Updated on 08.23.16

Saving Money While You Travel, Part 2

Finding a better, cheaper place to stay.

Hostel guests at Barnacles in Ireland

You’ll find affordable lodging at a hostel — and probably some new friends, too. Photo: Barnacles Budget Accommodations

After sifting through the matrix of flight options, it always feels like a winning a hand in Texas Hold’em when I finally find the flight I’m looking for, click purchase, and shine the smile that says, “YES, I just saved a couple hundred bucks on airfare.”

And while getting a bargain on a flight, eating a good meal at home before I leave, and finding a cost-effective way to get to and from the airport is all part of my pre-flight routine, blowing that new-found savings on other parts of the trip nets me nothing when all is said and done.

So if you’re looking to save on airfare just to splurge on lodging, that’s fine, but this post probably isn’t for you. If you’re interested in ways to stretch your dollars and ideas to save you money while traveling, keep reading.

The two largest costs when traveling are usually airfare and lodging. Let’s take a look at some tips and resources to save you money as you look for a place to stay while on vacation.

Lodging Options

Growing up, our lodging options were a) stay at grandma’s house up north or b) rent a hotel for a week. The good news is that today there are plenty of other options to fit your travel style. We’ll look at a few of your options in more depth:

  • Friends and family
  • Airbnb and other vacation rentals
  • Hostels
  • Hotels and B&Bs
  • More ways to save

Friends or Family

This is the gold standard of making travel affordable. I am traveling overseas in Israel, Turkey, and Dubai for five weeks and, thanks to the generosity of friends and family, I will likely spend less on lodging than I would on one weekend hotel stay in a major city.

Of course, staying with friends and family requires that you have friends and/or family where you are traveling, and that you are welcome to stay with them during your visit. But if it works out, there is nothing better for your pocketbook.

Looking at hotels in Israel, Turkey, and Dubai, a one-night stay at a three-star hotel is $150+ per night. So staying with friends and family will save me up to $5,400 over this 35-day trip.  

While I may still stay a night or two at a hotel, Airbnb rental, or a hostel, I will save enough in lodging expenses to pay for another trip or two, or I can add that money to my savings or investment accounts.

So where can you go? Who can you stay with? Make a list of destinations you want to visit, and then a second list of people you know who live in other cities or countries. Do the lists overlap at all?

Often we will surprise ourselves to realize we have a friend or former colleague who has relocated to somewhere we’d like to visit.

I normally drop a friend or family member a quick note, letting them know that I’m thinking about visiting the area and to see if they have any recommendations on where to stay and what to do. From there I narrow down my list and create potential budgets and activity agendas for visiting each place. Sometimes friends and family offer you to stay with them, other times it doesn’t work out.

I would never rely on staying with someone to make the trip financially feasible — meaning, if something comes up (as things do), and they’re unable to host you for all or part of your trip, you should have sufficient reserves on hand to pay for lodging as needed.

That said, staying with someone you know, even just for a couple of days during a longer trip, can save you hundreds of dollars.

A few pros and cons of staying with friends and family:

Pros

  • Free lodging
  • Getting to spend time with people you like
  • Unique local experiences not available to most travelers
  • Allows you additional dollars to extend your trip

Cons

  • Limited privacy, depending on the setup
  • Accommodations vary: Some friends and family members may have a bedroom for you, others may only have a couch or air mattress for you to crash on. Be sure the accommodations fit your expectations for the trip and that you’ll get enough rest; if you’re sleeping on a couch for a month, you may need a vacation from your vacation when you get home.
  • If you’re looking to be on your own while you are there, make sure you communicate this to the host in advance to manage expectations.
  • Limited to locations where you have family or friends

I’ve had wonderful experiences visiting friends and family while I travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in four global cities, so I still have connections in those cities — plus, many of my friends, family, and contacts from those cities have moved on to other countries and cities I would love to visit one day.

This may be obvious, but make sure you’re empathetic and understand how your travel schedule and visit will impact the host. If you’re going to be out until the wee hours of the night, staying with grandma probably isn’t the best idea. It’s good to bring a small gift for a host you stay with and to follow up with a handwritten thank-you note. A farewell dinner (your treat) is also a nice way to repay your hosts for their generosity when appropriate.

Vacation Rentals

Renting an apartment or a room in someone’s house can open up more possibilities, both in terms of the type of accommodation and pricing. You may be able to rent an entire apartment for the same price as a hotel room, or even less, which makes it a great option for groups or families traveling together.

Airbnb

Airbnb is an online community where people can rent out their private homes and residences to travelers. It started back in 2007, when two roommates couldn’t afford the rent on their loft in San Francisco, and they tried turning their living room into a bed and breakfast to help make rent.

It worked. When guests kept showing up, they realized they were onto something special and Airbnb was born. The original site was airbedandbreakfast.com, before being shortened to Airbnb in 2009.

Airbnb is a great way to explore the world on a budget, locate an affordable room during the busy season, or find a place to stay in areas where traditional lodging options are scarce, unappealing, or overpriced. The sites, which include properties in 190 countries, fills the middle market between hotels and Couchsurfing, and has been used over 10 million times to book rooms.

Pros

  • You can rent a single room at affordable rates, or an entire flat or house.
  • View reviews of “hosts” and apartments from other guests to ensure property descriptions are accurate.
  • Typically more affordable than traditional hotels, with options for more space.
  • The occasional free breakfast from the host, and/or a kitchen to prepare your own meals.
  • Unique lodging experience almost anywhere in the world.
  • You’re often staying in someone’s actual home, so it’s usually a more homey and comfortable atmosphere than a bland hotel room.
  • Secure process requiring both hosts and guests to provide ID.

Cons

  • House rules may limit what you’re hoping to do during your stay.
  • You’re relying on an individual, not a corporation, so you may not receive the level of convenience or cleanliness you’re accustomed to at, say, a Marriott. (Then again, they may actually exceed your expectations.)
  • Airbnb has run into some legal challenges in certain locations, so do a quick Google search about the area you’re visiting.

HomeAway and Other Vacation Rental Sites

Airbnb is taking the industry by storm, but HomeAway is still the biggest vacation rental website out there, and the company owns vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) as well. While Airbnb has a community mindset and allows members to list even shared rooms, HomeAway listings are generally for entire apartments or homes, and are often posted by rental management companies or people who have at least some experience renting properties.

As such, you’re unlikely to find a single bed available for a rock-bottom $40/night, but you can find gorgeous vacation homes and condos to stay at that still present an excellent bargain compared to a standard hotel room. FlipKey, owned by travel review website TripAdvisor, is another vacation rental site worth checking out.

Craigslist

Craigslist can sometimes provide hidden gems for finding places to stay. While “vacation rentals” seems like the most obvious place to look for places to stay on Craigslist, I’d encourage you to also take a look at “sublets/temporary.”

I’ve often found folks listing their place under “sublet/temporary” are willing to negotiate on price and can be quite flexible and accommodating about arrival and departure dates and terms.

You might also think about subletting your own place or listing it on Airbnb if you are going to be gone more than a week to give you some extra spending cash for your trip.

Hostels

For decades, hostels have been a lifesaver for backpacking budget travelers around the world. They are known for offering very affordable dormitory-style accommodations — e.g., four or more beds in a room with a shared bathroom — for solo travelers, but many offer private rooms as well (which are also very affordable, when compared to a hotel).

I’ve only stayed at two hostels: The first time while traveling through Guatemala, and the second time was last week in Tel Aviv.

My flight into Tel Aviv got in at the wee hours of the morning and I knew I was going to be jet-lagged from traveling and not a very good guest for family and friends I haven’t seen in a long time. So I went online and looked at my lodging options in Tel Aviv. Most hotels were north of $100/night, but there was a hostel called the Beachfront Hotel Tel Aviv, whose $30-a-night price tag caught my eye.

Since I was getting in after midnight, I would likely still be asleep when it was time to check out the next day. Rather than booking a room for the night I was flying in, I opted to get there early Friday morning when my flight arrived and see what would happen. This isn’t a great strategy if you’re traveling as a family, but being a solo traveler, I’m willing to roll the dice from time to time to save money.

Upon my arrival at the hostel, they welcomed me with fresh coffee and tea. And although my room wasn’t ready yet, they let me hang out on the rooftop, filled with chairs and couches, and I was able to take in a gorgeous sunrise overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

On my first night there, anticipating the need for a good night’s rest after 24 hours of travel, rather than staying in a dorm with shared beds and a shared bathroom, I opted for a private suite, which set me back only $60.

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel, it’s worth looking into. Here are some pros and cons I’ve found:

Pros

  • Usually much more affordable than hotels.
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff with many budget-friendly dining and travel recommendations.
  • First-name basis with the staff and other guests.
  • Community feel: Meeting other travelers was one of the highlights of my stay. I met visitors from Ireland, Slovenia, and had random encounters with a fellow UW-Madison graduate and a guy who lived about an hour from my hometown (crazy coincidence when it happens 6,000 miles from home). Fellow travelers can be great resources for tips on what and where to eat, drink, see, play, or stay. More than one guest invited me to come see them and stay with them in their home country if I make it there.
  • You’ll usually have access to a communal kitchen, so you can save money by preparing your own meals.

Cons

  • If you’re staying in a dormitory-style room (multiple beds in a room), getting a good night’s sleep can be a challenge with the noise and other guests coming and going.
  • Check reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor, Hostelworld.com, or Hostelz.com, as quality, cleanliness, and noise levels can vary — particularly in bigger cities.
  • Security and privacy: While most hostels have security boxes for valuables and luggage rooms, there may be a higher risk of theft if you stay in a shared room. And obviously, a dorm-style room and shared bathroom will offer less privacy than your own private room.

Hotels

While hotels are typically your most expensive lodging option when traveling, there are still ways to save.

Hotels.com

I use Hotels.com to book my hotel stays. In addition to its competitive pricing, I like its rewards program. There are other rewards programs out there, but Hotels.com has a simple reward and redemption system that offers me one night free stay for every 10 nights booked. This can often be used in conjunction with other hotel reward programs, and works across all hotel chains.

Reward Travel

Every major hotel chain has its own loyalty program. Depending on your budget and how you travel, find one that fits your travel style, your destinations of choice, and the types of hotels you stay at.

If you travel a lot to the same area and enjoy staying in the same hotel or family of hotels, you will want to ask about their rewards program. Keep in mind you may be able to book on Hotels.com and still accumulate points through your hotel-specific rewards program.

Of course, there are also plenty of credit cards that allow you to earn hotel rewards as you spend.

Bed and Breakfasts and Boutique Hotels

Many people groan at the notion of a bed and breakfast. They imagine a too-quaint, drafty old house, plastered in ugly wallpaper, crawling with cats, and tended to by a grouchy old woman. Not to mention having to eat breakfast at a table with strangers.

Well, there are still plenty of B&Bs like that. But there are plenty more run and frequented by hip urbanites looking for a more unique travel experience than a standard hotel can offer — namely, rooms with charm and architectural character, and gourmet farm-to-table breakfasts.

If hostels or vacation rentals intimidate you, B&Bs come with a lot of the comforts and conveniences you expect of a hotel — but they typically charge less than major hotels in the same area, and that often includes a hearty meal each morning. Since B&Bs are by their nature not high-rise hotels but rather often set in historic homes, they sometimes offer the best location, right in the center of town. But check TripAdvisor to read reviews and see photos before you book.

Likewise, many big cities also have small, independent boutique hotels or inns. They may have just 10-50 rooms, but provide most of the services of a major hotel — for a fraction of the cost.

More Ways to Save

Eating Out

When I traveled by myself to the Mexican Riviera a few years ago, I met a family from Venezuela at the resort I was staying at. We met at the pool, enjoyed the sunshine, played pool games, and had a few drinks and a very enjoyable afternoon.

When they invited me to have dinner with them, I gladly accepted and went back to my room to change clothes before we went out. I arrived at their room expecting to then head out for dinner, but quickly realized they had all the fixings for dinner right there in the hotel room.

We sat down to a great homemade meal without ever leaving the room. With great conversation, it was one of the most memorable and unexpected dinners of my life.

The family was very warm, welcoming and treated me as one of their own for the week. The next day, I joined them on a trip to the grocery store to buy more food for the week. My mind was blown. This was the first but not the last time I’ve gone grocery shopping on vacation.

Just as eating out at home can get expensive, the same goes for vacation — only more so, because you’re eating out constantly. If you multiply the number of days you’re gone times three meals a day, times average cost per meal… you can see how quickly food costs add up. Take a two-week vacation: 14 days x 3 meals a day x $10 average meal cost = $420 per person.

Meal prices will vary based on where you travel and where you dine out, but saving money on eating and drinking is another easy opportunity to be a smarter traveler.

Just like at home, preparing your own food has both financial and health benefits. Plus, it can be a great cultural experience to visit the markets and shop as the locals do.

Drinks

We took a Caribbean cruise a couple years back and were treated to eight days of sunshine, tropical islands… and “blue cards.” The blue cards were our cruise line card: Everything on the boat got charged to the card, and then we settled up the tab at the end of the trip.

We were conditioned not to ask how much things cost, as the blue card, much like casino chips at a casino, didn’t feel like real money. When the final “blue card” bill arrived, we realized those delicious piña coladas by the pool were $11 each and add up quickly.

If you’re planning to drink while on vacation, consider making a trip to the liquor store for a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine to enjoy in the hostel lounge or the tranquil deck of your vacation rental. At the very least, do some research on TripAdvisor or Yelp or ask the staff where you’re staying to recommend an affordable local watering hole.

Final Thoughts

Traveling is one of life’s ultimate luxuries. You need time to get away and money to be able to get there and enjoy your vacation. By making smart financial decisions on where to go, how to get there, and where to stay, you will be able to travel more often, stay for longer periods, and still feel good about the smart financial decisions you’re making.

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