Budget Travel Hacks: How To Travel Cheap

Everyone wants to go on holiday until they start crunching the numbers and realize it can cost thousands of dollars for two people to take a week-long vacation. Things get even pricier when you're planning an international trip because just the typical flight abroad from the U.S. alone will run you an average of $1,368 roundtrip. However, don't give up on all your dreams of exploring the world just yet. There are plenty of ways to avoid paying the "average" amount for an amazing adventure — especially when you utilize smart budget travel hacks. 

For example, did you know that flights tend to be the cheapest if you book them somewhere between five and a half to one and a half months before take-off? There are also many aspects of traveling to save money on, from flights and hotels to food and activities. Once you start playing with the numbers and testing out some of these budget travel hacks, it'll become clear that taking an unforgettable trip doesn't have to be nearly as expensive as you think.

Choose an affordable destination

The first decision you make as you're planning a trip is also one of the most crucial budget travel hacks — where are you going? Picking the right destination is the best way to save money while traveling. Some locations are delightfully affordable, while others are practically famous for being expensive. 

For example, a very extravagant trip to Thailand could cost as little as $600 per week, which includes transportation, food, activities, and accommodations (not including flights). On the other hand, just a quick two to three-day trip to France can cost up to $1,600 per traveler (excluding flights). Trying to have fun on a budget trip to France will obviously be a lot more challenging than the more affordable alternative of Thailand. This vast disparity in cost from place to place is why choosing the right destination for a budget trip is so crucial — it sets you up for an affordable time. The more bang for your buck, the better.

Bring plenty of snacks to the airport

Everyone knows that going through airport security with liquid of any kind is a complete no-go, but most solid food is surprisingly allowed. Bringing a bunch of yummy snacks to the airport will save you a lot of money right at the start of your trip by avoiding over-priced airport food. After all, even something as simple as a bag of chips or a candy bar can cost you an arm and a leg once you get to the gates. 

Some of the best TSA-approved snacks to bring to the airport include cheese and crackers, hummus with veggies, trail mix, sandwiches, and baked goods. Just try to avoid anything that's going to be too smelly or overly messy, and be considerate of fellow travelers. You can find a complete list of the food items that you're allowed to bring through airport security on the official TSA website. 

Fly on the right days and use the right price comparison websites

The most expensive part of traveling is almost always the flight, especially for international trips. Using price comparison websites, like Skyscanner or Google Flights, is a veteran budget travel hack that helps you find the cheapest possible deal for flights. All you need to do is input your dates of travel and origin and destination airports, and these sites spit out a full list of all the possible flights available from various airlines. Flight comparison websites provide a calendar to show which travel days will be the cheapest. Most also allow users to receive updates and alerts when prices change on designated flights. It's a low-effort way to save hundreds of dollars on travel. 

You should also consider what day of the week you choose to fly because it can completely change the price of your trip. The cheapest days of the week to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, depending on the month. Friday and Sunday are the priciest times for flights because they are the most common days to have off time from work. Additionally, flying out on the day of a major holiday can save you a bunch of money. Big-time celebrations like Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Eve tend to be some of the cheapest days to fly all year.

Overnight red-eye flights tend to be much cheaper

A red-eye flight takes place overnight and lands at its destination bright and early in the morning — usually leaving its passengers with blood-shot, sleepy eyes, hence the nickname. Booking a red-eye flight is the bane of many travelers' existence, which is precisely why it's the absolute cheapest way to travel since the demand for them is way lower. For travelers who think they can make it through, the red-eye flight is one of the most effective budget travel hacks out there. While taking a lengthy overnight flight can save you lots of cash, you need to prepare properly to survive the experience. 

First of all, make sure you pre-book an ideal sleeping seat next to the window because it'll allow you to rest more comfortably against the wall. Secondly, pack a little overnight bag in your carry-on with all your sleeping and toiletry essentials so you can do a bedtime and wake-up routine in the bathroom. While on the flight, try to avoid staring at screens for too long because it'll keep you awake and wear you down fast. 

Utilize smart packing hacking to travel with just a carry-on

Not only is a checked bag inconvenient to lug around and wait for after a long flight, but it also comes with a pretty hefty extra fee. Although some upgraded tickets include a checked bag, most airlines charge anywhere from $25 to $150 per checked bag, and the fee usually gets more expensive with every additional bag you check. It might not sound like that much money at first, but it adds up, and every penny counts when you're taking a budget trip. 

That's why utilizing your carry-on to its total capacity is so important as a budget traveler. There are a few essential packing hacks that can help you to accomplish this. For example, try rolling your clothes instead of folding them, stuffing your wardrobe into compressible packing cubes, planning your outfits in advance, and learning about the dimensions of your luggage to avoid overstuffing. 

Stay in a hostel or capsule hotel

The ultimate budget travel hack that can save you hundreds of dollars on accommodations is staying in a hostel or capsule hotel instead of a traditional hotel. A hostel is a low-cost place to stay where guests rent out a bed in a dorm-style space as opposed to having their own private room. On the other hand, capsule hotels are a more private type of hostel that was popularized in Japan for business travelers where guests stay in their own little nook or pod-style room. While the prices of hostels and capsule hotels vary from country to country, they tend to be the cheapest form of lodging, with costs ranging from as little as $3 per night in places like Cambodia to $75 per night in Boston, Massachusetts.

Besides the cheaper price tag, there are many other benefits to staying at a hostel or capsule hotel. Hostels typically have kitchen areas where guests are invited to prepare their own food, saving travelers even more money by skipping meals at expensive restaurants. Plus, hostels often organize affordable trips and activities for their guests. Lastly, hostels attract a lot of solo travelers from around the world, so it's the ideal way to meet new friends on a trip.

Visit destinations during their low seasons

A country or city's low season is the time of year when the destination receives the least visitors, often coinciding with the cheapest time to visit. Visiting during the low season can drastically decrease your spending on a vacation. However, the low season period changes depending on where you are visiting. You'll need to do a little research to figure out when this holy grail period for cheap travel takes place in your destination of choice. 

For example, the low season in New York City occurs from January through March because the winter weather is severe. Those months are also right after the rush of the holiday season. Alternatively, the low season in Australia, on the other side of the world, goes down from June through August as the weather gets cloudy and chilly during this period. Luckily, figuring out your destination's low-season months is as easy as a quick Google search.

Join free activities and visit free attractions

Most people assume that every single activity on their vacation will cost a bunch of money, but there are a surprising amount of free things to do when you're traveling. For instance, free walking tours are abundant in destinations across the world. These types of excursions are a perfect way to get a feel for a new city and learn about its background from a knowledgeable guide without paying an obscene price for an organized tour. 

You can find tons of free walking tours in hundreds of cities, from Dubai to New Orleans, on websites like Free Tours by Foot or GuruWalk. Just keep in mind that even though it's a free walking tour, your guide is still working hard and probably not earning that much money per hour. You should still give a tip anywhere from $5 to $20 for a free walking tour, depending on how thorough and enjoyable the experience was for you.

Museums can also be another fun, free activity on specific days of the month, week, or even all the time. In New York City, one of the most expensive cities on earth, there are over 20 museums that operate on a "pay what you wish" policy, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Other NYC cultural attractions are free at certain times, like the New York Botanical Gardens, which has no entry fee on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. 

Avoid overseas transaction payments

You've done all the planning for your international budget trip, and everything is going according to plan, but then you check your bank statement and realize you've been charged a troubling amount of money in unexpected fees. What happened here? That would be the pesky foreign transaction fee, which can be a killer for budget travelers. 

The average foreign transaction fee costs anywhere from 1 to 3% depending on the card provider, which can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars on a trip abroad when you're making big purchases on hotels and activities. That's why budget travelers should use cards with zero foreign transaction fees to completely eliminate this concern. For example, Capital One doesn't charge any fees for using your card in a foreign currency, and Discover also offers several different types of cards without a foreign transaction fee, like the Discover It Chrome and Cash Back cards. 

Use public transportation instead of taxis

Although many travelers are hesitant to hop on public transportation in a brand-new city, it's one of the most affordable and easiest ways to get around in many places. In the United States, taking taxis everywhere costs an average of $36.17 per ride, and it can quickly become an overwhelming amount of money when you're getting rides to restaurants, tourist attractions, and more. All it takes is a little bit of prior preparation, and you'll be riding the metro or buses like a pro — and spending way less money in the process. 

There are a few ways to ensure smooth travel on public transportation as a foreigner. Firstly, you can use an app like Google Maps to map out your transit route, as the app provides clear step-by-step instructions throughout the journey from start to finish. It includes the exact buses or trains you'd need to take, tells you when to get off, and even offers walking directions if you need to transfer stations. Another handy tip for riding public transportation in a new city is to ask employees around the station for help if you get confused along the way because sometimes all it takes is a local pointing out the right direction to make life a lot easier.

Invest in a good travel insurance plan

As the old saying goes, you must spend money to make money. It may seem counterintuitive to spend extra cash on purchasing a travel insurance plan as a budget traveler, but it can end up saving you way more in the long run. You simply never know what can happen when you're out on a trip to a faraway location. You could get hurt and need a trip to the hospital or even get your belongings stolen. Perhaps you'll need to cancel your vacation because you get sick or immediately need to return home during the trip for another emergency. 

In these cases, you'll be immensely grateful that you're covered by travel insurance instead of paying out of pocket on unforeseen issues. There are many options for travel insurance out there, but some of the most reliable providers include AXA Assistance, Allianz, and Travel Guard. You should also look into your credit card benefits because many provide travel insurance on purchases, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and the American Express Platinum Card. 

Use a VPN to find regional travel deals

A VPN is short-hand for a virtual private network, which encrypts your data to protect your internet privacy. While this is mainly used for security, VPNs can also act as a sneaky budget travel hack that saves you heaps of cash on things like booking flights and hotels. Many people don't realize that the prices of these typical travel purchases fluctuate depending on several factors, like the popularity of your proposed trip, changes in currency value, your exact location, and even your previous online activity. 

If you're purchasing a flight from a country like the United States, you'll likely be offered a way higher price than if you were located elsewhere. This is where the VPN steps in to save the day. If you set your VPN to a different location and clear your cookies, you'll often be presented with a much better deal because they won't be able to dig through your personal info. You can play around with the locations to find the cheapest possible price using this method.

Explore your credit card's reward points system

Most credit cards offer users rewards in the form of travel points or miles for spending money. Every dollar these people spend on their cards is transformed into points that can be traded to pay for flights, hotels, car rentals, and more. You can even earn up to five times the points with certain cards for spending on specific types of purchases, like restaurants, groceries, or travel expenses. 

Savvy travelers can use these cards to make their normal, everyday purchases and end up with enough rewards to pay for their entire roundtrip flight or even sometimes their whole dream vacation if they save up for a long enough time. Some of the most popular credit cards with great travel rewards are the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, and the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.

Use an eSim to avoid expensive roaming charges

Cellphone roaming fees are another considerable travel expense that many people forget about until it's too late. For example, the Verizon international TravelPass fee is $10 per day per phone, which can add up to a significant expense for trips longer than a week. Luckily, avoiding all those charges while traveling is super simple by using an eSim on your phone. An eSim is essentially a digital version of a SIM card that you can download to your phone in just a few minutes. 

There are lots of different eSim providers that can give you full phone and data access in a foreign country. You can find the best provider for your destination and the plan cost details on esimdb, a brilliant tool for comparing all the different options available. These plans last anywhere from a week to a month and usually cost less than your domestic phone provider. It's an extremely convenient and cost-effective budget travel hack. 

Eat where the locals do

Most travelers agree that restaurants gathered around major tourist attractions tend to have worse food for higher prices and should be avoided at all costs, especially if you are a budget traveler. Instead, opt to dine at the restaurants slightly out of the main tourist areas, particularly places popular with locals. This is where you will find the most authentic regional food for the cheapest possible prices. 

The best way to find these hidden culinary gems in a foreign destination ahead of time is by reading through Reddit forums and checking out Google Reviews from former diners. Once you arrive in town, you can stumble upon amazing eateries by just walking around to see which places are busy with a more local crowd, or you can ask for local recommendations from the staff at your accommodations. By employing all these methods, you're sure to find some delicious, affordable food on your vacation. 

Create a concrete budget before traveling

Without a doubt, the most fundamental travel hack to save money is to definitively outline your planned budget before embarking on the trip. According to a 2022 survey by GoBankingRates, over 33% of Americans accidentally spent more than they planned on their last trip. It's easy to get caught up in the "treat yourself" mentality when you're in the throes of an exciting vacation. One way you can steer clear of overspending on a trip is by creating this type of detailed budget and sticking to it. 

You can avoid the trap of overspending by mapping out each day of the trip and deciding exactly how much you're willing to spend in advance. Start creating your vacation budget by listing out every single thing you will need to buy before you leave, such as flights, accommodations, and travel insurance. With this baseline number in mind, fill in how much you plan to spend on other stuff like food, activities, transportation, souvenirs, and anything else you may need along the way. Now, you'll know exactly how much your trip should cost and have all the info necessary to stay within your budget. 

Consider a volunteer or work exchange

A budget travel hack that many people don't consider is exchanging hard work or volunteering for accommodations or food while traveling. It's actually a very popular method of travel and limiting expenses in many countries. This is an ideal solution for individuals who want to travel long-term for an affordable price and get to know the local culture a little more intimately while they do. 

While working on vacation might not sound like the most fun in the world, many volunteer opportunities are fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For example, you could learn how to build sustainable houses in Portugal, provide helpful assistance at a donkey sanctuary in Spain, or work on a family-run farm in Nepal. Travelers can find all different types of exciting volunteer and work exchange opportunities around the world by searching for their destination or desired job on websites like Workaway and Worldpackers.