Most of us love to travel and would do far more of it if we had the finances (and ample vacation days!). Let’s face it — it’s hard to earn a living and save a chunk of change all while jet-setting on the regular. Hard, yes, but thankfully not impossible. “Travel is not a hobby reserved only for the wealthy,” says Byron Ellis, Certified Financial Planner with United Capital Financial Advisers. “Visiting other parts of the city, the country or the world doesn’t mean having to sell your car in order to afford time away.” It may take a lot of planning to find reasonably priced flights, accommodations, activities and excursions, but it can absolutely be done with the right amount of know-how. Here, experts share their best-kept secrets for balancing traveling and saving like a pro.
1. Accumulate Points via Credit Cards
There are tons of credit cards out there that can be used towards travel; however, it’s important not to let any balances creep up. “If you’re disciplined and understand the ‘game,’ you can really rack up a significant amount of points that can help you purchase flights, hotels and other travel related experiences, but this comes with a strong warning,” says Genti Cici, CFP, and founder and CEO of StandUp Advisors.
2. Create (And Stick To) a Travel Budget
Cici suggests counting up the number of vacations you want to have in the upcoming year (say one or two big ones plus a couple small mini-vacays) and establishing a projected cost for each one, including flights (if any), hotels, food, entertainment, etc. Next, she recommends dividing that number either monthly or per pay period and set that amount aside in a separate saving account apart from all other funds.
3. Travel During Off Seasons
While the weather and available attractions might not be ideal during this particular time of year in your designated destination, you can save some serious cash while still experiencing most of what it has to offer. Rates are lower, meals are often included and fewer travelers are around, says Suzanne Wheeler, certified financial transitionist and senior wealth advisor. She recommends signing up for travel rewards programs that provide points for airfare, hotels, etc., as well as email alerts on last-minute specials for airfare, hotels and all-inclusive packages.
4. Start Booking
This is the fun part! Start browsing flight options. “Be aware that some airlines, like Southwest, may only show up on their own site, so don’t be afraid to use a travel agent for complicated foreign travel,” says Ellis. “They may know of airlines that you can’t see and have access to consolidators that may be able to get you discounted seats.”
Next up, choose your lodging. Ellis has found that locally owned and operated accommodations are many times cheaper, full of personality and quirks and can give you the opportunity to get to know the locals. “Don’t be afraid to stay off the beaten path — pass up the brand-name big chains and go for an experience,” he adds.
When it comes to restaurants, consider selecting some in advance. For dining, Wheeler suggests looking to see where the locals eat and avoiding restaurants focused on tourists. “You can absorb the local flavor, meet local folks and pay a much lower price,” she says. “This can be especially fun when traveling out of the country.”
Ellis recommends staying away from guided tours as much as possible. “While a local guide can be a great way to learn about a new locale, when they add in the boxed lunch, souvenir cup and visit to a local gift shop the price can get pretty steep,” he says. “Instead, search for a local tour guide through the library or tourist association.”
You can also look for activities that are either free or don’t cost too much. “The fun of experiences doesn’t correlate with how much money you spend on it,” says Cici. “This is hard to get your head around, because we’re trained to believe that the more money we spend, the better it will be.”