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How to Travel on a Budget: 12 Tips from our Expert

How to Travel on a Budget

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updated: July 9, 2024
edited by Wendy Connett

Most people want to travel. Too few people pull the trigger—often because they assume that their bucket list dreamcation is too pricey.

The truth is that Instagram influencers have ruined the idea of travel. You don’t have to stay in an overwater villa with a two-story water slide to have a fulfilling trip. Abide by a few practical tricks, and you can travel without spending a small fortune. Let’s look at 12 ways to travel on a budget.


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12 Best money-saving travel tips

1. Let the deals guide you

Did you know that tools exist to help you find the cheapest travel to anywhere from your home airport? If you don’t have a firm destination in mind, sites such as Google Flights and Skyscanner allow you to leave your destination airport blank. You can then sort your search results by the cheapest fares and choose a destination that fits your budget. You’ll be surprised how far you can get for a ticket under $50 each way.

2. Book airfare from hubs when traveling internationally

If your travel aspirations lie outside the U.S., your best tactic to save money is searching for flights from major U.S. gateways to your destination—instead of from your home airport.

For example, if you live in Punta Gorda, Florida, you’re less likely to find a screaming deal to Europe from your home airport of Punta Gorda (PGD) than from Miami (MIA) or Orlando (MCO). Driving the 2.5 hours to either of these airports could save you $500+ per ticket. It could even be worth flying to a hub airport just to catch the cheaper transatlantic flight.

Similarly, try to be flexible with your destination airport. If you’d like to visit Paris, take a look at other European airports, such as Frankfurt (FRA), Dublin (DUB), Madrid (MAD), etc. If you find a fare several hundred dollars cheaper, you can book an inexpensive hop from that city to Paris fand save some serious money.

3. Earn a credit card welcome bonus

It’s the golden age of credit cards intro offers. There are currently many welcome bonuses that reward you with potentially more than $1,000 in travel after meeting minimum spending requirements.

For example, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card currently offers 75,000 miles if you spend $4,000 in the first three months after you open the account. They are worth $750 when you book travel through Capital One’s travel portal—and potentially more through using its convert-rewards option with partners. Check the airfare and other prices to be sure you’re getting the best value.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers 60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening. You can cash out these points for a $600 check, or you can redeem them through Chase Travel at a rate of 1.25 cents each toward airfare, hotels, cruises, and more (a value of $750). You can also transfer these points to airline and hotel programs for an even greater value. Read the TIME Stamped guide to Chase transfer partners for more details.

Compare these two cards here.

4. Eat like a local

If your idea of vacation is lounging on a beach chair with a bottomless tequila sour cup in your hand, you’re probably going to spend a lot of money. But if you can pull yourself away from the large resort properties that pride themselves on sequestering guests from local culture, you’ll save money and eat better food.

Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, try to eat where the locals eat. You’ll find cheaper prices and deliciously authentic food.

5. Book an Airbnb (or even a hostel)

Nowadays, it’s hard to find a room at a hotel—a respectable one, anyway—for under $100 per night. You can do significantly better than this by booking an Airbnb, particularly for extended stays. Many hosts offer steep discounts for bookings of at least a week. And if for some reason you’re staying a month or more, you’ll sometimes find whopping 50% discounts.

Depending on your travel style, you may also consider staying with a host family. Airbnb offers the option to rent a room in someone’s house instead of the entire home. This can be incredibly cheap, and also gives you a chance to better understand the local culture.

Another alternative to hotels is hostelling. It gets sort of a bad rap for being a bit seedy and communal, but there are some excellent hostels out there that you can reserve for a fraction of the price of even an Airbnb. If you’re willing to pay slightly more, you can even reserve your own room instead of the standard dormitory setup.

6. Buy your own alcohol when staying at a resort

Alcohol can be a crippling expense at resorts—sometimes as much as $30 per mixed drink, depending on the class of property you visit. If you expect alcohol to be a meaningful expense during your trip, pop over to the local supermarket or liquor store and buy your own stash. You’ll likely be able to get a full 750ml bottle for the price of a single drink from the overpriced bar.

True, it won’t be quite as magical as ordering the property’s signature drinks, but isn’t it worth saving potentially hundreds of dollars during your stay?

7. Book a room with a kitchen

Whether you rent a hotel room, an Airbnb, or otherwise, you can save big by choosing a space with a kitchen. Extended-stay properties like Home2 Suites by Hilton, Hyatt House, or Candlewood Suites have full kitchens that you can use to buy groceries and cook your own meals as opposed to eating out every single day. Not only is it cost-effective, but you’ll probably end up eating healthier.

8. Hold (and use) the right credit card

Airline and hotel credit cards often come with benefits that can lower your out-of-pocket in a powerful way.

For example, airline credit cards such as the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card offer a free checked bag for you and other travelers on your reservation. Because checked bags typically cost $35 each way, this could save you and a travel buddy $140 during a single trip. If you travel with a large family, you’ll save even more.

Many hotel credit cards, such as the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, confer automatic Gold Status that comes with benefits like breakfast privileges during your stay. This benefit alone can save you hundreds of dollars during a stay, depending on the hotel.

Also, some premium travel rewards credit cards, like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, offer complimentary airport lounge access to over 1,400 lounges worldwide. You’ll often find free food and alcohol inside a lounge, saving you from having to pay exorbitant airport restaurant food prices.

Just note that many travel credit cards incur annual fees, so be sure to examine all benefits of the card to decide if it’s worth the investment.

9. Book a destination where your dollar goes further

If you’re looking to save money during your travels, don’t pick a location like St. Barths or Monaco. Find a place where the U.S. dollar is strong.

Southeast Asia is a perfect example where, as long as you stay away from tourist traps, you can find great food and accommodation for a small fraction of what you’d pay for a domestic trip. If you can spring for the flight to a country like Thailand or the Philippines, you’ll be astonished at the favorable exchange rate.

10. Avoid tour groups

There are innumerable benefits to traveling solo as opposed to booking a tour group. Yes, you’ll forfeit a few interesting tidbits about the area relayed by a tour guide. But you’ll gain complete freedom over your schedule and by extension, the ability to avoid massive crowds.

And, of course, you’ll be able to eat where you want instead of inevitably being shepherded into a random gift shop/diner in the middle of nowhere with outrageous prices.

11. Stay inland

The beach is the quintessential “vacation,” and hotels capitalize on that. Plan a vacation away from the beach, or at least stay a mile or two away from the sand to avoid the surcharge that comes with the privilege of a 10-second walk to the ocean.

12. Choose areas that are rich in scenery

The best budget vacations are those that involve the outdoors. Hiking, swimming, even strolling through stunning scenery is often completely free (or reasonably priced, if a park pass is required). The prettier your destination, the less you’ll spend to entertain yourself.

TIME Stamp: Being flexible will save you big on your next trip

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But using a handful of these strategies can take potentially thousands of dollars off your travel bill.

Most important is flexibility. Stay open minded enough to follow the cheap deals—though you may end up in a place you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen, you may discover your new favorite destination.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What is a reasonable travel budget?

A reasonable travel budget is impossible to pinpoint, as everyone’s idea of “budget” is different. That said, many experts recommend sticking to between 5% and 10% of your annual income for your travels.

How much money do you realistically need to travel?

The amount you need to travel depends on many factors, such as whether you’re flying, where you’re going, the size of your party, the length of your stay, and the quality of your accommodations. But no matter your budget, you can craft a vacation that fits your financial restraints. Just try not to go into debt for it.

How can I travel for little money?

Collecting airline miles and hotel points through credit card welcome bonuses and everyday spending is the best way to travel for little money. With a single intro bonus, you could earn enough rewards for a week’s stay at a hotel or a round-trip flight to Europe.

What is the most cost effective way to travel?

Staying at hostels or with host families during your trip is an excellent way to travel for little money. Also keep an eye on travel deals that pop up and allow them to dictate your destination.

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