Browsing Posts tagged budget travel tips

how to travel more

“I wish I could travel more, but I can’t afford it.”

I haven’t heard this common excuse from a homeless person or someone who has been out of work for years, because then I might believe it. Instead I’ve heard it dozens of times from people who earn more money than I do. Or they have the whole summer off and just stay home.

In either case, what’s holding them back is a misunderstanding of how inexpensive travel can be. Or just not having their priorities straight. Or both. If you want to travel, it’s not hard to find a way. But if it’s #7 on your list behind gadgets, new cars, a bigger house, weekly clothes shopping, a Starbucks addiction, and your three pets then yeah, that makes it harder.

Traveling more doesn’t require winning the lottery, but it does require a little effort and some contrarian thinking if you’re not loaded. Here’s where to start if you’re not ready to chuck everything in storage and become a budget backpacker.

Game the Loyalty Programs: Sign-up Bonuses

If your credit is good enough to get an average credit card, then don’t get an average credit card. Get one that will really reward you in a big way for your spending. I’ve talked before about the Travel Hacking Cartel and how some advice I gleaned from that got me four free international flights in the course of one year. If you don’t want to pay for that though, you can spend some time on various reward-oriented blogs and get the lowdown on which credit cards are currently paying the biggest sign-up rewards.

airline rewards cardIf that’s too much effort, here’s a simple rundown that’s good enough to get started. 1) Get one airline card, preferably for the airline where you already have the most miles or the one you’re probably going to fly on the most over the next year or two. If you live somewhere with lots of competition and won’t use the card internationally, then get one (or more) of the American Airlines ones from Citi. That’s now the best domestic frequent flier program and at the time of writing they’re giving you 50K miles just for signing up and completing the minimum spend. That’s enough miles for an international ticket or two domestic ones.

2) Then get one that’s tied to a hotel chain. You’ll get the best sign-up bonus from the IHG one (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn) from Chase or the Club Carlson (Radisson) one from US Bank. After you get the bonus, you’ll have several free hotel nights. The Amex Starwood one is good too because you can transfer points to some airline programs if needed.

3) Get (or use one that you already have) that allows you to contribute miles to multiple programs and top off your accounts. American Express has the Membership Rewards program, but better bets these days are Chase Sapphire and Barclay Arrival Plus, which have a more useful array of programs and offer more bonus earning opportunites. Also, they don’t levy a foreign transaction fee and they have a chip rather than just a strip—both important factors abroad. I’m not getting a commission from any of these; I just know they’re some of the best options at the time of writing.

Game the Loyalty Systems 2: Leverage Your Spending

Once you have one or more of these cards, unless you’re prone to rack up a balance you should use them for as much of your spending as possible. First of all, every dollar you spend on cable, internet, phone bills, and gas could be putting more points on your balance. Then there are all kinds of bonus earning opportunities from mileage malls, dining programs, and using the card for purchases at that airline or hotel chain. Add up what you spend in a typical year that you could put on a card and it’s probably enough to earn another flight or couple hotel nights.

IHG reward card

On top of all that, there are all kinds of spending discount promotions too. In three different countries I’ve gotten a night at a Holiday Inn where I wanted to go for just 5,000 points because the place was one their “points breaks” listings at a huge discount. I’m likely going from Mexico to Peru and back this spring for just 20,000 airline miles on United (actually flying on Avianca) because of a discounted miles promotion they’re running for United Chase credit card holders.

Be Spontaneous

Sometimes taking advantage of these great deals means doing things in the opposite order of most people. Instead of deciding where to go and then figuring out how to jam that place into your budget, save the destination choice for last. If you can use miles and hotel points in Place D but not in A, B, or C, then go directly to D!

Or use a site that specializes in last-minute deals and just see what pops up. Examples in all budget ranges include LuxuryLink, Groupon Getaways (or your local Groupon/Living Social site for local travel), Jetsetter, Hotwire,, and most of the big online travel agents like Priceline. Or throw it wide open: go to Google Flights, put in your home airport, and see what comes up. If you’re freezing your butt off in Chicago right now, for instance, check this out for round-trip prices on an 8-day trip in January to go warm up:

everywhere flight pricesClick to expand, but here are the highlights: Phoenix less than $200, Florida less than $300, Mexican resort areas and Costa Rica around $400.

You can do something similar with the Skyscanner app if you have that, just putting in hour home airport and picking “anywhere” for the destination. Haven’t heard of the place before? So what. You can learn most everything you need to know about it in one day online, or just buy a guidebook right before you take off and read it on the plane. You’ll probably have a better time than you did on any previous long-planned vacation because there were fun surprises.

Extend Business Trips

When I worked in a corporate job, here are some places I traveled on my own over a long weekend: Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Cleveland, D.C., Dallas, Richmond, San Jose, and Las Vegas. In all these cases, there was some biz meeting or convention I had to go to, but I always booked my flight back a few days later whenever possible. As long as the price was the same or less (it usually was because I stayed over a Saturday), then they couldn’t have cared less. So all I had to pay for was a couple days of local expenses. Could you do the same but you just don’t?

When I travel through airports on Fridays, they’re always packed wall to wall with people in business clothing coming home from their work on the road. A lot of them have families with kids I’m sure and need to get back. But if you don’t, what’s your hurry? Sure, Orlando might not be your scene, but you can reach beaches on either coast in a rental care in two hours. If you’re in Vegas and don’t like to gamble, there are a  lot of cool things to see and do within driving distance. Almost anywhere can be a fun adventure or at least a good springboard to one.

Go Local

When I lived in Nashville I had great vacations in Memphis, Lexington, Chattanooga, Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Hollywild, Birmingham, and some state parks. I can think of a year’s worth of cool weekend trips worth taking from where I grew up in Virginia. Weird places to visit

There are probably at least 20 places worth visiting within three hours of your home that you’ve never been to, but have some vague intention of visiting someday. There are probably 20 or 30 more that just haven’t gotten onto your radar. Then there are the ones that may not be all that notable, but are probably still going to be an adventure.

Take the commuter train to the end of the line. Pick a town on the map and drive there. Get a local book on strange things to see in your state and start visiting them. You might not think my sometime home of Tampa would have all that much worth checking out nearby, but this book of one-tank trips from there I got from the library once has been through several editions and has 57 entries.

Live Abroad

You want to really expand your travel options? Move somewhere that’s already foreign. Then everywhere you go will be exciting.

From where I live now in central Mexico, I can take a direct bus to a few dozen destinations and all of them are going to feel exotic. Who’s ever heard of Cuetzalan or Zacatecas? When my wife and I taught English for a year in Korea, we went all over the country, to strange places like Maisan and not-so-strange ones like Cheju Island that still felt very out of the ordinary to us foreigners.

maisan Korea

If you already live in Budapest, you don’t have to pay $1,200 to go somewhere in Europe. If you already live in Malaysia, you can just hop on a bus or train to get to Singapore or Thailand. Not only are you already living a better life for half the price, you can now travel to foreign lands without flying across an ocean to do so.


Moravia travel

Half the price of Prague

On this blog I mostly write about the cheapest places to travel in the world and where to go in order to make your budget stretch. But some people are hell-bent on going to a specific place, cost be damned, including half the relatives and friends of friends that ask me for advice. They know my beat and my books, but will go, “Yeah, but I’m going to Rome and Florence next July…”

So here are two universal principles that apply even in the most outrageously priced countries.

1) Limit your time in the big capital cities.

Sure, Paris is great, but if you go for a long walk in rural France, you’re going to spend far less on your hotel rooms at night than you will in the capital. A fraction of the amount usually. Hit Oslo for the museums and free attractions, then get out to the countryside where you can camp or find a hostel bed that’s not priced like a two bedroom suite in Bulgaria. Tokyo is great fun, but you’ll sleep and eat for less in Kyushu. Even in the cheap countries this is often true: Mumbai’s hotel rates will make your jaw drop if you arrive there after traveling through almost anywhere else in India. The Czech Republic is a great value…except for Prague.

The same applies to the United States, Canada, and Mexico as well, so you don’t have to go very far to put this advice in action. Good luck finding a nice hotel room with some space in New York City for under $150. Spend that amount in Buffalo or Boise, however, and you’ll be stylin’.

Caveats to this rule: a) Sometimes big cities have a more competitive hostel/cheap hotel scene internationally, so Ho Chi Minh City can have better lodging deals than Sad Town, Vietnam. Also, big cities with great subways can sometimes be cheaper to get around than a spread-out small one with a lousy bus system. This is especially a problem for the car-less in the USA, where most of the cheapie places are motels.

Mexico beach resorts

This view might not be in your budget…

2) Limit your time in the big tourist draws.

“Budget Venice” is an oxymoron. London’s going to cost you a fortune no matter how many free museums you go to. The worst though are the beach resorts, the holiday destinations, the vacation factory places where the average stay is less than a week. Mexico is quite reasonable for budget travelers in the interior. In Cancun or Los Cabos, um, not so much. If you’re on a tourist budget and are just taking a quick break from work, by all means head to the Black Sea Coast, the Turkish Mediterranean, Agadir in Morocco, the Algarve resorts in Portugal, Seminyak in Bali, the Riviera Maya of Mexico, or Florida. There’s nothing wrong with a week of doing nothing if work is wearing you out.

But if you’re on a shoestring budget, your grumpy frown will really stand out among the $300 a day merry makers spending with abandon. Instead go where they’re not: the places that are harder to get to, that aren’t conducive to ordering cocktails while sitting in a lounge chair. The places where there’s no box to tick off or a bucket list item to claim. You’ll notice a rapid drop in prices—and will have some nice surprise discoveries.

Caveats to this rule: places that are big domestic tourism draws in inexpensive countries are not the same thing. Loads of Mexican tourists come to where I live in Guanajuato, but that means most hotels and restaurants are priced for their budget, not the budget of foreigners, as they are in San Miguel de Allende. There are places in many cheap Asian and Latin American countries that are big draws for locals, but hardly any foreign tourists visit. Go join the fun.

Where have you seen this in action in your own travels?

When I was 22, I thought for sure I knew everything. Then I got a real job, went traveling, got married, and had a child. It turns out I had a lot to learn still. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned since then when it comes to travel.

You can’t get worthwhile things done without a bit of help. 

Even if you run the most solitary business that is completely online, even if you never have to talk to anyone on the phone, it’s next to impossible to succeed without the good faith and assistance of others. When you travel, this is doubly true. Be nice, be useful, be willing to lend a hand. It’s really hard for an asshole to get what he wants on a consistent basis—apart from a few exceptional exceptions like the late Steve Jobs.

Steripen Freedom review

Water is Life, but Bottled Water Is Destruction

Drink more water than you think you need when partying, but don’t sweat it so much the rest of the time. The reason most people get hangovers is dehydration and a lack of B vitamins. drink a glass of water for each drink you down at night and you’ll be happier the next day.

But a key reason many travelers break their budget (and wreck the planet) is buying bottled water all day every day. Get something like a SteriPen or Camelbak All Clear and stop screwing Mother Nature.

no travel schedule

A lot of good stuff happens when you don’t plan out your whole travel schedule.

If you don’t leave big holes in your plans for great travel surprises, your trip is probably going to be quite predictable. And boring.

Things rarely happen as quickly as you want them to.

Even in the USA, the land of convenience, it takes way longer than you think it should to get through to a human on the phone, to get government forms processed, to get any kind of construction work done on a house. It’s only going to get worse when you go somewhere else—unless you’re moving to Switzerland. Patience goes hand in hand with travel and living abroad.

travel hurdles

Pay a few rupees more, get on a better bus…

Most problems on the road can be solved with time, money, or kindness.

You will face many obstacles when you go traveling, from bad plumbing to missed buses to flat tires to finding only one room left in a grotty backwater hotel. Sigh, assess the situation, and either deal with it or fix it. Sometimes just dealing with it is the only option. But if there’s a fix, you’ll usually need more money than you planned, more time than you planned, or some help from a kind stranger. So have some emergency cash and be kind to strangers—even when exasperated. (You do have the right to scream and yell at some point eventually in India. Everyone cracks at some point there…)

Lisbon travel

It’s hard to get around the fact that Europe is more expensive than the U.S. and can be even pricier than Canada is these days. However, the exchange rate of dollars to euros seems to have settled around 128 to 135 in this European crisis period, so at least that’s not as volatile as it has been in years before.

I’ve taken a few trips to Europe in the past couple years and you can see my recent article on a bike tour in Portugal in the latest issue of Perceptive Travel. I get quoted a lot in the media as a budget travel expert on how to travel in Europe more cheaply (always a popular topic with editors) so I thought it would be a good idea to pack a collection of these tips in one place. Use a few of these next time you’re trying to ease the budget pain.

Pick a Cheap(er) Destination
This tip is first because it has the most impact. No matter where you stay and how frugally you watch your funds, a week in Hungary is going to cost you far less than a week in Norway. Eastern Europe is less than west, especially the four countries and the honorable mention one I have in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Portugal was a seriously good value when I was there in May though and tough times mean better deals in some parts of Greece, Ireland, and Spain right now.

Slow Down and Stay Awhile
Transportation costs are a big expense in Europe, whether you’re flying with actual luggage, taking a train, or hopping buses. In Western Europe fuel costs are high, taxes are high, labor costs are high. The more you move around trying to check things off your list, the more your budget is going to rise. Exploring one area on a short trip or one country/region over several weeks is going to cost you less and also allow you to absorb more instead of it all flashing before your eyes outside a window.

green travel Bulgaria

Get Out of the Capitals (and Venice)
Cities cost more than rural areas. Popular capital cities cost more than normal ones. Sure, go spend some time in Paris and London. Catch a few museums, see the sites. Then head out. Don’t spend your whole vacation or backpacking trip in capital cities unless you’re willing to spend like the rich tourists in a big hurry do. Besides, Kosice is more interesting than Bratislava. Veiliko Turnovo (pictured above) is a more interesting place to hang out than Sofia—and easier to get to by train from many other countries. is Madrid really where you want to spend most of your time in Spain?

Make the Most of Freebies
If you are in a big city, figure out what’s free and take advantage of it. Some museums are free all the time, some have specific days, and nearly any city is going to have festivals and music performances going on constantly, especially in warm months. Check the official tourism site, any good non-official city site, and a guidebook for recurring ones.

Get a Transportation Pass
In most European cities, if there’s a viable public transportation system, you can buy a pass for one or more days that will give you unlimited rides. Get one and pack all your city travel into that time. Note that if you have one of these, it opens up your lodging options too—you can be on the branch of a subway or bus line instead of paying a premium to be right in the center of the tourist zone. Sometimes the full-on city passes are a good deal too. See this post: Are those city cards really worth the money?

Look Deeper for Hotel Deals
In most of Europe outside Scandinavia and Switzerland, two or three of you traveling together can stay in a real hotel for less than you would spend in a hostel. Unless you’re just looking for partying mates to blow more money with, independent small hotels and value chains like Ibis and NH Hotels can give you more comfort at a good price. Go beyond the U.S. booking sites though as they’ll have more inventory elsewhere. Use a metasearch engine like HotelsCombined or Trivago but then also search TripAdvisor (beyond the first page), a good guidebook, or an authoritative local resource guide online.

local market Europe

Live Like a Local
If you rent an apartment or home for a couple weeks in one place, you can live a local life instead of a tourist life and spend far less in the process. When you’re in a real neighborhood instead of a tourist one, you pay what the locals—who probably aren’t rich—pay for groceries, pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants. You’ll also meet people who don’t get paid to serve you and experience more of the local culture.

Get on a Bike
You can take a real tour with a company like Bike Tours Direct and spend the same or less as you would on a vacation you booked yourself, while seeing more of the countryside. Or you can just hop on a bike to explore a city. Many have public bike share systems. Some hotels rent out bikes to guests for free or cheap (as mine in Budapest did). Otherwise, look around for a rental kiosk like I found in Sofia—where it came with a free guided city tour. If you’re in a smaller bike-friendly area, you can probably rent one for a whole week and get a big discount.

Splurge for Lunch, Not Dinner
If you’re going to go out for a nice meal now and then, you’re better off doing it during the daytime. Sure, it’s not quite as romantic as dining by candlelight, but many restaurants offer a prix fixe option, a set meal, or a “meal of the day” that makes even the gourmet hotspots less of a strain on the wallet.

Party Where It’s Cheap, Not Where It’s Not
It makes sense to drink up and have a blast if you’re in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, or Hungary. Or in an Italian village where they sell wine by the jug. Not when you’re in Oslo and alcohol is taxed worse than cigarettes. Dry out for a bit or switch to narcotics—which are cheaper than the legal stuff.

Don’t Go in the Summer
Why do people go to Europe in the summer? Because school is out. Honestly, that’s the main reason airfares go up, hotels are full, and the attractions are packed. If you don’t have to go between June and August because of your school schedule or that of your kids, then don’t. It’s less pleasant and more expensive.

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When you need to reserve a rental car, where do you check? Do you just pull up your favorite booking app on your phone and go? Or return to the company you usually rent from because you’ll get loyalty points?

Well you may be flushing a lot of extra money down the drain by renting a car by habit or by by being in a hurry.

I’ve got to rent one for a wedding in October, when I’ll be flying into a relatively small regional aiport, in Roanoke, Virginia. First I checked flight prices on Allegiant, which goes direct for a good price (despite all the annoying fees). They helpfully offered me a rental car on their one and only partner Alamo for $138.

car from airline

Sometimes the airlines offer good partner rates—I once got a car in Puerto Vallarta for $16 a day—but this one didn’t sound so good.

So I pulled up, which is a division of Priceline. Here’s what they showed for the exact same car from Alamo, with some even better deals from other rental brands.

rent a car

Could I do better? The next stop was, which also searches multiple agencies and is frequently the lowest apart from opaque Hotwire. Sure enough, that shaved a few more dollars off. (Kayak came in somewhere between these two by $1-$3 per day difference on every result, so if you’re in a hurry on a mobile phone, that’s probably a safe bet.)

But what about Hotwire? That’s my usual stop when my plans are solid as I almost never see them coming in higher than the sites where you know the company. Yes indeed, a compact car there was only $81— a 20% savings.

vacation rental car

Some of the best deals I was seeing on the other sites though were from Avis. I’ve got Preferred status there because of a credit card I have, which could save me some time and hassle, so I figured I might as well go check their rates to see what it would cost to go direct.

avis ratesAnd I got…a better rate than anywhere besides Hotwire. A compact came in at $85. Since I can reserve there and not pay until I arrive, and can upgrade to a larger car for the three of us and our luggage for not much more, I’m happy to pay a bit more than I would have through Hotwire. If my flight gets delayed I know I’ll be fine and plus I’ll get a few loyalty points from an airline on top. So I’m paying $99 with taxes and fees for the three days for a midsized/standard car. I can live with that, especially since I can get processed faster upon arrival.

Worst rate: the airline

Best rate: Hotwire

Best value overall: direct at Avis.

Your mileage may—and will—vary. Which is my point, really. You always need to shop around.