Everyone wants to pull a Julia Roberts and Eat, Pray, Love their way around the most gorgeous parts of the world. Alas, most of us aren’t working with her bank account, so millennials must find inventive ways to travel for cheap if they want to see the world without adding to their mountain of student loan debt. If all you can afford for dinner is Taco Bell but you still want to go on an adventure, here are tips for how millennials can travel for cheap—with some extra help and unique travel hacks from a few wanderlust experts.
Best Ways to Travel for Cheap
1. Visit a Local Grocery Store for Some of Your Meals
One of the biggest expenses when traveling is food, but there are absolutely shortcuts you can take. Rachelle Lucas, creator of The Travel Bite (winner of the USA Today 10 Best Travel & Food Bloggers and SAVEUR Blog Awards 2019 – Best Culinary Travel Blog Finalist) says, “Even if you’re in a hotel, typically there’s a little fridge you can store some things in, like yogurt and fruit for breakfast. Or some meats and cheeses for a little picnic. This will definitely save you money if you don’t eat out all the time, especially since hotel breakfasts are overpriced. And having a picnic dinner in a park will be memorable, too!”
Yes, enjoying the local food is part of the adventure—and eating street food can be both safe and a great way to travel for cheap—but you can still save decent cash if you eat some of your meals and snacks at your hotel/vacation rental.
2. Attend a Meetup at Your Destination
Not on Meetup? It’s time to create an account! Travel writer Reannon Muth tells Parade.com, “Meetup.com is a great resource for meeting new people, and it’s completely free to join. I like to use it while traveling because it allows me to meet up with locals while doing fun activities. This can help save money because instead of booking an expensive tour, you can just tag along with a Meetup instead and let the locals be your ‘tour guide’—and it won’t cost you a thing. I once tagged along with a Meetup when I visited the Grand Canyon, for example. I got a free ride to and from the Grand Canyon and got to camp for free with a fun group of people—and I even made some friends in the process.”
This is an excellent way to see all the best things your destination has to offer while saving big on your budget and traveling fo ra lot cheaper than you might expect. Win!
3. Avoid Smaller Expenses
While it’s wise to think of big costs like flights and boarding when trying to travel for cheap, don’t neglect the rest.
Michael Turtle, founder of Time Travel Turtle, explains, “A lot of travelers think they need to avoid big, expensive things to save money. But often, the best way to travel on a budget is to avoid the regular smaller expenses. Rather than spend a few dollars on a bus trip across the city, consider walking instead. (The bonus is that you’ll see more!) Instead of buying water when you’re out during the day, carry a bottle that you fill up along the way. (It’s also better for the environment.) When it’s time for lunch, look for a local restaurant that may include the coffee, drink, or dessert that you would’ve paid for anyway.”
Don’t dismiss how much these tiny expenses can really add up. “Each of these things might’ve cost you a few dollars otherwise, so it’s very easy to save more than a hundred dollars a week without compromising the enjoyment of your trip!”
4. Consider Off-Season Travel
“I personally love off-season travel anyway because it usually means sharing a destination with fewer people,” she says. “But traveling during non-popular times (like winter or the rainy season) also usually means cheaper flights and discounts on hotel rooms. Traveling during low season can sometimes mean less-ideal weather, but lower costs can usually outweigh that.”
This is why “comparison shopping” is so important. As you’re planning for your next getaway, play around with dates for your flight and accommodations. You might be surprised how much the rates fluctuate.
Related: How to Save Money for Travel
5. Find a Credit Card With a Decent Rewards Program
There’s one condition here: Only do this if you’re being financially responsible.
Lucas says, “If you’re fiscally responsible and pay off your credit cards monthly, do some research and find one with a rewards program that suits your travel needs. Typically, you can get your flights or hotel nights covered with rewards earned by everyday spending such as paying bills or filling your car with gas. But only do this if you pay off the card each month. It’s not worth going into debt to travel.”
Williams adds, “Most of these cards offer generous sign-up bonuses, too. I paid for flights for my husband and me to go to Aruba using points I earned from a credit card sign-up bonus. My biggest tip is to consider applying for a card like this well in advance of when you plan to travel since you usually don’t get the sign-up bonus points or miles right away.”
When used properly, credit cards can be not only helpful but a powerful resource to actually save you money later on down the road.
6. Book a Vacation Rental Instead of a Hotel
Try sites like VRBO or Airbnb, suggests Lucas. “The rates tend to be better, you get the feeling of ‘living like a local,’ and it typically includes things like a kitchen and a washer/dryer, which can help you save even more. For example, not getting charged extra baggage fees since you can do laundry. Or eating a few meals at the rental instead of eating out.”
And while we’re on the topic of Airbnb…
7. Avoid Booking Rentals in Touristy Areas
Everything is more expensive in the super popular areas, and that goes for your Airbnb, too.
“My other piece of advice is to book hotels, hostels, or Airbnbs in neighborhoods where the locals live instead of in the touristy areas,” says Muth. “This will not only save you a lot of money, but it’ll also give you a more authentic travel experience. When I traveled to Cancun, for example, I avoided the all-inclusive beachfront resorts and stayed in a hostel downtown. It only cost $4 a night! Plus, I got to see another side of Cancun that I think a lot of tourists miss out on.”
8. Be Realistic About Where Your Budget Can Take You
When finding ways to travel cheap, we all need to be realistic about where our current travel funds can take us.
“Traveling on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to travel ‘cheap,’ but it does mean that you need to be realistic about how much a trip will cost,” says Williams. “If your budget is $500 for a weekend getaway, you’re probably going to want to choose somewhere closer to home that you can easily drive to, as opposed to dreaming about flying to Hawaii or Europe. Before deciding on a destination, set your budget and do a little research into how far that budget can realistically take you so you’re not stressing about money the whole time or sacrificing parts of your trip. (Eating ketchup crackers and ramen noodles may have been acceptable in college, but it’s not as much fun when you’re supposed to be on vacation.)”
That said, keep in mind that a budget round-the-world trip can be more affordable than many assume (coming in at about $20,000 for a year). Long-term travel—trips that last a month or longer—average out your big-ticket expenses like plane tickets across a longer period of time, according to Shannon O’Donnell, creator of A Little Adrift and former National Geographic Traveler of the Year. “You still need to pick your destination wisely—spending extra time in Scandinavia, for example, is expensive no matter what you do—but if you’ve saved $2,000 for a vacation, that might net you 10 days in Europe, or a month or more in Mexico or Central America,” says O’Donnell.
And if you’re able to make money online and work remotely, that makes the value proposition of staying longer an even better deal for those looking for ways to travel for cheap.
9. Don’t Book Flights Too Far in Advance
“Let’s save money!” I exclaim, booking a flight two years before the trip is scheduled. Not so fast.
“They say 54 days out is the ‘magic number,’” reveals Muth. And I think she’s onto something. I did a little homework and CheapAir’s annual airfare study of 2017 indeed said 54 days out is the sweet spot for domestic flights in the continental United States. To be clear, that number went up to 70 days the following year.
The takeaway? Don’t book flights too early on.
10. “Miss” Your Flight
Listen, I’m not encouraging you to lie, but…
If you really like living on the edge and you’re feeling brave, Muth also passes along a very interesting resource on how you can “skip” flights to save money. “I haven’t tried this personally but I’ve had friends who swear by this,” she adds.
Basically, instead of booking a flight straight to your destination, you book a flight with a connection through your destination, and then you hop off there and “miss” (read: skip) the last leg of the flight. People do this because it’s supposedly cheaper than flying directly to your destination.
Tread carefully and do your research! This can get especially tricky if you’ve got checked bags.
11. Travel Closer to Home
“If you’re really strapped for money and can’t conceivably save up a ton, consider a micro-trip, or a ‘small-cation’ much closer to home,” suggests Williams. “This could be a day trip or an overnight trip that doesn’t require a flight—it could even be a ‘staycation’ in your own town! The main idea is to go out and do something new or different, but there’s no rule saying that you have to travel far to do that.”
Don’t think that just because you aren’t going far away means you won’t experience something new and incredible. “My husband and I have taken several small trips like this,” she shares. “We’ve done a wine-tasting weekend on an island less than two hours from our house. We’ve gone on a hiking getaway in a nearby state park that rents cute cabins. We’ve even done city breaks in cities in our state that we previously ignored.”
This tip is especially helpful for you millennials with kids: “The micro-trip is especially great if you’ve got a young family, as it means less packing and less travel time!”
See that? You can still satisfy your hunger for travel without breaking the bank. Cheap and budget travel is possible. What a time to be alive.
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