The more money you save on travel, the more places you get to visit! Sure, there are times when spending $4000 on a one week trip to Disneyland might be worth it. But for most people it can be more rewarding (and a healthier lifestyle balance) to take 4 x $1000 trips to explore different places, at different times throughout the year. Same money spent, but 4x more trips!
In this post we’re going to cover a huge range of tips and tricks that will allow you to save money on your next excursion. We’ll attempt to cover every aspect, giving you the knowledge and resources that you can keep coming back to in order to save every single time you book travel in the future.
1. Travel during the off-season
The first tip to lowering travel costs is to go when everyone else isn’t going. When demand is high, supply is low, which means airlines, hotels, and popular tourist destinations can charge higher prices – and get away with it!
This is, of course, harder to do for folks with kids. Maximizing those non-Summer school breaks is essential to saving money on a trip. Sometimes just traveling a few days before or after school break (and missing a couple days of school) can save you meaningful bucks and help you avoid peak travel costs.
Shoulder Season Rules
Ever heard of “shoulder season?” It’s the travel period between peak and off-peak seasons… right in the middle when things are still open and the weather isn’t completely horrible. 🤣 This is applicable here in the states if you’re exploring our beautiful country, but it’s also true when you’re considering going abroad as well.
Visiting your favorite European destination in the Summer will mean higher airfare, lodging, & car rental costs. (Plus dealing with all the crowds and other tourists). But traveling in April & October are typically the best months for a Euro vacation from a cost perspective. The weather can be just as nice and it will feel less packed.
So remember that seasonality has a big impact on costs when it comes to that booking. It’ll save you hundreds of dollars – maybe more.
2) Book in advance, at the right time
When you book your travel matters, specifically with flights. Booking at the right time can save you meaningful dollars. And I don’t mean buying on a Tuesday vs Friday. Studies have shown that you’ll get the best deals on flights in these windows:
- International flights: Booking at least 6 months out.
- Domestic flights: You’ll likely see the best deals 2-3 months in advance of your trip. (If you try to book a domestic trip 8 or 9 months in advance, fares are likely to be higher than they would be if you waited a bit longer)
- Holiday travel (like christmas, Thanksgiving): Travel experts pretty much say there’s no good time to book – it’s basically always expensive due to high demand. So the earlier, the better.
It typically pays to be a planner. Here’s also a really detailed best times to book flights post from our buddy, Brian Kelly aka The Points Guy. It’s very thorough!
Using Airfare Alerts
Many travel apps allow you to be notified when the price of a particular flight you’re planning to take experiences a price drop. These tips are really helpful, because airfares fluctuate quite a bit and sometimes snagging a last minute flight gets you a HUGE discount.
Google Flights is probably the best airfare search tool on the market right now. They do a great job helping you see whether the price is solid (prompting you to book asap) or whether they might go down in the coming weeks. Google’s price graph and date grid are immensely helpful. It makes it crystal clear that by changing one of your travel dates you might be able to save a big chunk of money. Travel date flexibility is crucial to saving money.
Here are some screenshots of those tools within Google Flights:
One of our listeners named Shannon also made this detailed step by step guide to Google flights that you might like and it’s full of other tips to save money on travel!
Skiplagged is another site worth checking out. The airlines aren’t too fond of this site though, because they expose cheap deals called hidden city fares.
An example of this is: Let’s say you want to fly to Ohio, but all the flights are quite expensive. Well, Skiplagged might help you find a fare to NYC instead, with a layover in Ohio, at a cheaper total price than just a single flight to Ohio. On flying day, you just get off in Ohio and purposefully miss the second flight to NYC.
Kind of sneaky, but regardless, they are definitely worth checking out in order to get great deals.
3) Prioritize the deal over the destination
My wife and I had always wanted to visit Norway. But we never planned a trip there because it was always so expensive. Then one day we got an alert that ticket prices dropped to $500 round trip! That price was too good to ignore. So we pounced on the deal. This was all thanks to some new cheap flight operators who had just launched in Scandinavia.
If we had forced that Norway trip before those fare drops we would have ended up paying at least $1,000 per ticket, drastically increasing the cost of our trip. Being patient and waiting for deals pays off. It’s the best way to see the world on the cheap, and gets you traveling more sporadically and spontaneously!
Patience is a virtue when it comes to saving money on travel.
Cheap flight alerts can work on your behalf
Here are a few sites we like for checking out worldwide cheap flights:
Kayak.com/explore is a great tool for seeing the best prices for destinations worldwide at a glance. It can really open your eyes to see neat places you might not have otherwise considered visiting. So pull that site up and start dreaming based on the lowest-cost places to fly.
Scott’s Cheap Flights & AirfareWatchdog are other sites worth bookmarking. If you’re a travel nut, signing up for the newsletter from Scott’s Cheap Flights is a must. That $49 can save you hundreds, or potentially even thousands on your next trip. Those newsletters can be another great tool to push you towards a destination you might not have considered based on an incredibly low fare that pops up.
Pro tip: Wherever you end up, make sure you always stay the weekend. If you include a Saturday night stay in your trip you are almost always going to save more money. Especially when traveling to Europe, you’ll save a heck of a lot more if you travel Monday through Sunday instead of Monday through Friday. That’s because if you don’t stay the weekend, the airlines assume that you are a business traveler. And business travelers pay more. (Plus, who wants to go for just a few days anyway!)
4) Consider regional airports
There’s no rule that says you must fly from the major airport closest to your house. Or in the case of Skiplagged that you actually have to make it to your booked destination either!
Depending on where you’d like to fly to, it might be cheaper to drive a little bit to a regional airport (or another major city airport) in order to get the best deal. For example, some of the best flight deals to Europe come out of Chicago & New York. If you live in the Midwest and have family in Chicago, combine that trip with a chance to see them. It could drastically reduce the overall expense of that trip. Stubbornly attempting to book that European vacay from Birmingham, AL or Memphis, TN could end up costing you a whole lot more.
And let’s say you really want to visit a super cool spot like Croatia in eastern Europe. You might find that ticket prices never (or at least rarely) go on sale. Instead, consider booking round-trip tickets to another European destination that frequently has cheap tickets (maybe London or Paris). There’s a good chance it’ll be a heck of a lot cheaper to book travel on one of the Euro discount airlines to your eastern European destination from a bigger western European city.
Rome2Rio can help you find cheaper ways to get around Europe too. Breaking up our trip into multiple bookings gives you better chances of finding multiple local deals.
5) Consider the overall trip cost, not just cheap flights
It’s more expensive to get to Thailand than it is to get to San Francisco from most places. But San Francisco is an expensive city to hang out in. Even though the flight might be cheaper, there’s a good chance the overall trip cost will become more expensive after chilling in the Bay Area for a few weeks vs. doing the same in Thailand.
This is where a travel budget comes in handy. It forces you take into account all of the trip costs like flights, accommodation, food, activities, etc so you know which places actually end up cheaper on an all-in basis.
And if you’re looking for great ideas for ways to stretch your dollar at a particular destination, TripAdvisor is an awesome website you really need to spend time on. What Yelp did for helping you find a good restaurant, TripAdvisor did for helping you find the diamond in the rough boutique hotel that isn’t all that expensive! There’s a treasure trove of information mostly coming from fellow travelers helping others replicate their top-notch experiences.
All in all, if you only focus on saving money on one aspect of the trip (like only prioritizing that cheap flight) you might end up spending much more in other areas. While flights are often the most expensive part of your trip, other factors matter too.
6) Watch out for hidden fees
Speaking of the overall cost of your trip, be aware of fees. The lowest price ticket might not mean the lowest overall price. That’s because different airlines have different fee structures. Baggage, re-printing a boarding, taxes, etc can all hit you unexpectedly and screw up your original flight deal.
Southwest is an awesome airline, committing to tamping down fees. Google Flights doesn’t list Southwest fares so be sure to check them separately if they fly out of your home airport. They have no checked baggage fees on the first two bags you bring on board. That could be a huge savings in and of itself! (And it’s perfect if you want to bring some tasty beers back from your trip 😉).
Southwest also doesn’t play the change fee game. If you need to change your dates after booking you’ll only pay for the additional fare costs – if there are any. Need to change dates with Delta? It’s typically $200!! OUCH.
Airbnb recently made a cool addition to their search platform. In December 2022 they launched “total price display”, so their listings will now include ALL the fees (like cleaning and stuff). This makes it easier to compare rentals apples to apples, and not get surprised by silly little fees that show up when you’re ready to check out.
Bottom line: Fully research the cheap airlines and hotels before you book. Hidden fees are annoying, but sadly a common reality!
7) Shop rental car options
Rental car prices have been abnormally high in recent months. We can largely thank Covid for that.. As we talked about with Clark Howard recently, where you fly should partially be determined by rental car costs on the ground – at least for the time being.
Always make a refundable car reservation immediately upon booking your flight with one of the major rental companies. After that, you should be shopping rates as you get closer to your trip.
One excellent way to have someone else do that shopping for you is AutoSlash. They have collectively saved car rental customers more than $100 million on travel costs! The average savings is around 30% as compared to other websites. Check them out for sure.
You’ll want to consider Turo right now too. You could save more by renting a car from an individual, Airbnb style, instead of renting from one of the major car rental companies. These car share companies are blowing up right now and are very reliable. But again, check the fees before completing your booking!
8) Choose flexible and refundable lodging
Where you book lodging matters a lot when it comes to saving money. Similar to booking a rental car, booking a refundable room can be the best first step.
HotelTonight is one of the best sites for last-minute lodging deals. But Priceline & Hotwire are the two best overall sites for booking a hotel room, in our opinion. Priceline used to have a bidding tool which made deals easier to find, but they’ve axed that feature on their platform.
Sometimes, it actually makes sense to book via a hotel directly. For the longest time this wasn’t the case – third-party sites were far superior when it came to save money on travel hotels. But that isn’t as true now as it once was. These hotels are realizing that they need to price competitively.
So if you want a specific hotel, check the rate on their site too. For example, Marriott has a best rate guarantee. If you find a lower rate & submit a claim form they will give you an additional 25% off!
And sometimes it helps to just pick up the phone with a hotel. You might get some helpful info about what sort of other discounts are available that might be difficult to find on the website. Hotel front desks and operators are also great for sourcing local cheap activities! Here’s a guide on asking for discounts if you feel nervous 😉
Again, TripAdvisor is a site worth looking at before booking lodging too. Especially if you’re looking to book a smaller, boutique hotel you can get some really helpful reviews and ranking from that site.
9) Sometimes, travel agents can save you money
I know what you’re thinking… Since travel agents get a commission for booking your travel, usually you pay a higher cost. But, in some circumstances it can be worth hiring someone to help you plan and book your trip, especially if you’re going in a large group or taking a lengthy trip that includes a plethora of planes, trains, and automobiles.
That being said, you’ll want to know how that person gets paid specifically. If they say that you don’t have to pay them a dime, it means they are making commissions from the vendors they work with. You might still end up with the best deal. But knowing the payment structure up-front is important.
TravelSense.org is a site worth checking if you feel like you need the help of a travel expert.
10) Vacation packages can be cheaper
Booking a complete vacation package can be a good way to get a bundled travel discount. Some operators offer the flight, car, hotel, and sometimes even all-inclusive food into bundles that are cheaper than if all the elements were paid for separately.
CostcoTravel is one of the better places to turn for a vacation package if you’re interested in booking a trip without having to plan everything. If you’re a Costco member it might be worth checking to see what they offer before you start to piecemeal your own trip together.
No planning + save money on travel = double win!!
11) Don’t forget travel insurance
Depending on what’s going on in your life, travel insurance is a purchase that could end up saving you a LOT of money in the unfortunate event you have to cancel your trip. Make sure to shop for travel insurance at a third party site – don’t get it on the airline’s website while you’re booking your tickets (it’s more expensive there).
Sites like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip are great for getting your own policy. Look at the fine print and make sure that your policy will cover any possible reasons for cancellation. The worst place to be stuck in is when you can’t go on a trip yet your policy doesn’t cover your specific reason for canceling.
But you might not even have to pay out of pocket for trip insurance. Some of our favorite travel rewards credit cards offer it as a free perk.
12) Use the right travel rewards credit card
Booking a big trip can be the perfect time to add a new credit card into your life. You can take advantage of a sweet sign-up bonus (because you’re about to drop a decent chunk on that card) PLUS earn a ton of rewards via specific airline or hotel programs.
(Of course, you’ll need to have the cash on hand to pay that balance off in full when the bill comes) But that new card can allow you to travel for free or much cheaper.
Credit cards can also offer other benefits that you might not have considered, like rental car insurance, zero foreign transaction fees, free lounge access, TSA pre-check status for free, and much more. So definitely put your trip expenses on a credit card for those perks, but only if you have the cash to pay off the full balance.
Credit cards also make for the best method of payment while you are overseas. Make sure that the card you take with you has a 0% foreign transaction fee so you’re not paying extra every time you use it!
Related posts and tools:
13) Extending your trip could lower the cost per day
Another way to save money on travel is to go on a longer trip! This might seem counterintuitive but hear us out. (We also talked about this on the podcast with with Nomadic Matt)
Longer trips can definitely help you save money, by reducing your per-day rate and maximizing the value. Again, this doesn’t work for everyone’s schedule, and not everyone wants to travel like this. But when one round-trip plane ticket allows you to explore an entire country or region by spending 3 weeks or a month there, it’ll lower the cost per day dramatically.
And let’s say you want to book an Airbnb, that makes even more sense if you stay for a longer time period. Discounts are often substantial when you book for a month instead of a week.
14) Deals for Cruises
If you’re a fan of cruises, CruiseCompete is probably the best site for comparing multiple cruise agencies and getting a good deal.
CruiseCritic is another great site if you’re trying to get educated about taking a cruise. The best time to get a cruise is typically the period between Thanksgiving & Christmas. You might even want to consult a travel agent if it is your first time booking a cruise so that you make sure that you are able to get the experience that you’re looking for.
15) Listen to the travel experts!
We’ve been lucky enough to interview several travel experts on our show. Some of them are just thrifty world travelers with years of experience. Others have built companies and services to help others save money on travel.
Here are the podcast episodes you might be interested in:
- Navigating the New Era of Cheap Travel with Scott Keyes (Scott is the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights!)
- Travel LOTS, on LITTLE with Nomadic Matt (Matt’s the guy behind NYT best-selling book “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day”
- Using Credit Cards for $50k in Free Travel with Brad Barrett (Brad’s from the Choose FI team!)
- Jet-Setting for Little to No Money with Brian Kelly (Brian is The Points Guy – a huge cheap travel site about maximizing your travel rewards)
- Money, Van Life, and Alternative Living (with Chris and Christy from Life Opted Out) We talk about free camp sites, cheap recreational parks and activities and a bunch of other road travel tips!
Hopefully this litany of travel tips will help you save money the next time you attempt to book your next getaway. It’s worth mentioning that being company loyal is going to cost you. If you only fly one specific airline or are only willing to stay at a particular hotel chain, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to save money on your trip.
Flexibility is crucial in order to save money on travel, and that includes the companies you do business with.
Cheers, and happy traveling!