There’s no need to break the bank to see new places. These 21 tips may help you save on getting there—as well as on food and lodging—on your next trip.
1. Drive rather than fly if you have the time. Traveling by automobile is generally cheaper than flying, although if you’re traveling coast-to-coast, you may want to forego the long drive and find a cheap flight. Gasoline, wear and tear on your automobile, nights in a motel on the road, and extra days away from a paying job could certainly reduce the savings from driving. But for shorter trips—particularly if you’re traveling with friends or family—you could save hundreds of dollars usually spent on airfare. Driving could also save you a lot on car rentals or other transportation costs once you reach your destination.
2. Use rewards programs to pay for your airfare (and accommodations). A points program through a credit card, airline, hotel chain or a specialized travel discount program, offers many ways to build up points that eventually convert to real dollars in savings on airfare and other travel costs. Hotel loyalty programs often include member benefits such as free WIFI, slightly lower rates, or free meals during your stay.
3. Use credit cards that offer travel-specific bonus points. Shop around and find a credit card that can save you money on travel costs later. Different cards offer different benefits, including free checked bags, early boarding, club access and multiple points on flight purchases or hotel bills. Sometimes these cards come with an annual fee, but if you take advantage of the benefits, that may more than make up for the extra cost.
4. Use student, senior, association or other discount cards. The true savings offered by a discount card will vary from traveler to traveler, but if used wisely, the savings can add up over time. Organizations such as AAA (American Automobile Association) and AARP1 offer relatively inexpensive annual memberships that include discounts on things like accommodations, roadside assistance, dining and attractions. Discount cards from various organizations are also often available to students (and sometimes teachers), as well as senior citizens—and some can be quite helpful.
For instance, for $80, the National Park Service offers a senior pass for citizens and permanent residents age 62 and over that allows lifetime free admittance to any U.S. National Park.
Also be on the lookout for special admission situations, such as free admission days for educational attractions. For instance, the Field Museum in Chicago may normally cost in the range of $100 for a family, but the museum does have admission-free days. You might also consider buying a tourist card at your destination, which can save you on admission to attractions in the area.
5. Collect memories—not trinkets. If you’re relying on a friend back home to feed your cat or water your plants during your trip, you would be wise to bring back a souvenir to show your appreciation. That’s money well spent. But as tempting as it may be to load up on tourist trap trinkets for yourself (there’s probably a mug with your name on it in every souvenir shop you visit), it’s an expense you could do without. Take some pictures and enjoy some adventures, and you’ll probably have all you’ll need to make your vacation memorable.
6. Prioritize. If there is something special you’d like to do on your trip, plan ahead, budget for it, and try to make that a priority over some of the other costly spontaneous activities that might tempt you in your travels.
7. Save early and often. If there’s a big trip in your future, start saving today to avoid the pain of paying for it later—or even worse, charging it on your credit card and paying off the balance for years to come.
8. Start early and shop around for flight cost savings. Compare prices on online travel sites to find the lowest flights for your trip—and be willing to book a flight on any carrier, including the discount airlines. Start early because you may be able to get a lower price today than you can shortly before your trip.
9. Be flexible with your travel dates and times. Your travel days can make a big difference in the price you pay for a ticket. Search around to find the cheapest days to travel—and then dig a little deeper to find the cheapest times of departure, whether early in the morning, mid-day or late at night. Direct flights are always faster and more convenient, but if you have the flexibility to spend a few extra hours getting to your destination, you may be able to get a better price on your flight by agreeing to a stop or two.
10. Travel off season and look for special deals on flights and package deals. Travel prices tend to be higher during winter and spring break periods when more families are traveling. Travelers who can take their trips when most others can’t, and visit popular destinations in the off season, may enjoy substantial savings on their flights and lodging. For instance, Icelandair offers roundtrip flights from Chicago to Iceland for just $519—if you fly in January.2 But that’s during the dead of winter when daylight shrinks to five hours a day. If you take that same flight in June, the price is an extra $300 or more.
11. Pack snacks from home and bring them onto the airplane. Some airlines offer no snacks on flights or a minimal selection, and airlines that do offer a wider selection often charge a premium price for those snacks. If you bring packaged food to the airport, you can eat what you want rather than what the airline is willing to give you or sell you.
12. Don’t overpack. The cost to check a bag is typically $30 or more. If you can pack light, you can carry on your luggage and avoid the baggage fees for most airlines. Be aware, however, that some carriers will charge for carry on as well. For instance, for domestic flights, Spirit generally charges at least $26 for a carry-on bag versus $35 or more to check a bag.3 So while carrying on will probably save money, it won’t always be free.
13. Find a friend or relative to take you to the airport and pick you up—and be willing to return the favor. Parking at the airport can cost well over $100 a week, and cab rides can often be $50 or more each way. If you’re on a tight budget, that hurts. If you have a friend who’s willing to give you a ride to the airport—and you’re willing to return the favor—you’ll both be better off in the long run. If you can’t get a lift from a friend, try to find public transportation that can get you there (if you can handle your luggage), or drive to a “park and ride” lot where you can park at a discount and ride a shuttle bus to the airport.
14. Use public transportation to cut costs and get a real feel for the city. Buses, trolleys, subways, and trains can be an inexpensive and interesting way to experience a side of the city that not all tourists get to see. (But ask around before you go—some routes may be more suitable than others.) And try to think beyond the normal travel modes. For example, in Portland and San Francisco, you can skip the tourist cruises and hitch a ride on one of the commuter ferries at a fraction of the cost, and with essentially the same scenery.
15. If you need to rent a car, shop around. Rental cars come in all sizes and price ranges. You can find a number of websites that list the prices of various cars at the leading agencies. If you don’t expect to spend much time in the car—and you’re on a budget—there’s no sense renting anything beyond the most economical options.
But if you have several passengers, an upgrade may be advisable, especially if your passengers are sharing the bill. You may also consider upgrading if you expect to log a lot of miles over several days.
You may also want to check out peer-to-peer rental sites to book a car from someone who lives at your destination. It may be an interesting way to meet locals, get tips about the area, and get a discount over the rental agencies. Two of the leading websites for peer-to-peer rentals are Turo.com and Getaround.com.
16. You may be able to rent a car at your hotel or resort. Many hotels and resorts have access to rental car services. If you can take a hotel shuttle to your hotel, you may be able to get a better rate there. In fact, you might opt to rent there on the days you need a car but not on the days you plan to stay in the area. If the hotel doesn’t have a car rental service, you may be able to find a rental car agency nearby that would drop off a car for you at the hotel.
17. Use discretion with the extras. The rental agency may offer add-ons, such as GPS and satellite radio that can add up to a hefty extra cost. They may also hard sell you on adding insurance to cover your car during your trip. But many car owners have riders on their auto insurance that also cover their rental cars. Some credit cards also provide auto insurance for your trip if you use your card to rent the car. Before you leave for your trip, find out if your auto insurance or your credit card covers your rental car. If so, you can save a nice chunk of money by declining the high-priced rental agency insurance.
18. You may be able to save by using Uber for some of your travel. Instead of renting a car for the entire week, it may be less expensive to rent it for a few days—for longer sightseeing trips—and then use Uber to get around on the other days. For instance, a quick online check of car rentals in the Tampa, Florida, area showed that renting a car (from economy to full size) costs from $418 to $447 a week. If you rented for only 2 days, it would cost around $127 per day, or $254 total.4 For the rest of the week, when you need to make a short trip to a mall or restaurant, or back to the airport, a 20-mile round trip via Uber could cost less than $30.5
19. Stay with friends or relatives. Traveling to visit friends or relatives is a great way to see another part of the country and catch up on your special relationships. It’s also a great way to save money on both your accommodations and your meals. But it’s not necessarily free. Try to be a good house guest by bringing a gift for your hosts (it doesn’t have to be expensive) and contributing to the cost of the groceries and beverages. Better yet, take your hosts out for dinner. It may cost you a little money, but still save you a great deal over a hotel bill while showing your appreciation for their kindness.
20. Find a better deal on a motel after you reach your destination. Some of the lesser-known or lower-priced motels and hotels may not be easy to find in your Internet searches. But once you reach your destination, you may be able to find a better lodging value by checking around at nearby motels or hotels.
21. Look for a hotel with free breakfast—or, better yet, three free meals a day for you and your family. Many hotels and motels offer a free continental breakfast that can save money for you and your family. Some hotels also offer a package that includes all of your meals. If you have that option, compare the cost of the hotel meal package with the anticipated cost of eating out for you and your family. If the savings is negligible, however, you should consider foregoing the meal package. Being compelled to return to the hotel from side trips and site-seeing adventures for every meal could prove to be a major inconvenience.
If you’re ready to see the world, many wonderful and spectacular venues await you. And fortunately, you can enjoy most of them without busting the budget if you plan ahead, save in advance, and follow some of these time-test tips for cutting your travel costs.
1 American Association of Retired Persons
2 new-flights.travelopod.com, flights for roundtrip Jan. 3–17, 2022, and June 1–15, 2021.