Saving money for your vacation is often the first step. In this process, you’ll attempt to save as much as you can, maybe sell some things, and hunt for the best hotel and flight deals as you’re taught to. We always focus on how you can best save money before your travels, with a lot less discussion around saving money while traveling.
So let’s focus on that today. What about when your travels actually begin? Are you doing what you can to stretch your dollar to the max? In this post, I’ll reveal many of my favorite tried-and-true ways to save money while traveling. Some of them are very simple “no duhh” rules, while others are more extreme (but if executed, are guaranteed to save you a ton of money). If you’re ready to save boatloads of money while traveling, then read on!
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How To Save Money While Traveling: Things To Do
1. Look for free walking tours.
One of my favorite ways to get my bearings in a city and to learn more about the local culture is by going on free walking tours. In almost all of the major destination cities, there are numerous companies that do “free” tours of their cities, with the expectation of a tip at the end. This is also a great time to ask the local tour guides about affordable restaurants, things to do, etc. Since they live there, they’re sure to know of the best “bang for your buck” spots or have some money-saving tricks up their sleeves.
2. Look for other free activities.
If you do a little research (Google search, Facebook events), you’ll see there are often lots of free activities in the area you’re visiting. Look at community calendars to see what is going on in town while you are there. Do a self-guided walking tour to familiarize yourself with your destination. In addition, if you’re staying in a hostel, they’ll often have free tours/events advertised throughout the week.
3. Research museum pricing policies and free nights.
Many museums around the world — especially in Europe — not only offer free or discounted student pricing, but also cheaper tickets for young adults, usually up to 25 years old (as a way to encourage interest in the arts). Museums also often have a ‘pay what you can’ day once a week and sometimes have discounted admission after a certain time of day. Many museums also offer a free night once a month, so it’s a smart idea to research if your visit dates overlap with these days.
4. Consider city tourism cards.
With city passes, you can expect to get a combination of the following: free entry to a city’s top attractions, discounts at restaurants and shops, skip-the-line options at busy attractions, free public transportation, and even free guidebooks. If your itinerary is jammed with city highlights, it might be worth the money to get the city pass as opposed to buying all your admission tickets separately.
5. Catch public transportation everywhere you go.
Skip the taxi and rideshare options when you can—these fees really add up, especially if you plan on hitting multiple places in one day for several days. Buses, metro, trains, and rail cars are all great ways to save money, with each ride costing about $1-2.
6. Walk or bike.
Walking is my main method of getting around in cities. It’s free, good for your health, and you’ll get a more immersive view and sense of the city and its people. Biking is also great and now more than ever, many cities have bike-sharing systems in place where you can pay on-demand to use for a set number of hours. The costs here sure beat those of hailing a taxi or Uber.
7. Travel slower.
By traveling slower, you lessen the need for frequent transportation, thereby incurring fewer fees. This allows you to also experience whatever activities you’re engaged in on a way deeper level. You’ll be able to relax, visit local neighborhoods that most rushing tourists never get the chance to visit, and even get the chance to rub elbows with the locals!
8. Get off the beaten track.
Have you ever heard the phrase “off the beaten track” or “off the beaten path”? Following this approach can actually save you a lot of money! Often when you travel through popular tourist destinations, you’ll come across restaurants and shops designed with tourists in mind, or even exclusively for tourists. That means higher prices, often for way less quality!
Follow the classic advice of getting off the beaten track to avoid spending more on overpriced food, souvenirs, and more.
How To Save Money While Traveling: Save On Food
9. Shop at farmer’s markets and local stores.
Shopping for local ingredients and cooking for yourself allows you to taste the local cuisine without having to pay the price of a restaurant. Shopping for fresh produce will often be a really good deal (except for places like Japan where this is known to be expensive, read why here). Another money-saving tip: farmer’s markets often lower the price of their food towards the end of the day.
10. Have a picnic in the park.
Not only is this fun, but it’s also affordable and lends to really good people-watching opportunities! Just pick up a variety of fresh fruits, veggies, meats, and cheeses (or other local specialties from a farmers market in the city you’re visiting) and pick a nice spot in the grass. Picnicking is so much cheaper than eating at a restaurant, and you’ll likely be leftover with extra food for one of your future meals.
11. Carry snacks/water during outings.
Kids will need snacks on a long day of exploration, so rather than buying them on an as-needed basis when they start complaining, kicking and screaming, stock up early and carry them with you. The same goes for water. I hate spending money on one bottle of water when I know how much an entire case retails for (pretty much the same amount).
Make sure you have easy access to water— to make sure you’ll always be covered, keep a leak-proof collapsible water bottle in your travel bag at all times. You’d be shocked by how frequently you’ll be able to find a refill.
12. Bring your own airport snacks.
This takes some prep work beforehand, but packing your own meal and snacks to eat at the airport before or during your flight will save you a good amount on your food budget. If you haven’t noticed by now, airport food is a complete ripoff (food and drink prices can double what they usually cost elsewhere).
13. Have a super casual breakfast.
Not every meal has to be formal. Instead of spending $15+ per person on breakfast at a sit-down restaurant, grab something quick from a bakery or from a nearby grocery store for under $5.
14. Have a bigger lunch.
If you’re going to opt for restaurant food, lunchtime is the ideal time to go. Restaurants often offer lunch specials with less expensive prices compared to their dinner prices. If you eat more at lunch, you might not need to eat a formal dinner (which is probably the most expensive meal of the day). Got fridge access? You could also buy extra food at the lunch price and save it for dinner later.
15. Don’t eat in areas close to tourist destinations.
In some cities, walking just a few blocks away from the main streets can save you a lot. It’s a known fact that the restaurants in the main plazas, squares, and streets are overcharging for what they offer (partially because the restaurant has to make money to pay their increased rent somehow).
16. Check out local food carts and markets.
Have dinner at food stalls, night markets, and other similar spots. These are pretty inexpensive to begin with and you won’t need to tip for service or pay a table charge. You’ll get a taste of what the locals eat, and save a bunch of money while you’re at it.
17. Not a foodie? Cook everything yourself.
If you’re not a foodie and you do not enjoy eating out while traveling, you can search specifically for accommodation options that come with a kitchen (which may cost slightly more than booking just a simple room at a hotel). Despite the increased cost of the room, you will easily make up for the difference by cooking your own food.
18. Skip the bar and buy alcohol from the market.
Buying drinks at the bar are expensive at home, and it’s no different when you’re traveling (unless you’re going to central Europe where beer is cheaper than water, no joke…). No matter where you are, it’s always way cheaper to just grab a bottle of wine or a case of beer from the market. Why not reserve some nights to perch up somewhere low-key with your friends/family and watch the sunset? Or grab some take-out and a bottle of wine and have a movie night in your hotel room. You can hit up the bars and the clubs on another night.
How To Save Money While Traveling: Lodging/Accommodations
19. Book as early as possible.
Preparation is key when it comes to travel. Do your research and book things like travel, accommodations, and plans for sightseeing with ample time to spare so you don’t get stuck spending on last-minute, higher-than-normal prices.
If you’ve found yourself in a pickle and must book last-minute, consider using Priceline Express Deals to snag steeply discounted rooms.
20. Book a room with a refrigerator and microwave.
Although some people might not like to cook while on vacation, I find that having a fridge and a microwave in the room is actually super useful. Even if you don’t plan on cooking and end up going out for your dinners, you can at least take leftovers home, store them, and reheat them at a later time.
21. Stay at a hotel with complimentary breakfast.
Not all hotels offer free breakfast, but many do (such as Marriott hotels). This is my absolute favorite type of hotel, and you should definitely take advantage of this perk. In addition, before leaving the dining room, consider grabbing a piece of fruit or cereal bar to eat for later as a snack. Double score.
22. Before you book, consider transportation costs.
Before you book, do a quick map-out of where you’ll be staying. Transportation can add up quickly, so you may want to consider staying in a more central location. Ideally, you’d be able to stay somewhere very affordable and very central at the same time (where you can walk everywhere). Crunch some numbers and figure out if you’ll be spending all of the accommodation savings on those transportation costs.
23. Don’t book the most luxurious room.
If you’re looking at more expensive hotel options, assess your travel style and planned activities before booking your room. How much time are you actually going to be in your room for? Will you just be sleeping there and using it as a place to shower? Do you really need that extra space and that city view? If you don’t plan on using the pool or the fitness center, is it worth paying that extra resort fee?
24. Rent an apartment instead of booking two hotel rooms.
If you’re taking a trip with 3+ people, go for an apartment rental instead of 2 separate hotel rooms. An apartment, house, or condo rental is often much cheaper. Not to mention, the space you’ll have will be so much more compared to those dinky hotel rooms. Consider Airbnb or VRBO for vacation rental listings.
25. Use points or miles.
Chain hotels such as the Hilton and the Marriott offer points/rewards for booking directly and staying on their properties. These points can then be redeemed for free overnight stays. If you have loyalty to a hotel chain, continue to stay exclusively at those hotels to build up your points for free rooms in the future.
26. Book hotels for the weekdays.
Hotels are generally cheaper on weekdays, so try to avoid weekends (Friday or Saturday nights). Booking.com is my ultimate one-stop shop for hotel bookings due to their generous no-prepayment and free cancellation policies on many of their offerings. They also have awesome filters
Pro Tip: Too many hotel choices? Here’s what I do. Filter by your minimum rating and then order by price to make sure you’re finding the best “bang for your buck” options. I will usually start at a score of 9+ and work my way down until I find the perfect hotel for the best value!
27. Consider hostels (even if you’re older).
Thanks to the trend of upscale/boutique hostels, these co-sleeping options now rival luxury hotels in terms of style and aesthetics—at a fraction of the cost! Many of them have rooftop terraces with BBQ grills, swimming pools, swanky lounges with ample workspace stations, as well as bars, and free breakfast buffets. Depending on the hostel quality and destination country, you can expect to spend about $5-50 per night for 1 traveler.
And if you’re not comfortable with sleeping in the same room with others, many hostels offer private rooms. Even private rooms in hostels are usually cheaper than hotels.
There are lots of apps and websites to help you navigate the world of hostels. I use Agoda, which is really great for Asia travel, and Booking.com for everywhere else. When choosing a hostel, I usually look for 4 things – free Wifi (a must), free breakfast (really convenient and saves you more money), an overall rating between 8-10 (on Booking.com), and air conditioning (when traveling during the summer). In any case, it’ll be significantly cheaper than staying at hotels.
28. Outdoor lover? Set up camp.
On my most recent backpacking vacation on Kauai (Hawaii), my friends and I camped half the time we were there, as the majority of hotels on Kauai cost over $300/night which we were really not interested in paying for every night. From not spending much on half of our nights there, we were able to “splurge” a little more on the nights we did stay at an Airbnb!
If you and your group are down to convert your vacation into an outdoor adventure as well, go camping some nights, because it’s extremely cheap and often even free.
29. Sleep at the airport.
This can be hard sometimes and it’s definitely not for everyone, but I figured I’d mention it for those of you hardcore savers. If you find a flight that has a long overnight layover but comes in at a whopping $300+ cheaper than the nonstop flight, having one night of suffered sleep at the airport might really be worth it.
30. Overnight transportation saves on hotel costs.
If you’re on the move and your next destination is going to take 7+ hours to get to, then consider an overnight sleeper train or overnight bus. Typically for these types of situations, I book overnight transportation, which conveniently saves a night’s worth of accommodation.
Upgrading to first class on buses (if available) makes a big difference, is so nice compared to the economy option, and is usually not expensive. When taking overnight trains, the bottom bunk is the better option if you’re sensitive to motion.
How To Save Money While Traveling: Shopping
31. Don’t overspend on non-essential items.
If you’ve ever spent $6 or more on something like a bottle of water or bag of chips, you’ll understand this mistake. When you travel, travel smart and save your money for things that matter (museums, excursions, food). To save money, fill up your reusable water bottle and pack snacks and other essentials like sunscreen and a hat so you don’t end up paying exorbitant prices for things you’ve already got at home.
As you get ready to travel via planes, trains, or automobiles, don’t get tricked into buying non-essentials–just be prepared and have them with you!
32. Don’t buy useless items just to bring something back.
Put down that overpriced T-shirt, magnet, keychain, or shot glass! Instead of buying each person a unique souvenir that they may or may not like (let’s face it, one day it’ll be forgotten and just get tossed in another donation box), consider bringing home more shared, practical souvenirs. Candies, gourmet food products, and fine wine come to my mind first. Of course, there are a bunch of other practical things that your destination country may specialize in, such as stationery, beauty supplies, etc. These items are often going to be a lot cheaper than whatever useless junk you were initially going to buy.
33. Familiarize yourself with the local currency.
Memorize the value of the local currency as well as how to convert it to your home currency to prevent getting screwed over on exchanges. Also, make sure you know what each bill/coin looks like, so you don’t accidentally hand over a coin/bill of 100 when you meant to hand over one for 10.
34. Buy your souvenirs at superstores.
I love buying foreign snacks to bring home to my friends, family, and coworkers. I’ve found that the best places to buy these are at the local superstores or grocery stores. Whatever you decide, steer clear of buying them last minute at airports, unless you’re willing to pay that premium marked up price.
How To Save Money While Traveling: Travel Planning
35. Get yourself a good travel credit card.
The ideal travel credit card is one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, has a killer welcome bonus, rewards you with 2x-4x points on travel purchases, and provides you with complimentary travel insurance so you don’t have to buy that separately. Because of all my travel cards (Chase Sapphire Reserve, United Explorer Mileage Plus, Marriott Bonvoy–formerly known as SPG Amex), I almost never spend cash on plane tickets since I can “pay” for them with the points I accrue through credit card usage.
36. Play the game of “give and take” with your budget.
Create a budget and stick to it. If you don’t want to be a complete cheap-o, know when to save and when to splurge. What I always tend to do is save drastically on one component on my travels so I can splurge on another.
For example, I’ll often book my flights with credit card points (most recently, I’ve been leveraging my ample pool of Southwest and Amex Gold credit card points). Having spent $0 of my budget on transportation, I’ll then splurge a little more on a night’s meal at a fancier restaurant or on one night stay at a luxurious hotel.
Having a budget where money can be reallocated into different categories is a great way to treat yourself while keeping yourself on track.
37. Go light and avoid the checked bag fee.
Go with a bag that’s small enough to be considered a carry-on and you will save the $25-$50 fee for checking your bag in. Check the specific airlines’ website for what dimensions they consider as a carry-on. Another perk? This also cuts out the waiting time and hassle at baggage claim, as well as the chances of a lost or stolen bag.
On a related note— here’s a lightweight packing tip: Stay somewhere with a washer/dryer, so you can pack super light and wash your clothes while you’re there.
38. Don’t “wait to buy it there.”
I always try to avoid the situation where I need to stop by a drugstore for simple things like toiletries and sunscreens. This is just a function of poor planning and will result in you spending more than you originally would. Why? Because these things are usually less expensive when you take the time to shop for them earlier at an affordable store, versus buying them from the first convenience store you encounter while traveling.
39. Get an unlocked phone or use T-Mobile.
T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan offers its subscribers free international text and data in over 140 countries. This has been such a lifesaver and a money saver for me!
If you don’t have T-Mobile, using an unlocked smartphone lets you use SIM cards in each country you go to. What this does: you’ll get to make calls and use the internet with local rates, which are typically a fraction of what your provider wants to charge you for international calling/data.
40. Be strategic when pulling money out of the ATM.
When I’m traveling, I always bring my Charles Schwab debit card. Why this is an absolute must for travelers: it refunds your account with any money that foreign ATMs charge you. You can literally pull money out whenever you want, wherever you want, and it won’t cost you a penny more to do so!
41. Restrict yourself a bit right before your trip.
Instead of just trying to save money while traveling, work on saving money beforehand. For example, if you planned on eating cheap while traveling, consider eating cheap at home so you end up with more money for your travels. In the few weeks or months before your trip, try eating as cheaply as possible. For the super-savers out there, try the no-spend week. It’s always a fun challenge!
42. Download messaging and calling apps.
Rather than buying international calling/texting add-ons through your carrier, just download messaging and calling apps. Skype and Google Hangouts allow you to talk and video chat anyone else with the app at a reduced rate (Google Hangouts even lets you dial most U.S. and Canadian numbers for free). To send text messages, get Line, WhatsApp, or Viber, and message for free.
43. Always withdraw money and never exchange.
Your bank card will carry the best currency exchange rates, so stop exchanging money beforehand in your home country. Instead, withdraw local currency from the ATM as needed. And as mentioned above, be sure to travel with a bank card that reimburses all ATM fees (like the Charles Schwab debit card).
44. Don’t have specific dates (or even a destination) in mind.
If you’re up for some spontaneity, use Google Flights periodically to explore potential flight destinations that come cheapest. About once a week, head to their homepage, click on the map instead of entering destination/dates. It should default to “one week trip in the next six months.” From there, browse the map for places you wish to visit. What Google Flights will do will show the cheapest flights in that 6 month period.
With this method and flexibility in your travel dates, you can snag some really good flight deals. In general, travelers who don’t have specific dates they absolutely need to travel on will save a lot of money.
Surprisingly, travel deals sites such as Travelzoo can offer good deals on tickets too.
45. Follow airline mistake fare deals.
Sites like Secret Flying or Scott’s Cheap Flights will track and announce any error fares travelers can take advantage of. Usually, you can find some really great flight deals including the US to Mexico for under $200, the US to Europe for under $300. I love browsing these sites on a daily basis whenever I start getting the travel bug!
I hope some of the travel tips and money-saving hacks described above will prove to be useful during your own travels! Saving money while traveling is really not too impossible, as long as you’re familiar with the tactics to reduce costs.
What are your tips for saving money while traveling?