When it comes to travel, most of us desperately want to do more of it — but feel we lack the resources to make it happen. The fact is international flights aren’t cheap, and trying to squeeze in as much as possible into timeframes limited by the number of vacation days can lead to an expensive itinerary.
We’re already so busy building up rainy day funds, contributing to college savings plans, and trying to stash away as much as possible for our retirements that it can be difficult to fathom how we can squeeze even more pennies out of every dollar to make room for big, overseas trips.
But you can enjoy a vacation abroad on the cheap. With a little know-how and a willingness to research and plan before you leave home, you can make international travel something affordable and within financial reach.
Five tips to travel on the cheap
Consider these five cheap vacation strategies to make your travel dreams come true, even when you’re already living on a budget.
Be as flexible as possible
If you’re willing to be flexible, you’ll be able to save lots of money by taking advantage of pop-up deals and leveraging the ability to fly, visit, and stay off-season. Even booking flights a day apart can save you hundreds of dollars.
For example, if you book your departing and arriving flights on Saturdays, you’ll save over trying to book Friday nights and anytime on Sunday (as many people fly at these times on these days, in an effort to make the most of the weekend off from work).
Be flexible on your accommodations too. You may have a chain hotel you prefer to stay in, but depending on where you travel, a locally-owned B&B may present a cheaper option. Not to mention, small, locally-operated hostels and guesthouses give you the chance to interact closely with your hosts, who may be able to give you some insider information on the area. Use resources like TripAdvisor to read reviews if you’re concerned about staying in a less-than-desirable (or clean) accommodation for the night.
One quick and easy way to save money is to travel light. This means pack one bag – and try to make it a carry-on. Before you protest, it is not only possible to take a single carry-on bag with you on your travels, but it’s also a smart move that the most experienced nomads recommend.
Traveling with a single bag (plus a handbag, purse, messenger bag or small backpack – choose one that fits your style!) saves you money in airline fees, and it could potentially save you from a huge hassle since you won’t have to worry about a checked bag being sent to the wrong location, lost, or stolen. It’s also much easier to get around when you only have one bag to handle. You have more options, including traveling by foot for longer distances. Walking is completely free!
Not sure where to start when it comes to packing for a week or more in a single carry-on? Check out these quick tips:
- Take simple, basic pieces that you can mix and match or dress up or down.
- Take three pairs of shoes, max: you’ll always be wearing one pair while the other two are packed. Think light and functional above all else.
- Leave jeans at home. They’re heavy relative to other clothing items and you can’t quickly wash and dry them.
- Speaking of washing and drying, consider bringing about three changes of clothes and simply heading to a local laundromat when you’re ready for a clean outfit.
Be the anti-tourist
You may want to hit up some popular sites and locations on your trip, but getting off the beaten path and away from the hordes of camera-toting, mouth-gaping tourists will likely help you plan cheap vacations in several ways.
Plan on spending a limited amount of time in the main cities; instead, travel to smaller towns. For example, most of us think we have to make it to London if we’re traveling to the United Kingdom – but why not limit your time in one of the most expensive cities in the world and stay in Leeds, a city where the British like to vacation within their own country, instead?
For the most part, plan to live like a local. Hit up local shops and restaurants, and visit towns and attractions that aren’t as well known. Avoid city centers when looking for places to stay. Better yet, try completely assimilating by staying with locals and renting rooms off AirBnB. In other words, don’t go mainstream. Look for quieter locales and less-famous stops.
You may have to rely on a different kind of resource than Lonely Planet or Frommer’s to plan your trip (try checking out information available on Nomadic Matt or Chris Guillebeau’s posts on travel). But doing a little extra digging online before you go can save you from paying high fees at sightseeing spots and being ripped off by paying exorbitant prices for cab rides, drinks, or trinkets where all the other tourists are congregating.
Remember, they’re called tourist traps for a reason.
Do some travel hacking
Travel hacking is by far the best way to make any kind of traveling affordable and possible on a budget. Essentially, this is a process by which people sign up for lots of different credit cards for the sole purpose of accumulating rewards and points – which can then be redeemed for travel expenses like hotel stays and flights. (See a list of the 7 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards.)
Because credit card companies in the U.S. offer ridiculous incentives to get people to sign up, travel hackers can easily acquire enough points to travel around the world completely free. Of course, people who do this are also extremely financially savvy, understand how to manage finances and credit, and are organized. They routinely close many of the cards they have open, switch fee-bearing cards to a no-fee version once they’ve used up the reward points, and they don’t carry balances.
Not comfortable utilizing credit cards? That’s fine; it’s a very personal choice and not everyone believes in doing so to “hack” their vacations. Instead, consider signing up for clubs and memberships that may help you get discounts on airfare, accommodations, rental cars, and more even when you’re overseas. Think things like AARP, AAA, and Costco memberships.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a frequent traveler, do sign up for the rewards programs that the airlines and hotels you want to stay at offer. You can slowly accumulate some points, and some programs will give you a one-time discount or deal upon joining.
Make memories your souvenirs
If you’re trying to come up with cheap vacation ideas, you don’t need a line item in your budget for souvenirs. Instead, plan on bringing your digital camera or smartphone, plenty of batteries or a way to charge your device, and take countless photos everywhere you go.
While trinkets are fun, they quickly eat into the limited amount of money you’ve allocated for your travels. If you must return home with something, consider buying local items away from the main cities and tourist hotspots.
BONUS: Have more time to travel but less funds?
If you have the time to vacation abroad but you’re lacking the money to do so, you may be surprised to learn time might be all you need.
Consider doing volunteer work abroad with a program like WWOOF. In exchange for your efforts, many programs provide food and a place to stay. It’s a great option for individuals or families who can take a month or more away from home, but don’t have the finances to go on a traditional vacation.
Sound like too much work and not enough play? There are additional options for people with an abundance of time but a shortage of cash. Try a house-swap or simply house-sit for cost-free accommodations.
Both of these methods for fitting travel in on the cheap will still require some amount of money, but they may make vacationing abroad a more realistic scenario — especially if you utilize the 5 tips above, too!