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Budget Travel Hacks You Can’t Afford to Miss

Becky Hart | Dec 20, 2023

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Woman watching the sunrise over the Atlantic.

They say travel is one thing you can buy that will make you richer. That doesn’t necessarily mean it comes cheap, though. Here are some money hacks to help you enjoy your next trip without breaking the bank and without sacrificing the adventure you’ve been dreaming about.

What's the Cheapest Way to Travel?

Getting away without actually going anywhere is a growing — and sad, if you ask us — trend. Yes, there’s the staycation, but there also are companies you can pay to create fake photos of you in front of the Eiffel Tower. Faux indoor ski resorts are popping up in the desert. All so you can pretend to have a vacation. But where's the fun in that?

Don’t lie to your friends and skip the fake tan. Instead, enjoy a real escape with these 11 ways to get the “far away” feeling without breaking the budget for a long trip.

1. Go someplace totally new.

Sometimes we get stuck in a routine, even with travel. If you’re used to vacationing in the same place every year, shake things up a bit and go somewhere you’ve never been.

You don’t have to hop on a transatlantic flight. Find somewhere relatively close to home that you’ve yet to explore. Even if it’s only a few hours’ drive away, it will still carry a sense of novelty.

2. Focus on slow travel. Chairs on a deck with a beach view.

Vacations that are jam-packed with activity — excursions and amusement parks and tours all crammed into one week — are not only exhausting but can also get expensive. Adopt a slow travel mentality where you establish a home base and a leisurely attitude toward movement.  

Instead of rushing to multiple cities and seeing as many sites as you can, dive deep into exploring just one or two. Experience how the locals live. Roam off the beaten tourist track. Give yourself the time and flexibility to seize a serendipitous opportunity when it arises. 

You’ll get a richer experience, and chances are that you’ll save some cash simply by not doing as much as humanly possible in a short time.

3. Get the inside scoop from locals.

When we explore hidden gems, we can often bypass the dreaded tourist upcharge, those destinations and activities that cost more merely because they know people will pay for it. Ask locals where they go to eat, relax, and play. They should be able to point you to some authentic places you’d never find on your own and that fit a more modest, everyday budget.

You can find similar tips online. TikTok has become a popular place for people to show off their hometowns and recommend local haunts not listed in the guidebooks.

4. Think differently about hotels and accommodations.

ValuePenguin reported that transportation, food, and lodging take up the vast majority of our travel budget. Lodging makes up about a quarter of the cost for Americans’ domestic trips, and food plus alcohol is another 27%. Transportation — to, from, and around our destination — accounts for almost 44% of travel expenditure. If you want to travel on the cheap, these are good places to start when reducing costs.

Beach hotelObviously hotels range from super-luxurious (and expensive) to bare-bones basic (less expensive and perhaps less appealing). Fortunately, as we explained in our tips for a budget-friendly spring break, you can often “downgrade” to a three-star hotel and get the same amenities of a four-star stay. All you need is to do a bit of extra research to find those deals.

Beyond hotels are booking sites like Airbnb and VRBO where you may be able to find a place to stay at a cheaper rate. One of their biggest advantages is that you are given the option of whether you would like to rent an entire home — great for multigenerational vacations — or just a room.
Couchsurfing.com is an alternative option that allows you to connect with people in different countries. Couchsurfers open their homes to you for free and take you in during your journey.

Finally, you can work for your room and board. Workaway, for example, helps you find places where you can put in a few hours of labor each day in exchange for a free place to stay. Of course, it’s not technically free since you’re paying with your own time and effort, but it can be a great way to save money while meeting locals and other like-minded travelers.

5. Eat better.

One way to enjoy dining out while you travel without breaking the bank is to follow the five block rule. When visiting a new place for the first time, odds are you will be drawn to all the major tourist attractions. As you take it all in, it’s sometimes hard to not get swept up in the thrill of the moment and sit down at the closest restaurant to enjoy your next meal.

PizzaHowever, the businesses that are within five blocks of a major tourist attraction often spike their prices as a tourist trap. When it comes to restaurants, many that surround main attractions also lack authenticity. By taking a short walk, about five blocks, you’ll stumble upon storefronts and restaurants with the same offerings but for a fraction of the price.

You might want a break from the kitchen on your vacation, but ValuePenguin found that of the money we spend on food during vacation, more than 80% is spent in restaurants. You don’t have to skip the local fare entirely. Just sample it more moderately.

You might pack a lunch for your day of sightseeing and enjoy dinner out. Or have lunch at the cute café nearby and prepare a leisurely dinner at your rental in the evening. Find what works best for you, your family, and your itinerary. Make this easier by stocking the fridge with basic ingredients — milk, cereal, bread, deli meat — when you first get there.

If you’re staying at a hotel or don’t have a stocked kitchen, take advantage of the perks on site. If there’s a free continental breakfast, it won’t be award-winning, but it will be inexpensive and convenient. So eat up! Do they have snacks or happy hour in the evening? You’ve already invested in the accommodations, so take advantage of everything that’s included.

6. Choose less expensive transportation options.

Figuring out whether it’s better to fly or drive on vacation can feel a bit like a puzzle. If you fly, you need to factor in airfare plus airport parking or Uber fees, baggage fees, meals in the airport or snacks on the plane, ground transportation at your destination after you land, and any other expenses that crop up.

The cost of taking a road trip should include a rental car or maintenance to your own vehicle, rental insurance, gas, meals and snacks on the road since it will probably take you longer than if you fly, and again, other miscellaneous expenses.

You could also consider trains, buses, even ships. It might feel a bit complex, but the extra effort could save you major money.

How to save money on road trips

Gas pump.

Gas is a crucial part of your trip, and quite frankly you can’t have one without keeping your tank full. GasBuddy is an app that gathers the prices of nearby gas stations in order to find you the cheapest option.

Gas is not the only aspect of a road trip you should plan. You could benefit from researching what restaurants you want to stop at along the way. Figuring this out ahead of time gives you full control over how much you want to spend on each meal and will help you get the most bang for your buck. You may also want to pack a cooler with lunch or dinner options before you hit the road to avoid stopping all together.

Finally, make sure to get your car to the mechanic for a quick checkup before you hit the road. If your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, you may have extra expenses at an unknown shop. If your car is at the point of no return, you will then have to pay for a rental to finish the rest of your trip or to simply get you back home.

How to save money on flights

Take advantage of your frequent flyer miles. Now’s the perfect time to cash in those miles for a reduced-price or free flight.

Beware the hidden fees that sneak in with buying a flight. Everything from upcharges for baggage to in-flight Wi-Fi to an extra commission to the booking site can make a seemingly inexpensive airfare balloon to twice its original total. Read the small print of your reservation to avoid unnecessary fees and know what you’re paying for.

7. Travel light, especially when you fly.

Take advantage of your carry-on luggage. Most airlines charge a fee to check your bag plus more if it’s over 50 pounds. Packing smart and only taking a carry-on can save you money, not to mention time waiting at baggage claim.
If you’re worried about fitting everything into your bag, rolling clothes is one technique that will save space and help you fill your bag to the maximum capacity.

8. Go in the off-season.

We’ve written a lot about the benefits of traveling outside of peak season. By traveling during the fall, rainy, or shoulder seasons when demand is low, you’re more likely to find good deals on hotels and activities.

Credit card.9. Compare travel credit cards.

While the credit card you use at home might be the best one for domestic purchases, you might be missing out on earning free flights or exclusive airline perks by overlooking cards geared toward travelers. Whether you’re a frequent flyer or fly once in a blue moon, travel credit cards are a great option.
There are a few things to consider when deciding which credit card is best for you. If you fly on the same airline frequently, you may want the card that airline offers. For instance, if you prefer to fly JetBlue, look into the JetBlue Card, which offers deals tailored to that airline’s loyal customers. However, if you tend to fly on a variety of airlines, it may be more beneficial to look for a card that has a more flexible point system.

10. Avoid hidden fees when transferring money and converting currencies.

When traveling overseas, transferring money and converting currencies could be costly. Depending on your bank or money transfer service, you may be charged with hidden fees such as international fees or bank-to-bank fees.

It could be beneficial to compare different money transfer services to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

11. Check your health.

Your health is another factor you should consider before going on your trip. You don’t want to have any surprise health issues that may run up your credit card in hospital bills and medicine. Make sure you are able to endure the trip you are about to embark on.

If you’re traveling for an extended time or setting out on a digital nomad adventure, take care of your routine health visits — annual checkup, dentist, eye doctor, refilling prescriptions — before you leave home.

What Are the Best Budget Travel Destinations?

While we don’t recommend photoshopping yourself on the Great Wall of China, we’re fully on board with getting creative in your choice of destinations. Thinking outside the box is a great way to travel internationally on a budget.

1. Make a destination swap.

There’s only one Sydney, one Budapest, one Rio de Janeiro. To truly know a place, you have to go there. Until you have the budget and time, though, consider alternative locations that give you plenty of flavor for less money. These are three of our favorites, especially for off-season travel.

Montreal, CanadaMontreal, Canada, instead of Paris, France

The province of Quebec is a unique mix of Canadian and French heritage, resulting in its own unique culture. However, Montreal is described as modern, stylish, and cosmopolitan, three words that could also encapsulate Paris.

Leaf peeping is a favorite North American fall pastime, and it doesn’t get much better than in Montreal. Just remember that because of its northern location, the trees change colors earlier in the year, so you’ll want to book this trip for September. When you’re done exploring Montreal, don’t forget these five must-see places in Canada.

Leavenworth, Washington, instead of Bavaria, Germany

About two hours east of Seattle is an Alpine-style village that dares you to dream of Deutschland. It’s a fun place to visit year-round, but in the fall, you’ll have your choice of events to soak in the local ambiance. The Salmon Festival and free Autumn Leaf Festival take place in September, followed by Oktoberfest and Summit to Sea Filmfest in October. As they say in Leavenworth, “Holy Schnitzel!”

St. Augustine, Florida, instead of Madrid, Spain

The Spanish founded St. Augustine in the 1500s, making it the oldest city in the nation. Five-hundred years haven’t dulled the Spanish influence. Located on Florida’s east coast between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, St. Augustine is steeped in architecture, history, and natural beauty. Exploring it in the fall is extra nice as the summertime heat and humidity have dropped to more comfortable levels.

Find more U.S. cities that feel like an international destination on our blog.

2. Immerse yourself in a new neighborhood.

Many large U.S. cities have neighborhoods rich in immigrant culture. Take Chicago's Little Italy or New York City’s Chinatown for example. Visiting can be a budget-friendly way to immerse yourself in a new community and learn about diversity in your own backyard.

Filipinotown in Los Angeles, California

Los AngelesAll five Asian Pacific Islander ethnic neighborhoods in LA have earned the designation of Preserve America Communities, and civic groups continue to promote cultural heritage tourism to Historic Filipinotown, also known as HiFi. A new gateway was unveiled in May 2022, drawing you into a vibrant community that boasts the United States’ largest Filipino-themed mural — called Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana — located in Unidad Park. You won’t want to miss Dollar Hits serving up authentic Filipino street food, either.

Little Ethiopia in Washington, D.C.

Search “things to do in” for Little Ethiopia, and it’s all about food tours. While cuisine isn’t the only thing Ethiopian immigrants bring to this growing community, it is one of the most enticing to visitors. Don’t be surprised to dine family style, without utensils, when you go for an authentic experience.

Cuban community in Louisville, Kentucky

Kentucky is better known for its bourbon and horses, but Jefferson County, where Louisville is located, has a strong Cuban diaspora. Only counties in Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and Nevada have larger Cuban populations. Explore Louisville's Cuban community, and you’ll find mint juleps become mojitos and bluegrass music becomes the rumba.

3. Find a festival.

Many cities pay homage to the ancestry that helped found them. Look in your own hometown or somewhere close by to get a taste of somewhere new without the big price tag. Here are some of our favorite fall festivals in the U.S. to spark some inspiration.

Oktoberfest Zinzinnati

Cincinnati, Ohio, isn’t the only city in the U.S. to have a German-style festival in the fall. But because of the Queen City’s history — you can take heritage tours in English or German — you will find authentic food and drink to help carry you to destinations farther afield, at least in your mind. Oktoberfest Zinzinnati also has a wiener dog race. It’s not exactly authentic to the original German festival, but it is pretty adorable.

Día de los Muertos

Shakespeare FestivalSan Antonio, Texas, has one of the largest Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos celebrations in the U.S. The Mexican holiday honors loved ones who have passed away. In San Antonio, several events in October and November let you see traditional alters celebrating those late loved ones. You’ll also find live music, an arts market with local crafts, and more. It’s kid-friendly, making it one of our favorite fall break destinations for families.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

If you can’t make it to the Globe Theatre in London, how about a shorter trip to Ashland, Oregon, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? The play season begins in the summer and runs through early fall. Catch classics like The Tempest as well as innovative productions and musicals. In between shows, explore this town near the Oregon-California border where fall temperatures are mild and ideal for taking in nature’s autumn colors.

How Do You Travel on a Budget?

Looking for ways to save money on travel isn’t new. Bankrate found in late 2023 that 25% of people were worried about feeling pressured to spend more for holiday travel than they were comfortable with.

A year earlier, a survey by Seven Corners found that more than 25% of those who expected to spend more on summer travel would have to do so because of inflation.

And ValuePenguin reported similar findings on travel costs, with the average international trip costing $3,250 in 2013, an increase from $2,000 in 2005. We all have money on our mind, but those concerns don’t have to keep us at home.

“Rising costs,” said ValuePenguin, “are just one other reason that you might consider travel insurance to reduce the impact of financial losses on the road.”

How travel insurance can save you money

Spending to save sounds counterintuitive, but it could be your smartest decision. That’s a key concept to remember when choosing travel insurance.

With the right coverage, you could be reimbursed for prepaid, nonrefundable trip costs if you have to cancel or interrupt your trip for a covered reason. Rather than losing a few thousand dollars on nonrefundable airfare and hotels, for example, you could be out the much smaller cost of travel insurance, perhaps $100 or less depending on your situation.

No matter where you’re going, or how extravagant your plans, travel insurance can help protect the money you spend for your trip. Visit SevenCorners.com or talk to one of our licensed experts to find the right coverage for you and your budget.

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