Travel is beneficial in so many ways: it broadens your horizons, helps with stress, develops resilience and tolerance and you’ll create lifelong memories while you’re at it. It can be hard on the hip pocket, however.
The methods in this article won’t get you around the world for free, but they will help you to reduce your expenses considerably whilst you’re exploring.
Getting To Your Destination
The costs associated with getting to and from your destination might be some of your largest expenses, especially if you’re planning on traveling interstate or are headed to another country.
There’s no sure-fire way to guarantee that you’ll get the lowest price on your travel every time, but there are things you can do to give yourself the best chance possible.
1. Do Your Research
Use broad search functions on comparison sites like Skyscanner to find which dates are the cheapest to fly and plan around that. You can use filters on the site to search prices for an entire month. This will give you a good idea of when it’s cheap to fly and when it isn’t so you can plan accordingly.
Reader’s Digest has published a detailed account of The Exact Days to Book the Cheapest Flights in 2018. The year’s almost over, but you can refer to this as a guide for next year (or cross your fingers for a similar guide for 2019).
You should also do a more general search using your preferred search engine for “budget airlines in (whatever country or region you’re hoping to visit)”.
Many budget airlines aren’t affiliated with comparison sites and therefore, aren’t shown in them. I often use Norwegian Air when I’m in or traveling to Europe. It’s an award-winning airline that isn’t usually found on comparison sites.
2. Be Flexible
As you might have realized from the point above, flexibility is key when it comes to traveling cheap. Flexibility in terms of travel dates will result in some savings, but flexibility with regard to the destination will result in huge savings. I love Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” functionality and use it whenever I’m planning my next getaway.
Using “Everywhere” as the destination on Skyscanner searches for the cheapest destinations you can get to from your departure airport. You’ll likely get some hits on places that you might have never considered before, but end up falling in love with.
3. Book Early
Whilst some suggest booking on a Tuesday to snag the cheapest flight, there really is no way to guarantee that you’ll pay the lowest possible price. Booking early for international flights is usually sound advice and certainly no later than 2 months before your intended departure date.
CheapAir undertakes extensive surveys of the cost of travel vs the date of booking and releases a detailed blog post every year. Here’s the link to this year’s post for those of you hoping to get more information about exactly when to book.
This is advice becomes even more pertinent if you need to travel over any holiday period (with Christmas usually attracting the highest prices of all). Even when contemplating domestic flights, it’s a good idea to book peak holiday period travel as long in advance as possible.
4. Overnight Buses and Trains
Overnight buses and trains are a great way to get around Europe, Canada, the UK and America. They are usually substantially cheaper than flying (especially once you factor in the costs associated with getting to and from the airport) and can be much more convenient.
I use Rome2Rio to learn about the providers available on my route, then I check out the websites of the providers to see if they have a low price calendar available to further cut my costs.
Flixbus has a pretty extensive network across Europe and is expanding aggressively into America and Scandinavia.
You can also check out Megabus for the UK, Europe, America and Canada, Greyhound Canada, Greyhound Australia, and Greyhound America. For trains, check out the Interrail list of overnight trains in Europe.
5. Finally, Consider Nearby Destinations If You Can’t Afford Your Dream Holiday
I’m Australian but I’ve spent a decent chunk of my adult life abroad. During my most recent trip home, I finally took the time to ‘discover’ some of the national parks and smaller attractions near my town that I’d never bothered with. I was blown away.
Whilst I appreciate that I am spoilt for choice in my home state of Victoria, a quick internet search of nearby attractions and wilderness areas will likely surprise you as well!
The point is – there is doubtlessly something near to you that will sate your wanderlust and won’t break the bank. You don’t have to go to the ‘must-see’ destination to have a great getaway!
Simply travel within your means to attractions that appeal to you – whether that means first-class flights to Seychelles or a 2-hour drive to your nearest national park.
We’ve written more extensively about saving money on travel in another post. Check it out here for some more detailed advice and a few extra tips!
After transportation costs, accommodation is likely to be your next biggest outlay. Unlike airfares, where you do have to play by the provider’s rules (to an extent), you can save big on accommodation if you think outside the box.
6. Stay In A Nearby City
Location will play a huge role in how much your accommodation costs. The closer you are to the action, the more expensive your accommodation will be.
When making your bookings, have a look at transportation costs and consider staying in a nearby city with lower costs if you’re going to really pricey destinations. You can usually refine your search on the comparison sites so that cities nearby are included.
If you can’t, just use Google Maps to sus out what’s close enough to be tolerable.
Also, remember that bookings are likely to cost more on Friday’s and Saturday’s, so you can save a heap by staying with friends or family over weekends and saving the hotel splurge for weekdays.
7. Don’t Pay Full Price
To find the cheapest possible deals on accommodation, we suggest:
TopCashback is an affiliate site that helps you save money on items ranging from accommodation to home and garden. They are partnered with more than 4,380 retailers of which more than 280 directly relate to travel.
You can make savings on hotel brands you’ve come to know and trust, like Marriott, InterContinental and Holiday Inn. What’s even more astounding though is that you can use it to receive Cashbacks on comparison sites like Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Agoda and Priceline.
The comparison sites have access to rates for HEAPS of hotels. If you can’t find something to your taste on those sites then it doesn’t exist.
Booking.com (at least) also offers rates on hostels. This means you can get cashback offers for mega-cheap accommodation around the world.
Roomer is a site where people sell their non-refundable hotel bookings to those fortunate enough to find them. You can make huge savings up to 88% on hotel rooms that would otherwise be going empty.
Roomer has a dedicated team that offers help 24/7 and ensures the safety and security of its customers. They transfer the money to the seller after you’ve checked out of the hotel.
The rooms are also checked beforehand to make sure that it’s a legitimate offer.
You’ll (again) need to be a bit flexible with dates. You’re buying the room from someone else, not from the hotel.
8. Travel Slow
I’ve written previously about 15 ways to get free or discounted accommodation whilst traveling. These tips are more relevant if you’re planning a longer trip away where you can travel slower.
Slow travel has drawbacks, like longer periods of time off work (if you’re not a freelancer or seasonal worker), but it has plenty of perks as well.
Food & Drink
Whilst food and drink aren’t as expensive as accommodation and transportation (unless you’re headed to Noma or the like), the expenses do add up quite quickly if you eat out three meals a day.
9. Hotel Breakfasts
Hotel breakfasts are either amazing or a tourist trap. If it’s more than a few dollars a day for an amazing spread, don’t take them up on the offer. You’d be better off going to a local café, soaking up the atmosphere and munching down on something fresh.
If, however, the breakfast is included – take full advantage. Eat late, or eat early and then again later, so that you can survive the afternoon without lunch. There! You’ve just saved on two meals!
10. Cook For Yourself
I usually limit myself to buying one meal a day when I’m traveling. It not only means that you tend not to gain so much happy weight (My metabolism is such that I gain pounds simply smelling a cake), but you’ll also save while you’re at it.
I find cooking in foreign countries to be a real experience. Shopping in languages I don’t know poses unique challenges and I’ve had some great culinary misadventures due to my purchases. No good story starts with a salad, as they say.
The exception to this rule is if it’s cheaper to buy meals than it is to prepare them yourself. If you’re traveling somewhere cheap and can afford accommodation near the city center, you’ll end up paying a premium for groceries.
I was recently in Skopje, Macedonia and it was much cheaper to buy a meal at a local restaurant than it was to buy the components from the nearby supermarkets.
11. Eat Like A Local
Speak with local people to find out where they eat and go there. The places you’re exposed to as a tourist are likely to be overpriced touristy places – even if you think you’re being sly by going two blocks away from the nearest tourist attraction.
If you’re not brave enough to go up to a stranger and strike up a conversation, post on Couchsurfing or check Facebook to see whether there’s an “Expats in XXX” for wherever you’re headed. The expat communities that I’m a part of on Facebook are always happy to help out travelers with tons of recommendations.
Local foods are likely to be easier on the wallet than whatever you’re used to eating at home. Try the weird local dish instead of just ordering the usual. Worst case scenario, you find out you hate it and you’ve got a story for life. Best case, you save money on food for the entire trip.
This applies equally to your supermarket shops. Buying the stuff you’re used to at home is likely to be more expensive. Be bold – try something new!
12. Drink Smart
Carry a water bottle so you don’t pay for water everywhere (use a reusable bottle and save the earth while you’re at it).
Alcohol can end up being pretty pricey as well. People tend to overindulge a little once the holiday mindset sets in, so savings on alcohol can make or break the holiday bank. Check out apps like The Happiest Hour (Australia, NZ, Hong Kong), Happy Hour Finder (Android) (IOS) or Scoutmob (for discounts on food and drink in major cities around the US).
Exchanging Your Money
If you want to get the most out of your hard-earned cash on your holiday, do not ever exchange your money at the airport. This is especially true if the vendor promises that they do not charge a commission!
Airport exchange vendors (and international train/bus depots) are known to provide terrible exchange rates. Those not charging commission tend to have even worse rates.
13. Getting Cash
In the US, you’ll usually get the best rate by exchanging your money at the bank. If you’re already abroad, you’re best off getting a debit card with ATMs or partner banks in your destination country.
If this isn’t possible, seek out a card with reasonable withdrawal fees and a low currency conversion rate.
Check out TD Bank (0% currency conversion + non-TD ATM withdrawal fee), Ally (1% currency conversion fee + non-Ally ATM withdrawal fee) or Alliant (currency conversion fee varies (0-1%) + ATM fee). Ally and Alliant both offer rebates of $10-$20 monthly on ATM fees.
14. Credit Cards
I usually rely quite heavily on my credit card when I head overseas and it’s possible to pay with plastic. Not because I’m overspending and my debit cards are maxed out, but because they offer the best rates for overseas spending.
This statement is only true if you pay off all of your expenditures before they start to incur interest. If you can’t pay it off immediately, credit cards get very expensive. It might be better to stick with a debit card if you don’t have the resolve to not overspend.
Many providers also offer decent signup rewards for opening a credit account with them. Rewards usually come in the form of a miles bonus or a cashback. They often come on the condition that you spend a certain amount within a certain period.
These expenses are easy to rack up whilst traveling. Remember not to purchase items you don’t need simply to rack up the bonus rewards unless you’ve done the math and its worthwhile. It’s usually not worth it.
15. Other Options: Transferwise
Transferwise is a relative newcomer, but it has quickly made a name for itself as a bank that is disrupting the international banking industry. It’s licensed in 47 states and will soon have debit cards available. The debit card promises low conversion fees, no foreign transaction fees and free payment for currencies in your account (over 40 currencies available).
The rates offered by Transferwise are the real exchange rate (this is usually better than the rates offered by banks) and the conversion fee when changing money between currencies is on the lower end – between 0.35% and 2%.
The Borderless account is free.
16. Other Options: Revolut
Revolut is a similar product to Transferwise. It offers spending at the interbank rate in more than 150 countries, although fees do apply for spending on weekends and free ATM withdrawals up to $200 per month for their free account.
The Revolut debit card is already available. They have a perks scheme that’s being beta tested at the moment.
Bonus Tip: If they give you the option of paying in your home currency or the local currency, choose the local currency. You’ll get a better rate on that.
Half the battle with travel is your mentality. It’s so easy to let your newfound stress-less, carefree attitude seep into your spending habits, you can rein in your holiday spending with some minor mental adjustments.
17. Plan For Your Big Expenses
There’s a difference between living a little whilst on holidays and overspending. That difference is planning!
Spending big on some holiday expenses can be part of the fun. Going to an outrageously expensive restaurant to try a famous local dish, spending big on a once-in-a-lifetime hike with a local guide or splurging on an incredible item that you’ve had your eye on for ages are all absolutely things you should feel free to do on your holiday – but not on impulse.
Planning for these larger expenditures and saving accordingly. Don’t simply arrive and buy everything you desire on impulse, even if it all seems cheap. Trust me, it will be the difference between an affordable holiday and a holiday that breaks the bank and causes stress for weeks, or even months, after you get home.
18. Know How Expensive Your Destination is Before You Go
You should know approximately how much money your trip will cost you before you leave. Research the cost of meals, decide how often you’re going to eat out, plan where you’d like to stay and create a budget that factors in the cost of living at your destination.
Knowing how much these items are likely to cost you means that you can get a better grasp on how much spending money you’ll have while you’re there.
19. Make Sure Your Travel Buddy Has The Same Expectations BEFORE Booking
If you’re traveling with someone you haven’t traveled with before, make sure that you have the same expectations on standard of living before you book. Travel with someone who has a substantially higher budget than you is likely to end with you spending more than you’d hoped. Equally, traveling with someone who has a much lower budget might lead to you offering to ‘spot’ them for experiences that you’d rather not miss out on – again resulting in a blow out.
20. Travel Insurance
Finally, if you can’t afford travel insurance then you can’t afford to travel. The things that travel insurance protects you against are not usually things you can plan for or avoid.
Things like losing your passport, having your stuff stolen, getting sick and missing flights are really expensive without insurance. It’s not worth the risk.