18 tips for traveling on a budget

Ever wondered how to travel for cheap? If so, here’s good news: There are lots of ways to economize while still checking destinations off your travel bucket list.

Whether you’re thinking about backpacking through Europe or taking a road trip, here are 18 things you can do when traveling—and planning travel—to reduce your costs.

Key takeaways

  • Even if you can’t go to a certain destination “cheaply,” it’s possible to keep costs down by creating a budget and sticking to it.
  • Booking early, even months ahead of time, might help you save on flights, hotels and attractions. 
  • Using money-savings strategies—like using rewards miles or avoiding foreign transaction fees—can also make budget travel more doable.

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1. Plan early to optimize your travel budget

It can be a good idea to start planning your travel at least 10 months in advance—that includes starting to track the price of flights. There are a number of websites, like Capital One Travel, that allow travelers to set fare alerts and watch for the best time to buy plane tickets. 

Another important planning step is to assemble any documentation you’ll need. You may want to get a passport well in advance, if you don’t already have one—or renew yours if it’s close to expiring. If you have to rush the process, the fees can rack up quickly. And if you need travel visas, you’ll probably want to make sure those are in order, too.

If you think you’ll need travel insurance, it can help to set that up in advance, too. You could also keep an eye on travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State.

2. Travel when others aren’t 

This can apply to both seasons and days of the week. Once you know where you want to go, you can figure out when your destination’s shoulder season is—that’s the period when there may be fewer visitors. During that time, you may be able to take advantage of cheap travel deals, save money on flights and hotels, and have a less-crowded experience. For example, if you want to go to Greece, try traveling in May or October instead of the peak summer months.

Also, check out your options around your desired travel dates. If you’re planning spring break and all of the Saturday-to-Saturday flights are expensive, maybe look at Friday-to-Friday flights instead. Flying on major holidays instead of the day before can work well, too.

A photo of a person in Rome, saving money by traveling off-season during a cold-weather month.

3. Consider an extra stop to reduce flight costs

When you’re researching flight options, keep in mind that there may be low-cost carriers that you’re not seeing in your search results, simply because they don’t fly your entire route. If you’re finding that a ticket from Point A to Point B is too expensive, you could grab a map and look for a Point C—possibly a cheaper destination to fly to—and then arrange alternate transportation to your desired destination.

For example, say you want to fly from California to Venice but the price is high. Instead, you could fly to Budapest and spend two days there, then fly with a low-cost airline from Budapest to Venice. That option could cost less than a ticket directly to Venice. This strategy can also be a way to add another destination to your vacation—and one that you may not have thought about before.

4. Combine destinations 

Are there several places on your travel wish list? If your vacation time is flexible, you could combine numerous destinations into one trip. That may save overall flight time and money compared to visiting one destination. If you have a destination that you know isn’t budget-friendly, consider combining the trip with another cheaper destination to visit. This could allow you to check items off your bucket list without breaking the bank. 

Heading to the Caribbean? Think about visiting several islands. Have you wanted to see London, Stockholm and Rome? Consider seeing all of them on the same trip. Check out low-cost airlines around the world that might be fairly economical for short one-way trips. Or go even farther. You might want to come up with an itinerary that touches 6 or 7 countries on 4 continents in just a few weeks.

5. Contact hotels directly

If there’s a hotel you want to stay at but its rates are high in your online search, think about calling the hotel directly. Ask what its value dates are or whether there’s a time frame when a stay could work with your budget. Hotels can be more flexible with their rates than you might realize, especially during periods of low expected occupancy. 

A photo of a person checking into a hotel, talking with an agent at the reservation desk.

6. Stay consistent

If you generally fly more than a couple of times a year, directing your miles to one airline or travel rewards credit card could pay off nicely. Advantages could include extra rewards, better ticket prices, better flying experiences, shorter lines, preferred boarding and upgrades.

Staying loyal to one airline could come with other advantages. For example, fees to check your bags could be waived—the same might apply when you check bags that are slightly over the airline’s weight limit. It could also mean perks like exclusive access to airport lounges.

7. Collect and use frequent flier miles

You may be able to increase the amount of travel you can afford by using frequent flier miles whenever you can. You can sometimes earn frequent flier miles through traveling, like when you buy an airline ticket. You could also earn them by using a travel rewards credit card for your everyday purchases.

With Capital One travel rewards cards, you can earn unlimited miles on every purchase you make. Some cards, like VentureOne, might even offer bonus miles to new cardholders. You could also earn extra rewards on trips booked through Capital One Travel using eligible cards.

A photo of a person using their laptop to check into the frequent flier miles they earned by using their Capital One credit card.

8. Pay in local currency to avoid fees

Some credit card companies charge foreign transaction fees when you make a purchase in a foreign currency using their card. Typically, the fee is about 3% of the purchase.

Whether you’re charged a foreign transaction fee can depend on your credit card. Some card issuers don’t charge those fees—that includes Capital One’s U.S.-issued credit cards.

In addition to bringing a credit card on your trip, you may want to carry both cash and a bank debit card for getting cash at ATMs.

9. Pack smart and stay organized

Planning ahead can be an important part of budget travel, like when you’re packing. For example, it can prevent you from buying unnecessary items for your trip. It might also help you avoid paying to check a bag on your flight—that’s if you pack economically enough to carry your bag with you onto the plane. 

As a rule of thumb, bring only what you need. And double check that you haven’t forgotten any critical items before leaving home.

10. Use public transportation

Using public transportation instead of renting a car or paying for taxis can be a great way to save money while traveling. The good news is that cities around the world have transportation networks that make it relatively easy to get around without a car. You may find that studying the train, bus and subway routes for your intended destination before you arrive can be time well spent. 

A photo of a person relaxing, reading and eating a meal while traveling by train.

11. Find free attractions along the way

It’s a given that many activities will cost money when you’re traveling, especially if you’re headed to a popular destination. But it’s possible to find free or low-cost attractions to work into your budget travel. For example, museums and parks are often free to the public and can reduce overall travel costs. 

12. Take advantage of special discounts

If you’re a senior or a student, using discounts can make it easier to travel on a budget. For example, these savings may be offered at restaurants, retail stores, grocery stores, movie theaters, museums and other attractions at your destination.

13. Travel to small towns

Adventures aren’t necessarily restricted to big cities. Try traveling to small towns where you may be able to vacation more economically. Small towns can offer cost-effective accommodations, authentic local food, and free or low-cost activities, like parks and historical sites. 

An added benefit is that smaller, less crowded destinations can mean a more relaxing getaway.

A photo of a small-town street lined with storefronts under a blue sky.

14. Try traveling locally

If you need to travel on a budget, consider seeing local sights rather than planning a trip far from home. Taking day trips in your area can be a rewarding experience that’s affordable, too. 

Or you could take a weeklong staycation with all kinds of options for enjoying your free time—everything from camping in the backyard with the kids to starting to learn a new language. 

15. Dine creatively

Creative dining can be a big part of an affordable family vacation.

For example, consider picnicking outdoors or cooking in the kitchen of your hotel room or short-term rental. These options might be more kid friendly than sit-down meals in restaurants—and more economical. Eating simply can help extend your vacation money and allow you to spend it on other things, like must-see attractions.

16. Cook some meals yourself

If you’re taking a trip that’ll last several days, you’ll naturally want to eat out and sample the local cuisine. But you can economize by shopping at a nearby supermarket and making some meals yourself from fresh, local ingredients. 

You may also want to carry a water bottle with you on your travels. That way, you can avoid buying bottled water and other drinks while you’re out and about.

A photo of a person economizing by eating a meal they made for themselves while on a vacation.

17. Work while traveling

Does your job accommodate remote work? If so, working while traveling can be a great way to see new sights without officially taking time off. 

If you have flexibility in where you live and work, consider seasonal employment—for instance, waiting on tables or maintaining the grounds at a youth hostel. Living in a different part of the country—or halfway around the world—can give you great life experiences and make seeing new places more affordable. 

18. Travel where your money goes the furthest

Some destinations just tend to be more expensive to visit than others. So adhering to your budget might mean traveling where your money goes the furthest. 

You could think about what’s important to you and prioritize your spending accordingly. Are great accommodations a must? Or are you more interested in experiencing the local cuisine? The key to traveling on a budget may be knowing yourself and deciding where to save—and where to splurge. 

Budget travel tips in a nutshell

If you need to travel on a budget, there are ways to make that happen. Creating a budget and sticking to it can help you economize. So can using money-saving strategies like booking hotels and flights early and avoiding foreign transaction fees.

While you’re exploring ways to save on your next trip, you could also consider a travel rewards credit card from Capital One. You’ll earn unlimited miles on every purchase you make—then you can use them for flights, hotels, rental cars and more.

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