Thrifty Budget Travel: Tips That Actually Help!

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TWA Hotel, New York, December 2019

For the past year and a half, we’ve been traveling around the United States (and parts of the world) while juggling full time jobs! It has been one of the coolest  experiences of our lives and has brought us to new foods, places, and people! Admittedly, we’ve had our fair share of stressful travel situations (thankfully, we can laugh about them now) but we wouldn’t trade these years for the world.

We love sharing travel stories with friends and family and, in our conversations, there’s one question we get over and over again: How do you afford to travel all the time? Well, we’ve learned a thing or two these past few years! And it’s about time we gave you an inside look. Here are some of our top travel hacks for budget travelers:

Flights

The very first thing we ever book are flights! Things were significantly easier when Tom worked at Jet Blue last year! Thanks to their amazing employee benefits program, he and a companion (me!) could book free, unlimited flights along any Jet Blue route! With a catch…flights were standby. There were some serious close calls and we nearly got stuck on our way home from several cities! Now that we’re paying for flights in full we’ve been getting real crafty about snatching deals. Check out how we do it:

Flight Scouting

Time and time again, Kayak has proven to be an amazing tool for finding cheap flights! One of our favorite things about it is the “Go Anywhere” option under flight searches! It allows you to choose a budget and enter specific dates, an approximate date range, or a general month. Then, it pulls up an interactive map that shows you exactly how far your dollars can take you! It’s perfect for travelers with flexible dates! In fact, it’s how we found $200 RT tickets to Ireland for May 2020. Check out the interactive map below:

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http://www.kayak.com

Another neat site we’ve used is Student Universe! Fun fact: you don’t have to be a student to score cheap deals on Student Universe! As long as you’re under 26, you can access all their amazing deals, for free. They work closely with airlines to offer cheaper tickets to young people and we love it. Last Spring, we scored $230 RT flights from New York to Madrid on American Airlines! No other travel site was showing these prices and we snatched them up right away!

A lot of our friends love using Sky Scanner – we haven’t used it much yet but it’s got some of the same awesome features. If you’re set on flying to a specific location and have flexible travel dates, be sure to set a price alert and you’ll be notified as soon as flights in your price range pop up!

Airline Points/Credit Cards

Are you a frequent traveler? Do you tend to travel with a particular airline? If so we’d recommend joining a frequent flyer program and/or investigating that airline’s credit card offerings! Tom’s Jet Blue Card and my American Airlines card both come with amazing sign up bonuses, flight benefits, and point savings programs!

Of course, you should always make financial decisions that make sense for your situation but investing in an airline credit card can have amazing immediate and long term rewards! Especially if you sign up for it while you’re on the plane, where they tend to offer additional sign up points. Here are just some of the benefits we’re getting with my American Airlines Aviator Red Card:

  • Sign up bonus of 60,000 points
  • 2 miles per dollar on AA purchases
  • (1) free checked bag per flight
  • Preferred boarding on AA flights

Again, only do it if it makes sense of you! I recently used my sign up bonus to purchase a roundtrip flight to Paris and still had 10K points leftover to use towards another trip in 2020!

Lodging

Lodging can make or break your travel budget if you aren’t careful! It’s why we typically opt for Airbnb’s while we travel, as they’re usually more affordable, and rarely stay at hotels. However, each has option has its charm and we’ve found ways of making them both work! Check out how:

Airbnb’s

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Airbnb Rental, Miami, February 2019

Needless to say, we love Airbnb! It’s an incredible platform that allows you to rent rooms or homes all over the world for a fraction of the price of a hotel! However, these are other people’s homes. Depending on which rental option you choose (bedroom, shared home, full house), you may be staying under the same roof as the home owners. Which makes some people uncomfortable! But Airbnb hosts are typically extremely professional and skilled at renting. We’ve done Airbnb in dozens of cities (US and abroad) and have never had a major issue. The platform takes its own precautions to ensure you’re safe, and that you know exactly what to expect.

Here are some of tips to make the most of your experience:

  • Use the search filters! Want a home with a pool? You can filter for that! Looking for a beach-side escape? You can use the website’s interactive map to find the right home for you! Airbnb has a series of incredible filters that help you find the right place for you. One of our favorites: there’s a price toggle that helps you narrow down properties in your price range! We typically pay around $40-$100 per night, depending on the city! Also, you can hand-pick homes listed by “Superhosts” – that is, hosts with a nearly perfect record of positive reviews.
  • Read reviews! To avoid walking into unknown territory, read reviews left by previous visitors! These are often extremely detailed and honest. They can contain photos and first-hand accounts and will put any of your doubts at ease, especially if you’re concerned about staying at a stranger’s home.
  • Book ASAP! Airbnb’s book up FAST! Typically, there’s a more limited supply of them than hotels so it’s really hard to find a steal if you cut it too close. We recommend booking between 6-8 weeks before your trip. The further out, the better! If you’re traveling to a city during a particularly busy season (ie: NOLA during Mardi Gras), give yourself even more time to work with.

One last feature we love is Airbnb’s “Pay Less Upfront” option. It allows you to pay portion of a booking’s Total Fees (typically 50%) at the time of booking and pay the remainder of the Total Fees at a later time prior to check-in! A fabulous way to break up expenses.

Hotels

Across the board, hotels are typically more expensive than Airbnb’s. However, there are some cities like D.C., Chicago, or Las Vegas where being in the heart of downtown makes a huge difference! Because of the convenience factor, we’ll usually make an exception and take the hotel route! Good news is, there’s still ways to be cost effective! Here are some ways we’ve curved costs while staying at hotels:

  • Opt for a short, weekend trip (hotels can get expensive after 3+ nights).
  • Use sites like Expedia and Hotels.com to score discounts, deals, and rewards.
  • Use airline points (yep!!) or credit card points towards hotel expenses.
  • Have flexible travel dates and price compare: hotels can be significantly cheaper depending on the week!

All in all, hotels are a great treat and can make a trip feel extra special and luxurious! Book wisely and snatch a good deal when you see it! We traveled to DC earlier in November and hotels were 30% cheaper the weekend we visited vs the previous weekend. We got great value out of our trip, without breaking the bank!

Car Rentals

Car rentals – an absolute headache for travelers under 25! While we’ve always managed to score awesome deals on flights and lodging, car rentals have been so troublesome for us. Hefty young diver fees + random added expenses + gas costs have nearly always made rental cars top the expense list for our trips! Here are some neat ways to get around the expenses:

Turo

This amazing car rental platform is basically the AIRBNB of cars! It lets you directly rent the cars of folks who live in specific cities, and get them delivered straight to airports or train stations. It’s usually so much cheaper than a traditional rental company and gives you a fun and varied selection of cars!

On our trip to Los Angeles last Winter, we rented a Mercedes convertible for around $50/day and loved each minute of it! While it’s nearly always cheaper than a traditional rental company, it’s always good to double check. For some reason, Turo is more expensive than alternative rental companies in cities like Burlington, Vermont. Do your homework before booking!

Check out this beautiful, red convertible we rented last January in Los Angeles! It only cost us $50/day. Thanks Turo!

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Turo Rental, Los Angeles, January 2019

Silvercar

A few years ago, Audi launched its own car rental experience in select cities (including LA, Miami, Vegas and NYC) and Silvercar was born! The best part about Silvercar is their fleet of beautiful, new Audi A4 and A5 cars. You get to drive a gorgeous Audi at a reasonable rate, and without having to deal with that nasty young driver fee. They even offer a fantastic deal for first time renters: 40% off your total rental.

Their staff goes above and beyond to ensure you have the best possible experience. In Vegas, a Silvercar employee gave us a free ride to the airport because our Uber driver was taking too long. We would’ve missed our flight if it wasn’t for him! This is just one of the many positive experiences we’ve had with Silvercar staff.

If you’re looking to book soon, use our referral code for an extra $25 off: OUTGVJDH. 

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Silvercar Rental, Las Vegas, March 2019

The Airport Rental Counter

The Airport Rental Counter has typically been our last resort. When Turo, SilverCar or Hertz didn’t have a particularly good selection, we’d scout rental counters right after landing. Since most airport rental counters are in the same area, you can price shop and negotiate on the spot! When we landed in Seattle, we had pre-booked (not pre-paid) a car with Enterprise but the line at the counter was 40 people deep. While Monica saved our place on line, I went to the Alamo desk (which was empty) and asked them to beat the offer Enterprise had offered us for a Jeep Wrangler. Incredibly enough, they did! We marched out of there with our top choice car, at an awesome rate, and without waiting! This strategy is risky but can be a great resort for great negotiators.

One thing to note – most airport rental counters tack on a young driver fee. I typically call the company after the trip and politely try to convince them to remove the fee from the bill – rarely has it not worked.

Hertz

Hertz is one of the big rental companies that always avoided in our earlier trips. Big rental companies typically have young driver fees and sometimes slap on mysterious, added fees upon pick up. However, a few months ago we discovered that Hertz actually waives their young driver fee if you’re an AAA member. This changed everything for us! It’s been a HUGE win that’s saved us hundreds of dollars and has made Hertz’s rates comparable to Turo’s.

For those of you who are a bit craftier, we recommend buying a top-tier Hertz membership (ie: President’s Circle) on e-bay. For about $25, your Hertz account will be upgraded to a President’s Circle-level membership and will grant you some neat perks next time you book: free upgrades, jumping the line at rental counters, guaranteed bookings, etc. 

Credit Card Points

Another plug for credit card points, we know! But it’s worth investigating. I started out with a Chase Freedom Unlimited Card which, granted, is already a fabulous travel companion. After about 1 year, I decided to invest in a card that would give me a higher return for my travel! I upgraded to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and haven’t looked back since! There are many things to love about this card but here are a few that particularly stand out:

  • 2x the points on travel and dining (the best part of all!)
  • Points are worth 25% when redeemed for travel (this is HUGE!)
  • No foreign transaction fees (incredible for international travelers)
  • Primary car rental insurance (has saved us so much $$)

The best part about having a credit card that rewards travel? More travel! Credit cards like the Chase Sapphire are geared towards rewarding folks who dine and travel often. It’s an incredible way to ensure that every dollar spent is invested in your future adventures. Do you research and find the card that works best for you!

Spread out Expenses

One last piece of advice – spread your expenses out!!! It can be very financially burdensome to charge your credit card for a flight, lodging, car, and activities all within the same week! The best way to do it is to tackle expenses little by little and save along the way! Though it varies from place to place, we’ll typically spread out our expenses as follows:

  • Airfaire (3-6 months before)
  • Lodging (1-3 months before)
  • Car (1-2 months before)
  • Special Activities (1 month before)

This is exactly what we did for our upcoming trip to Hawaii! We booked our flights in July, booked our Airbnb in early November and booked our car in late November! What would’ve otherwise been an overwhelming series of expenses became super manageable. It’s all about strategy!

That’s all, folks!

We hope these tips inspire you to travel further and longer in 2020. We know travel can get expensive but so much of it is taking that initial leap and being crafty about your dollars – once you do that, anything is possible! Thank you for following along and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or suggestions.

With love,

Monica & Tom

 

 

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