Everyone wants to save money on travel.
Whether you travel in luxury or on a budget, who doesn't like a good deal? People who have lots of money like to know that they spend it wisely. People with little money want to stretch their dollar farther.
As long as the price of saving (meaning it doesn't take too much of your time) is not too steep we all want to get more and better travel for less money.
I certainly do. I try to spend my travel budget as efficiently as possible on every trip and despite the occasional mistake (Read: My Travel Money Mistakes), I do pretty well.
I've been traveling since I was 15. I traveled in groups at that age but after that independently or on the occasional tour. I've traveled with partners and then family, kids in tow at various ages, and then, again solo. Over a few decades of travel experience I've learned a few dozen ways to save money on travel. Here are my top tips.
Save Money with Wise Financial Choices
- Have the right travel rewards card and use it wisely. Save money for travel as you spend money in your everyday life. Don't carry a balance on the card because the interest rate will undo any gain you make with your points or cash-back. If you have to carry a balance, do so on a low interest card. Take a hard look at your credit card situation and decide what the best card is for you under today's circumstances. Here's a link for how to do the analysis. The example is Canadian but will apply to any country.
- Get a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Most cards charge an additional 2-3% for every credit card transaction in a foreign currency. However, some don't. As a Canadian I use the Home Trust Visa card. Most American travel writers recommend Chase credit cards. Update December 16, 2019 – Marjorie, a reader from the United States let me know that the TJ Max, TJX Rewards Platinum Mastercard, is free and has not foreign transaction fees as well. However, the interest rate is very high so it is extremely important that you pay off this card every month.
- Get a debit card that doesn't charge for foreign ATM transactions. A debit card at an ATM is the best way to get foreign funds on the road however there is typically a charge at both ends of this financial transaction. You can't affect what the bank you're withdrawing from will charge you but you can affect the charge at your financial institution if you choose the right account. I have the TD Canada Trust Select Service that doesn't charge me for taking money from foreign ATMs. Read: Save Money When You Change Money
- Buy in their currency, not yours. It may be tempting to see what your purchase actually costs in your home currency but doing so will make that item cost more than it should because of extra fees. Always buy in the local currency. Read Your Currency or Theirs? The Decision Makes a Difference
- Hold onto extra currency. If you plan to return to the country again, save that currency for the next trip as you lose money every time you exchange it. I tend to keep any US, UK, or European currency. I give other currencies to charity. There is usually an opportunity to do so on the plane. Read: 6 Things to Do With Leftover Currency.
Save Money on Travel in the Planning Stage
There are so many ways to save on travel when you plan for it. Start by knowing what's important to you. Personally, I don't like spending too much on accommodation. It takes a bite out of my overall ability to travel. Others prefer to travel less but in more luxury. Know your priorities and use some of these tips to save money as you plan for them.
- Check out our Deals page and the Advisory. Tour companies leverage their buying power to get more value for less money. This means that taking a tour can be very cost-effective–unless there is a high single supplement. For tours with low or no single supplements, make sure you check our Solo Travel Deals page and sign up for our Advisory of Deals.
- Choose a budget destination. The world is big and exciting and, fortunately, there are many destinations that are not on everyone's bucket list. These destinations tend to be less busy and less expensive. When deciding on a budget destination consider the overall cost of your trip, including both the cost of getting there and the cost on the ground. If a currency exchange is involved you need to consider it as well. The data says that when people start planning a trip they typically have three destinations in mind. Run a budget for each so you can see the real implications of your destination decision. Read: Best Budget Destinations for Solo Travelers: the 2018 Shortlist.
- Know the shoulder season for your choice destinations. High season is the summer in Europe, the winter for Florida. You get it. High season is the time of year when everyone wants to hit a destination, which makes it expensive. The shoulder season, by contrast, is just before or after that high season. It tends to be less expensive and less crowded, yet it still has most of what you want and reasonable weather. Read: How to Save on Shoulder Season Travel: Top Tips
- Rough out your budget. If you're going to more than one place then Rome2Rio is a good starting point for getting a handle on the overall cost of your trip. I don't book on it because I find it quite general but I do use it to help me understand the logistics of a trip and the cost of moving from one place to another, whether that involves train or flights between cities or simply transportation from the airport to my hotel and back.
- Avoid hidden hotel fees. Knowledge can be a big money saver. Lack of it can break a budget. Before you book your accommodation, get a handle on what your actual costs will be. Look for the hidden costs and defray them with the tips in this post.
- Look at your average cost per night. Depending on where you're going, your accommodation could be your number one expense. You can go super cheap or expensive or somewhere in between. I like to shake it up as I did in Kauai. Spend some nights in luxury accommodation and then save other nights in budget accommodation to end up with a reasonable overall nightly rate.
- Save on accommodation.
- Hostels: They Aren’t Just for the Young
- Sleeping with Strangers: The Hostel Experience.
- Save on Hotels? Yes You Can, with These Tips
- Best Places to Stay in London: Great Accommodation for Solo Travelers
- Try a home exchange. I think this is best for slow travel. Staying for a week or two in someone else's home while they stay in yours can save you big time on accommodation and let you sink into your destination. Live like a local and stay for free. Home Exchange has 65,000+ worldwide listings. Read Free accommodation: try a home exchange.
- Rent your home while you're away. I know a few people who have done this using sites like Airbnb. Read: 12 Ways to Make Money as You Travel: long and short-term. If you're planning to travel long-term, here's a post I wrote about how I rented my home for a 10-month trip. How to Rent Your Home and Go Traveling
Save Money as You Book Travel
- Always check three sites before buying plane tickets. Check at least two booking engines and, based on the results, the site of the airline that offers you the best combination of price, convenience, and points. I use Flightnetwork and Skyscanner. If possible, I choose a direct flight and, if there are connections to be made, the same airline for both legs of the journey. However, if the savings are significant enough–more than $200–I'm flexible on these points. Read: Save on Flights: Booking Tips, Stopover Deals & Bumping and Checked Baggage: Top Planning and Packing Tips
- Be flexible with your vacation dates. If you have a week or two, do your research and fly on the days that are least expensive. A Wednesday to Wednesday holiday is no different than Monday to Monday in terms of the number of days you take off work, but it could save you money. When I booked a flight to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon, I flew out on a Tuesday and back on a Sunday to get the best deal. The deal was even better if I could have gone Tuesday to Tuesday but I had a conflict with that.
- Rent a car with care. There's not usually a big difference in price between one car rental company and another but you can get a better deal within the terms of your agreement. Read How to Save on Car Rentals
Save Money as You're Traveling
- Save at the airport. Plan your budget to include everything from the moment you leave your door. If you don't, you could blow your budget before getting on a plane. Airport waits are long and airport food is expensive. The mark-up on water at the airport is significant. The same goes for snack foods. Bring your water bottle through security empty and fill it on the other side. Bring snacks from home. If you’ll be there over a meal period, bring a meal too! 6 Ways to Save at The Airport
- Be careful at Duty Free. Oh, the temptation! With time on your hands shopping is to be expected but is Duty Free really a good deal? The research says that it is usually a deal for alcohol and tobacco but may not be for other items. Pull out your phone and do some comparison shopping before you buy.
- Take a free walking tour. Many cities have free walking tours. Or, at least, they are almost free. You should tip your guide at least $5.00. Read 7 Ways to Find a Free Tour Guide When You Travel
- Keep the cost of food under control.
- Eat where locals eat. Restaurants that are a bit out of the way, especially a few blocks from a train station or tourist site, will be less expensive. They will also connect you to locals more which is a bonus in my mind.
- Look for non-English menus. If you're in a country of a different language a menu in English is a sign that the restaurant is for tourists and you'll be paying more than necessary.
- Find a restaurant within your budget. Use Open Table, an app for your phone that lets you find restaurants based on location, popularity, and availability. You can read restaurant reviews, see menus, know approximately what a meal will cost, and make reservations on the fly. You can also earn points with the app that will, with time, give you a credit for a free meal. Tracey has earned $50 from them simply by using the app to reserve tables.
- Eat your main meal at lunch. Lunch menus are always less expensive than dinner menus. Whether you’re going to that restaurant you’ve read about and always wanted to experience or simply having a basic meal, eat your main meal at lunch. Save the soup, salad, or sandwich menu for dinner.
- Make the most of that free breakfast. If your hotel includes a free breakfast, enjoy a hearty meal. Don’t binge there and don’t grab more than is appropriate. That said, there’s nothing wrong with taking an apple or banana for the road to reduce your cost of snacks during the day.
- Get takeout from a high-end grocery store. It can be a Whole Foods but doesn’t have to be. I often ate very well with take-out from the Safeway in Kapa’a, Hawaii. I particularly loved their kale salad and salmon steaks. And when it comes to takeout pizza, I prefer Whole Foods. A good sized slice comes in at under $5.
- Enjoy food trucks. With lower overhead, food trucks can give you all the quality of a restaurant at a lower price. When I was in Kauai I certainly found the food trucks to be a more affordable option than restaurants. And since they are where many locals go to eat, if they’re not great, they won’t last.
- Use memberships that give you discounts. AAA, CAA, military cards, gym and art gallery memberships. You likely have a number of memberships that you use at home that could also be valuable as you travel. Read: Take Your Membership Benefits on the Road: 11 Ways to Save
- Step up to the bar. You don’t have to stay at an uber-luxurious hotel to enjoy some of the benefits. You can go to the bar for a drink, enjoy afternoon high tea, or book yourself into their spa.
- Get free public Wi-Fi. This is pretty easy these days – especially if you are in a town or city. You can find it at libraries, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and hotel lobbies. When using public Wi-Fi be careful of what sites you access. If you need to use a password to enter a site, turn on a VPN. To understand why this is important read: VPN for Travel: What, Why and an Easy Setup Guide.
- Save on your data. When you have free Wi-Fi, use Whatsapp to text or call for free. It’s similar to Skype but absolutely free and I have found that the quality is better. One nice thing about it is that you can create a group so that you can provide a status update to a group of people with one message.
- Shop outside the tourist areas. You'll pay a premium for everything at airports, train stations, and other places where tourists congregate.If you want to shop, go where the locals shop. You'll save money and it will be more interesting.
- Don't use a Money Exchange Kiosk. The signs at the money exchange houses may sound like a good deal but everything I've ever read has said that these are not. Read Exchange Rates, Destinations and Saving as You Change Money
- Check out our 32 Tips guides on specific destinations.
- Affordable New York City: 32+ Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Budget Chicago: 32 Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Toronto: 32 Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Paris: 32+ Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable London: 32+ Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Dublin: 32 Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Kauai – 32 Free and Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Sydney: 32 Free & Low-Cost Tips
- Affordable Nashville: 32 Free and Low-cost Tips
If you have your own ways to save while traveling, please share them in the comments below.