Vacations are supposed to be relaxing and stress free. Ironically, booking and planning a vacation can be anything but stress free, especially when you’re trying to do it on a budget. For that reason, we want to share some tips and tricks that we’ve learned along the way to help you plan your next vacation without breaking the bank. Many of these tips and tricks build on each other, so the more of them that you can implement, the more money you can save. We’ve personally used all of these tips to save ourselves thousands of dollars over the past few years of travelling. And remember, the more that you can plan ahead, the more relaxing your time on vacation will be. Now, let’s dive in!
Plan your trip during the shoulder season
Out of all of the tips and tricks for planning a vacation on a budget this is easily the most impactful way to reduce cost. If you’re wondering what the “Shoulder Season” is, it is simply the time period between the “Peak Season” and “Off Season”. These time frames will vary depending on your destination, but you can easily find the shoulder season for any destination with a quick Google search. During the shoulder season there will be less crowds and lodging and flights will be less expensive, but there are some potential trade offs. The weather might not be as desirable as it is during the peak season and certain attractions may be operating on a limited schedule, but if you’re like us and don’t mind taking a small chance in order to save some big money, then the shoulder season is for you! We’ve used this method for almost all of our trips, and we’ve had amazing experiences. Back in 2018 for our Quebec City trip we got roundtrip flights from Nashville and a hotel for 6 nights for just under $1,000 by taking advantage bundle deals (which we’ll talk about later), and the 4 week shoulder season between New Years and their Winter Carnaval celebration... and did we mention that we had an AMAZING time! And back in 2017 we were able to book our July honeymoon trip staying at an oceanfront beach resort in Barbados for 8 nights with roundtrip flights from Orlando for less than $3,000. More recently, in 2019 we were able to book roundtrip flights direct from Nashville to London for just over $1,000 total for both of us. And while some of these prices might not seem “budget” friendly, we could have easily spent 50-100% more had we planned to travel during the peak season.
Have flexible dates
This tip is another one that can pay off big. Sometimes, just being willing to shift dates around by a few days can be the difference of hundreds or thousands of dollars. This was the case for our Barbados Honeymoon trip. Of course we wanted to fly out the day after our wedding, but by waiting another 2 days, we were able to save nearly $500 dollars which allowed us to stay an extra night.
Have a flexible destination
When we were planning our winter trip back in 2018, all we knew was that we wanted to go to a winter wonderland and get a real winter experience. Beyond that, we didn’t care where we went. Going into the planning with this flexibility allowed us to explore all of our options, and we ultimately landed on Quebec City, which is still one of our favorite trips we’ve ever taken. Had we been set on going to a specific destination, we easily could have spent thousands of dollars more.
Google Flights is one of our go-to tools and is how we booked our London flight last year. If you aren’t familiar with Google Flights or how to use Google Flights, it’s super easy. All you have to do is go to Google and type in “Google Flights” and the first search result will be Google Flights. Once you’ve clicked on the Google Flights link you’ll enter your departure city and destination, then click on the departure date and a calendar will come up with flight prices listed by day. Being able to see flight prices laid out on the calendar allows you to see what days flights are least expensive. And if you have flexible dates like we talked about earlier, you can shift your plans around by a day or two and save some big money. You can also sign up to get notifications for when prices change for a specific flight. We did this with our Nashville to London flight and got notified the day after we booked that the price nearly doubled!
Take advantage of bundle deals through Expedia or other travel sites
In the age of phone and cable companies, bundle deals have gotten a bad rap, but you really can save yourself a lot of money by bundling hotel, flights, rental car, etc. through sites like Expedia. We booked both our Barbados trip and Quebec City trip through Expedia and we practically flew for free on each of those. Plus, you earn points for every dollar you spend through their site, so if you couple that with a travel credit card (which we'll talk about) you really get to cash in on those rewards.
Airbnb vs Hotel
If we’re not booking a bundle deal through Expedia, Airbnb has become our go-to resource for finding the most affordable lodging around the world. We stayed in Airbnb accommodations for 14 out of our 17 nights in Europe last fall and had amazing experiences in every city (Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, and London). For those that aren’t familiar with Airbnb, it essentially acts as a middleman for people looking to rent a place for lodging and people that want to rent out a private room, shared room, or entire home/apartment/condo/guest house. Many people have a preconceived idea that you are sharing rooms with people or are renting a room in someone's house. And while you can do these things, it is totally up to you, and each listing is very clear as to what type of listing it is (shared room, private room, entire place) and what you can expect with your stay. We prefer renting an entire place so that we can have a little more privacy, but sometimes it doesn’t fit the budget. In these cases we opt for a private room in someone’s home, many times with a shared bathroom. From our experience, both options are typically less expensive than a hotel, and you get more of a local experience.
Use our AirBnb Link to get up to $65 off your first stay!
Hotels can be "hacked" to save money as well, like with the Hotwire Hot rate (which we will get to later), but even looking to see if they offer free breakfast can save you money on food. Or perhaps the hotel is in a better location making it possible to walk more places and you can now spend less on transportation. Every destination is different, so it's good to weigh your options and figure out whether an Airbnb or Hotel is the best choice for your specific trip.
Travel credit cards
This is probably the most polarizing topic of all the travel tips, but if you’re responsible and able to pay the balance off every month, travel credit cards can offer some pretty amazing perks. Depending on the card, there is almost always a sign-up bonus/promo, and once you’ve met the required criteria (which usually means spending a certain amount of money within a given amount of time from opening the account) you can earn anything from airline miles, to free checked bags, to airport lounge access, to discounted or free hotel stays, and more. We understand that the travel credit card route isn’t for everyone though, so you have to be self aware and decide if this is something that works for you.
Groupon, AirBnb Experiences, and Viator are awesome ways to book excursions and experiences at a discounted price. We have used these countless times over the past few years and have always had a positive experience. Groupon has less options to choose from and every week there are new offers to take advantage of, so check weekly before your trip. AirBnb experiences are local guides who will either take you on a tour, be your personal photographer, or show you the best places for food etc., and more. It is a wonderful option if you want to have a more local experience with people who actually live there.
Viator is a company owned by TripAdvisor that allows you to book "official" tours. We always like to use this site when we're travelling to a country that speaks a different language or is known for tourism scams. Language barriers can create miscommunications and can lead to higher rates or scams. For instance, when we travelled to Quebec City, we booked a bus to go visit an ice hotel and snow tubing park. We made plans to go snow tubing all afternoon and take a tour of the ice hotel that evening. When we booked the bus directly through the company's website, we weren't told (or it was lost in the language barrier) that the bus only stayed at the location for 1 hour then returns. This meant that we had to either cancel our plans and ride the bus back to the city, or continue with our plans and pay for a $60 Uber ride on top of the bus tour that we had already paid for. We ended up going with the latter and had a blast snow tubing and touring the ice hotel, but had we booked through a site like Viator, we could have avoided the stress and extra expense.
Hotwire Hotel Hot Rate Hack
If you’re not familiar with how Hotwire Hot Rate works, we’ll give you a quick overview. Essentially you pick a general area that you want to stay in, and Hotwire has an option called “Hot Rate” which gives you a price for whatever star rated hotel you would like to stay. For this example we will say that we want to stay at a 4 star hotel in Nashville, TN. The normal price is usually $214 per night, but you can get it for $99 by choosing the "Hot Rate" (that saves you $115 a night).
The catch is that you don’t know which hotel you’ll be staying in. They do tell you the potential brand hotel that it could be. For this example we see that it could be a Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental, Westin, or similar hotel. For most people, this is where they either back out or check out, but hang on because we know how to find out which hotel you will be staying in. It does take a little investigative work, but it’s worth it! When you are looking at the “Hot Rate”, check out the reviews. In this case it says 4.7/5 stars with (620) reviews. Now we scroll down and read some of the reviews. This one says something about an art museum.
Now, we google “art museums in hotel downtown Nashville” and 21C Museum Hotel was first in the search results. Now we go back to Hotwire and scroll past the “Hot Rate” offers and select 4 star hotels only in the filters. Now, scroll down until you see 21C Museum Hotel and look at their reviews. Look at that! It says 4.7/5 stars with (620) reviews, EXACTLY what the “Hot Rate” Deal of the Day was.
Now you know exactly which hotel you will be staying in and how much money you will be saving.
Coupon Internet Browser Extensions
We like saving money on everything (who doesn’t really!?), and extensions for our browser has made it that much more simple. As your shopping the extension continues to run in the background, checking for coupons or better deals. Once you go to check out, it will notify you if any coupons or better deals were found. We like using Rakuten, Honey, and Wikibuys.
Recently, the Honey extension saved us on our trip from Nashville to Orlando. The flight was already cheap at $29, but as we were checking out, honey applied a $20 off coupon making our one way flight $9! You can get a $10 gift card for joining today.
Rakuten gives you cash back for purchases. For instance we get 10% cash back on any groupon purchases (which we use regularly for our travel experiences or food) and 3% back on Hotwire. And you will get $10 when you sign up with this link.
While it's not as directly related to travel, we’ve found that Wikibuys is great for shopping on Amazon Prime because it lets you know if you are getting the best deal. Here is the link for $5 off!
Cheap Eats and Drinks
A very large portion of most travel budgets is for food and drinks. Whether it’s $50 a day or $500 a day, setting a budget for yourself is always a good idea. Once you’ve set your budget, it’s important to put in the effort and time to research before you go. This can save you so much money in the long run. Whatever city we are travelling to we always look up “best cheap eats”, and “best happy hours”. We recently went to Las Vegas and did some research and found that the lounge on the 107th floor of the Stratosphere (107 SkyLounge) has a 2 for 1 Happy Hour from 4pm to 7pm with amazing views of the Las Vegas strip and the sunset. You couldn’t beat the price or the views.
Another great option for finding food and drink deals is on Groupon. Some examples that we have found are a lunch at Brazilian steakhouses for $30 for 2 people, or Seafood dinner (retails $106) for 2 people for $49, and a vineyard wine and cheese pairing (retails $70) for $35. Again, planning ahead is is the key to saving big money here!
Transportation can get expensive fast. Especially if you’re relying on Taxis or rideshare apps like Uber or Lyft. That’s why we highly recommend public transportation when available. It is by far the best budget friendly option. Unfortunately, many cities in the US don’t have the best public transportation compared to many other countries. But whether you're in the US or elsewhere, we recommend looking into public transportation as an option. We will say, if you’re on a tight schedule or in a rush to get somewhere, public transportation might not be your best option since it’s typically not the fastest option. Another tip that some people forget about for airport transportation is airport shuttles. If you’re staying in a hotel, we suggest calling and asking if they offer a free shuttle to and from the airport. If none of these options are available, Uber or Lyft is always a good option. They are typically much less than Taxis. Use our Uber code for $2 off your first 3 rides. Or our Lyft code to get $5 in ride credit. But it's always worth checking the local taxi fare rate because depending on the time of day and demand, taxis can be less expensive than Uber or Lyft.