To become a frugal traveler, there's one pivotal question you need to ask yourself. "What level of discomfort are you willing to experience?" asks Seth Kugel, author of the New York Times's Frugal Traveler blog. It's not just an inquiry into how likely you are to sacrifice plush hotels for hostel beds. It's a question of how much mental discomfort you can handle. It's about your willingness to use public transportation instead of hailing a cab, eating from street vendors instead of at four-star eateries, and haggling for the lowest price. The more discomfort you can handle, the less you need to spend. Let's take a look at a few surprisingly comfortable ways to save on your next trip.
Transportation is always going to be comparatively pricey, but there are still simple ways to find savings on this unavoidable travel expense. Sites like Kayak.com, Expedia.com, Orbitz.com and other travel agency Web sites are good jumping off points for determining a trip itinerary, but you can often negotiate lower rates by contacting the services and booking individually. Booking flights and hotels directly can also eliminate transaction fees, which can be as much as $12 [source: Consumer Reports].
For international flights, do a Web search to find your destination country's budget air carriers, which typically offer lower rates than national airlines, but often go unlisted on American travel agency Web sites. Sign up for a service like Airfarewatchdog.com, which sends e-mail alerts for deals on specific flight itineraries, which can help you find the lowest fares to your desired destination. If you're flexible on the dates and destinations of your trip, airline carriers offer discounted flights and special packages to their e-mail list subscribers. If you need to rent a car, use a service like Autoslash.com, a site that tracks discounts for automobile rentals and automatically rebooks your reservation if the price drops.
Upon arrival, use a nontraditional lodging option to cut expenses. Couchsurfing.org is a networking service that started in 2004 to connect travelers with residents in destinations around the world, who accommodate them in their homes at no charge. Hostelworld.com lists the availability in hostels as well as private apartment rentals, bed and breakfast vacancies, campsites, and other options. You could also consider a home exchange, in which you trade stays in homes with another person.
Let's talk about a few ways to find the perfect budget travel destination.
Options for Low-cost Travel Destinations
Frugal travel is a relative term: A ski vacation in Switzerland is probably going to cost more than tramping through Bolivia, for example. So, before your trip, research your destination and post on forums to get specific advice on how much you can expect to spend in a certain destination before you book the trip.
One money-saving strategy involves finding a less-expensive alternative to a quintessential travel destination. Many vacation destinations offer special packages or deals in the off-season or shoulder seasons. Try booking a ski trip as the temperatures start to warm, or take a Caribbean vacation during the hurricane-stricken autumn.
Regions recovering from political strife, natural disasters and economic turmoil can also be sites for cheap travel. Kugel suggests considering areas whose notorious reputations are outdated. Colombia, for example, is decades removed from its epidemic of drug violence, and there are still regions of Mexico far removed from the drug violence of the northern border. (Safety is more important than keeping a fat wallet, of course, so don't travel alone in high-risk areas.)
For perennial low-cost travel destinations, look to Central America, Southeast Asia and India. And while exchange rate isn't everything, traveling in countries with a local currency stronger than the dollar is almost certainly going to be more expensive. But beyond the core expenses of transportation, lodging and food, nearly every expense is discretionary. "There's at least two days of free stuff to do in every city in the world," Kugel says. Ask about discounts wherever you go. But unless you're traveling on a shoestring for its own sake, make sure to budget for the activities you truly want to experience. "If you love theater and you go to New York City, you should go to a Broadway show," Kugel says.
Click ahead to find out which mode of travel is the cheapest way to reach your destination.
Is it cheaper to take a plane, train, car or bus?
Determining whether it's cheaper to take a plane, train or bus depends on numerous variables. How far are you traveling? Are you traveling alone or with the whole family? What's your car's gas mileage? Are you booking your flight in advance during the off-season, or are you booking a last-minute trip on a busy travel day?
The cheapest mode of travel depends on where you're going and who is traveling with you. For the solo traveler journeying long distances, airplanes are typically the most affordable option, while driving is the least economical. Let's say you're traveling the roughly 2,800 miles (4,506.2 kilometers) between New York and Los Angeles in your own car, which gets about 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) to the gallon. Assuming you're paying an average of $3.50 for each gallon of gas throughout the entire trip, the one-way cost of driving this distance comes out to $490. According to Expedia.com, a one-way, economy-class flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport booked for March 5, 2012, costs $151.76. Meanwhile, the cost of traveling by train from New York's Penn Station to Los Angeles' Union Station, costs $208, according to Amtrak.com.
But driving becomes more economical once you add on multiple passengers. Let's say you're making the same one-way trip in the same car, but this time you're driving with your spouse and two children. The one-way cost of driving remains the same $490 sum. But according to Expedia.com, the cost of the same flight for four people turns out to be about $614.24 altogether. Taking an Amtrak train with the same family of four costs $624.
However, each mode of transportation has drawbacks that muddy the picture. The extra funds required for tolls, hotels, food and other expenses incurred while driving over long distances can eliminate any savings easily. Air and train passengers may have to pay baggage fees and account for the cost of transportation to and from the airport. And upon arrival, non-driving travelers might also have to purchase a rental car, the cost of which can vary widely by region: According to the New York Times, a customer might pay nearly half as much for a rental car in Los Angeles as they might in New York City [source: Stellin].
Should you buy that extra collision coverage on your rental car? Read on and find out.
Tips for Becoming a Frugal Traveler
Here are seven tips that could help you spend less on your next trip:
- [b]Before you embark on a trip to an unknown land, ask your friends, family members, and social media buddies if they know anyone in your destination. They can clue you in on affordable transportation, places to eat and sightseeing opportunities that are light on the wallet. If you come up empty, sites like Couchsurfing.org are also effective ways to contact people and tap into the expertise of those who know their cities and want to accommodate travelers.
- In general, the cheapest flights depart early in the morning and late at night, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays are traditionally the cheapest days to fly [source: Icklan]. Conversely, Saturdays are the most expensive days for international travel, and Sundays are the most expensive for domestic travel [source: Consumer Reports].
- If you're visiting a major city, you can typically save some money by flying to a smaller airport a little farther away. For example, if you're flying to Los Angeles, try booking your trip for Long Beach Airport instead of Los Angeles International Airport [source: Fox].
- You might be able to find a lower rate simply by using a different Web browser. According to a 2011 Consumer Reports experiment, searching for the same itinerary on Expedia.com using Firefox yielded a $718 savings over booking the same trip with Safari. Additionally, some sites can cause the lowest ticket fares to vanish if you check a particular flight more than once -- deleting your browser's cookies may prevent this [source: Baderinwa].
- Call your auto insurance agent before you purchase extra collision coverage on your rental. It's possible that you're already covered [source: Consumer Reports].
- Instead of going out to eat every night, buy your meals from local markets, or ask locals for cheap places to eat. Carry snacks at all times: Seth Kugel notes that when you're hungry in a new place, you're most likely to eat at the first restaurant you see, regardless of how much it costs.
- Use your credit card to pay for your travels. According to Consumer Reports, the Fair Credit Billing Act limits your responsibility for unauthorized credit card charges to $50, a protection not available for cash, debit cards and checks [source: Consumer Reports]. However, make sure you have enough money saved up to pay off the balance for your trip upon your return and avoid interest charges.
While money is obviously a huge factor when you're exploring an unknown corner of the world, it's important to enjoy yourself and gain new experience. If you plan ahead and make some good choices, money will hardly be on your mind. For lots more information on travel and budgeting, see the links on the next page.
- Associated Press. "To Fly or Drive: Which is Cheaper?" MSN.com. (Nov. 25, 2011) http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/TravelForLess/to-fly-or-drive-which-is-cheaper.aspx
- Baderinwa, Sade. "Consumer Reports: Travel-site gotchas." WABC. Feb. 8, 2011. (Nov. 24, 2011) http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/consumer&id=7944923
- Consumer Reports. "Cheap Travel: 10 Ways to Save." January 2009. (Nov. 24, 2011) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/travel/planning-a-trip/overview/planning-a-trip-ov.htm
- Costello, Caroline. "The 7 Cheapest Ways to Travel." MSNBC.com. Mar. 10, 2009. (Nov. 23, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29557424/ns/travel-travel_tips/t/cheapest-ways-travel/#.TtvxWEoRa9R
- Dooling, Annemarie. "2011's Cheap Travel Destinations: Go Big on a Budget." AOL Travel News. Feb. 16, 2011. (Nov. 24, 2011) http://news.travel.aol.com/budget/2011s-cheap-travel-destinations-go-big-on-a-budget/
- Fox, Porter. "Cheap Flights." Outsideonline.com. July 18, 2011. (Nov. 25, 2011) http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/adventure-travel/cheap-flights.html
- Gross, Matt. "Research: The Traveler's Best Friend." NYTimes.com. May 6, 2009. (Nov. 25) http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/research-the-travelers-best-friend/
- Gross, Matt. "Three Things I've Learned About Frugal Travel (and the Things I Didn't Do)." NYTimes.com. May 25, 2010. (Nov. 25, 2011) http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/three-things-ive-learned-about-frugal-travel-and-the-things-i-didnt-do/
- Gross, Matt. "Trailing Disasters: Savings, but at What Price?" NYTimes.com. Apr. 27, 2010. (Nov. 25, 2011) http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/trailing-disasters-savings-but-at-what-price/
- Icklan, Jennifer. "Tips on Finding Cheaper Airfares." CNN Money. May 16, 2011. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://money.cnn.com/2011/05/16/pf/saving/Fly_for_less_this_summer
- Kugel, Seth. Author, Frugal Traveler blog. Personal interview. Nov. 30, 2011.
- National Public Radio. "Family Road Trip: The Cheapest Way to Travel." May 25, 2007. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10451415
- O'Neill, Sean. "10 Most Useful Travel Websites." Puget Travel. Sept. 1, 2011. (Nov. 23, 2011) http://www.budgettravel.com/feature/10-most-useful-travel-websites,7671/
- Stellin, Susan. "Rental Car Roulette." The New York Times. Sept. 12, 2011. (Nov. 25, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/business/97-in-new-york-but-40-in-las-vegas-making-sense-of-car-rentals.html?_r=1
- Wyckoff, Whitney Blair. "Nine Tips to Travel Cheap (but Not Stupid)." National Public Radio. Aug. 9, 2009. (Nov. 23, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111595511