You might not experience perfect weather, but you'll be able to save money on airfare, lodging and sightseeing while avoiding the crowds. Spring and fall are usually excellent times to travel on a budget. It's easier to negotiate for lower rates on lodging and other services when tourists are scarce.
To get a better deal, you sometimes just have to ask. Go for it. During slow periods, most in the travel industry would rather sell a room or seat at a discounted price than not sell it at all. Be sure to ask for the corporate, student or teacher rate, if applicable.
Get a guidebook tailored to budget travelers, such as those from the Lonely Planet series. New editions are ideal, but used guidebooks can work fine, too. No matter how old it is, always be sure to check on the Web for the latest prices.
There are also many excellent travel websites you can peruse (some of the better ones are referenced below). Many of these allow you to compare prices and shop for the best deals. Even so, most sites offer similar rates, so your best savings strategy is to keep your itinerary flexible.
Travel agencies can still be a good option if you're time starved, dislike planning tasks or are just not sure where to get started. Let a travel agent do the work, and you'll reduce your pre-trip stress.
Finally, don't overlook word of mouth. Carina Bandle, REI Boston store employee and frequent traveler, advises that you can often find the most beautiful and cheapest spots to stay by asking other travelers or locals you trust. "When landing in Quito, Ecuador, at midnight," she recalls, "I had a name of a hotel but when I arrived it was gone. Literally, there was a hole in the ground where the building once stood. But the woman I shared a taxi with was willing to split a room at another place a local suggested, and we both saved money."
One of the best ways to find deals on air transportation is to shop online using a search engine that scours other sites. Airtreks.com and Bootsnall.com are both search engines that specialize in multi-destinations. Kayak.com is a search engine that searches Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com and CheapTickets.com to find the best available price.
Keep in mind that booking your flight for less-popular times or days of the week can usually save you money. Avoid travel on Fridays and Sundays as these are the most expensive days.
Other options to consider:
Jessica Knowles of the REI Dallas store has been "flying standby forever" thanks to her mother who worked for Delta Airlines. She notes, "Patience and a backup plan are very important for standby travel. Your best odds of getting on the plane are midweek or on the earliest flight of the day. Standby space during peak travel times is much more limited but you could get lucky."
If you're really flexible with your schedule, consider flying on a space-available basis through a consolidator such as Airtech. As long as you don't care about your exact destination, you could get to Europe or Hawaii cheaper than anyone else using this approach.
When flights get overbooked, airlines will issue travel vouchers for free travel if you volunteer your seat to another passenger. Let the airline gate agent know right away of your willingness to give up your seat if needed. Of course, this approach requires some flexibility in your schedule, as the next available replacement flight may be hours later.
If you are traveling solo and can pack light, consider traveling as a "casual courier." Couriers leave from designated cities and are usually limited to carry-on baggage. When you travel as a courier, documents or freight are checked as your baggage allowance (you don't handle the freight yourself) and you get a ticket for roughly one-half of the coach fare.
The International Association of Air Courier Travelers is a leading resource (their website is Courier.org). Downsides: There is a small membership fee to join, you have little control over the schedule and you are responsible for your travel costs should you miss the return flight.
Once at your destination, use public transportation. Subways and buses are an inexpensive, efficient way to travel. Buy a weekly pass when it makes sense with your plans. If you're not sure about which train to take, ask an employee. Bus drivers are usually extremely helpful. If you tell the driver where you'd like to go, he or she will often make sure you get off at the right stop. Be sure to keep your safety in mind. Take precautions with money when in crowded situations and research in advance for any tourist warnings about particular routes or late-night travel.
Get to know your fellow travelers on the road. Private buses and guides can get expensive but sharing costs with other travelers makes opportunities to see out-of-the-way places more affordable.
While renting a vehicle is a more expensive way to get around, you can usually save money, sometimes significantly so, by making your reservation at a non-airport location. Many rental car companies will provide pick-up service to and from the airport.
Camping is always the cheapest way to go. But if you don't want to bring a tent and sleeping bag on your trip, you still have some thrifty options.
Use the internet to research places to stay. Online rates are frequently less expensive than what you would be quoted at the front desk. One approach is to check Priceline.com or similar sites for current promotions. If you are booking in a tourist area with several accommodations, you can call one hotel with your budget and see if they have any suggestions for other hotels in your range. Calling ahead gives you a good idea which hotels may be more flexible on stay minimums and prices.
Another strategy is to avoid making advance hotel reservations unless you're traveling during a major festival, holiday or during the height of tourist season. Once you arrive, make a few phone calls to find the best deal, or go to an area with many hotels and check rates in person. You may have the most success in the evening with the night manager. This approach can be effective but is obviously a bit more time consuming so it may not be right for everyone.
If you don't mind sharing a common bathroom with the other rooms on a floor, you can save money by getting a room without an attached bathroom.
These aren't just for youth and backpackers. Families, couples and older people all use hostels. However, keep in mind that the quality can vary from hostel to hostel. In some places, you could luck out with a room all to yourself and an amazing view. Other times, you could end up in a room with 20 bunk beds and a snorer. Read the traveler reviews at Hostels.com for guidance.
Some hostels will allow you to work for your stay. You may be able to negotiate a reduced rate in exchange for helping out with laundry or serving food. Of course, this makes sense only if you have time to spare on your trip.
A tip for international backpackers: Andrew Tomlinson from REI's Reno store advises to buy your stove in the country you are visting. "Customs hates anything that smells like fuel and views it as a safety hazard," he says. "The likelihood that your favorite stove will have to be left behind is good. On your last night, stay in a hostel and try to sell your stove to someone who's on their first night. You might make a portion of your money back."
Sharing a place with a group of friends can really cut costs. This works best if you'll be staying in one spot for a considerable length of time. This approach is popular for trips to ski resorts, for example, where accommodations are usually large enough to hold groups and include kitchens for preparing meals.
This is a growing online community whose members provide a free couch in their home for use by solo travelers from around the world. You simply contact the couch owner (via Couchsurfing.org) to arrange your stay (the host must confirm your stay first). If you're looking for more of a cultural immersion than simply visiting traditional tourist sites, then this approach may be for you.
Find a food cart or hole-in-the-wall restaurant favored by locals. These are usually good examples of authentic local food and the prices tend to be reasonable. To find one, ask around. The workers at places you stay or visit should be able to help you.
Some hotels and motels provide a free breakfast—take advantage of it! Oversleep and you could miss out on a free meal. While you're there, it doesn't hurt to ask if you could take to go some fruit or other easily carried food for a light snack later.
When you decide to enjoy an occasional meal at a nicer restaurant, consider going for lunch as this is almost always less expensive than dinner. Eat later in the day so you can get by on a light snack for dinner. If you're dining with a friend, split those large portions that restaurants often serve or share a couple of appetizers as your meal.
Travel with a few energy bars or dried fruit. Nothing beats fresh food, but when your budget is tight or there's no time for food shopping, you'll be grateful for some snacks brought from home.
If you're a student, teacher or youth, you can pick up an international identity card for access to discounts on airfare, transportation, museums and other attractions. Student travel agencies such as STA issue these cards.
Websites, tourist offices, hostels and hotel concierges can be excellent sources of local information, and they usually offer free maps of the city and major sites. These maps won't have enough detail for driving or getting to obscure places, but they're an excellent guide to the big attractions.
Many museums and tours are free on certain days or evenings. Check your guidebook or phone ahead. With luck or good planning, one of the free days will coincide with your visit. Hotel concierges sometimes have coupons for reduced rates on admission.
Avoid impulse purchases. Photographs and postcards usually make better souvenirs than cheap knickknacks. If you're up for some serious shopping, practice your bargaining skills.
No room in your pack or luggage? Andrew from the REI Reno store makes this offbeat suggestion: "Bring your 5 worst pairs of underwear and toss them when done to give you room for the knickknacks you can't live without."
Travel necessities are afforable and easy to find at home but pricey and time-consuming when on the road. Make sure you pack for weather variations (e.g., buying a second raincoat can be painful) and that all your toiletry needs are met. For example, missing contact lenses or solution can cost up to 3 times what you pay at home. Recalls REI employee Carina, "In Nicaragua, I spent a day trying to find a contact lens carrying case and only struck luck when a fellow tourist had an extra."
If you're looking for the most bang for your travel buck, don't count out group outfitters. While not inexpensive, outfitters can save on planning time and stress and offer the savings of having a travel expert bundle together the many details of a trip.
REI's in-house travel department, REI Adventures, researched independently planned vs. outfitter travel costs. Based on their estimates, one can save up to 10% on all trip costs and a minimum of 20 hours of research and planning time by booking with an outfitter. Admittedly, this is not an independent analysis, but their package of thorough planning and local expertise backed by the REI brand name is an attractive option for many.
REI's Jessica Knowles advises, "I recommend group travel if you are traveling by yourself, you don't know the language of the country you are visiting, or are trying out activities new to you such as hiking in the Himalayas when you have no mountaineering experience." She adds, "It's always better to have local guides. They can show you some of the off-the-beaten path areas you won't find in a guidebook."
Adds REI's Andrew Tomlinson, "I think it's also a good option for the adventure crowd who want to do a lot but don't want to carry all of their own gear to do it."
Contributors to this article: Carina Bandle, REI Boston store; Rodney Hsueh, REI Arcadia, Calif., store; Jessica Knowles, REI Dallas store; Andrew Tomlinson, REI Reno store; Cynthia Dunbar, REI Adventures manager.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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