A few years ago, my parents took a three-week vacation to Israel. They spent more than $6,000. I can’t remember the last time I spent that much money in three weeks; that amount could last me up to half a year on the road. When I asked them what they spent so much money on, their reply amounted to, “Travel isn’t cheap! Hotels, car rental, tours, and airfare all cost money!”
To me, that sums up the thinking I encounter every day. “I’d love to travel, but it’s just too expensive,” people say to me. “It costs a lot of money.”
But that’s because the travel we are exposed to costs a lot of money. The ads, TV commercials, and magazines all feature high-end vacations, resorts, and cruises—the kinds of operations that can afford advertising. But it’s possible to travel in comfort without spending a ton of money.
I know this because I’ve spent the last six years or so doing just that. In that time, I’ve been to over 70 countries and started a blog to help others travel cheaper, better, and longer. Earlier this month, I put all my years of travel experience into a book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, to further break down the myth that travel must be expensive.
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No matter where you’re going, there are plenty of simple ways to cut expenses and still enjoy the quality vacation you and your family desire. Sure, there are some tradeoffs. But cheap doesn’t have to mean bad. Here are my top nine tips for turning any trip into an affordable activity:
Sign up for a travel-related credit card. By utilizing the signup bonuses offered with airline credit cards, you can accumulate hundreds of thousands of miles each year without ever flying or spending more than you normally would. All U.S. carriers offer a branded card that gives you 30,000-50,000 bonus miles when you sign up and make one purchase. That’s a free round-trip economy ticket right there. By adding multiple users, you can multiply the bonus. Additionally, by signing up for non-branded cards such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can earn points offered by those cards and then transfer them to your favorite airline.
I’ve personally used such cards to collect over 500,000 frequent flier miles in the last year alone. A family of four can go anywhere in the world with that many miles.
Be flexible with flights. A minor tweak in your travel plans can save a bundle, especially if you’re buying tickets for a whole family. Fly midweek instead of on the weekend; fly with stops instead of direct. Small changes can save you hundreds of dollars—multiplied by the number of people traveling. I recommend using airfarewatchdog.com; it sends out alerts when airlines have sales. Two other sources I often use are Kayak’s Explore tool and Google’s flight search, which both allow you to browse the cheapest fares to anywhere in the world from your home airport.
Travel off-season. Summer may be the best time to visit Europe, and winter’s great in the Caribbean, but I try to travel in the shoulder seasons – just before or after peak season. Prices are low, the weather is nice, shops and restaurants are open and happy to see you, and there are few other people around. Shoulder seasons might not be the warmest or sunniest, but the prices are far better.
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Think outside the box. Why are the most popular destinations so expensive? Because everyone goes there. Looking for a beach but Costa Rica’s a little pricey? Try Nicaragua. There may be no substitute for Paris, but there are plenty of less expensive European cities with charm and excitement—Budapest and Athens, to name two.
Skip the chain hotel. I rarely stay at big expensive brand hotels. They offer very little value, and there are many better alternatives available. Why spend $150 a night when $50 will get you the same thing? A few of my favorite lodging alternatives:
• Budget mom-and-pop hotels: I love small family-run hotels and guesthouses, as they are cheap and have much more personality to them than big box hotels. While many are listed on sites like Hotels.com, go to TripAdvisor for the best selection. Since listings are free, you’ll see a lot more options.
• House-sit: Another good method to save money, especially when you’re part of a large group, is to house-sit. In exchange for taking care of someone’s home while they are away, you’ll get free lodging. The length of your stay will depend on the homeowners, but you’ll get access to the house or apartment, and usually a car to boot. Good house-sitting resources include Mind My House, House Carers, and Luxury House Sitting.
• Apartment Rentals: If you’re traveling with friends or family and don’t need a concierge, maid service, and other hotel amenities, this is the ideal accommodation option. Furnished apartment rentals have become enormously popular in recent years because they’re easy to book via the Internet and they often cost half the price of a hotel on a per-person basis. Plus, you get a kitchen, allowing you to cook and reduce food costs. Great resources for this are Airbnb.com, vrbo.com, and Wimdu.com.
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Bid for hotel deals. OK, so sometimes you just want a standard hotel. There’s still no need to pay top dollar. Simply head over to BetterBidding.com to find out what other travelers paid for rooms in major cities using opaque, name-your-price services from Priceline or Hotwire. Then, bid a similar price, cross your fingers, and hope that your bid is accepted. I used this method to get a hotel room in New York City’s Times Square during Christmas for $85 per night. (A huge bargain!)
Take free tours. Sure, you could pay a sightseeing service for the standard tour. But in major cities around the world, free walking tours show you the city’s highlights and teach you about the culture. You also meet cool, smart, genuinely nice people. In New York, use Big Apple Greeters; in Paris, there is Paris Greeters. New Europe Tours, meanwhile, operates throughout the continent in cities such as Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Amsterdam. You can also use the hospitality site Couchsurfing to connect with locals who are happy to show visitors around.
Book last-minute. Airfare costs tend to skyrocket when reserving at the last minute. Not all aspects of travel work this way, though. Book cruises and tours late in the game and it’ll knock an easy 25% off your bill. No one wants to send out an empty ship or run an empty tour, so companies always scramble to fill spaces if they haven’t sold. The ideal time to get the best deal is a couple of weeks before your departure date. Conversely, booking ridiculously far in advance (such as a year or more) can also score a great deal. Go-today.com and lastminute.com tend to have terrific bargains.
Pay for train travel strategically. Train tickets in Europe are up to 50% cheaper when you book two or more weeks in advance and are easily purchased via each country’s national rail website. If you’re embarking on a tour rather than traveling point to point, consider a rail pass. When used properly, a rail pass can help you save hundreds of dollars, especially if you are taking overnight, high-speed, or long distance trains. A pass lets you pre-book your train travel with a certain number of rides or a pre-set amount of time; if used to the maximum, you’ll save significantly compared to buying individual tickets. Rail passes are associated with Europe, but they’re available on several continents. In Australia, a pass can cut costs by up to 70%.
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Sure, you could skip all of these suggestions and simply go online and book the first vacation that sounds nice. But that’s the surest way to spend more than you need. Just a little more leg work will pay off in a big way.
Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. His advice has been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, and Yahoo! Finance. His new book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, contains more tips and tricks to to turn any dream trip into an affordable reality.