I get asked a lot about how to save money on travel and while I can guide people to one of my books or this cheap travel blog, I don’t really have one easy-to-skim post on it though. So here are a few websites, apps, and methods I tend to go back to time and again. Some of these are affiliate links where you’ll buy me a pack of gum or a beer if you buy through them, but the cost is the same to you whether it’s one of those or a straight-up link.
Getting a good price on a flight and figuring out the total cost is still far more difficult than it should be, mostly because the airlines like it that way. Especially the crappy U.S. legacy carriers (and even worse Spirit Air), who seem to thrive on being hated. Packing light helps, as does avoiding peak periods. So does being flexible.
On that note, I really like Google Flights as a place to start. They took the old ITA Software program and added one key function: the ability to search fares from any airport, to anywhere, for any dates. It’s all right there on an interactive map. So if you live in Orlando, you can also check what it costs to go anywhere from Miami or Tampa. You can see if it would make sense to fly to an alternate airport where you’re going or to leave two days earlier. You can then click through from there or book elsewhere.
For international fares, I use Vayama a lot as they seem to figure out multi-airline combinations better than the others. Always shop around! There’s no one website (including the airfare’s own) that always gives you the best deal. On the go, it’s useful to have Skyscanner and Kayak on your phone. But remember that many budget airlines don’t feed into those booking systems. You need to go direct for those.
This assumes you have to actually pay for your flight. If you can build up miles and use those, even better. If you’ve got the time to peruse the blogs over at the Boarding Area or by using other ones you’ve read before, you’ll get plenty of free advice. FlyerTalk is great too if you can decode the frequent flyer geek speak. Otherwise, it can be useful to sign up for the Travel Hacking Cartel and get it all spoon-fed to you in a pretty package.
This is easier than flights because you don’t have to go many places to shop around. If you’re wanting to book a specific hotel, go to Trivago and see a whole bunch of prices from different booking sites in one place. Where that’s usually not enough is parts of Asia (use Agoda to drill down to more options), in much of Africa, and in Latin America south of Mexico, where you have to really do some digging around sometimes.
The oldies but goodies Hotwire and Priceline bidding still work well in allowing you to save a bundle on unused inventory. Search for a message board like this one to get the inside scoop on what others have paid where you’re going. If it’s last-minute, you might get a good deal the same day from the HotelTonight app. Or go old school and just start wheeling and dealing—in person or on the phone. Nobody likes to let a room sit empty if there’s a way they can rent it to you. But you have to get to someone who has the power to make a decision, which is usually the front desk manager or owner.
Remember one key thing, especially for international trips: a LOT of hotels and inns are not listed on the big booking sites. That costs them money they don’t have, so you have to find them through internet searches, guidebooks, message boards, and TripAdvisor. Or look at HostelBookers, which has more than hostels if you go to the “private room” option.
Of course maybe you don’t need a hotel at all. Between vacation rentals, couchsurfing, house-sitting, and home exchange, there are lots of other ways to get a place to crash. Often they’ll have more space too.
Enterprise is one of my advertisers at Perceptive Travel, so lately I’m using them (and their National and Alamo brands) a lot. But unless you have some kind of loyalty consideration or status, again Hotwire is your best friend. I’ve routinely gotten cars for half price through them and did it matter any on the booking or pickup? Not that I can remember. Otherwise shop around, check your favorite airline site for mileage bonus earning opportunities, and book the smallest car you can tolerate: half the time you’ll get upgraded to something bigger. Also make sure you have a credit card with rental car insurance perks, Then you can safely ignore all the sales pitches for domestic rentals. Internationally, you’ll probably want to cough up some money for insurance to be safe.
In some countries, taxi fares can kill you in a hurry. In places like India, central Mexico, Nicaragua, or Ecuador, it’s a few dollars to go anywhere in town. The ride from the airport is usually the big expense though, so if you can find a way around that, go for it
Local transportation passes can save you some money, especially if you’re in a city with a good subway/tram/bus system that will get you everywhere you need to go. Some of those tourist cards have a transportation pass included too, but use a calculator to figure out if they’ll really save you anything. Sometimes you’d have to be on a whirlwind museum tour just to break even.
If you have a student ID of some kind, whip it out every time you buy any official transportation. You can often get a discount. This is true for seniors and teachers as well.
What app, website, or hack have you found that has saved you big bucks on multiple occasions?