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.


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 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 Deals BlogFlyer Talk forums,, Bing’s Farecast, and


Everyone knows about and Hotwire and the unique bidding processes employed by each of these sites. However, not everyone knows about, 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. 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. covers the free route and although we’ve never used it, we’ve heard great things. By contrast, 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 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 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!

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20 Responses to “Tips for Traveling on a Budget”

  1. Allison says:

    Our best method for creating cheaper trips has been the Southwest Visa card.

    We use our one credit card as you would a debit card – using it for all purchases and paying off the balance (aka balancing the checkbook) every few days. This way, we can earn Rapid Rewards points more quickly and without debt. So far, we’ve cashed in six or so round trip flights since getting the card a few years ago.

    I cannot stress this enough – this method is only for folks who are extremely disciplined with tracking finances. My husband is a rock star at this and we do not carry a balance on the credit card. I repeat – THIS METHOD IS ONLY FOR FOLKS WHO ARE EXTREMELY DISCIPLINED WITH TRACKING FINANCES. :-)

    We chose the Southwest Visa because the flights from our home airport are always cheaper with Southwest, especially to some of our favorite destinations (Disney and Denver). Hope this helps!

    • Sheilla says:

      I have friends and people at work who do this and it does work out for them.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      The Southwest card will likely be one of my next cards. It has a 2 free flight perk right now, and although we fly Southwest less and less (a variety of other airlines usually beat it IND-MCO), we still fly it enough for the card to have some value.

      I don’t think using a credit card even requires that much discipline. Just monitor spending and pay it once a month before it’s due. I mean, you need discipline to not spend more money than you have, but that’s pretty basic.

  2. Kayla says:

    Sign up for frequent car rental clubs (like Emerald Club at National). Check rates periodically, and if they drop cancel and rebook. Sometimes the deals you get last minute are the best.

    And for Disney fans, I second ditching the Disney Visa for daily use. If you already have one, keep it for the perks. There are better cards out there for rewards, both with and without annual fees.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Scoring good deals on rental cars is definitely not my area of expertise…yet. We’ve only rented a car a few times, and each of those times, Sarah has found the deal. As we travel more, I need to learn more about this. Thanks for the tip!

      • Daniel M says:

        The way to go is

        It’s actually owned by travelocity and uses that booking engine, but it applies discount codes sourced from throughout the internet. You have to check somewhat frequently, as care rental rates change frequently and seemingly arbitrarily, but I’ve always gotten great deals. A week in Orlando averages less than $100.

        Good news is you can book without a credit card, cancel easily, and rebook if rates decline.

  3. Jarrett says:

    I am a first-time churner. My wife and signed up for the Southwest Reward cards which offered two round trip tickets each. Family of four going to Orlando from OKC for about $230. It would have been about $1600 otherwise. We plan on cancelling the cards before the new annual fee is assessed. I can see holding on to it to reap the perks of using it as a daily use/debit card if you fly Southwest a lot, but we do not.
    Disney card has little to no perks other than 6 months interest free trip charges and some early releases for free dining.
    I also use They can send text messages or e-mails when prices drop for your selected flight. We went to Honolulu in 2009 based on a text I received from them saying AA was running a one-day sale at 67% off standard rates. It was a GREAT trip!
    You have to be careful with that website though because Spirit Airlines can skew the lowest price available.

  4. Amanda L-E says:

    I’m new to churning as well. I’ve done really well with collecting hotel points, but I haven’t gotten too far into airline miles because we don’t fly all that often (only 4-5 times per year) and I’m trying to decide which programs I should strive for status with. Have you ever been to one of the Frequent Traveler Universities or similar programs? There is one coming up near where I live in April and I’m thinking of going, but I’m trying to decide if it’s worth it. It might be helpful just to be in the same room as some of these bloggers to learn from them.

  5. Kirk J says:

    Thanks for the tip about ITA, just found a flight for our Christmas trip to Disneyland for about $100 less than what I almost booked yesterday! Also found a flight about $200 cheaper for a flight home for Thanksgiving! Love your website- thank you!

  6. mitch says:

    My wife and I have used the southwest airline credit card to score outrageous deals. We both signed up for the 2 free flights that totaled 100,000 points to share for travel. We used these points not only to fly round trip from long island to orlando, we had enough left over points to rent a car for eight days AND get tickets to universal studios and seaworld. For the price of two $69 annual fees, we got hooked up royally!

    Just discovered that we could get the southwest business credit card without actually owning a business and just using a social security number on the application instead of a tax ID number. Had to spend $1,000 in 3 months to get the 50,000 points this time, but my wife and I once again have scored 100,000 southwest points for the cost of two annual fees. It’s insane!

    Our travel is so cheap with this deal. No cost for flights. No cost for rental car. We even have enough left over for 3 nights at the Mariott. Between the credit card and renting DVC points or staying at Bonnet Creek (which is so nice we wonder why we’d ever stay anywhere else for the price) we can spend 7 nights in Disney World for less than $1,000 and visit the parks every day and eat at signature restaurants!

  7. Katie says:

    I recently read somewhere (of course, can’t remember where!) that you should clear your cache before searching for airfares–if the website doesn’t see a cookie (or however it works) and thinks that you’re looking for the first time (as opposed to visiting often but not booking) they may offer a better fare to hook you.

    We got great sign-up offers on the Disney visa ($200 giftcards x 4 accounts for the version without an annual fee) but we don’t use it regularly. We keep it for the little perks (the meet&greet + free photo in Epcot/DCA, mostly, but I think you also get 10% off purchases over $50 in some of the gift shops?).

  8. Joey says:

    I got the Disney Visa with a $200 Disney gift card after first purchase!

    Have you read anything about how churning can affect your credit score?

  9. Anthony says:

    The best way to find out how to save money is to actually learn from doing things on the road, you’ll figure it out eventually!

  10. amy says:

    The website for staying with people is, and it’s awesome if you like to meet people and really get a feel for the cities/countries you are visiting!

  11. amy says:

    The website for staying with people is, and it’s awesome if you like to meet people and really get a feel for the cities/countries you are visiting!

  12. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited this website before but after going through many of the posts I realized it’s new
    to me. Anyways, I’m certainly delighted I came across it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!

  13. stacie elliott says:

    We have had the southwest card for a little over 3 years. there is an annual fee of around $70 , but still we feel it is worth it. Our airport is 10 minutes from our house, and we can be to orlando in 3 hours nonstop with Southwest. Last year we put in a new kitchen and put all those expenditures on the card which was great for the points. In the past three years our family of four flew round trip to washington DC, and my two girls and I to florida twice, and are about to leave for the third time next week. I also flew to baltimore last summer for a wedding. didnt pay anything except the annual fee.


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