Want to travel like the pros? Better start pinching your pennies, pesos and pounds. While it's true that money can buy you an elite adventure anywhere, those who travel for a living genuinely enjoy the challenge of bargain hunting. We talked to three travel writers about why they do it and asked for advice on how others can, too.
"Budget travel" is a redundant phrase for Matt Kepnes, a travel writer who founded the site nomadicmatt.com and wrote "How to Travel the World on $50 a Day," a bestseller. "I'm cheap, so it plays into my natural tendencies," he says of his travel habits. More than 10 years ago, Kepnes opted to leave his cubicle job in hospital administration after trips to Costa Rica and Thailand. Soon after, he launched his site and has continued earning his living by blogging about his travels.
Be flexible with your destination. "If you're dead set on going to Paris in the middle of July, you're going to spend a lot of money," Kepnes says. Whereas, if you're open-minded about where you're going, you can save big. Rather than committing to a city or country, shop the deals and choose accordingly.
Avoid hotels. They're expensive and also have a way of isolating you from the day-to-day rumblings of a city. "You're not going to be in the room, anyway," he says. Kepnes opts to stay in a hostel, crash on a couch or rent a room using home-sharing sites such as couchsurfing.com or airbnb.com.
Follow the "five-block rule." Avoid businesses within five blocks of a city's touristy areas. Just a few blocks farther, crowds disperse and prices drop. "You walk five or six blocks from any site, you're going to get better food for half the price," Kepnes says.
As the mother of two kids, cutting costs has always been on the mind of journalist Cindy Richards. Today, she's editor in chief of travelingmom.com and travelingdad.com, sites dedicated to family travel. She says the key to planning an affordable trip is to look for deals, but not at a sacrificial level. "I think the mistake that a lot of people make is they think that it's budget, so it has to be cheap. And that's not true. It's budget, so you have to find deals is the way you should look at it."
Choose your transportation wisely. Is it cheaper to fly or drive? Richards relies on befrugal.com, which has a "fly or drive" calculator that takes into account fuel costs, wear and tear on your car, and hotel costs for driving vs. ticket costs, baggage fees, rental-car charges and more for flying.
Make your own breakfast. Find a place with a kitchen, whether it's a condo, house or hotel, and it can save you hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills. Richards recalls that when she took her kids out to breakfast while on the road, it almost always cost about $40. With kitchen access, you can buy a box of cereal and a gallon of milk (not to mention sandwich fixings) and you're set. "You're saving $40 a day for that," she says.
For John DiScala, founder and publisher of the money-saving site johnnyjet.com, flying is a game, made up of bargain hunting and maximizing credit-card points. Every year, he conspires to retain his elite airline status so he can fly like a king at the lowest possible price: "I get upgraded, I get phone numbers, I don't have to wait in line, free baggage, things like that." The former college recruiter says that anyone can learn to work the system. It just takes a little commitment.
Pick the credit card that will get you the most points. The right credit card for you will depend on your spending habits and how you want to use points. DiScala recommends Chase cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which offers a 50,000-point bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months, and double points on traveling and dining.
Research until you find the right deal. DiScala spends a lot of time scouring the Web for flight deals. Recently, he was searching Google Flights for a business-class fare from Los Angeles to Miami and saw prices upwards of $1,200 one way. With more searching, he found a business-class flight from Los Angeles to Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for just $365. He decided it was a good excuse to visit Puerto Rico, collect more airline miles in the process, then get a cheap ticket to Miami. "There's not a website out there that will do it for you, so you just have to do your research," he says. One good place to get insights on deals and making the most of miles and points, he says, is flyertalk.com.