Travel hacking is not for the faint of heart.
I recently booked first-class seats using my points for “free”, but make no mistake, it definitely wasn’t free.
It cost me my time.
I spent at least 10 minutes every day for several weeks searching for those seats. While I think it was worth it, not everybody wants to spend their time rooting around for available flights, or tracking minimum spends on credit cards.
And that’s OK.
Playing the travel hacking game can result in huge wins, but even if you decide to opt out, there are still PLENTY of ways to save money on travel. So if you’ve ever felt like you’ve been sitting out on the sidelines of the travel hacking world, then this post is for you. Here are my top ways to save money on travel, not a single credit card signup in sight.
1. Travel in the Shoulder Season
This is my favorite super underrated money-saving move, because you can save hundreds of dollars without really sacrificing the experience.
First, ummm, what’s shoulder season? Here are the differences among the three seasons:
- High – The busiest months to travel with the best weather
- Shoulder – The months before and after high season
- Low – The least crowded months with less-than-optimal weather
Let me give you a real-life example of how timing your travel can affect your budget:
I’m going to Southeast Asia in late December and early January, which is when everyone else is going, so it’s high season. There’s this iconic hotel in Hanoi, the Sofitel Metropole, that I had my eye on.
Here’s a sampling of Sofitel Metropole nightly prices depending on the dates:
- Mid-September – $247
- Late December – $464
- Mid-January – $287
If I booked this hotel in December I’d be paying $200 more per night, which means a three-night stay would cost me an extra $600. For the same exact hotel and room as I’d get in September or January. Now I’m going to Southeast Asia in December, because it works the best for my schedule, but this is an example of how traveling during peak season can cost buckets of money. On the flip side, traveling in the low season was exactly how we got a great deal on a posh hotel in Miami.
Spring and fall are my favorite times to travel, but they also happen to be the shoulder season for lots of popular destinations. Not only is the weather usually much more pleasant, but the sights are less crowded (always a plus), and everything is just a little bit cheaper. Here are some places I’ve visited in the shoulder season:
- April – New Mexico (US)
- May – Hawaii, London, Paris, Italy
- June – Miami (US)
- September – Las Vegas and Southwestern national parks (US)
- November – Japan
2. Be Flexible on Which Days You Fly
Some people have fixed days where they are allowed to take time off work, but if your timing is more like, “I want to go to Japan sometime in the spring,” then you have a much higher chance for saving money.
For airfare, I really like using Google Flights, because it has a handy calendar view where you can see which days will be the cheapest. Changing which day of the week you go can make a difference. For example, if I wanted to go to Tokyo for two weeks, the lowest price for flying out on Sunday, April 7th would be $1,058:
But if I flew out on Monday, April 8th instead, the cheapest ticket would cost $861.
So just by shifting the dates by one day, I’d be able to save over $200 per ticket.
3. Sign Up for Deal Alerts
Flight sales and mistake fares are the biggest ways to save money on your trip. But who has time to vet through all these deals?
Enter fare alert e-mails.
You subscribe to these e-mail services, and they send you a summary e-mail of all the deals they found that day.
I used to use The Flight Deal, but now I use Scott’s Cheap Flights. The services are totally free, but in every e-mail you still have to sort through a list of dozens of deals to find one that departs from your local airport. This is why I pay $39 a year for Scott’s premium subscription, so I only see deals that depart from New York City airports. I don’t need to wade through deals that aren’t relevant to where I live. The other thing I like about Scott’s Cheap Flights is it only sends international deals, as I don’t travel much domestically. Plus, every now and then you’ll get a business-class flight deal!
If you are looking for deals for a specific destination, there’s another service that I just signed up for called Airfare Watchdog. You can set alerts for certain city pairs (like NYC → Paris), and you can set up to notifications for hotel deals in specified cities.
I also like following The Points Guy on Twitter. I’m sad to say that I check Twitter way more than I check e-mail. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have come across the Emirates two-for-one deal from NYC to Milan.
4. Pick Destinations That Are Cheap Once You Get There
Sometimes you need to get over the hurdle of flights costs, because the destination is where all the savings lie.
Southeast Asia is a favorite destination of mine for budget travel. Sure, the flight might cost anywhere from $600 to $1,500. But once you get there, the food and lodging are incredibly cheap. Like ‘$30 per night for a decent hotel and less than $10 on food per day’ cheap. If you think about it, choosing a less expensive destination is a way to extract a lot more value out of your money. I’d rather pick a cheaper country where I can live like royalty than try to do a place like Paris on a shoestring budget. No eating out in Paris? No can do.
In Europe, consider less expensive countries like Portugal, Albania or parts of Greece.
In South America, think Bolivia or Paraguay instead of Peru.
5. Leverage That Frugal Costco Membership
When I was researching Hawaii hotels last year, I noticed people in the reviews saying that they found deals by booking their vacations through Costco Travel. I know what you’re thinking:
Since when does Costco sell vacations, and are they crappy packages no one wants?
Nothing could be further than the truth. I did some research and Costco Travel can actually be the key to getting a pretty luxurious vacation for less. I was surprised that these packages included high-end resort chains like The Westin, Andaz or St. Regis properties. So, basically perfect for honeymooner types.
Since I’m interested in going to Hawaii again, I checked out a package for Kauai. A five-night vacation package at the Grand Hyatt Kauai would cost $3,679.76 total, or $1,839.88 per person. That includes a 5-star hotel, convenient flights, and a full-sized car.
But if I booked the hotel, flight and car separately myself, the total price comes out to $4,267.42:
- $2,735.01 for a five-night stay
- $1,096 for two round-trip flights
- $436.41 for a car rental
By booking the package through Costco, I’d be saving over $500. Not bad! On top of those savings, I’d also get extras like daily breakfast for two and a $100 Hyatt gift card.
If you choose to book through Costco Travel, the main benefit is that it literally takes a few minutes to book a vacation that includes good flights, hotels and car rentals. So if you’re strapped for time or don’t like planning, this is a good option for you. Plus, the package will most likely include extras like daily breakfast or other hotel credits. But if the package prices are still out of your budget, Costco also has packages that cost $499 or less per person.
As always, after finding a vacation package you like, make sure to cross-reference other sites to confirm that you’re actually getting the lowest price.
6. Don’t Overlook Treasures in Your Own Country
In the US, we have some fantastic national parks. One of my favorite trips I’ve ever done is actually in the US, White Sands National Park in New Mexico. I’d also love to do a road trip through the Northwest one day.
The point is, you probably have some world-class sights that are closer to home. Closer to home = less expensive.
When I was growing up, I took where I lived for granted. Only when I left home and came back for visits did I decide to check out some local sights. Well, it blew my mind when I pulled into the parking lot and saw that people from other countries had flown to my hometown to see this particular attraction. That has been right in my backyard the entire time. Don’t be like me and get so caught up in the allure of the far-flung destinations that you totally overlook the closer-to-home adventures.
7. Travel Like a Local
OK, so I live in a city that’s popular with tourists. But here’s the thing: Most people who live in New York don’t spend a second in Times Square unless they have to.
My husband and I met his brother around Times Square for a “quick lunch” once, and I’m still reeling at how much that pizza cost. There’s nothing wrong with hitting up the tourist hot spots, but if you take the local route, not only will you have a more authentic experience, but you’ll be able to save some money in the process.
Instead, look for Airbnbs or smaller inns instead of hotel chains, stay in neighborhoods where the locals live, take the public transportation instead of tourist buses, and avoid eating at places where you see a bunch of other tourists.
8. Pick a Hotel with Free Breakfast
Imagine if you’re traveling as a family of four. Food costs can add up fast. One of my friends loves to stay at Hampton Inn hotels for this very reason–they’re famous for their free breakfast.
Let’s say breakfast out of pocket would cost $10 per person. If there are four of you, and you’re on a 6-night vacation, you could end up saving around $240.
For a list of hotel chains that offer free breakfast, start with this. When searching for smaller hotels or inns, use filters on a site like Hotels.com so you can find the ones that offer free breakfast.
9. Save Up for It
If travel is really important to you then set aside money for it every month. What I used to do is steadily sock money into a separate savings account that I earmarked just for travel. Let’s say I went to Japan and spent $2,000 for the entire trip. When I’d come home from the trip, I’d move the $2,000 from savings account into my checking account. This was a way to ensure I definitely wasn’t spending money I didn’t have.
10. Cut Back on Spending in One Category
Even the cheapest vacations can still feel out of reach. But everyone has a vice.
If you’re finding it difficult to save up for your travels and maintain your current lifestyle, then consider eliminating spend in one category that’s less important to you. At least, temporarily.
Can you pack your lunches three times a week for a few months? What about going on a shopping ban?
Just make sure to do something with the money you “saved.” You can use an app like Tip Yourself to save money you normally would have spent.
And there you have it! Ten legit ways to save money on travel that don’t have a thing to do with signing up for credit card bonuses.
OK, your turn! What are some ways you’ve saved money on travel that don’t involve travel hacking?
Feature Image: Unsplash