Vacation on the Cheap? It’s Possible with These 18 Travel Savings Tips

Don't waste money on travel indulgences you don't need. Instead, save your money for the things that matter. Here's how.Read More

Travel can be fun and affordable. (Source: iStock / RgStudio)

Those travel-hungry adventurers among us know well that traveling can be a pricey affair. Fortunately, however, there are travel savings tips aplenty that can help you cut down the cost of a trip — leaving you more to spend on the things that matter. Here are 18 we swear by (but feel free to pick and choose to meet your unique needs):

1: Flying? Bring your meal.

If your flight straddles mealtime, you might be tempted to buy one of the prepackaged meals offered onboard (assuming it’s not included in the ticket price). Resist the urge and bring something from home or from your departure location. You can easily put together a quick meal and store it in a sealable container that you can access from your carry-on luggage. Also, fight the urge to get something at the airport — all airport food is overpriced.

2: Download movies to watch on your smartphone or tablet.

Some flights now offer in-flight entertainment for free, while others don’t — and you might not know ahead of time, given airports’ propensity for switching aircrafts at the last minute. Avoid the uncertainty altogether by downloading movies to your smartphone or tablet that you can watch during the flight. (Just be sure you don’t drain critical battery life you’ll need on the other end of the flight.)

3: Don’t get in-room WiFi at hotels — stick with free WiFi in common areas.

We recently highlighted a wealth of hidden fees that push hotel bills through the roof. One common one tech-loving travelers tend to forget about is WiFi. Sure, you may get a connection for free in the lobby and common areas throughout your hotel, but it could easily cost you once you hit your room. Avoid the extra cost by just accessing the internet where WiFi is free.

4: Go economy and pack carry-on only.

This is tough if you’re flying internationally, but definitely doable on domestic flights. First of all, unless you have special needs that require unique accommodations on board a flight, go economy and save a few bucks. You might also consider an off-hour flight like a redeye to save a few bucks. (Be sure to see our strategies for getting the sleep you need on an overnight flight if you opt for this option.) And to eliminate baggage fees (and expedite check-in at the airport), pack only a carry-on.

Public transportation is a top travel savings tip — and it works both at your destination and en route. (Source: iStock / golero)
Public transportation is a top travel savings tip — and it works both at your destination and en route. (Source: iStock / golero)

5: Take public transportation to the airport.

Planning ahead is a key part of successful travel, and you should be able to plan enough in advance to map out the route to the airport via public transportation. While it takes a lot longer, you can use time in transit to think about the trip ahead, read, or listen to music. Just make sure you leave with enough time to get to the airport, check in, and wade through security.

6: Avoid hotel restaurants.

If you book a hotel, try to avoid dining at the onsite restaurant. Hotel restaurants aren’t bad, but they do tend to be rather expensive — more expensive than local eateries where the food is more authentic and almost as convenient.

7: Pick a hotel (or room share) where you can walk to most places of interest.

Wherever you choose to land during your trip, make sure it’s a spot in walking distance from major destinations and sites you’re interested in. This will ensure you don’t have to use ride shares, taxis, or public transit, and gives you the flexibility to set your own schedule and map your own adventures. (Note: Confirm that the area you’re looking at is also safe for pedestrians, especially at night.)

Make the most of your cooking skills (and local ingredients) by cooking meals at your Airbnb or VRBO rental. (Source: iStock / Prostock-Studio)
Make the most of your cooking skills (and local ingredients) by cooking meals at your Airbnb or VRBO rental. (Source: iStock / Prostock-Studio)

8: Cook meals at your Airbnb.

If you go the Airbnb or VRBO route, see if you can book a room with a modest kitchen. Instead of dining out all the time — as we’re all wont to do on our vacations — you can buy local ingredients and cook for yourself (and your traveling companions) instead.

9: Avoid cellphone calls; use email or WiFi-powered messaging instead.

Roaming and international calls get expensive very quickly — even if you have a dedicated plan. Too often, we breeze past our minute or data limits and end up paying exorbitant fees we could have easily avoided. While we certainly do recommend securing a data and voice plan for international travel, think of it as an “emergency only” plan. Instead of calling people, lean on email (checked via free WiFi in hotels or public areas) or WiFi-enabled messaging apps like WhatsApp.

10: Wherever possible, opt for BYOB.

The most expensive part of most meals is the booze. We’re not suggesting you don’t enjoy yourself and imbibe, but if possible, buy a bottle before going out. The markups at restaurants are insane — some as much as 200% — so look into BYOB options and take advantage of them if you can.

If laws allow it, opt for BYOB and avoid restaurant markups. (Source: iStock / Albina Kosenko)
If laws allow it, opt for BYOB and avoid restaurant markups. (Source: iStock / Albina Kosenko)

11: Travel off-season.

This is probably obvious, but if you want cheaper hotel, car, and flight rates, aim to travel off-season. Not only will this save you a pretty penny, but you’ll also avoid tourist hordes that make enjoying a new destination far less fun. While there are a slew of sites that discuss “best times” for travel at various locations all over the world, we recommend starting with Rick Steves’ in-depth look at travel times for Europe-bound vacationers.

12: Stay flexible enough to take advantage of last-minute deals.

Young families, busy couples, and career-focused professionals don’t always have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to vacation planning, but think carefully about how you can be more flexible in your travel. Can you travel at off hours? Can you book less desirable hotel rooms or stay with a friend? Can you forego common travel amenities? Not only will your flexibility open up last-minute deals that can save you hundreds of dollars, but it will make it easier to save money while on your trip. (And take a close look at sites like OnlyBidding where you might be able to set your own prices for hotels.)

13: Opt for self-guided tours.

If you’re visiting a landmark, you’ll often be faced with tours sporting hefty price tags. Some even position themselves as the only way to experience the landmark, but if you ask, you might learn that visitors are free to explore it on their own. The moral: Always ask about self-guided tours, and if you can, take them — you’ll just have to do some research in advance to be sure you understand what you’re experiencing. (P.S.: Solid guidebooks from Rick Steves, Fodor’s, and other big names can help you prep.)

14: Make your own souvenirs.

Gift shops are such a trap — and most of us end up tossing out the knickknacks we buy from them a few months after we get home. Make your souvenir more meaningful (and eminently cheaper) by creating it yourself. Grab coasters from notable hotels; snag postcards offered for free at museums; and save bottles that you really enjoyed. If you’re not the creative type, enlist the help of more creative friends when you’re home to help you create a really personal souvenir using all the memorabilia you nabbed.

Agritourism is often the perfect balance of light, hands-on work you've never done before and pure relaxation. (Source: iStock / joci03)
Agritourism is often the perfect balance of light, hands-on work you’ve never done before and pure relaxation. (Source: iStock / joci03)

15: Consider a work-and-stay option.

Agritourism may seem like a fallen trend, but it’s still very much alive in Europe — and is actually growing in the U.S. If you want to shave off some of your accommodation costs, look into farm stays, agriturismo villas in Europe, or winery work-and-stay programs abroad.

16: Don’t over-tip.

It’s always good to research the customs of your destination country (if you’re traveling abroad), but pay special attention to tipping. In most European countries, for example, gratuity is included in the bill; you don’t need to tack on 20%. Sure, your server may love you for the extra cash, but it isn’t necessary. Make sure you know what’s typical and what’s expected before you land.

17: Bring basic medications with you.

A lot of travelers we know freak out when they start feeling sick abroad. There’s something about being in a foreign place and feeling vulnerable that makes people crazy — and we get it. But visiting a doctor in a foreign country is complicated and expensive. Avoid that by 1) not traveling when you’re sick and 2) bringing basic medical supplies like Advil, Band-aids, and Tums with you. Also, be sure all of your prescriptions are filled before you leave so you don’t end up sans pills midway through your adventure.

Don't let exchange fees get you; secure foreign currency from a bank before your trip. (Source: iStock / urbazon)
Don’t let exchange fees get you; secure foreign currency from a bank before your trip. (Source: iStock / urbazon)

18: Exchange currency at a bank — not at the airport.

If you’re traveling to a location that has a different currency, plan to secure a sizeable amount of it before you take off. Exchanging money in airports is a money trap; the exchange rates are not great and fees can be exorbitant. Once you have the money, break it up into smaller amounts and stash these in different places on your body and in your carry-on luggage. Never pack it in your luggage; if your luggage gets lost or stolen, you’re out a significant chunk of change. Another bonus to early currency exchange: You don’t have to lean on credit cards, debit cards, or traveler’s cheques abroad — all of which can incur some serious fees and may not even be accepted.