Over the summer I wrote an article for Young Adult Money about How to Afford Travel without using Credit Cards and it includes a pretty epic list of the ways you can both save and earn more money in advance of your travels. In addition, it's important to know how much you plan on spending during your trip. You may think you need $2,500 for a 2-week vacation from the U.S. to Europe, but if you can figure out a way to take the trip for $2,250, you'll have to spend 10% less time and effort saving, which has a big impact. So with that, here are the 5 best ways to save money while traveling:
Before even starting my trip, I like to save money on getting there. The key to saving on flights is being flexible on when and where you're going and committing to 30 minutes of research.
Start your search with Skyscanner and use their “fly everywhere” feature. This allows you to see what cities are cheapest to get to during specific dates or even whole month ranges. Want to get to Europe from Los Angeles in April? You can get to Sweden for $286, but if you want to fly directly to Dublin, Ireland, it will cost you close to $500. Chances are once you're in Sweden you can get to Dublin cheaply by connecting with another airline and as a bonus you'll get to see a bit of Sweden.
Once you've narrowed down your search criteria, cross reference a couple of other flight comparison sites before making your final booking. My go-tos are Kayak and ITA by Google (and Skyscanner). Each search engine uses a different algorithm to find your results and sometimes the price differences can be hundreds of dollars.
A final tip on European travel specifically: If you're planning to visit more than one city during your trip, check out Go Euro to compare the smartest, cheapest, and fastest way to get from city to city. The search engine will compare buses, trains, and flights to tell you the least painful and least expensive way to get point to point.
Alright, so you've booked your flights. The next thing to think about is what type of accommodations you need. When I'm traveling I like to balance staying in amazing accommodations like the 506 On the River Inn and more modest accommodations like hostels and airbnbs. For me, I see no point in perpetually shelling out $100+/night to stay in hit or miss 3-star hotels. So here are the pros and cons of the different types of accommodations:
Airbnb - Airbnbs are fantastic for longer stays with groups of 2+. What I love about Airbnbs is that you and your friends can often book a private home or apartment complete with a kitchen, hangout area, and wifi for as cheap per person as a hostel. If you're traveling with a group, airbnbs are a must.
If you're a solo traveler Airbnb can also be a great alternative to hostels as you can often book a private room in a home for only slightly more than a shared hostel room might cost.
If you're new to airbnb, you can use this link and save $30+ free on your first booking.
Hostels & Couchsurfing - If you're traveling by yourself or with just 1 other person, hostels and Couchsurfing tend to be your best bet. I like using Hostelworld for booking hostels because they have over 30,000 properties listed with millions of reviews, so it's pretty easy to find what you're looking for. If you're up for it, Couchsurfing is also a great way to hop around. Many Couchsurfing hosts are also on airbnb, so you often end up with really great accommodations and a local host who wants to help out budget travelers. I know that staying in a home with a stranger can seem a little nerve wracking, but what I've learned from traveling is that most people are helpful, friendly, and generally good and we shouldn't let the few nightmare stories scare us away.
Hotels, villas, castles, etc. are all going to be your most expensive options. If you insist on staying in a hotel, check out sites like priceline.com where you can name your own price and get great discounts on typically pricey accommodation options.
Avoid Bank Fees
This one is so easy, so lucrative, and so often missed. Most banks charge you a transaction fee of $5+ to withdraw money from a bank outside of their network and most credit cards will charge you a percentage of every transaction while abroad (not to mention credit cards aren't nearly as popular abroad as in the United States, so you might not even be able to use them). This $5 or 3%/credit card transaction adds up quickly. To avoid it, look into opening a free bank account with a bank within the Global ATM Alliance. This will mean no fees to withdraw money!
If you're based in the United States, you can also consider opening an account with Charles Schwab. With a Schwab High Yield Checking Account, you will be reimbursed for every single foreign transaction fee anywhere in the world. This can save you loads throughout your trip.
Finally, never, ever, ever, ever exchange money at the airport! When you arrive in your final destination and need cash, find an ATM and withdraw it there or better yet, exchange some money at your home bank before leaving for the airport. The absolute worst place to exchange money is at one of the sleazy airport money-transfer kiosks. Their rates are always atrocious, so you're basically just giving money away.
Let me start by saying that I love eating at local restaurants when I travel. I really do believe that it's one of the ways you experience the local culture, and let's be honest, it's delicious. That said, if you eat out three times per day throughout your entire vacation, not only are you going to need an exorbitant food budget, but you're also going to need to buy bigger pants.
Just like accommodations, I like to think about food in terms of where I'm going to get the biggest bang for my buck. For example, in Spain, eating out for lunch is the way to go because for 10€ you can get a 3-course meal and a beverage that will keep you full for hours.
However, if your accommodations provide breakfast, eating a large breakfast, snacking for lunch (on grocery store bought snacks), and heading out for dinner might make the most sense. Check out the bomb picnic spot I found in Tarragona.
The strategy will vary country by country, but the key is this: Plan which meals you're dying to eat out and see where you can sneak in picnics, snacking, and “eating like you normally do” for other meals. Not only is this going to save you money on the trip, but also when you get home and decide you don't need to join the gym after all.
This is one more reason why I love airbnb. Typically they come with a kitchen, which makes is super easy to cook for yourself for at least a few meals.
When I travel, I like to create epic city walking tours (like this one in Dublin and this one in Barcelona) that not only allow me to see way more of the city I'm visiting, but also have me exercising and avoiding paying for public transportation and taxis. Now, when needing to explore quickly or travel long distances, public transportation can also be a great way to get around a city, but it pays (literally) to do a little research ahead of time. Throughout Europe many of the trains and busses sell a single ride pass for 2-3 euros and a multi-ride pass for 50%+ cheaper. Some cities even have 1-, 2-, or 3-day metro passes at prices equivalent to 2-3 rides per day. If you're planning to use public transportation, figure out what type of bulk quantities you should purchase before you show up at the train station and have a line forming behind at the ticket kiosk you as you try to calculate the number of metro trips you'll need during your visit.
So, there you have it! The 5 best ways to save money while you're traveling. In case you're looking for a quick summary, here it is:
- Maintain flexibility on your travel dates and destination and do your research using Skyscanner, Kayak, and Google ITA.
- Plan your accommodations based on your group size and what you need to be comfortable.
- Avoid bank fees by finding a local bank with partners in your final location and never exchanging money at the airport.
- Eat the local food, but also go to the grocery store for snacks and picnic supplies.
- Walk when you can, take public transportation when you can't, and only take a taxi when absolutely necessary.
If you want to know exactly how to budget so that you can afford your dream vacation, download my guide to affording travel on any income.
Thanks for hearing me out :)!