About one in three Americans plan to spend at least $1,000 per person on their next summer vacation, according to American Express. That’s $4,000 for a family of four.
International travel is a major budget-buster, of course, but modest weekend getaways and regional road trips add up quickly too. No matter where you’re planning to go, what you’re planning to do, or how long you’re planning to stay, it behooves you to do whatever it takes (within reason) to reduce your expenditures.
How to Save Money on Any Vacation
I spoke with more than a dozen travel experts and dug deep into my own travels to compile this comprehensive list of tips to save money on any vacation. It’s organized in roughly chronological order, beginning with destination selection.
1. Look for Destinations With Favorable Exchange Rates
If you’re eyeing a trip abroad, your first move is to look for destinations with favorable exchange rates – that is, where local currencies are weak relative to the U.S. dollar. Look for countries experiencing momentary political or economic instability, a condition that often puts downward pressure on currency values.
One caveat: Don’t rush to take advantage of favorable exchange rates if it means putting yourself in harm’s way. More often than not, currency devaluation is a symptom of deeper problems. Since 2013, the Mexican peso has fallen more than 25% against the U.S. dollar due in part to widespread cartel violence. That’s an enticing proposition for bargain-hunting travelers – as long as they steer well clear of hot spots.
My wife and I have taken advantage of a slightly less dramatic discrepancy. We visited Porto and Lisbon, Portugal in the fall of 2016, when the euro was near a multiyear low against the dollar. Our out-of-pocket costs were about 30% lower than on my previous trip to Europe eight years earlier.
2. Sign Up for a Cheap Flight Newsletter
If you’re not set on a specific destination, sign up for a cheap flight newsletter that curates deeply discounted flight deals to various destinations.
My go-to is Scott’s Cheap Flights, a free newsletter that comes every day or two, on average. Each deal indicates what you can expect to pay for the cheap flight against the normal fare range, plus a brief description of what you need to do to get the deal, the deal’s expected lifespan (usually no more than a couple days from the email’s time stamp), and the travel date ranges during which it’s likely to apply (usually a span of several months into the future).
Scott’s absolute best deals are reserved for the newsletter’s premium version, which costs $39 per year and comes about twice as often. I don’t travel internationally enough to justify the investment, but if you head abroad for business or pleasure more than once or twice a year, it might be worth your while.
3. Set Price Alerts
To avoid inbox overload every time a fare or nightly rate drops slightly, set your alert thresholds low – say, 20% instead of 5%. And remember to remove them as soon as you book.
4. Research and Book in Incognito Mode
When you surf the Web in incognito mode (or your browser’s equivalent), your browser doesn’t collect cookies – the bits of data that identify you to the websites you visit. Without the ability to track your movements online, travel sites have a harder time guessing your intentions. That means they can’t raise prices accordingly when it’s clear you’re targeting a particular hotel, itinerary, or date.
Another option is using a virtual private network (VPN) to conceal your geographical location and encrypt the data you send. Like incognito mode, VPNs make it more difficult for travel vendors to follow your movements around the Web.
Trying to conceal your identity during the research and booking process isn’t foolproof. Travel sites use a suite of sophisticated tools to track prospects as they move closer to booking, and there’s no guarantee that incognito mode or a VPN will be enough to keep you anonymous. For best results, combine this tactic with the other research phase tips on this list.
5. Negotiate Room Rates Directly With the Hotel or Hostel
Most travelers don’t realize it, but hotels, airlines, and rental car companies pay dearly for business brokered by online booking sites and travel aggregators. Their commissions can be as high as 15%, meaning they keep just 85% of your after-tax payment.
That’s why more and more hotels implore customers to book directly – and why there’s an opening for hard-nosed negotiators willing to escalate their concerns to on-site management.
Rather than accept online prices at face value, use them as a starting point when booking hotel and hostel rooms. Once you have quoted prices in hand, call the location directly and request a price reduction. This tactic works with car rental companies as well. Airlines tend to be more bureaucratic, so you might not have as much luck negotiating directly with booking agents.
6. Use a Cash-Back Website When You Book
Booking aggregator commissions are important to understand for another reason: They open the door for impressive point-of-sale or cash-back savings on your bookings.
The secret lies in cash-back websites and browser plugins that partner with booking sites and aggregators. These tools collect a portion of the booking commission and funnel the rest back to users as cash back or instant refunds. It’s not unreasonable to expect 5% to 7% back from these tools.
My personal favorites are Rakuten and Giving Assistant, but plenty of others come highly recommended. Just make sure your chosen solution is compatible with your browser and doesn’t adversely affect browsing speed or performance. You’ll also need to make sure you use the regular browser (not incognito mode) to enable cookies for tracking purposes.
7. Use a Rewards Credit Card When You Book
If your credit score is sufficient to qualify, apply for a travel rewards credit card and use it when you book. General-purpose travel rewards cards reliably return 2% or more on spending, while branded travel rewards cards, such as Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express dramatically accelerate loyalty club members’ progress toward valuable freebies, such as free flights and nights.
It’s worth noting that many travel rewards and cash-back credit cards have their own cash-back portals, where direct purchases earn points at accelerated rates relative to everyday spending. Barclaycard, Chase (Ultimate Rewards), and Discover (Discover Deals) all operate online shopping platforms for loyal customers.
When you use your credit card to make purchases on these platforms, you can dramatically boost your overall earnings – anywhere from 1% to 10% or more – over your baseline cash-back or point-accrual rate. In some cases, redeemed points go further. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve Card are worth 25% and 50% more, respectively, when redeemed for travel purchases through the Ultimate Rewards portal.
Plus, most premium travel rewards credit cards offer attractive sign-up bonuses for new customers. Some are impressive. The Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, a small-business credit card designed for frequent business travelers, delivers 80,000 bonus points when you spend at least $5,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months. That’s worth up to $1,000 when redeemed for travel through the Ultimate Rewards marketplace. Depending on your destination and itinerary, that could be more than enough to cover the cost of your next trip – or at least go a long way.
8. Join Travel Loyalty Programs (With or Without a Credit Card)
Even if you don’t have a corresponding credit card, it never hurts to join specific travel merchants’ travel loyalty programs. It’s almost always free, and the payoff is compelling: free or reduced-rate airfare, nightly stays, car rentals, upgrades, perks, and more.
I belong to a half-dozen loyalty programs, including Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus. Conservatively, I’ve saved $500 in the past three years by redeeming my accumulated miles and points for free stuff.
9. Use Your Credit Card’s Point Transfer Perk
Some credit cards share an under-the-radar perk that can dramatically increase their rewards’ value: 1-to-1 partner point transfer arrangements.
Since I’m not loyal to any particular hospitality brand or airline, I prefer general-purpose travel cards with 1-to-1 partner transfer deals. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is my favorite. If you’re more loyal than I am, consider a branded airline or hotel rewards credit card with an expansive 1-to-1 deal.
Compare advertised room and airfare rates with the number of points or miles needed to redeem, then transfer accordingly. For instance, if your preferred United round-trip fare requires 25,000 MileagePlus miles or 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points, you can literally double your Ultimate Rewards points’ value by converting them to MileagePlus currency.
10. Make Refundable Bookings If Your Plans Are Uncertain …
Travel merchants’ cancellation policies vary, but refundable bookings are invariably more expensive.
Then again, they’re not as expensive as eating the booking’s entire cost when your plans suddenly change and you’re not able to get away on your original dates.
Travel insurance (more on that below) typically only covers the cost of nonrefundable bookings canceled for certain covered reasons, such as unexpected job loss or illness. Finding a cheaper travel window or moving your trip up a month to snag better weather doesn’t count.
Bottom line: If you’re at all unsure you’ll be able (or want) to travel during your original window, suck it up and go refundable.
11. … And Nonrefundable Bookings If You’re Sure Things Won’t Change
If your travel dates are set in stone, make a nonrefundable booking.
Better yet, take advantage of blind booking deals offered by travel aggregators like Expedia and Hotels.com. On a recent trip to Denver and Colorado Springs, I slashed the cost of my car rental by more than 30% with a blind booking deal, and I got the biggest rental car of my life. The catch was that the rental company was an off-brand operator with mediocre-at-best customer service chops, but my wife and I lived to tell the tale.
12. Look for Last-Minute Deals
Last-minute trip planning is stressful and often more expensive than booking well in advance – but not always. If you need a hotel at the last minute, check last-minute deal sites such as Hotel Tonight. Hotels use sites and apps like Hotel Tonight to offload excess inventory at steeply discounted prices, often as far in advance as one week.
Savings generally increase as the stay approaches, so this strategy is particularly useful for day-before or even morning-of bookings. If you’re in the midst of a multistop backpacking or city-hopping adventure, this is a fortuitous state of affairs – though you’ll need adequate Internet access to complete your booking.
Hotel Tonight isn’t the only last-minute booking app around. The aptly named Last Minute Travel is a great resource for last-minute hotel, flight, car rental, vacation rental, and cruise bookings. Big-name bookers like Expedia are in on the act as well.
You might also have luck with last-minute bookings on blind-booking sites like Hotwire. The same principle applies: Savings generally increase as travel or state dates approach. But since blind-booking sites generally start from a cheaper baseline, the savings can be even more impressive.
13. Embrace the Free Continental Breakfast
Who doesn’t like a free breakfast?
Rather than bank on your negotiating skills, limit your search to hospitality chains that advertise free continental breakfasts. You don’t need to go upmarket to find them; most basic hotel and motel chains have serviceable breakfast options. My most recent U.S. hotel, an America’s Best Value Inn in a small Midwestern town, included an impressive selection of pastries.
Note that some other cultures turn up their noses at America’s comparatively bare-bones continental breakfast tradition. On our two most recent international trips – Portugal and Thailand – my wife and I were overwhelmed by our extravagant, totally complimentary breakfast options. In Lisbon and Porto, we enjoyed all-you-can eat buffets heavy on cured meats, cheeses, breads, and pastries. In Bangkok, we filled up on four-course feasts that left us full until well after the lunch hour.
14. Weigh Lower Room Costs Against Higher Transportation Costs in Outlying Districts
This is a controversial tip. I’ve spoken with multiple travel experts who swear that staying well outside the center of town is the obvious choice for frugal travelers. But I’ve spoken with just as many who swear the exact opposite.
In truth, both are right. In some places, high transportation costs to and from major attractions outweigh lower room costs in outlying districts. In others, the added cost of public transit, ridesharing, or driving is nominal compared with savings on accommodations.
You don’t always have to go far to find the right balance. When my wife and I attended a wedding in midtown Manhattan, we skipped the wedding party’s recommended hotel (and all the other insanely expensive hotels in the district) in favor of a far cheaper, brand-name option in Long Island City, just across the East River. We saved at least $200 on a single night’s stay – not a bad trade for an extra four stops on the N train or a $15 Uber.
15. Use Borrowed Luggage
If you don’t travel very often, ask friends or family to spot you a bag or two. This trick reduces wear on the luggage you do own, lengthening the replacement cycle by years.
Pack light (see below) and you can easily get away with a single bag on short trips. Even if you’re taking a long journey that requires more bag space, you can probably mix and match luggage from multiple people.
16. Pack Light
Make minimalist packing your mantra. No matter how long you plan to be away, consider packing no more than a week’s supply of fresh clothing. Make sure you have clothing that actually matches, of course, and make sure you bring weather-appropriate stuff. If you’re visiting Boston or Chicago during the winter, for example, you’ll need plenty of warm apparel.
Don’t forget other essential accessories, such as travel-size hygiene items, chargers and USBs, power adapters (for international travel), plastic bags, and a lock for your stuff.
17. Travel During the Low Season
By definition, the cheapest time to travel to just about any destination is the low season, when poor weather stymies tourists.
The “low season effect” is particularly pronounced in outdoor vacation destinations, where rain, snow, or extreme temperatures make or break travel plans. It tends to be less noticeable in major economic centers that attract continuous streams of business travelers, such as New York City and Chicago. But it’s rarely negligible, so plan accordingly.
Some popular vacation towns actually have two low seasons. In mountain communities like Steamboat Springs and Jackson Hole, the low seasons and the shoulder seasons – spring and mid-to-late fall – are one and the same. Once the winter ski season ends, there’s not much to do until the weather is consistently nice come early summer. Then, there’s a noticeable gap between fall foliage season and the start of ski season. Meanwhile, some tropical destinations have two rainy seasons, neither of which are fun for sun-seekers.
18. Fly Midweek
If your travel dates are flexible, schedule at least one leg of your trip – and ideally both – for the middle of the workweek. For a visual illustration, pull up any major airline’s fare calendar. You’ll almost certainly see fares rise on Thursday and Friday, spike again on Sunday, and then fall to a low point on Tuesday or Wednesday.
19. Travel on Major Holidays
Another flexible travel tip: Consider traveling on major holidays, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. They’re usually the only days during prolonged holiday seasons – such as spring break, and the end-of-year holidays – on which air and train fares are lower than average. Both times I flew on Christmas, my fare was $100 lower than the week before – and that’s for a three-hour domestic flight.
20. Know the Local Holiday Calendar
You’re probably familiar with the U.S. holiday calendar, but what about elsewhere in the world?
It pays to know. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, for instance, you’ll want to avoid Semana Santa – the week leading up to Easter, when school is out nationwide and the whole country seems to be on the road. Airfare and room rates rise proportionally.
On the other hand, certain parts of the world have anti-holidays – periods when relatively few locals take vacations. February is a cheap time to fly in many parts of the world, falling as it does after the winter holidays and before the spring break or Easter crush.
21. Purchase Travel Insurance
Despite its limitations, travel insurance provides valuable financial protection against a variety of costly and inconvenient scenarios that can ruin entire vacations. While travel insurance usually can’t prevent these scenarios, it can lessen the fiscal blow.
Many premium travel credit cards have built-in travel insurance protections, though you should absolutely read your issuer’s fine print before assuming you’re covered in any given scenario.
If you don’t have a premium credit card or you seek extra protection, consider buying a travel insurance policy from a reputable issuer like Allianz Travel Insurance. Full-spectrum policies, including protections like reimbursement for lost or delayed luggage and trip cancellation and interruption due to covered causes, typically cost 5% to 10% of the total value of nonrefundable insured expenses.
22. Skip the International Phone Plan
As a general rule, short-term leisure travelers don’t need international phone plans. Plans backed by major U.S. networks, such as Verizon and AT&T, are quite expensive: $10 per day for Verizon, for example, plus per-minute charges north of $0.20.
If you’re traveling for business and need to reach local contacts by phone, an international plan may be worth the investment. But most travelers can get by with free or cheap Internet calling apps like Skype and WhatsApp, which facilitate high-fidelity talk and text via Wi-Fi. You can also look into a VPN service like NordVPN.
23. Volunteer or Work While You Travel
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty or working up a sweat, look into travel vendors that pair volunteer or work hours with cozy lodgings and free or discounted food.
Legitimate volunteer-travel platforms abound. Three examples are Workaway, which caters to students studying abroad and young people on gap years; HelpX, which connects outdoorsy volunteers with organic farmers; and WWOOF, a similar vendor that operates primarily in the developing world.
24. Learn How to Avoid Excessive Foreign Transaction and Currency Exchange Fees
Many credit and debit cards charge foreign transaction fees ranging from 1% to 3% of the total transaction amount on all transactions completed outside the United States.
Fortunately, virtually all premium travel rewards credit cards waive foreign transaction fees. So do credit cards issued by a growing number of banks and credit unions. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised to learn that our credit union waives foreign transaction fees – an impressive feat for a regional institution with only a handful of physical branches.
Currency exchange fees can be even costlier than foreign transaction fees. As a rule, don’t accept any merchants’ offers to charge your credit or debit card in U.S. dollars (or whatever your home currency is). That’s a green light for them to charge exchange fees upward of 5%.
Likewise, avoid currency exchange bureaus in airports and shopping areas. They charge as much as 8% on small-dollar transactions. Always get foreign currency at an ATM or local bank.
25. Avoid Airport ATMs
In some parts of the world, cash is still king.
Once you come to the realization that currency exchange windows are almost always the worst way to get local currency in retail-size tranches, you might be tempted to go for the next most convenient option: airport ATMs.
It’s convenient not to have to worry about finding a nonsketchy ATM in an unfamiliar city – as long as you’re OK with paying a price for said convenience. Airport ATM fees are invariably on the upper end of the local range – perhaps double the median. Paying an extra 2% on a $500 withdrawal adds $10 to the transaction’s cost, for instance. That’s not a great start to a supposedly frugal vacation.
26. Keep a Spare Outfit in Your Carry-On
Full-spectrum travel insurance policies often reimburse you (up to a predefined limit) for expenses incurred when replacing clothing in lost or delayed luggage.
If you don’t have travel insurance, or you don’t want to wait weeks for your claim to be processed, keep a weather-appropriate spare outfit in your carry-on. Most delayed bags are located within a couple of days, so one outfit should be enough to tide you over. If you have enough room, two outfits don’t hurt.
27. Get Cozy in a Hostel
If you’re not dead set on having your own private space, consider a multiperson hostel room in lieu of a private hostel or hotel suite. At some cut-rate places, you can save even more by offering in-kind trades – for instance, taking promotional photos or writing website copy.
Look for hostels that offer additional value-adds and indirect savings opportunities, such as free or cheap tours, group excursions, and meals. Some of the best hostel experiences I’ve ever had involved communal meals or outings with folks I’d met earlier in the day.
28. Consider Camping (Weather Permitting)
Before you book a hotel or hostel, look into the availability and legality of camping in your destination. If you already have all the necessary equipment, camping is usually cheaper than staying under a roof, even in dorm-style accommodations.
The rub is that camping gear takes up space. If you’re flying solo or with one other person, get a compact pup tent and a heavy-duty duffel bag small enough to fit into the overhead bin. REI has a compact bag specifically designed for air and train travel.
In the U.S., basic campsites in national and state parks and forests can cost as little as $10 to $20 per night during the off-season. Pricing is about the same in Europe, where quality campsites are often readily available near major cities. Schlepping your tent and sleeping bag across the ocean is a heavy lift, but it’s an excellent way to save money every single night.
29. Take the Night Train or Bus
Stretch your lodging budget further by taking overnight transportation whenever possible. Overnight travel is basically a two-for-one deal: You don’t have to pay for a hotel, and you get a few hours of shuteye. If you’re a light sleeper, you might struggle to adjust, but the payoff is probably worth it.
Of course, catching a few fitful hours of sleep on an overnight bus, train, or plane isn’t a perfect substitute for a full night of restful shuteye in a real, comfortable bed. But it’s much cheaper.
30. Stay in a Monastery
This is a variation on the volunteer-while-you-travel theme. It sounds weird, but it’s totally real and totally legit. Monastery stays are most common in Europe and parts of south and Southeast Asia, but they’re not unheard of elsewhere.
USA Today has a good primer on what to expect from the typical monastery stay, including potentially prohibited clothing, rules for gender mixing, and the likelihood of private washing and changing areas. Use a niche aggregator like Monastery Stays to find a comfortable option near your destination.
31. Become a House Sitter
House-sitting is another way to reduce your lodging costs or even earn money while you travel. You just have to accept the responsibility that comes with it.
If you’re a dog person, use a house-sitting service that caters to pet owners. Trusted Housesitters is a good option, though you’ll want to make sure whatever service you choose is available in your destination country.
32. Use House-Swap Platforms
Want the comfort of a private home without the responsibility of house-sitting? If you’re OK with letting vetted strangers stay in your house, try a house-swapping platform. Most house-swapping platforms use a membership model: You pay a monthly or annual fee for unlimited swapping, with no added costs for the swaps themselves.
One legitimate platform is HomeExchange, the world’s largest house-swapping site by volume. But there are plenty of others. Do some digging and see what’s available in your area and destination – remember, you need to match with a house and sitter in both places.
33. Use a Short-Term Rental Platform to Find a Private Room
Not crazy about opening up your house to fellow house swappers? Try another service made possible by the sharing economy: short-term house or apartment rentals.
The most bare-bones option that’s widely available around the world is Couchsurfing, which specializes in social housing arrangements that cost little or nothing out of pocket for travelers. You might be expected to hang out with your host or help cook a meal, but that’s often the extent of it. In return, you get a bed (or couch) to rest and recharge.
Airbnb is the best known of the more buttoned-up short-term rental platforms. HomeAway is also quite popular. For those not interested in Couchsurfing-style accommodations, frugal travel experts recommend looking for low-cost, low-amenity options on Airbnb. Though the platform is inexorably moving toward more upscale whole-unit rentals, it’s still possible to find shared rooms in bigger, more expensive cities. And they’re super cheap – often less than $30 per night.
34. Get a Place With a Kitchen
It’s not exactly rocket science: If you don’t have a place to cook for yourself, it’s hard to avoid eating out. And eating out is almost always more expensive than cooking your own meals.
If you book an Airbnb private room, check with the host ahead of time and confirm that you’ll be permitted reasonable use of the home’s kitchen. Some hosts are reticent to allow this – an understandable position, but one worth knowing in advance.
35. Don’t Be Afraid of Street Food
In larger Western cities, and pretty much everywhere in many parts of the developing world, street food is consistently the cheapest option for travelers without kitchens at their disposal.
Whenever I visit major U.S. cities like San Francisco or Chicago, I relish the opportunity to try new food trucks and carts. I can’t remember the last time I had a bad experience at one, and they’re invariably cheaper than comparable sit-down restaurants.
Outside North America, the possibilities are even better. During our five-day stay in Bangkok, Thailand, my wife and I ate lunch or dinner at just two full-service restaurants (our hotel served breakfast). We grabbed every other meal on the street, often spending as little as $1 to $2 for a filling plate of noodles or curry.
36. Learn to Love Snacks
Snacking might not be great for your waistline, but it’s an excellent way to trim your traveling food budget without going hungry.
Snacking is especially important on transit days, as it’s easy to miss meals when you’re moving around and food prices in airports and train stations are typically inflated. I always stash an economy pack of nutrition bars in my luggage before hitting the road. Substitute your favorite healthy, calorie-dense snack accordingly.
37. Visit Independently Owned Eateries Near Closing Time
Trying to stretch your food budget further, but not lucky enough to have a full-service kitchen at your disposal? Hang around traveler-friendly eateries around closing time, when they’re more likely to have already-prepped food and no one to buy it.
On a multicountry stint in Europe, I tried this strategy with varying degrees of success. Not everyone was willing to hook me up, but I got a few free or discounted meals out of it.
38. Dine Out at Lunch, Not Dinner
At traditional restaurants, lunch is almost always cheaper than dinner. The portions are smaller, the crowds are thinner, and there’s less alcohol flowing.
This holds true in fancier places too. Rather than splurge on a fancy dinner at an upscale restaurant, make lunch your main meal. You’ll still spend a pretty penny, but far less than for a comparable dinner. Even if you don’t have the budget or inclination to splurge, you can save a great deal simply by reserving your restaurant meals for midday and cooking or eating prepared foods (see below) at dinner.
To cut your dining-out costs even more, try these tips for saving money at restaurants no matter where you are.
39. Buy Prepared Foods at the Supermarket
I’m a huge fan of prepared foods from the supermarket. When I’m out and about in my hometown during the middle of the day, I routinely substitute the supermarket salad bar or deli for a quick-service restaurant meal. The wait is shorter, the bill is smaller, and the variety is wider.
Things are no different when I’m away from home. I find it particularly easy to take advantage of supermarkets’ bounty on road trips within the U.S., but I’ve eaten like a king at grocery stores in Europe, Canada, and Asia too.
And it’s not true that supermarket food is boring or nonrepresentative of local cuisine. One of the best (and certainly the cheapest) sushi boxes I’ve had anywhere in the U.S. came from a Japanese market in downtown Seattle.
40. Bring a Reusable Water Bottle
Bottled water is bad for the environment. Most of the fresh water used in its production is wasted, and the oil-based plastic used to store and transport it has a huge carbon footprint. Sustainability-minded travelers should avoid bottled water whenever possible.
If eco-friendliness isn’t a top priority for you, there’s still the issue of bottled water’s cost. At $1 to $3 per bottle in North America and Europe, your on-the-road bottled-water habit can quickly get expensive.
There’s a simple fix: Bring your own reusable water bottle. You probably have one at home already. If not, it’s a $10 investment (or less).
In the developing world, where municipal water systems aren’t great and well water is often contaminated, you’ll also want some sort of filtration system to ward off harmful microbes. Top-of-the-line bottles with built-in filters retail for $50 or $60 online – see this $60 ultra-light model on Amazon for a taste of what’s out there.
41. Take Free (or Cheap) Tours
A walking or bus tour is a great way to learn about a new city while soaking up some local flavor. In North America and Europe, you can expect to pay the equivalent of $20 to $30 per day (or more) for full hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus privileges. As a two-for-one transit-and-guided-tour deal, that’s not outrageous.
“Pay what you like” walking tours are, by definition, cheaper – and not necessarily any less interesting. Plus, walking around with a small group is a lot more social than cramming into a crowded double-decker bus.
The big downside is that you can’t cover as much ground, though you’ll likely learn more about whatever you do see. My first walking tour experience, a Free Tours by Foot production in Charleston, South Carolina, taught me more about the history of the slave trade and Civil War than I ever learned in school. For a roughly two-hour experience, I paid $10 – less than I’d pay to get into a top-flight history museum.
42. Use Public Transit Whenever Possible
Unless you’ve planned well in advance to take an extended journey into a countryside region not well served by mass transit, skip the rental car.
These days, you can easily get around even the most spread-out North American cities (hello, Phoenix) using a combination of public transportation and ridesharing services for less than the daily cost of a car rental.
In many parts of Europe, it’s easy to get around in rural areas without a car too. Switzerland’s beautiful Jungfrau region is a storybook tableau of small Alpine villages, many perched on sheer cliff faces beyond the reach of the country’s road system. The region’s excellent public train and cable car system is a necessity for locals and a boon for travelers visiting from Interlaken and Zurich on day or weekend excursions.
43. Rent or Share a Bike
Biking is a healthy, usually affordable complement to public transportation and ridesharing in sizable cities, and it’s often the fastest way to get around in smaller vacation towns.
Before you arrive at your destination, look into bike rentals and bike sharing programs. Pricing varies, but it’s generally possible to find a good-quality bike on Spinlister (or an equivalent online platform) or through a local shop from $15 to $20 per day. Bike sharing passes usually run $10 less per day, with unlimited free use on rides shorter than 30 to 60 minutes.
44. Get a Multi-Attraction Pass or Discount Card
Before you visit any major city, look into multi-attraction passes and discount cards.
CityPASS and Smart Destinations (makers of the Go Card) sell a dizzying array of discount packages in a dozen or more of the most popular urban tourist destinations in the U.S.: Seattle, San Francisco, Southern California, New York City, Boston, and Miami, to name a few.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, my CityPASS saved me at least $50 on some very worthwhile attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences – one of the best science museums I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Abroad, you might have better luck with city-specific passes. When my wife and I visited Lisbon, Portugal, we purchased a Lisboa Card, a multi-attraction pass that doubled as an unlimited-use transit pass. We saw at least a dozen of the included sights at no out-of-pocket cost, recouping our investment twice over.
Bear in mind that multi-attraction discount cards are designed to encourage as much sightseeing as possible. The more sights you can cram into a day or week (depending on the duration you’ve chosen), the less you’ll pay per attraction. If you’re only interested in a couple of participating sights, it might be better to just pay full price at each.
45. Take Advantage of Free and “Pay What You Can” Museum Days
Only suckers pay full price for high culture, say seasoned travel experts.
Before you buy passes online or head to the ticket window, check museums’ websites for information about time-limited discounts. In my experience, most museums have at least one free day or evening per month – often during extended hours on the first Thursday or Friday. These days are especially valuable at science museums and aquariums, which tend to be pricier than all but the cream of the art museum crop. Also look out for “pay what you can” days when you can literally name your own price.
46. Check Community Calendars for Free or Cheap Events
Museums don’t have a monopoly on free or cheap activities.
Check community calendars in your destination for interesting opportunities that won’t cost much (or anything) out of pocket. You can usually find up-to-date calendars online at municipal or local/regional tourism websites.
It’s worth noting that many elite museums are completely free. In Washington, D.C., the dozen-plus Smithsonian Institution museums are free for all. You can easily spend a week inside the grand edifices off the National Mall without paying a dime.
47. Take Advantage of Group or Class Discounts
Most Americans belong to at least one professional, cultural, or fraternal organization with outsize purchasing and negotiating power, such as AAA, AARP, or Rotary International.
Others belong to special demographic or cultural classes, such as students, seniors, active-duty military, or veterans. Whether they know it or not, members of these groups and classes may be entitled to discounts, freebies, or special perks at museums, venues, restaurants, parks, cultural attractions, service providers, and more. Even if your association doesn’t promote its travel perks, it never hurts to do some research and see what you might be entitled to.
Ultimately, your choice to accept or ignore some or all of these money-saving travel tips comes down to your personal preferences and travel style. I won’t be offended if you conclude that some of these ideas don’t really apply to your situation – though I’d love to hear more about your favorite tricks to save money on the road if they’re not on this list.
What’s your favorite way to save money on vacation?