Credit card tips for the budget traveler (plus the 6 best places to travel for cheap)

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In a Nutshell

Choosing the right budget travel destination can be an easy way to save money, avoid crowds and relax in style. When you pair the perfect location with credit card rewards, you might be able to put together the vacation of your dreams for a fraction of the typical price.

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Between paying for the flight, booking accommodations, buying food and splurging on entertainment, the price of vacationing can add up.

A 2018 Travel Trends study by AARP found that Americans surveyed plan to spend an average $6,210 on travel this year. That might seem like a lot, but research by the Journal of Occupational Health suggests that vacationers are getting something in return: positive effects on their health and well-being.

But there’s a catch. A study published in Applied Research Quality Life found that vacationers surveyed are more likely to experience a happiness boost if the trip was relaxing. According to the study, vacations that involve a lot of stress and anxiety — due to say culture shock or homesickness — can actually lower the vacationer’s post-trip happiness. That means it’s critical to choose the right destination for you and plan ahead. And while the study admits there’s no proven direct connection between vacation stress and post-vacation happiness, there may still be value in planning the best (and least stressful) vacation for you.

Before we talk about our best budget travel destinations, let’s look at one key way you can alleviate stress on vacation: utilizing credit card rewards.

Some of our favorite travel rewards cards

Best for flexible travel rewards Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Simple rewards program with no annual fee Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Great for hotel rewards Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
Flexible redemption with no annual fee Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

What is the best way to use credit card rewards for budget travel?

Credit card rewards are incentives offered by credit issuers that are often used to encourage consumers to sign up and become loyal customers. Rewards can also be an excellent way to reduce travel expenses.

Here are a few popular card types for using credit card rewards for budget travel.

What to consider before you pick out a travel rewards credit card

Travel rewards expert Lee Huffman, BaldThoughts.com, suggests first knowing where you’d like to vacation when thinking about credit card rewards.

“For example,” Huffman says, “if you want to travel to Asia, then you want to make sure that you have credit card rewards that can be redeemed for international flights.”

And your destination isn’t the only factor to keep in mind. It’s also helpful to determine the type of traveler you are. Once you know that, it can be easier to choose the best rewards credit card for you.

Huffman points out that co-branded credit cards, for airlines or hotels, have their benefits, but you may be better off with a cash back card if special prices or “error fares” are available.

In theory, you could also take advantage of error fares using an airline rewards card, but you’d only get rewarded if your card matched the airline that had the error fare. Which is why a cash back card (which isn’t tied to any specific airline) could offer you more flexibility.

“[Cash back cards] can also provide more flexibility in terms of paying for additional travel-related expenses like restaurants,” Huffman says.

Regardless of the type of card you choose, it’s smart to plan ahead, accumulate points and determine your destination.

Once you have your plans set and your chosen rewards card in hand, here are the top budget travel destinations to consider.


At a glance: 6 of the best budget travel destinations

Morocco Great for a group trip — desert, city and beach all in one
New Orleans Soak in culture and eat delicious food
Estonia Castles and charm for a fraction of the price of Western Europe
Guatemala Outdoor adventures and rugged natural beauty
Albania Relax on the beach for a fraction of the price of Greece
Las Vegas Party on the strip with friends or explore canyons and dams with family

1. Morocco

Located in Northern Africa, Morocco is a hidden gem that boasts cities, mountains and beaches within a few miles of one another. It’s a great destination for a group trip with friends or extended family. The best part? The prices.

Morocco can be very different from other parts of the world, according to Calvin Iverson, PR manager at TravelPirates.com. And, Iverson points out, haggling in the local markets is common.

“If you practice enough,” he says, “you can walk away with some impressive Moroccan souvenirs for a fraction of what they retail for in the U.S.”

If you’re unsure where to start, the cities of Marrakech or Fez are excellent options for budget travelers who are ready to dive into the local culture. In both cities, you can find budget accommodations in dorm rooms with shared bathrooms for as little as $8 per night. If you want to splurge a bit, midrange hotel accommodations can cost about $50 per night.

Delicious meals from the historic areas (or medinas) in each city can be found for under $5, and admission to local sights starts as low as about $1.

Travel rewards vs. cash back: How to choose the right card for you

2. New Orleans

Even though New Orleans is located in the United States, it can feel like a different country. It’s a one-of-a-kind city with its own unique culture. Also known as the Big Easy, New Orleans is a great destination for foodies, families or a group of friends.

“At TravelPirates, I’ve seen round-trip flights from many U.S. cities [to New Orleans] under $100, and the city has all kinds of affordable Airbnbs for those who would rather get a more authentic experience in this vibrant city,” Iverson says. “If you enjoy happy hour, keep an eye out for 3-for-1 drink specials on Bourbon Street, and then don’t forget to grab one of the city’s famous po’ boys.”

3. Estonia

If you’ve ever dreamed of spending time in Scandinavia, but balked at the expensiveness of cities like Oslo or Stockholm, then Estonia might be the destination for you. Even though Estonia is not considered part of Scandinavia, it has nearly the same Nordic charm and gorgeous scenery for a fraction of the price.

In a city like Tallinn, the capital, you can find budget accommodations in dorm rooms with shared bathrooms starting at $16 per night. Or if you want to experience the feel of European luxury, you can splurge on a five-star hotel for $150 to $250, depending on the month.

You can find a dinner for two in the Old Town for about $30. It’s not the cheapest on the list, but if you want the feel of Europe without the price, it’s a great choice. Luckily, some entertainment is free with guided walking tours that feature the country’s famous squares and stunning coastline. (Just note that it’s typically expected that you tip after these free walking tours.)

4. Guatemala

If you’re looking for outdoor adventures and untouched jungles, then Guatemala is an excellent option for both couples and families.

“Everyone loves Costa Rica, but as the country gets more popular, so can the price tag. If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, check out Guatemala,” advises Iverson.

Iverson’s found accommodations for as little as $13 a night, and we’ve seen some for even less.

FAST FACTS

How can I avoid foreign transaction fees?

Before traveling outside the country, you might want to check with your credit card provider about any foreign transaction fees associated with your card. The fees can range from a few cents to a few dollars, but luckily there are a few ways you can avoid (or at least reduce) foreign fees while traveling.

The easiest way to avoid extra credit card fees when making purchases outside the U.S. is to get a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

There are also a few more strategies you can use to help reduce your fees while abroad, including choosing the local currency and paying in cash. Get educated on foreign transaction fees before you go, and you may experience less hassle and free up time to enjoy your trip.

5. Albania

Located next to Greece, Albania offers similar pristine beaches and stunning landscapes as its neighboring country for a fraction of the price. With beaches for relaxing and castles for exploring, the cities of Saranda or Tirana are excellent options for family vacations, romantic getaways and group adventures.

You can find hotel accommodations for as little as $50 per night, a sit-down lunch or dinner at a charming local restaurant costs about $25 to $40 for two, and spending a day at the museum can cost only a few dollars.

“If you have the chance, hop on public transportation or grab an inexpensive taxi and get outside the city to explore the country’s national parks, fortresses and hiking trails,” Iverson says.

6. Las Vegas

Las Vegas has something for everyone. From partying on the strip with your best friends to taking a road trip to see the Grand Canyon with your kids — it’s a one-stop wonder.

“Las Vegas is famously inexpensive. I’ve seen round-trip flights from many U.S. cities for as little as $57, but the affordability doesn’t stop at flights alone,” Iverson says.

Hotels on the Las Vegas strip may run specials as well, particularly in the off season, to draw travelers. A December hotel booking on the strip, for example, could start as low as $38.

“Before you start planning, you’ll want to know which hotel chains are located at your travel destination,” Huffman says.

For example, if you’re headed to Las Vegas and have Hilton points, you’ll want to make sure that there is a Hilton hotel there (hint: there is).


Bottom line

Planning a vacation with your family and friends can be expensive, but choosing a budget travel destination and using credit card rewards are simple ways to help minimize the cost of travel and maximize the joy it can bring.

By choosing the destination first, thoroughly planning and utilizing credit card rewards, you can avoid crowds and relax in style while knowing that you scored the vacation of your dreams for what could be a fraction of the typical price.