Ed Note: Summer is over. Bummer — but now we have autumn trips and holiday travel to plan! Not sure how to start mapping out your budget-friendly jaunt? Tim Leffel has written four books on the subject, and talks budget travel year-round on his award-winning Cheapest Destinations blog. He joins us on Block Talk today to share some of his best tips for saving big money on every trip. Enjoy!
Some people always take terrific vacations without breaking the bank, while others pay top dollar every time and think travel has to be expensive. The difference usually boils down to how the two camps have managed their variables.
For most trips, these five factors determine the price you pay:
1) Where you go
2) When you go
3) How you get there
4) Where you stay
5) What you spend on food, activities, and transportation on the ground
The more of these factors you have to work with, the more you can lower your travel costs.
Here are some surefire ways to bring down the cost of a vacation, each touching on a factor that can cut a big chunk of the total cost.
Pick a Cheaper Place
Most people plan their vacation by picking the place and then trying to figure out how to reduce the sting once they start looking at prices. If you start out looking at the best values and going from there, your task is much easier. I’ve detailed 21 of the best values on five continents in The World’s Cheapest Destinations book, with those being as close as Guatemala and as far as Indonesia. In these bargain-priced spots, $2 museum admissions, $3 meals, $4 taxi rides, and $40 hotels are the norm, not the exception.
You’ll be lucky to get by paying less than $80 for dinner for two in Rome, and that’s if you order carefully and don’t drink much wine. In Budapest or Sofia you’d have to try really hard to spend that much: the nice three-course restaurant meals I had in those two cities earlier this year seldom topped $40 for two if we ordered a bottle of wine or a few drinks.
You can go cheaper on the home front as well though, just by going to a smaller town or mid-sized city. Music City is half the cost of the Big Apple all around. Asheville or Austin’s hotel prices are half that of San Francisco’s.
Time It Right
Almost every destination has a high season and a low season, with flight and hotel prices sometimes varying by 100% or more. Low season is often low for a reason: pouring rain or freezing cold perhaps. If you can hit “shoulder season, “ however, you’ll still get nice weather but won’t pay top dollar. Think Europe in the early spring or late fall, Disney on a weekday when school is in session, the Caribbean in November or May, South America in July or August (their ski season, by the way).
Days of the week can matter too, not just for flights (see the next section), but for hotels as well. Business hotels in city centers are half empty on weekends, but resorts that pull lots of guests from the region are half empty weekdays. In Washington D.C., for example, a weekend search on Hotwire turns up hotels in central locations for $73 to $110. Do the same search for mid-week, however, and rates for the same hotels are $120 to $205.
Deals will always be available if you can buck the crowd and hit the low occupancy times.
Look at All the Airfare Options
You can’t rely on one booking site to give you all the options for a flight. Some airlines are not listed on them at all and some don’t list multi-airline options for those that are. Spend some time checking the sites for others such as Southwest and Allegiant, plus use the flexible date options some sites give you to find the optimal day to travel. Sometimes going forward or back one day can chop $100 or more off the price.
Also, don’t forget to include alternate airports. New York has three close to Manhattan; South Florida has three connected by commuter rail. The Tampa/Orlando area has three options if you’ll be renting a car. I routinely save $100 or more, even after baggage fees, by flying Allegiant from Clearwater/St. Pete airport instead of a legacy carrier from Tampa’s. I once shaved $220 off a round-trip by leaving from Ft. Lauderdale and returning to Miami.
Also ask the “what if” questions a lot. Can you fly into a gateway city on one airline and then take a smaller budget airline to your final destination? Or a train? How much could you save if you cashed in frequent flier miles? I used 65,000 United miles to go all the way to Southeast Asia and back this summer on Star Alliance partners, for a ticket that would have cost more than $2,000 in economy no matter how I got there.
Try Different Sources for Hotels and Cars
Internationally, it pays to dig deeper for hotel options. Use a guidebook to find non-chain hotels with character, or use a local website run by someone with feet on the ground in the location instead of one of the corporate booking sites you’re used to using. When I traveled for three weeks with my family in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, we stayed in terrific hotels we loved for just $30 to $60 a night by looking beyond the likes of Travelocity and Hotels.com.
For North America, the easiest way to save a huge amount is to use Hotwire or Priceline for hotels and cars. You’re essentially buying inventory that would otherwise not generate revenue, so the price drops are dramatic. Unless you’re set on a certain hotel or car company, you’ll routinely chop 30 to 50% off your rate. That adds up fast.
To save money on restaurants and entertainment, tap into local recommendations. This can be people you meet, social media contacts, or local media sources listing free activities. To avoid paying tourist prices, the best strategy is to act more like a local than a tourist.
For more of Tim’s money-saving travel tips, visit his Cheapest Destinations blog.