By: Gene Walden, Senior Finance Editor January 23, 2018
You don’t have to break the bank to see new places.
Here are 26 tips on how to help you save on your transportation costs, as well as your food and accommodations on your next trip:
I. Cheap Travel Basics
Here are a few simple ways to save on many of your trips:
1. Prepare some of your own meals. If your accommodations include a kitchen, you can save a bundle by preparing some of your meals. If there is no kitchen, you could still cut your costs by buying some groceries, such as breakfast cereal, fruit, beverages, and sandwich items. If you decide to dine out at nicer restaurants, the cost can grow to anywhere from $25 to $100 per meal (or more). However, in some cases, the local cuisine may be an important part of the trip. If you’re visiting a city like New Orleans, known for its unique and local flavor, you might be well served to budget a few extra bucks to enjoy meals at some of the popular local spots. You don’t have to go to the most expensive places to taste the local fare. The regional food guides can usually lead you to some excellent restaurants with reasonable prices.
2. 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 cost value of driving. But for shorter trips – particularly if you’re traveling with friends or family – you could save hundreds of dollars on air fare. Driving could also save you a lot on car rentals or other transportation costs once you reach your destination.
3. Use rewards programs to pay for your airfare (and accommodations). Whether a points program through a credit card, airline, hotel chain, or a specialized travel discount program, there are many ways to build up points that eventually convert to real dollars in savings on air fare and other travel costs. Hotel loyalty programs often include member benefits such as free WIFI, slightly lower rates, or free meals during your stay.
4. Use student, senior, association or other discount cards. The true savings offered by a discount card probably varies from traveler to traveler, but if used opportunistically, 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, road side assistance, dining, and attractions. Discount cards from various organizations are also often available to students (and often 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 62 and over that allows lifetime free admittance to any U.S. National Park. Just don’t lose your pass. As the park service warns, “Passes are NON-REFUNDABLE, NON-TRANSFERABLE, and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.” (For more details, go to National Parks)
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 small 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. 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.
II. Cutting Costs on Air Travel
You may be able to save hundreds of dollars on your trips by following a few tips on booking your flight and preparing for your trip:
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 has recently offered roundtrip flights from Chicago to Iceland for just $249.2 But that’s during the dead of winter when daylight shrinks to 5 hours a day. If you take that same flight in June, the price is an extra $200 to $300 or more.
9. 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.
10. Don’t over pack. The cost to check a bag is typically $25 or more (although Southwest Airlines does not charge a baggage fee for your first two bags).3 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 actually charge as much or more to carry on than to check a bag. For instance, for domestic flights, Frontier generally charges $30 to $60 for a carry-on bag versus $25 to $60 to check a bag; Spirit generally charges $35 to $100 to carry on a bag or $30 to $100 to check a bag.
11. 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’s a killer. 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.
III. Getting around on the Ground
Whether you arrive at your destination by bus, boat, plane or train, you may need transportation during your stay. Here are some ways to save on your ground transportation:
12. Don’t rent a car if you don’t have to. If you can get where you need to go without an automobile, it could take a big bite out of the cost of your trip. For day trips, you can generally rent a car for a day or two and save on the cost of a one-week rental.
13. 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, with essentially the same scenery.
14. 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.
15. You may be able to save at an off-site rental agency. Instead of renting a car at the airport, check online to see if you could save by renting at an agency located nearby. For instance, a quick online check of car rentals in the Tampa, Florida, area showed that you could rent cars at sites away from the airport for $23 to $37 per day (from economy to full size) compared with $41 to $53 per day by renting at the airport.4 That’s a savings of $16 to $18 a day – which would add up to over $100 for a seven-day stay. However, it certainly wouldn’t be as convenient, and you’ll probably need to use a portion of your savings to pay for a cab or Uber from the airport to the car rental and back to the airport later after you drop off your car. So if you do decide to rent away from the airport, try to find an agency that’s a short cab ride away.
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 web sites 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.
IV. Saving on Your Stay
You may be able to save substantially on accommodations by shopping around, staying with friends or camping out. Here some good ways to save on your stay:
18. 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.
One other way to remain in their good graces is to confine your trip to an appropriately brief visit – a long weekend of three or four days may be best. Ben Franklin once noted that “fish and visitors stink in three days,” although that’s not always the case.
19. Consider staying at a hostel, bed & breakfast or Airbnb. If you’re willing to spend some nights in a cozy home or room along with some strangers, booking some nights at a bed & breakfast might save you money over the cost of a hotel or motel. But be aware that the savings may be less than you think. According to a recent (2017) survey from Busbud.com, “in Toronto, a hotel room costs about 50% more than an Airbnb stay on average. However, in Austin, the average Airbnb rate runs 57% higher than a hotel booking.”5
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. Find 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.
22. Buy your water and snacks elsewhere. Often the bottled water in your hotel room and the snacks in the minibar come with an inflated price. You may be able to save money by buying your water and snacks away from the hotel. Oyster.com, a consumer travel site, published a report on some of the most expensive hotel minibar items they’ve uncovered, including a $14 bag of Gummi Bears, a $10 bottle of water, and an $18 bag of Feed Your Soul cookies.6
23. Pitch a tent in the great outdoors. Camping out can certainly be cheaper than staying in a normal lodging arrangement. But if you require such amenities as a roof, walls, beds, bathroom (with running water and a shower), electricity, lights, a wide screen TV, and heating and air conditioning, camping is probably not for you.
However, if you plan to camp in the hopes of saving money, you should be aware that camping is only cheap if you already have the equipment. If you don’t have any camping gear, it can add up. If you can borrow a tent and all the gear from a friend, then camping is cheap. But buying all that gear can nullify the cost benefit of camping unless you plan to camp on more than one or two trips.
There are, however, some benefits to camping that go beyond the bottom line. Camping, from my experience, can mean chasing away bears in Yellowstone, dodging moose on Isle Royale, gazing up at the stars over the towering redwoods in Yosemite, camping beneath the Denali midnight sun on the Alaskan tundra, and bedding down to the sound of waves pounding the beach in Florida, Maine or Nova Scotia. But it can also mean surviving 90-mile winds in Oklahoma, driving rains in South Dakota and a September blizzard in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.
Camping is not for everyone, but for those brave or broke enough to try it, pitching a tent in the great outdoors can save you some coin and, quite possibly, afford you a lifetime of priceless adventures.
24. 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 for your friend. 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), that may be 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.
25. 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.
26. Start saving early. 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. (See: Start Saving for Your Nest Egg for Just $50 a Month)
If you’re ready to hit the road, 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 Formerly known as American Association of Retired Persons
2 Google Flights for roundtrip January 22 – 31 https://www.google.com/flights/#search;f=ORD,MDW;t=KEF,RKV;d=2018-01-22;r=2018-01-31
4 Kayak, beginning December 7, 2017.
7 New accounts with a minimum investment amount of $50 are offered through the Thrivent Mutual Funds “automatic purchase plan.” Otherwise, the minimum initial investment requirement is $2,000 for non-retirement accounts and $1,000 for IRA or tax-deferred accounts, minimum subsequent investment requirement is $50 for all account types.