Tips for Traveling on a Budget

 Contrary to common belief, traveling frequently does not require a six-figure salary, a trust fund, or that you become a skilled jewel thief. We’ve already shared our tips for doing Disney on a Dime (check out that page if you want tips that are unique to Disney trips), but thought we should share more broad tips and resources we use that can help you save money when traveling. Although these tips are for travel in general–to any destination–they obviously can be applied to getting to and from Walt Disney World or Disneyland, off-site hotel stays at both, and smart use of a credit card to make the trip happen.

So many other sites have written so much on these topics that, rather than give you a redundant but comprehensive article, we’re giving you the highlights of each area where you can really save, as well as links to sites we read that delve deeper into each given subject. Consider this post a gateway to cheaper traveling.

Thanks partly to Airfarewatchdog, we did a weekend trip to Rocky Mountain National Park for <$500 TOTAL.

Airfare:

Depending upon the number of people for whom you’re paying, airfare can be the most expensive part of any trip. It’s typically not for us, not just because we’re a childless couple, but also because we know where and when to purchase airfare.

If you know your travel dates and have no flexibility as to when you travel, we recommend checking out ITA Software. Google acquired this site a couple years back and (it seems) still hasn’t quite figured out what to do with it. Basically, it’s like a more robust and cleaner version of Kayak and other airfare search engines. There are a myriad of parameters you can set, and in our experience, ITA is the best way to find the lowest prices on airfare for set dates of travel.

If you have some flexibility as to travel dates or your trip is far in the future, you should also use fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here (although not as many as I’d like) and receive email updates when flight prices drop. We plan on traveling to Tokyo sometime in 2013, so we currently have alerts set for Indianapolis-Tokyo and Chicago-Tokyo flights. I receive sporadic updates when prices have dropped on these fares.

Our travel dates are normally more flexible, and we largely travel based upon when there are deals. If this describes your travels, there are a variety of resources you should use. Again, my favorite is Airwarewatchdog. I receive a daily email from Airfarewatchdog with the lowest prices available for dozens of destinations. I quickly scan the email for bargains on destinations to which we might be interested in traveling, and occasionally, I find a steal. We were able to book a flight to Denver earlier this fall for $140 RT, and we found flights for 2013 that we booked to Washington, D.C. and Atlanta for $105 RT and $80 RT, respectively. We use these low prices to justify weekend trips (literally–Friday afternoon to Sunday night) to experience the highlights of particular cities and National Parks.

For airfare, we also read the FareCompare.com Deals BlogFlyer Talk forums, Vayama.com, Bing’s Farecast, and BoardingArea.com.

Hotels:

Everyone knows about Priceline.com and Hotwire and the unique bidding processes employed by each of these sites. However, not everyone knows about betterbidding.com, which is a user-driven forum that helps you make more informed bids. Since Priceline and Hotwire work differently, the site functions differently for each. For Priceline, users of that site post their recently accepted bids along with the hotel and dates booked so others use that information to formulate their own bids. For Hotwire, users post which hotels they were awarded, along with the price, region, dates, and amenities listed by Hotwire. Depending upon the hotel density in the given area, readers can use this information to game the Hotwire system and figure out which hotel they’re bidding on through Hotwire. Biddingfortravel.com is another resource that can assist with this.

If you’re in the market for last minute hotels, two apps can help you with same-day purchases at deep discounts. Hotel Tonight is the leader here, and offers multiple hotels in a variety of markets available for booking up to 7 nights in advance. Use code TBRICKER1 when signing up to save $25 on your first booking through Hotel Tonight.

A more recent entrant into this market, Gilt’s Jetsetter Now service (if you need an invite to this member’s only site, click here), does the same, except in fewer markets and exclusively for luxe hotels.

Not necessarily looking for a hotel? There are a variety of ways to stay in someone else’s house or apartment for a low cost or free. Couchsurfer.com covers the free route and although we’ve never used it, we’ve heard great things. By contrast, HomeAway.com is a great place to book stays in apartments and houses around the globe at relatively low costs; we booked a few nights of our upcoming Europe trip through HomeAway.com and so far (fingers crossed) the transaction has gone flawlessly. Staying in a house or apartment allows you to save money and live more like a local.

The leading opponent of credit cards…

Credit Cards:

Credit cards aren’t a dedicated element of travel, but choosing the right credit cards for your travel and spending habits is absolutely essential. So essential that it can help you travel more frequently! There has been a recent backlash against credit cards for their unsavory side, but savvy consumers should absolutely have multiple credit cards. To suggest otherwise is hogwash. Much like light sabers, credit cards can be a harmful pain-inflicting weapon or an awesome tool. Use them like an awesome tool.

First, and this is directed at a lot of people reading this site, the Disney Visa is not a good credit card for everyday use. Yes, it has some perks that can come in handy for Disney trips, but its rewards are paltry, which should be of far greater concern. So instead of this being your primary-use card, look at sites like NerdWallet.com to determine which credit card is right for you based upon your spending habits and perks-preferences.

When doing this, don’t shy away from credit cards with annual fees. Some credit cards have annual fees for a reason: they’re better. Do the math to determine whether you spend enough relative to the annual fee and the rewards of the next-best alternative to justify having an annual fee card. Sarah and I both use annual fee credit cards as our primary cards, and we’d hazard a guess that many other adults will find that annual fee cards suit them well, too.

Admittedly, with this last item, we’re getting into an area where I’m still learning my way. I’ve “always” sought new credit cards on the basis of what sign-up incentives they have coupled with annual fees and cashback rates, but always is in air quotes back there because I’ve only held a handful of credit cards in my life. I’ve followed the somewhat inaccurate advice that opening more credit cards is harmful to your credit score.

Before I get into this, there’s one thing that cannot be stressed enough: your credit score is one of your most important assets. You should not be opening credit cards and making purchases that leave you crippled with debt. In fact, carrying any balance on your credit card is a bad idea, and something we never do. Not matter what the perks, you don’t save money if you are paying interest on your purchases.

That said, those with good credit, time to spare, the desire to travel, and some great organizational skills, might want to try something called “credit card churning.” Credit card churning involves simultaneously opening new credit cards based upon what perks are being offered, spending the appropriate amounts to receive those perks, redeeming said perks, and closing the credit card account, usually all within around 90 days. We’re still in the initial research stage of this intriguing idea, and aren’t quite sure to what extent we’ll churn. Here are a couple of examples of what others have done. Some people go wild with it, but that requires a high level of dedication. At first we felt a little hesitation about exploiting the credit cards to receive these perks, but: 1) credit card companies could easily close these “loopholes” if they so chose; and, 2) it’s not as if credit card companies are historically upstanding corporate citizens.

Still, this is something to give serious thought before undertaking, as there are some risks.

Other Good Reads:

While the above linked-to sites are great for the particular purposes mentioned above, there are numerous other sites I read from time to time that offer great tips, but don’t necessary have a singular purpose. Probably the best in terms of offering a gateway into the world of travel hacks is this Beginner’s Guide from The Points Guy.

Here’s a list of other sites that I feel are worth checking out:

Much like Disney fan sites, there are literally hundreds of other travel sites out there. These happen to be the ones we read. They don’t always offer tips on frugal travel (some, like Travel Dudes and Terra Galleria are more “inspirational”), but they all usually offer great reads!

Your Thoughts…

Are you a frugal traveler? How do you save? What is the best travel deal you’ve scored? What sites do you read? Share your thoughts on these questions and anything else in the comments!

20 Responses to “Tips for Traveling on a Budget”
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