Traveling on a Budget: Here’s How to Plan a Memorable—and Affordable—Vacation
Your wanderlust may have taken off lately—but so have prices for your dream trip. Here's how to travel on the cheap and make your vacation fantasies a reality.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
It’s not just your imagination—it is more expensive to travel these days. In 2023, domestic airfare is expected to increase by 2.9%, and airfare to Europe by about 2.4%, according to research by American Express. And you don’t need us to tell you that prices at the pump, while better than they were last year, remain stubbornly high. The good news is that there are cost-effective ways to embark on that bucket-list trip or even simply sneak away for a weekend.
Before you scoff at the idea of a cheap trip, know that traveling on a budget doesn’t equate to staying in a questionable motel or eating all your meals at fast-food joints. Instead, it may mean seeking out cheap places to travel, avoiding pricey tourist traps in favor of under-the-radar destinations and discovering the secrets of how to travel for free. And although we sometimes think high prices equal luxury, you can often get a more meaningful experience with cheap beach vacations, cheap family vacations and cheap couples or solo trips that focus on authenticity and quality instead of bells and whistles. Here are some hotel rewards programs that can help you plan the budgeted trip of your dreams.
“There is ample opportunity for people to travel on any budget,” says Katy Nastro, a travel expert at Going.com, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Figuring out your ‘must-haves’ and your ‘must-dos’ are a good place to start,” she says. That might be visiting a can’t-miss attraction, indulging in fancy meals or staying at a hotel in the center of all the action.
Getting excited to book your next trip? Read on for smart and surprising budget travel tips from Nastro and other top travel experts.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more travel, tech, humor, cleaning and fun facts all week long.
1. Set a budget
The key to traveling on a budget is to figure out exactly how much dough you have to spend on your trip. But how much you realistically need really depends on the type of trip you’re planning and where you’re going: An international vacation will typically cost more than traveling domestically, thanks to airfare, and planning a family vacay will generally be pricier than a solo excursion.
“I always split out the costs—transportation to/from the destination, plus lodging, food and activities—to understand where my dollars are going and to identify places I can save,” says Lonely Planet travel expert Nitya Chambers. “Even a rough sketch helps you identify ways to save.” With this method, no destination is totally out of reach: There are even ways to plan affordable bucket-list trips.
Bonus tip: Not sure how to get started? Nastro recommends using online tools like Budget Your Trip for daily cost estimates at certain destinations. For example, Budget Your Trip estimates the average cost for two-person travel for a week in the United States to be $3,169; for France, the website estimates $2,758 for two people per week, not including flights, which can tack on another $400 to $800 per person.
2. Seek out an affordable destination
You can try staying close to home so you can drive to your destination. Or, if you have your heart set on a far-flung adventure, start thinking about the cost to get there, since flights are usually a huge chunk of your vacation budget. Supply and demand may make flying to some destinations more affordable if they’re popular and have large or multiple airports. Sometimes, a new budget airline can ramp up competition and drive prices down, a win for anyone traveling on a budget.
Also, the economy of the place you’re headed can make the daily costs of your trip—food, hotels, activities—more or less expensive, and some cheap places to travel, including India and Thailand, practically guarantee an exotic adventure. “Researching destinations before deciding to visit is absolutely key to ensuring your picks are budget-friendly,” Nastro says.
Bonus tip: Search out under-the-radar, less-hyped locales. “Everyone dreams of jetting to Greece in the summer, but Albania is a fraction of the cost and comes equipped with beautiful, glittering coastlines,” Nastro says.
3. Plan ahead as far as possible
“The sweet spot for booking domestic flights is anywhere between one and four months in advance,” says travel expert Madison Blancaflor, content operations editor at The Points Guy. “For international flights, start looking at least six months out.” With hotels, “earlier is almost always better, as hotel prices generally get more expensive the closer you get, as rooms fill up and demand increases,” she adds.
You can use the best travel apps to help compare and track different options for where to stay and how to get there, as well as set up fare alerts and price monitoring with Hopper or Google Flights to find the cheapest rates on flights and hotels. Websites and apps like The Points Guy, Going and Dollar Flight Club can also alert you to deals.
Bonus tip: “Keep in mind that if you’re booking a hotel in advance, it’s a smart idea to book a refundable room in case your plans change, even if it’s a little more expensive,” Blancaflor advises.
4. Let cheap flights lead the way
One hack for how to travel for cheap when picking a destination? “Planning a trip ‘backwards,’ where the airfare deal you find determines where you go,” Nastro says. For example, “we recently found a deal from Boston to Cairo, Egypt, for $591 roundtrip for travel in the fall. Instead of saying, ‘I have to go to X this summer,’ let the deal be your guide, opening up your world to travel possibilities you may not have ever anticipated—all while saving.”
Bonus tip: All U.S. airlines are now charging for checked bags—become an ace at packing a carry-on and you’ll save up to $89 each way on those fees. One caveat: More and more airlines are charging for carry-on bags, so be sure to check before you book, then factor in the fee to your airfare budget.
5. Be flexible with your timing
“Being open to travel at times of the year you may not have considered is an affordable way to see the world. After all, the Eiffel Tower twinkles just as bright in January as it does in June,” Nastro says. The less popular “off-season” varies by location, of course, so the best time to visit Costa Rica and the best time to visit Italy might not be the same.
“I love visiting places during the off-season,” Chambers adds. “Sometimes that means you have to plan for off-season weather, but flights, hotels and activities are often more affordable, and you don’t have to deal with crowds.” For example, although Greece isn’t quite as warm in the spring as it is in the summer, airfare and hotel rates are often less than half the price.
Bonus tip: A compromise can be traveling in the “shoulder” season, which is the time on either side of the high season, when prices have started to drop but you still can enjoy some of the perks of peak travel time.
6. Hit the road
Alexander Spatari/Getty Images
Before you decide to take a road trip, price out driving and flying to see which is the cheapest way to travel—not just taking into consideration gas money and tolls, but also how you’ll get around once you get to your destination. “For example, if you’re going to a city that has ample public transportation and expensive parking, the flight might be worth it because a car would be a hassle,” Chambers says. “But if you’re traveling with a group, you might find driving saves you on transportation costs, even if it takes a bit longer.”
Bonus tip: Driving your own car can potentially save you the expense of renting one at a destination that is spread out or vast, like the Grand Canyon, where a car is a must.
7. Fly midweek
You might have heard different theories on the best time to book a flight, but these days, it’s often hit or miss. “The old adage ‘book your flights in a private browser at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays for the cheapest airfare’ may have been true 20-plus years ago, when airlines used to upload schedules once a week, but that advice has long been defunct,” Nastro says.
However, our experts agree that the day of the week you fly can make a difference—and that it’s often cheaper to fly midweek. “Mondays and Fridays typically see large amounts of business travelers—or used to, pre-pandemic—and because these travelers tend not to be as price-conscious and more time-sensitive, airlines typically can get higher ticket prices on these days,” Nastro says. “Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays tend to be at times around 20% to 30% cheaper, since these are typically days with fewer travelers overall.”
Bonus tip: Morning flights are often cheaper than those later in the day, Blancaflor says.
8. Reserve hotel stays on the right day
As with flights, the best time to book hotels depends on your flexibility to stay on certain days of the week. “Sunday nights tend to be cheaper to book versus a Friday night or Saturday, as most people check out at the end of the weekend,” Nastro says. Another tip for traveling on a budget that you might not know? “A lot of hotels offer the lowest price guaranteed if you book direct, and some will honor a lower price you find on another booking site,” Nastro says.
Additionally, once you book, keep checking the price for your hotel until the absolute deadline of your cancellation policy to see if it has gone down. “Hotel prices can potentially change in between the time you’ve booked and your stay, which means you can cancel the original reservation and book the new lower rate,” she says. Better yet, hotel tracking site Pruvo does the work for you; simply email them your reservation, and they’ll send you an alert if the rates for your stay go down.
Bonus tip: Rental cars also often fluctuate in price and offer free cancelations, so book early, then continue checking the rates for a better deal.
9. Explore different lodging options
When choosing between a motel vs. hotel, consider how many—or how few—amenities you really need and where exactly you want to lay your head during your trip. For example, fun retro-style motels let you stay in comfort and cleanliness with a touch of kitsch. Micro hotels, likewise, provide a clean, if tiny, space to sleep without all the bells and whistles and can be a solid option for solo travelers who don’t need a lot of space.
When it comes to location, “[maybe it] doesn’t matter which neighborhood you stay in as long as you get to hit that Michelin-starred Korean restaurant you’ve been dying to try,” Nastro says. On the other hand, if you’re traveling solo, you may want to pay extra to be in the middle of town versus saving at a hotel on the outskirts, for safety reasons.
Bonus tip: Even if you’re traveling with a group, location matters. On a jam-packed weekend trip, for example, you won’t want to spend time getting to and from the sites. Plus, those in-town transportation costs can add up, too.
Best budget hotels around the world
10. Don’t forget the freebies
Every little bit helps when you’re on a budget, so ask if the hotel you’re considering offers free breakfast, snacks or even wine—and don’t forget to find out about free parking if you’ll have a car during your trip. Other fun amenities, like surf lessons or the use of bikes or kayaks, may also be included in your room rate. Alternately, a good location can make up for a hotel without these amenities—plenty of cheap beach hotels offer the perfect setting, with the sand just steps from your door.
But there are some extra costs to avoid at hotels too. “Stay away from the mini-bar, where prices on items like candy and sparkling water incur a major markup,” Nastro says.
Bonus tip: Make sure to read the fine print to see if the hotel charges mysterious “resort fees.” These are often tacked onto your rate.
11. Consider an all-inclusive resort or cruise
David C Tomlinson/Getty Images
Can a cheap all-inclusive resort or an all-inclusive cruise really save you money in the long run? “If you’re looking for a convenient vacation where you stay on or near the resort the entire time—great for beach getaways—or can visit multiple ports of call for short stints without having to worry about paying for meals, basic drinks, entertainment and kid-friendly activities, an all-inclusive resort or cruise can be a fantastic option,” Blancaflor says. “Both can save you money, compared to paying a la carte for the same type of experience.”
Bonus tip: “‘Wave season,’ aka January to March, is when cruise lines often run their most competitive sales of the year, making late winter a great time to set sail,” Blancaflor says. Here are some handy tips on how to save money on a cruise.
12. Rent an Airbnb or Vrbo
A rental property, such as a cheap Airbnb, can have many advantages for traveling on a budget. “I stay at Airbnbs as often as I stay at hotels,” Chambers says. The deciding factor for her is usually the length of stay. “If I’m going to be in the same place for more than four days, I prefer the home-base feel of an Airbnb, especially if I’m traveling with my family. My kids—and my husband and me!—always need some downtime in between the sightseeing.”
Not only can rental properties be cheaper up front, but you can also prep and cook meals at your home away from home to save big on food costs. “When we stay in Airbnbs, we always make a grocery stop on the first day then have coffee and breakfast at home before we head out each day,” Chambers says. “It always makes us feel better about spending and splurging on lunch or dinner.”
Bonus tip: “Always cross-check to see if the home you had your eye on through Airbnb is also listed on Vrbo or elsewhere—but at a slightly lower cost,” Nastro says. “This sometimes happens, as hosts look to expand their reach.” Also, read what red flags to watch out for to avoid staying at a bad hotel.
13. Eat like the locals do
You probably aren’t going to want to cook every night, even if you’re staying at an Airbnb, and experiencing the local fare is a delicious way to get to know a destination. To sample tasty eats at your locale without spending tons of cash: Avoid touristy or chain restaurants, and instead opt for street food, food halls or local markets. And try asking the locals where they eat. “Sometimes the best source is a local industry worker at the first bar or restaurant you hit in town,” Nastro says. “They tend to have the real knowledge when it comes to authentic and affordable experiences in their hometowns. Some of the best recommendations I ever had came from a bartender in Copenhagen that made my time in the Danish capital even more genuine.”
Bonus tip: When out for the day, carry a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water (if the local water is safe to drink). Also make sure you have a few snacks like energy bars in your bag to prevent getting hangry and succumbing to overpriced food.
14. Hunt for free things to do
Your first stop in researching free and affordable activities should be the local tourism board’s website. “They want people to take advantage of all the happenings in the city,” Nastro explains, “so they offer a wide range of things to do.” Many museums and cultural sites offer free or discounted admission on a certain day of the week or month—and in some cities, like Washington, D.C., many museums are free all the time. Nastro also suggests checking local magazines or websites that list events going on, such as TimeOut and Mommy Poppins.
And once you’re in town, skip the pricey tourist traps. “Embrace the outdoors!” Chambers says. “My family loves incorporating national and state parks into our trips where we can. They are always such a unique way of engaging with the local history, culture and natural environment.”
Bonus tip: Groupon often offers discounts for museum and aquarium admissions, activities such as ice skating and boating excursions, and even meals.
15. Get around for cheap
When traveling on a budget, don’t waste money on expensive taxi or Uber rides at your destination. Your cheapest bet is to use public transportation, especially in large cities. You can also rent a bike, or use your own two feet (walking is an ideal way to see the sights). And if you’re driving, make sure you’re not spending lots of cash on parking. “Take advantage of travel apps, including Spothero and Parkwhiz, to find cheaper public parking, even if it is a walk away,” Nastro says. One example: a recent search on Parkwhiz for overnight parking in New York City’s Times Square turned up rates ranging from $45 to $75 within a two-block radius.
Bonus tip: Look into discounted fare on public transportation for children, students, members of the military or seniors. If you don’t fall into any of those categories, do the math to see if an unlimited travel day pass is worth the investment.
16. Travel for free with points
Savvy travelers use the points from the best travel credit cards, airline miles and hotel rewards programs to save them money. “Most airlines and hotels have loyalty programs that allow you to accumulate points and miles that can be used to book almost-free travel,” Blancaflor says. “These programs are free to join, and you can get a lot of value out of them—especially if you are willing and able to use them in tandem with travel credit cards and online shopping portals.” Using credit card points or rewards at hotels may also score you freebies like complimentary breakfast.
Bonus tip: “If you are a AAA or AARP member, it is always beneficial to inquire about the special rate for these memberships,” Nastro says. “The savings virtually pays for the membership, and both are widely accepted at properties all over the world.”
17. Snag reward deals early
If using travel points and miles to book flights and hotels, you shouldn’t wait to solidify all your vacation plans. “When you book flights with points, earlier is generally better because of award availability,” Blancaflor says. “Award availability fluctuates as airlines add or remove which seats you can book with miles, and passengers make and cancel reservations. Usually, you want to snag awards as quickly as possible, which would mean either when the schedule first opens, generally around a year out, or waiting for last-minute award space.” (More on last-minute deals below!)
For hotels, Blancaflor says earlier is almost always better than later, whether using award points or not. If you can’t book travel for your particular flight or location, you may need to be flexible with your travel plans.
Bonus tip: “Set an alert with Expert Flyer [owned by The Points Guy’s parent company, Red Ventures] to be notified when an airline opens up award seats within specific date ranges and for specific flights, so you’ll never miss out,” Blancaflor says.
18. Score luxury for less
Joining rewards programs and using points may also mean being able to splurge for less, such as getting access to a hotel’s rewards club (think free breakfast and snacks) without having to pay an extra cent. “They can also help you book luxury travel experiences on a budget,” Blancaflor says. “Imagine booking a first-class flight or a luxury hotel stay that would have cost thousands of dollars in cash, for just the price of taxes and fees? Using points and miles is the best way to save money on travel—whether you’re looking to cover the cost to fly home to see family for the holidays, splurge on a luxury getaway or something in between.”
Bonus tip: Similarly, cruise loyalty programs can help you earn perks, such as priority embarkation and free internet, on your next cruise.
19. Jump on last-minute bargains
Last-minute getaway deals aren’t unheard of—but they’re not as common as they used to be. For flights, your best bet is to check the airline’s website directly. American Airlines, for example, has a page dedicated to low fares, most of which are for flights in the next three to six weeks. Or follow the airline on social media; Jet Blue’s @JetBlueCheeps Twitter account shares sales and deals as they become available, so be sure to check it regularly.
“For last-minute hotel deals, hotels may try to fill rooms last-minute and offer discounted rates, especially through sites like Hotwire or Priceline,” Nastro says. Again, flexibility is key, as the exact hotel you were eyeing may not have a discount, but a similar one in the same neighborhood might.
Bonus tip: Inquire about a free upgrade for your plane seat or hotel room—it can’t hurt to ask and may mean getting a more expensive vacation for the same price you were already paying.
Now that you know all about planning a trip on the cheap, read on to learn more insider secrets, including the polite habits flight attendants secretly dislike, the foods you can (and can’t) bring on a plane and the things you shouldn’t ask your hotel staff to do.