Taking a trip doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, lots of people travel for a living! They’ve unlocked the secrets to traveling affordably, and you can too. If you’re smart and flexible, there are lots of ways to cut costs and still have an incredible trip.
Some of these insider tips will even get you a more local, authentic experience for much less than an equivalent touristy offer. I’ve put together some of my best traveling tips, and the advice of a few experts, to make this guide to hacking the travel industry without breaking the bank.
Most people’s first objection to traveling internationally is the cost of a plane ticket. And while flying isn’t cheap, there are a few tricks to finding the lowest prices out there. Last fall, I flew to Paris for $500 round-trip, and I’ve seen that flight drop into the $300s in late January. The key is to be flexible with your dates, and start looking way ahead of time. Flight prices are usually at their lowest sometime between four months and three weeks beforehand. Flying on a weekday will also lower your ticket price, as will traveling at a less popular time of year.
Search for flights on an incognito or private browser, so your search history doesn’t drive up prices. Try setting up search notifications on sites like Hopper, Skyscanner, and Airfare Watchdog, which will send you emails when flight deals to your preferred destination pop up. They also have a fun “Anywhere” destination feature that lets you see the cheapest destinations from your airport.
Don’t Stay in Hotels
No matter where you’re traveling, it’s likely more affordable to rent independently than stay in a hotel. Sites like Airbnb, VRBO, Couchsurfing, and hostel websites are great places to start searching for alternative lodging. In Paris, I booked an adorable, traditional Parisian flat with a lovely view in the 10th arrondissement, or neighborhood, for $100/night. A similar hotel room in that area would run around $300/night. And I actually prefer staying in an Airbnb in most situations, because you get a feel for local life. Stop at a farmer’s market, get some recipe advice from locals, and make use of the kitchen in your rental. For longer stays, consider house-sitting or tutoring to save even more on room and board.
Bonus: If you’re taking a long-haul flight, try to book a red-eye so you save a night’s accommodation.
Make Some of Your Meals
Especially on longer trips, I like to make breakfast and lunch, so I can afford a nicer dinner. Many Western European cities do lunch specials, so going out for lunch and making a market run for dinner could also be the best way to go. Find lodging with a small kitchen so you can make breakfast in your room, rather than racking up an exorbitant room service bill.
Bonus: When you do eat out, avoid restaurants right near main tourist attractions. Just going a block or so over will turn up much better food without the tourist upcharge.
Take Advantage of a City Pass
This is one of the few touristy things I actually recommend. If you plan on seeing a lot of the major sights and museums in a city, see if the city offers a tourist pass that bundles most of the major attractions – and allows you to skip ticket lines! Compare entrance prices for the included attractions you plan to see to the price of the pass – you can save upwards of $100 if you visit several attractions.
Bonus: If you’re under 26 and an EU resident, most museums and educational sites are free with your ID. I noticed that many public museums in Paris also offered a free entrance day, usually on the first Sunday of every month.
Find Free Activities
Most cities in Europe offer free walking tours, guided by a local. It’s a great way to get your bearings and learn a little more about a city than a tourist pamphlet will tell you. I like to start my trip-planning on Pinterest. Searching for articles about free activities in a certain city will turn up lots of fun excursion ideas that I can plan my day around.
One of my favorite activities that is free anywhere is exploring my new neighborhood. Stroll down historic streets, people watch, and discover a hidden restaurant that blows your mind. I save my money for the food.
Visit in the Off Season
Prices for everything from flights, to lodging, to attractions are drastically reduced when it’s not tourist season. I went to Paris in late October, and especially away from the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, I saw very few fellow tourists. Locals are also much friendlier this time of year; I encountered none of the infamous Parisian snobbishness, and many shopkeepers were delighted to help me practice my French.
Stay in Town
Don’t waste time and money traveling into town each day from suburban lodging. While you may pay a little more for a centrally-located Airbnb, you’ll be able to walk or use public transportation, and avoid renting a car. Your neighborhood will be much more interesting, and if you partake in local nightlife, you won’t have to worry about finding late-night transportation home.
Bring a Water Bottle
Airport bottled water is ridiculously upcharged. Bring a reusable water bottle in your carry-on, and fill it up at a water fountain past the TSA checkpoint. I also kept my bottle with me while exploring Paris. In most parts of Europe, it’s hard to find cheap or free water outside of meals, and dehydration is an easy way to compromise your immune system and wind up in a foreign hospital – a real vacation ruiner.
Use Loyalty Programs
Still having trouble affording airfare? Sign up for a couple travel credit cards and accumulate miles. Most cards offer sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points right off the bat. Sign up for both an airline card and a regular travel rewards card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Capital One Venture card, to earn points even faster.
Are you being rewarded for flights you’ve already taken? Most airlines have rewards programs or apps that keep track of your flights and help you rack up award miles to earn free flights. If you still have your ticket number, you can get credit for past flights when you sign up for a rewards account.
Using these savvy frequent-traveler tricks, it is possible to travel internationally without draining your savings account. What’s your dream travel destination? Do you have any cheap travel hacks I didn’t include? Tell me in the comments!