Travel can be expensive, but people who travel all the time and claim it really isn’t that costly aren’t lying. I know because I’m one of them. I’ve traveled to 44 countries and 31 states, currently operating on the budget of a freelance writer and editor. The fact that I’m writing this article on a plane to Hong Kong is proof that I’m not broke yet.
Saving money makes me weirdly happy. When I figured out I could take Megabus from New York to Boston for $50 round trip (rather than $250 via plane), I was smug for a week. I follow all the more obvious tricks: flying off-season, using flight alerts from Hopper, booking with Kayak’s flex month feature, staying in Airbnbs, hoarding free food, and either walking or taking public transportation. Then there are the tricks that took me years of traveling to discover. Here are some of my favorites:
Travel overnight (comfortably)
Traveling at night has two benefits: you don’t waste a vacation day and you get a free night of sleep. On Christmas Eve I took an overnight bus from the capital of Paraguay to Iguazu Falls in Argentina and arrived in time to celebrate Christmas morning with my family in South America. The trick is to prepare for bed as normal before boarding (brush teeth, wash face, public-approved PJs), then block out the world with a sleep mask and ear plugs. If you’re desperate, pack some Aleve PM.
Total savings: a full day of sightseeing and up to $150 in lodging
Fly local, budget airlines
There are hundreds of small, budget airlines that are often cheaper when you book direct. Allegiant Air has $30 one way tickets from San Francisco to Las Vegas and by booking with Ryanair, you can fly from Paris to Prague for $15 each way. These airlines keep their costs low by charging you for everything from choosing your seats to printing out your boarding pass, so pay attention to the details. This list of hubs is helpful for finding budget airlines that serve the cities where you want to go, but you can always use Google to see what budget airline offers the route you’re looking for. In the US, Spirit, Frontier, and JetBlue are always worth a look.
Total savings: around $200
Exploit your student ID
It’s embarrassing, but at 32, I still use my student ID. Almost every museum, movie theatre, and zoo has student discounts. At the Met in New York a student ticket is less than half of what adults pay
Total savings: up to $13 per ticket
Only take free city tours
One of the best things you can do once you arrive in a new city is learn about its history and culture. Sandeman’s offers free tours in 20 major cities, while FreeTour.com can be found in 118 countries. If the city you’re visiting isn’t served by these companies, Google it or ask at your hostel, hotel, or a tourist information desk. Just keep in mind that the guides rely on tips.
Total savings: around $15 per person, per tour
Nix an international phone plan and SIM card
There will be internet at most restaurants and cafes you visit (ask and check the connection before you commit), but once you leave the world of wifi you’ll still need to navigate from one sight to the next. Download an offline Google Map of the area you’ll be visiting so you can orientate yourself without internet. If you’re worried about the language barrier, you can download a language dictionary in Google Translate that will still work in airplane mode. When you need to send a text or update your Instagram on the fly, search out a Starbucks or McDonalds for free wifi (usually without purchase).
Total savings: up to $10 a day
Don’t pay for rental car insurance
Before you dole out the extra bucks for rental car insurance, find out if your credit card will cover you—in most cases it does so long as you pay with the card that offers the coverage. When I scratched a rental car in Puerto Rico, the insurance on my United MileagePlus Explorer card kicked in and the damage was covered.
Total savings: around $40 per day
Book each flight separately
If tickets look pricey, I’ll use Skyscanner’s Everywhere search to find cheap flights that get me close to my final destination, then I’ll book the final leg of the trip separately. When I was flying Denver to Prague, I booked $600 round trip tickets to Amsterdam, bagged a new country, and then booked a flight from Amsterdam to Prague directly with easyJet, a budget European airline that I found by Googling cheap flights between the two cities.
Total savings: up to $100 per flight
Never pay an ATM fee again
I switched banks just so I would never have to pay for an ATM fee again. Charles Schwab and Aspiration reimburse unlimited ATM fees worldwide, and Bank of Internet USA offers unlimited reimbursements in the US.
Total savings: $3+ each time you use an ATM
Use the right credit card to save even more
If you love traveling or aspire to travel more, make sure every credit card in your wallet has no foreign transaction fees and offers airline rewards. I get two flight miles for every dollar spent on my Capital One Venture card and have my eye on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which provides three miles for every dollar spent and an annual $300 travel stipend.
Total savings: Three percent of whatever you spend abroad, plus free flights
Stop checking your luggage
I lived out of a backpack and carry on suitcase for a year in climates as varied as winter in Japan and spring in Cambodia—so trust me, it’s doable. Put your laptop, kindle, and bag of toiletries in your backpack for ease of airline security. In your carry on just pack one week’s worth of clothes (don’t worry, the rest of the world knows how to do laundry).
Total savings: $50 per flight