Depending on your jetsetter status, traveling can leave variously sized holes in your wallet. After all, those five-star suites and private jet rides worth experiencing—and Instabragging about—can add up. Thankfully, once-in-a-lifetime journeys don’t have to cost an arm, a leg, and your soul. With today’s competitive travel landscape, hotel rates are dropping, scores of flight deals are up for grabs and celebrity chefs are opening fast-casual spots where you can get a decent meal for the price of a bus ticket. Even better? Plenty of amazing travel hacks ensure things get even cheaper from there. Here’s how to have an affordable, unforgettable vacation no matter what your paycheck.
1. Have flexible dates for super cheap flights
Ignore “travel experts” who swear yielding the cheapest fares means flying on a specific day, searching alternate routes, comparing search engines, booking months early, etc. No one has time for this sort of headache, and scouring hundreds of sites is stressful. While general rules do apply (it’s cheaper to fly over a Saturday night), the truth to cheap flights is being flexible. Leaving at 6 a.m. will garner cheaper fares than peak hours. Flying back on a Tuesday will be notably cheaper than Sunday. One of the best places to check fares is Google.com/flights, which posts fares in real time on every day of the month, so you can see every low fare for your route on their monthly calendar (with cheapest fares highlighted). Also, let the cheap fares come to you. Sign up for mailing lists and fare alerts from airlines and websites (like AirfareWatchDog.com), which announces not only the cheapest fares for routes you desire but also last-minute fare sales you’d never find published. Lastly, sign up on Twitter. Travel companies like TravelZoo and ThePointsGuy often Tweet ridiculous, unheard-of fares (like LAX and NYC to Hong Kong from $516 round-trip economy).
2. Use Your Frequent-Flier Miles NOW
With updated frequent-flier programs and airlines merging, miles lose value every year. There’s no sense in stockpiling frequent-flier miles as airlines are only increasing the number of miles it takes to get from Point A to Point B (i.e. American Airlines’ new mileage program update now requires 32,500 one-way miles to fly to Asia, when it was only 25,000 last year; first class went from 62,500 to now 80,000). Don’t have enough miles to get to Asia? Many airlines offer short-haul redemptions. Delta offers 5,000-mile awards on select routes, and American Airlines offers nonstop economy flights on routes less than 500 miles for 7,500 miles. To maximize your miles, it’s always best to earn them with one alliance (Skyteam, OneWorld, Star Alliance).
3. Make Money While You Travel
Vacation rental sites like Airbnb.com and Homeaway.com allow travelers to stay affordably in other people’s homes while they’re away. While it’s a means to travel on the cheap, renting your own home can prove lucrative while you’re on vacation (and can most certainly cover the price of your flight). If you have a car, drop it off at the airport where many services rent it out while you’re away, like Turo and Flightcar. Both offer $1 million insurance coverage for your car if it’s rented, Not only do you save on airport parking, you can rack up to $450 a month depending how long you’re gone. Going on a road trip? Roadie delivery app pays drivers in their own vehicles to courier packages across the United States. You can accumulate cash based on distance and product being delivered, and that cash can fund gas money and souvenirs for your memorable, cross-country road trip.
4. Check into a Hostel (No, Really)
Remember the Let’s Go Europe days when hostels offered dingy bunk beds in shady buildings? Times have thankfully changed for independent, budget travelers. Hostels the world over have been bit by the millennial bug, and they’re feeling more like boutique hotels with better facilities, a wealth of amenities (like swimming pools, bars and farm-to-table restaurants) and, best of all, most have doubled their private room inventories. Generator Hostels leads the European movement, with well appointed properties in trendy neighborhoods among top cities like Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Dublin, and Amsterdam. Private rooms average $100. Another example, The Wayfarer in Santa Barbara, made headlines when it opened last year. The 31-room hostel features fully equipped communal kitchen, outdoor heated swimming pool (yes, heated), on-site laundry, complimentary breakfast, free WIFI, and parking. Private rooms are only $159 a night (or a bunk starts at $60). In Breckenridge, Colorado, guests can stay at The Bivvi, a 10-room eco-hotel with custom-made bunk beds made from Norwegian pine. A stay includes hot breakfasts, menu of craft beers, free wifi, 10-person hot tub, and myriad outdoor adventures for $49 per person a night (private room starts at $189).
5. Staycation Like a Pro
A staycation—a vacation spent on your own turf rather than getting on a plane, train or automobile—has been popular since the great recession of 2008, but it’s now become like a true travel art form. Many cities offer deep discounts for locals and even free activities and incentives to stay wheels down (like Las Vegas residents, who are treated more VIP than tourists when they show their IDs at bars, nightclubs, restaurants and more). Travelers can turn their own cities into an adventure by visiting their local tourism/CVB websites, which offers calendars for free events, discounts to museums and attractions and many more offerings to sweeten the deal—just for being a local. For instance, in Los Angeles, Angelenos often download car-free guides courtesy of LA Tourism to discover art walks, shops, and cool attractions all without spending a penny and seeing LA a way they haven’t before. Best of all? Hotels love when local residents are curious enough to book a room and are often treated with upgrades, free drinks and more just for choosing the local hotel rather than using their money to travel far.
6. Try Voluntourism
The most selfless way to see the world on the cheap is by giving back. Voluntourism (volunteer + tourism) allows travelers to help locals in some far-flung places by teaching English as a second language, building schools, and other altruistic means of community building. In return, many companies like Projects Abroad compensate with free housing, often food and flights. While it’s not for everyone (voluntourim isn’t a vacation, per se, and it requires humility), more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists help around the world and truly immerse in their appointed destination’s culture and lifestyle. Check out some great options here.
7. Let Someone Else Do All the Work for You
Despite the old-school nature of travel agents, they’re not obsolete. In fact, they’re going through a digital revolution where customers can get on-demand travel-agent service for practically free. A good example is Tripscope, a free app where well experienced travel agents curate your entire trip via app based on your preferences. Even if you want to spend $20 a day TOPS on great meals and tours, they can make that happen (travel agents are the magicians of the travel world and, thanks to their relationships, they can also get free hotel upgrades, best tables in a restaurant, steep discounts, free entrances, and more). For every booked trip on Tripscope, you only pay $25, but it can ultimately save you thousands. Another app, Hyper, connects you with real concierge (though not award-winning travel agents), and they curate your entire trip based on what you desire (cheap, yet good, food, inexpensive museums, long hikes, cheapest flight, etc), so you can get the best of your trip on the budget you want. The app services are free.