Becky Hart | Feb 17, 2023
Saving money on travel is possible. You just have to make some smart decisions along the way. Those decisions aren’t always easy, though. So how do you travel on a budget? Sven has some smart tips for figuring out how to save money on travel and how to know when spending more can pay off.
Before we dive in, it’s important to recognize the difference between price and value. Price is essentially a dollar amount. Value is the importance you place on something. If a meal and a toy each costs $15, they’re the same price. But if you’re really hungry, the meal has higher value than a toy you can't eat.
Alternatively, compare a robot vacuum for $100 and a broom at $5. The prices are obviously different. The cheaper broom seems like a better deal, but what if the robot vacuum saves you time and energy, reducing the number of times you have to sweep up dog hair and stray Cheerios? The vacuum’s convenience might increase its value so much that it becomes the better deal despite the higher cost.
Staying on budget when you travel is important. Just remember that pinching every last penny might not be to your advantage. You still want to enjoy your trip, and if vacationing on a tight budget prevents that, it’s not worth it. Those no-frills financial decisions might not be costing you money, but that doesn’t mean you won’t pay for them. It will just be in terms of time, convenience, headaches, and temper tantrums. If spending more gets you better value, it’s usually worth it.
Is it cheaper to fly or drive is a question that many of us are asking right now. Like many travel decisions, there are multiple factors to consider. For one or two people making a longer trip, flying is typically more cost-effective. If you’re taking a shorter trip, road tripping is usually the way to go, at least economically.
For a family or larger group, traveling by car will usually be less expensive. That’s because the cost of driving is the same regardless of whether there’s one passenger or five in the vehicle. And obviously, if you’re flying, the airline expects you to pay a separate airfare for each traveler.
Sven Says: If you’re asking what is the cheapest way to travel, there is no “right” answer. However, if you’re trying to save money and you’re not traveling solo, a road trip is probably your best option.
Like many of the items on this list, whether to book a non-stop flight versus one with multiple connections isn’t as black-and-white as it seems. From a purely financial point of view, connecting flights are usually better. As soon as you add a layover, the price often drops.
However, remember that time is also “money.” Convenience can be a form a currency, too. It’s the idea of value we mentioned above. Direct flights get you to your destination faster and usually with less stress, especially if you’re flying with kids. And if speed and comfort are priorities for you, that's a major tic in the pro column for direct flights.
Sven Says: If the direct flight is only minimally more expensive and you can afford it, splurge. They just make life easier. Learn more about how to save money on flights.
No-frills airlines are less expensive for a reason. The airfare itself might be cheaper than other, more mainstream airlines, but the price can easily creep up due to additional expenses and fees. With most budget airlines, you will have to pay for luggage — checked and carry-on — as well as snacks and drinks, in-flight entertainment, the ability to pick your seat, even to print your boarding pass.
We don’t mean to say that budget airlines are always a bad idea. When you want a spontaneous weekend getaway, only need an overnight bag, and that super-low fare is just too good to pass up, then who are we to stop you? Just know what you’re getting yourself into first.
Sven Says: In most situations, opt for the mainstream airline, which may end up being a comparable price after factoring in fees and add-ons.
We all know by now that most airlines charge you to check a bag. A few have also added fees for carry-on luggage, although those are less common, and the fees tend to be lower than for checked luggage.
Sven Says: Be considerate of your fellow passengers and don’t push the limits of what “carry-on” really means. If you can reasonably fit everything in a backpack, skip the luggage carousel and save money with a carry-on.
If you do need to check a bag, do the math and see if upgrading to a first- or business-class seat that includes free checked bags ends up saving you money in the end. Alternatively, consider shipping things to your destination if you can. This is a great hack for transporting gifts if you’re traveling at holiday time.
When it comes to booking through Airbnb or a similar vacation rental site, the prices can vary dramatically. What a vacation rental costs depends on the city, how much space you’re getting (just a bedroom, an entire house, or something in between), and what amenities are included. Of course, the same goes for hotels, although they tend to have a bit less variety, both in terms of what’s provided and what they cost.
To make one comparison, however, we researched the cost of accommodations for a week-long stay in Chicago. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom Airbnb property that included a kitchen, washer, and outdoor dining area cost approximately $260 per night. The listing said the property could accommodate five guests.
A hotel in the same neighborhood with two beds and maximum occupancy of four guests averaged about $400 per night. Even factoring in the Airbnb property’s cleaning and service fees, the rental’s $2,095 total for the week was still significantly less than the traditional hotel’s $3,288.
Sven Says: If you’re traveling as a larger family or group, rental homes often provide more space for less cost.
If you’re evaluating this from a budget perspective, then eating at restaurants will always be more expensive. This is especially true if you decide to dine inside an amusement park or within a few blocks of a major tourist attraction.
Although eating out is more expensive, trying local restaurants is a great way to get a feel for your destination’s culture. Many destinations have a specialty you won’t want to miss. Think Baltimore crab cakes, New Orleans beignets, or anything with green chiles in New Mexico.
Sven Says: Do some of both. Prepare your own food, such as easy and economical sandwiches, for some meals. When you’re ready to splurge on dining out, choose something special.
Sometimes we like to go off the grid on vacation, no emails, phone calls, or social media. Technology can often keep us from focusing on the present. It can also prevent us from fully unwinding during what should be a relaxing trip. But whether you can unwind or not doesn’t impact your budget. When you’re trying to save money on travel, technology can help.
Sven Says: Use all the technology, apps, and online recommendations you can to find the best deals.
There’s no single answer for whether it’s better to travel solo or in a group. Financially, a solo traveler often ends up spending more, particularly on lodging. Few hotels offer single-occupancy rates, so you might end up paying for a double whether you use the other bed or not.
On the other hand, group travel is more expensive simply because of volume. Instead of buying one ticket to a museum, you have to purchase several for the whole family or group. Maybe you don’t even want to go to the museum, but you compromised with your travel companion. Now, you’re spending money on a ticket you wouldn’t otherwise if you’d been alone.
Sven Says: Travel with someone who has the same style and budget as you. There will be less of a need to compromise, and you can share expenses. Agree before you leave if you’re OK with doing some things solo, so if you don’t want to visit another museum, no one’s feelings will be hurt if you do something else on your own.
Bleisure travel is what you get when you combine a business trip with a personal vacation. Your employer might pay for your airfare or the cost of gas to get to and from your destination, which can make getting away less expensive for you.
In fact, Skytrax hypothesized that bleisure travel is why the popularity of premium travel has increased this year compared to pre-pandemic, and why the cost of premium seats on airlines has gone up 36% during that same time.
Sven Says: Take advantage of bleisure travel if your employer is willing to split the bill. Don’t tie all your trips to work, though. Make at least one of your getaways a true vacation where you can take a full mental break from work, even if it costs a bit more.
Disney on a budget is tough these days. The cost of park tickets, resorts, food, transportation, skip-the-line or fast-track passes, and souvenirs has been climbing with each passing year. And compared to other cruise lines, Disney Cruises tend to be higher priced as well.
A week-long trip to Disney World, with most of those days at the parks, could easily cost more than $1,000 per night for a resort and another $600 per ticket. Clearly, the price tag can get pretty hefty, pretty quickly.
When we compared that to a seven-night Eastern Caribbean Disney Cruise, prices ranged from about $1,300 to $4,300 per person.* Perhaps the biggest differences between the cruise versus the theme park are that most meals are included in the cost of the cruise, and you obviously don’t get to visit the iconic parks when you’re sailing.
Sven Says: If you don’t mind skipping Magic Kingdom and are looking for a more cost-conscious way to have a “Disney experience,” choose the cruise.
* Price research was conducted in October 2022, looking at cruises scheduled to sail in November of the same year.
With slow travel, you stay in one or two locations for longer periods of time instead of jumping from one destination to another throughout a tour (whether an organized tour or one you plan on your own).
Because you’re more settled, there tends to be fewer costs associated with transportation and more opportunity to cook your own meals, saving on restaurant bills. You're also less likely to be in an over-touristed area, many of which come with inflated prices.
Sven Says: Slow down to save money.
Buying a refundable ticket from your airline is increasingly popular, both because flight cancellations are more common and because the cost of airfare has gone, well, sky-high. Travel Weekly reported that airfares increased by 42% in September 2022 compared to the same month in 2021.
It’s important to remember that a refundable airline ticket is just a ticket. It doesn’t provide protection for other trip expenses such as the hotel stay at your destination that you don’t use when your flight gets cancelled. Travel insurance, on the other hand, can.
Sven Says: Do your research. A refundable ticket may or may not be less expensive than travel insurance, which is priced partly based on your insured trip cost. If you only need to protect your flight — maybe you’re staying with family at your destination and have no trip expenses other than your flight — then a refundable ticket may be better for you.
If you’re trying to protect a larger investment in your trip, travel insurance can provide more coverage, depending on your situation. You will likely pay more, but the peace of mind and reimbursements if you need to cancel your trip for a covered reason can end up saving you money.
Shoulder-season and off-season travel is typically less expensive because demand is lower. Hotels, restaurants, and other companies offer better deals to try to lure you in.
However, the reason that demand is lower is because that destination’s primary draw is missing. The off-season for a ski resort, for example, could be the middle of summer when it’s too hot for snow. There might still be plenty to see and do, just not the main attraction.
Sven Says: If your main goal is to save money, travel during the shoulder season.
When you’re trying to save money, spending more can seem counterintuitive. Remember, though, that an extra expense on something like travel insurance can save you money in a way. If you need to cancel your trip for a covered reason, for example, you could be reimbursed for some trip expenses. Yes, you will have spent money on travel insurance, but it will be less than you would lose if you didn’t have that trip protection during an unexpected mishap.
Not all travel insurance is the same, and more coverage is not necessarily better. When you’re trying to stay on a budget, talk to a licensed agent to make sure you’re getting the right kind of coverage for your trip.
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