How to travel on the cheap: Saving money while seeing the world

Cheap travel is still possible if you do it right. Image: Bob al-Greene/mashable By Andy Moser2020-02-21 15:37:04 UTC Traveling isn't just about the destination. Carry On is our series devoted to how we get away in the digital age, from the...

How to travel on the cheap: Saving money while seeing the world
Cheap travel is still possible if you do it right.
Cheap travel is still possible if you do it right.
Image: Bob al-Greene/mashable
Traveling isn't just about the destination. Carry On is our series devoted to how we get away in the digital age, from the choices we make to the experiences we share.

As humans, we tend to hate it when things cost money, especially when those things make us happy.

Travel is one of the things we do to conjure a sense of fun and discovery. It also happens to be insanely expensive. But being on a budget shouldn't exclude you from the joy of visiting new places, so we did our best to figure out some tips and tricks to help you get to and enjoy your dream destination as cheaply as possible. From online tools, to packing tips, to other pieces of general knowledge, here are a few ways you travel while keeping your expenses down.

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Plan your trip, consider your costs

Think about what you want to do on your trip. What's important? What's not? Once you have your priorities in front of you, it's easier to decide where you want to spend your money, which also helps you decide where you want to save it. Do you want to spend extra on a nicer/more convenient flight? Or would you rather spend that money on an activity or excursion?

Join a travel rewards program

Rack up those miles! Credit card companies are making the shift to awards based on how much money you spend instead of how many miles you travel. You're gonna use your credit card anyway. You might as well get some well-earned miles on it for that dream vacation of yours.

Find the lowest airfare — Use aggregators

Hotel/airfare aggregators like Expedia and Travelocity do the work of finding the best deals for you. All you have to do is type in a few details (where you're going, when you're going, etc.) and the site will comb through various companies' prices to show you your cheapest options for hotel prices, airfare, and/or both. Your best option may not always be the most convenient one, so be prepared to be flexible in your decision-making. The goal is to reduce cost, after all. But just because you're not staying in the world's fanciest hotel or flying first class on the most prestigious airline doesn't mean you can't still visit your dream country. Also consider whether you even have to fly to get to where you want to go. If you're not going far, driving will likely be cheaper.

When you're looking for flights, it might actually help to browse privately by using an incognito window, which could help you avoid price increases tied to users' browsing sessions. 

Another tip: Don't wait around for prices to drop, because they likely won't. If you see a deal you think is good enough, you'll probably want to go ahead and grab it. 

One final thing about aggregators: It's important to be flexible with your options. It's not uncommon for aggregators to offer last-minute pricing and deals on flights and hotels. If you're flexible, you can take advantage of some of those offers.

Consider cheap destinations

We know everybody wants to go to Paris. Or Tokyo. Or Rome. Or all the other places everyone dreams of seeing. But if you're trying to save money, and you just want to scratch that itch to travel, try to find some cheaper destinations that maybe don't get advertised as much but will still give you more bang for your buck. (Ever been to the beautiful beaches of Thailand, for example?)

Timing is everything — Traveling off-peak to save money

When it comes to traveling costs, the when is often more important than the where. Think about when most people will be traveling. Spring Break. Winter holidays. Summer vacation. Depending on where you're going, you'll probably find it's cheaper to travel there off-peak. 

If you're someone who's always want to go to New York City, beware the holiday travel season. Better to wait until after the New Year to see the Big Apple.  The crowds will be smaller, too. Looking to get to the Caribbean? September and October are the thick of the hurricane season, and rates will typically be cheaper. Just keep be sure to keep checking the weather during the lead-up to your trip, and consider travel insurance that would cover such a situation.

Consider other housing arrangements

Don't forget there are other ways to visit a city without staying in a hotel. You could stay in a hostel, or crash on somebody's couch. There are sites for that, too. And you've probably heard of sites like Airbnb and VRBO. And to state the obvious, if you have a friend or relative in the place you want to visit, stay with them! You can't pass up free lodging. 

If possible, rent your space while you're gone

It's obviously easier to save money when you have more of it to save. One way to try and offset some vacation costs is to rent out your space while you're away. If you're in a place that allows it, use Airbnb to make some extra dollars while you travel.

Unplug — Limit your cell phone data usage

We know it's tempting to stay plugged in when you're in a foreign place, but when you consider what you can save by unplugging, the benefits may outweigh the costs, literally. Your phone is home to a variety of resources to help you navigate an environment you know nothing about, but if you need to use cellular data or WiFi in order to access them, it'll be cheaper to get around the old-fashioned way. 

Before you go, make sure you can read and understand a map of the place you're headed to. Resist the urge to tweet about what you're doing, as cool as it may be. You'll have plenty of time to post about it after you get back home. Same goes for Insta. Take plenty of photos! But wait to post them. If you don't have unlimited data or WiFi, it's not worth it. We're not saying "don't take your phone." It's good to have it in case you need to call someone or if you're in some sort of emergency. Only using it for the basics, however, may just save you enough money to take that well-earned vacay.

Choose your tourist traps carefully 

If you're going to Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower. If you're going to Rome, you see the Colosseum. If you're going to New York, you see the Statue of Liberty. Maybe! Every destination has its tourist traps, which aren't necessarily "traps" but still garner the most attention and, sometimes, cost the most money. So be stingy about the things you want to pay money to see while you're away. Maybe limit yourself to one or two big tours, excursions, or major sightseeing opportunities. Part of the magic of traveling is immersing yourself in a foreign culture and learning about how people live their everyday lives in places you've never been to. Of course it's cool to check off a few big-ticket items from your bucket list, but simply going out and experiencing the simple pleasures of a foreign country is a great way to save money without sacrificing cultural enrichment. 

Pack lightly

You've probably heard it before, but it really does help. The less stuff you bring, the less space you need to keep it. That could mean a smaller suitcase, or a smaller hotel room — both of which save you some money. Also, (for flyers) if you can manage to fit everything you need into one carry-on bag, that means you don't have to spend the money to check your luggage. That also means the fewer bags you have, the less you have to spend on space to keep them. Simple math.

A few quick packing tips:

  • Pack bulky items like jackets and shoes first.

  • Roll your clothes instead of folding them.

  • Fold socks and put them in the shoes you packed. Don't wanna waste that space.

There plenty of other ways to pack a suitcase efficiently, which you can find here.

Limit your stay

Speaking of simple math, one way to keep costs down is by traveling for short periods of time. The longer you stay somewhere, the more you have to spend on, well, pretty much everything. Lodging. Food. Taxis, buses, or any way to get around that isn't by foot. Instead of taking that two-week vacation, think about scheduling that trip for a long weekend. If you work and get paid by the hour, that also limits the amount of money you miss out on by taking extended time off, which, by nature, means you're gaining money you wouldn't have otherwise because you're working more. Consider just how much time you need to do all the things you really want to do. Take only as much time as you need, and you'll find yourself holding onto a lot more cash than you would have if you booked that extended stay.

Image: sippakorn / shutterstock

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