Ways to Be a Frugal Traveler

By Maureen Shelly · April 20, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Ways to Be a Frugal Traveler

If you love to travel, chances are, you have your eyes open for good deals. Wouldn’t you like to get a hefty discount off the usual airfare rates? Sure. An upgrade from a standard hotel room to a junior suite with a terrace? But of course! And clever hacks that help your dollars go further whether you’re sipping a cocktail, signing up for a surfing class, or shopping? Yes, yes, and yes.

Being a frugal traveler can deliver those perks and pad your bank account. With a little research and knowledge of some insider tips and tricks, you can have a great experience on vacation and cut costs, too.

Want to be a more frugal traveler? To snag some bargains on your next trip, try these smart tactics.

Time Your Trip Right

One of the first steps in becoming a frugal traveler is picking a place where you want to go and can also afford to go. The good news is that no location is necessarily off-limits, as long as you can be flexible on the timing of your vacation.

While you’re not likely to get a great deal on a hotel on Cape Cod for Fourth of July weekend or a cheap flight to the Caribbean over Christmas, you may be able to score a sweet deal if you decide to go to either of those places during what is referred to as “shoulder season.”

The term “shoulder season” is used by professional travelers and agents around the world to denote the time in between busy seasons in any given destination.

It may be viewed as a less desirable time to visit by some travelers, but to the seasoned voyager, it’s often seen as the ideal time to go. Not only may you find better deals on flights, accommodations, and more, but you can also avoid the intense crowds you may encounter during the high season.

Take Mexico as an example. According to Frommer’s, Mexico’s high season begins around December 20, peaks over New Year’s, then winds down at the end in April.

If you plan a visit during this time, you can expect to pay a premium on just about everything, from your plane ticket to those tacos al pastor, as you’re competing with other travelers for space.

If you opt to visit just prior to this, say in November, or just after, in May or June, you will likely be able to find better deals. Since there will be fewer people around, you might be able to take excursions with smaller groups, get restaurant reservations at highly sought-after spots, and even luck out with a free room upgrade at your hotel.

Recommended: How Families Can Afford to Travel on Vacation

Find Flight Deals

One of the most expensive parts about traveling is the actual act of travel itself. While driving can sometimes be a cheaper mode of transportation, it might not be an option depending on the destination you have in mind.

But there are still ways you can save. Here are a couple of travel hacks that may help you get better deals on airfare.

Use the big travel sites. Sites like Expedia, Booking.com, and Kayak search multiple airlines for the best deals and can often offer you clever ways to lower your costs. For instance, they can tell you whether prices for your itinerary are likely to rise or fall in the near future. They can show you how much you can save if you are flexible with your dates or are willing to fly out of a nearby airport rather than your closest possible hub. For instance, if you’re Paris-bound from the New York City area, you might get a better deal departing from Newark, NJ, vs. JFK airport in the city itself.

What’s more, these sites sometimes offer clever hacks, such as flying outbound on one airline and back on another to save you cash. They can also keep you posted on new deals that become available on your route if you’re not ready to buy right away.

Sign up for email alerts. Some good news for busy travelers: There are other sources for flight pricing alerts beyond the big travel sites. For instance, if you are willing to subscribe to an email newsletter, you might try Next Vacay. It’s a website where users can input their destination, then simply wait for the site to send them daily emails with flight deals. You may also want to check out Skyscanner, which allows users to set alerts for price drops so you can strike when the iron is hot.

Some of these services will send you deals for both your destination and others in case you need a little inspiration. You may also want to download a few travel apps that will send you price alerts as well.

Work that airline credit card. If you have a preferred airline or airline network, you can earn points or miles with an airline credit card that can be applied to the cost of flights or help you snag upgrades.

Book at the right time. There used to be a rule that Tuesdays were the best (cheapest) day to go flight shopping, but a recent Google Flights study found that you won’t really save much that way, maybe just 1.9%.

However, you are likely to get a nice price if you purchase your ticket well in advance of your travel date (around three months for domestic travel and often six to 10 months for international) or else be spontaneous and book your flights last minute. And it is true that you are likely to save if your flights are on a midweek date or a Saturday; that can shave the price versus heading off on vacay on a Friday, along with everyone else.

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Score Deals on Accommodations

Ready to save on hotel costs on your next vacation? Try these smart tactics:

•   Hotels base prices on supply and demand, so when there is less demand (say, in shoulder season), prices tend to fall. Beyond the season, you can also try looking into checking in and out on less popular days.

If you can check in at a vacation destination on a Monday and out on a Friday, for instance, you may be able to save, since mid-week pricing can be cheaper than weekends.

•   Even if you’re booking at a travel site, it’s also a good idea to frequently check the website of any hotel you’re interested in staying at. There, they may announce different deals and sales. At the very least, you may be able to spot a free room upgrade or free breakfast.

•   It can also be wise to sign up for a travel credit card. These can help you earn points to apply to future travel and offer perks at your favorite hotel chain.

Entertain Yourself on a Frugal Vacation

While you’re traveling, you’re likely going to want to participate in activities. And you can likely find ways to save on those also.

In a new place, try googling a few free walking tours, which can give you a wonderful sense of a place without having to spend a dime (though it may be polite to tip your tour guide afterwards).

For cheap or discounted tickets to local attractions, consider checking out sites like Groupon, Airbnb Experiences, Meetup, and local tourism boards.

You may also want to ask your hotel front desk at check-in for tips on things to do and see. Hotels often have partnerships with area attractions and may be able to provide you with a discount.

For restaurants, it can be a bit harder to save, but if there’s one fancy place you’ve simply been dying to try, you can often save a fair amount by going for lunch rather than dinner.

Recommended: How to Balance the Urge to Travel and the Need to Save

Set a Travel Budget

Establishing a budget, and then starting to save for your vacation, can be a key part of the frugal traveler planning process. That’s because your budget can help determine not only where you can go, but what you can do while you are there.

A travel budget can help you to narrow down your choices and also make sure that you are able to enjoy your trip without having to worry that you are spending more than you can afford.

Below are some categories you may want to include in your budget:

Transportation costs: When budgeting for a trip, you’ll want to decide if you’re going to fly, drive, or take the train. For driving (perhaps you’re going to be touring some national parks), consider costs like gas and wear and tear on your car. If you don’t have a vehicle you can use, look for ways to save on renting a car, such as not picking it up at the airport but at a nearby location. You’ll need to account for taxes, insurance, and other related expenses. For flying, you’ll want to be sure to include ticket price, baggage fees, airport parking, and destination car rental or taxi.

Lodging: Accommodation costs can seem clear, but you’ll want to be sure to ask about any resort fees and taxes so you can add it to your budget.

Food: It can be a good idea to come up with a cost for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (including tips) for everyone you’re traveling with. If your hotel offers free breakfasts, you can put that cost towards another meal. Or maybe you’re renting an apartment and can cook while traveling. You’ll still need a grocery budget.

Activities: You’ll want to have a budget for daily activities and entertainment for each participant in your group. Many museums, for instance, can have steep entrance fees, so you may want to search ahead to see what likely costs are. If you’re planning a special outing, like a Jeep tour to see cave paintings in the Southwest, don’t forget to allow for a tip for the driver.

Extras: You never know when an emergency, a fun activity, or an unplanned happy hour will arise. Adding a buffer to your vacation budget can help you prepare for these extra expenses. You might also want to budget for travel insurance or see if your credit card travel insurance offers good coverage.

Once you add up all the costs, you can start saving up for your vacation. You could even create a secondary savings account titled “travel fund” so you’ll be even more excited to save.

The Takeaway

Vacations can be costly, especially if you’re traveling with a family. But with a little bit of research and advance planning, you may be able to significantly reduce the price of your next trip.

Simple frugal traveler tricks, like traveling off-peak, signing up for travel newsletters, booking your flight around two months ahead, and pre-scouting free and discounted local activities, can help you reduce costs without having to skimp on fun.

You can also make traveling more affordable by setting a budget, saving up for your trip in advance, and staying as close as possible to your spending plan while you are away.

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