“Yes yes, that’s all good advice,” she said, “but my editor really wants to focus on what’s new in budget travel. What are people doing now to save money that they couldn’t have done a year or two ago? New social websites, apps, that sort of thing.”
This was from an interview I did with an ambitious young associate editor sitting at a desk in NYC who writes for a well-known women’s magazine. It happened before the pandemic changed a lot of things, but I’ve had similar conversations several times since. Most publications want to appear as if they have their finger on the pulse, that they know everything months before you do and are bringing you the hottest tips, the latest trends. “What’s new?” is the daily mantra.
The problem is, most budget travel advice is timeless. There’s not much “new” to it most of the time, as nearly any savvy traveler who knows the right tricks will tell you. Most of us are using the same apps we were five years ago, going to mostly the same websites. With most pricing information being so transparent now and providers locked into pricing contracts, there’s not much room for further innovation. Some of the most useful budget travel sites, like Scott’s Cheap Flights, rely on old-school research from humans more than any fancy AI algorithm.
In the real world of travel, things don’t move very fast. Changes happen gradually unless an airline finds a new way to gouge you for more money and the rest all copy them. We can make all our travel plans online now and always find the best prices on hotels or flights, something unthinkable before the World Wide Web came along. But on a year-to-year basis, the best travel advice stays relatively tried and true.
Occasionally there’s a game-changer that shakes things up to the point where we don’t know what we did without them, companies or sites like Uber/Lyft, Airbnb, Google Flights, or RVShare that can save you money or let you rent instead of buy. Others like TripIt can make your trip go more smoothly. But most new travel tech innovations are solving something they think is more of a problem than it really is. A few years later, they get acquired by TripAdvisor or Expedia or they die.
More than a decade ago I wrote a book called Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and about 95% of the advice in there is just as relevant today. It’s mostly the smart travel tactics and strategies that will save you money, not the latest app or service.
You can also ignore most of that advice on when to book a plane ticket, how far out, and when you log on. After all, the day you fly matters more than when you book.
In that spirit, here is some key budget travel advice that has served me well in 25+ years of travel, along with blog posts of mine that go into more detail. Do these things and you’ll come out ahead, even if you drop your smartphone in a river and have to do everything from your laptop or offline for a while.
Budget Travel Is Easier When the Destination is Cheap
I’m the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, a book that has sold enough to warrant it being in its 5th edition now. So obviously I’m a bit biased, but most travelers are going to spend more on the ground upon arrival than they did on their ticket to get there. So it makes sense that the price of travel in that destination is going to have a huge impact on how much you spend.
A beer in Norway will literally cost you ten times what one costs me in Mexico–and there are cheaper beer destinations than Mexico. You can pay five, six, or eight times as much for a basic meal, a taxi ride, or a hostel bed in Switzerland than you will a train ride away in Bulgaria. Cambodia travel costs are a tiny fraction of those in Japan.
Even with next-door neighbors, the difference can be dramatic. My daily budget tripled when I went from Bosnia to Croatia, it quadrupled when I went from Bolivia to Chile. It’s the same story when you go from Guatemala to Belize or from Portugal to France. If you’re on a budget, go where your budget will stretch.
Remember to keep an eye on currency changes though. It’s not uncommon for prices in a place like Thailand, Malaysia, or Argentina to swing 25% one way or another depending on what’s happening on the exchange markets.
Where You Go Within a Country Matters Too
There are parts of Italy that are downright reasonable and trails in the Alps can be quite reasonable if you’re doing hut-to-hut hiking. Staying in New York City can costs you a fortune, but upstate New York is cheap by U.S. standards. Getting a train from Prague to anywhere in the country will bring down your budget in the Czech Republic.
There’s an urban vs. rural aspect of prices in most countries, especially when it comes to hotels, and small towns are usually cheaper than big cities with expensive real estate. This doesn’t apply across the board of course because some small towns are resort towns and the old supply and demand law still applies. Competition, or the lack of it, can drive prices up or down as well. In general though, if you try to limit your time in the biggest cities and avoid the tourist trap places, you’ll probably spend a lot less money on a weekly or monthly basis.
Be Flexible in Your Plans
The more rigid your travel plans are, the more you’re probably going to pay. Open travel variables lead to better vacation deals.
You’ve undoubtedly experienced this when making far-flung research inquiries for flight prices. Leaving on a Wednesday rather than a Saturday on the same week could change the price by $100. Change the entire month and it might go down $400. This same variable pricing often applies to hotel rates, tour prices, and train tickets.
If you insist on traveling to a certain place at an exact time for a defined period with set start and stop dates, you’re just playing with the margins when you try to save money, especially if it’s high season. You are going to pay top dollar and feel like a sucker. If your vacation plans are just “somewhere warm and sunny in September,” the deals are going to open up to you like a breakfast buffet table of goodies.
Seasonal Fluctuations Matter a Lot
Nearly every destination has a high season, a shoulder season, and a “What are you doing here now?” season. Shoulder season is often the goldilocks time for budget travelers, with good weather and open restaurants, but without the hordes of tourists. It’s always shoulder season somewhere. Sometimes you have to suck it up because high season is the best season, especially when there’s a festival going on, but most of the time you can skip this period and be better off.
Just be careful with the true low season though: it’s often off season for a dangerous reason, like hurricane season, wildfire season, or dangerously high heat. All of these climate problems are becoming worse with the planet heating up, so don’t take them lightly
Eat Local and Buy Local When You Travel
After you get out there, the decisions you make on the ground can have a big financial impact, often overshadowing the few bucks you saved by finding a cheaper flight. So a lot of my budget travel advice has nothing to do with flying. If you eat and drink where locals do and take cues from them on what’s good and seasonal, you’ll have a more interesting experience and save money as well. See the full post here.
Don’t forget, every destination has a few items or services that are a better deal there than elsewhere. Find them, use them, consume them.
Slow Travel is Cheaper Travel
Eating and drinking what’s local is related to slow travel and is usually a smart move for your budget. But so is taking your time. The more you’re moving around, the higher your daily budget needs to be. Help Mother Nature and your wallet at the same time: slow down!
If you stay in one place for a month or more, your costs will really plummet. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s all about location, velocity, and distance. Fast travel, where you are trying to check off lots of boxes, means you spend a lot of time in modes of transportation and an inordinate amount of your budget is going to that. A long bus ride for two in Mexico can cost you more than a week in a cheap hotel or rental apartment. So moving around a lot can double your travel budget.
Last, remember that just because you can now plan and set up everything in advance, it doesn’t mean you should. A person standing at the hotel front desk at 6 pm with money in their hand has negotiating power. A person booking on a website has zero negotiating power. And besides, a lot of the best things happen when you allow time for interesting things to happen. The more your plans are tightly scheduled, the tougher that can be.
Free Travel is the Best Price of All
No, I’m not telling you to pressure barmates to let you crash at their apartment or to hitchhike your way across a country, though if you’re into that be my guest. The free travel I’m talking about is when you leverage your spending now in a way that pays off in free flights or hotel rooms later.
The not-so-unknown secret of loyalty programs is that they only really reward loyalty for the big spenders, the business traveler road warriors who fly business class and stay at night hotels upon arrival. For the vast majority of people, you don’t actually need to be loyal to earn loyalty points. You just need to be strategic in your spending. Here’s how to score free flights more easily and rack up free hotel stays.
In the end, there are plenty of ways to travel more on your current income if that’s really a priority for you. I hope my budget travel advice tips will help you do it more often once we can move freely about the planet again.