10 Tips for Traveling on a Budget

trieste, italy

Seeing the world isn’t just for the rich and famous or the lone backpacker. If you’ve got a couple of kids, want to travel and don’t have a huge disposable budget (who does?) there are still plenty of ways to do it. Here are some of my best tips for traveling on a budget. 

1.) Pack Light

My biggest expense when traveling, is always the flight. For one, I fly out of Billings, Montana, which is not a cheap place to fly out of, and two, I have a lot of bags. I’ve usually got my photography gear, plus a bag for myself and my husband, plus another for both children. This was an insanely expensive way to travel. It wasn’t until we really began changing how we pack that travel became a lot more affordable (here’s my Minimalist Packing List for Children). 

Packing light saves you hundreds on baggage fees and countless hours waiting around at baggage claim to get your bags later. It also saves you a ton of frustration from having to drag around an extra bag to and from your destination. 

A few ways to lighten your suitcase: 

  • Plan ahead for the weather and pack exactly what you need. Don’t bring your Parka if you’re going to the Bahamas. Bring ONE light jacket and call it good. 
  • Condense items of the same. You don’t need six pairs of heels when one will do. Your kid doesn’t need 6 pairs of shoes to coordinate with different outfits. Pick one pair that matches with everything. 
  • Mix and match. It isn’t necessary to create an entirely new outfit for every single day. Mix and match a few select items to keep your outfits feeling fresh but your wardrobe nice and small. 
  • Stay at places that have laundry machines free for your use. Many Airbnb, Wimdu, or VRBO homes have a washer and dryer in the rental, available to use any time. 

2.) Branch Out From Hotels

One of my favorite sites is CouchSurfing, where local residents host out of town guests in their own homes. If we’re talking traveling on a budget – this is the ultimate. If it sounds sketchy, it’s really not; the system allows you to search specific requirements, like verified hosts who are verified and have 100% positive reviews. All contact is made through the site long before your stay, so you can get to know each other and know if it’s a good fit. If you don’t mind sleeping on an actual couch, it’s a great way to learn about the city from someone who knows it best!

Airbnb, Wimdu and VRBO all allow you to rent someone’s home instead of staying in a personal hotel. Hands down this has been my preferred way to stay in another country. Not only do you get to experience an authentic way of living in another place, but you’re also usually much closer to the action. Many cities have laws against building hotels in the center of town, so even the closest hotel will be a 20 minute commute into the city, and since hotels are usually more expensive, you’re often spending more money for a place further away from all your stops. 

Plus, the hosts are often a treasure trove of information. In Athens, our hosts walked us through half a mile of shops and stores until we arrived at a tiny Greek restaurant buried in a maze of cobbled streets. No way would we have found it on our own, and it was the best food we had the whole trip!

Hostelworld and hotels.com are great resources for a more traditional stay. I usually avoid hotels, but  hotels.com also includes hostels in their searches, giving you some great options for low cost. And don’t worry about the scary hostel myth that dominates the American horror movie genre; my experience with hostels has always been amazing!

traveling on a budget

3.) Let Technology Do The Work For You

There are countless amazing apps that significantly boost your travel experience and save you thousands of dollars. From flight trackers to online maps to meal recommendations, you’ve got more options than you probably realize.

Hopper, for example, is free app that allows you to choose the airport you’re flying out of, the place you’d like to go and the dates of the flight. Then it keeps an eye on flights and notifies you when they hit their cheapest point. It also shows you the best windows of time to book a ticket, so you can plan your trip in advance and avoid paying double or even triple what you would going in blind. 

Click here to read my whole list of my favorite travel apps!

4.) Change Out Your Money Ahead of Time

Changing out your currency is not only a huge pain in the ass, but it can be incredibly expensive if done at the wrong location. The last thing you want to do is wait in line at the airport at 3:34 am with screaming jet-lagged kids tugging at your leg, only to receive two thirds the amount of cash you thought you’d be getting because the exchange rate is such a massive ripoff. 

And since many places don’t take credit cards, you have to withdraw money out of an ATM, and many cards have daily withdrawal limits. We ran into this problem in Greece when we couldn’t get enough cash for the hotel and the car rental because our credit card has a $400 withdrawal limit and we were on a tiny little island where no one would take credit. 

A lot of banks, even if you don’t have an account with them, will exchange money for you if you walk in with cash and say you’d like to live with the same equivalency in euros or Canadian money. Not all banks carry all currencies, but it never hurts to ask! 

Make sure to check out my post on avoiding unnecessary fees when traveling abroad too!

5.) Be Generous With The Snacks

Snacks are essential when traveling (if only to avoid blowing your entire budget buying food at the airport) but I also like to pack a few cheap meal options as well. For breakfasts, I bring a large ziplock bag stuffed with instant oatmeal packets, or a bag of steel cut oats. It gives you something quick and easy to snack on first thing in the morning so you can explore and search for that perfect little breakfast/brunch spot instead of ravenously roaming the streets and stopping at the first place you see.

I also bring a ziplock bag of fruit and nut bars for daytime snacks and a few microwaveable rice and bean meals for those late nights when your flight was delayed, you’re exhausted, starving, everything is closed and the last thing you want to do is hunt down a grocery store at 12:30 in the morning.

All of these stuff takes up as much space as a single pair of tennis shoes, so it’s really not that much. It saves a ton of money, and on the pro side, when my food runs out I’ve the perfect amount of space to pack any souvenirs I’ve purchased along the way! Win-win!

6.) Pay Ahead of Time.  

Planning ahead has quite a few benefits, but one of the enormous benefits is paying for your entire trip ahead of time. Book your plane tickets well in advance, and do the same for your lodging and train tickets. By the time your trip rolls around, you can have the bulk of it completely paid off and all you have to worry about is your food, random additional travel charges (like an uber or a ferry ride), and souvenir shopping. 

This also helps to get the best prices. Some train tickets are hundreds of dollars cheaper when bought a few weeks in advance, and many hotels will offer a discount if you pay in full before your stay. It’s nice to have these things taken care of before you set out, especially if you’ve got a few kids in tow. 

traveling on a budget

7.) Use Country-specific Travel Options. 

Many countries have their own airlines and rail system that can save you hundreds of dollars on tickets. The websites may be in different languages, but open them in Google Chrome and you can have everything translated to your native language with the click of a button. Consider using Alitalia when booking flights through Italy and Olympic Air when booking flights through Greece. 

Europe has an extensive rail system, and you can choose to buy your tickets through one site if you’d like, but a little research for a country-specific rail system or airline could prove very beneficial! For us, tickets in Germany were significantly cheaper when we booked through Deutsche Bahn, and tickets in Switzerland were cheaper when using The Swiss Railway. Every country is different, with some tickets being more expensive than others. Take a look at my full travel resources page to see my favorite suggestions when traveling on a budget.

8.) Go Off-season

Some people scroll Facebook to kill time, others jump on Instagram. I spend most of my time on two websites: Design Seeds (it’s an entire website dedicated to color palettes) and Google Flights. If there’s anything I’ve learned on the latter, it’s that the time of year makes all the difference. 

Here’s an example: plane tickets to Shanghai from Billings, Montana cost upwards of $1200 per ticket throughout the summer. Go in October and roundtrip tickets are $522. Lodging is also cheaper, since hotels and airbnbs lower prices to fill rooms. 

Plus, you won’t have to deal with the hoards of tourists that come in the busy season. There aren’t long lines to get into your favorite attractions, and you have a better chance of receiving helpful advice from locals. 

Most destinations are interesting no matter what time of year you go. The Colosseum is there no matter what; go off-season and see it without having to push your way through a crowd in 100 degree weather.

9.) Ditch Cable

The best way to save money for a trip is to cut expenses you don’t need in the first place, cable being a huge one. With the number of streaming services online, if you’re still paying for cable service you are getting raked over the coals. And their “bundle” packages? Even more insulting (who needs a landline?). Ditching cable could save you hundreds every month. 

My husband and I cut cable back in 2011 when our roommate unexpectedly moved out and our rent nearly doubled. We canceled our cable service and swore it would just be a temporary thing until we could afford to get it back. But even after we moved into a much more affordable place, that never happened. Life without cable was cheap and convenient. With streaming services like Netflix, HBO NOW, Hulu, and countless others, we wondered why we hadn’t done this sooner. And that was in 2011… 

Now in 2018 streaming is a way of life. Stop giving your money to cable companies and put it in your travel account instead. 

10.) Be Smart With Your Stuff

One of the most inconvenient and expensive things to go wrong on a trip is having your stuff stolen. Whether you get pickpocketed, your rental car gets broken into, or something just straight up swipes your backpack while you were sleeping on the train, stuff happens. 

Be smart with how you store your goods. For your cash and credit cards, carry a cross-body purse and keep your hand on it, or wear a money belt under your clothes. Have locks on your backpack and keep a close eye on it. Keep your passport, visa and other valuables back in your hotel room in a small portable safe (here’s a great one) and hook it to something permanent in the room, like a pipe or a radiator. 

If your bag or your phone goes missing, having a backup for your documents will come in handy. Check out my list of travel documents you need and how to organize them in case something goes wrong!

traveling on a budget

Hope this helps, and have a great trip!

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