The best thing you can do when planning to travel anywhere is to do your homework. Take the time to compare prices, research deals, weigh your options, and map out your plans in advance. If you fly by the seat of your pants, you’ll end up overspending. Here’s what I do to save money on travel.
Note: Travel looks very different today than it did before the pandemic. More locations are open, but consider travel, especially international travel, as fluid. Be mindful of Covid restrictions as you make your plans.
Here are some of my favorite ways to save on travel:
Travel on weekdays or Sundays
Many travelers people book flights and check into hotels on Thursdays or Fridays. Instead, plan to travel earlier in the week when fewer people are on the move. Something to note is that hotel rates can be lower on Sundays because most guests are checking out that day.
Opt for off-season travel
If you travel during the off-season, flights, accommodations, and rental cars will be less expensive, the crowds will be thinner and lines will be shorter. Avoid holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and other popular times, like Spring Break. It’s also good practice to find out what’s going on at your destination. Fabulous weather, festivals, and local-specific holidays can drive up rates. I find Googling “best times to travel to [destination]” is a great way to get a sense of peak and off-peak times at a particular location.
No matter where you’re going, booking transportation, accommodations, and flights well in advance can help you get the best rates. As inventory gets lower, prices climb higher. Note: the exception to this is that sometimes you can find last-minute deals, as airlines and hotels try to fill open spots.
Keep in mind that seasonality makes a difference. On average, the best time to book domestic flights is between two to three months in advance, and fares to Mexico and the Caribbean are generally lowest around two months in advance. If you’re heading to Europe, however, you can book as far out as six months in advance. Use Hopper (this link gets you $10 off any trip!) or Google Flights to receive price change notifications for flights you have your eye on.
Don’t assume the lowest rates come without strings
Prepaid rates on flights, hotels and rental cars are often the lowest rates available, but they almost always have a strict cancellation policy that includes penalties for cancellations. If there’s any chance that your plans could change, look for more flexible offers. Especially with the pandemic, it might make sense to pay a bit more for the flexibility. And consider travel insurance (your credit card might also offer travel protection – check before booking!)
Consider vacation rental properties over hotels
If you book a house or apartment via Airbnb, VRBO, or another vacation rental service, you’ll often get more space, at a better price. Not to mention, staying in a home or apartment space can give you more of an authentic, local experience. Houses and apartments are also more likely to have a kitchen set up so you can use the above tip!
If you plan to rent a car, inquire about parking. The property may come with free parking which is a big bonus if you plan to rent a car.
But if you have to stay at a hotel…
If you prefer a hotel, compare the price for booking directly vs. through a travel aggregator site, like Expedia or TripAdvisor. If you find a lower price with an aggregator, some hotels will match that price, and then you can earn points through the hotel’s loyalty program.
Speaking of loyalty programs, always join them, whether it’s for a travel site, a hotel, airline, or rental car company. Most are free and include small perks like free WIFI, free upgrades, and more. Redeem your points wisely to score better deals on rooms, free breakfast, and more.
If you travel frequently, consider a get a hotel-branded, or airline-branded credit card. Many offer hefty bonus points and perks! Keep in mind that these cards also often have high interest rates, so only sign up and use the cards if you intend to pay them off in full each month.
If you’d prefer to use your regular credit card, check the benefits section on their site. They might have travel perks, like exclusive hotel discounts or free travel protection.
And don’t forget your memberships! Many hotels offer AAA or AARP discounts.
Travel as a group
If you don’t mind organizing a trip with your family and friends, you can save money on accommodations, experiences, and more by taking advantage of group rates. Many hotels will offer discounted rates on bookings for large parties. Tour companies are also often willing to lower their rates for larger groups.
Bring your own food and water
It may seem small, but buying meals and bottled water at the airport can add up. Not to mention, airport food is usually really overpriced for what you get. Make some sandwiches, stock up on snacks, and throw an empty travel water bottle in your bag that you can fill once you’ve made it through security. The bottle will come in handy at your destination, too! I also like to have healthy bars on hand in case I miss breakfast at the hotel or if the hotel breakfast is pricey.
Paying with cash
Avoid steep transaction fees and penalties for out-of-network ATM withdrawals by withdrawing local currency only once or twice and storing the extra cash in your room safe to use during your trip. I have found an ATM withdrawal preferable to exchanging US currency at one of those booths.
Instead of stocking up on foreign currency in advance, wait until you arrive at your destination and can withdraw from the ATM. Exchange rates are much higher when pre-purchasing.
Using a travel-friendly credit card
Check your credit cards before you leave to see if you have one that doesn’t charge foreign exchange rates. Many cards these days, including some Amex, Chase, and Capital One cards don’t charge fees, so you can use them on your trip fee-free.
Be savvy about conversion rates. When using a credit card at an establishment that gives you the option to pay in your home currency or local currency, you should usually opt for local as many stores/restaurants charge an exchange fee.
Picking your destination based on the exchange rate
If you are flexible about your destination, focus on locations where your money goes the farthest. Mexico, India, Chile, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Croatia, and Argentina are just a handful of options where the exchange rate heavily favors the US Dollar. The exchange rate in Euros is very close to 1:1 right now, so European destinations are also a good option!
Leaning on the locals
Concierge and hotel staff will usually tell you about safe – often pricey – picks for tourists. Brush up on your language skills and ask locals where to go and what to eat, so you can have an authentic experience AND save money.
Going to grocery stores and liquor stores
Avoid eating out for every meal. If where you’re staying has a kitchenette, grab essentials from a local grocery store and have one meal at the hotel/Airbnb. The same goes for booze. Keep a couple of bottles of wine or a local spirit at your hotel.
Utilizing public transportation over rental cars (or walk when you can!)
Public transportation may be less convenient, but using it significantly reduces your costs. Rental cars can be expensive and then you may have to pay for parking as well.
Public transportation is a great way to get a real feel for a place, but do your research ahead of time to learn how it works at your destination so you’re ready to catch a ride without confusion.
Another consideration is to buy tickets for a tour bus. Tour bus routes usually include most of the important sights and you can hop on and off at your leisure. My family and I aren’t much for tours but having a tour bus pass on our trip to Barcelona allowed us to easily see all the sites (and we learned interesting tidbits along the way)!
If you’d prefer to rent a car…
Avoid booking a rental at the airport where prices tend to be much higher along with added surcharges. Grab an Uber, Lyft, or taxi to the nearest off-airport location.
Use your AAA, Costco, AARP, or other memberships for discounts.
Be cautious with bundle deals that include a rental with your flight & hotel. Before assuming you’re getting the best deal, break down the cost difference between individual bookings and a bundle. You might be surprised to find that a bundle deal ends up costing you more.
Bring your own car seat if you’re traveling with small children. Most rental companies charge $10-$15 a day just to include a car seat.
Research parking in advance. You might be shocked to learn how much your hotel charges for parking each day. And street parking can be tricky if you don’t understand the language well. We’ve had luck with paid parking lots or garages near our hotel.
Setting up your cell plan
If you’re traveling abroad, ask your carrier for the best deal for international text, talk, and data usage. If you don’t inquire ahead, you’re likely to have a huge bill waiting for you after your trip. AT&T offers an International Day Pass for $10/day and Verizon has a similar TravelPass also for $10/day. Getting a foreign SIM card is also an option if your carrier doesn’t offer an affordable international option.
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