For my birthday last year, my wife and I took an unforgettable trip to Glacier National Park in upstate Montana. It was July and the weather was perfect, hiking incredible and scenery impossibly gorgeous. It was a trip that I will never forget - especially the price we paid to get ourselves up to Montana.
Our airline tickets set us back a whopping $11.20 a piece, which represents the airline fees necessary to make the trek up. Paying for our round-trip plane tickets with a $20 bill and some change made the trip that much easier to pull off and it taught us first hand how simple it can be to travel on the cheap. How do people travel so cheaply?
Run a Google search for cheap travel and you'll get a wide variety of ideas, like renting out your home to raise money while you're gone, crewing a yacht, entering contests and hoping that you win or even house-sitting for other people. While these are all well and good, they aren't available to everyone. Most of us can't rent out our place. House-sitting for someone else? It might be free rent, but you also accept responsibility in that kind of agreement.
We stay away from those more "spirited" ideas. Instead, I will discuss in this post three techniques that anyone can use to significantly reduce the cost of travel. No staying in someone elses home. No crewing a ship. No hitch hiking. No working on organic farms (WWOOF!). Just cheap travel and nothing but cheap travel.
Some call it "travel hacking," and using a few simple travel techniques can help virtually anyone flex their frugal travel muscles and score extremely cheap vacations and travel adventures to virtually anywhere in the world. Let's find out how.
The secret to our $11.20 flights is actually no secret at all. In short, we used our credit card rewards points to book low-cost airline tickets (minus airline fees). The process was fairly straightforward, too: we got a couple credit cards, collected points and flew up to the Northwest for practically free.
First, we signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus and Premiere cards. Then, we spent $2,000 on each card in the first three months and accumulated more than 100,000 combined points on the cards through one-time bonus points available to new cardholders.
Next, we accumulated an additional 10,000 points through regular spending between the two cards to reach the 110,000-point threshold to get the Southwest companion pass for the rest of 2015 as well as 2016. The companion pass is a traveler's goldmine and allowed both my wife and I to fly for almost nothing.
My wife booked her flight to Spokane, WA (a couple hours from Glacier National Park) using 19,730 credit card points and paid regular airport fees amounting to $11.20. And finally, we booked my companion pass for free and paid regular airport fees amounting to $11.20. Done.
The key is to take advantage of one-time point bonuses for new cardholders. There are many who will sign up for new credit cards every year in order to keep pulling in bonus points. They put everything on their new card to acquire the initial spending total required for the bonus, then enjoy tens of thousands of free points as they travel.
Note that credit card rewards points can be used for more than just airline tickets. Many cards offer discounted hotel stays, rental cars and many other travel perks to cardholders. Take a look at what your credit card offers and, if you do not use a credit card that offers points for every dollar spent, consider upgrading to one.
A quick word of warning: Although the accumulation of credit card points requires spending money, we did not increase our spending in order to accumulate points. Our spending remained the same - the only difference was in the credit cards we charged our purchases to. If spending is increased to accumulate points, the savings becomes negligible.
Virtually every well-known vacation destination has a peak time of travel that can last from a few weeks to a few months. This is when, naturally, the majority of vacationers are enjoying some rest and relaxation. Unfortunately, this is also when prices are the highest and availability of amenities are lowest due to the sheer volume of guests. Hardly an attractive combination for the budget traveler!
But, did you know that many vacation spots will slash their rates in half during off-peak times of the year? For example, try visiting a popular ski resort in the summer rather than winter when hotels lure vacationers in with cut-rate prices. You may also find local restaurants running specials during the summer in these places, cheaper rental cars and far fewer tourists to weave through when you're out enjoying the fresh summer mountain air.
In other words, if you are traveling when everybody else is traveling, you are probably paying a hefty premium for that privilege. If not, then you are probably saving money.
Give off season travel some serious consideration. Wine country typically experiences its off season during the cooler winter months. The tropics are far less crowded and cheaper to enjoy during the summer. Springtime is often the best time of year for the budget skier because higher elevations will still have snow, but crowds have vanished.
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What causes "low seasons"? A big contributing factor is weather. When the weather isn't conducive to outdoor fun (like skiing in the summer), prices drop. Airlines experience similar low seasons due to weather and major holidays, as well as common and regular academic schedules like Spring Break and summer vacation.
The only downside to visiting during low travel periods is the possibility of local construction. Hotels and resorts will often renovate portions of their grounds when travel is low, which could make for a noisy stay. Before making reservations, inquire about any renovations taking place that might affect your enjoyment of the area. Usually, a simple phone call to the resort or hotel is all that it takes.
Believe it or not, travelers can score insanely cheap flights all around the world by booking flights that were, in essence, mistakes from the airline. For example, missing a 0 in a $15,000 cross-world flight becomes a much more modest $1,500 flight. And sometimes currency conversion mistakes can result in extremely low-cost mistake fares (because: math). Yup, it happens, and many airlines honor the prices they offer until a correction has been made.
How do you get your hands on a mistake fare? Well, mistakes are becoming more and more rare these days. Today, many travelers simply stumble upon a mistake fare, effectively being in the right place at the right time. It is tough to truly LOOK for them. And if you do happen to uncover a mistake fare, the ticket needs to be booked as soon as possible because airlines tend to realize their mistakes soon after making them.
Social media is an excellent way to uncover mistake fares. Web sites are another source. TheFlightDeal.com and FlyerTalk.com tend to be excellent sources for cheap flights and mistake fares. Just keeping tabs on the pulse of airline prices could be enough, though I would consider finding a mistake fare to be the exception rather than the rule. A lot of the time, finding a mistake fare is just pure luck.
The Internet offers a gigantic wealth of information. New travel search engines seem to pop up every year claiming to uncover the cheapest flights available. I am talking about resources beyond the more well-known services like Expedia and Travelocity. Sites like SkyScanner, WhichBudget.com, HotelTonight.com, LoungeBuddy.com and AirHelp.com are all ways to find some pretty intense travel deals (or in the case of AirHelp.com, getting your money back when your flight has been delayed or canceled).
But it doesn't stop there. Rooms on Airbnb are very often cheaper than hotel alternatives. Uber can get you a ride for super cheap and Monkey Parking claims guaranteed parking for its users. The best way to bag additional discounts before booking your flight, hotel or car rental is to check if promotional codes are available.
In the end, travel does not need to be expensive. With a little due diligence before you leave, traveling for cheap can be quite easy. You may not stay in 5-star hotels - but then again, you might if you have collected enough credit card points! Some promo code resources are listed for you below:
If you're looking for all inclusive vacation package deals:
Do you have any tips or techniques for traveling on the cheap? If so, comment below because I am always on the lookout for techniques that I haven't thought of.