One thing that I have been asked about many times is how I get to travel as much as I do with traveling costing as much as it does. Or at least as much as people think it does. Yes the plane tickets, accommodations, food, entrance fees, and souvenirs can add up but they don’t have to be as draining to your bank account as you might think. There are loads of things you can do to make your dollar stretch a little farther, or as I like to think of it, getting the most value for my money. It isn’t always about doing things the cheapest way possible but really balancing out the little splurges here and there, with freebies or things that cost very little. With a little planning you really can do a whole lot more for a whole lot less.
Before You Go
- Create a budget and commit to sticking to it: Along with this will also come some research into the prices of flights, accommodations, food, and attractions so you can set a realistic budget. If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to set a souvenir budget for them as well so they won’t be pestering the whole trip wanting this and that. The past couple of trips I’ve given the kiddo $50 for souvenirs and anything like milkshakes etc. while he was in the teen lounge on the cruise. Anything he wanted to spend beyond that was on him. It’s amazing how they’ll shop around a little when there is a limit.
- Consider traveling during the off-season: Not only will airfares and hotels be less expensive during these times but the lines for major attractions can be cut down to almost nothing. In 2005 I was able to book airfare+7 nights hotel in Paris for $670…but it was in February. We were looking at Cancun originally but it was around the same price since everyone wanted to get out of the cold. But you know what? Paris is GREAT that time of year. We walked right in to the Louvre, hardly any wait at the Eiffel Tower and one morning woke up to the prettiest dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. Don’t dismiss going during off-season. It might be one of your best trips.
- Consider alternatives to hotels like hostels and AirBnB: Hostels have been around for a long time and seem to be associated only to 20-something backpackers but you can get private rooms too. You might have to give up the luxury of your own bathroom but considering how long you really spend in one it might be something you can live without if it means getting to spend an extra day away. AirBnB seems to be really catching on and I’ve heard lots of great reviews. Basically people rent out rooms or their whole house when they are away and it can be a whole lot less expensive than a hotel, especially if you consider many will give you use of kitchen and laundry facilities. We’re giving it a try for our trip to Canada coming up in December so I’ll definitely be back to weigh in on what we find are the pros and cons.
- Make an itinerary: Some folks think that planning takes all the fun out of traveling and vacations and while I’m not saying you have to plan everything right down to the minute, a good itinerary can go a long way towards seeing as much as possible and keeping costs low. Starting with that trip to Paris in 2005, to our Normandy and Ypres “Battle Plan”, to our upcoming trip to Canada, we’ve been making itineraries for all the trips we’re taking. Planning like this allows you to find the deals -for example we’re planning to visit the Canadian War Museum from 4-8pm on the Thursday we’re in town- this will save us $32 in admission fees! It also allows you to see if a city pass would be a worthwhile purchase. Many of the big cities have them and allow you to visit unlimited attractions (on their list) for one, three, five days etc. but they are almost always consecutive days. Knowing this, and knowing that many of the museums we wanted to visit in Paris were closed on Mondays, we opted to do things not included in the Paris Pass on Monday and start our consecutive days on Tuesday instead. Without a little advance planning you could miss out on saving that money.
- Exchanging money: Don’t use the exchange booths at the airport on your way out of town. They charge high fees for the convenience of using them and you don’t really need them. If you’re going to a major city there will be an ATM at the airport when you arrive that you can use and you’ll get a better exchange rate. If you will feel better arriving with some cash in hand contact your bank and have them order you some funds, just give them enough time as they might not have the currency you need on hand. Another option is to use minimal cash and use a credit card that waives the foreign transaction fees to save yourself a little more money. As many of these are geared towards travelers they’ll likely come with extra benefits like a free checked bag, priority boarding, and air miles. These little things will add up to some nice savings after a while too.
Food and Drink
- Drink tap water: If it’s available and safe to drink this can save a lot of money while you travel. Unlike in the US soft drinks aren’t served in such big servings with free refills, plus they usually cost up to $3-4 each! If you bring a water bottle with you fill it up each morning and drop it in your purse. It’ll likely be much more refreshing during the day and you can refill it along the way. If you do order water at a restaurant be sure to specify tap water though or you’ll likely end up with bottled water which is just as much as the soft drinks. You could easily drink away $50/person if you order drinks with every meal during a week. That’s a couple of admission tickets!
- Have some picnics: Even if it is a picnic in your hotel room it’ll almost certainly be a cheaper alternative to a meal out. If you take a road trip you could pop a little cooler and some ice packs in the car (or I’ve even taken them to France with me in my suitcase) and then you can buy some goodies at the grocery store for some inexpensive meals and snacks on the road. If your airBnB or hotel has kitchen facilities then even better. You could easily do breakfast before you leave and freeze your ice packs each night. Plus picnics are so very romantic. Win-win. ;-)
- Skip the alcohol: This goes along with skipping the soda but in addition to the money spent on the drinks themselves (which can be oh so expensive…like $12 on the cruise ship. Ouch!) it also helps eliminate wasteful spending like buying all your new friends a round or pizza for everyone (after you’ve had a few too many and aren’t making great decisions).
- Check out the local customs for tipping: Other countries don’t generally tip as much as we do in the US so save your money, the waiter isn’t expecting it and in some places they might even be offended if you leave a tip that’s too big.
- Get around as the locals do: Locals use public transportation like buses and subways and many big cities have easy to use systems. Some city passes come with public transportation included which is one option. Or you could get the local public transportation cards like the Oyster Card in London or Navigo in Paris (if you can get a photo) or the Paris Visite card for tourists.
- Forgo the expensive airport shuttles: If you don’t mind spending a little extra time getting to your hotel you can take the metro or bus from airports in big cities and save quite a bit of money. Packing light is key here so you don’t have to lug heavy suitcases up and down stairs in metro stations, although there are still kind souls out there that will likely help you if needed. Not that I’ve ever had way too many suitcases to carry up the stairs in a train station in Rotterdam or anything. Me? Nahhhh :-)
- Walk: In the US we’re very much a culture that drives everywhere but in other countries that’s not always the case and the cities are very pedestrian friendly. It might even be quicker to walk sometimes than taking the subway between stations!
Sightseeing and Souvenirs
- Find the freebies: Many cities have free museums, parks, and other attractions that are world class attractions that you won’t want to miss, you just have to do a little research to make sure you find them. Do a Google search for “free things to do in ….” and name your place. You’re bound to find some options. Be sure to check out each attraction’s web site as you may find that it is free on a particular day of the week, or evening, and then put it on the plan to see then. If you are buying public transportation passes they will likely come with some discounts/coupons too. For example if you buy tickets on the National Rail around London you can take advantage of their 2for1 offers (we saved about $50 recently for our week in London using this), and the Paris Visite card also offers discounts on some attractions. And if you’re a student or senior, don’t forget your ID cards for reduced fares almost anywhere!
- Minimize the souvenirs: Make photos and wonderful memories your #1 souvenirs. They are easy to pack for the trip back home and don’t have to be expensive. Personally I used to buy more souvenirs, especially for friends and family but realized they probably don’t really want it. It was your trip and those things mean something to you, but not them. If I do buy them something now it is usually a little food treat that they won’t have to worry about keeping just to avoid hurting my feelings. I’ve also limited my own shopping to a Christmas tree ornament for a new place and maybe one unique little item for my home. One that has gotten a ton of use is a little ashtray I got at a pottery shop in Tuscany- it’s held keys by my front door over the years and now is used as a spoon rest which makes me smile and remember that trip whenever I cook.
There are certainly more ways to save money while traveling but those are the ones I rely on the most in my own travels. Not being a millionaire I find that by making a few small sacrifices, cutting some corners, and putting in some time to research the best ways to use my money, I can have a rewarding and memorable trip that allows me to experience tons of great sights, attractions, and events.