Lately, you’ve had a serious case of wanderlust. You would give anything to roam the streets of Paris, sit in a hot spring in Iceland, or climb a mountain in South America.
There’s just one problem: traveling is expensive. If you’re not careful, you could set yourself back financially for several months or even years.
This article explains how to travel cheaply while still having an awesome time in the process.
How to save money when traveling
Here are the top ways to budget travel without burning a hole completely through your wallet.
- Cheap flights & off-season deals
- Credit card points
- Airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Airbnbs and hotels
- Eat where the locals eat
- Shop at local markets
- Utilize your network
- Keep yourself in check
- Prioritize low-cost activities
- Think local
- Use budget airlines with caution
- Try couchsurfing
- Check out hostels
- Look for housesitting gigs
1. Look for a cheap flight and off-season deals
Once you decide on your dream vacation, you’re going to have to figure out how to get there. This is where it can get tricky.
Book your flight as far in advance as possible, or during the off-season. This is especially important if you are going to a popular tourist destination.
For example, if you want to visit Greece during peak tourist season (July and August), you can expect to pay top dollar for both flights and accommodations.
You also need to think about timing. Getting a red-eye flight deal might seem like an enticing way to save a few bucks. But it could also make you exhausted and reduce the quality of your experience.
The further you plan ahead, the more time you have to shop around for good deals on a plane ticket and make adjustments. By waiting until the last minute, there’s a good chance of spending much more than necessary.
2. Use credit card points to book a flight and hotel room
There’s nothing like getting a free ride courtesy of credit card rewards points.
These days there are tons of travel-focused credit cards to choose from that offer hefty signup bonuses if you spend a certain amount within the first few months of opening an account.
In most cases, you can rack up enough points to pay for a free round-trip plane ticket to your dream destination. Plenty of world travelers abide by this system and only travel when they have enough credit card rewards stockpiled.
Travel credit cards also usually waive the foreign transaction fee, so you can use them to pay for your expenses when abroad without worry.
If you take this approach, you need to have serious financial discipline. Always pay your credit card balances in full at the end of each month and avoid overspending just to get your rewards
Think of it this way: Why would a credit card company offer you hundreds of dollars worth of free points or frequent flyer miles? The answer is that they plan to make their money back in interest. Interest fees on unpaid balances and annual fees can be very lucrative for credit card companies.
3. Sign up for airline and hotel loyalty programs
If you want to earn travel rewards without a credit card, you can also take advantage of airline and hotel loyalty programs.
To get the most out of this strategy, you’ll want to book as much travel with a single airline or a single hotel chain as possible, rather than diluting your rewards across a lot of different companies.
For example, each major airport is a primary hub for a specific airline. Dallas is the home base for American Airlines.
Other airlines come in and out of DFW but the majority of them are American Airlines. By flying with AA exclusively and being a member of their AAdvantage frequent flyer program, you can book flights (even on Expedia) and type in your Rewards number to get credit.
I cashed in 3 FREE round-trip flights within the past couple of years, all without a credit card!
Similarly, many hotels have reward programs. I like the Hilton Honors program which applies to all the Hilton brand hotels (DoubleTree, Hampton Inn, Embassy, etc).
4. Check Airbnb rates vs. hotels
Lodging costs can spiral out of control if you’re not careful. If you’re on a budget, consider avoiding resorts and name-brand hotels.
Overall, you are most likely going to save money by booking alternative lodging on sites like Airbnb. You can find great rates and stay in apartments or houses instead of cramped hotel rooms. Plus, you won’t have to pay any excessive resort fees.
As a bonus, you can sometimes stay with hosts and meet interesting locals.
Make sure to always review all of your options when booking accommodations. Big-name resorts often come with heavy fees and a host of other expenses. It’s not uncommon for resorts to rope customers in with attractive room rates because they bank on recouping that money in other areas like bar and dining tabs.
5. Eat where the locals eat
If you’re like most people, trying new foods is high on your list of travel priorities.
Food can be one of the most fun—and expensive—parts of a trip. You can easily save $100 a day by eating at cheap cafes and buying street food instead of sitting down at the nice restaurant your hotel receptionist recommends.
Take a page out of the book of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, who was a big advocate of asking locals where they like to eat. The theory is simple: most locals don’t eat in expensive or touristy restaurants.
When you go where the locals are, you can not only enjoy amazing food at reasonable prices, but you are also more likely to meet local people. In turn, you may even unlock fun adventures with your new local buddies, and learn about low-key tourist attractions that you would never have otherwise known about.
6. Shop at local markets
You don’t always have to eat out. Instead, you can save a ton of cash by cleverly purchasing all of your food from local markets.
If the place you are staying at has a kitchen (most hostels and Airbnbs do), or even just a microwave, you can easily make sandwiches to go and heat up tasty takeout food.
Taking this concept a step further: It can be hard to find local grocery stores in busy tourist areas. Don’t hesitate to ask a passerby “where is the nearest market?” (ideally, in their native language).
Most of the time, this person will be able to point you to a store nearby. Just because you are staying in a touristy area doesn’t mean you have to or should pay more than the locals do for groceries.
7. Utilize your network
When traveling on a budget, it pays to have connections wherever you’re going. Not only can this drastically lower the cost of a trip, but it can also make the trip a lot more fun.
For example, let’s say you fly into a major New York airport. If a friend picks you up, you can easily save the $20 or more it would otherwise cost to take a taxi or public transport to your destination.
That being said, when you are considering where to travel to next, check if you have friends or connections in any of your top prospects. If so, it might make the choice easier. You may even be able to stay with a friend (or one of their friends) and save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on lodging.
8. Keep yourself in check
One of the hardest parts about visiting new places is saying no to exciting activities.
Suppose you’re bopping around Southeast Asia, and your favorite band is playing in a nearby city (or island). Of course, you’re going to be tempted to shell out money to see them! Or, maybe you really want to check out a high-end restaurant that you saw on your favorite travel blog.
If you’re not careful, you could easily burn through thousands of dollars in just a few nights of partying. All too often, people rack up massive credit card debt while traveling because they were living beyond their means while abroad.
Unfortunately, many of these people are never able to get out of this debt due to other expenses or unforeseen circumstances.
For example, let’s say you spent $5,000 on your trip to Bali. Once you get home, your car breaks down, and you need an emergency root canal. Just like that, you don’t have the cash on hand to pay off your credit card bill as planned… and the interest fees start racking up.
Surely, this is why so many travel credit card companies are eager to offer signup bonuses and lend you money. They plan to make it back many times over down the road.
Before you go, spend some time putting together an itinerary of things you really want to do when you’re in town. You don’t have to stick to it, but simply having a plan that aligns with your budget can prevent you from spending too much and going off track.
9. Prioritize low-cost activities
You should also look for low-cost activities like walking tours. In large, expensive cities, look for free public parks (e.g., Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco). There are also almost always free gardens, churches, and beaches to explore in any major city.
Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you have to pay for helicopter rides or bungee jumping.
10. Think local
Young people today are under a lot of pressure to travel and see the world. Chances are, however, that there could be some really interesting places within a stone’s throw of where you live.
There may be a local park that you pass by every day without thinking twice about it. Or, there might be an interesting harborside town or historical site just a couple of hours from where you live.
By far, traveling locally is the easiest way to travel cheaply. You just might find that your wanderlust shifts to an appreciation of your surrounding area. And from a financial perspective, it’s a bargain compared to spending thousands of dollars on airfare and lodging.
11. Use budget airlines with caution
Flying on budget airlines can be a great way to save money, especially with long-haul trips.
Just remember that when it comes to budget airlines, you get what you pay for. Oftentimes, saving money upfront on budget travel can lead to fees at every corner thereafter.
For example, you most likely have to pay extra if you want to bring carry-on luggage. And if you need to change your flight, it could wind up being a huge hassle and very costly.
Not everyone is cut out for budget airline trips. Speaking from personal experience, in my younger years I was all about it. But these days I don’t mind spending a few hundred extra euros for a more comfortable trip.
Kayak.com is a great place to search for flight deals in any corner of the globe.
12. Try Couchsurfing
Another way to access cheap or even free accommodation is by Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing is a website and service where you can connect with a global network of travelers offering free places to stay. In exchange, you might be expected to offer up your place as well. What goes around comes around, right?
Couchsurfing members live in over 200,000 cities throughout the world, so it’s safe to assume this is an option wherever you intend to go.
It really comes down to the type of experience you want to have. For more privacy, look for hosts’ listings that offer private rooms.
13. Check out hostels
Staying in a hostel is a great way to save money on accommodations and meet new people.
Believe it or not, many hostels also offer private rooms and en-suite bathrooms. Of course, those features come at a premium. But staying at a hostel doesn’t always have to mean sleeping in a room full of strangers.
Hostelworld.com is the most popular online hub for hostel listings.
14. Look for housesitting gigs
With a little bit of planning and research, you might be able to line up a free place to stay by providing housesitting services at the destination of your choice
Websites like HouseSittersAmerica.com and HouseCarers.com connect house sitters with homeowners. Not only does this route solve the accommodation expense issue, but you’re also helping other people out in the process.
The benefits of travel
Learn and grow
Traveling yields benefits that money cannot measure. For example, you can soak in different cultures and ideas and gain a whole new perspective on life.
Traveling can also give you fun and interesting stories to tell your colleagues and business associates. You don’t want to be the only one without a fun travel story—or two or three!
Make interesting connections
The experience of traveling can also be an excellent way to make new connections and expand your network. You are bound to run into other like-minded people on airplanes, trains, buses, and in cafes and hotels.
These connections can turn into lifelong friends and professional acquaintances—and you never know which new opportunities or professional endeavors will ensue.
For example, suppose you solo travel to Spain. You just may sit next to someone on the airplane who happens to be a business owner in your line of work. This gives you hours to network with that person and learn about what they do. You might even leave the plane with a new client if you play your cards right.
Have fun and enjoy life
This may go against the FIRE approach somewhat, but life isn’t all about making money. It’s okay to have fun and enjoy the ride. In fact, if you go too hard with saving and investing when you’re young and skip out on fun travel experiences to save a buck, you may wind up regretting this decision later in life.
A better approach could be to abide by the FIRE principles whenever possible, but make special considerations when your time and budget allow for them.
In other words, there’s a difference between traveling strategically versus cashing out your savings and jet-setting across Europe or taking a road trip from coast to coast without a real plan.
Clever travel tips for budget travelers
Make it a business expense
Small business owners, freelancers, and independent contractors might be able to write off some traveling expenses.
For example, suppose there is a conference in London you’re eyeing because some potential clients are attending. Or maybe one of your clients is located in London and you’d like to meet face-to-face.
Regardless of your business intent, you could potentially book a round-trip ticket, hotel accommodations, and conference passes and write off those expenses on your taxes. Not only can you potentially make money from the client engagement, but you can also save on tax payments with this budget travel tip.
Again, it’s important to have a “why” when traveling. If you’re hustling and trying to make money, you may find it more rewarding to go to a new place for business and take in the sites during your spare time, rather than just randomly picking a place on the map and going there for a vacation.
If you decide to travel for business purposes, make sure to talk with a tax advisor or personal finance consultant ahead of time so you don’t do anything out of line.
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Don’t be afraid to say no
Just because you desperately want to take a cool vacation doesn’t mean you should. Sure, you want to see the pyramids—everyone does! However, now may not be the best time.
It also may not be the best time in six months or a year. The pyramids aren’t going anywhere.
The last thing you want to do is dig yourself into a massive debt hole you can’t climb out of. Don’t be afraid to put off a vacation if you’re not in the right position to do it. There is little point in going somewhere for a short time if it takes months or years to pay off the bills.
Frequently asked questions
Should I travel if I’m in debt?
Be very cautious about traveling anywhere until your debt is paid off.
Spending money on a vacation while you’re in debt is most likely going to put you deeper into debt. You could even wind up in a position where you never get out of debt, meaning you’ll spend the rest of your life buried in credit card payments and interest fees.
If you have money lying around for a vacation, consider paying down your credit cards or student loans first. Then, treat yourself to an affordable trip when you’re in a position to do so.
Another reason it’s generally not a good idea to take big trips when you are in debt is that traveling often leads to unforeseen expenses.
For example, if you miss a flight, lose your backpack, or need to visit a doctor while abroad, you could wind up having to pay an extra few hundred bucks, or more, that you didn’t initially budget for.
Are credit card points a good idea?
Credit card rewards can be a great way to travel cheaply, but only if you acquire them responsibly.
Credit card companies offer points and rewards as incentives to get people to sign up for their services. They bank on people overspending and falling deeply into debt—and you could too if you’re not careful.
Make sure that you stick to a budget with credit cards and avoid reckless spending at all costs. At the end of every month, pay down your balance in full. And whatever you do, avoid overspending just to reach a certain rewards threshold.
Should I do a gap year abroad?
After graduating from college, students sometimes take a gap year to travel abroad and experience a different culture.
This can be a great way to see the world and have some fun before starting your career. However, it can also send you into debt and get you started on the wrong foot.
If you’re considering doing a gap year, your best bet is to get a job working online or in the city where you want to live.
For example, you could get an online side hustle that pays your bills while you are abroad. You may even be able to use your English speaking abilities to your advantage to make money as an English tutor.
Part of graduating from college means accepting the fact that you need to work to bring in money. Delaying this process for a year to go backpacking across Asia or Europe could set you back financially. Think the process through before embarking as a backpacker.
How does travel insurance work?
Travel insurance is a plan that protects you from some of the financial risks associated with travel, such as a lost suitcase, a medical emergency, or a change in plans due to a situation beyond your control.
For many people, travel insurance is a good thing to have, and it doesn’t cost much either.
Also, some travel rewards cards offer a form of travel insurance, which is something you could look into when shopping for a new travel card.
Should I travel if my goal is financial independence?
If you’re pursuing the financial independence/retire early (FIRE) lifestyle, you may be wondering if the concept of travel even applies to you.
Simply put, travel can be exorbitantly expensive, especially if you go abroad for an extended period of time and miss work while doing it. All of that can set you back on your goal of financial independence.
However, if you travel strategically, you can use the experience to further your financial goals.
The Bottom Line
It’s a big world out there with endless sights to see, and there’s nothing wrong with budget travel. And, when travel hacking, you very well might have a better time and discover hidden perks that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
From the shores of Hawaii to the villages of Eastern Europe to the jungles of Thailand, there’s adventure and fulfillment to be found traveling, even on a budget. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go off the beaten path and do some exploring.
But, before you splurge on the trip of a lifetime and start jet-setting to international hotspots, make sure your finances in order.