Most budget travel articles tell you things like where to find the best hotel deals or give advice like "find restaurants where kids eat free." Those are great tips, but they keep you firmly rooted in expensive travel industry products and services. This article focuses on tips you won't hear from big travel magazines whose revenue comes from hotel and airline ads.
Consider credit card companion fares (and get more than one)
We fly from Seattle to California several times per year with our family of four. Let's assume a roundtrip ticket costs $300 (it is often much more). Instead of paying about $1200 per trip, we pay about $850. That's a savings of $350. If the fare is higher, we save even more.
How do we do it? We use the $50 companion fare tickets that come with our credit cards, and we have enough accounts to accommodate all our planned trips
Here's the math:
Base Fare for Paying Adult $300 x2 = $600
Credit Card Annual Fee: $75 x2 = $150
Companion Fare : $50 x2 = $100
Total for two adults and two children: $850
Most people assume that you can only have one Airline credit card per airline per family, but in reality I have never had a problem adding additional cards and associating them with my frequent flyer number. Just make sure you don't actually USE all that extra credit to run up debt!
Re-negotiate your rates
Most travelers (myself included) like to reserve hotel rooms and rental cars well ahead of time to make sure they'll get what they want. That's a fine strategy, but don't forget to check prices again a few days before your trip.
Rental car prices often go down as dates get closer, and few car agencies have cancellation fees. A day or two before your trip is a great time to search the rates again for substantial savings. Hotels sometimes offer last minute specials, and most allow changes up to 24 hours before scheduled arrival.
Save Money on a Hotel By Not Staying In One.
A hotel isn't your only option when you travel. Home Swaps (where you find a family who wants to trade homes with you for a few days, a week, or even months) are becoming more popular. You can find home exchanges all over the world on websites like HomeExchange.com
Worried about having someone else in your home? Reputable, high quality apartment rentals are also available all over the world. Many are in central locations or historic neighborhoods that have few affordable hotels. Apartment rentals can be much cheaper than hotels, especially for families who normally reserve two adjoining rooms. Having a kitchen in your apartment or swap means that you can save even more money by cooking your own food, fresh from local markets, instead of dining out for three meals a day. Many apartments also have a washing machine, which means that you'll save money on expensive hotel laundry services and be able to pack lighter.
The best rewards of a swap or apartment rental aren't monetary though, they make your trip better by giving you more space and better opportunity to meet locals.
Check out our tips for finding a reliable vacation rental at Choosing a Vacation Rental
Save even more on vacation rentals
Rental property owners don't like to put all their eggs in one basket and often work with more than one agency, some of which have cheaper rates than others. Sometimes owners even rent directly on Craigslist or VRBO. There is no easy way to find out, but as you search different rental agency sites you will often see the same properties appear over and over.
Many rental apartments are used primarily by long-term business travelers, making them even more affordable during November and December when business travel is light.
Flying is Not Always Fastest or Cheapest
On the East Coast, bus service between major cities like Boston and New York has become so competitive that you can sometimes find fares as low as $1. Traveling with Kids over 2? Unlike most airlines, many bus services and Amtrak offer discounts for children, making your overall cost lower. For example, on Amtrak passengers 2 to 15 years of age usually ride for 50 percent off the full adult fare. Infants ride free.
Not only can train or bus travel often cheaper than flying or driving, but it can actually be faster that when you add in the need to get to the airport early, travel time to airports located outside the city center, baggage claim, and inevitable flight delays. If you are traveling with young children, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much more quickly the trip passes when children can explore the different cars on a train instead of being cramped in an airline seat.
Trains really beat out air travel and driving in Europe where fast trains often connect cities like Paris and London or Madrid and Sevilla and gas prices are double the prices here in the US.
Self-Cater and Eat Where Locals Eat
Ordering room service for breakfast is not only expensive, but all that waiting takes time away from sightseeing. Consider buying a carton of milk and a box of cereal or bread and jam to keep in your room. If you start your day with a simple breakfast, you'll be able to snack at that great local bakery you discover once you leave the hotel.
Lunch is a great time to have a picnic made up of local specialties from a farmer's market or grocery store. Shopping where the locals do means that you can sample the most expensive gourmet food items cheaper than you can eat out. Not in the mood for a picnic? Want to try one of the hottest restaurants in town? Lunch is a great time to eat a fancy meal because prices can be half (or less) of the cost for dinner at the same restaurant and reservations can be easier to get.
Be on the lookout for great locals restaurants. Fodors guides do a good job of listing cheap eats that have terrific food, but you can also find your own by watching for out-of-the way places that are packed with locals even at off-hours. Need more help finding restaurants? Check out our articcle on Finding Great Local Restaurants on Your Vacation
Carrying bottled water and snacks with you each day (buy them at a local grocery store) can save a lot of money over the course of a trip. Better yet, help the environment by packing your refillable water bottle and carrying it with you each day.
Take Public Transit, not Taxis, Tourist Busses or Rental Cars
Taxis can be expensive (and hard to flag down when you need them most). Rental Cars often end up being more difficult than convenient when you are visiting a city with traffic or expensive parking. Instead, invest in a great map (we like the Streetwise Maps and Michelin's Spiral Bound city maps) so that you can find your way around. Next, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the local subway system and bus routes.
If you like to plan ahead, many cities have their bus maps online and make it easy to find your route using the start and finish addresses. Google maps also has maps for many bus systems Planning ahead isn't necessary though, you can use the bus maps available at bus stops in your destination and ask for help from locals.
Busses and subways have day passes or multi-day passes that can save you even more money.
The less you bring, the less you'll spend on baggage to carry it all in, and you won't risk over-weight fees or extra baggage fees. Families often think they are doomed to multiple checked bags and extra baggage fees, but here are some helpful tips to help you cut down the bulk:
- Instead of bringing everything with you, rent or borrow what you need at your destination (or better yet, figure out how to do without it). For example, if you're headed to visit family, consider buying inexpensive baby items to keep there. It might be cheaper and easier over the long haul. For example, some car seat carriers cost just as much as a second car seat that you keep at grandma's house. Renting at your destination is always cheaper than a trip to the chiropractor after your return home…
- Order disposable items to be delivered to your hotel instead of carrying them with you. Amazon.com sells diapers, wipes, snacks, disposable sippy cups, and other baby items and there is no delivery charge if you spend at least $25. Most hotels will accept deliveries that arrive before you do as long as you have a confirmed reservation.
- Check out our article on Packing Light With Kids for more ideas.
Look for online coupons to attractions and restaurants
For those who plan ahead (even the night before) there are a variety of discounts at popular amusement parks, tourist sites, and restaurants. Amusement parks have multi-day passes or special rates for admission late in the day. Museums often have one day per month where admission is free. Cities often combine popular attractions into city passes, and you can often find online coupons for attractions and restaurants.
Start by checking the websites for the attractions you are visiting. Next, use Google to search for coupons online. Discounted tickets and coupons can also be found on Ebay (but make sure that you understand the transferability and expiration dates of the tickets). Once you have arrived at your destination, you can also ask your hotel for discount coupons or ask about auto club discounts at the ticket booth.
Buying discounted tickets ahead of time not only saves you money, but you can often skip the lines as well.
Don't break the bank on travel toys
Parents can be so desperate for the kids to behave on the flight that they buy lots of expensive toys and games hoping to keep everyone content. One or two is ok, but there's no need for more than that. Bring books, music, activity books, and simple crafts or check out our helpful tips for Entertaining Your Child on a Plane and packing Travel Toys You Already Have at Home
Creating A Budget for Your Family Vacation
Easy Ways To Track Travel Expenses and Stick To Your Vacation Budget