My family and I are lucky enough to travel quite extensively for my job. However, we travel just as often on our own dime, and when we do, we’re always on a budget (travel writer’s salary…hello!). Need to save money on travel as well? What I’ve learned: it’s possible to travel further and longer than you’d think on a modest travel budget.
There are a few well-documented travel ‘secrets’ everyone knows will save money. You can travel in the low season, use air miles, or book last minute deals. But what if you have school-aged kids and can’t travel during the school year, or don’t have the ability of rack up airline miles for elite status? Most likely, you can’t see a great travel deal one minute and have your bags packed the next.
Good news: it’s still absolutely possible to save money on your trip. Our #1 secret weapon to saving money on travel every time can be summed up in two words: plan ahead.
With planning, it’s easy to save money no matter when you travel, who you travel with, and where you travel. Here’s how to put pre-trip planning into practice for real-life savings:
1. Plan on finding alternative destinations.
When we decided to travel to Europe, we planned to included Switzerland in our itinerary after five days in France. After making a list of attributes we were looking for in our destination, including scenic cityscapes, castles, and a wintry, festive atmosphere (during the Christmas holiday), we were surprised to learn that Belgium fit our criteria as well as Switzerland. Since the cost of living (and vacationing) is much lower in Belgium, we placed the medieval town of Ghent on our itinerary.
2. Plan your lodging strategically.
Most of the time, the savings are overwhelmingly found in vacation rentals and apartments, not hotel rooms. Flats and homes rented through AirBnb, HomeAway, and similar companies afford families with much-needed space and amenities like kitchens and laundry facilities that save money during the course of the vacation. However, be sure to take location into account. If your apartment rental is a long distance from the attractions you’ll be touring during your stay, you may spend more money on gas, toll roads or bridges, parking, or meals out during your vacation. Sometimes, accommodations within easy walking distance of attractions can equal better savings, even if they start with a higher price tag.
3. Plan your airfare carefully.
For the best savings, plan to buy airfare six months before an international trip and 2-3 months before a domestic trip. We recommend using an airfare search engine such as AirfareWatchdog.com or SkyScanner.com to compare prices, then to go directly to the provider’s website (instead of a third-party booking site) to book tickets, when possible. Doing so will ensure you receive the best possible customer service. Customers who booked directly through the airline were treated to quick rerouting and upgrades long before I was taken care of. Customers booking through third party websites are third class citizens in the eyes of the airlines…save yourself some anguish (and extra money for food and lodging) by booking directly when possible.
4. Plan to deal with discount airline policies.
I book discount airlines, such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet in Europe and Allegiant in the US, and I save lots of money this way. We recently took a flight from Rome to Paris for 35 euros each. However, I make sure I know the airline’s policies inside and out. Unlike standard airlines, discount airlines often charge for carry-on bags, and almost all have rules about checking in online and printing boarding passes. For example, there’s a fee for printing boarding passes at the airport when flying Ryan Air, and Allegiant and Frontier now charge even for water onboard. As long as you study the rules ahead of time, you’ll be in good shape, but let one sneak by you, and you may be looking at a hefty charge.
Also keep in mind that many discount airlines abroad use regional or outlying airports instead of major hubs. What does that matter to you? You may need to pay to transport yourself and your family from your accommodations in a city center to the airport for a significant sum. For example, when we flew from Paris to Pisa on Ryan Air, we needed to pay $125 for an airport shuttle. Even with this fee added in, we still saved money not flying a major airline.
5. Plan when you’ll go.
After where you go and where you stay, when you go to a destination is the biggest factor in savings. If you’re tied to a school schedule, fear not: you may be surprised to learn that in many destinations, spring break and winter holiday travel is actually off-season. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: theme park travel will also peak in spring and summer, and ski travel will also be busiest during school break periods in winter. However, think outside the box, and you may end up with a fantastic and cheap vacation during Christmas week or Easter. Head to cities during these time periods or to national parks. During summer break, skip the beaches and theme parks and head to a desert location, the tropics, or a ski resort for summery mountain fun.
6. Plan to purchase what you can ahead of time.
We always purchase city passes, museum and attraction passes, and metro tickets ahead of time. Not only does doing so save a few dollars, but it breaks up the cost of the trip and saves time once at the destination. For instance, with a Chicago CityPass, families can bypass the majority of the long line to the top of former-Sears tower, saving hours. Ditto for museum and aquarium visits in cities across the US. When we bought Paris Museum Passes before our trip, we skipped long lines in every Paris attraction we visited. Time is money!
Do you have budget travel tips? How do you save money on travel?