Megan suggested I write up some tips on how I plan my travels on a budget. Travelling and going on holidays is important to me, and so I save a little bit of money towards it each month, in a savings account. I don’t have a great deal of money to spend on travels though, so our holidays are always organised on a tight budget. With this in mind, below are some of the things I do when planning a trip. You should know that my travels thus far have been limited to Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and that I am perfectly happy to put up with very basic facilities (like youth hostels) as long as they are clean and safe, and that we have our own lockable room. (We have had a few bad experiences with hostels in the past, and so now I will only stay at affiliated youth hostels, and will not go in a dormitory room.)
1. Flights – fly off season. If you’re going long-haul, flights are the most expensive piece of the puzzle. If you have to travel on a fixed date, shopping around all the different travel websites and airline sites is the way to find the best price. We’re lucky that we usually don’t need to go on a fixed date or at a certain time of year, and this is where you can really save money. There is usually a high season, low season and shoulder season for major routes – for example if you’re flying London to Boston, it’s expensive to go in time for the Fall. We went there a few years ago, and by travelling on November 1st paid a lot less than we would have done if we’d flown just a day earlier. There are obvious downsides: the low season is usually cheaper for a reason – because people don’t want to travel to that destination at that particular time. (Our trip to Boston was great – but the weather was painfully cold!)
To find out what time of year the lowest prices are available for a particular route, just ask the airline or travel agent, or look in the introductory pages of a guide book to that region.
2. Go DIY. Organised trips to places cost much more than ones you plan and book yourself, so if you devote plenty of time to doing your research, there’s a lot of money to be saved here.
Depending on where you are going, there may be good public transport options – more so in Europe than in North America. The guide books are a good starting point for finding out what transportation is like, and may give the name of the local bus or train operator, which you can then Google to find their site. In the last few years I’ve used all of these train websites and been really happy with them, and the way they help you find out all sorts of information well in advance:
Trenitalia – Italian rail
Sometimes a search of public transport can yield disappointing results: a couple of years ago I tried very hard to plan a holiday to Charleston and Savannah, but had to admit defeat since all the reasonably priced hotels were far from any transport links, and so that would have made things much too expensive for our purposes. (Since then I have learned to drive and so could in theory hire a car, but I don’t feel ready for that quite yet.)
I am currently planning a week-long holiday in Switzerland, which is a very expensive country. I looked at escorted options and found they were expensive – even though they only offered fairly basic accommodation. Using a combination of library books and the internet, I’ve managed to get the price down considerably and as an added bonus, the route we’ll be taking is sold by some travel companies as one of the world’s great railway journeys.
3. Food and drink – The best way to save money on food and drink while travelling is a good one, because it doesn’t involve eating anything horrible or worryingly cheap: eat your main meal at lunchtime. Lunchtime menus restaurants and cafes often have much lower prices than their evening equivalents, particularly in Europe. Europe’s also good for getting inexpensive snacks at breakfast time that you can eat in nearby parks – bakeries are all over the place, and so fresh croissants, still warm from the oven, are easy to find for almost no money at all.
Once you’ve found a decent supermarket you’re in luck – so many of them offer meals now that you can eat pretty well for much less than you’d pay elsewhere (as long as you don’t mind eating in a supermarket). We went to New York in 2005 and ate a few meals at the Whole Foods market, rather than going to restaurants, and in Oregon we ate at the New Seasons market (which was great – not only do they do great fresh meals and cakes, they also sell nice gifts and stationery).
Some countries are more expensive than others, so different rules apply in each depending on your overall budget. For example, since we’ll be going to pretty but expensive Switzerland this summer, I’ve tried to make sure that at least some of the hotels we stay at have a kitchen available for guests to use. This means we can prepare simple meals there rather than eating out. This will save us a lot of money, but it is a less appealing option than being able to go out for a meal, so you have to weigh up your options and decide what works best for you.
4. Accommodation – perseverance is the best way to save money here, just keep searching and searching. Guide books often list a few hotels in each price range, so you can quickly find their websites and see what the rates are. If you have a set budget in mind it’s much easier to narrow down the options, and keeping another browser tab open with the TripAdvisor website in is a good way to ensure you don’t end up staying anywhere unpleasant.
Youth hostels vary – the ones that operate as part of Hostelling International can be pretty good (and most now have bedrooms in addition to dorm rooms, so you don’t have to sleep in a room full of strangers and assorted scary people) but of course standards vary. The one in Sydney even has a roof top swimming pool, which is amazing. A plus with the hostels is that they almost always have a kitchen you can use to prepare meals in – if you’re going to do this, do it early so that the kitchen is not too crowded, and be prepared for lonely travellers to engage you in conversation while you’re cooking…
Bed and breakfast is a way of saving money in many countries, but I found when looking for a B&B in the US that they are seen as a slightly more luxurious option and as such are a bit more expensive.
Budget hotels are not always easy to find, and I strongly recommend that you do your background research (TripAdvisor) to make sure you get something cheap and simple rather than cheap and sinister. We’ve mostly done OK, but some have been disappointing. I don’t stay in the kind of hotels that have doors to the rooms which open right out onto the street because I don’t feel safe with only one door between me and whoever is outside driving round in the middle of the night.
5. Entertainment. Again, research is key – do the museums in the city you’re visiting have discount days? When we were in Chicago a few years ago we went to the Shedd Aquarium for free as part of an offer they seemed to be running every week. There are often discount coupons on the websites of various attractions and galleries, and sometimes they may be cheaper at certain times of day.
Don’t overlook local parks – often these offer great views back to cities, and can be a good place to capture a panoramic picture of the skyline. And if you’re not staying in a youth hostel but there is one nearby, it’s worth popping in to ask them what excursions and outings they are running/promoting – they will usually be much cheaper than anything your hotel has on offer.