“How can I travel on a budget?” is one of the top questions we receive at TPG.
There’s no question that travel is expensive right now as millions satisfy the itch to travel more. Demand has been through the roof. Inflation and correspondingly high hotel, rental car and airline ticket costs have many would-be travelers throwing up their hands in frustration.
However, there are still many ways to save. In addition to using reserves of points and miles to book hotels and airfare, TPGers have many budget travel tips to help stretch your dollars when traveling.
Here are 22 ways to travel on a budget.
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. A few examples from AARP include 30% off a car rental at Budget or Avis.
Look beyond traditional car rental companies and locations
Most people search for rentals at the airport with standard companies like Hertz and Avis. If you don’t find good results, consider off-airport locations or try alternatives like Kyte, Turo and Silvercar.
Check credit card merchant offers
Before booking your trip, review your credit cards’ special merchant offers. Multiple issuers offer this option (although American Express is a leader in the category).
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Every program works similarly: Log in to 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 or coupons to print to take to the register. There are likely offers you can activate that will provide discounts on dining, gas and entertainment.
Take advantage of free days at national parks
Every year the U.S. National Park Service sets aside several days when entry is completely free; options include Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, the first day of National Park Week in April, National Public Lands Day in September and Veterans Day in November.
Stay outside the national parks
You might dream of a night in a rustic cabin inside a national park, but getting that reservation could be challenging or costly — especially if you can’t pay for it with points.
However, just beyond the park, there’s probably a hotel you can book with points. For example, you could stay at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone with IHG One Rewards points; the SpringHill Suites just outside of Zion National Park is a great property if you have Marriott Bonvoy points to spend.
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 on everything from rental cars to gas, hotels and theme park tickets.
Get discounted gas at Shell through the Fuel Rewards app
At TPG, we love to stack savings. The Shell Fuel Rewards app is a good one to pile on the discounts.
You can link it to other loyalty programs — including American Airlines AAdvantage, Giant Food, Stop & Shop, Advance Auto and more — to receive extra discounts. Also, if you purchase through Fuel Rewards, link to partner retailers such as Petco, Bed Bath & Beyond, Office Depot/OfficeMax 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 (see rates and fees), which awards 3 ThankYou points per dollar at gas stations, and the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which also gives 3% back at U.S. gas stations.
Save on theater tickets in New York and London
Check TodayTix for cheap Broadway and West End tickets if traveling to New York City or London.
The TodayTix app has discounted tickets to various 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 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.
Save on 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. It’s through the Museums on Us program that’s been going on for 25 years. It’s open to Bank of America, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank (U.S. Trust) credit or debit card holders.
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 from 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 much less, even after generously tipping your guide, than you would with 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 through gift cards. All you have to do is let the app know you’ll be dining at a location before you take a seat. You can also get gift cards for Uber, Amazon and Starbucks.
Fly on weekdays
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 fly on Monday. So, the midweek days — Tuesday and Wednesday — have lower demand and are often 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. These bundles can offer savings of up to 40% off. Savings on business-class plane tickets and high-end hotels can offer some of the best deals.
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 get notifications when your trip’s best and lowest prices become available. Set up as many combinations as you’re considering, including different departure and return dates, so that 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, consider subbing Quebec City in for Paris if you want Old World charm. 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 are not yet ready to book, hold it. For example, Hopper’s Price Freeze allows you to lock in the price of a flight for up to seven days to take more time to finalize plans before you book. Some airlines will also let you hold flights for a small fee. (Remember that all U.S. 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.)
Re-price 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. 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.
Consider alternative airports
With prices high, 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 works internationally too: Try Gatwick Airport (LGW) instead of Heathrow Airport (LHR) when flying to London.
It may even make sense to get to one city by flying to another city and then taking a short train ride for the rest of the journey. For instance, you could fly into Philadelphia and catch a train 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 unrealistic for every situation or trip, but they can often offer better award availability or pricing than those from your home airport. Can you reach your destination for a lot less by starting in Seattle or Chicago? Would adding another flight to a different airport save you money or miles? Just ensure you leave enough time between flights to avoid 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 and 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 you can redeem for travel or transfer to various travel partners.
If you have a stash of points and cash fares are high, it makes a lot of sense to use those points instead. For example, I recently priced a trip to San Francisco and found a flight over the Fourth of July weekend; it should normally cost about $400, but for this particular weekend, it was going to cost me at least $621. I used 46,000 Delta SkyMiles instead. While it wasn’t the best redemption in the world, it was better than shelling out all that cash. Most of those SkyMiles came from credit card spending on my Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card.
There are many 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. However, you may prefer to book economy award flights or lower-category hotel stays using your points to stretch your points further.
You can join AARP for discounts even if you are not retired. The advocacy group for older adults offers all kinds of cool discounts, including $60 to $200 off British Airways flights and 10% off Hilton hotels.
Related: How to use AARP discounts on travel
Spending a small amount of time researching the best ways to travel on a budget could easily make a dream trip, like a Paris vacation, more attainable.
It’s possible to take an excellent vacation on a budget. You just need to 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.
Some of our top budget travel tips include shopping around, signing up for deal alerts through websites like TPG and using points and miles. Opening a credit card or two for the sign-up bonus once or twice every few years could make your trips even cheaper. Don’t forget to sign up for our daily newsletter, where we teach you how to travel better for less. At TPG, we make traveling on a budget easy.
Additional reporting by Melissa Klurman.