’re so cost-effective. They have payment plans and excellent customer service.
- Living Social Escapes & Groupon Getaways are another one of my favorites! Usually they include Gate 1 Travel packages, so you’d want to check and compare the flash sales vs. Groupon and Living Social deals. You can sign up for their emails, or just peruse when interested. I’ve used these with much success, as well!
- TravelZoo is one of my favorites for US-based adventures. They routinely have awesome deals on NYC hotels, often offer additional discount codes for Gate 1 getaways, and sometimes feature weekend spots I wouldn’t have thought of if left to my own devices. They also do a Top 20 roundup that features the week’s best deals from all over the internet, and often they’re INSANE!
- Flights are usually your biggest expense, so use tools to save what you can:
- If you’re trying to book your own flight (especially internationally), the Google Flight Matrix is an insanely helpful tool. It’s particularly useful if you’re planning a multi-city trip. Airfarewatchdog is nice for cheap flights . . . you can set alerts for areas you’re interested in visiting and it will tell you when your flight is on mega-sale. Secret Flying is another awesome resource, as is The Flight Deal. But the one that travel bloggers swear by is Momondo. It scours pretty much everything on the internet, even non-English websites which can result in cheaper fares, but can also be trickier to navigate.
- WOW Air is relatively new and stupidly cheap, which always makes me nervous, but I’ve had some friends fly them and they’ve all had good experiences. IcelandAir – which I have flown – can also get you to Europe pretty inexpensively. They’re especially nice because they run stopover deals where you can fly to a place. . . say Ireland. . . and take up to a seven-night stopover in Iceland and they won’t charge you extra for the flight. Depending on your international destination, there are a number of decent budget travel airlines. I’m just highlighting the European ones because they’re the ones I’ve gotten the most questions about!
- When I’m flying within the US, I love Southwest for a number of reasons, which I’ll talk about shortly . . .
- Don’t forget that if you’re looking at flights on an airline’s website to clear your cookies every time . . . airline websites track your browsing history and will jack your prices slightly every time you come back!
- The best window for booking international flights is about six to eight weeks before your trip. Too early or too late and the prices go up. It’s also usually cheaper to book flights for Tuesdays and Wednesdays when possible.
- If you ever find yourself on an overcrowded airplane and the airline is asking for volunteers to bump to another flight – and you can do it – DO IT. I once negotiated a bumped flight for me and my mom into $1,400 in free airfare. I went EVERYWHERE that year.
- Maximize your rewards:
- One of the best things I’ve done is get a travel-friendly credit card. I have a Southwest Visa that’s earned me so many points I’ve pretty much stopped paying for flights within the US. I use it for everything – even $2 coffees – to rack up the points. It offers perks like no blackout dates, no international credit card fees, no flight-change fees, and extra points on certain things. I’ve even thought about getting a credit card to help earn international flights, but so far have had so much success using listservs and cheap airfare tools that I decided I’d rather save the points for US travel, which I do much more frequently. It really depends on what your travel goals are, and what other deals you can finagle. Don’t open a travel credit card unless it comes with a huge signing bonus . . . my Southwest card offered me 50,000 points, which is at least two round-trip flights. (P.S. If you decide to open a SW card, use the link above and you’ll get the 50,000 points).
- This concept applies to ALL KINDS of rewards programs, so if you’re staying in a hotel, use your travel-friendly credit card AND be sure you’re signed up for whatever loyalty program they have. I’ve gotten really nice upgraded hotel rooms at no cost, and access to exclusive discounted prices all through free hotel programs, and frankly, I don’t even stay in hotels that frequently.
- There are too many credit cards and rewards programs to list here, so just do some Googling. It’s worth the time, I promise.
- Time, flexibility, comfort, and companions:
- Ah, the magic combo. Most of traveling, I’ve found, comes down to Time vs. Money. If you take more time to get somewhere (i.e. bus over train, train over plane), it will save you money. So if you’re short on vacation days but flush on rewards points, then take the plane. If you’re low on dough but have plenty of time away, then take the bus. You get my point.
- If your schedule is flexible, do your best to travel off-season. If you can go during the cheapest times of the year (the first two weeks in December, and pretty much all of January and February), you will be AMAZED by just how much money you’ll save. Both my Iceland trip and my upcoming London trip have fallen in this window, and not only did I save a heck of a lot of money, but I also won’t be fighting the usual tourist crowds.
- If you’re willing to give up some comfort – like luxe hotels for decent hostels, or even a friend’s couch (I do this all the time, I LOVE MY FRIENDS!), you can travel cheaper. The money I’ve saved by staying with friends and family (and no, I’m not a total mooch; I send flowers, bring wine, buy dinner, and return the favor whenever they’re on the East Coast), has allowed me to visit more places. Sometimes I even sleep on the floor . . . but usually I’m so exhausted from the day’s adventures that it doesn’t matter anyway. If you don’t have people in the area with whom you can crash, try an Airbnb. Don’t ever pay full price for one; again, if you do some Googling there are discount codes everywhere online.
- Travel with friends! I know that many people advocate for solo travel, and it definitely has its perks. But if you’re trying to save money, it always helps to have someone with whom to split the costs.
- Plan ahead, use your resources, and ask questions!
- A little bit of planning can go a long way. If you have the time to peruse deals, search for discount codes, and wait for flash sales, it will pay off. It will also help you if you have a general idea of what you want to do on your vacation. If you know of a few good food options in the area, it’ll prevent you from that I’m-starving-feed-me-now-before-I-eat-you panic that inevitably results in a forgettable meal from some overpriced chain restaurant. If you’ve looked into attractions you might want to visit, you’ll know if they offer discounted days (many museums have cheaper prices on certain weekdays), or online coupons.
- Google that sh*t. No, seriously. Google is your new BFF. If you’re not sure about something, chances are seven-hundred other strangers have also asked the same question of the internet. So let them do your work for you. There are a million resources out there that have weekend guides to specific cities, foodie finds, free things to do, and more. I never go somewhere without doing a little Googling, even if it’s only on the flight over.
- Honestly, one of the best things I’ve done is simply asked around. From random Instagrammers, to relatives who live in the area, to friends and coworkers who’ve visited, first-hand knowledge is the best knowledge. My favorite move is to go to a local bar or café the first night I’m in town and befriend the bartender. I’ve gotten better tips on where to eat, what to visit, and completely hidden locales (and some pretty fab drinks!) from my bartenders than from all my Googling and guide-reading combined. Plus, I’ve met some pretty cool people that way. Lots of times my fellow cocktail or coffee consumers have also been locals, and they’ve kindly tipped me off to some of the cooler spots I’ve seen.
- Don’t skimp on the stuff that really matters:
- It’s easy to get so committed to a budget that you don’t want to deviate at all. I’m sorry, but if that’s your strategy, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, you just have to spring for gelato in Rome, because you don’t when you’re coming back. My usual approach to trip budgets is to pick a handful of things I absolutely don’t want to miss, and plan accordingly. Then I plan a per diem for everything else, and that’s flexible. This way, I know I have the money for the things I really care about, and everything else is just icing on top of the cake. (Served with gelato!)
- Finally, if you’re traveling abroad ALWAYS get travel insurance. It’s really, really, really, REALLY tempting to skip this, and in one of my rookie excursions abroad, I did. There were a million complications to that trip which could have caused enormous headaches and cost me lots of money, and which I narrowly (read: by the sheer grace of God) avoided. It’s worth the $50 to have your butt covered in case you get sick, your passport gets stolen, an earthquake explodes and your flight gets grounded for two weeks (just missed that one), baggage handlers go on strike (and that one), your luggage gets lost, you break a bone, a relative dies . . . just use your imagination. Most fully-planned trips will offer travel insurance as part of the add-ons you can buy, but it’s usually more expensive and less comprehensive than you can get elsewhere. I prefer World Nomads, which you can get online in about five minutes, and I never go abroad without it.
I hope this helps as you plan your next getaway! If you have any specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer. But please remember that I’m not an actual expert, and that if you Google (Tip #5) you’ll find many people who are, and whose advice, blogs, knowledge, and experiences hopelessly outclass mine! Go learn from the masters . . . and then please take me with you on your next adventure!
*Main image via Huffington Post