Budget Travel Tips
More travel is always a good thing, so if you have a budget but want to see as much of the world as possible, check out some of these tips and save some dough! This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to share your own tips in the comments section!
There are a lot of US-based websites through which you can book transportation, but you probably aren’t going to get the best deals. In fact, I have seen some serious rip-offs. So, before buying all of your train tickets through an online agent, check out the local train websites in each country you will be visiting. Sometimes, you can’t book out of the country, but if you are adventurous enough, you can book when you get there. This works for some places, others not. Germany’s trains are usually much cheaper if you book ahead of time. In Italy, it doesn’t really matter, but their website often has two for one deals, discount trips, etc. When we went to Slovakia, we found trains to Budapest for 14 Euros. We would have paid much more had we booked it through the German train system. So, if you don’t mind some surprises, it can pay to wait. Additionally, there are some car-sharing websites where you can hitch a ride with someone for a fraction of the train ticket cost. Again, this is for the more adventurous and probably not for parents traveling with children.
More and more, long haul buses are popping up in European cities as competition to the train monopoly. And, they are much cheaper. For example, if I book a last minute ticket from Munich to Berlin , it will cost around 121 Euros. If I take the bus, which is about 2 hours longer, it costs around 30. And, they go to tons of cities around Europe. This is probably not ideal if you are traveling with a baby (we did it once and it sucked) but the buses themselves are clean, comfortable, and efficient modes of transportation. Plus, some have wifi.
This also applies to ‘deal’ websites. In Germany, check on LTur for last minute trains or travel deals. Many countries will have websites like these with some great deals, so if you do some digging, you can strike gold (or at least a budget hotel room).
Go offline (gasp!)
Just to be clear: I am a major proponent of booking almost everything online. However, these bricks and mortar travel agencies sometimes just have better deals. For instance, when I lived in Singapore, it would have cost my dad more than a thousand dollars to book a flight from Singapore to Thailand plus a hotel from a US website. In Singapore, we just popped into an agency and got a 7-day great vacation for a couple of hundred bucks. Most cities in Europe still have travel agencies all over the place, with great deals advertised in the windows. Believe it or not, every hotel in the world is not that internet savvy yet, so sometimes the best deals can still be found offline. Sometimes.
Negotiate on Airbnb and the like
Some of these airbnb hosts are getting a little ahead of themselves with the prices they are trying to charge. I always, always try to negotiate and have succeeded almost 100 percent of the time. Sometimes, I am almost offensive about it, requesting a 50 percent discount from their published price. Usually, we meet somewhere in the middle. Remember, a booked room is a booked room and if demand isn’t that high, it is a renter’s market.
Learn to love Hotwire
I’ll admit it – I get an adrenaline rush from ‘blind booking.’ As I enter my credit card details and wait for the booking to process, I can feel my heart race as I wonder which wonderful or not-so-wonderful hotel will be awaiting me at my next destination. And, it isn’t always a crapshoot. On Hotwire, they tell you the number of stars a hotel has and its general vicinity. A little googling and you can probably narrow down which hotel you are going to get. In the US, this also works for rental cars (I think I once hotwired a rental car in Cali for a week.. cost me about a hundred bucks). I have never tried flights.. I would much rather pay extra for a flight that won’t make me miserable than get a ‘sweet deal’ and end up sleeping in airports.
Budget airlines aren’t always budget
Budget airlines are great as long as you carry no luggage with you and maybe have someone available to pick you up at podunk, no name airport in the middle of the field. Usually, they take you to different airports, where the only available transportation is their own bus, which is another fee. And, bringing luggage costs a pretty penny too. Sometimes it is totally worth it when airlines like Ryan Air charge 5 Euros to go somewhere. But, a lot of times the prices aren’t that much cheaper, so just check first that it takes you to a convenient airport, where you won’t have to buy another expensive ticket to get into town. Also, if you do go with budget, always buy the luggage allowance when you are booking, because it is much more expensive if you wait to pay at the airport. That being said…
Always check budget airlines
Sometimes, like the aforementioned Ryan Air example, you can get GREAT deals. When that happens, snatch it up, because who cares if you are basically living through a nightmare in-flight advertisement if the flight is only two hours? Additionally, some airlines, like German Wings, have these blind booking deals (my heart swoons just mentioning it), where you can get a cheap round trip flight to one of several cities (price goes up as you eliminate destinations you don’t want to go to). I did this and ended up in Maastricht, which was beautiful! Plus, some budget airlines also have budget car rentals, which can be cheaper, so they are worth a look.
House sit, house swap, or couch surf
Two are family-friendly, the other probably isn’t. But, there are great websites where you can apply to house sit for someone if you agree to walk their dogs for a a few days (or months). They have a membership fee, but if you get a placement, it will save you tons in hotels. Also, I have a lot of friends who house swap and absolutely love it. Various websites like home exchange are set up so people wanting to visit your town can stay at your home and you can stay at theirs (you never even have to meet). Unless you live in Sucksville, Nowhere, there is a good chance you can find a swapper. Finally, couch surfing is an option for the more adventurous. I have made some friends through couchsurfing – it is basically a free way to explore a new city and meet new people along the way. Sometimes, you can get a nice bedroom all to yourself, sometimes an air mattress on the floor, so just be sure to get all the details first.
Find happy hour deals and lunch specials
Whether you are in the US or in Europe, happy hour is a wonderful invention for people who want to eat cheaply. In Italy it is called ‘aperitivo’ and for the price of a drink, you can often get a buffet of delicious food for free. After gorging ourselves with pasta for several weeks, we came to find these aperitivi a wonderful alternative. Some restaurants even serve fresh juices if you don’t want a cocktail (breastfeeding mama here). Also, as we aren’t big on eating at 9 p.m., the earlier ‘dinner’ time worked out perfectly for us. If you prefer eating big in the afternoon, in most countries you can find some great deals on lunch and then maybe just have a light dinner (or grab a sandwich at one of the million bakeries and eat in a pretty square).
Always do the free walking tour
First of all, wanting to save some money or not, these are usually the best tours in town. The guides speak great English, they are friendly, and they will answer your questions because they work for tips. I have usually enjoyed the free walking tour offered in most cities much more than the paid ones. And, you may even get more freebies with it (i.e. entrance costs, funicular costs, etc). So google free walking tour and the city you are visiting and make sure you join in the fun.
Download free (and almost free) audio guides:
A friend visiting Rome clued me in on this and I was thrilled to learn Rick Steves (travel guide extraordinaire) offers free audio walking tours through tons of European cities. The app is also free to download. And, they come with lot of extras – an in-app map, pictures, and even interviews with local guides and authors to learn more about what you are seeing. I would just download the tour I wanted through the wifi at my hotel, plug in my headphones, and go on my merry way with the babe strapped to my chest. Free and actually better than a lot of the more costly audio guides at each sight.