Let’s talk about money. I know I know, no one likes to talk about money. But I think we’re all aware that money appears to have power in our decisions and lives – money can open doors while also holding us back from seizing opportunities. Recently, I’ve heard so many people lament about how they would love to travel, but simply can’t afford it. I have fantastic news for you, you probably can afford it. Maybe not tomorrow, and maybe it won’t be a week-long stay at the Ritz in Paris, but if your goal is to see more of the world, you can make it happen if you prioritize it. These travel hacks can help you find cheap flights, hotels, and experiences that can make planning your next adventure a reality, and soon.
Be flexible. Most flight booking sites have some helpful search functions that allow you to browse the best prices at nearby airports, or within a flexible date range. You may find that leaving for France on a Thursday instead of a Saturday will save you hundreds of dollars on airfare. Or it may be that driving an extra 45 minutes to a different airport will give you dozens of cheaper, more efficient flight options. If you can be a little flexible with your dates and choice of airport, you’ll give yourself a better chance at finding a good deal.
Be adventurous. One of my favorite starting points for adventure-planning is Kayak Explore. I used this to book a last-minute trip to Belize over a long holiday weekend, and check it regularly to spark my wanderlust and avoid being productive at work. Simply set the dates (either the exact dates or the month/season) that you want to travel, the duration of your trip, and start exploring. Kayak will show you a map of the world, flagging the cheapest flights it can find to spots in dozens of countries. If you’re up for a bit of an adventure to a potentially off-the-beaten-path country, you can probably find some fantastic deals through Kayak Explore. When I booked my Belize trip, I scouted Kayak Explore on Wednesday and found flight deals leaving Friday from D.C. for about $300 roundtrip. Explore is also a fun way to plan your next trip if you don’t know where you want to go – just let the deals decide for you!
Get those points. I know that for some people, the whole “points game” can seem overwhelming. The Points Guy wrote some helpful articles this year on the best starter travel rewards cards and the best travel cards, as well as countless other articles with information on accumulating and spending points, finding flight deals, and other clever travel hacks. I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offered (at the time) a 100,000-points sign up bonus, $300 in travel credit, free Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check, airport lounge access, 3x points on travel and dining, and points worth 50% more than most other cards (while the sign-up bonus is a bit lower now, 50,000 points on this Chase card equate to 75,000 airline miles the card perks are just as awesome – click here to sign up and get all the same benefits I do!). I’ve found that I rack up points through my Chase card more quickly than I can seem to spend them, all while continuing to earn 3x points for travel expenses and earning miles from airlines for my flights. If you have a favorite airline, getting a credit card through that airline also will provide some perks, including miles, free luggage on some airlines, and early boarding. The key is to cater your travel card to both your spending habits and your travel goals: I eat out a lot, but don’t have a car, so a card with points on gas wouldn’t be as helpful for me as, say, 3x points on dining; and I tend to travel internationally a lot, but love to stay at Airbnbs, so I prefer cards that give me great airline miles rather than those that have transferable points to hotel chains.
Live like a local. Personally, I think this is the best way to travel, regardless of expense, if you want to really dig into the culture of the place your visiting. This means staying at locally run/owned B&Bs and resorts, Airbnbs, or even with host families (there are lots of websites that can hook you up with an awesome host family anywhere in the world). Many of these places tend to run cheaper than the big Hyatt or Hilton hotels nearby, and while you may not get the fancy gym or air conditioning with the power to chill all of the Arizona desert, you will likely get some delicious local food, tips and advice about less-touristy sites and activities, and some fantastic rates on accommodation.
Negotiate like a pro. One of the most important things I learned in law school was to never ever pay full price on a hotel. Shocking, I know, but I quickly learned that there is indeed an exorbitant up-charge on hotel rooms and an increasing incentive for hotels to offer discounts for upcoming dates. Although booking a hotel last-minute may not always work in your favor (there’s an interesting mix of leverage balanced between you and the hotel at this point), I have found that when booking rooms just a few days or a week out, I can just about name my price. Hotels often would prefer to have someone stay in a room for 40-50% the normal rate (which was what I paid for my upgraded ocean-view suite in Belize that I booked about two days in advance) than to have it sit empty. Again, you may have more luck negotiating with smaller or local hotels and Airbnbs, but this is not always the case. You can also put your negotiation skills to use in other areas, such as hotel upgrades, taxis, and organized excursions. As a general rule, it can never hurt to ask (nicely, of course).
Do it yourself. Sure, it may be easier to book the hotel or tour packages, with meals and transportation and entry fees included, but you can be sure you’ll be paying at a premium. You may be surprised that it isn’t that difficult or time-consuming for you to figure all this out on your own, and if you’re working within a tight budget, this can be an effective way to cut costs. If your resort charges you for transportation to/from the airport or activities, you may find that grabbing a taxi on your own is half as expensive; a tour company may set up a full-day excursion for you that you could arrange yourself in twenty minutes for a fraction of the price; and from my experience, I never can eat or drink enough to make an all-inclusive food/alcohol package add up, so I usually opt out if I’m on a budget. These added luxuries may make life a bit easier, but for budget travels, try to avoid paying someone to do what you can do for yourself.
Embrace low season. I almost exclusively travel to hot tourism destinations during off-season months. There are more benefits to this strategy than you’d expect. First, you’ll get the best prices. In places where there are rainy seasons, hurricane seasons, or cold winters, hotels and airlines will often have discounted rates that can save you hundreds of dollars on your travels (for example, late this summer, Alaska Airlines ran a promotion on flights to Mexico, California, and Costa Rica, starting at only $99 during off-season months…woah). Second, you’ll get much more privacy and can avoid the chaos of crowds all trying to see the same artifact or visit the same museum or take the same hike at the exact same time. In chilly February, my girlfriends and I were the only three people standing on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher and kissing the Blarney stone; in August at the end of monsoon season, I was able to hike the Himalayas in Nepal in total solitude, sometimes going days without seeing another trekker on what is otherwise a rather popular hiking path other times of the year. Third, from my experience, the rain during “rainy seasons” can often be very minimal, and will likely provide you with the very best scenery: the trees and flowers are in full bloom, the colors are more vibrant, and you get those pretty grey skies and misty mornings that make everything around you feel more magical. It’s why many of these destinations are trying to re-market their monsoon seasons as “green seasons.” As they say in Norway, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Check out this recent article featuring some of the best places to visit during off-season months.
Subscribe to a flight deals tracking service. I currently receive emails from Next Vacay and Skyscanner, which both scour the internet for amazing flight deals leaving from airports near me. With Next Vacay, you’ll get your first month free, and then the annual subscription is only $25 (refundable if you don’t end up booking a flight) – they also weed out flights to less appealing destinations and with tortuous itineraries, so you won’t get any emails boasting about $99 tickets to Amarillo, Texas leaving at 3:30 in the morning. Skyscanner is similar, but also has a pretty thorough app that will give you information on last minute deals, best deals by the month, quick getaways, etc. There are tons of services like these out there, and most are free (or close to it), so it never hurts to sign up – you may end up having the next perfect vacation deliver itself into your inbox!
Consider volunteering. This might not at all be what you had in mind for your trip to South Africa or Thailand or Chile, but it may be the best thing you ever do. If you can link up directly with an organization that does interesting work and if you have the skills from which it could benefit, you can probably travel for much less that you would if you visited the country as a tourist. The organization may help connect you with another worker or host family that can house you or provide you with authentic home-cooked meals for a small donation, and rather than investing in pricey tourist activities, you can spend your time and money on rich cultural experiences and deep personal connections with locals. Some expenses may even end up being tax deductible charitable donations, but if not, you can still come home afterward knowing that the money you did spend went toward a good cause.