I just booked a two-week vacation to Hawaii, and it will cost me almost nothing for first-class flights and lodging. Big Island, here I come!
This might seem like an edge case — I think it’s the best bargain travel planning I’ve ever managed — but it’s not magic. I got the best deal by combining a bunch of travel strategies and tricks that are always worth checking out when you’re planning something big. By doing so, you can often defray your costs significantly.
But this is important: To save money on travel you need to plan ahead so that you have time to explore the options, adjust your timing if necessary and apply coupons and rewards. (There are also deals for last-minute travel, but these are harder to apply for people who have limited vacation time and/or want to arrange a family vacation.)
So, to proceed, here are steps to take to get low-cost or no-cost vacations:
1. Snag a credit card with rewards points
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Find the right rewards card for your purposes. To get started, check out our Solutions Center to compare credit cards that offer deals to suit different spending styles, travel habits and other needs.
When you consider which credit card rewards program makes the most sense to you, don’t forget to factor in the miles you will receive if you are approved for the card and make purchases. I have two credit cards that reward me for purchases with airline miles. One is with an airline that flies almost anywhere in the world. I use that card to pay for my household purchases including groceries, dry cleaning bills and gasoline. Of course, I pay off the card at the end of each month so I never pay interest.
The second card is issued by an airline that flies just a few routes. Those routes, though, are very desirable to me. That airline gives me an annual “travel companion” certificate and often doubles points for purchases made during a certain time period. When I pay for business or entertainment, I use that card. It’s a secondary card because I don’t often travel those out-of-the-way routes so points and perks tend to stack up before I need them.
2. Be flexible on dates
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If you need to pay cash for tickets, plan ahead. Everyone knows that you generally save a lot on airfare if you stay over on a Saturday. Airfare Watchdog and others recommend flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday to save even more. You’ll likely find the very best prices if you book domestic travel 50 or even 100 days prior to your trip. An Expedia report noted that savings averaged about $85 per ticket for those that booked at that time. The lowest international ticket prices were booked 171 days in advance, reported Expedia.
But there are exceptions. I knew that I should wait until almost the last minute to book air travel to Hawaii. Expedia notes the best airfare deals to Mexico and the Caribbean are also found last-minute. That makes sense when you consider the number of people who travel those places for honeymoons and other major life events. Airlines and hotels know that folks planning major life events in Hawaii and other exotic locales traditionally book well in advance, so they keep rates high until the last minute. Then prices drop to fill the remaining rooms and airline seats. So research your destination.
3. Consider different airport options
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I live outside Washington, D.C., so I generally look at prices and options for all three airports in my area. On this upcoming Hawaii trip, I found the best travel option for me was to fly out of one airport and return to another. Friends are driving us to and from those airports, so I won’t have any expensive shuttle fares or parking fees. In some parts of the country, flights that connect you to major air hubs can be disproportionately expensive — enough to warrant renting a car and driving to and from the larger hub at the start and end of your journey.
4. Book the flight and hotel at the same time
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If you do pay cash for your trip, consider booking your flight and hotel together. Those package deals can save on average $540 across destinations, notes Expedia. They are especially abundant and varied for high-volume tourist destinations like Disneyland, Disney World, Las Vegas and Cancun. Read the details: Some include transportation to tourist sites, free meals for the kids, continental breakfast, complimentary happy hour and so on. Those extras could make a big difference to your trip budget.
5. Price shop for hotels
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It’s easy to price shop for hotels at Hotels.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and other major sites. Before you book, go to a site such as TripAdvisor or Fodors to get tips from past guests. They will generally tell you pros and cons of certain rooms, how to get price breaks and other helpful information.
If you’re preparing to book a room, take a quick look at this article so you can avoid unpleasant surprises: “12 Ways to Avoid Obnoxious Hotel Fees.”
6. Consider a hostel
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They’ve changed tremendously since they were known as “youth hostels” and were mainly dorms for younger travelers. Many well-past-student-age frugal travelers enjoy this option. The lodging varies. You may book a private room and bath, a shared room and bath or some combination. It may seem like a hassle to figure out how hostels work, but lodging priced from $22 a night makes it worth many people’s time. Remember, though, to read the fine print. Some great sites to search include hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com.
7. Rent a house, room or apartment
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One of my favorite ways to travel on the cheap is to book a house, apartment or loft. It’s a great way to stay, especially when you’re with a group because you have plenty of private space to spread out and eat or just relax. And the prices are surprisingly low. I’ve rented entire homes for less than half the price of a hotel room. When traveling internationally, you can often save money as well as get a richer view of the culture by renting homes, apartments or rooms from individuals rather than going to a large hotel chain.
My favorite site for such rentals is FlipKey, but AirBnB and HomeAway are other great sites. For travel in Europe, expert Rick Steves writes that HomeAway and VRBO allow you to correspond directly with European rental property managers. AirBnB and Roomorama charge a commission to connect you with rentals, but in return they provide greater protection against fraud.
For many more ideas about lodging deals, check out “10 Ways to Get Free Lodging on Your Summer Vacation.”
8. Eat in
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A major expense on any vacation is dining. One of the reasons I enjoy renting a house, loft or apartment is because most have full kitchens, so I can eat in and save big. Even if I’m staying in a hotel, though, I try to book a room with a small refrigerator. When I get to town I go to the local Walgreens or other discount store and stock up on yogurt, water and other treats. No cooking or refrigeration options at your lodging? Go to a local grocery and buy some bread, cheese and meat for sandwiches. Ready-made salads from such stores will certainly be less expensive than room service. And don’t forget to familiarize yourself with small shops. When I was in Paris, I used to stop by a tiny grocery every night to buy cheese, crackers and other goodies to have for dinner. Those were some of the most relaxing meals I had there.
9. Think twice about souvenirs
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It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and plunk down a lot of cash for knickknacks that end up in your next garage sale. If you must buy a souvenir, avoid the airport and shops located right next to major sites. Ask locals for recommendations to get the best prices and most authentic art and collectibles. As for trinkets you see in tourist shops, you may find the same products for a fraction of the price at a neighborhood drug store.
10. Stay with friends
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When most of us get to a certain age, we don’t have an interest in couch surfing. But staying at someone’s home for even one day can save hundreds of dollars. How would that work? Say you’re on vacation in Los Angeles but want to attend an event in San Diego. Sure, you could drive the 2½ hours each way, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a place to stay, especially if the event ends late at night? That’s when a friend’s or relative’s hospitality may really save you. Of course this option is best used by singles or couples. Groups and kids might be too much for a friend or relative to handle. And you likely want to check well in advance to see if that standing invitation to stay “anytime” is still valid. Bring a thoughtful gift for your host.
11. House sit
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My mother-in-law loves the Washington, D.C., area and jumps at the chance to house sit when we are out of town. That works out great for us because someone is here to keep an eye on the house. Plus, she pet sits for us so that saves us cash, too. Of course not everyone has a friend or relative who needs house sitting. That’s where matchmaking services for house and pet sitters come in handy. Check out the sites Nomador, TrustedHousesitters, MindMyHouse and Housecarers. Fees to join and become a house sitter are modest, ranging from $20 to $96 annually — still less than the cost of a typical one-night hotel stay.
12. Pack light for flights
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Generally, airlines allow domestic travelers a carry-on bag plus one other, like a purse or small backpack, then charge to check luggage for fees of $25 per bag and up. But that’s not always the case. A report by TripAdvisor shows that while some airlines generously allow you to check baggage for free, others charge for checked and carry-on luggage. Read the conditions on your airfare booking to avoid surprises. Also check to see if the lodging you booked has laundry facilities. If so — and a surprising number do — you can pack fewer clothes and wash things when you have downtime. If I shop while on vacation, I generally ship those items home. Postage is generally much cheaper than airline baggage fees.
13. Coupons and discounts
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It’s exciting to explore the museums, restaurants, clubs and nightlife of a new town. But check with locals on ways to save. If you stay in a hotel, ask the concierge for recommendations, coupons or specials. I’ve saved 50 percent on everything from dinners to dinner theater and concerts just by cutting coupons out of local newspapers and travel guides. Now, of course, you can also find deals electronically through sites including Coupons.com, Restaurant.com and Groupon.
Not every option listed here applies to every trip you want to take, but many will certainly apply. Hopefully they also will help you think of even more creative ways to complete your bucket list without depleting your retirement savings.
What’s your secret saving tip when you’re traveling? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.