How to travel MORE for LESS: Build Your Budget Travel Game Plan!

Modern Passenger airplane flight in sunset panorama

How do you do it?

I am frequently asked how I have managed to make travel such a consistent part of my day-to-day life. So I wanted to provide some tips for ways I have been able to accomplish this. Some sacrifices and compromises are necessary, and may not be for everyone. But I for one think they are well worth it! This is a long post – and that’s good news! It means there’s a lot of ways to save money on travel!

It really comes down to two obstacles: time and money. Often, people have plenty of one and not the other. Maybe you are retired or between jobs and have plenty of time, but money’s tight. Or maybe you have a very demanding job which pays you well but doesn’t allow you the time to enjoy it. Unfortunately, if you want to live a more nomadic lifestyle, it will probably require some compromises.

This may mean waiting until children are older, swapping jobs for one that allows more flexible scheduling, or passing on the big house, new car, and other luxury expenses to put money away for travel. But there are some easier solutions that may not turn you into a nomad overnight but could help you moving in that direction.

Los Angeles skyline with palm trees in the foreground

Los Angeles, California

Time can be your friend, or your enemy…

First, I’ll address the time issue. Life is short, and it’s up to us to make the most of that valuable, and all-too-limited commodity.  While that bigger paycheck is tempting, and could certainly help with travel, what good is it if it takes workaholic gymnastics to earn it and you don’t have time to enjoy it? There aren’t enough flex-time jobs out there – but they are out there. Jobs that allow telecommuting and/or setting your own schedule (like working monster hours the week before and after the trip so you can miss a week, or job sharing so you can take “turns”) are ideal for the aspiring nomad. If you are satisfied with your career and this is not an option for you, there are other ways to incorporate travel into your life in a bigger way. Take a look at what days you do have off. How many of those weekends or long weekends could be spent elsewhere? Think outside the box. Travel comes in many forms: long and short, close and far. And the world is more connected than ever. But what about all of those chores and errands you do over the weekend? Here’s where the compromise comes in. It may mean harder work the rest of the week – the job and all of these other things, to free up your weekend, or week if you work flex-time. (I can tell you first hand it’s worth it!)

Money matters.

As for the money issue – there are a number of ways to do more and save money doing it.

Here are some of my favorite ways to travel that save money:

  1. Road trips. Road trips force you to stay overnight on the way to your final destination (depending on distance), allowing you to see MORE, and that’s the idea. Not only is it cheaper than other ground transportation, it allows you more freedom. And compared with air travel it might cost you more depending on how many hotels you book along the way… BUT when you compare apples to apples – if you flew to all of those places you will be stopping at which one would have cost you more? And, obviously, the more people you are traveling with the greater the savings, since there are no individual tickets to buy! You may find some amazing surprises and hidden gems in places you never expected traveling this way.
  2. Cruises. Like long road trips, cruises allow you to visit multiple destinations. The difference? You have a floating “hotel” room throughout the trip. (No schlepping luggage once on board!) Many things are included, like meals and entertainment. And as for anything else, you can pre-pay practically everything now, which helps with eliminating the financial anxiety of unexpected expenses during travel. I don’t know about you, but that has been a concern of mine. I have found cruises to be an excellent value offering great peace of mind. Just don’t go “overboard” (pun intended!) on your spending on non-included shopping and other optional luxuries on the ship!
  3. Road trip to cruise port, then cruise! For the same reasons noted above! If your cruise port isn’t close by, consider road-tripping it!
  4. Seek out parking discounts. If you need to park and fly or park and cruise, research your options. The airports and cruise ports charge a premium for parking. A Google search for your airport or cruise port and “cheap parking” will yield you wallet-friendlier options with free shuttle service. Some hotels also offer cruise packages that provide parking. Google “hotel cruise package” and your port city for those.
  5. Don’t underestimate the value of more “local” travel. If you can’t afford a major trip, or your time is severely limited, see what your home city or state/province has to offer, or a neighboring one. You might be surprised what was in your backyard that you never knew about!
Fredericksburg Battlefield jpeg

Imagining history at a Civil War Battlefield, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Financial planning to facilitate travel.

Here are some of my favorite ways to facilitate saving for travel:

  1. Eliminate debt. Debt imprisons you. It forces you to work more hours to cover the bills (including interest), leaving you less time to travel, devours more of your paycheck (and, in some cases, most of your paycheck!), and cripples your ability to save for more travel. Sure, it’s nice to have a bigger house, newer car, and all of that cool stuff you can buy with credit cards. But the price is too high if travel is a priority for you. If you can (it may take time) pay those cards down to zero and save them for travel emergencies, or get travel reward cards to use for groceries, utilities, and gas that you have to pay for anyway and pay them off every single month. Big mortgages and car payments not only hinder your ability to travel, but put you at risk. So make more modest choices if you can. If a financial emergency comes up, and your home or transportation to work are at risk, travel will be the least of your concerns.
  2. This may seem obvious, but people don’t often implement it. Be more minimalist at home and save that money for travel. This is related to eliminating debt too. Smaller home, older car, going out less often at home… I have found that a smaller home has the added benefit of being more low-maintenance, which is more consistent with a nomadic lifestyle. Of course, with children you may need to wait to downsize these things. Look at your monthly bills and see if there is anything you wouldn’t miss. For example, I prefer video games at home to regular movie nights out. I can get unlimited (fun!) use out of that video game for the cost of a handful of one-time movie theater tickets. And I would rather go out to restaurants when I’m traveling than when I’m at home.
  3. Location over size in housing. I would rather have a smaller place closer to many destinations I’d like to visit than a bigger or more elaborate place that is more isolated. If you are in the market for a new place, are your “local” travel options abundant or scarce? This is even more important if your time is limited. I’ll be saving by getting a small condo… and increasing my travel options by purchasing in Florida (more to come on that in future blog posts!)

DISCOUNTED travel! Don’t pay full price, ever!

Here are my favorite ways to get DISCOUNTED travel!:

  1. Founders Card. This has been the number one most significant way I have been able to save on travel for the past several years. It is a selective program that requires application, but if you can get approved the value is endless. (Entrepreneurs and executives have the highest rate of acceptance). With this membership, I have annually been promoted to Total Rewards Diamond tier level, Hilton Honors Gold, and more. This year I was able to redeem for Marriott Rewards Gold. You can also get instant tier level upgrades on car rentals and airlines as well as discounts on many other travel and lifestyle products and services. There are also hotels that you can book directly from the Founders Card website for deep discounts. To give you an idea on how much I save with this card: I’ll give Total Rewards Diamond, at Caesar’s Entertainment casinos, as the first example. It takes 15,000 tier points to earn Diamond the “hard” way. How much casino play is that? One point for every $5 on slots and every $10 on video poker. Tables are variable, but it’s not any easier. I think the math is pretty clear here. The Total Rewards benefit alone pays for Founders Card several times over. Added bonus: Total Rewards is partnered with Wyndham, so your Diamond card automatically entitles you to Diamond tier level with Wyndham hotels, too. You also get a 4 night free stay at Atlantis in the Bahamas, a $100 celebration dinner every year, free valet, no resort fees, 20% discount on Norwegian cruises, and skipping all of the lines on Total Rewards Properties (skipping lines=priceless!) Another example: Hilton Honors Gold. This one requires 20 stays or 40 nights in one year at Hilton properties. But with no stays, I was already receiving the welcome gifts, free upgrades, and free $15 breakfasts at Hilton Garden Inn properties, for example. If I had to name the one thing that allowed me to save the most on travel, it would be Founder’s Card. To apply to join Founders Card, or get more information, visit Founders Card.founderscard
  2. AAA Membership. AAA has a membership fee, but is well worth the cost. My favorite thing about AAA is that I can get AAA discounts while still booking directly through my favorite hotel brand websites. It means I will earn rewards for my stay, while still getting the discount. Hotel websites like Hilton and Marriott have a “special rate” option with AAA listed. If I were to book through a travel website for a discount, like Expedia, I would not get credited through the hotel brand’s rewards program. The bonus with AAA is that I can also save on emergency road service (great peace of mind for long road trips), car repairs, and get free maps and other goodies. I have found AAA well worth it, and been a member for over two decades!aaa
  3. Costco Travel. Like AAA, use of this site requires membership. I consider the travel discounts, along with other benefits of the card (discounts on gas, groceries, and more), worth it. Car rental rates and theme park packages are especially advantageous on this site. Perks are often offered with cruise bookings, like on-board credits.costco
  4. Cruise line websites directly. A google search will get you to your desired cruise line’s website quickly. Many of the major cruise lines run promotions frequently. For example, the “Free at Sea” promotion through Norwegian is (at least as of this writing), very commonly found on their site, and it’s an outstanding offer that lets you choose from several coveted freebies. Best of all – even if you have a cruise voucher from a casino and aren’t paying for the cruise you are still eligible for the promotions on NCL (your results may vary here depending on cruise line.) I like to compare offers on the different cruise lines when I’m ready to book. You may still want to check one of the other resources listed here too for comparison.ncl
  5. Hotel Reward Programs. Google your hotel brand for the link to the rewards site where you can sign up for free. The perks you receive are based on your tier level, which increases depending on the number of stays you have purchased (or not, if you have Founders Card!) The “basic” level, at zero stays, usually has limited perks but will usually give you something, like free internet. As you increase in tier level you will start to see perks like free gifts at check in, free upgrades, premium internet, and free premium breakfasts.marriott
  6. Expedia and online travel sites for air travel and activities. As I previously mentioned, I don’t like these sites for hotel reservations because I cannot earn rewards through my loyalty programs. However, I have booked flights this way and still earned loyalty rewards from the airline. (Your results may vary depending on airline.) I have found that flight costs vary a lot more from airline to airline than hotel rooms of the same amenities category, and different airlines fly different routes, so I don’t necessarily want to stay “brand loyal” when it comes to flights. The ease of use on these sites is a plus too, especially if you need to book complicated open-jaw or multiple destination trips. Bear in mind you may need to make your seat reservation through the airline’s website or customer service number. Tourist attraction tickets can also be a good value on these sites.expedia
  7. BE CAREFUL with travel insurance. Some travel insurance offers are deceptively limited (ahem… Expedia… for example…). Many of them won’t pay except in EXTREME cases, particularly in the case of flights (read: documented death in immediate family or severe personal illness and nothing else!) Don’t expect them to necessarily pay because your transfer form of transportation didn’t arrive in time, work won’t let you go after all, or you made a mistake. There may be insurances that do cover this – although I’ve never encountered one, but make sure!
  8. Day Passes. These passes are available through online travel sites like Expedia, and direct through the pass vendors’ websites. Google “day pass” and your city for the vendor sites. They are available for many different cities, both in the U.S. and abroad. For one set price, you have access to many attractions to choose from. Sometimes the number of places you can visit for the duration of the pass is specified (you choose the places), or they are unlimited within the specified time frame. This can save you a great deal over purchasing tickets individually on-site, and they often include skipping the lines. The passes also frequently include transportation options to get you from place to place, like double-decker bus tours and water taxis!pass
  9. Groupon. This site offers a number of travel options, but where it really shines is with attraction tickets. You can often find cheap attraction tickets to theme parks and other tourist sites. Inventory changes frequently, so if you don’t find what you were looking for you may want to check back at a later time.groupon
  10. Casino Players Clubs. Aaaahhhh… my favorite way to cruise: with a FREE cruise voucher from a land-based casino where I had a free room and meal to go up and pick up the cruise voucher! My husband and I were offered 6 of these vouchers in one year. Do you have to play? Yes. Do you have to be a high roller? NO! You just have to play smart. (Disclaimer: if you choose to gamble, please play within your means and in moderation! If you play anyway, get rewarded for it!) So while you don’t need to be a high roller, you do need to be aware of something called your “ADT” or “average daily theoretical.” You aren’t rewarded on how much you play as much as how much you play on an average day you are there. This means: better to go less often and play more than go often and play less. DO NOT use your players card for comps at shops and restaurants, “small” play (like $20 on your way out), or even to check your balance on the kiosk on a day you are not playing. It triggers a new “trip” for the new day and hurts your ADT, leading to a reduction in your rewards. Spreading yourself too thin – playing at multiple casinos, hurts too so it’s good to settle on one, or at most two, brands. If you play the way that maximizes your ADT, the better rewards you can get, including cruise vouchers. (These are mailers I get which I respond to by calling to reserve the voucher and then traveling to the casino on the day of the offer to pick it up. You only pay port taxes and fees.) I also never pay for rooms and almost never pay for meals at the casino either. I’m partial to Total Rewards because of the Diamond upgrade I get from Founders Card and the huge number of locations to choose from. Caesar’s, Harrah’s, Bally’s, and Horseshoe are all brands within the Total Rewards family. If you are partial to a particular cruise line, Total Rewards gives Norwegian vouchers, Tropicana gives Carnival vouchers, and Resorts gives Princess vouchers. I can’t vouch for this first hand but others have told me MGM gives Royal Caribbean vouchers.TR
  11. Delta Skymiles Vacations and Cruises. I want to thank Mr Traveler on YouTube for this suggestion which I was not previously aware of. Delta is offering sweet perks for booking with them on travel arrangements besides air travel, and, as an added bonus, they will reward you miles in their Skymiles program for booking all kinds of travel with them.skymiles
  12. Demographic-specific discounts. Other groups that are often eligible for discounts include AARP members, members of the military (active and retired), students, and senior citizens. Always bring your ID cards (college ID, military ID, etc.) when you travel! These discounts are often available at attractions and are sometimes available on hotel rooms and transportation. For example, I typically save huge at museums with my student ID, such as a full year membership at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for $10!

If you have children…

If you have children, things are more challenging. I waited until my children were older to ramp up my travel ambitions. But here are some tips:

  1. Road Trips! With no individual tickets to buy, this is the cheapest way to travel with a larger group. Just remember – children are less patient with car rides. Plan frequent stops.
  2. Camping Trips. Camping is cheap, doesn’t charge by the person, and offers a lot of high-energy activities that are great for kids like hiking and swimming, as long as the adults can tolerate “roughing” it!
  3. Amusement Parks. Kids love amusement parks, and often you can find great deals on sites like Groupon. Sometimes you can find “rain check” tickets on Ebay too.
  4. Group Lodging. Some hotels charge a surcharge for extra people in the room. And most hotels have limits on how many people can sleep in the room, so it may not even be an option with a larger family. Rental cabins are a good solution.

Final thoughts…

Keep in mind, not all of these websites that offer discounts on multiple providers will offer every provider, so shop around. (For example, no Southwest Airlines on Expedia.) Finally, I have one more suggestion. A trip is only a good value if you have a positive experience! That’s why I often refer to Tripadvisor for reviews of hotels, restaurants, destinations, and more! Planning and researching ahead is critical to budget, and high value, travel!

I hope this post helps you save some money – and time – in your future travel ambitions! Next week: my series on my back-to-back cruise on the Carnival Pride will begin. I hope you will come along!

 

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