How to Travel on a Budget

You don’t have to be rich to explore the world. Follow our expert tips to save on costs no matter where you want to go.

Written by Kristen Kuchar / April 6, 2022

Quick Bites

  • Flexibility—from your travel dates to where you stay—is key when it comes to saving money.
  • Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, flights are cheapest if you start your trip on a Wednesday through Saturday.
  • Take advantage of membership discounts for extra savings and other perks.
  • You can save almost 45% on average by simply opting for a four-star property over a five-star.

For many of us, traveling is definitely in the “wants” part of our budget. But taking a trip might be more essential than you think.

Christie Hudson, senior public relations manager for Expedia, says that “studies show time and again that travel and regular vacations are essential to our health and well-being.”

To help you get the break you deserve, we’ve got expert advice on how to save money on everything from airfare and hotels to food and entertainment. Bon voyage!

Inside this article

  1. Airfare
  2. Lodging
  3. Food
  4. Rental cars
  5. Gas and other transportation
  6. Entertainment

Airfare

Plane tickets are a huge part of travel costs and, depending on where you’re headed, often the most expensive part of a trip.

“The best way to save on airfare is to be flexible with your travel dates,” says Hudson. “Travel during the week instead of the weekend and avoid those popular holiday travel moments, like Memorial Day weekend or spring break.”

Here are more ways to save:

Booking flights

Book during the savings sweet spot

According to a report from Expedia, domestic flight prices usually start to increase 21 days before departure, while prices for international flights start to increase 28 days before departure. The sweet spot to book a domestic flight is between 28 to 35 days in advance, while international flights should be booked three to four months in advance for the lowest prices.

Book on the right day

The ideal day to book a flight is Sunday, not Friday. For domestic flights this can save travelers around 5%, and for international flights the savings are nearly 10%.

Start a trip midweek

For both domestic and international flights, it is generally cheaper to start the trip during the latter half of the week (Wednesday through Saturday) compared with the first half (Sunday through Tuesday). The ideal day to start a domestic trip is Friday. Choosing Friday over Monday could save you more than 15%.[1]

Choose the right month

According to Hudson, the ideal month to depart on a domestic flight is January, which can save you more than 10% over traveling in June. For international flights, August is best, saving you almost 20% over traveling in December.

Using airline credit cards

If you’re in the market for a new credit card, consider one from an airline. The promotions change regularly but often include bonus points that can be used to purchase a flight or statement credits for the flight you purchased if you sign up for the credit card being offered at checkout. Just make sure to pay off the balance each month to avoid paying interest on the credit card.

Taking advantage of reward programs

Sign up for an airline’s free rewards program—no credit card required. Depending on the airline, you can earn points when you fly or make purchases, which can reduce the price of future flights. Southwest Airlines, for example, allows you to earn points when shopping with their partners, including restaurants, online vendors, hotels and more, and use those to purchase flights.[2]

Sidestepping baggage fees

Baggage fees can really add up, especially if you’re taking a longer trip or traveling with a family. To save money, consider prepaying for your checked baggage; some airlines charge a slightly reduced price if you prepay.

If you have one, use the airline’s credit card to book your flight and then pay it off. Some airlines, including Delta and United, waive the cost of your first baggage fee.[3, 4] If you’re flying Southwest Airlines, you don’t have to pay anything at all for both your first and second bag and even larger items, such as golf bags or skis.[5]

As you’re packing, be sure to stay under the weight limits for your luggage, so you don’t have to pay extra. If possible, limit your baggage to one carry-on and a personal item, like a backpack, if your trip is short.

Additional discounts

Compare the cost of flying in and out of an alternative, nearby airport as well as various airlines to find the best prices.

Look into what types of discounts you might qualify for. For example, United Airlines offers a 5% flight discount for 18- to 22-year-olds.[6] Military veterans and their families can save 10% on American Airlines flights.[7] British Airways offers discounts to AARP members.[8]

Skip the extra fees for priority boarding or preferred seating selection.

Pack snacks to avoid having to purchase food on the plane.

Lodging

Starting your lodging search as soon as possible can be a money-saver, says Matthew Kepnes, founder of the travel blog Nomadic Matt and author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.

“If you’re booking hostels or using Airbnb, booking early is the best way to find deals,” says Kepnes.

“For hotels, travel hacking is the best way to lower your costs. By cashing in your credit card points for hotel stays, you can stay in amazing hotels without spending a penny,” says Kepnes. “Most hotel credit cards also offer free nights to members.”

Other ways to save:

Be flexible with your travel dates

As with airfare, flexibility is key for saving on lodging. For instance, traveling during the shoulder season or off-season means you avoid paying peak prices on accommodations.

For domestic holidays, the lowest average daily rate for accommodations tends to occur on Mondays, when you could save more than 15% versus booking and staying on the most expensive day, which is Friday, according to Hudson. “For international trips, book and stay on a Tuesday not on a Thursday to save nearly 10%,” she says.

Ask for price matching

Compare prices of booking directly through the hotel versus third-party companies, such as Hotels.com, Priceline and Booking.com. If you find a lower price on a third-party website, you can ask the hotel to match it. Some hotels will even give you a better deal. Hilton will not only match a lower price but give you an additional 25% off your stay. Choice Hotels matches the lower rate and gives you a $50 gift card.

Use hotel rewards

Sign up for a hotel’s free rewards program. This can give you access to a members-only rate and various perks—free Wi-Fi or breakfast, for example. With many rewards programs, you will earn points for future free nights and various promotions where you can earn extra points.

Think outside of five-star

“You may also consider choosing a lower star-rated hotel,” says Hudson, as a way to save. Travelers can save almost 45% on average by simply opting for a four-star property over a five-star, while opting for a three-star from a four-star can save travelers around 30%.

Additional discounts

Depending on the hotel you choose, you could also score discounts for the following:

  • Prepaying

  • Alumni memberships

  • Being a student

  • Being an AARP member

  • Being a member of the military

  • Being a resident of a specific state or city (some hotels offer discounts for local or nearby residents)

  • Being in various careers, such as teaching, health care or being a first responder

When comparing prices for a hotel, the lowest price isn’t always the best deal. A hotel that offers free breakfast and coffee, spa discounts, complimentary shuttle service or access to bikes, kayaks or other equipment can save you money in other areas.

Factor in if a hotel charges for parking, Wi-Fi, resort fees, bringing a pet or early check-ins or late arrivals, which impact the final cost.

Tip: When shopping for hotels, car rentals and things to do on your trip, check if booking through cash-back apps and sites such as Rakuten and Ibotta can help you save. Besides specific hotel chains and car rental companies, Groupon, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and Booking.com all offer cash back simply for shopping through Rakuten. (Cash back varies and terms can change.)

Food

When it comes time to eat on a trip, Kepnes has a general rule: Walk at least five blocks away from the main tourist area. “Restaurants near big tourist attractions are always more expensive, so you’ll save a ton by walking into quieter, more local areas of town,” says Kepnes.

Also, check your hotel’s free offerings. Your lodging can be a big influence on your food cost. Hotels often offer free breakfast, complimentary coffee and tea and sometimes even a complimentary happy hour. If your lodging has a restaurant, ask the concierge or front desk staff if there are any restaurant deals for hotel guests. Even an in-room microwave or an outdoor grill in a patio area can be a money-saver.

Additional discounts

  • Dining deals are everywhere. You can find discounts on Yelp, Groupon, Restaurants.com and on a location’s tourism website, to name a few.

  • Check out the area’s happy hour discounts.

  • Research where you want to go in advance. Do they have weekday or lunch specials? Do kids eat free? Could you get a complimentary appetizer for signing up for their email list?

  • Visit the local grocery store, grab some snacks and head to a scenic spot for a money-saving alternative to dining at restaurants.

  • If you’re all about culinary travel, consider timing your trip around a city’s restaurant week, where there are often great deals at top restaurants.

  • To experience the local beverage scene on a budget, check out breweries and wineries that may offer free tours, samples or inexpensive drink flights.

Tip: One way to save on travel is by bundling—reserving multiple items on a booking site, such as a flight plus hotel or hotel plus car rental. According to Christie Hudson, Expedia’s senior public relations manager, these packages have special discounted rates.

Rental cars

The price of a rental car depends on your location and the timing of your rental. It also depends on the vehicle you choose, so opt for a more modest one to save. See if your credit card partners with car rental companies. You may be able to use your accrued points for booking a car.

More ways to save:

Research your ride

As you’re shopping for your car rental, compare prices from various companies and book early. Websites, such as Rentalcars.com and Kayak, allow you to search various companies at the same time.

Check your insurance options

Besides the actual price of the rental, you may also need to purchase insurance. Research if you’re already covered for insurance, either by your current car insurance or a credit card you’re paying with. Just be sure you understand exactly what your insurance covers and doesn’t cover for rental cars.

  • Before you check out, utilize discounts, if applicable. Budget Car Rental offers 25% off discounts for veterans and 30% off discounts for AARP members.

  • Student discounts are common, too; Hertz offers up to 20% off car rentals for students.[9]

  • Even alumni programs may offer a discount (for example, University of Texas alumni get up to 25% off an Avis car rental).[10]

  • Also search for any additional discount codes.

Tip: Prepaying for a hotel or car rental can save you money, but if you no longer have the option to cancel or change your reservation, it may end up costing you. Before you leap for the lowest prepaid price, consider if it’s really the best option for you.

Gas and other transportation

If you decide to drive, there are a few ways you can try to lessen the trips to the pump:

  • Avoid driving aggressively or at high speeds, which uses more fuel

  • Get regular maintenance checks on your vehicle

  • Remove excess weight from the car

  • Plan an efficient route

  • Check your car’s tire pressure regularly.

Additional discounts

  • To lower parking costs, there are websites and apps that allow you to search and compare prices of parking options. Check out Parkopedia and choose from parking places all over the world.

  • Some hotels provide a free shuttle service from the airport and even transportation for a few miles around the hotel.

  • Downtown areas may offer a free shuttle service around a specific area.

  • If you can, rent a bike to ride.

  • If you’re going to be getting around a city by public transportation, consider purchasing an Unlimited Ride Pass to save money. Chicago, for example, has one-, three- and seven-day unlimited ride passes.

  • Google Maps has a setting where you can choose a route based on avoiding toll roads. This can help lower the cost of tolls, but consider how much time it adds on to your trip and if it’s worth it.

Entertainment

Kepnes recommends visiting the often underutilized local tourism office. “They can tell you what free events are happening, give you discounts to events and let you know if any museums or galleries have free or discounted admission,” he says.

A quick search of your location and “free things to do” can usually churn out a list of no- and low-cost places to visit and things to do—from free festivals and music to no-cost sightseeing destinations or museums.

Additional discounts

  • Destinations often offer free, self-guided walking tours or a list of spots where you can check out public art.

  • Many tourism websites will provide recommendations for free or cheap things to do while visiting.

  • Search event calendars for your destination to find free concerts, festivals, markets or other things to do.

  • Visit AllTrails to find free, scenic walking trails. You can filter by length and difficulty level, as well as if a trail is good for dogs, kids, wheelchairs and strollers, so you can find the right path for you.

  • Restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries often offer free or low-cost events, such as live music, trivia, tastings—and even yoga.

  • Find discounted activities and things to do on Groupon.

Article Sources
  1. “Expedia Releases 2022 Travel Hacks Including the Best Time to Book Airfare and Hotels” Expedia, https://newsroom.expedia.com/2021-10-12-Expedia-releases-2022-travel-hacks-including-the-best-time-to-book-airfare-and-hotels.
  2. “More Ways to Earn,” Southwest, https://www.southwest.com/rapidrewards/earn-with-partners.
  3. “First Checked Bag Free,” Delta, https://www.delta.com/us/en/baggage/checked-baggage/first-checked-bag-free.
  4. “Free Checked Bags for Eligible United Card Members,” United, https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/baggage/chasebag.html.
  5. “Bags Fly Free!” Southwest, https://www.southwest.com/html/air/bags-fly-free.html.
  6. “Discounted Flights for 18- to 22-year-olds,” United, https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/mileageplus/promotions/young-traveler.html.
  7. “Military Benefits,” American Airlines, https://www.aa.com/i18n/customer-service/programs-products/military-benefits.jsp.
  8. “Exclusive AARP Member Offers,” British Airways, https://www.britishairways.com/en-us/offers/partners/aarp-member-benefits.
  9. “Hertz Students,” Hertz, https://www.hertz.com/rentacar/productservice/index.jsp?targetPage=EU_Student_Car_Rental_II.jsp.
  10. “Member Benefits,” Texas Exes, https://www.texasexes.org/membership/member-benefits.

About the Author

Kristen Kuchar

Kristen Kuchar

Kristen Kuchar is a journalist, covering money, travel and the beverage industry. Kristen has previously contributed personal finance and business content to Money.com, Money Under 30, The Simple Dollar, Saving for College, Credible, The Brad’s Deals Blog, Outdoor Business Magazine and more.

Full bio

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