In this article, we’re sharing our top tips to help you save money when traveling without sacrificing a thing!
If you feel like a vacation is out of your reach, these tried-and-true ways to save money when traveling will help you get there without breaking the bank!
Some people see traveling as a luxury, but I see it differently. Growing up, we didn’t have much. My mother died when I was young, leaving my Dad with three young girls to provide for. We had some hard times, that’s for sure. He worked hard and was gone a lot, but somehow, he always took us on a yearly vacation. This time with him was so special to me, and I’ll cherish those memories forever.
I truly believe that family vacations are a necessity. They’re quality time spent together without the distractions of household responsibilities, work, school, and everything else life throws at us. Vacations don’t have to be huge or extravagant. When our kids were younger, we used to go camping at state parks, and they thought it was the best thing ever! They had no idea it was all we could afford at the time and had a blast playing, swimming, and helping us around the campsite!
Before we dive into how to save money when traveling, it helps to MAKE extra money for your trip, and we’ve got a comprehensive post on ways to make extra cash. To save money at home and keep some of your hard-earned dollars in the bank, we have some realistic ways to save money for you!
How to Save Money When Traveling
When it comes to traveling, the three main areas you can save are accommodations, travel, and food. We’ll break that down below, but there are a few things to remember. Let’s break it down.
Have a plan
Planning ahead is crucial. This doesn’t mean every minute of your day needs to be planned out. Allow time for spontaneity, but having a loose plan helps you stay on track. Of course, dinner reservations, booking tours, and purchasing tickets should be done in advance. A simple travel planner will keep all your plans, reservations, and confirmation numbers in one handy spot!
Helpful Budget & Planning Tools
Set a Budget
Spending adds up quickly on any vacation, and overspending can add unwanted stress when all you should be doing is relaxing!
Gas, food, coffee, accommodations, entertainment, and parking add up quickly, not to mention unforeseen expenses like things you may have forgotten from home.
Some people prefer having an overall budget, while others prefer setting a daily budget. Personally, I like having an overall budget because trying to keep track of what we spend every day stresses me out. We usually go with one empty credit card, put everything on that ONE card so it’s easy to keep track of, and try our best not to go over our spending goal. If we see we’re spending too much early on in our trip, we can easily reign ourselves in.
The time of year you travel will significantly impact your budget. Avoid holidays and peak travel times when prices can be inflated.
Peak times will vary depending on your destination. During the hot months, tourists are likelier to flock to the beaches and lakes. While mountains and ski resorts are more popular during the colder months.
Regardless of your accommodations, this is often the most expensive portion of your trip. Still, there are ways to reduce the cost significantly.
Traveling off-season is easily the best way to save. Businesses are more likely to issue discounts and coupons to fill empty rooms.
Avoid weekends. Weekend rates are always higher, so we plan our vacations with as many weekdays as possible. For example, we just booked an Asheville trip, and the rate for Friday and Saturday was nearly double the rate Sunday through Thursday, so we adjusted our plans to pay the lower rate.
Airbnb is a fantastic option, especially if you want to cook some of your own meals, as most of them come stocked with the basics for cooking. Airbnbs often have a washer and dryer, so you can do as much laundry as needed. If you know this in advance, you can pack less, knowing you’ll be able to do laundry, especially if you have young children who go through a LOT of clothes!
Hotels often have more amenities than Airbnb, such as complimentary breakfast, fitness centers, and evening receptions. A complimentary breakfast is the easiest way to spend zero dollars on one meal daily. Drury, Embassy Suites, and some Homewood Suites also have nightly receptions with small bites. I recently stayed at Drury, and the nightly reception included THREE free alcoholic beverages.
BEFORE booking a hotel or cabin, visit the website or app and sign up for their mailing list. Often, you’ll receive a coupon or discount as a thank-you for signing up. Sometimes, it’s only 10%, but nickels and dimes add up. I saved 25% on a cabin in Gatlinburg using a code our favorite rental company releases every July. I wait for it to come out and have a list of cabins saved to book the second that code goes live!
While on the website, look for additional specials and discounts. Sometimes, it’s easier to give them a call. Be sure to mention whether you are in the military, a teacher, a first responder, or AAA member. These discounts are not always listed on the website, but they’ll honor them if you ask.
Loyalty can pay off. Be loyal to your favorite hotel brand. In our experience, Marriot offers the best military discount, so we try to stay at hotels within that brand. Our points add up quickly and can be rolled into free nights!
Once you’ve secured your accommodations, transportation is the next area to save money when traveling.
If you’re open to flying or driving, compare the cost of flights to the estimated cost of gas. Once you’ve done that, there are some things you can do to save on both.
If you’re flying, you’ll want to book flights as early as possible. As flights are booked, and seats become more in demand, the prices will increase. I know that some people have luck booking last-minute plane tickets, but I wouldn’t advise that for a family vacation. It’s too risky.
Another cost to factor into flying is whether or not you’ll need a rental car when you arrive at your destination. This can be a considerable expense, bringing me to my next point.
We almost always drive! Having our own car means we don’t have to rent one and we can bring a LOT from home. For example, when renting cabins, we spend most of the time there and cook most of our meals. Bringing my favorite pans, knives, and things like olive oil, spices, and pantry staples saves money and frustration.
Food & Drink
Being foodies who love to try local cuisine, there is always a balance between being able to do that while keeping our spending in check.
Eating out at every meal drains your wallet, so choose the most important meals and make those your splurges. If you love going out for breakfast, it’s the cheapest meal of the day to dine out. Lunch menus usually have the same menu items as the dinner menu but with smaller/more realistic portions and lower prices. I’m passionate about food waste, and dinner portions are too much, bringing me to my next point.
We are big fans of sharing food, especially if we’re going somewhere that has free chips or bread too much before the meal arrives. We’ll almost always share a meal in this situation. If you need more, consider ordering an additional side instead of another entree. My husband and I LOVE salads, so it’s usually an extra side salad for us!
Take advantage of happy hours, where you can save with daily food and drink specials. To find local happy hours, search Google with phrases like “(insert city here) happy hours.”
Skipping a meal out is an excellent opportunity to save money. We aren’t big breakfast eaters, so we each grab something we’ve brought from home or cook ourselves. We always have yogurt, cottage cheese cups, and a variety of granola bars on hand for easy meals on the go. If the hotel has complimentary breakfast, even better!
Cooking Your Own Food
If you have the ability to cook, this can save a ton of money, depending on the number of people you’re feeding and the length of stay.
Most Airbnb properties will have a fully-equipped kitchen with essential cooking tools; you can bring what you want from home.
Many hotels have small kitchenettes with a full-size refrigerator and the basic things you’ll need to cook and eat (pots, pans, serving dishes, and silverware). You can also bring a portable burner or ask the front desk for one. Surprisingly, many hotels have them, and you can cook all kinds of things. Trust me, I’ve done it many times!
In fact, we recently stayed at Fairfield, and they had a whole list of appliances that you could sign out for your stay. I snagged a double cooking burner, a rice cooker, and a blender. I cooked several meals, and it was nice to have some homemade food, not to mention the money we saved!
If you plan to cook, buy as much as you can in advance, especially if you’re driving. You’ll pay peak prices if you wait until you arrive to shop. Getting caught up in the vacation excitement and buying too much is easy.
When I know I’ll be cooking a lot, I make a grocery list, including what I need for each meal, snacks, and drinks. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I watch the weekly sales and stock up on things we’ll need. Do this consistently, and the savings will add up!
Make your own coffee. Coffee stops add up quickly, and most hotel coffee leaves much to be desired. We bring our electric tea kettle, pour-over pot, filters, coffee, and sweetener. Whether in a hotel, cabin, or Airbnb, we can count on a good cup of coffee and save a TON of money. I even bought a bag that fits everything we need perfectly!
Pro tip: you can actually make a lot with an electric tea kettle, including hard-boiled eggs, ramen, quick-cooking oatmeal and grits, and heat up canned items like ravioli and soup.
Make Your Own Coffee & Save Money
While in Route
While you’re traveling, whether it’s flying or driving, there are ways to save!
Bring your own snacks. Gas stations and airports are money traps! Bringing your own snacks saves money and can be a little healthier.
Pack lunch! My Dad did this, and it’s one of my fondest memories. I’m sure he did it to save money, but as kids, we loved it. He let us help pack everything up and always found a beautiful place to stop and eat. Make it fun and not about saving money. Your family will love it!
Bring refillable water bottles and a few gallons of water. You can fill them as needed, won’t waste as many plastic bottles as you would if you purchased individual bottles, and save money. This one is a no-brainer!
Gas & Transportation
If you’re driving, you can do a few things to save on gas.
Ensure your car is as fuel-efficient as possible by checking your tires for the proper air pressure and getting an oil change. While you’re there, have them check the air filter as well. Jiffy Lube and Valvoline often have coupons on their website!
Regarding fuel efficiency, if you drive a gas hog, consider renting something smaller and better on gas. Compare what you would spend on gas to what a small vehicle rental plus gas would be, and choose the more affordable option.
Never get insurance through the rental car company if you rent a car. It’s overpriced, and you’re auto insurance or credit card probably covers rentals already. Be sure to check first.
Having said that, good car insurance WITH roadside assistance and towing coverage is crucial. You don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with it!
Did you know you can check Google Maps for the cheapest gas in your area? Here’s how:
- Open Google Maps
- You’ll see “gas” as one of the options near the top. (figure 1)
- A list of nearby gas stations with current prices will appear. (figure 2)
- Click on any of them for location and details. (figure 3)
- Just for fun, I checked another location, and you can see the drastic difference in gas prices! (figure 4)
I was shocked when I first learned this and saw that there was as much as an 80¢ difference around Nashville! You can also download and check apps like Gas Buddy.
While in Google Maps, you can also choose a route that avoids tolls, which can add up!
Use a credit card offering cash back on gas, or consider getting one before your trip. This one can be applied to your whole trip. Just check the terms and conditions on your card for details. If you’re spending money on things like gas and hotels, why not get a little something back?
We almost always drive. We like having our own car when we get to our destination, and it allows us to load up our car with things from home, which saves us a ton of money when we get to where we’re going.
Extra activities can be costly, but we have some tips to help you save money on your road trip while still doing some bucket list activities!
Plan out splurges ahead of time. One of the easiest ways to save money when traveling is to control frivolous spending. It can be tempting to splurge while on vacation. Ice cream cones twice a day, expensive tours, souvenirs, and pretty soon, you’ve spent way more than you planned. Instead, limit yourself by planning splurges in advance.
Know the difference between a bucket-list-worthy activity and something you could do anywhere. When in “vacation mode,” we often splurge more quickly than at home. That’s fine sometimes, but if you’re on a budget, consider whether the experience is “once in a lifetime” or something you won’t regret skipping.
Avoid organized tours (most of the time!) They can be expensive, and most of the time, these are things you can do on your own. Some things, like whitewater rafting, will require a professional guide. You can call and inquire about discounts, as they are only sometimes listed online. You can find free and inexpensive activities. Simply Google “free things to do in [enter city name]” to find them.
Bring everything you can from home.
Depending on the destination, purchasing necessities while you’re there can be costly.
At Disney World, for example, sunscreen will cost twice what it does elsewhere. Purchase most of what you’ll need in the months leading up to your trip. If you can shop sales, you’ll save even more.
Since we drive most of the time, we bring a LOT, including food, cases of water, health and beauty items, laundry necessities, medicine, and so much more!
If you’re flying and don’t have the ability to bring much, you can have most necessities delivered via Instacart (use my code AWEST2BC1BF for $30 off), Shipt, and DoorDash, which all deliver from grocery and convenience stores – not just restaurants!
Finally, if you can shop through a cashback program, you can even make some extra cash while saving it! My favorite is Rakuten, where you literally get paid to shop at thousands of stores and travel partners. Big ticket items like hotels, flights, and car rentals can really add up. We recently booked a Marriot stay through Rakuten and earned over $100 in free money by booking through their site!
And that’s a wrap on our best tips on how to save money when traveling. If we missed any, please share yours below!