It’s finally starting to feel warm outside again and all I can think about is booking a vacation and finally getting out of my house, ASAP. It seems like everyone right now is gearing up for a road trip across the coast, a European adventure, or a wellness getaway, and it’s pushing me to get something booked to look forward to.
When it comes to traveling, whether it’s close to home or a fancy international vacation, planning the trip on a budget is rarely an issue for me. Safe but affordable hotel? Check. Google flight alerts for the best prices on a round trip? You betcha. Carry-on capsule wardrobe? Done. However, my budget goes completely out the window when it comes time to actually go on the trip. A $300 tasting menu suddenly sounds totally reasonable, because I’m literally in Rome…but the shock of heading home and seeing my credit card bill always makes me feel a bit guilty. In the spirit of leaving the post-trip guilt in 2022 and living our best summer ever, here are ten tips I’ve recently used to help me save money while still enjoying my vacation to the fullest.
1. Avoid peak times of the day
If you’re in Paris for the first time, it’s literally a crime not to go up the Eiffel Tower. Same goes for a boat cruise while in Greece. I would never advise giving those things up, but what you can do is opt for less busy times during the day to help cut down on costs. As much as a sunset cruise in Santorini is very picturesque, you can get basically the same experience by going earlier in the day when the boats aren’t full and you’re paying a premium. In that vein, my hubby and I once scored an amazing tasting menu dinner in Italy for 30% less just because we opted for an early seating (7pm is early there, FYI!). We got the same experience, had the place almost to ourselves, and saved 30%!
2. Look for last-minute deals
I’m all for planning ahead and having a travel itinerary, but it can sometimes pay to wait until the last minute to snatch up tickets. Waiting until an hour or so before the starting time can save you upwards of 50% since retailers often drastically cut costs to try to fill empty spots, especially for things like tours, live shows, and even spa treatments. Definitely do your research to determine what’s worth waiting for versus securing in advance (especially if it’s something you’re set on doing), but for things where you’re a bit more flexible, this can be a great way to save and still get the experience.
3. Be open to free activities
This tip sounds obvious, but it’s worth repeating. If you’re visiting a bigger city, there’s a good chance that there will be free things worth checking out that will give you a truly authentic feel for the city. My girlfriends and I once had an open evening in New York City on a girls’ trip and ended up watching a free movie out in front of the New York Public Library. The people-watching was unparalleled and there were tons of vendors handing out samples of snacks and drinks. It easily became one of our favorite experiences on the trip and it was entirely free. If you’re visiting somewhere smaller, check out local markets, museums, and historical sites for free activities, and make sure not to write off the activities put on by your hotel if you go somewhere all-inclusive (hey, salsa dancing might just become your new hobby!).
4. Keep an eye out for tourist traps
One of the best ways to save a lot of money is to plan your schedule so you don’t have to grab some food or a drink right outside a popular tourist attraction. Similar to an amusement park, you can rest assured you’ll be paying a 50%+ markup on that bottle of water or the lunch you quickly grabbed. Those vendors and restaurants are situated to take advantage of weary travelers, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fallen victim at least once (*faints recalling paying $37 USD for an Aperol Spritz outside the Duomo in Milan*). These places can make sense if you’re in a hurry or really need to eat something, but in general, try walking a few blocks away from any main attractions to guarantee that you’ll pay a reasonable price—as a bonus, the food will likely be a lot better, too!
5. Do as the locals do
On the topic of avoiding tourist traps, one of the best ways to experience a city and not spend an arm and a leg on any subpar experiences is to ask the locals for their recommendations. Hotel staff are amazing for this, but don’t be afraid to (politely!) ask a friendly-looking stranger while you’re out and about, too. You’ll find super trendy bars the travel bloggers haven’t discovered yet, the best places to shop (especially if you’re into thrifting), or even advice for places or things to avoid (like opting for secret side entrances only the locals know instead of the main one!). Many locals will happily tell you about their city and what they love to do, so don’t be shy.
6. Get a little creative before purchasing
My life truly changed the day I discovered Groupon. Not the day I got married or graduated college, but the day I discovered that you could get the same thing for less just by doing a bit of research and buying through one website over another. Okay, that’s a tad dramatic, but saving money on tours and events is really so easy nowadays. Just head over to Groupon, Google, or even TikTok and see if there are any active discount codes or tips before purchasing.
I once got a free admission ticket to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville (which I totally recommend, BTW) by signing up for their mailing list while I was literally standing in line waiting to buy a ticket. A high like that is hard to beat, so definitely take a second to look up any tips and tricks before buying to help you experience the same thing for less.
7. Look for bundle deals
Speaking of booking attractions, if you’re visiting somewhere with a handful of attractions you’d like to see on your trip, keep an eye out for opportunities to bundle and save. This could look like buying a day pass where you can check out all the local museums, or it could be a multi-day ticket that allows you entrance to a bunch of places over the course of a few days. These are sometimes offered directly through a city or town’s tourism site or can be found on places like Viator or TripAdvisor. Booking things all at once typically ensures you’re getting some kind of discount or bonus while still getting to see everything on your list (just be sure to confirm if there are set days or times you have to visit each spot so you don’t accidentally miss anything!).
8. Budget for one splurge meal each day
Another one of my favorite hacks for saving money when traveling is to designate one meal each day to be in a nicer or trendier restaurant and then opt for snacks or takeaway meals for the other two. If my hotel offers breakfast I always hit that up first (more below on hotel amenities!), and then will swing by a local grocery store and grab a sandwich and some veggies for an à la carte picnic for lunch.
I also love to get a stash of granola bars, yogurt cups, apples, or other fresh fruit and a refillable water bottle that I can keep in my hotel room and take with me throughout the trip. This ensures I never get too hungry while out and about, and also allows me to have some balanced meals (living on croissants can only take you so far). Some attractions won’t allow you to bring food in your bag, so just keep that in mind and try to eat your snacks before entering those places.
9. Take advantage of free hotel amenities
As a thrifty girl through and through, you can bet that I’m going to try to get my money’s worth when I buy something. When it comes to traveling, that means leveraging the hotel’s amenities as much as possible to help cut down on costs. No, I’m not suggesting you pull a Ross Geller and take everything not nailed down in the hotel room, but rather make sure to use the WiFi to download maps and tickets to save on roaming fees, ask the hotel staff for their affordable restaurant recommendations (see tip 5!), and utilize any shuttles provided (they’re often included in your reservation fee, or at least cheaper than a taxi).
If you’re staying somewhere with even more amenities, you might be able to have the concierge assist with booking those dinner reservations or last-minute tickets, especially if you’re not great at speaking the language. And it goes without saying, but don’t write off the free breakfast! Even if it’s not a five-star spread, grab some fruit or toast to go. Anything you don’t have to buy later is a win in my books.
10. Rethink your souvenir strategy
I’m not sure about you, but I used to believe that I needed to find a souvenir for everyone and their mother when I went on vacation. Can it be a super kind gesture? Of course! Can it also be a waste of money? …definitely. I’ve got nothing against traditional souvenirs for yourself, friends, or family if you want to do it, but getting them at the airport or a major attraction will often mean you’re paying much more than you need to. Some of my favorite souvenirs have come from little shops off the beaten path (regional chocolate and spreads are my go-tos for friends and family!), and I try to pick up things I know others will love that fit my budget.
Lately, my partner and I have been forgoing the usual souvenirs for ourselves and opting to hire a local photographer to do a 30-minute shoot with us at a well-known site instead. It’s been much cheaper, they turn out looking like we *casually* redo our engagement photos at a new location every year, and are a beautiful reminder of our trip that we can have forever (and my head is never cut off, bonus!). A souvenir can be whatever you want it to be, so drop the pressure to bring home a $20 keychain for everyone and instead spend your money on things that you’ll actually love to remember your trip by.