13 Things You Need to Know About Traveling on a Budget

Jessica Peterson

Budget travel doesn’t excite many of us. We may picture dingy hotel rooms, crowded buses, and zero-elbow-room flights when we think of traveling on a budget. The older I get, the less I want to travel like a piece of cargo. But if you want to see the world and ain’t got a lot of money, you’ve got no choice but to put some brainpower into the planning process, as well as making sacrifices as you go. You just need to be better organized and beat the system. 

Book in Advance

Traveling on a Budget

Great savings can be made simply by booking in advance. Many travel operators offer fantastic early booking deals, so keep your eyes open. 

JustFly is great for comparing flights on 400+ airlines. Don’t Forget to sign up for fare notifications and don’t delay when prices drop. Book flights at least 27 days in advance to avoid high last minute fares. However, the best practice is to book 60-90 days before your departure.

Expert Vagabond has an excellent article about how to find cheap flights such as booking trips in January.

Shop Late Deals

Traveling on a Budget

Late deals can be equally cheap. This is especially useful if you can be flexible. If you’re studying an online course such as an online MEAD program from Rutgers Online, and you can travel at short notice, look for late deals on accommodation and flights.

Read: Top Tips for Finding Cheap Flights by The Blonde Abroad. She recommends using a fake location when booking online to get the best price!

Travel Out of Season

Traveling on a Budget

Peak seasons, such as school holidays, can be ridiculously expensive. If you can avoid them, your travels could be a lot cheaper. If you have children and have to travel in season, avoid the biggest tourist resorts or travel at the very beginning or end of the holidays.

Steer Clear of Tourist Hotspots

Traveling on a Budget

Tourist resorts are always more expensive and they quite often don’t give you an authentic view of local life. Avoid large tourist hotels and consider local B&Bs or hostels instead. Airbnb (get $25 off) is another great way to save money on accommodation. You can also save money by avoiding big branded restaurants marketed at tourists and instead eating where the locals eat.

Travel with Just Hand Luggage

Traveling on a Budget

If your luggage allowance is included in the price of your flights, then great, but quite often it isn’t (even United Airlines is offering a la carte services now). In these cases, buy a small suitcase that meets hand luggage requirements and only take what you absolutely need. Remember, most places have shops and launderettes, so as long as you’ve packed essentials, you’ll be fine.

Don’t Eat Out

Traveling on a Budget

You can save money on vacation, just like you do at home. Eating out every night is a lovely treat, but it can get expensive. If your accommodation includes some basic cooking and food storage appliances, make part of your experience shopping for food at local markets. Try local ingredients and learn to cook native cuisine. It’ll not only save you money, but give you a great new skill to show off once you get home. Another simple way to save money is to walk instead of using public transport.

Volunteer

Traveling on a Budget

Volunteering is a great way to travel the world, help people in need, and in some cases get free accommodation. Volunteering should only be done through a trusted agency, so make sure you do your research before signing up for anything.

Check out my Travel Resources page for more help for traveling on a budget.

How to Use Miles to Travel for Free

I’m a budget traveler who relies heavily on flights redeemed with miles to get around the world. I’ve been beating the man since I was 21 starting with my first flight to Europe which cost just $300 (without miles). Once I learned the miles game, the world opened up for me.

Step one is signing up for mileage programs on every airline you fly. It’s free and you can do it online, so if you’re flying and not getting your miles credited, you’re throwing away opportunities for free travel.

Read my 5 Ways to Earn Miles You Probably Haven’t Thought Of to learn the unobvious tips about the miles game. The fact is, with every purchase I consider how to maximize my mileage earn. The Points Guy is a great resource for finding current credit card offers and understanding airline mileage programs.

Of course, loyalty to an airline means you can consistently earn miles for flights on that airline.

You can also earn miles from shopping on an airline’s website. You can earn double miles at select stores and sometimes bonuses.

Credit Cards

chase sapphire card

Most of my mileage earnings comes from credit card sign-up bonuses rather than flights. That’s because you can earn tens of thousands of miles with these bonuses. (The only downside of booking with miles is that you can’t earn miles on those flights.) Most airlines have credit cards, but there are also non-airline specific credit cards where you can earn points that can easily be transferred to airlines or can be used to book travel directly on any airline. Bonuses range from 25,000 to 50,000 miles and 5,000 more miles to add another user to the account. The caveat is that you have to spend $2,000-$3,000 within the first few months to earn the bonus. I save big purchases (like photography equipment) for months where I have a new card.

I also earn double and triple miles/points on certain types of purchases such as food, dining, and travel so I use specific cards for specific purchases.

Booking travel through your travel points credit card means you can get a small discount on hotels, flights, and tours (though the credit cards exaggerate the percentage of savings).

I recently signed up for a Marriott credit card and earned 80,000 points, which allowed me to book three hotel stays completely free of charge.

Most credit cards only allow one bonus per person, so I bounce around to keep earning. I don’t worry about ruining my credit score by having too many cards, as I’ve been at it for about 15 years with no problems.

Booking in Advance

How to use miles to travel the world for free

The closer to your travel date that you book a flight, the more miles that are required so book as early as possible. Domestic flights are generally 12,500 miles per leg and international flights start at 25,000. The prices can double and triple depending on seat availability. Airlines budget a small amount of seats for mileage purchase, so they can go fast on popular routes. Some airlines also charge a booking fee if the flight is less than two weeks away. The fee increases at one week out.

Note that even flights redeemed for miles require you to pay taxes, which vary by destination.

Mileage Accelerator

When you check in, some airlines allow you to purchase a mileage accelerator/booster, which means you get bonus miles on that flight.

Upgrades

Don’t have enough miles for a flight or just want a better seat? Use your miles for seat upgrades, which can also be purchased with a combination of cash and miles. Airlines prioritize upgrades by status, so again, book early to beat the elite travelers.

Free Travel

So, now that you know how to earn miles, simply sign in to your credit card or mileage account and start booking flights and hotels. If you’ve booked a high mileage-earning flight, sometimes it’s better to not redeem miles, so check the mileage calculator on your airline website. In addition, it might be smarter to book a flight that costs slightly more on an airline where you are close to earning enough miles to redeem.

Further reading: 21 Ways to Earn Miles That You Might Not Know About from The Points Guy.

Do you have any other tips for traveling on a budget?

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