21 pro budget travel tips expert travelers use all the time
Budget blues got you down? We feel you.
Inflation, along with high fuel and airline ticket costs, can send a chill through the plans of even the most intrepid traveler. However, even with a relatively small budget, you can still plan a great getaway.
Vacations on a budget require planning, but in the world of points and miles, planning is our middle name.
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In addition to using reserves of points and miles to book hotels and airfare, TPGers have a myriad of budget travel tips to help stretch their dollar when traveling.
Here are the top budgeting tips from TPG staffers and the TPG community for vacationing on a budget and getting the most out of the funds you set aside for your trip.
Related: 31 travel tips to keep your trip on track and on budget
Budget travel tips for road trips
Use membership codes to save on car rentals
If you’re a member of AAA or AARP, have a Costco membership, are a veteran or work for a large company with a car rental discount code, pull all of these levers. You might be eligible for discount codes you didn’t even know about.
Look beyond traditional car rental companies and locations
Most people search for rentals at the airport with the standard companies. If you don’t find good results, consider off-airport locations or try alternatives like Kyte, Turo or Silvercar.
Related: Delta and Turo launch partnership, allowing travelers to earn 2,000 SkyMiles on first rental
Check credit card merchant offers
Take time before booking your trip to go through your credit cards’ special merchant offers. There are multiple issuers that offer this option (although Amex is a leader in the category).
Every program works similarly: Log into your card account online or through your banking app, review the offers available to you, add the ones you want and make a qualifying purchase using the card for which the offer is registered.
There are no promo codes to enter at online checkout and no coupons to print to take to the register. There may be offers you can activate that will provide discounts on dining, gas and entertainment.
Related: Extreme couponing: How credit card merchant offers can save you hundreds of dollars every year
Take advantage of free days at national parks
Every year the U.S. National Park Service sets aside several days where entry is completely free, including Martin Luther King Day in January, the first day of National Park Week in April, National Public Lands Day on the fourth Saturday in September and Veterans Day in November.
Visiting a national park on one of the NPS’ free entry days can save you up to $35 per vehicle at some of the most popular national parks such as Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon.
Stay outside the national parks
You might be dreaming of a night in a rustic cabin inside a national park, but getting that reservation could be challenging or costly, especially if you’re unable to pay for it with points.
However, just beyond the park, there’s probably a hotel you can pay for with points. For example, the SpringHill Suites just outside of Zion National Park is a great property if you have Marriott points to spend.
Related: The best campgrounds, hotels and lodges near Yellowstone National Park
Download the T-Mobile Tuesdays app
If you’re a T-Mobile user, you’re in luck — this app is a major perk that will put money in your pocket just for checking your phone on Tuesdays.
To participate, download the T-Mobile Tuesdays app, check the app on Tuesday and claim your discount code. We’ve seen weekly discounts offered on everything from rental cars to gas to hotels to theme park tickets.
Related: T-Mobile expands travel-focused Coverage Beyond benefits
Get discounted gas at Shell through the Fuel Rewards app
At TPG we love to stack savings, and the Shell Fuel Rewards app is a good one to pile on the discounts.
You can link it to other loyalty programs, including AAdvantage, Giant-Stop & Shop, Advance Auto and others to receive more discounts. Also, if you purchase through Fuel Rewards, link to partner retailers such as PetCo, Bed Bath & Beyond, Office Depot/Office Max and many others to save even more.
Don’t forget to use a credit card that gives bonus points or discounts at gas stations for even more savings. TPG likes the Citi Premier® Card, which awards 3 ThankYou points per dollar at gas stations or the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express which also gives 3% back at U.S. gas stations. Both cards are on our list of best credit cards for gas.
Related: These are the best credit cards for gas purchases
Budget travel tips for food and entertainment
Save on theater tickets in New York and London
If you’re traveling to New York City or London, check TodayTix for ridiculously cheap Broadway and West End tickets.
The TodayTix app acts as a digital rush with discounted tickets to a variety of shows available. Prices vary, but most of the top shows currently playing are available on the site and the app.
While not all shows are hugely discounted, TodayTix often runs no-fee promotions. Keep in mind, though, that for some shows, you won’t be able to choose your precise ticket location. Instead, you will pick a section you’d like to sit in.
Related: On with the show! How to get a great deal on Broadway tickets
Save entrance fees with Bank of America
Bank of America cardholders can enjoy free general admission to more than 225 cultural institutions in dozens of U.S. cities on the first weekend of every month just by showing their cards.
Related: 5 reasons to get the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card
Use your library card for museum entry
Another way to get free museum admission is with a library “lending ticket” — a program where libraries will lend museum passes for a set amount of time.
Also, check if your local museum’s membership comes with ROAM (a reciprocity program across North America). It’s an easy way to get maximum value out of a regional (and usually less expensive) membership.
Take a free walking tour
Sign up for a free walking tour on your first day in a new city. It’s an inexpensive way to learn about the city and orient yourself.
Look online for options before traveling and sign up in advance if necessary. Then, all you need to do is show up with comfortable shoes and enjoy your free tour.
Although tipping is suggested, you’ll spend a lot less, even after generously tipping your guide, than a standard tour option. You will likely also meet other like-minded travelers, which can be welcome if you’re traveling alone or looking to make new friends.
If you’re interested in seeing what’s available on your next trip, Google the city you’ll visit and the phrase “free walking tour” to see what comes up.
Dine on the cheap with Seated
Here’s a fun one: The Seated app allows you to dine out and get paid for it.
The app rewards diners who sign up and eat at designated restaurants with cash they can redeem in the form of gift cards. All you have to do is let the app know you’ll be dining at a location before you take a seat. Check out the details here.
Budget travel tips for flights and hotels
Flexibility on which days you fly is one of the keys to getting the best airfare prices. Leisure travelers most commonly book weekend flights while many business travelers travel on Monday. So, the midweek days — Tuesday and Wednesday — have lower demand and are therefore the best days to travel for lower prices.
Book vacation packages
Airlines that bundle airfare and hotels as vacation packages can offer better deals thanks to their vast buying power and inventory, TPG managing editor Clint Henderson says. These bundles can offer savings of up to 40% off.
Also, purchasing directly from the airline gives you a one-stop shopping experience; you can even add a car and activities to your trip at the same time. Plus, you’ll often be able to take advantage of special sales and bonus points-and-miles offers.
Use a price monitoring tool
Airline fare monitoring sites such as Hopper and Google Flights ensure you’re getting notifications when the best and lowest prices become available for your trip. Set up as many different combinations as you’re considering, including different departure and return dates, so you can get alerts for all possible fare reductions.
Be flexible on destination
If you’re not locked into a fall or winter vacation location (like you would be for a destination wedding or family reunion that you can’t change), try an alternative to find better prices. For example, if you want old-world charm, consider subbing out Quebec City for Paris. For scuba diving enthusiasts, skip the expensive long-haul flight to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef and instead head to the second largest barrier reef in the world in easy-to-access Belize.
Hold your deal
If you see a great deal but you’re not ready to book yet, hold it. For example, Hopper’s Price Freeze allows you to lock in the price of a flight for up to seven days so you to take more time to finalize plans before you book. Some airlines will also let you hold flights for a small fee (and remember that all airlines by law allow you to hold and cancel a flight booking within 24 hours without penalty as long as you book more than seven days in advance).
Reprice your flights and hotels
As long as you’ve booked a hotel, car or flight that can be canceled without penalty, you should make it part of your weekly routine to check for price drops; then, if you find a lower price, rebook. You can use these same rebooking strategies with points to make dynamic pricing work in your favor for hotel stays so you can save on award nights.
Related: How I saved 33,500 points on upcoming hotel stays
Consider alternate airports
With prices on the rise, now is the time to be flexible and check all nearby airports. For example, Houston and Chicago have two airports., while the New York City area has three, including Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey. In Southern Florida, you could easily fly to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale or Miami. It may even make sense to get to one city by flying to another city then taking a short train ride for the rest of the journey. For instance, you could fly into Philadelphia and catch a train up to New York. Strategies like this can help you get to your destination on a flight with better pricing or award availability.
Use positioning flights
Positioning flights are not realistic for every situation or trip, but they can often offer better award availability or pricing than those from your home airport. Can you get to your destination for a lot less by starting in Seattle or Chicago, for example? Would adding another flight to a different airport ultimately save you money or miles? Just make sure you leave enough time between flights to avoid any unnecessary travel headaches.
Use points and miles when appropriate
Since you are reading TPG, you may also want to earn points or miles through your everyday spending that you can use to pay for part of your trip. Some credit cards — like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card — can help you earn airline miles or hotel points that you can redeem directly with the airline or hotel. Cards such as the American Express® Gold Card earn transferable points that you can redeem for travel or transfer to a variety of travel partners.
There are many different strategies for getting the most out of your credit card. You’ll generally get the most value when redeeming for premium cabin flights or luxury hotel stays. But, you may prefer to book economy award flights or lower category hotel stays using your points to stretch your points farther.
It’s possible to take an excellent vacation on a budget, especially if you put in the time to plan your trip, budget your expenses, download a virtual wallet of money-saving apps and consider using points and miles to decrease your out-of-pocket costs.