Flights and Air Travel
There are lots of ways to travel on the same budget you might have at home, or even less. The first method I use is to put all of my bills and groceries and such on a credit card that gives you good points (I use the Chase Sapphire Preferred), and use those for flights. Yes, it’s true you get more value by using your points to upgrade to first class, but free flights are better than first class flights for me at this point. So far I’ve flown to California and back twice (1 seat the first time, 2 seats the second), and to Vermont and back (2 seats) completely on points. Also, fly on Tuesdays or Thursdays and look for the best deals on websites like airfarewatchdog.com or skyskanner. Fly to places in the off season… flying to Mexico during the week of college and high school spring breaks is a bad idea, but if you go in the weeks right before or after, you save hundreds!
The second biggest way I save money is to stay with family or friends for free. Obviously to do this you need family and friends in a variety of locations, and they need to be cool with you freeloading off of their utilities and (usually) groceries. So far I’ve stayed with friends in Toronto, Vermont, California, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kathmandu, and Germany and paid absolutely $0 for accommodations! I also usually don’t have to pay for transportation either… in Germany my cousin drove us everywhere in her van, for example. Of course, the trade off is that you have less control over where you go and how long you stay. It’s also always nice to buy a gift for your hosts, or pay for dinner or entrance fees or something to let them know how appreciated their hospitality is.
I’ve just discovered camping as a way to save money, as opposed to hotels. Even staying in a cabin, the cost for a campsite at big tourist spots like Niagara Falls is about $60 per night (plus $5 for firewood), for a tent site it’s about $20, and you get more kid-friendly activities like playgrounds, jump pads, pools, and movies. If there really aren’t any campsites because it’s too urban, always check for airbnb deals, or for longer stays, places like Homeaway.com.
Food and drink
It’s important to have a refrigerator and a microwave at the very least, so avoid expensive hotels as they expect you to utilize room service and rarely offer microwaves. You want to be able to buy groceries and make your own food as much as possible, so Airbnb or other temporary sublease apartment-type services are best. They are also located near local grocery stores where you will get the best prices for basics: bread, coffee, cheese, cereal, milk, fruit, and vegetables. Eating out as infrequently as possible saves tons of money. On our last trip to California we ate out two times, both quick run-throughs at McDonald’s when we were very pressed for time, dim sum in Chinatown, and a crab salad sandwich in Fisherman’s Grotto. The exception to this rule might be Southeast Asia, where you can buy street food for extremely cheap.
Free Attractions and Activities
Another way to maximize your fun while saving money is to visit free attractions or the natural landmarks, like forests, parks, and coastlines. You can almost always find public beaches that offer restrooms, playgrounds, showers, and changing rooms, and national parks have wonderful trails, scenic views, and facilities to go with them. There are also many free attractions such as zoos or museums. In Chicago, we spent a day at North Beach and Lincoln Park Zoo, both of which are free. To save money spend $2.50 on public transportation (as opposed to $35 in the parking lots for four hours). We literally spent $3 on ice cream for the whole experience, since I packed a cooler backpack with food. St. Louis is another place with free zoos, gardens, and museums!
Road trip it!
Don’t have enough credit card points for a free or affordable flight? Go somewhere in the car. Almost all places are within a day or two’s driving distance from a major city, a beach, a national park, or some other adventure. Gas goes a lot farther on highway miles, as long as you aren’t speeding, and while spending the day in the car may not be the most fun, you can break it up by spending the night camping, or stopping at parks along the way. Spending the money for a few tanks of gas, even 5 or 6 tanks of gas, is way cheaper than buying a plane ticket, especially if it’s for more than one person. You can also bring more with you: a car is like a traveling suitcase on wheels! It’s easy to grocery shop and keep food in the car, too, especially if you use a cooler. You’ll spend less on eating out, and you’re less likely to have to buy things you left at home (emergency toothpaste, rain jacket, toys, etc) because you packed it all in the car! And while you can’t stop a plane for a toddler who is melting down, you always have the option of pulling over at a rest stop when you absolutely need a break.