I love to travel, but budget constraints mean that when I plan a trip, I have to be strategic about it. When I do get to go somewhere new, I do my best to save money where I can so that I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the trip when it’s time. I’m definitely not a budget backpacker kind of traveler, and I refuse to stay in hostels. However, I try to be smart, and I use these 5 tips to save money when planning a trip.
5 tips to save money on your next vacation
1. Use these tools to find flight deals
One way and round trip tickets
If you know where you’re going, I find Kayak to be the best tool for comparing flights quickly. It allows you to include nearby airports and search +/- 3 days to assure you find the best deal if your travel dates are flexible. I did three random United States domestic searches and Kayak was the same or better in each one against CheapoAir and Expedia. It was also the best site for trips within Europe. The only place they were beat slightly was in a US to UK flight, but then all three sites were giving horrible, multiple flight options as their best deals. Once you got into reasonable flights, they were all pretty comparable.
Try Google’s Matrix Airfare Search. This lets you string destinations together and finds flights across airlines. You might have to book flights with multiple airlines, but it’s helpful to manage a complicated itinerary. It works best in the US, but I did get it to work for a multi-destination European trip from Glasgow as well.
Pick your destination based on price
There are two sites we use in Europe to look at flights when we’re just not sure where we want to go. Basically, “anywhere warmer” is our usual only requirement, and living this far north, there’s plenty of destinations to suit. Skyscanner lets you choose “Everywhere” as your destination, and shows you a list, sorted by price and country, of possibilities. This is how I ended up doing my Amsterdam and Berlin trip last year. It also lets you choose your departure city and nearby airports, which is nice, because there are two Glasgow airports (though one is 32 miles outside the city) and Edinburgh is just an hour bus ride away. It does work for the United States, but not as well in my experience.
We recently discovered Adioso, which also lets you search all destinations. It found some better deals than Skyscanner; however, it tries to send us through Edinburgh most of the time. This site really didn’t work well for within the US, but it did find some international deals departing from the US.
2. Consider getting a credit card that offers a big airline mile bonus
The way I can afford to go home a couple times a year is by collecting and using airline miles. Credit cards often offer big signup bonuses when you spend some amount in the first few months the card is open. By transferring all my expenses to the card (and paying it off immediately), I am able to hit these required spends and collect up to 50,000 miles for free. The first (and still my favorite) card I signed up for was Chase Sapphire, which gave me 50,000 points for spending $3,000 in three months. The bonus may only be 40,000 now, but it’s still a good deal. It allows you to transfer miles 1:1 to several airlines, including Southwest and United. One way international flights start between 20,000 and 30,000 miles, so those points go a long way towards getting you overseas. Domestic flights within the US are even cheaper. All the airlines have their own cards, but I have found American, United and Southwest to be the most beneficial.
There is a whole world of points travel, and I’m only scratching the surface. If you want to learn more about this, there are blogs dedicated to this very topic. American readers should check out Million Mile Secrets, which gives great information about current card promotions and how to use them to maximum benefit. UK visitors might enjoy Head for Points, which offers similar information on using Avios (the British Airways points program) and other travel points programs.
3. Use websites that compare hotels to find your room, but book direct
Sites like booking.com and hotels.com are handy for comparing lots of hotels at once. Once I’ve narrowed down to a couple choices that are both in the right area and price range, I usually pop over to TripAdvisor to read reviews and make my final choice based on that. (TripAdvisor also shows prices on several travel sites, and sometimes TripAdvisor is actually the cheapest.) My final sneaky trick is to then go directly to the hotel’s website and see what the rate is if I book directly. Hotel and travel sites often charge a fee to list, so that fee is usually passed along to the customer. If you book direct, you’ll often save a few dollars.
4. See if the city has a welcome or city pass
If you’re visiting a city with lots of museums and tourist attractions, they probably offer some kind of welcome or city pass. These typically offer several discounts at local tourist destinations and often include some kind of transportation pass. I always look to see if a pass is available where I’m going, and if I think I’m going to go to a few of those tourist spots anyway, I do the math to see if it’s a good deal for me.
One example of this is the Atlanta CITYpass, which you purchase, but then receive free admission to several activities. I was planning to go to four of these anyway, and when I added up the cost to pay admission at each one, I ended up saving $31.49 by buying the CITYpass. It didn’t include transportation in the city, but Atlanta has an easy-to-use subway system.
In Europe, I used the Berlin Welcome Card, which included discounts for many of the museums in town, as well as several restaurants and even a souvenir shop. In the end I mainly used the included three-day transportation pass, which gave me access to the subway, train, and bus systems. I also used the map quite a bit.
In other cities, I found it was simpler just to identify the best transportation deal. For example, I bought Amsterdam’s multi-day GVB card, which allowed me three days of unlimited access to trams and buses.
No matter what route you take, you can usually get a lot of good information from a welcome or city pass website, so they are a great place to start as you’re planning your trip!
5. Visit nicer restaurants for lunch & save the cheaper option for dinner
One of the best things about traveling can be experiencing the local cuisine. However, this can get expensive quick. One trick I like to use is to visit nicer restaurants for lunch, when they’re offering less expensive, smaller versions of their upscale dinners. I save the lower budget casual dining for dinnertime.
Another good trick is to order the daily special at restaurants when possible (gluten freedom doesn’t always make this easy.) That way, you get to try something new at a decent price.
One other little trick I learned from a travel agent is this: if you stay in a hotel with a breakfast buffet (this works best in Europe), make an extra sandwich from the meats and cheeses on offer. Tuck it in a napkin or zipper bag (I always travel with a stash of Ziploc bags) for later. I call this my train sandwich, and being gluten free hasn’t stopped me. I just take my own gluten free rolls with me to breakfast and then choose from the safe foods in the buffet for fillings. I usually snag an apple for the road too. Shh!
There you have it – 5 tips to save money on travel without sacrificing comfort or enjoyment. How do you save money when you’re planning your vacation?