5 tips for a budget-friendly vacation
Vacations can be costly. And, it isn't just Americans who feel the burden of high prices. Expedia's 2014 Vacation Spending Index found that 71 percent of travelers from around the world begin saving for their trips a year out, with 87 percent actively looking for deals and discounts before booking.
To help take the hassle out of trip planning, we're making it easy with tried-and-true tips and tricks for enjoying a budget-friendly vacation.
Think beyond hotels
The American Hotel & Lodging Association estimated the average room rate at $110.35, which can add up quickly over the vacation period, even though travelers could be saving on their lodging.
Home-sharing sites like Airbnb and HomeAway have become popular because they allow you to rent a room or even a home from someone, often cheaper than a hotel. You also can swap houses with other travelers at sites like HomeExhange.com. The site starts at $9.95 per month for membership and allows you to stay in local homes for free.
Mark McSweeney, executive director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, says vacation rentals often provide a huge cost savings as compared with other lodging options by allowing one reservation for multiple people.
"Rates for some three-bedroom vacation homes may start at just $69 per night but sleep up to eight travelers, versus just one or two," he says.
McSweeney also says a vacation rental's fully equipped kitchen offers great value to travelers who want to save on dining out.
"Rather than spending hard-earned vacation dollars on a full restaurant breakfast every morning, vacation rental guests have the exclusive ability to simply stock up from the supermarket on their favorite cereal, snacks, eggs or pancake mix," he says.
According to Homestay.com's Alan Clarke, home stays are typically 30 percent cheaper than hotel rooms and offer the chance to live with a local and get to know the culture.
If you do stay in a hotel, you should stick with one hotel brand to accrue points for free stays or, depending on the program, use them toward airline miles, dining and entertainment.
Sometimes different loyalty programs work together, allowing you to combine your rewards from multiple programs to maximize your rewards. Those perks may come in handy when you're booking next year's trip.
Avoid paying for tours
Tours can be costly to travelers -- unless you get creative.
"Check to see if your destination has a greeter program via Google search, or peruse the Global Greeter Network. Many cities also have free tour companies, like Sandeman's New Europe tours, Free Tours by Foot, Discover Walks and Free City Tour. They are a great way to see a city, get a feel for where everything is, learn the history of a place and spend a morning," says Matthew Kepnes, author of "How to Travel the World on $50 Per Day."
According to Tatsuo Sato, founder of Shiroube, travelers can bid on free and paid tours using Shiroube, a site that connects travelers with local guides. The site covers 3,000 cities, with locals offering a variety of guided activities you can bid on.
"The cost varies from free to a couple of hundred dollars, depending on what you are looking for and where you go," Sato says. "For example, if you can find a local who needs to practice English, you can give lessons and the tour would be free."
Discount sites also provide affordable experiences, according to Jenny McIver, founder of travel site RTWin30Days. "I used GrabOne for a great deal on a whale-watching trip in Auckland (New Zealand) and ferry tickets to some of the city's outer islands. I've also used Groupon for catamaran sailing trips in Hawaii and even a massage at a local spa," she says.
And no matter what you find in your online search, Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel LLC in New York City, advises contacting the local tourism board to ask about coupon books and discounts.
A $25 dinner doesn't have to be the norm when traveling. Firpo-Cappiello says dining coupons from places like Restaurants.com, LivingSocial and Groupon can help save big bucks. Just make sure to use them before they expire. He also suggests trying street vendors for tasty and cheap local options -- as long as it's in a hygienic setup -- while kitchen-equipped hotels provide an affordable alternative to dining out.
"When booking a hotel, I always ask for a fridge, and I book a kitchen if I can afford it. Eating in on some vacation nights just makes eating out more special," Firpo-Cappiello says.
McIver also advises dining at buffets during the week instead of weekends, and at lunch instead of dinner. Additionally, eating a big brunch instead of breakfast and lunch separately provides a two-for-one opportunity. "Especially when the resort price includes a large buffet breakfast. In that case I often sleep in, have breakfast late and skip lunch altogether," she says.
Eileen Cotter, executive editor of Pure Wander Magazine, says that when you don't want to pay for food at all, try putting your English skills to work. In her experience, offering to proofread foreign menus in exchange for a free meal works about half the time, especially if you go when it's not too busy and you can speak to the manager.
It helps when you can offer a business card, showing copy-writing credentials. Even if you don't have that, "gently offer them an example of a misspelling or a way you could spice up their menu, and ask for a sample of their best dishes in return," she says.
Know how to book flights and hotels
According to Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, the average cost of domestic airfare is about $380. This number goes up when factoring in additional fees or when you booking an international flight.
Chang advises flying Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays for the least expensive fares, as well as on actual holidays. And if you're flexible with dates, he recommends checking airlines' and travel websites' low fare calendars where you plug in your destination and the dates with the lowest airfares pop up.
Don't just think about the obvious flight costs. Think of onboard costs, too.
"Book a flight on the select airlines that still provide free snacks, and even meals. Hawaiian Airlines offers a variety of free food. JetBlue guests will enjoy a selection of blue potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and other snacks along with a drink, while Delta fliers can nibble on Biscoff cookies," Chang says. "Moreover, complimentary Wi-Fi can be found on JetBlue, Norwegian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Air China and Hong Kong Airlines."
Having a strategy that goes beyond "search and book" is also smart. The best time to book tickets is about 45 days before travel on domestic flights and about 60 days before travel on international flights.
Waiting until the last minute to book is not the best way to score cheap airline tickets. You'll be competing with price-insensitive business travelers, which often causes the price to spike two weeks before a flight.
While last-minute booking is not the best for flying, it is the best for hotels and cruises, so look for deals through sites where you can name your price. Firpo-Cappiello recommends using the last-minute hotel-booking app Hotel Tonight, which shows deals on same-day bookings of unsold rooms in certain cities. He also favors this app for its ability to get you great deals when accommodation prices have skyrocketed, like during the Super Bowl. While the bargains aren't as good, it's a great tool if you're determined to stay in a specific destination at a certain time.
Communicate without spending a fortune
If you've ever made a long-distance call, you know roaming charges can cost more than a hotel if you're talking long enough. According to Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations," travelers can save money by getting friends and family to join Skype to avoid using a cellphone carrier. Skype offers free video calls, while smartphone and landline calls start at 1 cent per minute. Leffel also recommends getting a local SIM card to pay local rates, which are cheaper than international prices.
Social media also is a popular way to stay in touch. "Instead of paying for expensive calling cards, you can speak by voice and/or video on many popular social media platforms, like Facebook and Google Plus, which allows for up to 10 people to join a video chat from anywhere in the world with Wi-Fi," says Roni Weiss, founder of social media consulting firm RW Social.
"Instead of roaming texts, communicating by Facebook and Twitter can keep people at home in the loop without unnecessary expense," Weiss says.