“You travel so much you must be rich” was a common (and untrue) comment to me for years. We weren’t poor, we definitely would have been categorized as middle class, but we also had a car payment, mortgage, healthcare premium, and the other usual expenses. Here’s how we still managed to travel to Europe and other parts of the world once a year, without having to hitchhike, live out of a backpack, and sleep in community rooms at hostels.
Important Disclaimer: I get that even this advice won’t work for some people, and I am in no way making light of anyone who is struggling. There are also lots of people, however, that these tips will work for who currently believe travel is a dream they’ll never reach. We felt the same way until someone introduced us to Travelzoo (see tip 1). It changed our lives.
We still use a lot of the following advice, but because we now live in Spain (retired here in 2017), travel around Europe is cheap and easy. If you still live in the US and still work, however, I hope you find these tips a big help and you book your first trip (or first in forever) soon.
I get nothing out of promoting the Travelzoo folks (or anyone else), but it’s one of the main reasons why we were able to travel so much. It’s a “clearing house” that searches dozens of travel sites for the best deals, then sends a weekly “top 20” email.
I always checked their deals each week and jumped on the best when we were talking about another trip. I kept a credit card just for these (see tip 2) so I could book them immediately then pay off monthly (but quickly), usually before the trip even took place. Here’s a deal from a recent email.
Deals to China are some of the best, because the government subsidizes to encourage tourism. The one above is typical. We did a similar trip in 2015. We’ve also found inexpensive trips to many other locations as well, such as a trip to Tuscany, Italy that included round-trip airfare, hotel, some meals, and a car for 7 days for less than $750 each.
Travelzoo isn’t the only place to find deals. Eric reminded me that we once booked a trip to Prague through Expedia where the airfare and a week in a nice hotel cost less than the airfare alone.
No matter how you find deals, usually the farther in advance you book, the cheaper it will be. The trick is to be able to grab the deals when they show up, because they do sell out. It’s why I recommend this next tip…
And I mean just for travel. Don’t fall back on it any other time. We used an American AAdvantage MasterCard I’d had since my corporate travel days in the 70s. When we’d find a great deal on Travelzoo (or read about a dirt-cheap airfare sale), I used the card to snap it up right then.
We also used the card during trips, so we could enjoy ourselves with relative peace and not worry (too much) about the cost, although we kept that in mind (see the rest of the tips below). From the moment of the first charge, we started paying the card off, making as big a payment as we could manage each month. We didn’t take another trip until the balance was back to zero, although I admit I did put a deposit on the China trip while we were still paying off a trip to Italy — the China deal was just too good to miss. (I put down that deposit in July for a trip that didn’t occur until the next March.)
A bonus to using an airline-associated card (like our AAdvantage card) is that it earns miles toward future trips.
We always stick with 2–3 star hotels. Especially in Europe, they are just fine. A 2–3 star hotel in Europe is akin to a Best Western or Comfort Inn in the US, at least as far as amenities go. As long as it is clean, includes a private bathroom (many older European hotels don’t), offers free wifi (at least once that became a “thing”), and includes breakfast (so we can eat (for free) before doing the whole morning clean up), we are happy.
Besides, less expensive, older hotels are often closer to the historic centers. The Hiltons, Marriotts, and other upscale hotels are usually in the business districts or even on the edge of town altogether. Plus, a 2–3 star hotel is typically family-owned and smaller, with 10–20 rooms or less.
For example, this hotel in Prague is 3-stars, includes breakfast and free wifi, has rooms with private bathrooms, and has an 8.7 rating on Booking.com (the most popular booking service around Europe). It’s a short walk to Wenceslas Square and right on a metro stop. Eric is a Booking “Level 3 Genius” member (a registered, frequent user) and gets up to a 20% discount on bookings (among other benefits). This hotel would be €42/night if he booked it today. We actually stayed here a few years ago when we visited Prague.
We personally do not use AirBnB as we’ve read too many horror stories. We stick with rooms we can get through Booking, so we have someone to contact if there’s a problem.
It should be no surprise that hotels and airlines charge more during peak season. Unless you are locked into a specific period for vacation days, try to take time when everyone else isn’t planning on traveling too. Pretty much everything will be cheaper, shop owners will be friendlier (they’re happy for the off-season business and not stressed from crowds), most of the street hucksters are gone, and of course, the popular tourist locations will be less crowded.
True, you might face colder or rainier weather, but we always considered that a fair trade for not being elbow to elbow with hundreds or thousands of other people.
Here’s one example, from our crazy-cheap, off-season China trip. The top picture is how we found the Great Wall when we were there in early March vs the same location in a typical summer, when most tourists visit (bottom picture). Sure, it’s greener in the summer, but look at all those hot, sweaty people.
Take advantage of lesser-known and less-popular destinations, which will not only have sparse crowds, but will also be cheaper. For example, consider Prague, Czechia instead of Paris, France.
Paris is often on everyone’s “dream vacation” list, but it’s expensive. Prague, on the other hand, is still one of Europe’s cheapest tourist destinations.
While Paris gets 30 million visitors per year, Prague gets 8. The average daily cost for a tourist in Paris is €184, but a much more cost-effective €88 in Prague. And Prague is beautiful. It’s also cleaner, but I didn’t say that…
There are some gorgeous museums in many European cities, but unless it has something truly unique or you’re a historian, they aren’t usually worth it. When we first started traveling, we’d listen to people tell us we “had” to go to this or that museum. Much of the time, that person hadn’t been — they’d just read about it. We learned two things:
- Although museum entry doesn’t cost a fortune, everything on a trip adds up (the Louvre in Paris is €15 per person, Národní muzeum (national museum) in Prague is €11, the Prado in Madrid is €15). There are exceptions—the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is free, although they ask for a donation.
- Most city/national museums have the same general things: old tapestries, ancient bits of ceramic pots, busts of long-dead people almost no one has ever heard of, lots of paintings of other long-dead people, rusty weapons, silver urns and serving pieces, old and tarnished jewelry, etc.
Half a day in a museum might net you viewing one or two outstanding artifacts, with the rest of the time spent wandering past exhibits that don’t “do” much for you. Not to mention that popular museums can be crowded, so it’s hard to get close to the exceptional pieces anyway.
That same half-day could have been spent walking for free through historic parts of the city or riding public transportation around to sightsee as you give your feet a rest. Speaking of which…
Pretty much every tourist destination these days offers a Hop On/Hop Off tour bus. The buses drive around the city, stopping near the most popular points of interest, and you get off and get on at your leisure. The problem is, they’re expensive, and somewhat limited. City buses, trams, and metros go to more destinations for a fraction of the cost.
For example, 24-hour access to the Hop On/Hop Off tour bus in Lisbon Portugal costs €20 per person and you are stuck with the route, schedule, and stops they cover. On the other hand, for just €6.45 you can get a 24-hour Via Viagem Carris/Metro pass that covers all of the metros, buses, and trams, including those that go to Sintra, Cascais, Azambuja, and Sado (and most of those lines run every 5–7 minutes). You can even use it to ride the ferry to Cacilha. You can also take a jaunt on the famous Glória Funicular.
One fun thing we love to do is catch whatever metro happens to come by and get off on a random stop. We’ve discovered some amazing, out-of-the-way sites that way. We’d never have known about the Cemetery of Pleasures in Lisbon had we not taken a random bus to the end of its line.
A metro pass is probably all you’ll need in most cities, but if you do need to go somewhere that the metro doesn’t reach, use a service like Uber or Bolt instead of a taxi.
Not counting airfare and hotel, one place where expenses add up is impulse purchases. The solution is easy: don’t buy crap. It’s tempting to buy that cute replica vase, miniature statue, or souvenir coffee mug to add to your collection, but avoid these wastes of money.
Goodwill is full of “Greetings from…” and logo’d things that people tossed once they returned home and realized they had no place to put them or they didn’t fit their decor. I should know. Some of my early trip souvenirs ended up on a shelf at Goodwill.
These days I collect one thing: a refrigerator magnet from each major destination (country or city) with an occasional exception for a special location (such as the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow). They’re cheap, easy to pack, and are a nice, visual reminder of our trips.
Another shopping tip is to avoid street vendors and never, ever (EVER!) take anything that is handed to you, as it is never, ever free. They will chase you down and harass you for money.
Side note: this advice also applies at home. Choose wisely how to spend money. I never bought a purse for more than $20. My dresses came from JC Penny or Ross. We didn’t collect crap (I have a friend who collects exotic tiki mugs, often paying $50 or more for one, then he complains that he’ll never be able to travel like us.) “Stuff” adds up. I’d rather take the Travelzoo deal with my $20 purse on my arm than hang out at home with my $500 Coach bag or dusting 147 tiki mugs.
Another place where expenses add up is food. Most tourist spots are surrounded by restaurants designed to lure tourists. There are two givens to these places: they are expensive and their food is mediocre.
As mentioned in tip 3 above, choosing a hotel that includes breakfast saves a lot of money right up front. That leaves lunch and dinner to consider. Here are some simple guidelines:
- Avoid ALL restaurants near points of interest. It doesn’t matter how good the view is. Don’t eat there.
- Avoid restaurants with posted Tourist Menus or with pictures of the food. This is a clear sign the food is expensive and crappy.
- Never eat at an international chain, especially if it’s something like (god forbid) McDonald’s. This one’s more about depriving yourself of delicious local food than it is about saving money, but I had to include it.
Instead, walk 3–4 blocks away from the tourist hubs and look for restaurants where locals are eating. You know it’s authentic when the menu is only available in the local language. That’s what Google Translate is for. Not only will you get better quality food and a lower price, you’ll also enjoy local fare in all its wonderful, tasty glory.
This delicious goulash and potato salad at a “locals cafe” in Kyiv, Ukraine was the equivalent of around $5 USD.
The last food tip is to avoid airport food everywhere in the world, unless you are absolutely starving. It’s the epitome of crappy and always super-expensive.
Keeping all of the above in mind, it’s also worth considering a tour company. Some are much more expensive than you could do by yourself, but some are geared to the “budget traveler” yet are still first-rate companies and their tours top-notch.
We’ve tried several, and our hands-down favorite is Expat Explore for these primary reasons:
- They are affordable and offer the kinds of accommodations (i.e., 3-star hotels) we already prefer because of convenient location
- They stay a minimum of two days in each location, so we aren’t packing/unpacking/packing every single day
- They give us a lot of free time instead of a constant “follow the flag” schedule
No matter the tour company, it’s worth watching for their sales and off-season deals. We’re scheduled for a trip to Turkey with Expat Explore in October (off season, of course). There’s no way we could as easily and affordably cover everything they include for the price we are paying (a little more than €1000 per person for the 10-day trip). This is one of our more expensive jaunts, but still much less than if we’d organized all of this ourselves. Safer, too.
If you only want to go to one location, it’s probably best watching for airfare and hotel deals and booking on your own, but if you want to cover a big area then consider an organized tour. I put the Turkey trip cost on our just-for-travel credit card and am already paying it off.
The above are the biggest ways to help you travel affordably. Each of the following offer benefits of their own, even if individually the savings are small. They’ll add up:
- Pack light so you don’t have to check a bag. (I’ll be writing another article about packing tips.) There’s nothing wrong with washing clothes during a trip. For longer trips, assume you’ll be making a trip to a local laundromat. Never use a hotel’s laundry service.
- If your destination is in an area where discount airlines (Ryanair, Spirit, EasyJet, Frontier, etc.) operate, take advantage of them. We recently took Ryanair from Valencia to Rome that was only €60 round trip. Just remember they’re called budget airlines for a reason. Everything extra costs money. For shorter flights, though, you can probably manage without an assigned seat, food service, free snacks/drinks, in-flight movies, etc. A couple of hours of minor discomfort is worth it.
- Consider how you’ll get to your flight. Often a shuttle is cheaper than even long-term parking. Eric signed up with the people who run most of the airport parking garages in Spain. By being registered with them, and booking parking in advance, he saves over 50% on the cost to leave our car at the airport. I generally don’t recommend relying on friends, because unpredictable things happen.