HOW TO CUT THE COST OF TRAVEL - PART ONE: BEFORE YOUR TRIP
If there's one thing I get asked about the most, it's how I plan a trip and save money while doing so.
Understandable, my friends. You know I'm always happy to help you cool people.
And while I may not be a foremost expert, I have picked up several tips and tricks that have saved me thousands along the way. Yes, that's correct - thousands.
So today I am going to share with you how I PERSONALLY plan a trip, search for deals, and save money where I can. And funnily enough, I had no idea I had so much to say about the subject until I started writing it all out. Can you say information overload??
For that reason, I will be dividing this into two parts. This week we'll talk about what I do BEFORE a trip. Next week we'll discuss how I save money DURING a trip.
And I'm not going to lie - this post is kind of long, but it's good to read through it all at least once to get an understanding! Then when you're done, download the cheat sheet I've created for you. (Or you can go ahead and download it now, just below here.) Consider it my Cliff Notes of cheap travel. You're welcome.
Option #1: This is my absolute money saving go-to... TRAVEL POINTS!!
I honestly can't tell you the last time I paid for a flight. It's been literal YEARS since I have. (Ok, maybe I paid for two one-way Ryanair flights in Europe a couple years back, but they were like $25 each. That's it. I don't think that truly counts. I can't even leave a single trip to Target for that little amount of money.)
I don't pay for flights because my travel points have paid for all of them. International. Domestic. Doesn't matter.
If you haven't started playing the travel point game yet... what are you waiting for??
But even though I use travel points to pay for my flights, I still go through the process of Option #2 because I am a firm believer in travel deals and getting the most out of every single point. And if you don't use points, then Option #2 will still save you those dolla dolla bills y'all.
RELATED POST: How I Afford to Travel While Living on a Budget
Option #2: Research, baby.
Unfortunately, there's no magic wand to wave and POOF - instant travel deals. Airlines don't go shoving them in front of your face. You have to go searching for them, or at least have some help finding them.
The first thing I do is head to Google Flights and start playing around with dates and airport options. Flexibility is key here. If you don't have set dates you need to fly on, and are able to use other airports to fly in/out of, you could save a lot of money.
And if possible, try to fly out during the week. Unless I am using specific airline award miles to purchase flights, I always fly out on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or sometimes a Thursday. Those days are usually cheaper more times than not.
Once I start getting ideas of when I can afford to travel from the info I find on Google Flights, I do some more digging on Momendo.com. I also go to the airline's website itself. Believe it or not, sometimes they are the cheapest option.
And need an extra set of eyes to help you find some deals? I trust Scott's Cheap Flights for finding AMAZING international deals (they helped me score a round-trip flight from Denver > London > Reykjavik > Denver for an incredible $372 total. Not even kidding).
Also, download the app Hopper. If you're unsure if you should buy your flights now or if you should wait, this little app will be your new best friend.
Avoid airline fees
If you're traveling internationally, you're likely going to have a free checked bag (one per person). Easy peasy. However, if you're traveling domestically, that's probably not the case. Or if you think you're getting an amazing price on an economy ticket, you could be locking yourself into a very minimalist situation without realizing it.
READ THE FINE PRINT BEFORE PURCHASING YOUR TICKETS!
The least amount you will pay for a checked bag is $25 per person one-way. That means a family of four can expect to add an additional $200 for baggage alone! Absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary. You may as well walk up to the ticket counter and bend over.
Fly carry-on only. It can be done, trust me. I've done it. And if I can do it... the queen of over-packing... anyone can do it. It's amazing what a little stubbornness can accomplish.
Or you can throw your money at the airlines. Your call.
I recommend getting a travel credit card from the airline you prefer to fly with. My credit card gives me a free checked bag, priority boarding, club passes, and much more. Plus you earn travel points! That's a win no matter how you look at it.
You should also beware of "bargain" economy tickets. This is known as Basic Economy. They are commonplace on domestic flights and I hear are soon heading for international flights as well. Basic Economy will not give you a checked bag. No early seat selection. Many won't allow you to put items in the overhead compartments, the only space you're allowed is on the floor in front of you. No priority boarding. And some don't even include snacks.
Basically, you're paying for your seat and that's it. If you want any extras, you're going to be paying for it.
That's why I'm going to say it again - READ THE FINE PRINT BEFORE PURCHASING YOUR TICKETS!
Where to Stay
I am known for staying in really nice hotels when I travel (they don't call me Fancy Jen for nothing), BUT I never ever pay a lot for them. I refuse to.
And yes, I do use points to pay for the majority of my accommodations. Free airfare and hotels? It baffles me why more people haven't hopped on the points party bus. It's seriously good times.
When researching hotels, I always start searching for options by looking through highly ranked hotels by travelers on TripAdvisor. I mean, who better to get recommendations from than the people who have actually stayed there?? I also really like that travelers can post their own photos of the hotels. You don't only have to look at styled, pristine pictures from the properties. (It's kind of like taking the filters off all those Tinder profile photos. Boom.)
Then, I use Momendo.com and check the hotel websites to look for the best price. (Because just like with the airlines, hotels can sometimes offer cheaper prices directly through them.)
If possible, I also search for rooms that I don't have to pay for in full right away and/or have free cancellation. Sometimes these tend to be a teeny bit more in price, but think about it... if you need to cancel for any reason, the piece of mind is worth its weight in gold. However, if you know for certain you're going on your trip come hell or high water, paying in full can save you a bit of money. That's up to you.
RELATED POST: 5 Reasons Every Girl Should Travel Solo... at Least Once
But depending on your particular needs and how many people you are traveling with, your accommodation hunt will change up a little. It's not a one-size-fits-all type deal. Here's what I suggest based on my own experience...
Solo Travelers: Many hotels have single traveler rooms, meaning they are big enough for one person - and they are CHEAP!! This has been my go-to when traveling solo to Europe, and I tend to find them at super cool boutique hotels. Think of them as the fun-sized version of your favorite snack - it's just the right size for you! Why pay for a bigger room? If you're anything like me, you're not in the room a lot anyway.
Families or Big Groups: If you're traveling with a lot of people, the best option is skipping the hotel and renting an Airbnb. There's no way in the world you want to be on top of each other all the time, which is exactly what would happen in a hotel. Having an apartment to yourselves will give you a communal space, a kitchen to cook your own food in (which also saves money!), and then a bedroom to escape to every night. Airbnb's tend to be cheaper than getting a hotel room for many, and if you're traveling with friends, splitting the cost makes it an even better financial option.
Couples: Quite honestly, you guys can do whatever the hell your hearts desires. Depending on the location you want and the amenities you need, a hotel or an Airbnb could work equally well for you.
I always always exchange currency before I leave on any international trip. No matter what, you're going to pay an exchange fee, however the goal is to pay as little of a fee as possible.
Your best bet is your personal bank, or at least another major bank in town. Most of these banks will have the currency in hand and can exchange on the spot. However if they don't, make sure to give them enough time to order what you need.
Airport exchange kiosks will charge a much higher fee. Most of them will rip you off. They will straight look you in the eye and rip you off. Don't use them. Just don't.
Also, you'll likely pay more to exchange currency once you're overseas. A lot of them know you have no other choice and will jack their rates up. Just avoid it if you can.
It's best to use cash or a bank card when paying for your currency. If you use a credit card, your credit card company may charge you a cash advance fee. The bank may even charge an added fee for using a credit card. So even if you're getting the best exchange rate, the added fees will blow that deal out of the water.
This might not seem like a big deal, but I assure you it's important, because I mean - food!
You wouldn't believe how quickly the cost of food adds up! It's something you don't think about because a little bit here and a little bit there doesn't seem like much, but add it up. It's a bit more than chump change.
Before you head out, go to the grocery store or hit the local Costco. Buy a bunch of your favorite travel snacks, then stuff them into your carry-on and your suitcase.
Airport food is pricey. Airline food is lack-luster. And I guarantee you're going to get the munchies when you're sitting in your hotel room at night! Having food on hand is both convenient and economical.
Not to mention it's tasty.
Bonus Tip: Be prepared to take your snacks out of your carry-on when going through TSA. It's becoming commonplace to have your snacks scan through the x-ray machine separately. There's a whole host of reasons for this, and they're good ones. Just plan enough time to get through security and go with it. It's not the end of the world. Promise.
P.S. What else do you do to save money? Share your tips with the group!
Also, check back next week to read up on Part two... ways to save money during your trip!