How to travel cheap: 19 tips for budget travelers

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You might be wondering how to travel cheap.

Growing up, my family’s idea of a vacation was taking a road trip to see relatives over the holidays. We simply couldn’t afford to splurge at Walt Disney World — let alone take a trip to somewhere like Europe.

I had no idea what I was missing. Don’t get me wrong: I love spending time with my family, but there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.

By the time I realized this, I was a broke journalist in my 20s. I barely had enough money to pay my rent and student loans. So how could I possibly come up with enough money to travel?

That’s when I became a budget traveler, and I discovered some of the cheapest ways to travel around the world.

Don’t let money problems stop you from traveling. Here are a few ways to travel cheap that can help you see the world on a budget.

19 of the cheapest ways to travel

Here are a few tips I learned along the way.

1. Pay with points

You’re smart enough to know money doesn’t grow on trees, but earning credit card points and miles may have you thinking otherwise.

Figure out how much money you regularly spend, and consider making those purchases on a travel card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, so that you have the potential to be rewarded with points and miles every time you swipe. You can redeem these rewards for airfare, hotels and other qualifying expenses.

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With cards that offer them, you can earn a lot of points upfront by qualifying for a sign-up bonus. Take note that if you’re relying on points and miles you earn through your regular purchases, it may take longer to save up enough rewards for your trip.

2. Redeem miles wisely

Typically, to get the most value out of your rewards, you should redeem them for expensive flights and hotels that could otherwise be out of reach, and use your credit card to pay for some of the cheaper expenses you encounter during your travels.

That’s what Stephanie Zito, cofounder of the Travel Hacking Cartel, did when trekking across Asia. She redeemed points for what would’ve otherwise been an expensive Cathay Pacific flight to Vietnam, paying for regional flights between neighboring countries on budget airlines.

Saving up points to redeem for the more expensive leg of a trip helps make the trip more affordable.

3. Fly with a budget airline

Speaking of budget airlines, they’re a great way to save money on regional flights — but only if you’re prepared to sacrifice a little comfort. Be ready to pack lightly and squeeze into the middle seat of a cramped row, because if you’re looking for better perks, budget airlines may hit you with a bunch of unexpected fees.

Would you prefer a window or aisle seat? It can cost more to select your seat, which also means you might end up paying more if you’re traveling with a group and want to sit together.

Traveling with a carry-on? You might be hit with bag fees, even if you don’t check your luggage. Just about the only thing you won’t be charged for is a small backpack or purse.

Hungry? Budget airlines differ in their policies, but you might be charged for a snack or meal that may be complimentary on traditional airlines.

What if you want to board early? Time to pay up.

That said, budget airlines can be one of the cheapest ways to travel, as long as you know how to avoid additional fees.

4. Want to score even cheaper flights?

You may want to subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights. This email newsletter alerts budget travelers when airlines hold sales or mistakenly lower their prices. In the past, Scott’s Cheap Flights has notified subscribers about amazing deals like a $260 flight from New York to Paris and a flight from San Francisco to Bali for $364. and are two more sites that may be able to help you find cheap flights.

5. Timing is everything

It’s typically easier to find cheap flights when your travel schedule is flexible.

Often, you’ll find the best deals when you travel in the middle of the week or take a red-eye flight overnight. If you’re prepared to face less-than-idyllic weather, you could save even more money on airfare and hotels by traveling during off-peak seasons.

It can also help to book early.

6. Don’t feel obligated to fly out of the nearest airport

You might save money by flying through less-convenient airports.

For example, if you live in Washington, D.C., you can often find cheaper tickets by flying out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport than, say, Reagan National Airport or Dulles International Airport. And if you’re visiting San Francisco, consider flying into Oakland International Airport, or if you’re visiting Oakland consider San Francisco International Airport — wherever the flight proves to be less expensive.

The key is to be flexible about where you fly, even if it means venturing away from your home airport a bit. Just make sure you factor in the cost of getting to and from the airport!

7. When you travel together, you can split the costs with your friends and family

There’s something to be said about solo travel.

But if you’re on a budget during your travels, you can split the costs of hotels and rental cars on trips with a small group of friends or family. So don’t be shy about squeezing into a small motel room or renting an entire home on Airbnb if it’s less expensive per person.

Optimal travel-party size may be about four people. Any more than that and the hotel might charge you for another room.

You should also be able to fit about four people in your rental car, depending on the type of car you rent.

8. Enjoy two vacations for the price of one

Couples who travel together may save even more by traveling with a companion ticket.

I earned the Southwest Companion Pass, after earning 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, and I used it to take my girlfriend along everywhere I flew for nearly two years. We paid around $5.60 in taxes and fees for each one-way flight for her. Keep in mind, you may have to pay more in taxes and fees depending on your flight.

If you’re interested in scoring buy-one-get-one-almost-free airfare, you should check out Credit Karma’s ranking of our favorite companion tickets.

Another way to get more bang for your buck? Book a stopover flight.

When we traveled to France, Iceland Air allowed us to spend a week in Iceland’s gorgeous Snæfellsnes Peninsula before heading to Paris. The ticket cost the same price as it would’ve if we flew straight there.

9. Take a road trip

You don’t need to own a car to take a road trip. I once carpooled from Munich to Prague with a bunch of strangers for only $20. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the safest decision. We all know that hitchhiking the old-fashioned way, by holding up your thumb, can be dangerous, because you don’t know who you’re getting in the car with.

You may be able to mitigate some of the risk by going through carpooling websites like BlaBlaCar, which not only connects you with other people who are traveling in the same direction, but also verifies drivers and riders. BlaBlaCar also offers a women’s only carpooling service. Of course, you should always do your due diligence before getting in the car with a stranger.

You could also look for car-transfer services that need to relocate rental cars that were dropped off somewhere other than where they were picked up. It’s a relatively new concept, so these services may not be available everywhere, but it’s worth looking into once you know where you’re traveling.

During a trip to New Zealand, Zito helped return a rental car for a steep discount through Transfercar.

“I paid $5 a day to rent a camper van, because I drove the opposite way as the rest of the tourists and helped to relocate the van back to its rental location,” she explains.

Whether you drive your own car, rent a vehicle or carpool with friends, hitting the open road may be cheaper than flying, and you may be able to save even more money with a gas rewards credit card.

10. Ride the bus

Riding the bus is generally cheaper than flying.

Traveling across Vietnam on a bus for only $5, hopping on and off the bus at different points along the roughly 922-mile journey between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi — a more scenic route like this could save you money.

If you’re traveling between nearby cities, riding a bus may also be faster and more convenient than flying once you consider factors like airport location and stopovers.

11. Skip the taxi stand

You might save money with Uber or Lyft, but you’ll likely save even more if you opt to walk, bike or take public transportation around the city you’re visiting.

These are also great ways to see the city while you’re on vacation.

We recommend that you familiarize yourself with a city map and the public transportation routes so that you don’t get lost along the way. Be sure to do your research before heading to a new city to make sure the public transportation is safe for tourists.

12. Bring your own food

Instead of eating out for every meal, take time to pack a sandwich for lunch or cook dinner.

It helps if you’re staying at a hostel or Airbnb, where you have access to a kitchen. During our trip to Paris, we didn’t even need a kitchen, because the host offered croissants every morning for breakfast and leftovers for lunch.

Another trick? Zito recommends grabbing some food to-go from your hotel or an airport lounge. (Certain credit cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve® provide access to more than 1,000 lounges around the world after one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select.)

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13. Save money on travel insurance with a credit card

We hope you never need travel insurance, but if something goes wrong with your trip, you may be glad you have it.

Chase Sapphire Reserve® is one of our favorite credit cards offering complimentary travel insurance.

You can learn more about the different types of coverages these cards offer with Credit Karma’s guide to travel insurance. But make sure you check with your credit card issuer to understand which policies apply to you and how.

14. Find a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee

Credit card issuers sometimes charge foreign transaction fees on transactions made and processed in a foreign currency or passing through a foreign bank. The charge is a percentage of the amount of the transaction, typically 3%. So consider a credit card that doesn’t assess foreign transaction fees — you’ll thank us on your next international trip.

15. Avoid cellphone roaming fees

Savvy travelers often buy a SIM card from a local cellphone service provider when they arrive.

I switched to T-Mobile, which gives me unlimited data and text messaging in more than 140 countries for no additional cost. While T-Mobile has a reputation for spotty service in the U.S., it can provide great coverage in Europe.

16. Don’t waste your money on ATM fees

If you need cash, you’re better off using a debit card that refunds ATM-operator fees and doesn’t charge a foreign exchange transaction fee.

But don’t take out too much money at one time.

What to know about using debit cards for international travel

17. Take advantage of the strong U.S. dollar

It’s important to keep in mind this could change at any time if the value of the U.S. dollar declines.

Right now, your money will go further when traveling to countries like Mexico, Colombia and Indonesia, where the exchange rate is more favorable.

18. Study abroad

Traveling as a student is a great way to score sweet discounts on your trip.

If you’re visiting Europe, Eurail offers a discount on standard adult train passes for anyone 27 or younger. CheapOair also offers student discounts on flights. You could also apply for travel scholarships through organizations such as National Geographic and SYTA Youth Foundation.

19. Get a job (or volunteer) overseas

If you’ve already graduated or will soon graduate, you might want to consider finding a job in a country you want to visit. You could also find a job that allows you to work remotely.

Many volunteer programs also offer discounted housing in exchange for your help.

Bottom line

Traveling can be expensive.

But savvy travelers who are always on the lookout for a good deal can save money by following even just a few of these simple tips. Don’t worry, we won’t be offended if you don’t take every suggestion. Just pick a few of the ideas that resonate with you.

Every little bit helps.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.