March 3, 2014

Spend Less; Travel More:
6 Tips for Saving Money on the Road

One of the most common misconceptions about traveling is that to travel far and wide, one must be rich. While having an excess of disposable income will certainly make travel easier (and more comfortable), it’s simply not necessary. I can sum up my travel motto in one word: FRUGALITY. Here are some of the best tips I use to make traveling more affordable.

1.  Pack well.

Don’t just make a packing list, make a thorough packing checklist and double-check that you followed it before you leave. How does a packing list help you save money? If you do it right, it keeps you from making your first destination a grocery store to pick up a new toothbrush, hair brush, and socks because you forgot to bring them.

Forget everything you’ve ever been told about only packing what you need. Figure out what you might not need and pack it anyway. The important distinction here is need vs. want. You might not need a rain coat—then again, you might find yourself in Seattle, $50 poorer with a new raincoat and boots because you wanted the packing space for more t-shirts (sad yet true story). I’m not saying load your entire trunk with snow shoes and beach towels; I’m saying suck it up and stuff in the umbrella you might not need instead of the cute wedges you wanted to bring. Ask yourself "If I don't pack this, what are the odds I'll make an emergency run to the store during my trip to buy one?" If odds are high, take it with you!

If you’re flying, check your airline’s baggage restrictions and make sure you know what can’t go through airport security. Measure your carry-on bags and weigh your checked suitcase at home first (better yet, don’t bother to check a bag if it costs extra). If you pack something that gets confiscated, you’re not only going to have to buy it when you reach your destination, you’re going to have to replace it again when you get home. 

TL;DR recap: Don’t set yourself up to buy things you already own! Big waste of money.

2. Do your homework on flights and airports.

Check flight prices for nearby airports instead of just the one closest to your home. Depending on where you live, sometimes you can save hundreds of dollars by driving an hour or two to depart from a further airport. If you’re driving yourself to the airport and plan to leave your car for an extended period of time, don't forget to check parking rates. Long-term parking typically ranges from about $5-$10 per day. It may not matter much if you’re only gone for three days, but paying $5/day instead of $8/day can make a big difference if you’re gone for weeks.

You might think it's obvious, but don't accidentally park in short-term parking! One of the airports I frequent labels their parking lots "deck" and "surface" instead of "short-term" and "long-term," whereas another local airport uses their surface lot for short-term and garage for long-term. It's easier than you'd think to get it wrong, so make sure you read signs and prices.

Tip: Some airport hotels offer extended parking with the purchase of one night’s stay.

3. Find travel buddies to split costs.

If you’re driving, gas is infinitely cheaper the more people you have in the car. Same with hotel rooms, which leads us to…

4. Don’t pay full price for hotel rooms. 

There is always a cheaper hotel on Priceline or Hotwire if you’re willing to book without a hotel name. I know it sounds scary if you’ve never done it before—but so does the $60 Motel 6 you can see with your own eyes off of the highway. If you’re a risk-taker, the best deal is usually bidding with the Name Your Own Price function on You choose the star rating and general area within a small radius, and you name a price you’re willing to pay. If your bid is accepted on the first try, you almost definitely bid too much. You only get one bid per day using the details you want, so plan accordingly. Start bidding well before your trip, and lowball that first bid. Go stupidly low—the worst thing that can happen is you have to try again tomorrow. I never increase my bid by more than $5 the next time I try, because that’s how you overpay. It’s a game you can lose if you don’t know what you’re doing, but I’ve stayed in a 3.5 star hotel for $50/night with this tool. Make that 3 nights at $50/night with 4 friends…guys, that’s $37.50 per person TOTAL for the whole trip. Full price feels like an insult after that.

If you want to save money but want the security of certain amenities like free parking or an airport shuttle, try Hotwire’s Hot Rates or Priceline’s ExpressDeals instead. The discounts aren’t as deep as bidding, but you get a handy little list of guaranteed amenities before you book.

For extra homework to improve your odds with Priceline’s Name Your Own Price, check out

5. Eat cheap.

You can still go out for a nice meal if that's something you enjoy, just cut the little corners where you can. I never eat out for breakfast while traveling. Find out if your hotel has a continental breakfast and take advantage of it. When it doesn’t, figure out a cheap breakfast food you can eat every day and buy it from a grocery store instead of hitting up McDonald’s every morning (for me, it’s Pop Tarts and Slimfast). Bring a water bottle and buy a jug of water to refill it with instead of buying a new bottle every time you stop at a gas station. I’m no good at math, but I’m pretty sure a gallon of water for 97 cents trumps the 20 oz. for $2.50 at the truck stop. Use coupons. Split large meals (oh hi, foot-long subs!). Order from the dollar menu. Repeat.

If you’re flying, try to plan your meals for before and after your flights if at all possible. (Have you ever eaten in an airport? One meal can practically fund 47 more plane tickets.)

6. Go easy on the souvenirs.

If you’re going somewhere special and already have an item in mind that you want, plan to buy it and have an idea of how much it will cost. It’s not the things you plan to buy that break the bank; it’s all the little things you didn’t factor in along the way. You don’t need the cute little keychain/picture frame/snow globe/etc. that you saw in the gift shop. Don’t start collecting post cards, magnets, shot glasses, or anything you can buy at a Love’s. If you want a free way to remember destinations, take fun, creative pictures instead!

Of course my real secret is this: saving money for travel doesn't end with trip expenses.  If you’re serious about saving, you remind yourself every day when you walk past Starbucks or see a pair of jeans you like. You don’t need to sacrifice everything for travel money, just make well thought-out purchases and cut out the impulse buys. If you see something you like today and still want it in a week, go back and buy it. If not, remember that $3 here and $20 there adds up to a plane ticket after a while.

What are some of your favorite tricks to save money while traveling? Share in the comments.


Rebekah said...

THANK YOU for these tips. My friend and I are planning our MOE trip right now, and driving an hour and a half down the road to a different airport would save us $200. Now I just have to hope the timing all works out.

Holly said...

You're welcome, and that's awesome! I'll most likely be driving 2 hours to save myself a few hundred as well. Good luck planning :-)

Unknown said...

The best trick someone gave me before traveling US was to drive to a wall mart on day 1 and buy bulk water/soda and a cool box and put it in the trunk.

Holly said...

Thanks for the tip, Saphira! I agree, if you have the packing space, buying food & drinks in bulk can definitely save a lot.