As I flew over French castles at 1500 hundred feet in what most closely resembled my neighbor’s lawn mower, my life flashed before my eyes as my colleague took the small ultralight into a loop. The thoughts of the waiver I signed on entrance into the tiny plane stating my life insurance was likely null and void if there was an accident stuck in my head. And yet, I survived that experience and enjoyed almost every minute. It was a once in a lifetime experience flying above French castle ruins a decade ago.
That trip and others like it are featured in the stories and pictures of this blog. Every one of them is a unique and memorable experience from my favorite past time, traveling. Every picture you see is one I’ve personally taken, and yet my expenditures on these vacations is less than my neighbor who goes to the local beach for 2 weeks a year. I strongly believe that experiences are the most valuable thing in life, but I also believe in keeping my budget in check. I balance these priorities by travel hacking, the act of reducing my travel costs via various tips and tricks.
The Business Trip Travel Hacking
Many of the trips I have taken started out as business trips where I tacked on a few days or even a week. If you love to travel there is no cheaper way than to take a job that requires business travel. The key of course is to get one that requires movement to a number of diverse locations, and then pray to not be sent to Buffalo in January (been there done that, no offense to those who live up in snow country). Probably a full 50 percent of my photos come from work trips for either me or my wife where we added on time to visit. Most of my trips were multiple weeks, which guarantees a weekend of exploration. If you get the option, leverage it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I only had a high travel job for a few years, and yet I still consistently go on 3 interesting trips a year. The travel job is not required or the only way to keep costs low. One way to keep expenses in check, I wrote about in an earlier post, credit card hacking. You can leverage your credit score to get a travel credit card, and the bonus alone probably pays for the flight. Typically these cards have a higher yield when converted to a flight either directly, or to an airlines frequent flyer program. There are whole forums like flyer talk devoted to the subject of collecting frequent flyer points, so I won’t go much further on this topic.
So you don’t have a travel job, the miles tied to that job, or the credit card points to keep travel costs low. There are still options for travel hacking.
- Travel during non peak season. Watch flight schedules and costs over time, there can be a massive difference in flight and living expenditures depending on the time of year. For example, I went to Costa Rica in December several years ago. The week after Christmas that flight was $1300, however 3 weeks before Christmas though the cost was $300.
- Look for new flight routes as they are often discounted. Last year we went to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. A new flight path was opened from Baltimore to Martinique and because we chose to be on one of the first trips our flights cost less than the cost of a flight to Florida. If you can’t find a new route then use a flight aggregator like Orbitz. Try to book between 3-4 months in advance, or immediately prior to your trip for the best deals. We went again this year, you can read all about it here.
- If your credit card points won’t cover the flight then consider when you book for lower prices. Typically, the cheapest price for a flight is about 2-3 months before a trip. Book much before this and you will get charged more for planning ahead. Less than this and the airline will charge you for the privilege of a last minute trip. Also, Tuesdays tend to have lower prices than other days of the week. Within these constraints, I tend to watch the price of my preferred trip for a few days using an aggregator like Kayak before buying.
- Change your browser when searching for flights. Sometimes sites charge a higher rate for specific browsers, as such I change my browser and rerun a search.
- Stay at a Airbnb rental. The cost of an Airbnb rental is usually half that of a hotel, especially if you stay for a longer period of time. Airbnb rentals do have higher fixed cost security deposits, but for longer stays they end up way ahead. If you don’t feel comfortable dealing with someone privately, well don’t. Many management companies also list their properties on Airbnb. Airbnb gives you the secure payment method, but if you’re more interested in staying at somewhere professionally run you can still do so.
- Buy discounted gift cards for Airbnb or Travelocity on Raise. You can buy gift cards for various travel services on Raise and apply them for additional cash off on your hotel. This also will work for airlines and car rental.
- If you must have a car, rent the rental car away from the airport. This will avoid the dreaded rental car airport fee saving you 20-30 dollars a day. If you have AAA, or work for a major corporation then you probably get a rental car discount, be sure to leverage it when booking. Also be sure to cross shop. In the past I’ve rented a mini van for a large extended family vacation for the same price as a competitor was renting a small sedan by shopping around.
- Wherever possible eat dinner in and lunch out. High end restaurants have just as nice food at lunch as dinner, but they charge less due to the lower lunch time demand. One of the advantages of an Airbnb rental is the full kitchen. You can cook using local food from a grocery store and if you want to eat out do so at lunch time. On our last trip to Germany we did that and our food bill was not much higher than 2 weeks at home.
- The cheap cost of beer didn’t hurt in keeping the Germany costs down. Eat like a local. Local restaurants and local groceries will be significantly less than the price of the tourist foods and likely just as good.
- Instead of going for overpriced tours, buy a map and drive yourself, or take public transport there. I can’t stress enough considering the public transport option as in some countries it will hands down be cheaper to take the public bus then even to drive yourself. This will not only save you the transportation cost but will also allow you to avoid the dreaded filler trips any tour company includes. You know the one I’m talking about, the one on the trip to the volcano where they stop at the “Botanical Garden” owned by the tour guide’s brother that sells cheap souvenirs.
- Which brings us to souvenirs. Don’t buy them. They add significant cost to the trip and chances are you’ll never look at them again after your first week home. To satisfy the kids on this need, we keep the free brochures from the trips we do and obviously the pictures. Still not enough? Then at least try to buy your souvenirs away from the tourist traps, say somewhere like the local grocery store or 5 and dime.
- Travel and spend using a travel credit card. I know I stated up front I wouldn’t talk about miles, so I won’t. What I will point out is when traveling internationally with the right card, you will save significantly on currency conversion. Look for a card with no foreign transaction fees. Need cash for certain places? Get a bank account with a company that reimburses ATM fees and get cash from the ATM using a debit card. Don’t be the person who buys travelers checks or changes cash at a currency conversion kiosk, you’ll get ripped off.
- The final thing to remember is to have fun. You’re not there to see and do everything. If you are not taking enough time to enjoy each thing then it will not only cost you more but it won’t be as enjoyable. Plan the key activities you want to do ahead of time and book them ahead of time at a discount. Then limit your additional activities to those you will really enjoy. Don’t get caught up in the vacation moment and just go somewhere or spend because you are on vacation.
Consider leveraging these travel hacking ideas the next time you travel. They might even make the trip more enjoyable in addition to cheaper. Even if they don’t, there’s nothing that feels better at the end of a vacation then looking forward to the next one you’ve already saved towards.
How do you keep your costs down while traveling?