Do you want to really get a great travel deal? The kind of bargain you’ll talk about for 10 years? The kind of deal that is so great that when you tell a cocktail party couple what you paid, one person’s jaw drops and the other starts choking on their drink in disbelief?

I can get you a deal like that.

But I’m not going to ask you to buy anything, sign up for anything, or join some secret club. Anyone trying to sell you insider secrets that will unlock the hidden bargains is probably not to be trusted. There are no secrets anymore.

But there is a formula. It looks something like this: 6v – 0v = 10,000

That won’t hold up in algebra class, so don’t try to solve it. It’s really symbolizing a travel truth: 6 variables – 0 variables equals 10,000 possibilities. More than that in many cases, but let’s pick a number. Here’s the illustration of this truth.

travel variables

Whether they have expressly thought about it or not, this truth is what guides those travelers who always seem to find the cheap vacations, the fantastic deals, and the experience of backpacking around the world for a year. Often by trial and error, they’ve stumbled upon the way to get “lucky.” The more travel variables you leave open, the less you are going to pay.

Now let’s look at why I can barely help most infrequent travelers who ask me for advice on how to score better travel deals. After a little prodding, it usually ends up that they’ve already decided they’re going to fly to x place during y time period and are staying at hotel z they read about somewhere. They think, however, that there’s some secret I can tell them that will miraculously shave half off their trip cost, even though they barely have any variables left to work with. If they had a chart it would look more like this, with what’s already been decided grayed out:

traveling variables

Those two visual representations aren’t really even accurate though because not all travel variables are created equal. The 40 decisions they may have left are just fringe around the edge of the budget.

Most of the time, your destination will have an outsized effect on the budget because that will impact the cost of everything else on the list. If you can be flexible on one thing, make it that. If you’re flying to an international destination for a week or two vacation, airfare may be the biggest tangible budget line item. If you’re going domestic or not very far, then the lodging probably will be. Leaving what you’re going to have for dinner open will have a relatively small impact in comparison.

travel costs

You could revamp this quite a bit though depending on your particular situation. If you’re going skiing for a week, the “what you do” part will be a bigger expense and you could maybe cut that cost in half (and lodging too) by picking a smaller ski resort with better package deals. If you’re going from New York to New Zealand, airfare is going to be expensive no matter when you go. It’s just a matter of how much it’s going to hurt.

If you’re a long-term backpacker, a day at Petra is going to wreck the budget for days, whereas changing hotels to a worse one might only save you $2. If you are traveling through Southeast Asia overland, moving slowly will cost far less than staying in a different spot every night or two because transportation becomes a disproportionally high expense for backpackers taking a bus or train several times a week. Part of the reason multi-country Africa travel seems more expensive than it should be is because the vast distances are often best traversed by plane.

They key is to recognize these variables and leave as many as you can open—especially the ones that will have the biggest impact.

“I want to go to Paris the third week of July and then do wine tastings around Bordeaux” is going to be expensive, no matter how emphatically you say, “but I don’t mind staying in simple hotels.” Contrarian Traveler

“I’m thinking of heading to Central or South America sometime late this year and I’ll figure out an itinerary after we check flight prices” is a whole different story. If you’re that second person, let’s grab a beer because I’ve got lots of advice for you.

Or, if you’re an inexperienced traveler and want to learn more about this strategy in detail, I’ve got just the book for you, full of evergreen advice on this topic. Click on that cover to see it on Amazon.