Worldwide, the travel industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Spurred on by the internet, travel shows, and friends social media posts, people are choosing to spend their money by experiencing the world rather than accumulating stuff at home. But if you’re not careful, a vacation can empty your bank account almost as fast as a pickpocket can lift your wallet. Let’s look at ways to keep your next vacation affordable.
As the author of more than 300 travel articles in print and online, I’ve traveled to 44 American states as well as Europe, Central America, Canada, Asia, and the Middle East. For this article, I also spoke to professional travel adviser Linda Contract—in business since 1984—who specializes in budget travel.
Curiosity is at the heart of travel. There’s a whole big world out there. What do want to experience? Travel shows like those hosted by Rick Steves, Phil Rosenthal, and Samantha Brown are great ways to discover new places, people, and foods. Sign up for online travel e-newsletters like AFAR; you’re sure to find ideas to stoke your curiosity. Within the U.S., national parks are perennial favorites, but don’t forget about your own state parks, as many of them have world-class scenery and no crowds.
Your Bucket Lists
Make a bucket list of places you’d like to go and things you’d like to experience. Add to it any time you like. I suggest you also make a second list—a sort of reverse bucket list. Write down all the wonderful places you’ve already been and the great experiences you’ve already had. Most people are pleasantly surprised at how many fun things they’ve already done!
Once you’ve chosen your destination, try contacting an experienced travel adviser to see what she can arrange for you. Tell her your budget and ask what she’ll charge for her services. You can arrange your own vacation, but it will take lots of advance planning to keep costs down.
Time Your Travel
Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, but with travel it can cost you. Buy suitcases and accessories in advance while they’re on sale. Start looking at airfares early and book tickets well ahead. You can sign up for flight alerts with Skyscanner or Kayak, but Linda Contract warns that the airlines use algorithms and once they see what you’re interested in, they jerk prices around. If you see a great airfare, grab it!
Another major tip: save money and avoid crowds by traveling in the off-season. Avoid summer in Europe like the plague! Places like Rome are hot and expensive, and the tourist attractions are so crowded you’ll spend much of your time in lines. Off-season travel can give you a better feel for local life. Visit Copenhagen in early December and you’ll get a taste of Danish “hygge.” The weather may be cold and dark, but the shops and Christmas markets serve hot mulled wine, all the windows will have flickering candles, and you can still visit the castles and museums.
Dine for Less
You don’t need to spend a fortune on food when traveling. To taste authentic local cuisine, try “street foods.” A floating market in Thailand, a food truck in L.A., a tiny corner barbecue in New Orleans, or a falafel stand in Israel can prepare a delicious lunch for you for under $5. When in Denmark, I’ll take a red “pølse” (Danish hot dog) that I eat standing up at a pølse-wagon on the street any day. Danish pastry from a local bakery tops it off just right. In Israel, most hotels offer an enormous buffet breakfast—“the best breakfasts in the world!” Contract exclaims, adding, “I always try to book hotels with breakfast included, anywhere I go. You’ll save money but also precious time.” Always research your destination’s cuisine before you leave home, so you can make smart choices on the road.
Where to Stay
Staying with family or friends is your cheapest option, but if that won’t work, Couchsurfing is next, and it’s a great way to meet local folks: You’ll actually stay in their homes. However, Contract strongly recommends that single female travelers choose a hotel (B&Bs with shared baths are a good choice) rather than a private residence. Booking.com can sometimes save you big on hotels.
Unless you or your companion are already familiar with a city, the cost of a professional tour can be some of the best money you’ll spend on vacation. Contract says, “You’ll usually pay only $25 to $35, or try Tours by Locals, where you often pay zero.”
My husband and I spent over $120 in one day just for parking all over downtown Chicago. That was absurd; we should have used Uber. On the other hand, a rental car was the perfect way to get around Israel, and a huge time-saver. In Europe, trolleys and rail are usually your best bets. Package deals like the Copenhagen Card sometimes offer unlimited travel and may even include museum tickets. Just be sure you’ll actually use them. “Hop-on, hop-off tickets work best after you’ve gotten a tour of the city,” Contract advises.
Final Money-Saving & Safety Tips
Leave jewelry at home so you don’t attract crime. “Don’t change your money on the street,” Contract cautions, “Use an airport kiosk instead, or your hotel. Research exchange rates before you depart. Keep your passport and extra cash or credit cards in your hotel safe, if you have one, and use a money belt. Backpacks are an invitation to pickpockets.”
You don’t need to blow money on souvenirs, either. After spending a day at the Louvre, I visited the gift shop and bought postcards of my favorite artworks. Take photos while you travel and then print your favorites at home, frame them, and decorate your walls to preserve your vacation memories forever. Bon Voyage!
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.