7 Tips to Travel on a Budget That Will Make You Pack Your Bags
Updated: May 11
If you read the article "6 Surprising Ways Vacations Are More Refreshing than a Glass of Iced Tea", you know that much of my childhood was spent travelling with my family. These trips all had something in common - we typically stayed with someone we knew, purchased groceries to have meals at home, and planned free activities (walks in nature, exploring a city on foot, and visiting free museums). Travelling has taught me to appreciate different cultures and how to see a city in a short amount of time!
I once complained to my mom after coming home from middle school. A few of my friends went out to dinner multiple times a week, and to a kid, that was a treat! "Mom, how come we don't go out for dinner like my friends do?!" (I was just whining - my parents took us out for celebratory meals such as A's on our report cards, after a special sports game, etc.). My mom explained that her and my dad would rather eat our meals at home to save money and travel more frequently. I realized the other sacrifices my parents made for us to travel and felt grateful. My parents were shaping my outlook on the world by helping us see new places and experiences.
Our vacations weren't "relaxing" in the sense people typically think of, lounging on the beach or sleeping in. A friend in high school once told me, "Your vacations sound more like a history lesson than a vacation", and it was partly true. Instead of hanging out in a pool, we were visiting a nature's center in Alaska, looking for alligators in the Florida Keys, or exploring the Clifs of Moher in Ireland.
My sister (Nicole) and I kept travel as an integrated part of our lives as we became adults. Nicole lived in Brazil for a year during a student exchange in between high school and college, and she also studied abroad in Argentina for 6 months. I lived with a cousin in India for 3 months during my freshman year of college. My parents taught us to take opportunities to travel when they were offered, and believe that the risk was worth taking.
Of course, I still have the "Travel Bug". My husband quickly caught it when we were dating. We went somewhere new every few months, even as poor college kids. We'd take a quick trip to Pittsburgh or go to Hocking Hills for a weekend. We often drove the 7 hours to Chicago to visit his family, who were living there at the time.
As we continued to travel as adults (especially as we went to Europe), we found ways to save and stretch our money to allow us more time away from home. Here are some ways that we are able travel more often by saving money where it counts.
1. If you can, travel during the week instead of the typical Friday - Monday.
This probably works best for college kids or people with unusual job hours (Nurses, Firefighters, etc). If you are planning to fly to your destination, try flying during weekdays (for example, leave on a Thursday and come back on a Tuesday) for the biggest bang for your buck. Weekdays are also a cheaper time to rent an airbnb or stay in a hotel.
Other notes on airline travel:
Don't be discouraged if the cheapest option includes a long layover somewhere. Often, layovers from the U.S. to Europe are in Portugal, Spain. The Portugal airport prepares for this by offering to hold your bags for a small fee (a few dollars). Chris and I were once able to explore Portugal for 6 hours during a long layover.
Similarly, on the way home from Europe we had a 10 hour layover in Miami. We rented a car and checked out Little Havana for a few hours, grabbing amazing food and taking in the local art galleries and murals. For a little effort and planning, your layover can contribute to amazing memories from your vacation.
2. Buy or bring staple grocery items and cook most of your meals at home.
Buy staples such as eggs, fruit, veggies, cheese and bread for simple breakfasts and snacks. One of our favorite meals in the world is a schmorgesborg with cheese, fruit, bread with olive oil, and chopped veggies. Have this as a mid afternoon snack and share an entree for dinner or attend a happy hour for deals on food and drink. We also like to bring or buy our own alcohol for most of the trip by grabbing a few bottles of wine at the grocery store.
If you have enough room to pack snacks (or are driving), bring trail mix or nuts, coffee, and cooking necessities with you (a cutting board, olive oil, a few spices, and a good knife). We've been to an Airbnb that did not have a cutting board (it was sadly stolen; we improvised with a plate), so it can be helpful to bring a few of these items if you have room.
During our honeymoon in St. Thomas, we packed PB+Js and snacks in a backpack for lunch on the beach. We considered it just as much fun to have a picnic by ourselves than it was to eat at a restaurant.
3. Plan free activities.
Our favorite way to explore a city is to simply walk its streets. This is almost always where we make the most significant memories of our trip. We find hidden gems this way- a winery off the beaten path, a market bursting with local fruits, or a small art gallery that didn't make it to TripAdvisor. You make amazing memories while discovering a city this way. Plus - walking is free transportation!
4. Ask the locals where they like to eat, hike, drink, and explore.
If you stay at an Airbnb you can typically ask your host in advance for their recommendations. In a hotel, ask the concierge. We like to ask specifically where they like to eat/drink/etc. Since these places are not necessarily catered to tourists, prices won't be inflated and you'll experience a better immersion into the local culture. In Hvar, Croatia, a local recommended an offbeat restaurant for dinner. Chris and I enjoyed it so much that we went back for dinner again the next night!
Residents will also tell you about beautiful landmarks/beaches/parks/hiking trails that are less frequented than other tourists.
5. Travel to your destination during the off-season.
Even though it is hard to travel when kids are in school or work is in full swing, it might be worth it depending on the off-season of your travel destination. Google the time of the year when the most tourists visit your vacation spot (for example, August is the busiest time of year for tourists in Barcelona, Spain - avoid it!). If you can, go during the off-season, typically winter for European countries, fall for islands in the Caribbean, etc. You won't be fighting other tourists for a plane ticket, place to stay, or local experiences, thus decreasing the price of your trip.
6. Use local transportation and pack light.
Buses and trains are often cheaper than renting a car or flying if you have multiple destinations within your trip. You can save money by using the local bus system to get from point to point. Plan ahead by learning about local transportation before you leave for your trip. St. Thomas has a "Safari" bus system - a jeep that picks you up off the roadside. Stomp to make the jeep stop at your destination! The ride just costs a dollar.
If abroad, purchase a Sim card to use in your phone when you arrive so you can use the internet and make phone calls. It can be uncomfortable travelling (especially walking) with large baggage. We prefer using backpacks to get around. Pack layers and items that work for multiple outfits. Bring a pair of walking shoes, flip flops, and tennis shoes (for exercise), and keep excess clothing and items to a minimum. By doing this, you also free up space in your luggage for souvenirs or gifts!
7. In general, be prepared to change plans.
This is one of the hardest aspects for me, but being flexible with your travel plans, dates, flights, and experiences makes your vacation more enjoyable. Typically things don't always go as planned (like the unexpected hour long lunch break for the bus driver taking on us the 4 hour trip, above). You may end up spending money at a little restaurant you stumbled upon during a morning walk, or go on an excursion that locals can't stop talking about. You may fall in love with a piece of art that you want to bring home. Whatever it is, prepare to be flexible, stay in the moment, and, as they say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Follow the advice of locals and your journey may take to places you never thought you'd go! Happy travelling!