Travel advice: How to have a fabulous vacation on a budget

Traveling around Thailand

Under normal circumstances I am not a budget kind of girl.  I prefer quality over quantity and think life is too short to settle for anything but the very best.  Thankfully, due to having the bestest dad ever, I’ve never had to even consider it.   Even when it comes to running a business, I prefer high profile clients who share the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed and can pay for my services accordingly.

But I am well aware that not everyone is as fortunate in their situations as I am.  My very own sister, who grew up with all the privileges I did, finds herself needing to constantly worry about how much things cost.  And if there is one thing I hate more than limiting yourself due to lack of resources, it’s denying yourself your dreams because you think you can’t afford them at all. Most people, including my business partner Alex, assume I know nothing about the way other people live (just as they assume I know nothing about sports).  Both are untrue.  After a recent conversation with my assistant and friend Harriet about how she didn’t think she could ever afford a fabulous vacation due to her entry level job and student loan payments, I realized how many people out there probably feel the same.  So here a few tips for traveling on a budget. Life is meant to be lived to the fullest, so don’t let anything get in your way!

Prioritize your search

The two most expensive parts of traveling are transportation and accommodations.  So the priorities are hotels and flights.  Both can be found at discounts, both can be gotten for free, and if you have to choose only one to focus on, base your decision on the trip you have in mind.  If the location isn’t very far but you plan on staying for several weeks, getting a good deal on hotels is more important. If you are planning an international trip to another continent, it might be the flight holding you back.

Points programs

Whether you are keeping an eye out for sales or trying to earn points toward free flights or nights, the first step is to sign up for as many points programs as possible.  This is not a time for personal preferences, this is a time to find the best deal possible, so sign up for every loyalty program you can think of and then see who has the best deals when you need them.  I even know someone who created a separate email account just for her travel programs so she can easily set aside time to go through all the email offers and compare, instead of alerts getting lost in her inbox amidst other notifications.  Which means when you sign up remember to check the box for email alerts and offers.  You will get advanced notice of short term seasonal sales and promotional campaigns. That’s step one.

Promotions

Some people don’t bother signing up for points programs because the basic premise is earning free travel only after your spend a lot of money to travel with that company.  And while that may be how it started, there are so many other ways to earn points for free.  Most points programs have special promotions where you can sign up for dining and shopping, car rentals or sending flowers, and get 1000 to 2000 bonus points just for spending money you would have already spent on things you were already going to buy.  Considering that some airlines only require 60,000 to fly round trip from the US to Europe, this can add up fast.  Even better is when a program is looking to increase their members.   Then they have a referral promotion where you get additional points for every person you convince to sign up, with the maximum earning amount being one free round trip. So have your friends, family, and coworkers help you out at no cost to them, and  make that travel dream come true.

Credit Cards

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With the economy the way it is we should all be aware of the danger most young people face when it comes to racking up credit card debt. Yet at the same time, no credit can be as damaging as bad credit, and it can be difficult to obtain any credit without owning a car or a home. So it makes sense to have at least one credit card, as long as you are responsible with it, and if travel is your goal why not make it a points card? Every hotel and airline has at least one credit card affiliation where every dollar you spend using that card earns you points. Just make sure that you don’t charge anything to your card unless you have the cash to pay it off right away, and that you pay it within thirty days so you don’t earn any interest. Also, some of these cards have annual fees. They may be waived for the first year but make sure if you sign up you are prepared to pay it.

Now, if you’re only going to have one card, don’t sign up for the first one you see, or the airline you tend to fly the most. Shop around and compare. There are cards for specific hotels and airlines but they have partner programs so you can use those points in a variety of ways, and some simply earn you general points that can be transferred anywhere you choose. If you have one fantasy trip in mind pay attention to the one-time, initial sign up bonus. Though these cards are available year round, they host short term specials where they offer almost double the points for signing up. You only have one shot at this so get the best deal possible. To get the best deal possible go through every points card offer you get in the mail, check out websites like www.creditcards.com for the latest signup deals, and look to expert blogs like thepointsguy.com to find out about upcoming promotions.

A warning about airlines and international travel

Before you decide on an airline double check how they handle their taxes for tickets purchased with points.  For instance, any England based airline or any US owned airline flying in and out of England costs almost $600 in taxes round trip.  But a US owned airline flying in and out of France is only $100 round trip in taxes.  It may be cheaper to land in another location nearby and then look for low fare/ no frills local airlines, such as Ryanair and Easyjet in the UK, to travel from country to country.  Or if you are really short on time and money, try overnight high speed trains.  Sometimes cheaper than a hotel, you’ll wake up on the other side of the continent and train stations are closer to city centers then airports.  You could save yourself entire days that would be better spent enjoying your trip.

Third party providers

Almost everyone is aware of third party providers like Priceline and Expedia.  The basics of using them are pretty simple, and the deals can be incredible, but you can utilize them to their fullest potential by keeping a few things in mind.

First, if you look at the discounted hotels and airline section, the kind where they tell you the name of the airline or property, go to that company’s official site.  You might be able to get the same price yourself but with a larger selection of dates or times.

If you are bidding for the best discount at auction, start out extremely low and work your way up in small increments.  To stop you from doing this they try to give you only three attempts before you get locked out and have to wait before coming back.  But after your three attempts are up, have your friend go on, or sign in using a different email.  Don’t let them make you impatient and overbid.

If you want the deeper discounts but don’t like the fact that they won’t tell you which airline or hotel you got until after you pay, you can make an educated guess.  First look at their options for discounted hotels or airlines, the kind where they will tell you the name of the property or airline.  Make note of the location, star rating, or amount of layovers and then use those filters when making bids. This will be the pool that they are choosing from for the auctions.

Other alternatives

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Image from Groupon

If you prefer inclusive travel packages, check out discount sites like Livingsocial and Groupon. Both offer packages that might exclude airfare, but do include accommodations and all kinds of local activities and food options.  Or, if you are already a AAA member, they have both general discounts for all major hotels and airlines, tickets to shows and activities, and book packages as well.

If you want to explore alternatives to hotels you can try Ebay and Craigslist.  Ebay consistently offers bids for weeks at resort locations, usually timeshares that are going to expire and the owners can’t use themselves.  Craigslist, or any equivalent website commonly used to look for apartments to rent, has a section for sublets that can be rented nightly or weekly in popular cities and vacation destinations.

Last but not least

Whether you are using points or cash, keep your dates flexible when searching.  Some days in the week will be significantly lower than others.  And even a “cheap” trip can seem like a lot at first, so start saving now.  Make a separate savings account and put a potion of your paycheck every payday. Even just $100 a paycheck will add up to $2600, more then enough to see the world on a budget.  If lack of motivation and procrastination are one of your weak spots then give yourself a deadline.  Pick a date, even a year from now, a destination and your traveling companions.  Then, as soon as you have the points or the money, buy a major purchase like your roundtrip airfare or your hotel package. After that the trip will seem real, the dates will be set, and you will have a year worth of daydreams and excitement to look forwards to and work towards.

Bon voyage and happy traveling!

Emma

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