How to save money while seeing the world

Forget what the magazines say about travel. Forget what you see in commercials. They're all wrong: Travel isn't expensive. How do I know? Because I've been traveling the world for six years and have found that everything you learn about travel is generally wrong.

Experience has taught me that travel isn't expensive. Locals don't spend hundreds of dollars per day in your destination — and you don't spend hundreds when you are home — so why do something different when you travel? Traveling taught me that there are myriad ways to cut expenses and turn your dream vacation into a reality a lot more easily than you might think possible.

We're conditioned to believe travel is expensive for few reasons.

  • First, large resorts, hotels and tour companies have enormous marketing budgets that can afford advertising in those glossy magazines.
  • Second, those same companies also charge a lot of money for their products, meaning those who sell them can get a higher commission. Few promote the downscale options, and as a consequence we're left assuming travel is a luxury few can afford.

But that's all wrong. Spending a lot of money on a holiday doesn't mean you'll have a better time than someone who goes budget. Plus, those exclusive resorts and hotels isolate travelers from the locals and culture we flew all this way to see.

So how can you have a first-class trip without having to spend first-class money? Forget everything you ever learned about travel and travel like you live back home.

Take, for example, a trip to Paris. If I'm flying from Chicago to Paris and spending two weeks in a hotel there, according to Expedia.com it would cost $1,500 or more (the closer to the city center, the higher the number). If you're traveling with a family, you can multiply that by four.

That's a ridiculous amount to spend on a single trip. Seeing that price would discourage anyone from traveling and further reinforce the idea that travel is too expensive to enjoy if you are not rich. How can a middle-class family afford that kind of money multiple times a year, or even once a year? They probably can't.

But there's no reason any trip should cost that kind of money. With a few simple tricks, you can cut that cost by more than 50 percent. At that price, travel becomes a lot more affordable.

Tricks to travel cheap
So how does one cut travel costs? Here are some ways to keep costs down on different aspects of travel.

Flights
One of the best ways to save money on flights is to be flexible with your travel dates. The difference of a day can potentially save hundreds of dollars. Fly midweek instead of on the weekend. Fly with stops instead of flying direct. Small things make a big difference.

J.D.'s note: This is true. I recently booked a trip to Europe for me and my girlfriend. We're leaving on a Wednesday, and our round-trip tickets cost about $900 each. But the very next day — a Thursday, and closer to Easter weekend — tickets cost about $1,300 each.

To take the biggest chunk out of the cost of flying, sign up for a travel-related credit card. By using sign-up bonuses and milking the reward systems, I've used these cards to collect over 500,000 frequent flier miles in the last year. A family of four can fly anywhere with those kind of miles!

Here are some quick tips on using travel credit cards:

  • Sign up for a branded airline credit card. Whether you love Delta, fly United and the Star Alliance, live and breathe JetBlue, or are hooked on Oneworld, all U.S. carriers have a branded travel credit card that may give you 25,000 to 30,000 bonus miles when you sign up and make one purchase. That's a free economy ticket right there. Airline credit cards are the best way to kick-start your mileage balance.
  • Sign up for a non-airline credit card. A Starwood American Express card offers a 10,000-point sign-up bonus, and when you convert 20,000 points into miles, you get a 5,000-mile bonus. I highly recommend signing up for this card too, but signing up for any “points” card like the AmEx travel card or a Capital One card will do. Afterwards, you can transfer your sign-up bonus points to the airline you use and redeem them for flights.
  • When using the cards, pay off your balance each month. These cards are pointless if you are buying stuff just for points!

Lastly, watch for special promotions. I sign up for all the airline mailing lists and always watch out for special two-for-one-mile deals. Airlines offer jaw-dropping deals all the time, but they don't last long and if you aren't constantly looking for them, you'll never find them. The three best to join are Johnny Jet, Airfarewatchdog, and mine. We all watch out for deals and will alert you so you can get them while the getting is good.

Accommodation
Get out of the hotels. Outside of flights, accommodation is usually the biggest travel expense. I never stay at big, expensive brand hotels unless it is free on points. Otherwise, they become too expensive to consistently stay in over the long term. There are far better and cheaper places to stay.

IMG_0398
Even hotels can be inexpensive, if you know where to look.

Here's how to find cheap accommodation:

  • Hotel deals. Getting a sweet deal on a hotel is actually really easy, especially if you are in the United States. Simply head over to Priceline or Hotwire and bid on rooms. When you know your dates, visit Better Bidding first to find winning bids for similar rooms, then use that as your baseline. I used this method to get a hotel room in Times Square, New York, during Christmas for $85 U.S. per night. (A huge bargain!)
  • Stay with locals, stay for free. Use Couchsurfing or similar sites like Global Freeloaders and Hospitality Club to find a local who's willing to host you during your visit to their city. You'll get a free place to stay (sometimes a bed, a couch or an air mattress), a local who can help show you around, and the chance to learn a bit about the local culture. It's a much better way to learn about a city than staying at a hotel.
  • House-sit. Another thing you could do is house-sit. In exchange for watching and cleaning someone's home while they are away, you'll get a place to stay in the area you are visiting. You can do this for a week or three weeks. You get full access to the house and usually a car. It's a good way to save money, especially when you're a large group. Good house-sitting sites include Mind My House, House Carers and Luxury House Sitting.
  • Go camp in a garden. The concept is simple: people offer their gardens for you to camp in. You can search for suitable sites by place, and they range from the basic “here's a spot for the night” to the more glamorous that offer full access to the house. Most locations are in the British Isles and Europe, though there are a few spots dotting the rest of the world. Check it out at Camp in my Garden.
J.D.'s note: Matt skipped one of my favorite resources. Over the past year, I've fallen in love with Airbnb. Like VRBO, Airbnb lets you rent rooms and homes and apartments from people around the world. Kim and I have used Airbnb to rent places close to home (including once from a GRS reader!), but we're also using it to book an apartment in Paris for a week. We found a tidy place near the Louvre for much less than it would have cost to stay in a hotel.

Transportation
Forget the private coaches, taxis and tourist buses; take local buses or trains. It may be easier to get in that tourist bus, but learning the local transportation system saves lots of money. Even in expensive countries like Norway or Sweden, the city train is never more than $4 U.S. It may take some time to figure out the map and where you need to go, but that's half the fun of traveling, right?

Public transportation timetables are available at the information booth at the airport and your hotel or hostel.

Other things to do:

  • Get train passes. Train passes are offered in many regions of the world and can represent a 50 percent decrease off the price of train tickets. These passes will either allow you a set number of train rides or unlimited rides for the duration of the pass. If you plan on using the train system often, you need to strongly consider this option.
  • Buy fare cards. City metro cards provide a considerable discount off buying point-to-point tickets. Even if you are going to be in a city for only a few days, you can usually buy a set number of tickets for a cheaper price. For example, in Paris you can buy a carnet (card) for $16 U.S., which is $6 U.S. less than buying them individually. In Bangkok, you can purchase day passes for the subway for $4 U.S. for unlimited travel; in New York City, the metro is $2.50 U.S. per ride but a seven-day pass is only $29 U.S.

Food
A week's worth of groceries is cheaper than a week's worth of restaurants. I generally find that I spend about $40 to 50 U.S. per week on groceries, as opposed to $20+ per day at restaurants. That's a reduction of 70 percent in food expenses.

Consider cooking part of your meals, even on a short vacation, as food costs add up quickly. A snack here and a dinner there and you'll be wasting a lot of your money. The majority of hostels, guesthouses and shared apartments offer full kitchens where you can cook your meal. Even if you are staying at a hotel without a kitchen, you can still prepare your own food by making sandwiches.

While we all love to travel to try new food, you don't always need to do so by eating at a restaurant. Supermarkets are a great place to learn about the food of a culture. How people eat, what they eat, and what they don't eat tells much about how they view food, life and health. Explore the local markets in your destination as you prepare your meals and you can learn and save money at the same time.

  • Lunch specials. In many parts of the world, especially in Europe, you can dine on dinner menus at lunch special prices. The plate of the day, as it's called, is the best bargain in the world. For example, while I was in Barcelona, I went to eat at the seafood restaurants near the beach. However, dinner was around $50 U.S. Yet coming back the next day for the lunch special allowed me to get the same meal for only $20 U.S. Another destination that's great for this is Singapore, a very expensive place by Asian standards. Food here can cost as much as it does back home. Yet restaurants here have fixed menus for lunch that cost between $10-15 U.S. as opposed to $25 U.S. for dinner.
  • Refill your water bottle. You need to stay hydrated when traveling, and buying water every day costs money. Get a metal water bottle or reuse your plastic water bottle a few times to save money. It may only save a small amount of money each time, but over the course of a long trip that can really add up. If the tap water in your part of the world isn't drinkable, you can use a Steripen to purify your water, save money, and reduce your use of plastic bottles and waste. They're good for 3,000 uses and cost as little as $60 U.S. That's a lot cheaper than 3,000 bottles of water!

Sightseeing
The best money-saving device is also the least advertised. City passes are tourism cards that provide discounted and free entry into a city's museums and activities, as well as provide free public transportation and discounts on some restaurants and shopping. One of the popular brands to offer these in North America is CityPASS. In Paris, the museum pass saved me $80 U.S. In London, I saved more than $100; in Oslo, $30.

The bottom line
As you can see, it doesn't take much to lower the cost of a trip. Just like getting rich slowly is about smart investing, savings and reducing unnecessary expenses, so too is making travel a reality by getting out of the normal paradigm of “go to Expedia, book a trip, and eat at fancy restaurants.”

By thinking outside of the box when you travel, you can drastically cut your holiday expenses while enjoying a much more authentic experience. I know we all want a break from the routine of life and a little pampering when we're on vacation. There's nothing wrong with that; it's something I like too. But a memorable trip doesn't have to be expensive!

More about...Budgeting, Travel

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
40 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
7 years ago

This is great information! I usually try to find places to stay that have a kitchen so that we can cook some meals to defray the cost of eating all of our meals out. I’ll have to look into the options for accommodations that you mention.

The train part is new to me since here in the US, train travel is not that common.

Jen@wanderoneday.com
7 years ago

One of the good things about a site like airbnb is that you can get a kitchen and other amenities included in the price. My mom and I are going to Europe this summer and when we are in Krakow, we are renting a full apartment with a kitchen and a washing machine, so we can pack fewer clothes for our trip as well.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

All great tips! I did some research a while back on hostels and was really impressed with the variety out there. I’m long past wanted to share a room, but many hostels have private rooms for singles, couples and families. There are some cool places to sleep too, like lighthouses, castles, tree houses, etc. (There’s even one in Ottawa that used to be a jail.) Some of my friends prefer to “live a little better than they do at home” when they go on vacation — especially the women because getting a break from the cooking and cleaning is part… Read more »

Meaghan
Meaghan
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

“especially the women because getting a break from the cooking and cleaning is part of the fun!”

*wince*

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Meaghan

I know a lot of stay at home moms with young kids. Don’t get me wrong, they love camping or renting a cottage or vacation rental. It’s just that they still end up doing the cooking, cleaning, planning and chores — just in a different place. (The division of labour doesn’t change all that much just because it’s a vacation.) They’ve said they really appreciate a hotel or resort once in a while because they get more time to relax and spend time with their loved ones. To be fair, I don’t know if the stay at home dads I… Read more »

Cat
Cat
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Elizabeth – I think you’re right! I stayed at a hostel in Mallorca, and it was just like a hotel! Well, not really, but I had a private room 🙂

So we didn’t get food/breakfast and we had to pay for the internet and no one came in to tidy up the room, but it had a lock on the door and it was private. Totally worth the savings.

When I’m in Hawaii in a few weeks, when all my other travel plans fail I am going to stay at a hostel in Waikiki.

Vanessa
Vanessa
7 years ago

Is J.D. back? I hope so.

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago

A city pass only “saves money” if you would have gone to all those museums and activities (read: expensive tourist traps) anyway. The best museums in London are all free.

(Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go to the expensive ones if you want to – just that that recommendation seemed to clash with the rest of the post about doing everything cheap cheap cheap.)

Nomadic Matt
Nomadic Matt
7 years ago
Reply to  Johanna

Not all museums and activities are “tourist traps.” The Louvre has tons of tourists but are you really going to skip it? Probably not!

But yes, you need to plan your trip accordingly so you can make sure the pass saves money!

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago
Reply to  Nomadic Matt

Speak for yourself, Nomadic Matt. I’ve been to the Louvre – my friend insisted that we go – but I’d just as well have skipped it. We saw the Mona Lisa – or rather, the top half of it, from 50 feet away, over a crowd of tourists. It looks exactly like all the pictures of it. I don’t feel that my life is significantly better for the experience. Again, if famous museums are your thing, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the mindset that if you’re in X city you MUST block out time for Y, Z, P, D,… Read more »

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

While it’s harder for short trips, in the past we’ve rented furnished apartments or guest houses if we’re going to stay somewhere for a month or so. Definitely brings down the cost per day of traveling without giving up privacy or a kitchen.

Jane
Jane
7 years ago

Disclaimer: I’ve traveled and lived abroad, so I’m not necessarily knocking it but rather pointing out contradictions. I’m intrigued by how travel consumption appears to be entirely acceptable in personal finance circles. Perhaps it is because you don’t necessarily accumulate things but rather experiences? But regardless, it is a form of consumption, and while I know this isn’t an environmental blog, it is a form of consumption that has a heavy environmental cost. I’m also interested in the quality vs. quantity aspect of it. If I were to say here, sorry, I would rather travel to Paris once a decade… Read more »

Julie
Julie
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I don’t think the pot analogy works here. One pot certainly could last a lifetime, but most of us who cook at home require far more than one pot. Similarly, traveling less frequently as you described restricts one to less trips/geographic areas vs. traveling on the cheap and being able to afford to go to maybe Paris one year, and South America the next. Those would obviously be very different experiences.

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  Julie

I agree, Julie. Analogies more often than not break down when analyzed more closely. This is why I said you can’t really equate experiences with things. But the point still holds that those in the personal finance community tend to discuss quality and quantity very differently when talking about travel. I think this is because they don’t consider travel a form of consumption but rather personal enrichment. This not so subtle bias leads them to inherent contradictions. And your point about going to different places every time brings up another aspect of quantity vs. quality. Would the analogy hold up… Read more »

Julie
Julie
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I see what you’re saying in respect to travel and consumption. But I think one could say the same for having children. I don’t think anyone would argue that having kids does not cost a substantial amount over a lifetime. It certainly isn’t necessary as the world population numbers are through the roof, it most certainly contributes to one’s consumption and has environmental implications. Not trying to start an argument, but curious to know your thoughts. But like you said, analogous situations don’t often translate well.

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Interesting parallel, although I think the environmental costs of children are not necessarily overblown but rather misplaced. If we take that logic to its extreme, perhaps we should all neuter ourselves and let the world revert back to its natural state. Plus this parallel frames the existence of another human being as another life choice akin to the personal enrichment one gets from travel. Some people think that, but I find it problematic. Debates about overpopulation are a minefield, though, and I usually keep my opinions to myself. But you are certainly right about the financial costs of children. I… Read more »

Julie
Julie
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

We have clearly gone more deeply than the author probably intended!! I probably shouldn’t have brought up reproducing bc I certainly didn’t want to imply that one might chose between travel or having kids in the same breath, but rather that they can both be a large chunk of one’s financial budget.
I am surprised to read here and on other financial/frugality blogs about travel, and the accompanying justifications for it. Now I travel frequently and I certainly enjoy it, but despite how much of little I budget for it I still consider it somewhat indulgent.

Sheryl
Sheryl
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I feel like with this sort of advise it’s partly with the expectation that the frequent travel will all be to different places – instead of three trips to Paris, compare that to trips to Paris, London and Rome. The key for me is that there’s not a one-size fits all approach to travel. Even for the same person travelling, the same travel style may not make sense for different vacations. For example, if the purpose of the vacation is to get away and spend some time on a tropical beach the best and least expensive solution may be a… Read more »

Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Great comment Jane! It reminds me of a blog post by “lacking ambition” where he talks about the acceptance of spending money on travel or experiences in the PF community.

His point is that it seems many people agree that having too much stuff is bad, so they simply redirect those funds to travel, amusement parks, and the like.

Personally, I do value travel but now that we are working so hard to save for early retirement we’re being much more choosey about it.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I would like to read that post! Do you have a link, by any chance? Having worked in hospitality and lived in an area where tourism is a big part of the economy, I’ve see just how much energy, money and other resources go into the travel industry– not to mention all the waste. IMHO, we can’t say “think of the environmental and financial impact our consumption of Stuff has!” without also considering the impact of the experiences we spend on. In some parts of the world where resources like water and energy aren’t as plentiful as they are in… Read more »

Cat
Cat
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Think about all those little shampoo bottles that the hotels don’t recycle 🙁

Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
Phoebe @ www.allyouneedisenough.com
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth
Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

@Phoebe — thanks for the link! I liked the point he made about being manipulated by marketers, regardless of what you’re spending on. @Cat — I know some former housekeepers — the waste in hotels is incredible! It isn’t just garbage, it’s the energy and water too. People leave the lights and TV on, require fresh towels and fresh sheets everyday for a multi-night stay, throw out food and water bottles, etc. It’s easy to tell ourselves “it’s okay because I only do this once and a while and I’m paying for it anyway” — but to a hotel, the… Read more »

HKR
HKR
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Jane, I agree with you about quality over quantity, and I enjoyed reading your discussion with Julie. Although you both did a great job of articulating the logic of why differing standards for things vs experiences does or doesn’t make sense, I think an important point was missed. I think that on different levels, we all realize that we can’t take Things with us when we leave this world. Operating under the belief-or the hope- that our souls live on beyond the confines of the body, we can take memories and the love of friends, family and children with us.… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
7 years ago

These are all great tips! I love your website and read it everyday! 🙂

Prabhakar M N (Satan Infernous)
Prabhakar M N (Satan Infernous)
7 years ago

Use couchsurfing!

Ed
Ed
7 years ago

Wow, awesome advice. Time to renew my passport.

Cat
Cat
7 years ago

I love this post! I have to agree with Matt that traveling is not really that expensive. The one thing that worries me though, is it doesn’t cost nothing, so eventually, unless you have a job, you’re going to run out of money. So for me, it’s still daunting. I left my job and booked a one way to Hawaii (counting down the days till the 26th!!!) so I know that I will have to find some work. Yes, I can live for cheap, practically for nothing! I know people there, I eat really inexpensive fruits and veggies and don’t… Read more »

mike
mike
7 years ago
Reply to  Cat

Have fun!

Cat
Cat
7 years ago
Reply to  mike

Thanks Mike! I will!

mitigateddisaster
mitigateddisaster
7 years ago
Reply to  Cat

have an amazing time! I’m jealous! a one way ticket to Hawai’i sounds like a dream… (that my family does not share)

Cat
Cat
7 years ago

My family doesn’t share the enthusiasm either. In fact I got a lot of debbie-downer comments and now I’m starting to get a little apprehensive ::start freak-out now::

So it will certainly be interesting. Hopefully it will make for some good blog posts too 🙂

Anne
Anne
7 years ago

As a frequent frugal traveler I quite liked this post and use many of the tips.

However, I was stunned when the author quoted round trip airfare and two weeks in Paris at an *expensive* $1500. Whaaaaaat?

That seemed dirt cheap to me.

Katie
Katie
7 years ago
Reply to  Anne

Agreed! I’m an avid traveler, having lived and worked in France for a couple of years in my early twenties. My husband and I are booking a trip to Europe (Krakow, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris) for this June. We’ve been scouting round-trip tickets from Chicago over the last few months, and will likely buy soon, and I’ve yet to see any round-trip tickets for less than $1100. Granted, the summer is more expensive, but even in my 2006-2009 stint living in France, I never had a flight lower than $900 round trip. Factor in eating, lodging, and transit- even at… Read more »

Nick @ ayoungpro.com
Nick @ ayoungpro.com
7 years ago

Great tips. I am traveling to NYC in May and I can attest to the fact that flexible dates really help. I saved $500 on my tickets by traveling a week earlier then planned (planned date was near memorial day).

Peter Parkorr
Peter Parkorr
7 years ago

All sound advice Matt! It sounds like a lot written down, but is really easy small changes that become habit after a couple of times, and improves the authenticity of trips too.

Susan @ Travel Junkette
Susan @ Travel Junkette
7 years ago

As always, great advice, Matt!

Daniel
Daniel
7 years ago

I think it’s funny you mention Singapore in your post as I think it’s a good example of how this kind of advice is never universal. Having lived for a year in Singapore my experience was that it was one of the few places I visited where cooking on your own is almost as expensive if not more so than eating out. I found it amazing how I could get a warm and delicous meal for 2-3$ in any hakwer centre while trying to cook a meal on the double of the price. Of course the other thing in Singapore… Read more »

MoneyStreetSmart
MoneyStreetSmart
7 years ago
Reply to  Daniel

Daniel- good points. I love SE Asia and can’t wait to go back. While some first timers may be skeptical of the street food- it is amazing! For Westerners, some ingredients may be new to your body and you may be sensitive to it, go all out and explore all of the different tastes and flavours. Definitely one of my favorite parts of travelling. Cut down on food costs (which is a large part of travel) and eat local!

BOD
BOD
7 years ago

This is hardly thinking outside of the box. This is just do the same things but slightly cheaper.

Out of the box would be working on a merchant ship instead of flying, doing a houseswap, WWOOFing or travelling for a year (much cheaper than a year’s worth of holiday).

shares