How to Save Money on Travel

posted in: Shopping Tips

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.

 

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. Another thing to try is staying on a Sunday.  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 – unless you are traveling ON the holiday, which I’ve seen can have favorable pricing – 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.

Book early

No matter where you’re going, booking transportation, accommodations, and flights in advance can help you get the best rates. As inventory decreases, prices climb. ​​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 Google Flights to receive price change notifications for flights you have your eye on. I also like travel aggregators, like Expedia and Orbitz for conducting research and booking travel.  Both have loyalty programs that allow you to earn points that can be applied to future trips, and, with a coupon site like CouponCabin, you can often find cash back offer in the 4-6.5% range. 

The lowest rates often come with extra fees

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!)

Also, when booking “bargain” flights, make sure you understand what that flight includes and doesn’t include. For example, the cheapest flight probably won’t include a meal and will only include an under seat bag so you’ll end up buying food at the airport or on board, and paying for a bag in the overhead. A more moderately-priced flight might come with a meal, a free overhead bag and one free checked bag. Do the math before clicking “buy.”

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 eat some meals in, rather than eating out every meal.

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. When you’re booking, look at the amenities. Fees for parking, meals, or high-speed internet should be factored into the overall price.

Get loyal

Join any free loyalty programs, whether they are for a travel site, a hotel, airline, or rental car company. Most include perks like free WIFI, free upgrades, the ability to earn points towards additional benefits, and more. Redeem your points wisely to score better deals on the amenities that are important to you.

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, there may be travel benefits, like exclusive hotel discounts, no foreign transaction fees, 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 and it can make sense to rent a large vacation property to house everyone versus separate hotel rooms. Tour companies are also often willing to lower their rates for larger groups.

Bring your own food and water

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, grab some snacks from your pantry, 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 protein bars on hand in case I miss breakfast at the hotel or if the hotel breakfast is pricey.

Paying with cash

Instead of stocking up on foreign currency in advance, wait until you arrive at your destination and can withdraw from the ATM (rather than one of those cash booths, which are more expensive). Exchange rates are higher when pre-purchasing. I suggest withdrawing local currency only once or twice and storing the extra cash in your room safe to use during your trip to avoid additional fees.

Another option is to use a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees (like most Amex cards).  

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 fees. 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. However, it’s worth researching your destination to see if credit cards are widely accepted. Which cards are accepted is important as well. We found in Berlin last year that many businesses and restaurants only accepted cash and the ones that accepted cards didn’t accept Amex. Thankfully, I had my Amazon Prime Visa with me, which had no foreign transaction fees. 

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 try to have one meal per day at the hotel/Airbnb. The same goes for booze. Keep a couple of bottles of wine or a local spirit where you’re staying and skip the pricey hotel bar. 

Utilizing public transportation over rental cars (or walk when you can!)

If your destination has a good public transportation system, use it! Rental cars can be expensive and then you may have to pay for parking as well. Public transport will also be significantly less expensive than taxis or UBERs.

Public transportation is also a great way to get a real feel for a place, but do your research ahead of time to learn how the system works at your destination so you’re ready to catch a ride with minimal 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)! We also saw places that appealed to us and were able to return and spend more time there later. 

If you’d prefer to rent a car…

Compere rental car fees at the airport versus off site. It may be cheaper to take a shuttle bus or taxi to avoid airport surcharges.  

Use your AAA, Costco, AARP, or other memberships for discounts.

Be cautious about 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. While bundle are often cheaper than a la carte, they sometimes come with things that you don’t deal, which 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. It can be shocking 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.

 

Happy Travels!

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Smart Shopping Expert

Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist and TV commentator who has specialized in smart shopping, personal finance, and retail for more than a decade. She has appeared on TV over 1,000 times; including Today Show, GMA3, NBC Nightly News, Inside Edition, and network affiliates nationwide. She has been named a Top Voice in Retail by LinkedIn, and her expert commentary has appeared in Forbes, USNews.com, Kiplinger, Yahoo Finance, and numerous others.