By Tim Leffel
Tim Leffel, an expert on budget travel, is the author of the books The World’s Cheapest Destinations and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his regular tips and rundowns on the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
The phrase “budget travel” can mean different things to a round-the-world backpacker than a family on vacation. Most of the time though, it implies being careful with your money and making some trade-offs for a good reason.
Perhaps scaling back on expenses is what enables the trip to happen in the first place, or being more frugal allows a longer trip. Here are the factors—roughly in descending order—that will have the most impact on your travel budget.
Table of contents
Budget Travel Begins With Your Destination(s)
The longer you’re traveling, the more the destination is going to impact your costs. Even if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, one in Mexico is going to cost you less than one in France. If you’re taking an organized adventure tour, one in Nicaragua is going to be a fraction of the costs of one in Norway.
If you travel independently, the effect is even greater because there’s no middleman. You pay $4 for a taxi in Ecuador instead of $25 for one in Tokyo. That 3-star hotel is $40 in Bangkok instead of $240 in Zurich. Your private all-day boat tour is $100 for two in Indonesia instead of $200 each in Miami. Your three-course meal at the locals’ favorite restaurant is $20 in Montenegro instead of $100 across the Adriatic in Italy.
Unless you’re staying somewhere for free, the cost of lodging is usually the biggest expense in a vacation budget. For backpackers it’s frequently 1/3 of their long haul budget. For family vacationers traveling by car, it can be half. So how can you consistently shave this major cost?
- Travel hacking: earn free nights with hotel chain credit cards.
- Look into home exchange, housesitting, or other alternate arrangements.
- Use multi-site search engines such as Trivago and HotelsCombined.
- Use Hotwire when it’s one or two people to find discounted inventory for cheaper.
- Compare prices for renting an apartment, especially for longer stays.
In other words, don’t take what you see at first glance as the end of your options. You may find a vacation rental for half the price of a hotel and end up with more room plus a kitchen. You may find someone where you’re going that wants to come to where you live and your lodging costs can drop close to zero.
If you’re taking a road trip, then you’ll have gas or rental car expenses, but for long-haul trips the flight cost can be as much or sometimes more than the lodging cost. By being strategic and flexible, however, you can find deals all over the place.
Here are some ideas for reducing this major expense.
- Travel hacking: Rack up frequent flier miles from smart credit card sign-ups and spending or use a service to earn flight credits for hotel stays.
- Keep the variables open on flight days, times, and alternate airports.
- Check prices for all airlines serving that destination. There could be a cheaper route on anything from Allegiant to Norwegian to Southwest and it might not show up on the likes of Kayak or Expedia.
- Set an airfare alert with an online travel agent or site like Airfare Watchdog and watch for a price dip.
Budget Travel and Local Costs
What will you do after you have arrived? Attractions, entertainment, and meals will add up fast, even in a cheap destination, so take these steps to keep costs in line.
- Figure out where the locals are eating and what they’re doing. Find out about free festivals, free entertainment, and free museum days.
- Use local coupons, online discount agencies like Groupon, and attraction/transportation passes when they’ll save you a significant sum.
- Book adventure tours locally, especially in international destinations, unless you see a lower price online.
- Make the most of local transportation options (and walking) to reduce taxi or rental car expenses.
Budget travel takes a bit more effort and flexibility than just paying full price like less clued-in vacationers, but you can travel more often for less or go for longer trips by reducing what you spend per day.