People ask me all this question all the time: How do you do it? How do you travel? Isn't it expensive? For many years, I thought the same thing. Then I learned how to hack the travel system. The truth is, with careful planning and the following hacks, travel is possible no matter what your budget. You must know how and when to buy for the best deals. So without further ado, here are my favorite hacks:
1. Take Advantage of Flash Sales
Usually around January, airlines start promoting travel flash sales. I sign up with Travelzoo, Airfarewatchdog, and individual airline carrier promotional emails so I can stay alert on upcoming deals. I'm talking emails that say "This is not a misprint- $300 to Tokyo". Airlines need to fill their aircraft, so these kind of deals can happen. In fact, I found my Iceland deal this way, and the fare was cheaper than a LAX>SFO trip. Flash sales don't last long, so act on them soon or they are gone. Also, make sure to read any fine print. Double check your dates, additional costs like taxes, and departing airports to make sure it all jives. So yes, you can really travel to interesting cities for less than a week's worth of lattes.
Example of a real email:
Sign up for credit cards and loyalty cards that give you perks with hotels and airlines. The Hyatt card grants you 2 free nights at a Hyatt when you meet their requirements. The Southwest card allows you to turn your spending into free travel. Check The Points Guy for more examples.
Aside from credit cards, use your Student ID, AARP card, Military card, AAA card, etc. These can give you significant savings at museums and stores while abroad.
3. Use Alternatives For Hotels
The biggest expense outside of airfare is lodging, but it doesn't have to be. If you stay at a hotel, book early. As an alternative, try budget hotels, hostels, couchsurfing, and AirBnB which can be cheaper. As you travel, make friends so you can possibly stay with them and visa-versa. Weigh the distance of your accommodation to the city with the price. If it's too far from the city, you may spend more on transit and be better off staying in the city center.
4. Travel Off Season
You don't need to take "summer" vacation in summer. You will get the cheapest airfare when you go to a place during its off season. I'm talking Bali during rainy season, Hawaii in winter, Italy in December. Guess when everyone is not in Hawaii? January! Hence cheap hotels and airfare. It's half the cost for the same beautiful place, only with less people and a chance of showers.
5. Use Alternatives to Taxis
Taxis will be your next biggest expense. So don't take them! Take public transit, walk, or use car sharing services. Uberpool is a great option because you split the fare with other riders. Weigh how much you will need transit and see if renting a car is cheaper.
6. Accumulate Airline/Hotel Points
I have one particular airline that I travel with all the time. I make a lot of sacrifices to travel this carrier, but it's worth it because I get points and am able to use the lounge (ahem, free food/beverages). Those points translate to free airplane rides and upgrades. If you stick with one hotel/airline you will get more perks. When it comes to hotels, make sure you book one with free breakfast and wifi.
7. Cut food expenses
First off, don't eat at tourist restaurants. Ask locals (not the concierge) for restaurant recommendations. Check out TripAdvisor which is always a great resource. Also, instead of dining out, check out the local supermarkets. Some countries have convenient stores with yummy take-away food.
Another great way to save on food is by enjoying the "free" food at the airport lounge (another reason to gather points), or at your hotel membership lounge. I stay at one particular hotel, which has a lounge stocked with "free" food and beverages which I take advantage of throughout my trip.
8. Enjoy "free" things.
Free walking tours (like the one I took in Munich - shown above), free museum days, free hikes, parks, observation decks can be found in almost every city. See if the city has free events or parades while you are in town. Sometimes you might be in luck. In Oaxaca and Cuzco, I stumbled upon a wedding parade and soccer festival. These events are a great way to experience the culture.
9. Consider Alternatives to Tours
English speaking tours can run you a bill in some countries. One way to get around that is by taking tours in the most common language. For example, I took the Spanish speaking tour in Mexico which was about 1/10 the price of the English speaking tour. The price for the English speaking tour was expensive because demand was very low (we were some of the only English speakers there). The Spanish speaking tour gave me a chance to practice my Spanish and also learn from the domestic traveler's point of view. Plus, I used the tour as my transportation.
Another alternative is to do DIY tours. Try downloading a city guide from GPSmyCity and do your own walking tour, like this one in Havana. Since it's downloaded to your phone, it works without a data plan. Chances are, people have been to the city before there are great guides already out there!
10. Don't go to extremely expensive places
There are those places that are notorious for being expensive. Some examples: SF, NYC, Norway, Switzerland. The prices will make you scream (see above). For example, average AirBnB's in San Francisco will run you over $250 per night. If you go to these places, know that your budget will be destroyed. Try commuting into these places from nearby towns, do a day trip, go off season, or stay with friends instead.
11. Take red eye flights
You might not like this one, but it will save you money. Save yourself one hotel night and sleep on the plane. Late night flights are often cheaper. Of course, bring these essentials to make the trip more comfortable. Then wake up in a new city and hit ground running. Make sure the accommodation and public transit is available when you get there because otherwise you could negate your savings.
12. Use Air Travel Aggregators
Sites like Skyscanner help you see which days, times, airports, and destinations are cheapest. The key is to be flexible and sign up for email alerts. For example, if you want to go to LAX>CDG, it may be cheaper to book one way flights, or to take connecting flights, or perhaps fly into another airport entirely. See if other lesser known airports can get you there cheaper. Look at the monthly schedule for the airline and see which day/time is cheapest. If you are flexible on destinations, search by destination on Google Flights to see which location is cheapest.
13. Use budget airlines (with caution)
Norwegian got me to Europe for about $400. That's less than most domestic flights. Other carriers with cheap fares include WOW airlines, Air Asia, Southwest, Volaris etc. Make sure you follow their baggage restrictions because they will charge you (as spoken from experience). Also, know that they probably won't give you a meal, so bring food. With these airlines, you get what you pay for. I have had a mixed bag of experiences with budget airlines. One particular budget airline hit me up with so many baggage costs that it negated my savings. My conclusion is to proceed with caution - you may be better off with your usual carrier and generating rewards points.
14. Do Day Trips
How can you cut out one of the biggest expenses of travel (ahem, hotels)? Do a day trip! For example, if you live within a one hour flight from a place, consider flying in for the day and returning that evening rather than staying for the entire weekend. This can pay off for those expensive cities I mentioned above, like SF and NYC.
15. Use layovers to your advantage
You won't believe this, but many airlines have free (yes, really free) layover city tours for airport travelers. This can enable you to see a new country or city without spending a dime. Check Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Eva Air for more info! Tourism boards also sometimes have tour programs to showcase their city (like Taiwan for example). Before visiting a city, google search to see if there are any of these programs in the place you are visiting.
I hope these hacks helped show you that travel is possible. There are so many more ways to save, hack and budget. Comment below on your favorite travel saving hacks.
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