How to Travel on a Budget: 46 Essential Tips

travel on a budget

Roughly half of Americans have gone an entire year without taking a weeklong vacation, according to Allianz Global Assistance’s 2019 Vacation Confidence Index. For more than a third, it’s been more than two years.

As someone who tries to take a long trip at least two or three times a year, the thought of going that long without a meaningful break gives me a little anxiety. But for most, I’m sure the primary reason is the sheer cost of doing so. Even if you’re single or have a partner and no children, traveling for a week or more can get pricey. 

There are plenty of ways to travel on a budget, but the key is to do it without sacrificing your enjoyment. I’ve embarked on trips before only to realize that I couldn’t afford to do much when I got to the destination. So to help make your next trip more than just a daydream, here are some of my best budget travel tips.

Planning the trip

1. Skip the travel agent

Don’t get me wrong, travel agents are good at what they do. And if you want an expert’s guiding hand or don’t have the time to plan every detail of your trip, it may be worth considering one.

But if your goal is to save money, you’re better off booking on your own. Travel agent fees can run into the hundreds of dollars, and if you have the time and desire to plan your own trip, that’s money you could be using to have more fun.

2. Consider cheap alternative destinations

If you have a specific destination in mind, such as the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, you can’t see them without visiting New York City or Paris. But if you’re not picky about the specifics, you can easily get a similar experience without paying high prices at hotspot destinations.

For example, if it’s a tropical getaway you want, consider visiting Curaçao instead of the Bahamas or Hawaii. And if you want to experience Southeast Asia, your money will go a lot further in Vietnam than in Singapore. 

It may take some extra research, but it could make your dream vacation more doable. And who knows, it may end up becoming your new favorite destination.

3. Take a road trip

If you’re planning a trip to one or two states over, driving could be a lot cheaper than flying. Even if gas is a little more expensive than the flight, you won’t have to rent a car or rely on taxies or ridesharing services to get you around. 

And if you’re traveling with a family, even longer road trips can be much cheaper than a flight.

4. Search for flight deals

You should never have to pay full price for a flight, at least not with so many deals out there. Start by following websites like Scott’s Cheap Flights and The Flight Deal. They post special deals and fare mistakes every day for both domestic and international flights.

You may have to be more flexible with your travel plans to take advantage of a deal, but it’s worth it if you can make it happen.

If you don’t have as much flexibility, use the Hopper app to find out when the best time is to buy your tickets. The app makes pretty accurate predictions about how good the price is right now and when you should consider booking. 

You can even set up notifications for a specific itinerary, and the app will let you know when the price is right. 

5. Rack up credit card rewards

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled several times a year but only paid for flights and hotels a few times. That’s because I’ve taken advantage of travel credit card rewards programs. 

Some of the best travel credit cards offer sign-up bonuses worth hundreds of dollars — some have gone as high as $1,000 or more. You typically need to spend a few thousand dollars in the first three months with the card to get the bonus. But if you can manage that with your normal spending, that’s essentially free travel. 

Over the years, I’ve owned over 50 credit cards and earned tens of thousands of dollars in travel rewards. I don’t recommend that kind of intensity for everyone, though. Even one sign-up bonus can make a difference. 

6. Plan to travel during the offseason

Holiday weekends and the summer are big for travelers, and airlines and hotel chains know it. Even fuel prices tend to go up when gas companies know that people are planning to be on the road.

If you can swing it, plan to travel when everyone else is back at work or school. You’ll typically get lower airline tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars. You’ll also enjoy thinner crowds and may have an easier time getting time off from work because no one else is leaving town. 

Keep in mind, though, that some destinations may have different peak and off-peak seasons. Do your research before you start planning to save. 

7. Join AARP or AAA

You don’t have to be 50 years old to join AARP — in fact, I joined for the first time in my late 20s. In exchange for the $16 annual membership fee, you’ll get access to special deals and discounts on all types of travel. Here are just a few examples I found:

  • Save up to $200 on British Airways flights
  • Get up to a $300 onboard cruise credit
  • Save up to 10% with various hotel brands

Another membership that provides similar benefits is AAA. Compare benefits and deals to decide which one is better for you.

8. Be flexible with accommodations

For most people, it’s pretty standard to stay in a hotel when you’re traveling. But depending on where you go, it could be cheaper to opt for different accommodations — and possibly more fun.

For example, if you’re traveling internationally and don’t mind sharing certain amenities, hostels charge a fraction of the price of a hotel room. You also get to meet interesting people.

I stayed in several hostels during a six-week trip to Fiji and New Zealand in 2009 and met a girl who was an extra in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As a devout Harry Potter nerd and proud Hufflepuff, I loved hearing about her experiences on the set.  

Airbnb is another solid option because it allows you to stay in a shared space, a private room, or get the entire apartment or home to yourself. One time, I stayed in San Francisco for $40 a night sleeping on some dude’s couch. 

Finally, Couchsurfing allows you to stay at someone’s place for free. That said, it’s usually a good gesture of gratitude to offer to cook a meal or take your host out, or even bring a gift to say thank you.

9. Use cash-back websites when you book

It’s always a good idea to book your travel on a credit card to get rewards on the purchase — of course, this is only worth doing if you’re going to pay it off in full before the due date. But I also recommend taking advantage of cash-back websites to get even more money back.

Websites like Ebates, Swagbucks, and Topcashback offer cash-back at thousands of online retailers, including several airlines, hotels, car-rental companies, and travel agency websites. With some merchants, you can get upwards of 10% cash back, which significantly cuts your vacation costs.

To get the cash back, you typically need to visit the cash-back website first and click through to the online retailer of your choice. But with Ebates and Swagbucks, you can add an extension to your browser that notifies you when you’re on a website that offers cash back. 

You can also visit Cashback Monitor to see which website offers the best cash-back rate for certain merchants. Whether you’re using a credit card or a debit card, going through a cash-back website to book travel is a no-brainer. 

10. Book with Costco Travel

If you’re a Costco member, you’ll get special access to discounts and deals on various travel purchases. Recently, I booked a rental car through Expedia for $113 then checked the same itinerary on Costco’s travel website and it was $40 cheaper and from a better car-rental agency. 

Costco isn’t always going to be the cheapest option, but it pays to check. And if you’re not a Costco member, you could potentially save enough in travel alone to justify the annual fee.

11. Do not — I repeat — do not borrow money

There are hundreds of articles on the internet telling you all about how you can finance your next vacation with a credit card or a personal loan — trust me, I’ve written a few for some of my clients. 

But just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Putting the trip on a credit card works if you’re going to pay the balance in full at the end of the month. But if you’re planning to carry the balance, you may end up paying off that trip for years with a double-digit interest rate.

As for personal loans, you’re looking at a few years for the typical repayment period, and most personal lenders charge upwards of 10% — and some go much higher. 

In short, there are certain things in life worth going into debt for, but a vacation isn’t one of them.

12. Watch out for extra charges

If you’re booking a flight or staying in a hotel, it’s important to keep an eye open for extra or hidden fees. For example, some international airlines have fuel surcharges, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Also, some car-rental companies charge extra service fees they don’t disclose when you book the reservation.

And if you’re planning to stay in a hotel or resort, you may be on the hook for resort or parking fees. I’m not saying it’s not worth it to shell out for these costs. But it’s a good idea to incorporate them into your budget when you’re comparing costs with alternatives.

13. Book at the last minute

Flights generally get more expensive the closer it gets to the departure date. But with cruises and hotels, you can often get steep discounts. 

One app that can help you search for deals in your destination city is HotelTonight. Top-rated hotels essentially give the company their unsold rooms, which it then offers to its users at a price much lower than the going rate. 

If you’re going on a cruise, visit LastMinuteCruises.com to see current deals.

14. Consider package deals

Instead of booking your flight, hotel, and rental car separately, you may be able to get a discount if you bundle them all together into one package. A lot of travel agency websites even offer special deals for specific destinations, which is perfect if you’re flexible about where you want to go.

15. Look for hotels with free food

A great way to save on food is to stay in a hotel that offers free breakfast. It may not always be the best quality of food, but it’s worth it if you’re on a budget. 

Some hotels even offer free dinner, although they don’t call it that. Instead, they’ll call it an “evening social” or “manager’s reception.” A few such hotels include:

  • Homewood Suites (Monday through Thursday only)
  • Residence Inn (Monday through Wednesday only; not at all locations)
  • Staybridge Suites (Tuesday through Thursday only)
  • Embassy Suites (seems to be more snacks than real food)
  • Drury Hotels
  • Clarion Collection Hotels

16. Don’t book until you’re sure

For me, booking a flight or a hotel is a rush. It instantly transports you from the planning stage of the trip to the preparation stage. And even if your vacation is still months out, the plan is set. 

At least you hope so. It’s possible you may need to cancel a trip due to health reasons or a death in the family. But if you make changes simply because you’ve changed your mind, it can get costly.

Once, I had to cancel a Delta flight because of lower back problems. The fee to get my miles back was $200 — it’s up to $500 on international flights — but fortunately, I was able to get the fee waived because the cancelation was medical related.

If you don’t have an acceptable reason, you’ll be stuck paying that fee. So avoid making any purchases until you know for sure what you want.

Preparing for your travels

17. Set a budget and stick to it

You may have already budgeted for the big things like the flight, hotel, and rental car. But it’s also important to create a budget for food, activities, souvenirs, and other expenses you might incur on your trip. 

Take the time to set your budget for these costs, and stick to it during your trip.

18. Pack light

If you’re one of those people who needs two full suitcases for a weeklong trip, please view this public service announcement

But seriously, lugging around a ton of stuff isn’t fun. And if you’re flying, getting by with less luggage can save you money on checked baggage fees. Most airlines charge them, and the fee starts $25 or $30 for the first bag each way. Plus, you’ll save time by skipping the baggage claim process.

Keep in mind, though, that airlines typically waive the fee for certain international flights. So no need to go full Spartan. 

19. Protect your health

If you’re traveling internationally, you may be required to get certain vaccines beforehand. Depending on where you’re going, it may also be worth it to get optional vaccines. After all, it’s a lot less expensive than contracting a sickness or disease.

Also, if you take medication regularly, make sure you have enough for the trip plus some just in case. And consider bringing some over-the-counter stuff like antacids, pain relievers, and anti-diarrheal pills. You never know when you’re going to need it, and if you’re overseas, it probably won’t be cheap to get it.  

20. Get a bank account with no international ATM fees

In general, the best way to exchange currency when you’re traveling abroad is by pulling money from your bank account at an ATM. The only problem is that a lot of banks charge fees for international ATM withdrawals. 

To avoid this unnecessary cost, get a checking account that waives those fees. A few examples include Schwab Bank, Capital One 360 (online accounts only), and Denizen.

21. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees

If you’re traveling overseas, using a credit card can be more convenient than walking around with a bunch of cash. Most credit cards, however, charge a fee of up to 3% on all foreign transactions. 

That might not sound like a lot, but it adds up over time. Fortunately, there are plenty of credit cards that don’t charge this fee. Most travel credit cards, for instance, skip the fee. Also, these credit card issuers don’t charge the fee on any of their cards:

  • Barclays
  • Capital One
  • Discover (keep in mind, though, that Discover isn’t widely accepted overseas)
  • HSBC
  • PenFed Credit Union

22. Prepare for the weather

You might have an idea in your head about how the weather is at your destination. But it’s always a good idea to keep checking up until you leave. If, for example, you’re heading to a tropical destination but it’s the rainy season, you don’t want to have to buy an umbrella when you get there because you left yours at home.

The same goes for other accessories and articles of clothing. Pack based on the weather forecast to make sure you don’t need to buy something you already have.

23.  Know what protections your credit card offers

Some credit cards offer various forms of travel insurance protection. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Trip cancellation or interruption insurance
  • Trip delay insurance
  • Baggage delay insurance
  • Lost luggage reimbursement
  • Rental car insurance
  • Travel accident insurance
  • Medical evacuation insurance

With the right credit card, you don’t have to pay out of pocket for many of these protections. And if you do suffer an insurable loss, you’ll know right away whether you’re covered. 

Make sure you read the fine print, though. Most cards require you to book the trip with the card to get the benefit, and a lot of them have limitations and exclusions.

24. See what’s covered on other insurance policies

If you have a personal health or auto insurance plan, you may also be covered when you’re traveling and don’t need to pony up for travel insurance. 

Make sure you understand all the terms and conditions, though. The last thing you need is to be without coverage when things go wrong, and you’re far from home.

Getting there

25. Bring food for the flight or car ride

Airport food is expensive because the restaurants and shops know you have nowhere else you can go. It’s especially helpful if you have kids who tend to get hungry in the most inopportune moments. Just be mindful that there are limits on liquids and gels that you can bring through the security lines.

26. Have a reusable water bottle

Staying hydrated while you travel is of utmost importance. But have you ever seen the price of a water bottle at the airport? Skip the ridiculous charge and bring your own. 

I started bringing mine a few years ago every time I traveled, and it’s great. Not only do I save money at the airport, but I also get enough water on the flight. In fact, the time I started bringing a water bottle was also about the same time I switched from window seats to aisle seats so I can use the bathroom whenever I need to without disturbing others.

27. Have a credit card with airport lounge access

Premium credit cards typically charge annual fees upwards of $450. But with that, you often get complimentary airport lounge access and several other benefits. 

Having lounge access means that you get access to food and drinks without paying ridiculous airport prices. Every time I fly, I try to hit up a lounge to relax and get some food. I also make sure to take advantage of the free cocktails to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth. 

Despite paying such a high annual fee on my Platinum Card® from American Express, I know that I’m still saving money by using this perk, as well as all the other benefits the card has to offer.

When you get there

28. Eat like a local

I spent two years as a missionary in Germany when I was younger. When my parents flew over to pick me up and spend a week visiting the country, they had their first meal in their hotel and spent almost €150 for four people. 

Over the next week, we spent roughly half that per day for five people, including me. Instead of eating at the hotel or in areas teeming with tourists, we frequented bakeries for breakfast and ate at döner shops and hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants for lunch and dinner. 

If you’re heading overseas, ask the locals about their favorite restaurants. Not only will the food be cheaper but it will also be much better.

29. Go grocery shopping

While eating like a local can save you money over expensive restaurants, you can save even more — especially if you have a family — by getting groceries and making your own meals. 

To do this, you’ll need to get a hotel room with a kitchenette or stay in an Airbnb that gives you access to a full kitchen. At the very least, try to get a place that has a mini-fridge and a microwave. Even something as simple cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch every day can lead to big savings over the course of the trip.

30. Use discount sites for meals and activities

Every time I travel within the U.S., I always run a search on Groupon or Living Social to see if they have any deals on interesting activities or restaurants. 

A lot of the time, I don’t bite because there’s nothing I’m interested in. But if you’re trying to save as much money as possible, it may be worth opting for heavily discounted activities and meals over more expensive options. You can even book some hotels through the sites. 

Just be sure to do your research to make sure the experiences and restaurants aren’t going to make you regret the savings.

31. Take advantage of public transportation

If you’re heading somewhere with a robust mass transit network, you could save a lot by buying day passes instead of renting a car or taking a taxi. 

You can get just about everywhere you need to go in New York City, San Francisco, and pretty much every major city in Europe with public transportation.

32. Know about kid discounts

A few days before my son turned three, we took him and my daughter to Disneyland for four days. In fact, he turned three on our last day in the park. Not only did we get to claim our daughter at a lap child on the flight to Los Angeles but both were free at the park, saving us hundreds of dollars. 

Some people protest the idea of taking small children on expensive trips like that because “they won’t remember it.” But guess what? I don’t remember a lot about my first trip to Disneyland with my family when I was 16, and I still look back on the experience fondly. 

The point of traveling with your family isn’t so that everyone will remember every detail; it’s about establishing deep connections with the people you love.

33. Rent a bike or scooter

If you’re in a big city, taxis and public transportation aren’t the only way to get around. Walking is obviously an option. But for longer journeys, consider using a public bike sharing system like Citi bike or ready-to-ride electric scooters to get around. They’re cheap and an effective way to enjoy the city.

34. Search for free activities

Everywhere you go, you’ll likely find some free activities. Try to find festivals, outdoor concerts, and other events that allow you to enjoy a local experience without digging deep into your wallet.

35. Be careful about where you exchange currency

If you’ve ever traveled internationally, you know that it’s hard to get through the airport without seeing currency exchange kiosks and stores. They’re convenient because they’re right there, but that’s a convenience not worth paying for.

These merchants can exchange your currency, but they typically charge more for the convenience. If you need cash at your destination airport, find an ATM. Otherwise, use ATMs around the city or a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.

36. Understand the art of haggling

Haggling isn’t really a thing in the U.S., but in some countries, it’s an art form. Whether it’s a taxi ride or a market, prices are fluid, especially for Westerners who aren’t familiar with the currency or value of goods in the country. 

This means that you may end paying more for an item or service than it’s worth. To avoid getting fleeced, it’s important to learn how to haggle. Don’t go overboard, though. Some of these people live relatively impoverished lives, so be respectful of their trade.

37. Utilize city passes

If you’re planning to spend a lot of time sightseeing in a city, it may be worth it to get a city pass. Also called sightseeing passes, these cards provide you with free or reduced admission to some of the city’s most popular attractions.

You may even get access to special deals or discounts on dining, entertainment, and shopping in the area. Before you buy a city pass, though, consider the cost and the included attractions. It’s not worth it to buy one if you’re not going to wear it out.

38. Visit museums

Some of the best and cheapest experiences you can have while traveling happen in a museum. With a free or affordable ticket, you get a chance to learn more about your destination’s culture and possibly history. Even visiting the Walmart museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, was a cool experience.

39. Pick up your rental car early

Book the cheapest rental car available, then aim to land in your destination early in the morning. At that point in the day, most customers haven’t returned their cars yet, which means that the type of car you booked may not be available. 

Despite this, rental car agencies are obligated to give you a vehicle at the same price, even if it’s a more expensive model. So pay economy prices, and you may get an upgrade.

40. Hit up happy hours

If you’re planning to drink while you’re traveling, try to time it during a local bar’s happy hour to save money. Some bars will even offer discounts on food. You’ll need to do some research beforehand. But depending on how much you eat and drink, it could be time well spent.

41. Don’t overtip overseas

Tipping is universal in the U.S., but it’s not that way everywhere else. In some countries, a service charge may already be included on your bill. And in others, the people who serve you earn a livable wage without needing your tips, making it unnecessary or potentially insulting to add on a gratuity.

Every country is different, so do your research on tipping before you leave. 

42. Get a guidebook

Local guidebooks are meant for tourists, so it’s the perfect place for local businesses to offer deals and discounts to interested in their activities and restaurants. 

You’ll also typically see various brochures and pamphlets at your hotel that highlight certain activities and restaurants. These are also a great place to find discounts. Just be sure to look up reviews, so you’re not stuck with a bad experience.

43. Wear a money belt

If you’re traveling internationally, one of the best ways to save money is by not losing it. Money belts aren’t necessarily cheap, but they can effectively protect your valuables, including your credit cards, debit cards, and cash.

44. Skip the souvenirs

To be honest, I’m not a souvenir kind of person. I like to buy a cheap magnet for every place I visit, but beyond that, I don’t see the point of spending money on overpriced touristy stuff. 

If you disagree, that’s fine — you do you. But consider whether the money you spend on things can be better used enhancing your overall experience instead. 

45. Download a mobile map

Paying for data while you’re traveling internationally can be expensive, but it can be tempting to do it even if it’s just to have access to a map. Sure, you can buy the things in paper form, but I know from experience that it’s not very convenient.

Mobile apps like Maps.me and Google Maps allow you to download area data when you’re connected to the internet, so you can use them when you’re offline. Simply get the area you need while you’re still in your hotel then go enjoy yourself without having to pay extra for data or a map.

46. Stay just outside your destination

Hotels in big cities can be expensive. But if you’re willing to stay in the next city over and can get to where you want to go via public transportation or a taxi, it could save you money with every night’s stay.

Instead of staying in downtown Los Angeles, for instance, consider Glendale or El Segundo. If you’re heading to Washington, D.C., book a hotel down the road in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a little less convenient, but it can be worth it if you trying to travel on a budget.

Got any budget travel tips you’d like to share? Put them in the comments, and they may show up on our list.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi

Ben is a freelance travel and money writer, who's always planning his next trip. When he's not traveling, Ben enjoys spending time with his kids, scoping out new restaurants, hiking, reading, and working through his never-ending Netflix queue. He's also a co-host on the podcast Just One More Trip.

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