Traveling allows you to experience new cultures, try new foods and escape the monotony of everyday life. What’s not to love?
Well unless you’re willing to make some life sacrifices, traveling costs money. Like many things in life, travel costs fall on a spectrum. You can spend thousands on fancy meals and 5-star resorts, or you can spend hundreds on canned tuna and a tent. It really comes down to your desired level of comfort. Regardless of your preferences, there are endless ways to save money when it comes to traveling. This guide will provide some of my favorite tips for jet setting the globe without breaking bank.
Note: this guide is written under the premise that you are a full-time employee and only have 5-10 days of paid time off (PTO days). If you are traveling long-term, then you will have additional “travel hacks” at your disposal.
1. Select a Vacation Type, Not a Specific Destination
Flexibility is key when trying to reduce travel costs. Think about what you want to experience rather than where you want to experience. For example, maybe you really want to learn how to surf and hang out on a beautiful beach for a week. This can be accomplished in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. Both countries will offer tremendous surf and gorgeous beaches, however the later will be significantly more expensive.
Some of the main vacation types include:
- Tropical – these tend to be the cheapest. They require minimal clothing/luggage and offer many free activities such as hiking, swimming, sunbathing, etc.
- City – cost varies greatly depending on the city, but typically they are more expensive than Tropical vacations. Everything tends to revolve around food and drinking. Often it seems like you are just walking around from one overrated tourist attraction to the next, while continuously contemplating your next meal. Free activities include parks, walking tours and random community events.
- Mountains (ski/snowboard) – these trips tend to be the most expensive. They require a lot of gear/luggage, daily lift tickets and often a rental car. Additionally, there is a “mountain markup” on the accommodation and food.
2. Aim for Shoulder Season
Once you know what type of vacation you are after, its time to start looking for locations which satisfy your desires. This can seem daunting at first, but a quick Google search can really help you narrow things down:
Some destinations can immediately be ruled out. For example, if you live in New York and only have 5 days off, then flying 16 hours across the globe to Asia probably is not the best use of your time off. After creating a list of prospects, the real research begins.
For each location, determine the “shoulder season” – typically a month or two before/after the peak season. For example, the peak season in Costa Rica is December-April. During these months the country sees very little rain and it happens to coincide with winter in North America. Hence, higher demand and higher prices. Visiting Costa Rica in November or May will certainly still be beautiful. Maybe you experience a day or two of rain, but that small risk is worth the significantly reduced prices.
If you are really hunting some deals, then you may consider traveling during a country’s low season. This carries more risk than the shoulder season. Low season is often low season for a reason (bitter cold, excessive rain, scorching hot, etc.)
3. Hunt for Flights
If you have complete flexibility regarding dates and locations, then you can find some incredible flight deals. However as mentioned above, this guide is catered towards the average working bee with limited flexibility. If you can only take off 5 days from work, then it is imperative that you depart on a Friday night/Saturday morning and return on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. This enables you to maximize your vacation time, while minimizing the number of PTO days you use.
After completing steps 1 and 2, you should have a few locations in mind. Now its time to narrow this list down even further based on flight prices. For each location, research the prices across multiple flight search engines. Different websites will return different results. I highly recommend creating a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different flight options. This way you can easily compare the different options for each location:
The four search engines I use when hunting flights are:
Pro Tip: if you search for flights but don’t end up buying one, make sure to clear your browser’s cookies! If you fail to do so, the airlines will use this information to their advantage. Next time you search you will likely see higher rates because the airlines know you are motivated to buy
4. Find Accommodation with a Kitchen
You are not going on vacation to sit in a nice hotel room and watch Netflix. In fact, I typically avoid hotels. Most times you end up overpaying for a fancy bed and amenities that you won’t end up using. Additionally, hotels rarely have kitchens available for guests, which means every meal will need to be purchased.
Your accommodation should satisfy the following criteria:
- Fresh bed
- Clean shower/bathroom
- Guest Kitchen
- Safe place to store valuables
- WiFi (optional)
One of the most effective ways to save money while traveling is to cook your own meals. Part of traveling is experiencing new food, so I am not suggesting every single meal needs to be home cooked. But a significant amount of money can be saved by buying local fruits/vegetables and cooking for yourself. Doing so still allows you to experience different cuisine that is not available at home. For example, in Brazil they have about 1000 fruits that I had previously never heard of:
Where to find these accommodations?
- AirBnb (2+ people) – this is ideal if you are traveling with others. You can find great deals on private rooms or entire homes/apartments. Most Airbnb’s offer a full kitchen, so you will have no problem achieving those cost savings on food. As an added bonus, the host is usually a local and can help steer you clear of the tourist-trap activities and restaurants.
- Hostelworld (1-2 people) – this is a good option if you are traveling solo or with one other person. Hostels get a bad rap. People usually associate them with grungy living quarters or obnoxious backpackers. But the truth is hostels can be very nice and provide everything you need in an accommodation (including a kitchen). You can usually get a good feel for a place via the pictures and reviews on Hostelworld, so finding something that meets your standards should not be too hard. Additionally, hostels are a great way to meet other travelers, who can provide advice on things to see and do that are actually worth the money (again, avoiding the tourist traps!).
5. Be Adventurous with Your Activities
I am not an expert on all-inclusive resorts, so I won’t speak about those here. However, when it comes to adventure and exploring, I do know a thing or two. And when I say adventure, I am not referring to “guided ATV tours” or “waterfall tours”. In fact, I believe most guided tours are a total rip-off.
Now for certain things having a tour guide or local is a necessary safety precaution. For example, I would not suggest exploring caves in Vietnam on your own. Conversely, paying a guide $35 to walk on a well groomed “jungle path” to see a waterfall is a major waste of vacation funds.
This is where talking to locals (AirBnb hosts!) and other travelers (hostel friends!) pays huge dividends. They can help you distinguish which activities are worth shelling out some money for and which ones are perfectly safe to tackle on your own. It’s good to have an idea of things you might want to do before you arrive, but don’t book them in advance.
6. Travel Slow
“Yeah were going to hit London, then Paris, then pop down to Barcelona, and finish off in Rome. Everything is only like a two hour flight, so 6 days should be plenty.”the classic american eurotrip
Traveling this quickly is problematic for several reasons:
- Expensive – those $70 flights/trains/busses really start to add up when you include all the ancillary expenses: taxi to the airport, airport lunch, candy for the flight, taxi from the airport, etc.
- Takes Time – sure the flight may only be 2 hours long, but the total door-to-door time is often half a day. Think about it: you need to pack your bag, travel to the airport, arrive 2 hours prior to the flight, take the flight, travel from the airport, check into your new accommodation and unpack your bag. After this whole process is said and done, half your day is wasted. If you only have 9 days to travel, do you really want to waste 4 of them in transit?
- Physically Exhausting – there is something about transit that drains your energy. In theory, you are just sitting on a plane/train/bus, so you should not be tired. But even after an hour plane ride, a nap seems more enticing than exploring that new city.
- Miss Out on True Culture – if your only in Barcelona for a day you will likely run from one tourist attraction to the next. Sagrada Familia to Park Guell to Barcelona Beach. Eight stressful hours later and you have some killer Instagram photos, but your absolutely exhausted. If you only spend a day or two in each location, you will inevitably miss the true culture of that place. You will never find that hole-in-the-wall restaurant that the locals love or that coffee shop that makes the perfect cortado.
Personally I like to spend at least a week in a given location, however a good rule of thumb is 4 days
7. Buy Travel Insurance
We all think “that will never happen to me” and this is not surprising. Most of us have never had anything go horribly wrong while we were on a vacation, so we never even consider buying travel insurance. At the end of the day it will cost you a couple extra bucks and maybe an hour of your time to get a policy. Trust me it is worth every penny and minute of your time. This decision alone could end up saving you thousands of dollars in overseas medical expenses. Check out my honest guide for buying travel insurance.
Bonus: Don’t Overplan!
This is less about saving money and more about saving stress. Pre-booking all of your transport, hotels and activities can lead to a very taxing vacation. If anything goes wrong (missed flight, flight delay, traffic, getting lost, etc.) then the dominoes begin to fall. Suddenly you have a hotel room booked in Paris, but your still stuck in Barcelona because your overslept and missed your flight. Now you must waste money on an additional hotel room and flight. This is on top of the hours of stress you just endured while hopelessly rushing to the airport.
Now certain things will need to be pre-booked, but for the most part, no plan is the best plan. Arrive at your destination and start talking to the community. Figure out the best things to do and see, and then go and do them. Google has a lot of answers, but certain things just require a local touch.