Traveling around the world and going on vacations is one of my favorite things to do with my family. But between the cost of the flights, lodging, and ground transportation, it can get pretty expensive quickly.
One study from American Express found that the average family of four spends roughly $4,580 to go on vacation. I can tell you from personal experience that if you like to eat out and do lots of activities while you’re in a new place, then that figure can go north pretty fast!
To keep our vacation budget under control, there are a few tricks that I’ve learned over the years to cut costs and even score free flights and hotel nights. Here are my favorite tips for how to travel for cheap.
When looking for the best travel options, the first thing you should be aware of is that it pays to shop around. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference it can make flying into one airport versus another, or staying at an Airbnb versus a hotel.
Sometimes there are even price differences depending on which travel sites you’re using. In the past, I’ve found some hotels to be discounted on one but not on others. It all depends on what kind of promotions the travel site or hotel is running at the time.
Generally, my first step in comparison shopping is to start with the flights. With a family of four, I know that $100 to $200 can make a huge difference in the bottom line.
My main go-to tool for airline ticket shopping is to use Google Flights. Google Flights lets you easily research multiple airports at once and look at how the price might fluctuate on certain days of the week. Ironically, I’ve found that increasing my vacation by one extra day will sometimes drop the plane tickets down by $1,000 or so.
Be Strategic in Your Timing
You might think that planning your vacation 12 months in advance should give you plenty of opportunities to scoop up the cheapest airline tickets and hotel bookings before they’re all gone. But unfortunately, that’s not always the best time to book your travels.
In a survey by CheapAir.com, they found that the best day to purchase domestic plane tickets was 76 days before your departure. Those who try to buy tickets 4 to 10 months before their flight will pay an average of $20 to $50 more per ticket.
The same scenario is also true if you wait until 3 weeks before your flight. You could be paying as much as $135 more for each ticket. The optimal prime booking window is 3 weeks to 4 months before you’d like to depart.
Hotels worked a little bit differently. Because establishments want to fill their rooms as much as possible, the absolute best discounts are offered within the 3 days before your arrival date. However, that’s a pretty gamble if you’re traveling with your family considering there might also not be any vacancies. The takeaway from this survey is to wait as long as you comfortably can.
Use Credit Card Points
One of my favorite travel hacks is to leverage my credit points as much as possible for travel. This is how I’ve taken dozens of free or discounted flights over the years, including the time we saved over $5,000 on flights to Hawaii.
Earning credit card points is very simple to do. The first way is to sign up for a new card with a generous introductory bonus and then meet a certain spending requirement. Generally, it’s something reasonable such as spending $4,000 within the first 3 months of opening the card. Once awarded, the cash equivalency of these promo bonuses can be anywhere from $500 to $1,500 depending on how you use them.
The other way to earn points is to regularly use your credit card for everyday shopping. Strategically make all of your normal transactions (gas, groceries, utilities, Amazon purchases, etc.) using your new credit card and you’ll usually receive somewhere between 1 to 5 points for every dollar spent.
The points you’ll receive may be specific only to the credit card company, or they could be tied to certain airlines and hotel brands. Either way, they can ultimately save you thousands of dollars on flights or stays with your favorite hotel provider.
If you’d like to find out more about which credit cards have the best points offers or how to leverage them for more value, then listen to this podcast from the guys at Choose FI.
Be Specific About Where You’d Like to Go
One thing you’ll notice very quickly about comparison shopping and looking for credit cards with travel points is that you’ll probably have more options to choose from than you care to consider. You’ll find deals for everything from trips to Las Vegas, Cancun, New York, and even Paris. It can all get overwhelming very quickly.
That’s why I recommend that before you get started, narrow down your search to a specific place you’d like to visit. For instance, if your goal is to go to Florida, then look at only airports and lodging that would be within 50 miles of the city you hope to visit.
Being more specific about your destination will also help you find better credit card opportunities. For instance, if you find there’s a Hilton hotel near where you’re going, then you could target a Hilton branded credit card that will offer you tens of thousands of points.
By narrowing down your search, you’ll have just enough flexibility to find great deals without wasting a lot of time looking at every deal available.
But Be Flexible on Other Aspects of the Travel
Not every part of your travel plans has to be specific. For instance, if you can be flexible about your travel dates, then you could potentially score some pretty cheap flights. Discount airlines like Spirit and Frontier always advertise cheap tickets if you book your travel within the next 2 to 3 months. Sign up for their rewards programs to get promo emails about deals.
The same is true for discount travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity too. I’ve booked hotel nights at luxury hotels in Las Vegas for as cheap as $35 per night. As long as you keep an open mind about your travel schedule and which hotels you’d like to stay at, then you’ll be able to jump on these types of deals when they come along.
Prepare Your Budget in Advance
No matter when or how you plan to travel, what will be helpful is having enough money set aside to cover your expenses when it happens. For this, a budgeting app like Buxfer can be useful.
Buxfer lets you set limits to each of your spending categories and then helps you keep track of your purchases in real-time. That gives you the ability to see where cuts can be made or which areas of your budget you may be overspending. Either way, the more money you save, the more you’re able to put towards your travel plans.
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