It seems like every time I log into Facebook or Instagram, I’m hit with a barrage of pictures from friends traveling the world. Whether they’re backpacking across Europe, sightseeing in Asia, or exploring South American jungles, it’s hard for me not to get a little travel envy. With two kids and a mortgage, though, dropping everything to jet set around the world just isn’t in the cards – or in our budget.
However, if your finances can’t bear the weight of an extravagant trip right now, finding ways to travel affordably may not be as tough as it seems. It just requires careful planning, savvy solutions, and thinking beyond typical vacation options. With a little forethought, you could be the one posting enviable pictures from your next adventure.
Creative Ways to Afford Travel
1. Define Your Priorities
Before you start leafing through brochures or browsing online, you first have to define your travel priorities. If you’re not willing to accept anything but a top-shelf experience, you’re probably going to have to save up before you splurge. On the other hand, if your main priorities are to experience a different culture, learn more about history, or even just take a few days to relax, you can likely accomplish such goals on the cheap.
Start out by defining your vacation priorities. Common ones include:
- Experiencing a different culture
- Trying new foods
- Visiting a specific location, such as a beach or a historic site
- Learning something new
Once you define exactly what you want out of your travels, you can focus on how to best achieve it. If you’re looking for an amazing cultural experience, staying in hostels and shopping at markets might not only be cheaper, but could be a better way to immerse yourself in a culture. Defining what you want out of the experience can align your expectations.
2. Set a Travel Budget
Booking travel without any set budget in mind can be dangerous. It’s hard to avoid getting tempted by cheap fares, online hotel reviews, and various attractions – but you could end up overspending without realizing it. By looking over your current personal budget and taking your savings, fixed expenses, and variable costs into consideration, you can see where you have a little wiggle room (if any) for a vacation.
The average American family spends $1,200 on travel, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Many travel sites now allow you to set your budget and restrict costly search results from appearing. A tool such as the KAYAK Explore module asks you to input your location and what you’d like to pay, and then shows you destinations that fit the bill.
3. Use a Travel Rewards Credit Card
Use a premium travel rewards credit card to reduce the net cost of your next vacation and add value along the way.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (read our Chase Sapphire Preferred Card review) earns 3 points per $1 spent dining purchases, a 3.75% rate of return in that category when you redeem points for travel; and 5 points total per $1 spent on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, a 6.25% rate of return on spending in that category when you redeem for travel.
The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card (read our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review) isn’t quite as generous as Sapphire Preferred. But it still earns 2 miles per $1 spent on all eligible purchases, for a 2% rate of return across the board.
These are just two examples. Dozens more follow, including co-branded airline and hotel credit cards that deliver exceptional value for brand-loyal cardholders – think automatic elite status and one free night or more each year just for being a cardholder in good stead.
Travel credit cards aren’t totally without trade-offs. Most require very good or excellent credit, restricting approval to applicants with FICO scores above 700 (and sometimes even higher). Many carry annual fees, as well: $95 is common for mainline cards like Sapphire Preferred and Venture, but luxe cards (Chase Sapphire Reserve, Amex Platinum) are several times as expensive. Then again, luxe cards deliver the goods for frequent travelers, as our guide to Chase Sapphire Reserve’s benefits makes clear.
4. Travel During the Off-Season
If you’ve got a flexible schedule, you can save a ton simply by traveling during the off-season. And, as an added bonus, you can benefit from less crowded attractions and have a less stressful overall experience. Tourist seasons vary by destination, but generally speaking, traveling during the summer months or during holiday breaks means paying more for airfare, gas, and accommodations.
In general, some of the best times to travel are early in the year and early autumn. Tropical destinations, on the other hand, can be more crowded during January and February, when vacationers are looking for respite from the cold. Kid-friendly places are usually busier when school’s out. And while winter may seem like an ideal time to travel, watch out for holiday-related price spikes around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
5. Look for Hotel Alternatives
You can slash costs significantly simply by exploring non-traditional accommodations. What’s more, some off-the-beaten-path hotel alternatives might actually help you save money on vacation expenses.
You can avoid paying high hotel costs by looking into the following accommodations:
- Hostels. When traveling abroad, hostels offer inexpensive lodging (and occasionally meals) to travelers. You may have to share a room and bathroom with other travelers, but you get your own bed, and you just may make some new traveling friends while you’re there. Because hostels require you to share space, they work best if you’re flying solo or traveling as a couple instead of as a family. A typical European hostel costs anywhere from $20 to $40 per night.
- Vacation Rentals. Homeowners often rent out their vacation homes to travelers when it’s not in use – you can snag deep discounts on condos, townhomes, and even hotel properties. Websites such as Vrbo and Airbnb are great places to start. Often outfitted with a kitchen, backyard, and other amenities, a vacation rental may actually be a better fit for a family trip, especially if you can save money by cooking your own food. Recently, I rented a condo in a resort property from a homeowner for $40 less per night than I would have paid if I had booked through the resort.
- Stay With Friends. If you’re lucky enough to have friends and family at a travel destination, call in a favor. It’s a great way to cut your hotel costs, and they can probably give you tips on things to do while you’re in town.
- Couch Surf. Couch surfing boils down to staying at someone’s house instead of a pricey hotel. Courchsurfing brings together travelers and homeowners willing to offer a guest room, bed, or couch to frugal travelers. It can be unpredictable, but if you’re really in a bind, it’s one way to cut pricey hotels out of your travel budget altogether. It works best if you’re traveling alone or with one other person.
6. Plan Shorter Trips
Whether you’re traveling for relaxation or exploration, you don’t need to jet off for weeks at a time to get the experience you want. Shorter travel blocks offer the same benefits as longer vacations, and they can cost much less.
Plenty of shorter trips can help you recharge, explore different areas, and experience something new – even if it’s within your home state. Traveling to your state capital, visiting a nearby state park or campground, or going to a museum or local theme park can all be done on the cheap. Some attractions and hotels also offer resident deals if you can prove that you live in-state. As an added bonus, planning shorter, closer-to-home trips means you can drive instead of fly, saving the money you would have spent on airfare.
7. Book Last-Minute Deals
If you’re not in a financial position for a lengthy trip, go for a long weekend or nab a last-minute deal – I love the site LastMinuteTravel.com for hotels, flights, and attractions. It might require a little more flexibility on your part, but last-minute trips can make travel a lot lighter on your bank account.
When gunning for that last-minute deal, remember that sometimes price wins out over destination. Therefore, this approach works well if you want to go on a vacation, but aren’t picky as to where. Last-minute cruise, hotel, and airfare deals can mean leaving as soon as 24 hours after booking. Save even more by making sure to include a Saturday stay in your itinerary, since hotels prefer to book full weekends. And, if you do see a price and destination you love, book it as soon as possible, since last-minute pricing can fluctuate heavily.
8. Watch for Deals
I know exactly what I want to spend on flights to visit family and friends. Therefore, I base a lot of my travel decisions on current pricing, rather than my specific schedule. By keeping an eye out for airline ticket deals to the exact destination I want, I never miss a sale and can travel on the cheap.
Since I don’t have time to scour the Internet for fare sales daily, I sign up for travel alerts from websites like Bing Travel and my favorite, Airfarewatchdog. Simply plug in where you’re from and where you want to go, and when a fare sale for that particular route surfaces, you get an email alert.
9. Go in Groups
If some of your other family members are planning trips, think about making it a joint effort. Group rates for hotels, flights, and attractions are common, often netting a 15% discount. I go on a yearly vacation with a group of 10 friends. We book a condo at a swanky resort for about $200 per night for two nights, meaning we each pay about $40 for lodging.
Many group rates start at 10 people, and airlines like Southwest, Delta, and JetBlue all offer them, which can lead to anywhere from 5% to 10% off published fares. However, you likely have to call the reservation center to book. You can also score group rates if you’re booking several rooms at the same hotel – you just have to ask when you call, since online reservations don’t always offer the best group rates. Another option is to use a site like Groople, which allows you to check out group rates for your specific destination and number of travelers.
10. Consider Crowdfunding
Some travel can be seriously expensive, especially if you’re going to be abroad for a long time. If your travel dreams are completely out of reach – and out of your budget – you may be able to ask friends and family members to chip in and help.
Crowdfunding has helped everyone from micro-borrowers to filmmakers, and it can help you too. While I would probably recommend this for a special occasion – as a graduation present or in lieu of wedding gifts, for example – creating a crowdfunding travel account can help you raise money for your trip through the kindness of others.
Here’s how it works: Set the amount you need and write up a blurb about your plans on a site like Honeyfund or Trevolta, sites dedicated to crowdfunding for travel. The website then creates a unique page for you, which you can then share with others through social media or email. Your friends and family members can then go online and donate any amount they see fit. When your campaign ends, simply use the funds toward your travel. Even if you don’t reach your goal, you can still make a dent in your expenses.
11. Go on a Volunteer Vacation
If you don’t mind pitching in as part of your travel experience, a so-called “volunteer vacation” can help you afford to travel. You’re still responsible for getting to your destination, but many travel organizations pay for lodging, food, travel within the destination, insurance, and even some local and cultural activities.
Many volunteer-based vacations do require payment, but it’s a deep discount compared to what casual travelers cough up for a similar destination. Here are some example prices for volunteering:
- Habitat for Humanity offers a Mexico trip helping to build structures for $1,200 for nine days, including lodging, food, and activities.
- STA Travel, which links student volunteers to travel, offers a 15-day Costa Rica trip for $749, where you work in turtle conservation.
- Spend a month working in a Cambodian orphanage for $550, through International Volunteer HQ.
These prices are just a fraction of what you’d pay for a similar vacation without the volunteer component – the trip to Costa Rica would cost close to $1,600, not including food and travel when you reach your destination. The volunteer option is less than half that amount. Besides getting to experience a new culture and enjoy travel, you’re also doing something good.
If travel is something you and your family love to do, it’s always a challenge when your budget bites back. However, by adjusting your priorities, being willing to compromise, and rethinking what it means to travel, you might be able to find a little wiggle room in your finances. Regardless of what your Twitter feed tells you, travel doesn’t always have to be four-star resorts and top-notch dining. For some, the experience of exploring a new locale is enough.
Is travel a priority for you? How do you make it fit your budget?