10 tips for Traveling on a Budget

I love to travel and explore new places. Always have. Always will! And thankfully, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to go to locales that many people will never experience. Those trips have come through band trips, college programs, a study-abroad semester, and work opportunities. But most importantly, a lot of them have come simply by having the initiative to make a plan and make it happen. On those trips especially, I’ve had so many people ask: “How do you travel so cheaply?” So I thought I’d tell you! If you want to skip the reading, scroll to the bottom to find a summary of tips that will help get you where you want to go.

First, like I said, make a plan. Obviously, travel takes money, but not as much as you might think. As long as you actively look for ways to save money on the four main expenses of travel: Activities, Lodging, Transportation, and Food, you’ll find that you can get the cost of your trips way down!

Activities: I plan my trips meticulously. I normally start reading up on where I want to visit about 6-8 months ahead of the trip. Once I have my main locations in mind, I decide where to visit in those areas. That’s where things can get expensive. A lot of people go on vacation and do really touristy (expensive) things, but I prefer to experience the local culture and environment more. After all, I can ride go karts and play mini-golf at home… So I skip all that junk and find out what makes that area great for the people that live there. Maybe there’s a lot of history there or some amazing natural features. Most of the time, these lesser advertised attractions have little to no admission cost and you’ll enjoy them much more than waiting in line at the newest “must see/do/eat” place in town. For example, when we went to Colorado this past summer, two of our main destinations were the Denver Botanic Gardens and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Gardens only cost $12.50 to get in and we spent the entire afternoon there! It was one of the highlights of our trip. Our next stop was RMNP ($20 per car) where we spent 2 days hiking through some incredible scenery that was really different from what we had experienced before on the east coast. We also camped here, which brings up my next money saving tip.

Lodging: For us camping is an amazing alternative to a hotel room. We can often find campsites in state or national parks near our destinations, but even private campgrounds will save you money. I think the most I’ve ever paid for a site was around $40 and that one was really expensive compared to most of the sites we’ve visited. But if camping isn’t your thing or you’re traveling to a more urban destination, you can still save money on your lodging. The main mistake that most people make when booking a hotel stay is that they pay for amenities they don’t need! When I’m traveling, I’m generally moving around a lot, so I don’t spend much time in my hotel room. I don’t need an indoor pool and sauna or a workout room. Instead, my priorities are that the room is clean and they offer some type of included breakfast the next morning. (More money saved on food y’all!) Also, try to travel outside of the “peak” season for the location you’re visiting, since lodging prices can go way up during these times! (Make sure the attractions you want to visit are open outside of peak season though!)

To find good deals on rooms, I use a rewards program through Wyndham Hotels to get special discounts and earn points towards free stays. Andrew also has a friend who works for Wyndham so she’s able to get us incredible prices on many of our rooms. I prefer to use this resort chain because they have so many options in terms of location, price range, and type of hotel. On business trips or road trips, I tend to book at Microtel or Days Inn (We can almost always get these rooms at around the $60-$80 range.), but if I do want something nicer when I’m in a larger city, I can also you my rewards program/points at a Hyatt or Wyndham location. Other good options to save on lodging are using a rewards credit card, searching for “alternative lodging” like couch crashing or Airbnb type websites, or staying with visiting friends and relatives along the way.

Transportation: For us, driving a hybrid car helps a ton on fuel costs, but obviously that isn’t an option for everyone.  One thing a lot of people forget is that they don’t have to drive everywhere they go. A lot of airlines offer super cheap flights to certain destinations. There is bus service (Megabus not Grey Hound!) to almost anywhere. The east coast and parts of the west coast have an awesome passenger rail system. There are tons of options! And many times, these options can be way cheaper than the fuel and maintenance costs equated with driving, even when you factor in renting a car or taking Uber rides once you arrive at your destination.

Food: This one is a HUGE expense for most people on vacation. We want to spoil ourselves during trips so it’s only natural that we eat out a ton at rather expensive places. But, ask yourself, what is the most important part of your trip? What would you rather invest in, food or another experience? For most of my trips, I’d rather cut my food costs and do more. (I say “most” because if we’re heading to somewhere with amazing culinary traditions {I.E. New Orleands or New England}, my food budget is definitely larger!) To save money on eating, I often pack snacks and small meals to eat along the road. Cereal, Peanut Butter, Bananas, Jelly, Bread, Bagels, Veggies, etc… great options for a rest area picnic instead of a drive thru! And like I mentioned before, hotels with included breakfast are awesome! When I do eat out though, I normally have an exact plan in place. My itinerary for each day breaks down all my meals and whether I get it from a hotel, make it myself, or go to a restaurant. The restaurants I do visit are generally part of that “local” experience, like Sugarfire in St. Louis (BBQ!!!) or Casa Bonita in Denver (Cliff Diving in the restaurant!), and they’re totally worth a little extra money in the budget!

So, to wrap it up… plan, plan, plan! Make a budget and make yourself save the money. Do you need that large $6 coffee in the morning or do you need an amazing vacation? Little savings add up a lot over time! On my last road trip, we visited Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota… over 4,500 miles in 10 days… all for around $800. It was an amazing trip and we experienced so many awesome things. All the planning and budgeting is totally worth it!!

Take away tips:

  1. Plan an exact itinerary. Make time for what’s important to you and ignore the rest.
  2. Set a daily budget that breaks down your costs into four categories: transportation, food, activities, and lodging.
  3. Look for free or low cost activities that allow you to explore the local culture while avoiding the tourist traps.
  4. Go camping!
  5. Only pay for the amenities you need at hotels. Less amenities = lower prices.
  6. Travel outside of peak season.
  7. Use a rewards program for lodging and/or fuel costs.
  8. Consider alternative transportation methods like air, rail, or bus.
  9. Calculate you fuel mileage and see if renting a more efficient car would be cost effective.
  10. Pack picnic lunches and eat breakfast at your hotel. Only visit restaurants if it adds to your local experience!

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