Everyone loves saving money, but who wants to cheap out on their vacation? Luckily, over the years we found lots of ways to cut corners without giving up the things we love about traveling, the experiences. What’s the point of going to Bordeaux and not trying the wine, am I right?
In an earlier post, we talked about how to find cheap flights, but flights aren’t the only expense of a vacation. Typically, our travel budget includes four major costs: accommodation, food, attractions, and transportation. These expenses can really eat away at our budget if we’re not careful, so we focus on these in this post.
Saving Money on Vacation - Accommodation
Don’t Overlook Hostels
Many couples and mature travelers think of hostels as frat houses, with shared dorms and a party atmosphere. Yeah, those places stopped being right for us years ago, too. However, not all hostels are created the same and some are nicer than you’d think.
As hostels have shared common areas, like kitchens and lounges, they are a great place to meet other travelers. However, you don’t always have to share a room. Many hostels offer private rooms with private bathrooms, just like a hotel, but at a fraction of the cost.
Even though hostels are usually the most affordable accommodation, they aren’t always. Some hostels charge by the person instead of by the room, so it’s best to check. Plus, in Europe it’s quite trendy to stay in hostels and this drives up the costs. In cities like Paris and Amsterdam, we actually found hotel rooms cheaper than hostels for 2 to 4 people.
Stay Outside the City Center
This vacation saving tip comes down to time vs money. Most city center hotels come with a premium price tag. Staying on the outskirts can save some serious cash.
We’ve been to Venice a few times and have never actually stayed in Venice. The rooms are small and way overpriced. Instead, we saved over a €1,000 on a bigger room within walking distance of the train. It only took 12 minutes to get into the city. Bargain!
Our rule of thumb is to stay as close as we can to the attractions on trips of three days or less. This way we prioritize time over money. However, if we can find good value near a cheap and easy transportation route, staying just outside the center saves serious money on longer trips.
Travel in the Off Season
Flight prices aren’t the only expense affected by season. Based on demand, hotel rates rise and fall daily. In busier seasons, pricing algorithms set rates higher. Even traveling on a weekday can save money as hotel prices tend to rise on the weekends.
Stay in Business Hotels on the Weekends
I learned this little trick from living in Japan. Some hotels cater specifically to business travelers. Often they only offer basic accommodation, but at a budget price. Unlike tourist hotels that raise their rates on the weekend, these hotels drop their price.
In Japan, hotel chains like Route Inn, APA, and Super Hotel are good ones to check. In large cities, like London, look for hotels in the business district (i.e. near Bank station) which tend to empty out on the weekends.
Book at Last Minute
It’s never cheaper to book last minute flights, but hotels are a little different. According to Skyscanner, hotel prices are 21% cheaper than average when booking during the week of stay.
On hotel comparison sites like Booking.com, we often find room rates slashed even further just 24 to 48 hours before our stay. Though keep in mind, in popular tourist areas, it’s likely the best hotels are already full by this time.
Look for Accommodation with a Kitchen
This tip segues us into our next section for saving money on food while on vacation.
Having accommodation with a full kitchen gives you the choice of cooking for yourself. Even having just a microwave and a mini fridge can save on your food bill.
Plus, with house and apartment vacation rentals becoming more popular, it’s not hard to find a kitchen these days for the same price or cheaper than a hotel.
Saving Money on Vacation - Food
Eat from the Grocery Store
We love trying the local cuisine but eating out every day can take a big bite out of the wallet. Not only are grocery stores a great place to pick up cheaper eats, but they are full of local foods to try. Some stores even have premade meals, which make it very easy. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a local desert.
One of our favorite meals to pull together on the road is a cheese plate, especially in places like France and Switzerland. We grab a fresh baguette, a few cheeses, some grapes, and a local wine for a quarter of the price of eating out. So yummy!
Eat Where the Locals Eat
When you choose to eat out, don’t waste your money in the tourist areas. Locals don’t typically eat in these areas because they are overpriced. Plus, often they are not very good since their prime location means they don’t need to bring in repeat business.
Instead of asking a local for recommendations (they will usually point you to the tourist spots), ask them specifically where they eat. We bet it’s a different answer.
Story Time - Finding the Best Food In Cuzco
When we were in Cuzco, Peru we wanted to try Aji de Gallina, a recommendation from a Peruvian friend. The lovely lady at our hotel’s front desk pointed us to a restaurant just off the main tourist square, Plaza de Armas.
Looking through the outside menu before we went in, my jaw almost hit the floor. I’m going to put this into context. The average hourly wage in Cuzco was less than $3.54 USD (S/14.47 Peruvian Sol). How much do you think they charged for a plate of Aji de Gallina?
Did you guess the equivalent of $50 USD? Obviously, this was not where the locals ate. So we took a walk in the opposite direction of the tourist area.
It wasn’t long before we noticed two construction workers duck behind a cloth curtain hanging over a literal hole in the wall. Out front, scribbled in Spanish, a chalkboard sign said Aji de Gallina, rice, and a drink for S/8 (about $2 USD).
We peeled back the curtain and peered into the dark hall of tables. The room went silent as the light filled the room. We felt so out of place and almost turned around. Luckily, the waitress quickly rushed over and ushered us to a table. As she asked if we wanted the special, she poured two glasses of what looked like Hi-C fruit drink.
Ten minutes later she was back with a mound of food for each of us and a bill for $4. It was by far the best meal we had in Peru.
Skip the Drinks
Drinks have the highest markups in restaurants. In countries where the tap water is drinkable, opt for water instead.
However, it is worth noting that some western European countries charge a lot for tap water. It’s ridiculous. In these cases, it can actually be cheaper to order a glass of wine or beer. It’s best to ask before ordering.
If you’d like to try the local beer or wine, but want to save a bit of cash, grab your bottles at the store instead.
Some countries, like Japan, even allow drinking in public. It’s perfectly fine to grab a beer from the convenience store and sit in the park or on the beach. Though not illegal, it is frowned upon to drink or eat on the trains or while walking in Japan.
Bring Food to the Airport
Eating at the airport is always ridiculously overpriced. We either make a point to eat before we get to the airport or try to bring something with us.
Though US airports restrict liquids and gels, solid foods like sandwiches usually don’t have an issue getting through security.
Carry a Refillable Water Bottle
Not only are refillable bottles better for the environment, but they can also save significant cash. We always bring a refillable bottle with us to the airport since most airports these days have free refillable water stations.
Even when we are on the road, we can refill our bottles with tap water or we buy larger gallon bottles for refills.
Saving Money on Vacation - Attractions
Look for Free Attractions
Some of the best things in life really are free. You’d be surprised how many free attractions are out there when you look for them.
However, some destinations definitely have more free attractions than others. For example, almost everything from the Smithsonian to the Capital Building is free to visit in Washington DC. It’s basically a cheapskate’s dream destination.
Another free way to spend a day is just walking around, especially if you’re in an historical area. Grab a map from the visitor center and ask for help creating a route to the city’s best architecture, public art, or parks. A lot of times cities already have walking routes put together for visitors, like Philadelphia’s Mural Mile.
Take Advantage of Museum Free Days
Museums all over the world have free days or times. Sometimes this is only once or twice a year. For instance the Louvre is only free to people over 26 years old on July 14th. However a lot of museums do free days once a month or have a few free hours every week. Do a bit of research before your trip so you don’t miss out.
Here are some of the free museum hours in Charlotte, NC:
- Mint Museum – Wednesdays from 5 to 9 pm
- Schiele Museum of Natural History – 2nd Tuesday and 4th Friday from 12 to 4 pm
- Levine Museum of the New South – 1st weekend with a valid Bank of America card
A really easy way to save money is just by booking attractions ahead of your visit. Not only does it save you time standing in line, but many attractions offer discounts for advanced tickets.
Look for City Cards or Combo tickets
Popular tourist areas often have their own discount city cards. San Francisco, New York, London, Amsterdam; just about all the major cities will have them.
For a set fee, city cards give free entry and/or discounts on a long list of tourist attractions. Cards are only valid for a set number of days, usually between a day and a week. The longer it’s valid for, the more you pay. If you plan on fitting in multiple attractions in one day, these cards can offer good value.
Combination tickets can even be better. Instead of a long list of attractions you’re unlikely to visit, combination tickets focus only on a few main attractions. It’s even better when you find combination tickets that don’t require being used on the same day.
Saving Money on Vacation - Transportation
Plan your Route
Before you head off on that road trip, plan out your route using apps like Gas Buddy or Google Maps to work out the cheapest gas stops. Sometimes waiting just an exit or two can have a significant impact on fuel costs.
Travel by Bus
Whether you’re traveling cross-country or inner city, buses are often the cheapest mode of transportation.
In the US, locals tend to avoid buses as the bus stations have a bad reputation. However, we seriously recommend using the buses in most other countries. For example, Chile and Malaysia’s cross-country buses are some of the nicest we’ve been on. They were always great value, and sometimes the only way to travel without flights or a rental car.
Japan also has very comfortable night buses. I used to take the night bus from Kobe to Yokohama all the time for a fraction of the price of the famous Shinkansen.
Walk, Bike, or Rent a Scooter
I’m the type of traveler that always needs to see what’s around the corner, so we tend to walk everywhere. It’s a free and healthy way to get around. Plus, it’s normally how we stumble across our best finds.
Don’t feel like walking? Most cities have bike and scooter share programs. This is a fun way to get around on a low-cost option.
Share a Ride
These days most folks know using apps like Uber and Lyft are typically cheaper than taking a taxi. What you may not know is that these apps also offer carpools or shared rides. If you don’t mind riding with strangers, you can opt in to get a discount ride on common routes.
South America has actually been doing this long before rideshare apps. “Colectivos” are shared taxis (often passenger vans) that wait to fill up before taking off. They are great value if you’re not in a rush.
Buy a Discount Travel Card
In cities where public transportation is the best way to get around, day travel cards or multiday cards can offer good discounts compared to single travel tickets. Also, some city tourist discount cards include public transportation in the cost. For example, the Nuremberg card in Germany includes all local public transportation.
Japan’s most popular transportation discount is the JR Rail Pass. The pass covers travel on most Japan Railways (JR) trains, buses, and one ferry. The pass is only available to tourists and must be purchased online or outside of the country. These passes are not cheap. However, they do include some Shinkansens (the fast bullet trains) which are very expensive. If you plan on taking multiple Shinkansens, then the JR Rail Pass is a must have.
We hope you have learned a few useful tips to save yourself some hard earned cash. What are your favorite ways to save money while on vacation?
For more money saving tips, see our travel planning and resources page.