You might be wondering; how do we travel so much without breaking the bank?
When I was growing up, my family’s idea of a holiday vacation was packing up the old car and heading to the nearest campsite. We simply couldn’t afford to purchase 4 plane tickets to Disney World — let alone travel to somewhere like Germany.
I had no clue what I was missing out on. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the retreat time with my family, but there’s a whole world that I never knew existed unless I read about it in a book.
By the time I grasped this, I was driving to New York to start a new job and begin a whole new education in world culture. I hardly had enough money to pay the rent let alone be able to afford to live and explore in NYC.
So how in the world could I possibly contemplate one day having enough time or money to travel?
That’s when I began to study how to become a budget traveler, and I discovered some of the ways to travel the world on the cheap.
Top 10 Ways to Travel on the Cheap
Don’t let financial glitches stop you from becoming nomadic. Here are 10 ways to travel on the cheap that can help you see more of the world without going broke.
1. Pay with Credit Card Points
Credit card rewards are a great way to use everyday purchases to fund your wanderlust. There are a few options that you can consider when it comes to credit card reward programs.
There is the mileage option and there is the cash back option. Many of the mileage credit cards are more flexible than they used to be. In some cases you can use miles for hotel rooms, flights and even rental cars.
If you would rather not be tied down to miles, you may want to consider a cash back card. Cash back cards will give you a check or credit to your account that you can apply to your balance or use for other things.
We like this option because it allows you to spend your cash on things like AirBNBs, campgrounds and B&Bs that may not be available under the mileage options.
2. Fly with a Budget Airline
Cheap flights can be a really great way to cut travel costs. However, budget airlines do require you to be a bit more flexible and cost conscious.
This is what you need to know about budget airlines, the base fare is great, but if you want to pick your seat, get an earlier boarding zone, check your luggage, have a snack, or in some cases have more than one carry-on bag, you’re going to pay extra.
Fees for these “extras” can range from $25 to $100, depending on the airline.
We have found that our best options when it comes to budget airlines is Southwest for travel in the US and Mexico, and we like IcelandAir for travel to Europe.
Southwest keeps the fees to a minimum, but we do like to pay the extra $25 per ticket to get priority boarding. This allows us to get better seats, and seats together if we are traveling as a family.
IcelandAir is surprisingly a great airline for travel to Europe. They don’t have a ton of extra fees and have all of the benefits and comforts of regular air travel, with really reasonable prices. The one downfall here… there’s always a layover in Reykjavik.
3. Drive Instead of Flying
If you can handle the time in the seat, driving can be a great way to see more, and save money. Driving does mean that you must plan a few extra days of travel time, but you can also throw in some tourist adventures on your drive.
We have found that we like driving instead of flying when it comes to more localized traveling, or if there are sites between home and our final destination that we are really interested in seeing. Road tripping was a really popular way of vacationing in the 1950s and 1960s, it is quickly becoming a popular option for today.
It is a good idea if you don’t have extra stops in mind, considering the price difference between flying and driving. Watch gas prices, and do make sure that you remember that part of the cost of driving is wear and tear on your vehicle.
Depending on your final destination, flying may actually be cheaper, so do crunch the numbers before you commit to driving.
4. Timing is Everything
When it comes to timing, there are a couple of things to consider that can significantly reduce the cost of travel.
First, when it comes to flying, if you can be flexible with your travel days and times, you’ll find that prices can be much lower on certain days of the week or particular times.
To be honest, we generally like to fly on Tuesdays and Saturdays. These two days frequently have the cheapest fares. And, we like to pick flight times that are either really early in the morning, or later in the evenings. Also, avoid air travel during holiday seasons. Unless you book months and months in advance, flight prices can get ridiculously high during the holidays.
Second, travel off-season if you can. What do we mean by this? Well if you are going to a location that is popular with tourists, there’s going to be a high season and a low season.
You’ll get lower rates on hotels, flights, camping sites, and sometimes even attractions if you visit during the low season. Businesses in touristy areas will generally have great rates in the off-season to entice travelers to visit.
Another benefit to traveling off-season, is that crowds are smaller, and you can enjoy a more relaxed experience.
5. Skip the Major Airports
To be fair, this isn’t always the case, but it’s worth the research if you really want to save some cash. The big airlines, flying out of major airports tend to charge more for the convenience.
If you want to save some money, consider flying through smaller regional airports. In many cases, flights to these smaller airports are more affordable.
Do keep in mind that if you consider regional airports, you are likely to be flying in smaller aircraft, and you probably won’t have all of the “luxuries” of the major airlines. You will also have to manage with limited flight times and days.
However, smaller regional airports are less crowded and smaller airlines often have lower, set airfares that skip the fees for things like luggage and selecting your seats.
6. Save Money on Food
Food when traveling can get expensive. We have found that this is one of the largest costs for us when we travel. However, over time we have found that we don’t need to spend a ton on food, and there are ways to cut back on costs.
We like to pick hotels that offer a complimentary breakfast. Don’t expect a gourmet meal, but if you’re OK with pastries, cereal, and occasionally eggs and bacon, this can be an easy way to reduce your food costs.
If you can, bring foods from home, or find the local grocery or market, and cook your meals. If you don’t have a way to cook meals, this option can save you money on breakfasts and lunches at a minimum.
We like to splurge on our dinners especially when there are opportunities to experience local cuisine, or unique cultural foods. To save money, we will often share a meal.
This gives us the ability to stretch our budget, at the same time helps us avoid overeating and gaining a ton of weight while on vacation.
Another way we save on food, especially if we are staying in the US or when there’s not a “must try” food, we can happily share appetizers or small plates that are usually less expensive, but can be just as filling.
7. Volunteer or Get a job
This idea works great if you are planning on spending an extended period of time in one area or region. This can also be a great way for students or recent graduates to see the world without having a ton of cash in pocket.
If you can, find a small local business that will hire you for temporary work.
Oftentimes these positions will pay enough to give you funds for lodging at a local hostel or rent a room in a local home.
Another option is to volunteer with organizations that do work in unique places. Often these opportunities come with lodging and ground transportation.
This can give you a low cost place to stay, opportunities for seeing new places, and you get the added benefit of giving back.
8. Explore Local
You don’t have to go far from home to have great travel experience. We love traveling around our home state, and even in our local neighborhood there are great places to experience and visit.
“Staycations” as they are known, are a great way to be a tourist and save money. Use your home as your starting point, and then decide how far from home you’re willing to venture in a day.
Maybe this is a couple of hours from home or maybe you want to spend the day in a different neighborhood.
When it comes to traveling, many of us are well versed in places far from home, but don’t know much about the opportunities in our own backyard.
9. Do Your Research
From our experience, being unprepared is a huge waste of money. We are great at saving money when we travel, when we do our research and plan ahead. Research and planning ahead means lower airfares, better rates on hotels, cheaper gas, and better prices for food, attractions and experiences.
While we love spontaneity, when it comes to travel, especially big trips, we like to plan out at least 6 months. This gives us the opportunity to find deals, and know what things to see, and what attractions aren’t worth the money.
We can also pick food and beer spots that are rated well, and aren’t too expensive.
10. Make Friends
Really, sometimes it is about who you know. Building relationships with other travelers and business owners can pay off big, when it comes to saving money.
These people can show you where to find the best deals, provide lodging for free or at a discount, and can be great resources when it comes to finding the hidden gems in a destination.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to become best friends, but certainly being friendly can go a long way.
We have found that being cordial, tipping well, treating service professionals with kindness, and making an effort when it comes to local traditions, cultures or language, can really make a difference in your experience, and can open up opportunities that aren’t available for the normal traveler.
Resources We Use To Save Money On Travel
If you haven’t guessed it by now, we love to travel but don’t have piles and piles of cash to spend. So, we like hacks, and apps and websites that help us stretch the funds that we have for family travel.
In this section, we’ll give you some of the options that we have found to be the most useful. Some of these we use. Some are recommended by other travelers that we know, that like to get the most from their money.
Our Favorite Travel Sites, Apps and Hacks
Frequent Flyer Miles – We have found that we like a couple of airlines. Our experience says we get good service, and reasonable prices for flights through these two airlines. Since these are our preferred airlines, we’ve signed up for their frequent flyer programs, and collect miles.
Frequent flyer programs generally will pay off after just a couple of round-trip flights. They are free to sign up for, and if you work the system, you’ll be getting free flights in no time.
Chase Sapphire Rewards Card – This is probably the most flexible card on the market. It allows you to use your points for airfare, hotels, rental cars and other travel options. They’re generous with the points and the huge “signing” bonus is a great incentive.
Living Social and Groupon – Both of these sites have deals on travel packages. We have found that sometimes they aren’t the best prices, however. Our recommendation: do your research and compare (and don’t forget to read the fine print) before you put your money into one of these deals.
We do really like both of these options for discounts on experiences, spa services, food and drinks.
Dufl – A great service that is recommended by folks we know that travel a lot, mostly for business. This company will store your suitcase and all of your clothes, toiletries and such, and deliver them to your hotel, so you don’t have to deal with a suitcase in the airport.
At the end of your trip they collect your bag, and even wash, press and fold your clothes, and repack your bag for next time.
This service pays for itself if you travel a lot, want to use discount airlines and don’t want to pay baggage fees. If you’re only traveling a couple times a year, this service isn’t worth your time.
Flightstats.com – This site is great for tracking flights and for getting reliability and quality information for specific flights. We do compare the quality ratings on other sites with the ratings on this site, to make sure that the flights we are booking aren’t going to be a miserable experience.
TSA PreCheck – A lifesaver and time saver for sure. We love our TSA PreCheck status. Skip the lines, keep your shoes on, and never unpack your toiletries or electronics at airport security again.
For $85 per traveler, you get a five year pass, that adds to your travel convenience. This is great if you are traveling with small children (kids under 13 years old can piggyback on mom or dad’s PreCheck), or if you just want to avoid the long lines.
Global Entry – Similar to the TSA PreCheck, Global Entry is a program for international travelers. If you like to go outside of the United States, and travel abroad frequently, this is a must.
The process is more tedious, but you can skip the long lines at Customs in many airports.
AAA – Ok, to be honest, the first time that we signed up for AAA, we felt like old people. Then we realized that there are a TON of benefits to being an AAA member. This is a really cheap membership, and honestly is a must-have if you like to road trip.
Besides being able to jump your battery or get you a tow truck, AAA has great discounts on flights, hotels, rental cars, train trips, global tours, bike tours, and many hotels will give you discounts if you flash your AAA membership card.
AAA also has great travel insurance which can be a huge money saver if you unexpectedly need to cancel a big trip.
Costco Executive Memberships – To be fair, we’re new to this benefit, so we’ve not had a chance to check it out, but if you’re already a Costco member, it’s worth looking into.
Costco executive members get travel discounts, rental car discounts, and cash back on your purchases. Use your cash back rewards to fund a weekend getaway.
TripAdvisor – Check out this site before you leave home to find the best things to see and do anywhere you travel. Some experiences, restaurants and businesses will give discounts if you mention TripAdvisor or have online booking codes within TripAdvisor that you can use for discounts.
Also, read reviews to get the scoop from other travelers on spots on your itinerary, then leave your own reviews after your visit.
Omio– Formerly known as GoEuro, this site is a must if you are planning to travel through Europe by train. You can book seats, buy multi-day passes, and check train schedules from this site.
Refund.me – This site will help you get refunds for travel in Europe. If your flight is canceled and you have to rebook at your cost, this site will help you get a refund. It follows EU travel refund protocols, so you know it isn’t a scam.
Our Favorite Travel Aggregators
These sites pull together rates from a variety of travel services. They give you options for flights, rental cars, hotels and even experiences.
Many of these sites will give you discounts if you bundle package flights with hotels and/or rental cars.
There are a lot of options out there, we’ve listed the ones we use the most, but do your research to find the ones that work best for you.
Skyscanner.com – As the name suggests, this is a great site for finding good deals on airfare. It also tends to find some of the more obscure airline options, and smaller regional airports. You can also use this site to book hotels and rental cars, but this isn’t the best site for that.
Hotels.com – We use this site A LOT. They really have some of the best rates on hotels, both in the US and abroad. This site was a lifesaver when an AirBNB reservation fell through at the last minute.
We like that you can reserve now and pay later which can help spread out travel costs. This site also rewards you for using their service. After 10 nights, you get a free night, which is nice.
Also, keep your eyes out for member secret sales, which can be a great way to plan a weekend getaway or spontaneous trip.
Kayak.com – Really, to find the best travel deals using aggregators, you have to check out a lot of sites. Which can take a lot of time. Kayak takes the work out of this process, and compares prices on all of the major aggregators, to help you get the best rates.
Priceline.com – To be honest, we use priceline mostly for rental cars. The kicker here is that you can get great prices, but you don’t know what you’re getting until you pay.
We’re OK with this when it comes to rental cars because you can specify “SUV” or “Convertible” or “Luxury”, but when it comes to flights and hotels, we like to know what we’re getting.
These are just a few of our favorite resources for traveling on the cheap. If you have other suggestions, let us know. We love a good tip, especially if it lands us somewhere amazing and saves us a bit of cash at the same time!
Traveling can be affordable or expensive, it’s really your choice.
Practical travelers who are always on the lookout for a good deal can save money by following even just a few of these simple tips.
Don’t stress, we won’t be insulted if you don’t take all of our suggestions. Start by picking a couple of the ideas that fit your needs.
Remember, every little bit helps in the end.