I've been traveling from the second I set foot in this world. Born to a flight attendant mom and a hippie dad who was prone to soul-searching, I was fortunate enough to see nearly every state in the US and a couple countries abroad before I was a teenager! Our family didn't have money, but we had a certain tenacity that served us well. Nate and I have since expanded on my own experiences, branching out further into family travel – especially off-road, local and unconventional journeys. Here are some of our biggest takeaways from the road.
Explore your Local Area
If what you’re looking for is a vacation from the norm or just a small escape, try looking into what your own city has to offer. There is bound to be some stuff in your own neighborhood that you haven’t seen. Head to Yelp and search for “unusual places” to see things you may not have discovered yer.
Book your Trip Online – But Also Check Direct
Travel websites like Kayak and Cheaptickets are known for having the cheapest fares for any kind of travel. And booking a combination of your flight, hotel, rental car, and entertainment can save you money on a site like Expedia. It's always a good idea, though, to look at the airline and hotel websites directly as they may have bonuses or special deals for going straight through them to avoid the referral fee. Don't forget, Southwest never allows their fares to be listed on outside engines – and they're often the best combination of price and service.
Travel During the Right Time of Year
If you go to a travel website, they will usually have special deals on flights to areas during the least-popular times of year to go. It's always a good idea to go in “shoulder seasons,” when travelers don't frequent an area. You may experience shorter days or colder weather but it's always exciting to see how people actually live outside of the touristy times and not have to fight with crowds. The Trivago Hotel Price Index is an incredible resource for looking up the cheapest times to visit any given destination – just be sure to always look up area information to make sure you won't be arriving during a hurricane or anything else particularly severe.
Plan your Trip at the Last Minute
If you aren't too particular about where you go, try going on a last-minute excursion. You can score cheap hotels on HotelTonight and find last-minute deals on flights within a day or two with Expedia Daily Deals or Orbitz Featured Deals. These deals will save you 40 to 60 percent, but don't count on them if you really need to get somewhere on a particular weekend. These deals are only available on flights that the airline couldn't fill ahead of time. We often book our flights ahead of time and reserve the hotel at the last minute, which also gives us the freedom to move about the area we're visiting based on what activities we're drawn to when we're there.
Avoid Tourist Traps
Examine each activity that you plan on doing and determine if it is worth the cost. A tour of the city may sound great, but is it worth $30 to see the landmarks that you could take buses to for less than $5? For fun, offbeat activities at a fraction of the price that many tourist attractions cost, visit RoadsideAmerica.com. Here, you'll find many off-the-wall places to visit, such as Parrot Jungle Island in Miami or Flintstones Bedrock City in Arizona.
Backpacking and Camping
Backpacking is particularly good in Europe, where there are many hostels to stay in inexpensively along the way. Camping can also be a great way to save money, but be sure that it makes sense for your own circumstances. If you want to go snowboarding in the mountains, camping may not be the best idea if you don’t want to freeze. Also, if you are an inexperienced camper you should try camping a few times to get the hang of it before you try it on your own.
Use Public Transportation
I took a trip to Chicago awhile back and being from Los Angeles where the only way to get anywhere is to drive at least 20 minutes, I wanted to rent a car. My friend from Chicago, however, talked me out of it. Between the L, buses, trolleys, cabs, and trains they had inexpensive public transportation that takes visitors absolutely anywhere they want to go in the area. I even took a train a couple of hours into Indiana to visit Notre Dame for less than $20 round trip. Look at the website for your destination city’s airport to get ground transportation tips and Google transportation advice for the area where you'll be.
Sleep in the Airport
In some cities, you would have to either be insane or have a death wish to sleep in the airport. Other airports come complete with napping areas and shower and spa services. If you get in extremely late at night or very early in the morning, sometimes it makes more sense to get some shut-eye in the airport than spend money on a hotel. Go to SleepingInAirports.net to get a list of the best and worst airports to stay the night in. Topping the list off as the best airport to sleep in is Singapore’s Changi Airport, where you can find free movies, a swimming pool, and a Jacuzzi.
Mooch off Friends
If you want to get away but don’t care where, try mooching off your friends. Contact friends who live in other cities and go visit them, or if you have student friends who are studying abroad try crashing at their dormitory/host house for a while. Even if you don’t know anyone in particularly exciting areas, it’s a nearly free vacation.
Travel with a Large Group
Traveling with a large group will always cut down costs, from cab fares to hotel expenses – as long as you don’t mind sharing a bed (or a cot, or a spot on the floor). Also, when there is a larger group of people the chances increase that someone will have a friend or family member in the area who can give your group a free place to stay, discounts on activities, or a free meal.
For an interesting way to travel, try swapping homes with someone else. The advantages include a free place to stay comfortably, and you can save money on food by buying groceries and cooking instead of eating out. AirBnB and VRBO are great resources for renting someone else's house, but LoveHomeSwap is the best resource I've found for a direct swap.
Look into Alternate Airports
If you are flying from Los Angeles to New York, look up the airports near each location and be flexible about where you fly into. For example, you could potentially fly out of Burbank, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange County, or even Santa Barbara or San Diego if you were willing to drive a couple of hours. Flying into New York, you would want to look into at least JFK, Newark, and La Guardia airports. You might also consider flying into Westchester County Airport in New York or Macarthur Airport on Long Island. Try entering various combinations of airports into whatever online database (I prefer Kayak) you are using to search for flights. This can save you a lot of money.
This discount-buying site is generally the type of place you book on and cross your fingers it all works out, but their travel site is remarkably impressive and I have a number of friends who have booked marvelous four- and five-star vacations this way. They often offer packages including airfare, vehicle and hotel. If you have an open mind (and a lot of destinations to check off) this could be just the ticket for your next vacation.
No matter where you travel, use common sense. Hitch-hiking in a bad neighborhood isn’t worth the $10 cab fare you might save. Getting food from a street vendor in Mexico may be one-tenth the price of eating at a pricey tourist restaurant, but being sick to your stomach for the rest of your vacation costs more in the long-run. Before you attempt to cram twenty people into a hotel room, check if the hotel has strict policies on extra guests and make sure you aren’t running the risk of being thrown out of the hotel entirely. The smartest travelers, and those who have the best experiences traveling on a budget, think through every situation and make sure that the amount of money they are saving is worth whatever extra hassle they may have to go through.