Whether your idea of a vacation is to dive into the ocean waves, sightsee historic buildings, or breathe in crisp mountain air, we all benefit by relaxing and recharging with a change of scenery. Unless you just got back from a vacation, chances are you are overdue for one!
But, the cost of vacation can be high enough to make you even stop mentally packing your bags. Pacaso, a vacation home co-ownership company, reports that the average vacation in the United States costs $1,919 per person, per week. But how much do people actually spend on travel? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2019, the last year prior to the pandemic, the average American household spent $2,100 on travel – covering all trips taken in the whole year.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save money on travel costs so you can still explore new destinations on a budget. It just involves some creativity, flexibility, and planning. Let’s dig in!
Don’t get sucked into the comparison trap
The first tip comes before you even start researching a single flight, hotel, or attraction. To save money on your vacation, the key is to stick to what you can afford! It’s important not to feel pressured to go to certain destinations just because others are traveling that way.
When you hear about someone’s trip at work or see it on Instagram, it can feel like a competition to travel to the more impressive (and often expensive) destination. Of course, fancy hotel rooms, iconic destinations, and Michelin-starred restaurants are awesome – no denying that!
But, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to compare your trip to your peers. You can have just as much fun on a trip that’s less expensive, even if it’s a more modest trip. And, you’ll maintain the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re still meeting your other financial goals.
Plus, a lot of people bust their budget on trips, resulting in stress or struggling with their finances in other areas to make up for it. They just don’t post that part on social media! It’s not worth overextending your budget just so you have some anecdotes to talk about at a dinner party or networking event.
Or, if you want to vacation in style with premium travel, high-end accommodations, and luxury experiences, that’s cool too! It may be worth it to you to take fewer, higher quality trips. But if you want to take a trip sooner than would come around to save up for that once-in-a-decade kind of trip, keep following for our budget vacation tips.
Set a budget
Let’s get this one out of the way – you’ve got to choose (and stick to!) a budget for the trip. How much you’ll spend will depend on your personal budget and how much time you have to save up.
Maybe you got your quarterly or annual bonus and that will fund the trip in full. Maybe you calculate you can save $300 per month and want to travel five months from now, so you can set a travel budget of $1,500.
No matter how much you have to spend, the trick to planning a vacation on a budget is to commit to that dollar amount and work within it.
Evaluate all associated costs before booking
Got your budget set? Awesome! You’re ready to start actually planning. It’s time to research.
No matter what your vacation budget, the best thing to do is to consider all of the trip aspects with associated costs before booking anything. This way, you can make choices that can help keep your whole trip within budget.
Create a spreadsheet to compare the costs of travelling to destinations you’re considering. Look up the cost of transport (flight, trains, bus, boat, or car), accommodations, food, and activities for all of the different destinations. Don’t forget to compare dates of travel. Sometimes even going just one week before or after can save a noticeable amount.
You may see a deal on flights on one airline to a destination but upon further research, maybe the hotels or food are very expensive there. Doing some prep work can prevent you from overspending because you booked something before you priced out the whole trip.
Save money with strategic destination selection
Another tip that can make or break your vacation budget is to be flexible with where you go! This way, you can find a destination based on what’s in your budget, not let a destination dictate how much you spend.
By going somewhere less popular you can often find less expensive accommodations, dining options, and activities. The sand between your toes and ocean breeze feels just as great no matter which beach you’re visiting. Often times, these off-the-beaten-path places are equally as beautiful or relaxing. They may even have fewer crowds!
If you’re open to traveling by road or train, you may have good luck with this option because you aren’t limited to areas served by an airport. But, some budget airlines serve smaller destinations – more on that later.
Wondering if you’ll be able to get money at your destination options? Remember, when you travel, you’ve got access to cash from your Milli Spending account with the Allpoint® ATM Network. That means you can access your money at ATMs across the United States but also in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and more.
Use travel loyalty programs, but don’t be limited by them
If you’ve ever looked up how to travel on a budget, you’ve likely come across the world of travel hacking with points, whether through loyalty programs or credit cards. Travel hacking can feel as complicated as calculus, but many find it worth it for free or heavily reduced cost travel. But what about for the rest of us who don’t want to go through a digital obstacle course just to take a vacation?
Booking travel with the same hotel, airline, or rental car company and accruing points or miles through their loyalty program can be a great way to offset the cost of future travel. It’s worth signing up for them and patronizing the same companies to accumulate points – but only when it makes sense.
For example, you may be loyal to one airline and one hotel brand, but for an upcoming trip, you may be able to spend a lot less by booking with other options. If it’s a significant cost savings, depending on the points earning structure, it’s likely that you’re better off going with the less expensive option than spending more to stay loyal and getting the points.
Ultimately, travel loyalty programs are awesome – they are free, and for many brands, the points don’t expire. Some airlines and hotels allow you to book travel with a combination of points and money, so you don’t have to accumulate a lot of points before you can redeem. But, if you’re planning a vacation on a budget, always be open to what’s going to be affordable and meet your needs.
How to save money on travel accommodations
Once you’ve chosen your destination, you’ll need to find a place to stay. Accommodations can vary in cost (and value!) depending on the quality, location, time of year, room size, and perks included. Here are our tips to find your home away from home:
Booking hotels on a budget
When traveling, the default place to stay is a hotel. They can deliver a great value if you can grab a deal. Look for hotels that offer complimentary things like parking, airport shuttles, breakfast, and more to save you money on the overall trip budget.
What’s the best way to think about how much of your trip budget to spend on a hotel? Be realistic about how much you’ll actually enjoy the hotel. If the hotel is part of the vacation experience, it’s worth spending a little more. If you’re looking for somewhere just to keep your stuff and sleep in between action-packed days sightseeing, you can book something less expensive and not regret it.
Another way to save money on hotels is booking nonrefundable reservations. Of course, this strategy comes with a bit of a gamble in case something comes up and you can’t go on the trip. This tip might work better for last-minute travel bookings.
There are plenty of third-party tools to get hotel rooms on a budget, like HotelTonight and SuperTravel. These types of services aren’t as guaranteed as booking directly with the hotel chain but can save you money if you’re willing to be flexible and make a backup plan should the hotel be full.
Camping on a budget
Another classic budget-friendly way to travel: camping. If you have a sense of adventure and love nature, you can travel very affordably by skipping the hotel and sleeping under the stars.
Camping gear can get expensive. But, if you’re an avid camper, it can become cost effective if you use it enough. Just exploring camping? Get it secondhand, borrow the gear, or camp with others who have the gear.
There are plenty of free or low-cost campsites around the United States. You can plan a trip and make reservations at Recreation.gov or the Bureau of Land Management websites. Some have amenities like restrooms, showers, and grills (costing as low as $35 per night!) while others are just the bare land and you’re completely on your own.
Vacation rental homes
Traveling in a group? Looking for more space than a hotel room? A vacation home rental can be a lot less expensive compared to booking multiple hotel rooms. You can further save money on your travel budget by cooking meals in the kitchen instead of dining out. Just be sure to read the policies, since hosts set their own rules, and be prepared to take out your own trash to avoid a cleaning fee!
If you’re looking for a really unique travel experience, a houseboat is exactly what it sounds like – a floating home, usually in the middle of a lake. If you want to disconnect, spend time grilling or fishing, and take a waterslide from the roof to the lake, a houseboat could be a great option for your trip.
Often sleeping six to 16 people, houseboats can be a great way to get together with lots of family members or friends. When split between the total number of people who can sleep on the boat, the cost per person can be as low as $50 per night.
How to save money on transport
After accommodations, the next big element of any trip is how you’ll get from point A to point B. Depending on how many people are travelling in your group, the cost of getting to and from your destination may be a larger or smaller part of your budget. If you’re open-minded about how you travel, you can find some incredible deals.
Road trip savings tips
If you already have a car, taking a road trip is likely the most affordable travel option. But, there are still some associated costs you’ll want to consider:
- Gas or electric vehicle charging
- Road or bridge tolls
- Wear and tear on your vehicle
- Parking at your destination
If you’re taking a road trip, it may be worth doing a pre-trip vehicle inspection and service to mitigate the risks of any car troubles.
But, you could also consider a bus trip. That way, you don’t have to be behind the wheel or take your personal vehicle, and it’s more eco-friendly! There are a number of national and regional bus services, so it’s worth searching what’s in your area. Some luxury busses have wifi, restrooms, and power outlets, and are positioned as genuine competitors to plane and train travel.
Air travel savings tips
Air travel is often the most expensive, but most convenient way to get to your destination. Luckily, it’s still possible to get reasonably priced plane tickets with proper prep work and a bit of flexibility.
If you’re flying for your vacation, try these airfare savings tips:
- Fly out on less busy days like Tuesdays or Wednesdays
- Search “with flexible dates” when looking up flights
- Evaluate budget airlines like Breeze Airways, Avelo, Frontier, and Spirit
- If you live within a reasonable drive or transit ride to multiple airports, or multiple airports service the general destination, look into flying to and from different airports
- Set price alerts with services like Kayak and Hopper
- Consider taking one airline for your outbound flight and another for your return flight if the prices are noticeably lower
You may also be able to save on your transportation by opting for a train ride instead of a plane. The feasibility of this option will depend on the train service in your area.
Train travel may be best suited for people without time constraints on their trip, or for those who want to experience the scenery along the journey. Even with longer trips, many prefer train travel over air travel because they find it more comfortable. With train travel, there is less stress about making time for airport security, lost baggage, tight layovers, and weather-based cancellations.
If it’s been a while since you’ve traveled by train, it’s worth exploring it as an option. See what national routes are available with the Amtrak trip planner tool and possible, look up commuter rail options in your area.
Overall, the cost savings of going by train instead of plane can be well worth it when multiplied by the number of people in your group.
Save money with public transit
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll need a way to get around for all your sightseeing and activities.
If you’re not driving to your destination, and traveling anywhere other than a resort, it may seem like a vacation essential to get a rental car when traveling domestically. But, a rental car can be a big portion of the vacation budget! In the same report linked above, Pacaso found that for a four-day trip, the average rental car and gas cost came to $520. You can save a ton of money on your vacation by skipping the rental car and opting for public transit (or, put those cost savings toward staying longer or additional activities).
This is where that handy strategic destination planning comes in again. Look for destinations with serviceable public transit. For example, in the United States, these airports all have train or light rail lines that stop directly at the airport:
- New York City (John F. Kennedy)
- Washington D.C. (Ronald Reagan)
- St. Louis
- San Francisco
- Chicago (O’Hare)
Even if these destinations can be pricey, the airport train can connect you to other train lines to get outside of the city area for more affordable accommodations.
With public transportation, you may find it much smoother to plan around transit schedules and routes. So, pull up Google Maps and start researching attractions that are located on an easy transit trip away from wherever you’re staying. Cluster your activities based on which are near one another and certain transit stops or stations. For example, look for an activity or two and a place to eat in the same area as one stop, then either head back to your accommodations, or make another stop.
With smartphones and public transit being factored in popular navigation apps, public transit is not nearly as intimidating to figure out as in the days with paper route maps.
If public transit can’t get you to everywhere on your itinerary, you can supplement with some car trips. Perhaps you could rent a car just for part of your trip, or get a shuttle, taxi, or rideshare. The key thing is to plan with an open mind about reducing the reliance on rental cars.
Planning travel activities on a budget
Vacation is time to break the routine and have some fun. After you’ve settled on a destination, it’s time to look up what you’ll do and see during your trip.
Some of the typical travel activities that come to mind are theme parks, water activities, tours, adventure activities like ATV rides and ziplines, and museums. These can be exhilarating, educational, and make for iconic family photos for years to come. But, they can be pricey, and not everyone in your group may appreciate the activity.
Here are some budget-friendly ways to fill the vacation schedule:
- Visit local city, county, or state parks
- Check out events from libraries or community centers
- Check out free or lower-cost museums and exhibits rather than the more popular ones
- Research smaller family fun centers compared to traditional theme parks
- Look up local sporting events like minor league baseball and club soccer, with tickets as low as $9 (before taxes and fees)
Sometimes when travel planning, it feels like you need to cram every attraction in, because you might never visit the destination again. It might not feel like you really saw New York City if you didn’t go to the top of the Empire State Building, right? But when you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll probably have to be selective about the activities and restaurants you enjoy. Dedicate some funds to a few top-priority activities, and then with the leftover time, stick to the free or cheap options.
Can an all-inclusive trip save you money?
By this point, even the most enthusiastic of travel planners may be feeling like they’re juggling on a unicycle trying to coordinate an affordable trip! Fortunately, going with a package deal can save you the headache of coordination and may even be more affordable than trying to piece together the trip yourself.
If you’re trying to travel as cheaply as possible, chances are, a cruise or all inclusive resort are not in the cards. But, if you have a more substantial budget and are looking for something cost-effective, keep your options open. By combining accommodation, food and drink, entertainment, and sometimes transportation, you may be able to get a package deal.
When it comes to cruises, for some cruise ship port destinations (looking at you, Bermuda) just the hotels or flights alone cost more than the cruise! You may need to journey a bit to get to the departure port, but if you happen to live near one, that can be a cost savings too.
With an all-inclusive vacation option, you don’t have to worry about sticking to a budget once you make it to your destination because you’ve pre-paid. No guessing in advance about how much to allocate for meals and tracking your daily spending! Of course, cruises and all-inclusive resorts usually have extras in the form of excursions, spa services, and more. If you’ll want to enjoy these on your vacation, factor them in to the cost ahead of time.
No matter how you like to travel or what you like to do on your time off, vacation is a time to take a break from the daily grind. Planning a trip, even on a smaller budget, can be fun when you approach it with an open mind. We hope these budget travel planning tips have given you some new ideas to help you take a great trip while staying within your financial goals!
Looking for a way to save up for your next vacation? Create a Jar in Milli! You can set a goal amount and automate savings so you can save up for a dedicated trip. Earmarking the funds in their own special spot and watching the progress toward hitting the goal makes it more exciting and rewarding.
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