If you need a vacation but fear that you can't afford one, don't despair. You may not be able to stay in a five-star hotel or fly first class, but with a little legwork, creativity and flexibility, you can travel affordably to just about anywhere. (For more tips on traveling without blowing your budget, see our Vacation Savings Tips Slide Show.)
Let's take a look at eight areas where it's easiest to save money:
1. Travel Supplies
Don't waste your money on pricey travel gadgets you don't really need, like a new GPS system, noise-canceling headphones for the flight or sweat-wicking underwear. For the things you really do need, like luggage or guidebooks, don't pay retail. Save money by borrowing: travel guides are available from the library or at used books stores locally and online, and luggage can always be borrowed from friends or family members. Use these strategies to acquire everything on your list while saving cash for your trip.
There are many ways to save money on flights as long as you plan your trip in advance. The cheapest option is to use frequent-flyer miles. You can get copious amounts of bonus miles for signing up with an airline's credit card (but watch out for annual fees, and allow yourself at least two to three months before you fly for the extra miles to post to your account). Purchasing miles is another strategy for topping off your account. This may not be the best value in the long run, but if spending $100 on miles will save you several hundred dollars in airfare, go for it. But, before you bother with either of these methods, check with the airlines to see if there will be frequent-flyer seats available on the days you want to travel. (For a potential downside to frequent-flyer programs, read Drawbacks Of Travel Reward Programs.)
If you're not using miles, be flexible with your travel dates and times. Often flights leaving mid-week will be cheaper than ones on the weekend, and the red-eye flights will be cheaper than the leisurely 10am takeoffs.
Travel search engines like Kayak.com and Sidestep.com are great for locating less expensive flights and figuring out how adjusting your travel date or time will affect your airfare. Using a flight-tracking program like Yapta, can save you hundreds of dollars by watching specific flights; you will receive an alert whenever prices drop. Particularly in Europe, it's sometimes possible to get a cheaper ticket by flying to a city near your destination, then taking a train or a dirt-cheap, short-hop flight the rest of the way.
Sometimes, though, planning ahead isn't the best way to get a deal! There are great deals to be had on last-minute flights, but this strategy only works if you can be extremely flexible with your schedule and destination.
If you're traveling with friends, consider choosing a travel destination within driving distance and taking a road trip instead - being mindful of the license and insurance requirements for individual countries, of course. By splitting the cost of gas, you'll save a bundle. You'll also get to see lots of sights along the way that you'd miss if you were in the air.
Traveling with friends will give you safety in numbers and allow you to share lodging costs, whether that means a campsite fee or a hotel-room bill. The cheapest and easiest way to save on accommodations, though, is to choose a travel location where you have a friend or relative who will let you stay with them.
In Europe, you can find acceptable and often surprisingly nice accommodations in hostels and sometimes even budget hotels. If you feel like you've outgrown the bunk-bed scene, keep in mind that many hostels have private rooms. Regardless of your destination, you can save money by staying in a less desirable or more residential part of town that's farther from the tourist attractions. In warmer months, camping may be an option, even in large metropolitan areas. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have campgrounds surprisingly close to the heart of the city.
Those who are more adventurous and willing to take chances with strangers can look for a bed on Craigslist or CouchSurfing.com. If you're willing to let someone crash at your place while you travel, you might try HomeExchange.com (if you live in an apartment, you might need to get permission from your landlord before inviting overnight guests to your pad).
Choosing a travel destination where public transportation is cheap and convenient can greatly reduce the cost of your trip. When you consider that renting a car can cost $150 per week or more plus gas, a trip to an inexpensive but car-happy city might cost as much as a visit to pricey but easily navigable New York City. If you must have a car, make your reservation far in advance, then try to get a better price at the last minute using a service like Priceline.com. If you don't need a car the minute you arrive at the airport, you can often achieve significant savings by renting a car from a non-airport location.
Here are some more options you might not have considered:
- If you will only need to use a car for part of your visit and you're traveling to one of their covered cities, Zipcar's car-sharing service can provide a convenient, cost-effective way to get around.
- Some cities, like Berlin, make it a snap to rent a bike.
- You can choose to forgo wheeled transportation altogether, and use WalkScore.com to find a pedestrian-friendly destination.
Every city has its cheap eats, from sausage stands in Vienna to Thai food eat-ins in St. Louis. Street meat (or vendor food) is often a good way to get a taste for the city you're in. If you do eat at these smaller food stands, just make sure you are choosing a clean vendor who thoroughly cooks the treats.
If you're traveling abroad, even a trip to the grocery store can be a culinary adventure. Buy some local cheese, fresh bread, seasonal produce and a bottle of wine, and enjoy a gourmet picnic for a fraction of the cost of a restaurant meal. Even with the added expense of buying convenience foods that don't need to be cooked or refrigerated, by purchasing your meals at grocery stores, you can still eat for $10 a day or less. Some hostels and extended-stay hotels even have kitchens that will allow you to cook up a hot meal. Have a couple of meals out if you can afford it, but stick to breakfast and lunch, which are generally cheaper than dinner.
Before shelling out cash for any event or entry fee, ask yourself if you're really interested or if you just feel like you have to go. If you don't like art, it's OK to skip the Museo del Prado. If you hate heights, enjoy the SearsTower from the ground. Many sights are at least as interesting on the outside as they are on the inside, anyway. You can often experience a new place best simply by walking around, and some cities even have free walking tours.
Take advantage of free attractions and outdoor activities, like parks, local concerts and live entertainment at pubs or coffee shops. For pricier sights that truly interest you, pick and choose among the available options. Make sure to check if you can get discounted entry by attending at an off-peak time, showing a student ID, or purchasing a group tour.
7. Keeping in Touch
If you're out of your cell phone provider's network coverage area, avoid using your phone because the roaming and long-distance fees will be an unwelcome souvenir when you get home. You may be able to sign up for a special plan in advance that will reduce your roaming and long-distance charges, but you also have the option to buy local phone cards, use internet cafes, or even write a good old-fashioned letter.
If you have access to a computer, a headset and a little privacy, you can use an online phone service like Skype to make free calls worldwide to other Skype users and inexpensive calls to cell phones and land lines.
8. Souvenirs and Gifts
The most meaningful souvenirs are often not snow globes or T-shirts, but items that tell the true story of your trip, like the label from a great bottle of beer or a few pieces of local currency. If you must buy something, make it something you'll actually appreciate or use when you get home.
Edible items also make wonderful, inexpensive gifts that will allow your lucky recipients to share your experience better than they could with a Russian nesting doll. Just be mindful of laws about transporting certain foodstuffs into and out of foreign countries.
Of course, if you can afford it or already have one kicking around, don't forget to take a digital camera with plenty of spare memory cards and batteries. Take pictures not just of the EiffelTower, but of details like your hotel room, what you ate for breakfast and what the street signs look like to help you really remember your trip. A scenic shot in a simple picture frame can make a great inexpensive gift.
To get the most out of your vacation without returning home to a pile of unmanageable bills, learn to strike a balance between sticking to a budget and making the most of your vacation. It's important to watch your wallet when you travel, but don't be so stingy that you miss out: Remember, you might only be in Sydney or Tokyo or London once.