- As a travel consultant, I helped clients find travelling options based on their schedules and budgets.
- I learned several money-saving tricks along the way, and I still use them when I’m booking my own travel.
- The tricks include strategically mixing and matching your flight itineraries, waiting to book my flight until the perfect time, and joining AAA for the hotel discounts.
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Most people would like to travel more than they do, but because of the costs, decide to stay closer to home.
But travelling doesn’t have to be expensive.
As a travel consultant for five years, I helped clients find the best travelling options based on their schedules, budgets, and other needs. Along the way, I discovered plenty of tricks to save money on my own travels, which I continue to use to this day.
While you are probably aware of common money-saving tricks like joining a frequent flyer program or booking an Airbnb instead of a hotel, you might not be aware of some lesser-known strategies.
Here are nine of the best ways to save money while travelling that I learned on the job.
Build hotel loyalty to get benefits
Most hotels are part of larger hotel rewards program.
One of the great benefits of hotel loyalty is not only that you’re guaranteed to get a similar experience wherever your venture. You also get great benefits ranging from late checkouts to free perks to discounted rates, free upgrades, and sometimes even free rooms.
The largest program with diverse options from casual to luxury is currently Bonvoy (the combination of Marriott and Starwood) though Hilton, Hyatt, and IHG also have more than enough properties at various price points for a person to travel in the US, Europe, and most of the rest of the world while staying within the same program.
There are also rewards programs from Choice Hotels, Best Western, and many other less-expensive US-based chains. Even luxury chains like Viceory and Mandarin Oriental have programs. And luxury chains that don’t have a formal loyalty program will still usually keep track of your stays and will reward you if they see you as a regular guest in their system.
Get foreign currency from local ATMs
It used to be that if a traveller wanted more cash in a foreign country, they’d have to change money at a currency exchange and maybe even get traveller’s checks.
If they found traveller’s checks too unwieldy, they’d have to get foreign currency from their bank or a money exchange at the airport. But those transactions, as well as the option of buying foreign currency online, use conservative exchange rates that result in the consumer getting less bang for their buck.
The best way to ensure you’re getting the real value of your money is to withdraw from a local ATM. Most bank ATM networks use real-time exchange rates. And, for example, while my bank charges a $US20 fee to provide cash in advance, it only charges a $US2 ATM fee, regardless of where you’re withdrawing the money.
Book hotels as a group
Are you travelling with enough people to warrant multiple rooms? See if a hotel would be willing to give you a group block.
While many hotels require 10 rooms or more to be considered a group, there are some, especially luxury properties or hotels in larger cities, which will consider a group rate for fewer.
For example, they may consider five rooms enough to qualify as a group, especially if you’re staying more than a night each. (After all, five rooms at three nights each works out to 15 room nights, a more substantial stay than 10 rooms for a single night.) At the least you may get upgrades or amenities, and at best you can get discounts.
Travel agents specialize in doing this and many hotels will be more open to catering to your smaller group if an agency is representing you.
Mix and match your flight connections
There are a lot of great international low-cost carriers out there. And while there’s risk that a low-cost airline will close – Wow Air’s recent collapse comes to mind – the rates can be amazing.
A big issue with low-cost airlines is that they typically leave from a select number of airports. But with some juggling, you can fly from anywhere and take advantage of this – I frequently mix and match connections when I travel, like flying a United Airlines flight from my hometown to Denver and then booking the low-cost Norwegian Airlines from Denver to London.
Travelling like this comes with some inconveniences: Norwegian Airlines doesn’t allow online check-ins, for example, and because there’s not ticketing agreement between the airlines, if I miss the connection, I’m out of luck. When I travel like this, I just schedule a much longer connecting time and bring a book to read at the airport.
Once in Europe, low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet run flights for less than $US100. Most travel agents won’t book with those companies because they’re notoriously tough to work with if things go wrong. And of course, they usually have tight restrictions and charge extra fees for things like carry-ons and seat selection. But an $US89 round-trip ticket from Amsterdam to Prague may be worth the risk.
AAA made its name by helping people out when a car breaks down. But there are a lot of hotels in the US and Canada (which has its own affiliate, CAA) that offer considerable discounts for a AAA member.
Annual membership fees vary from region to region, but are usually around $US100 a year for a mid-level plan, with fees ranging from $US20 to $US30 for each additional family member regardless of whether they use the services or benefits.
For a person who regularly travels, signing up is a no-brainer. A car breaking down hundreds of miles from home is a nightmare, and while a tow during a snowstorm near Grand Teton National Park can cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket, it’s free with AAA (up to a certain distance). And saving $US30 a night by getting a $US150 hotel room for $US120, for example, adds up quickly.
Have American Express cover your rental car insurance
American Express delivers a wide assortment of travel benefits. But one of the lesser known is that select American Express cards provide car insurance for vehicles rented using an American Express card.
Obviously before depending on this, a traveller should call to confirm that they have the correct card type, that it covers car insurance, and what level of insurance they have. In general it is considered a secondary insurance and does not cover liability, and it also doesn’t cover certain car types. In that instance, local insurance will still need to be purchased to cover liability.
But the savings on an average vehicle rental in most cities, domestic and abroad, can be massive. In many destinations, a car rented for $US30 may require hundreds of dollars a day in insurance before you can drive. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I managed to cut my insurance rate in half.
Use public transit whenever possible
The easiest way to get around when you’re abroad is by taxi – but it’s certainly not the cheapest.
One of the best money savers is public transportation, if you’re willing to learn how the system works in your destination.
In London, for example, taking a taxi or Uber from the airport for two people with two pieces of checked luggage and three carry-ons will likely cost around $US100. But you can catch the train from Gatwick to London for about $US35, or even cheaper for a round-trip option depending on the time of day. From there, you get to one of the main stations in London where you simply jump onto the Tube and can take that wherever you need to go.
Understanding foreign transit systems used to take a lot more planning, between studying guidebooks and deciphering paper maps. Today, apps like Citymapper make it much easier. When you pay a couple bucks for a crosstown rail ride compared to $US20 or more for a cab, the savings really add up over your trip.
Buy your plane ticket six months in advance
Plane tickets can be the most expensive single item on your travels, and timing the purchase correctly can easily save you hundreds of dollars.
While planning is generally a key to saving money, purchasing tickets the day they go on sale (most airlines will publish fares 330 days out) isn’t necessarily the best way to do it. Sometimes, airlines will add more flights to a popular route as the departure date grows, thus adding competition and likely lowering the fare. Some airlines, such as low-cost darling Southwest, don’t even publish fares until six months before flights.
However, don’t wait too long. Airlines usually have preset price increases based on how far out from departure you are. For example, when your departure is within 90 days, 30 days, and so on, the prices go up based on airline pricing rules. For this reason, the best time to purchase flights is usually six months in advance. I’ll start looking seven months and then give it until five months out before pulling the trigger.
Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid a short window. If you have to purchase a last-minute flight, that’s usually the best time to use your points. While published fare rules may require a certain minimum price within these preset timeframes when using dollars, mileage prices are usually less affected and have more standardised price points.
Learn the language
Easier said than done, right?
But if you want to travel well for cheap, it’s an absolute essential to learn as much of your destination’s local language as you can.
Aside from the cultural value of being able to communicate with more people, you’ll usually get better deals out of it, too. Knowing Spanish has helped me get big discounts in Spanish-speaking countries, not to mention the occasional free meal or drink.
One of my favourite memories happened in Venice, when the owner of the restaurant I was eating appreciated my efforts to speak broken Italian. As I went to leave, he gave me a bottle of one of his favourite wines. The next night, we came back for dinner, and he personally cooked our meal, served it, and did wine pairings. It’s amazing how appreciative people are when you take the time to learn their language.
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