Thrifty Tips

10 Tips for Thrifty Travel

Nearly everyone claims to feel a desire to travel and “see the world.” Very few people act on this desire. Last year, I was discussing a recent vacation to York and Edinburgh with my father. At one point, he shook his head sadly and said, “I would love to see those places, but I just don’t see how your mother and I could afford it.” When I told him how much we had spent on the entire vacation, he was shocked.

It had never crossed my very intelligent father’s mind that international travel could be relatively affordable.

It would be ridiculous to claim that everyone can afford to travel. That simply isn’t true. However, many people who don’t think they can afford to travel, can probably afford to travel, if they take adequate time to plan and adjust their travel expectations.

We do not consider ourselves to be ultra-cheap travelers. We eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. We don’t hitchhike or stay in hostels. The key to our affordable travel approach is flexibility and ruthless planning. Here are some of our top tips:

  1. Consider a Less Expensive Time to Travel

Travel expenses vary widely throughout the year. Nearly all tourist destinations have a “high season” when tourism reaches its peak. Flights, hotel rates, and even restaurant prices are higher during the high season. If you have any flexibility, do some research and find the least expensive time that would still be pleasant to travel. (There might not be a point in travelling at the cheapest time if the weather is unpleasant and all of the attractions are closed.) Here are some things to consider:

  • Travel during the off-season:
    • Cons: We had cold weather, less daylight, and the operating hours for some attractions were shorter. 
    • Pros: We rarely had to wait in line for attractions, and we received favorable pricing on lodging and other travel expenses.
  • Research hotel prices before booking a flight. 
    • Sometimes a flight will be very cheap, but hotel rates are extremely high at that time. Local sporting events, college graduations, and other regional events can have an impact on hotel prices, but not on airfare.

2. Book an Inexpensive Flight:

This tip seems pretty obvious, but, one of the easiest ways to save money on a vacation is to choose the least expensive (but still practical) way to reach your destination.

  • Fly coach (or whatever the cheapest rate that includes a carryon bag is called).
  • Use Google Flights or any of the other inexpensive flight search engines to find the best deal on airfare. Google Flights can give you an excellent idea of what days and times offer the cheapest flights.

3. Analyze Your Interests:

Vacations are always too short. There will never be enough time to see and do everything you would like. Ask yourself some important questions and plan accordingly.

  • What am I/are we most interested in doing and seeing?
  • Categorize your wish list musts, wants, and mights.
    • Musts are the things you will be deeply disappointed if you do not do.
    • Wants are things you would like to do, but won’t be devastated if you miss.
    • Mights are things that interest you, but you wouldn’t inconvenience yourself to do. You might do/see them if it happens to be convenient.
  • Work through every item on your wish list. Spend a few minutes researching each thing. Find out how much it costs, when it is available, and how to access it. Spreadsheets can be extremely helpful with this.

4. Create an Itinerary:

An itinerary will help you budget your money and your time. On vacation, time can be just as or even more important than money.

  • Plan out every day of your trip. This can be rough or very detailed, depending on your personality. The main thing is to plan your trip so as to make the best use of your time and money.
  • Plan your days geographically. Do things that are near each other on the same days to reduce travel time and expense.
  • Take advantage of price and traffic fluctuations. Some tourist attractions see huge differences in traffic on the weekends versus on weekdays. Some tourist attractions (particularly museums) offer free or reduced rates on certain days of the week or month.
  • Adjust for weather. As your trip gets nearer, watch the weather forecast. If you can, move your schedule to work with the weather. Sometimes you can’t do this, but sometimes you can.

5. Save Money on Parking


  • Review your parking options. If you can take convenient public transport to the airport, you might not need to worry about parking at all.
  • Park, Sleep & Fly is a service (in the USA) that allows you to book hotel rooms and long-term parking in hotel parking lots near large airports. This option is nearly always cheaper and easier than paying to park at the airport. The hotels providing this service usually provide free shuttle service to and from the airport. You don’t have to purchase a hotel room to purchase the parking, but if you need one anyway, it is often very inexpensive.

6. Bring Only a Carry-On:

There are a lot of excellent reasons to travel with only carry on luggage:

  • Freedom of movement: Travelling with minimal luggage makes it much easier to get around and leaves you much less vulnerable to thieves or strain-induced injury.
  • No fees: If you plan carefully and make sure that the luggage you are bringing meets applicable carry on size AND WEIGHT for all forms of transportation you will be using during your trip, you can save an appreciable amount of money on baggage fees.
  • Time: If you don’t have to check and retrieve your luggage, you are going to save a surprising amount of time. Vacations are expensive. Don’t waste them on baggage handling.
  • Over-Buying Deterrent: Knowing that whatever you buy to take home with you must fit in your carry on bag and must not exceed the carry on weight limits can act as a strong deterrent to buying too many frivolous souvenirs. If you travel with only a carry on, you choose your souvenirs carefully and acquire fewer of them, thus saving you money and leaving you with better souvenirs!

7. Plan How You Will Pay

  • Prepay for expenses if doing so will save you money or ensure that something valuable is available to you. (Like transportation, hotel rooms, or busy tourist attractions.)
  • Use a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees. Better yet, choose one that also gives you cash back on your purchases.
  • Make an estimate of how much cash you will need. Research the cheapest and safest way to get this cash. 
    • We often use an ATM at the airport, right after we arrive. Sometimes the exchange rate is higher, but we feel safer in the airport than on the street.
  • Use your credit card as much as possible, and pay in the local currency.
    • Often, when you pay with a credit card, you will be asked whether the payment should be processed in your home currency or in the local currency. If you choose your home currency, you will often pay an exorbitant exchange rate.
    • By paying with a credit card in local currency, you can often get a competitive exchange rate and collect cash back from your credit card on the purchase.

8. Walk Everywhere (within reason):

  • Walking is free.
  • You need the exercise. (At least we do. We generally eat more than usual on vacation.)
  • Walking allows you to take in the scenery and atmosphere more slowly. It also allows you more flexibility to explore and take unplanned detours.

9. Reduce Your Dining Expenses:

  • Grocery Shop Your Breakfast
    • On our first trip travelling abroad, we paid to stay in a hotel with a continental breakfast. It was fine, but we found that eating a sit down breakfast at the hotel wasted valuable sight-seeing time and wasn’t worth the additional expense. 
    • A strategy we recommend is to book a cheaper hotel, locate a local grocery store, and buy basic breakfast supplies. It will give you an excuse to visit a foreign grocery store, while saving you money and time.
  • Eat One “Nice” Meal a Day
    • One way to indulge in finer dining on a budget is to limit yourself to one “nice” meal a day. Depending on the day, this can mean lunch or dinner. We generally eat at one sit-down restaurant a day and then visit a takeaway, food market, or a fast food restaurant for the other meal. 
  • Set a Daily Food Budget 
    • Before traveling, determine the amount of money that you want to spend on food (for the entire trip). Then prorate this by day so you know your daily food budget. Feel free to “break the budget” on occasion. Our advice would be to keep track of this, however, so that you can make up the difference on another day of the trip.

10. Track Your Expenses

One of our first steps when we begin planning a trip is to create a spreadsheet in Google Sheets to track all of our vacation expenses. Since Google Sheets can be used on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, it offers us a convenient way to continue updating the spreadsheet during our vacation.

  • Prior to the Trip:
    • Choose an overall budget number. How much are you willing to spend?
    • Prepare a spreadsheet that compiles all of your prepaid expenses. Try to organize these expenses into categories such as transportation, food, lodging, and entertainment. 
    • Do some basic research to find out how much you can expect your daily expenses might be. Youtube and Tripadvisor, as well as online menus can be very helpful for this.
    • Choose a daily food budget. This budget will shape your meal choices and give you some guilt-free flexibility. For example, if you splurge on a fancy restaurant for dinner, you may need to grab inexpensive meals at food markets for lunch and dinner tomorrow.
  • During the Trip:
    • Maintain your spreadsheet. Update it every day. Better yet, update it every time you make a purchase. Having the numbers at your fingertips will empower you to make good financial decisions and will reduce your anxiety about overspending.
  • After the Trip:
    • Analyze your spreadsheet. Look for ways to improve the value you get for your money next time. Decide which expenses were “worth it” and which were “not worth it.” This information will be extremely useful to you when planning for your next vacation.

Wrap up:

That wraps up our list of 10 thrifty tips for travel! If you have any thrifty tips, please share them in the comment section below!

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