Having lived on three continents and growing up in a family that owns a travel business, I have had many years to perfect the art of traveling on a budget. I’ve managed to visit 50 countries and counting, all for very little money. While I could write a list with 100 tips on how to stretch your travel dollar, I’ll keep it short and sweet with my top six time-tested tips for budget travel.
1. Use a credit card with a flexible rewards system.
I’ve made the mistake of getting a card for one hotel chain and then desperately trying to find places in the cities I’m visiting where I can use my points. The problem is it limits my choices and often the chain charges so many points for a free night that after two nights I would be completely wiped out. If you are someone who likes to look for deals, don’t limit yourself to one hotel or one airline, but find a card such as Chase Sapphire Preferred that allows you to accumulate points in a general travel rewards program, which you can use for many different partner airlines and hotels.
2. Look for cash + points hotel deals.
If you do have points at a certain hotel chain, find the deals that allow you to get a big discount on the room rate if you put a few points into the pot. For instance, a free night at a hotel could cost you 50,000 points. That’s a whole credit card sign-up bonus gone in one measly night. However, the points + cash deal at the same hotel could cost you only 20,000 points per night plus $60 cash. That’s exactly what happened to me when I was looking for a hotel in London. I could have used all of my points for two nights at a Hilton. Instead I paid a fraction of the normal fee and stretched my points over the whole week.
It’s not free, but it does mean you can stay many more days at a nice hotel in an expensive city without having to pay luxury hotel rates. Also check out my slideshow comparing hotel points required at different locations and think about planning your next trip to a city where you can stay a week for free, instead of just one night.
3. Eat dinner during happy hour.
This tip is particularly useful in Europe, where happy hour at some restaurants means you pay for one drink and can help yourself to a buffet of local delicacies. In countries like Italy and Spain, where the locals eat dinner during Americans’ bedtime, this is a great way to eat at an hour you’re more accustomed to, taste a variety of food and get a break on meal costs.
If you’re not in a country where happy hour is a good deal, then make lunch your big meal of the day. Most places I’ve visited have great lunch specials that will include three courses and a drink for a fraction of the dinner price.
4. Take the free walking tour and download free audio guides.
Did you know there are amazing walking tours given by travel guru Rick Steves that you can download for free? That’s right, you can skip the $60 walking tour with a bunch of strangers and instead download an app to your phone, choose the different walks available for your city, and set off on an independent adventure. Several other companies also offer free walking tours, so check out the offerings online and download your favorite.
I like Rick Steves for Europe because he interviews local experts and authors, and offers in-app maps and other free features to make the self-guided tour a seamless experience. If you want to orient yourself in the city first with a live tour guide, look for free walking tours, which you can easily find through a search engine, or pick up brochures for at the visitor’s center or any hostel. They are offered in most major cities, have excellent guides (since they work for tips), and have good suggestions for the budget-conscious traveler.
5. Beware of budget airlines.
Don’t get me wrong, budget airlines can be a beautiful thing, especially when you score a $20 plane ticket from Berlin to London on Ryanair. You’ll have to suffer through two hours of loud in-flight advertisements and $5 bottles of water, but it’s sometimes worth it.
Still, beware of being too price sensitive with flights and booking a budget airline because it is a little bit cheaper than a major airline. You may find yourself needing to pay extra for baggage and having to navigate your way into town from a far-flung airport that caters only to budget airlines. Between transport and luggage costs, and the overall inconvenience, you could find yourself frazzled and out of pocket for about the same price as a seat on a better airline.
6. Learn to negotiate.
Whether you’re booking a room on Airbnb, organizing a day trip, or eyeing that soft, supple purse, there may be room for negotiation. You’ll want to feel out the culture to make sure negotiation is an option, but it seldom hurts to ask. For websites like Airbnb, you can always write the homeowner first and ask if they will offer you a discount on their advertised price. If they’re not full, they’ll likely make a deal. After all, any renter is better than an empty bed.
These are some of my top tips for traveling on a budget. Keep the conversation going and share yours!