From cabbing to trendy restaurants to booking direct flights, spending time in your dream destination can often mean spending more than you bargained for. According to LearnVest’s Money Habits and Confessions Survey, 74 percent of Americans report having gone into debt to pay for a trip, with a quarter of respondents reporting they’ve spent up to 15 percent of their yearly salary on traveling alone.
Here, travel editors share their top tips to help you see the world on a budget — with extra cash left over for gelato, of course.
1. Lounge in the lounge
“If you aren’t traveling business or first class and don’t have automatic lounge access with your flight ticket, spend the money on buying a lounge pass. There are many airports with a ‘pay as you go’ option for lounge access. Generally, people waiting at airports buy food, drinks, magazines and WiFi and those costs add up. Before you know it, you’ve spent more than the lounge pass would cost, because let’s face it, airport prices are not cheap. In the lounge, you’ll generally get comfortable seating in a quiet atmosphere, TVs, magazines, board games, free WiFi, business equipment and workstations, and showers and bathrooms to refresh. Some lounges even have massage facilities. All of this makes for a more economical choice and certainly a more relaxing experience.” —Kate Webster, travel editor at Captured Travel
2. Save on currency exchange
“Don’t buy currency at the airport. It is the most expensive way to do so thanks to uncompetitive exchange rates and charges. A little bit of planning can avoid this and you get to keep more of your holiday money to spend on fun stuff.” —Sharron Livingston, managing editor at The Travel Magazine
3. Maximize rewards
“We have chosen to spend all of our money with one chain (Marriott). This way, we max out rewards points, which earn us free nights. And typically we get upgraded wherever we go — sometimes automatically. Most often we request [an upgrade], and they respond positively. Whenever Marriott upgrades us, it’s to a suite, which we like.” —Nigel Beale, founder and editor of Literary Tourist
4. Eat at unusual times of day
“If there’s a buzzy restaurant I’ve been dying to get into, I like to try and go to it at off hours – say, 5 p.m. for dinner or 2:30 p.m. for lunch. For one, they’re less crowded and I can usually get in, but it’s more likely there’s an early bird or happy hour special as well, and since I’m by myself I can just sit at the bar, where there’s often a cheaper menu. Besides, with jet lag I’m hungry at weird times of day anyway, so why not lean into it?” —Lilit Marcus, editor of CNN Travel
“It seems obvious, but walking really is the best way to get around a new city. Cab prices really start to add up, and even if public transit isn’t expensive you can quickly lose track of how much you’re spending. London, D.C., and Hong Kong are three examples of cities that charge fares based on distance and it was easy to drop $40 in a day on transit without really noticing. On a trip to London, I once walked between two museums I wanted to see, and it took two hours between the distance and the constant stopping to take pictures, popping into cute stores or noticing interesting sites along the way. But you know what? It was two hours walking the streets of London. There’s no better way to get to know a place.” — Lilit Marcus, editor of CNN Travel
6. Be flexible
”The more flexibility in your dates and location, the more you stand to save on airfare. I once saved $500 by flying home from South Africa on New Year’s Eve instead of a few days later. I’ve also saved a lot by being flexible on location. One year I found really cheap flights to Helsinki for two weeks in late December and early January. I didn’t really want to spend two weeks in Finland but I quickly realized I could take the ferry from Helsinki to Estonia, book a cheap hopper flight from there to Moscow, take the train to St. Petersburg, and then take another train to return to Helsinki at the end of the trip. And, all of that was cheaper than booking a roundtrip to Moscow or St. Petersburg.” —Katie Hammel, content manager at Scott’s Cheap Flights
7. Book two flights
“Sometimes two flights are better than one. At Scott’s Cheap Flights we talk about getting across the ocean as cheaply as possible, which means buying the cheapest flight that gets you close to where you want to go, and then closing the gap with a cheap regional flight, bus or train.
I’ve used this trick many times. When my husband and I wanted to go to Santorini for our 10-year anniversary, we found flights to the island were astronomically expensive. We saved hundreds by booking flights to Athens and then booking a separate flight from Athens to Santorini. One year we wanted to go to Portugal, so we snagged a great deal to Madrid and then took $50 flights from there to Porto.
I even did this on a recent trip to visit family in Detroit. Flights from San Francisco direct to Detroit were $550 roundtrip. Flights from San Francisco to Detroit with a layover in Chicago were $400. But for $350, I could book two separate flights (San Francisco to Chicago for $200 roundtrip and Chicago to Detroit for $150). It not only saved me a bit of money, but because the flights were booked separately, I could add in a long layover of two days in Chicago.” —Katie Hammel, content manager at Scott’s Cheap Flights
8. Factor in baggage costs
“When flying with budget airlines, make sure you factor in that they charge a lot more for luggage, even [for baggage] considered standard size on other airlines. Book a hotel or Airbnb with a washer/dryer so you can pack super light or just opt for the regular flight. Do the math to make sure it’s actually cheaper with what you need to bring.” —Hannah Freedman, senior editor at Family Traveller
9. Book your own excursions
“Cruise excursions can be extremely pricey, but you can often find similar tours yourself for much cheaper. There are even places like Cruising Excursions that specialize in cruise ship guest experiences for cheaper.” —Hannah Freedman, senior editor at Family Traveller