There isn't necessarily a magic answer. It's all v. practical and it's mostly about saving and shopping frugally, but I hope you're able to glean some good information out of this post.
The main thing you need to travel is money, duh. So, set aside money with a purpose.
- Be diligent about budgeting. If I have to make a large purchase, I won't overdo it on vacations, e.g. last year I had to take care of the final balloon payment on my car so last year I only went on one trip because I could only afford that one trip. The moral of the story: if you don't have the cash, don't spend it.
- Build up a vacation fund. I set up an automatic transfer of $50 each week from my primary bank account to a supplementary account, on the same day that my salary gets direct deposited. Because it disappears before I can spend it, I don't miss that $50 at all and it sits in a separate savings account, adding up, accruing interest, and it becomes a nice little vacation fund.
- Set up a little rainy day fund. I have a few piggy banks scattered throughout my room that I dump spare change into every once in a while. It's not much, but money is money and after a while it will have added up to a decent sum; at least enough for a lovely meal during your holiday.
- Slowly set aside your vacation spending money so you don't miss it. A few weeks before a trip, I will set aside some cash regularly - I'll head to the ATM every Saturday and withdraw $100 (for example) - and by the time my departure date arrives, I have a stack of spending money. Obviously the destination and the length of the trip will determine how much I withdraw each week and how many times I hit the ATM. If I'm going on a weekend trip to Boston I might go to the ATM two or three times, aiming to gather a total of $200. If I'm going to London for a week, I'll start going to the ATM 2 or 3 months ahead of time and aim to set aside $1000. This method is a little easier on my psyche than heading to the bank just once and withdrawing a huge chunk that immediately depletes my checking account.
I read in the New York Times that planning and anticipating a trip boosts happiness which is pretty cool.
- You don't need to spend a lot or go somewhere far to have a fun time. Go somewhere local just for the weekend. Hit up a B&B in a nearby town because like it said in the New York Times, planning a trip, no matter where or for how long, will boost your happiness. I love going to pick-your-own farms in NJ; it's a quick drive and I'm only there for a few hours but it still feels like I'm getting away.
- If you have a dream destination, find some way to make it work for you. Use airfare monitoring sites like airfarewatchdog.com to alert you when prices dip. Look up which months are considered "off season" and go when hotel costs are a little lower. Find a few companions who want to go with you and will split the lodging bill.
- Be flexible with your schedule. Flights tend to be cheaper on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday departures so be flexible with your schedule and consider flying out on those days. Most flight booking sites let you check off a "my dates are flexible" box and they'll show you a range of flights so you can pick a cheaper option.
- Brainstorm. If you don't know where you want to go but you have limited funds, use kayak.com/explore to find destinations within your budget.
- Consider all of your options.
- Car, train, bus, plane - if your destination is reachable by any of these, compare them all and weigh the pros and cons.
- Let's say plane fare and train fare to your destination are similar in price. Airports require you to show up a few hours early to go through security but with trains you can just hop on. So, even if the flight itself is shorter than the train trip, overall, flying can take more time.
- If driving and traveling via bus are your main options, consider the cost of gas and whether you have friends or family to split the cost. If you're traveling alone, bus might be easier (you can sleep and relax). Megabus has some really affordable fares if you book early enough.
- Do you have friends/family who want to accompany you and can you split the cost?
- Do you have friends/family you can stay with? Free room and board is awesome!
- If you need a hotel, flight, and rental car consider booking through a site that has travel packages (like Expedia or Priceline) because often times when you book all of these options together, you save money. That being said, don't assume that the package is always cheaper and do a little research to confirm.
- Clear your cookies. When you search for travel deals, many airline/hotel/travel websites will remember your searches and you won't always get the best prices. It's sneaky and sinister but it happens.
- Pay in local currency. When booking anything (hotels, flights, tours) through a foreign site, check out using the default currency and pay using a credit card without a foreign transaction fee. If you change the currency to your preferred currency, the site will do the conversion for you and likely use a rate that is not in your favor. If you allow your credit card to do the conversion, it will be a more current and more accurate rate and save you some money.
- Comparison shop. Look at the costs on multiple sites to make sure you're getting the best deal and consider flash sites like jetsetter.com.
- Use review sites to make sure you're booking a decent hotel. My go-to and favorite travel review site is Trip Advisor. How horrible would it be if you booked what you thought was a 5-star hotel and then you showed up and it was a dump?
- Win a trip! Follow airlines and travel sites on social media and look out for any cool contests and offers. This is probably unlikely to happen but you never know.
GOING & WHILE YOU'RE THERE
- Pack smartly. Don't check bags if you don't have to (especially if there are fees). But, also be wary of the airline's rules; some only allow one bag, no personal item, so checking a bag may be necessary. In general though, I try not to check bags because it makes me nervous; there's always a chance that it may be misplaced! Plus, waiting at baggage claim is a pain in the ass.
- For toiletries, I like to buy refillable containers and fill them myself. Those little travel bottles, while cute, have a huge premium on them.
- I also love free samples. Hit up your favorite makeup counter and ask for some freebies. Even those individual packets (makeup version of the ketchup packet) are great for traveling. I've previously shared travel sized perfume and travel sized makeup posts.
- If you must use your phone, get a prepaid SIM card. Personally, I like to use Skype and Whatsapp, both of which require a wifi connection which isn't too difficult to find these days.
- Use Yelp and Trip Advisor for tour, activity, and restaurant reviews to make the most of your spending money.
- Explore on your own. Tours can be great but I prefer to save that money (and put it towards a good meal) and just plan a route and walk around town.
- Talk to locals - hotel staff included - to find hole-in-the-wall eateries and cool things that tourists might never find out about on their own.
- Take advantage of free stuff. For example, museums usually offer a free day each month and most cities will have a bunch of attractions that are free (like churches and parks).
- Avoid foreign transaction fees! Exchange money before you go (if you bank with Chase they will exchange money for you without any commission costs) and get a credit card that doesn't charge a fee for foreign transactions. The Capital One Venture card is my favorite because there are no annual fees and you get points (which can be redeemed for travel). I only ever use it for foreign travel; if you're wondering, I use Chase Freedom when I'm at home.
- Sign up for memberships with hotels and airlines and earn points. This is especially important if you tend to be loyal to a certain one because those points will add up. Luckily, I was able to earn over 200,000 points with Marriott (because I stayed at one for over a year for work) so now I'm a Platinum Elite member. When I show up to any Marriott I get a little bit of special VIP treatment (like champagne and ice cream). Plus, once you've earned enough points, you can use them to book something for free.
- Book your hotel with Tingo. It monitors the costs and automatically refunds any difference if the price drops.
- After you book your flights, register them with Yapta. The site monitors the price fluctuations and helps you get the difference back. Be aware that there are limitations though so you won't always get money back but it's a nice added bonus if it works.
I hope these tips were helpful. If you have any yourself, leave them in the comments!