How to Travel on a Tight Budget
The world is a big place, and it’s just asking for you to explore it. While travel broadens your mind, it can also shrink your wallet. Fortunately, it is possible to see the world even if you’re working with the smallest of budgets.
Traveling on a budget means thinking beyond the traditional tour package and getting creative about where to go, how to get there and where to stay. These general tips for saving money on travel, as well as advice for saving on transportation, accommodations and activities, will help get you where you want to go without breaking the bank.
General Budget Travel Tips
Did you know travel has seasons? The high season is when everything’s at its peak. The weather’s warm and sunny, most activities are open — and the prices are correspondingly sky-high. If your schedule allows for it, the best way to save money when traveling is to skip this peak season.
The low season, on the other hand, usually occurs when the weather’s not so great. It might be cold, and the sun might set early in the day. Depending on your destination, some programs or institutions might be closed. The positive thing about the low season is that prices for airfare and lodging are well below what they are during the high season. There are also fewer crowds during the low season, so you’re likely to be first in line for pretty much anything you want to do.
There’s a third season in the travel world — shoulder season. Shoulder season lies between high and low seasons. It often gives you the best of both worlds. You can usually enjoy lower prices on things and fewer crowds. More attractions will still be open, and the weather will be working its way up to nice, though there might still be some traces of cold or wet. Try to travel during shoulder season to take advantage of reduced prices.
When it comes to traveling on a budget in the U.S. or Europe, it pays to be flexible, both regarding dates and where you go. For example, you can often get a much cheaper domestic flight in the U.S. if you travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday while you can save money by traveling internationally to Europe on weekdays over weekends. You can use a service such as Google Flights to compare prices for different days of the week.
Being flexible with your departure location, can also help you save money. It’s often less expensive to fly to cities in Europe from Newark International Airport than it is to fly from Philadelphia International Airport.
Use a Credit Card That Doesn’t Charge Foreign Transaction Fees
When traveling internationally, there are a few benefits of using your credit card to make purchases during your trip as opposed to using cash or a debit card. One advantage is that credit cards often have a better exchange rate than most currency exchange agencies, which tend to charge fees as well.
Another benefit is that some credit cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee when you purchase something in a different country. Although those fees can seem small, they add up, especially over the course of a week-long or longer trip. Check with each of your credit card companies before departure to determine fee schedules, so you’re armed with choices during your trip.
It’s also easier to protect a credit card against theft. If you lose your wallet while traveling, your cash is gone, and there’s no way to get it back. If you lose your credit card, contact the bank or card company and ask them to cancel the card so you can prevent any fraudulent charges being made on it. Your credit card company likely won’t hold you responsible for any fraudulent charges the thief made with your money.
Transportation — Get Where You’re Going for Less
It pays to shop around before you book a flight to your destination. In some cases, you can get the best price if you book right from the airline. In others, you might find a better price through a third-party service.
Fly When You’d Rather Be Sleeping
Red-eye flights might leave you a bit bleary-eyed the next day, but they can often cost considerably less than a flight that’s during the day. When traveling outside of your time zone, you’re likely going to be jet-lagged and tired anyway, so you might as well save some money while doing it.
Buy Train Tickets in Advance
The sooner you buy your train tickets, whether for travel across the U.S. or Europe, the better. Many train companies offer cheaper tickets the further out you book, and the discounts can often be considerable.
Another reason to buy your train tickets in advance: sometimes trains can sell out. You don’t want to risk missing part of your trip because you can’t get a seat on a train.
Skip the Cabs — Take the Bus or Metro
Whether you’re hailing a yellow cab in New York or hopping into a black cab in London, taking a taxi can feel luxurious. But that luxury comes at a price. It’s much more cost-effective to use public transit options, such as the metro/subway or the bus, if you’re able. You’ll not only save money by taking the subway or bus, but you’ll also get to experience local culture up close!
When to Consider the Cab
While using public transportation is often cheaper, there’s one exception, and that’s if you’re traveling with a group of people. If you’ve got more than four people in your party, it might cost less to take a cab to your destination, as long as you’re all traveling to and from the same spots.
Try Walking or Biking
Want to really save money while experiencing the city you’re visiting up close? Try walking to where you need to go. Walking may be less feasible, depending on where you’re staying and how far away specific attractions are. However, if lodging isn’t too costly in the area you want to explore, you might be able to save a lot by staying near the action and walking to each destination.
Another option is to try and bike around the city you’re exploring. Plenty of cities have bike-sharing programs, which allow you to check out a bike from a docking station and use it to travel around. Some cities let you purchase a pass that’s good for a set period, such as one day or one week, while others have a pay-as-you-go system that allows you to rent by the hour or half-hour.
Paris, for example, has one of the original bike-sharing programs. You can purchase a 24-hour pass for €5 or get a seven-day pass for €15. The pass lets you check out a bike for up to 30 minutes at a time. If you keep the bike longer than 30 minutes, you pay an additional fee.
Ridesharing is a safe, affordable way to save money on transportation. Companies like UBER have drivers in cities on all 6 continents and allow travelers the convenience of scheduling a ride to pick them up at a designated time and location. UBER partners with drivers of all types of vehicles, allowing solo travelers or groups to take advantage of the service. Other services, like Bla Bla Car, which is not available in the U.S. but is available in many other countries, offer long-distance carpooling services; pairing drivers with empty seats with riders who are headed to the same destination.
Similar to getting the red-eye flight, if you can book train or bus travel overnight, you’re likely to pay less. As an added benefit, you’ll have one fewer night to pay for at an apartment or hotel.
How to Save Money on Lodging
Hotels and resorts aren’t your only options when traveling to a destination. The idea of couch-surfing has gotten fancier with the emergence of companies like Airbnb, which lets people rent out their properties or spare rooms to guests. The advantage is: you’re living with and like a local, giving you a chance to interact with people in the area you’re visiting in a way you might not otherwise experience. It’s an excellent way to meet locals and to feel a part of a community while traveling. Plus, many of the properties available for rent are less costly than hotels or resorts.
Stay in a Hostel
If you don’t plan on spending much time in your hotel room, or if you’re traveling with a group of people, a hostel can be a very budget-friendly option. Depending on the size of your group, you can book a larger dorm room and pay by the bed, or you can book a smaller, private room.
Although the dorms at many hostels are often mixed-gender, some establishments do offer female-only dorms for women who are traveling on their own or with a group of friends and who don’t want to stay in a mixed sleeping environment.
Work on a Farm
Admittedly, this next budget-friendly travel tip isn’t for everyone. But if you want free accommodations and free food and the chance to see what life on a working farm is like, you might consider finding an opportunity through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.
Here’s how WWOOF works. First, choose a part of the world you want to visit, and join a WWOOF group in that area for a small fee. Then start looking at opportunities and options in that area and get in touch with farmers to learn more. How long you stay on the farm depends on the farmer’s needs and your schedule. Some stays can be as short as a week, while others are longer.
Before you jump for joy about the idea of getting a free ride when it comes to room and board while you travel, remember this: when you find an opportunity on WWOOF, you are committing to working on the farm for a set number of hours each day. If picking vegetables, working with animals or doing other forms of manual labor doesn’t appeal to you, it’s probably not going to be a good fit.
Tips for Saving Money on Food and Fun
While transportation and lodging can be the costliest expenses when traveling, food and entertainment can also add up. Here’s how to save money on both.
Bring Your Own Food to the Airport
Saving money on vacation starts before you even leave home. Bring food to the airport to snack on while you wait for your flight to depart. Airports don’t have a reputation for having the cheapest food options. Plus, any food you do bring is likely to be healthier than what you can find at the airport.
Keep in mind the TSA’s strict liquids limitations when bringing in food. Don’t bring a big bottle of salad dressing or a thermos of soup, for example.
Bring Your Own Water Bottle
While you can’t bring a full water bottle through airport security, you can bring along an empty one. Once you get past security, fill the bottle up from a drinking fountain, and you’ll have saved $5 or so, compared to buying a bottle of water from the newsstand. You can also carry your bottle along with you as you explore a new city or area.
Go to Lunch
Having dinner at a hip, fancy restaurant might seem like an enjoyable way to spend an evening. But you’ll often find you can get the same food, for a much lower price, if you have lunch out instead of dinner. When you’re traveling, plan on making reservations for lunch and keep your evening meals simple.
Learn the Tipping Rules
In the U.S., it’s common and expected to tip 20 percent when dining out or to give the bartender at least $1 for every drink; that’s not always the case in other countries. For example, many European countries don’t have a “tipping culture,” meaning you pay the amount of your bill and leave. In the UK, it’s common to tip around 10 to 15 percent. UK restaurants do occasionally tack on a “service charge,” which means you don’t need to leave extra.
To avoid spending more than you need to when dining out while traveling, read up on the tipping norms and expectations before heading out for a meal.
Rush a Performance
If one of your goals while traveling is to see a play, musical or other live performance, but you don’t want to pay three-digit prices for a single ticket, learn about rush options. Rush tickets are limited availability, discount tickets available at the box office only on the day of the event. Rushing a show is taking a bit of a risk, since there might not be any more tickets available on the day you want to go. But if tickets are available, they are usually deeply discounted.
See If You Qualify for a Discount
Whether you’re young or old, it’s possible you can get discounted admission to specific attractions, such as museums. For example, some attractions in France offer a reduced rate to people under the age of 25, families or large groups.
Some establishments also open their doors to the public, for free, on certain days of the week. When making your travel plans, find out if the places you most want to visit offer free days, then try to plan your trip so that you can take advantage of free admission.
Look for Free Things to Do
Speaking of free, cities are often teeming with free events and activities. Before you plan a trip, try searching for “free walking tours” or “free movies,” plus the name of the area you’ll be visiting.
Traveling is exciting; trying new foods, meeting new people and seeing the world’s wonders can enrich your life and create memories to last a lifetime. With so many options for transportation, lodging and sightseeing, making those memories doesn’t have to break the bank.