Travel lean; travel more
Tips for maximizing travel while minimizing spend
My leisure travel philosophy is all about value. Finding the cheapest everything isn’t my thing. Nor is splurging to excess. I think there’s almost always a way to travel anywhere and get the most bang for your buck, while also not doing the cheapest everything or making a ton of sacrifices.
In this article, I will share some of my secrets and how I approach travel planning. This article is not about creating an itinerary or low-level details. It’s all about finding a cost-effective way to make an awesome trip possible.
Decision 0: what are your goals and acceptable tradeoffs?
Are you visiting friends or family? Do you just want to get away and do nothing? Do you want an adventure?
You should have an idea about what you want to get out of each trip, so I’m not going to make these decisions for you.
For me personally, I like to think about this in terms of tradeoffs. We’ll go through these in more detail later on, but I want to bring them up now to get you thinking about what’s most important to you (and of course any travel companions that you must be on the same page with).
Schedule flexibility vs cost
Relaxation vs adventure
Visiting everything possible vs the logistics of getting around
Amount of travel vs comfort of travel
Decision 1: What’s your budget?
Of course, your literal budget is up to you and your financial situation. However, I’m not recommending putting a specific dollar amount on anything here. Instead, my advice here is to not just think about a budget with respect to a particular trip. Think bigger and longer term. Personally, I’d rather take 2 cheaper trips over 1 lavish one. This is up to you to figure out.
With some stubbornness to set alerts and wait, you can travel pretty much anywhere for less than you might think, but there are some tradeoffs you’ll need to make. Once you have a roadmap of your goals in mind, you will need to weigh them with your budget. As you think about trips, you should have an idea for what prices would make you book in a heartbeat.
Don’t forget to factor in miles and credit card points if that’s something you’re into. If you do things right, the more you travel, the more you earn, then the more you can travel for free. While you get the most miles for spending the big bucks, when used effectively, they can be a nice bonus (my goal with my lower spend is about 1 free trip per 10 trips). Maximizing points sounds like an article for another day though.
Anyway, once you have a rough budget established with travel expectations for the next couple of years, you can start backing into the rest of the puzzle and start setting up a plan.
Decision 2: where to go?
Flexibility is king. If you can be flexible on either location or timing, you’re going to be much better off when it comes to cost, or even a trip being possible at all. It’s up to you to determine which is more important to you (location or timing). For most, where to go is more important, so let’s start there.
No idea where to go?
There are plenty of resources elsewhere for trip ideas, so I'm not going to go into specifics. However, here are a couple of tools to use to find maximum value...
Set up Google Flights without a destination or timeframe:
You can use this to find the places you can go for a certain dollar amount for a specified timeframe (specific dates or general).
1. On the landing page (flights.google.com), click search without a destination entered
2. Click the calendar to set your timeframe (specific dates or flexible dates)
3. Optionally set some filters such as maximum price, trip duration, etc.
4. Browse the map!
Now, I don’t recommend using Google Flights as your only source of trip ideas because the algorithm is not very human friendly (doesn’t account for insane layovers, assumes weekend trips can be accomplished by arriving late on a Saturday and leaving early on a Sunday, etc.). Nonetheless, this can give you a few ideas for what’s out there and realistic. We’ll dive into Google Flights much more later.
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I’ve been a subscriber for years and have booked several trips as a result of alerts. Some of my favorite flights I've booked as a result of SCF alerts include ~$450 to VIE/BCN (normally $1,000+), ~$400 to LHR/AMS (normally $850+), $263 to YUL (normally $500+), $208 to YYZ (normally $500+), and several more.
Know going in that these deals come out of the blue and usually don’t last long (sometimes only a few hours). This is where it comes in handy to have a bucket list set up in mind with estimates for what a good deal is for you. That way, when something intriguing comes, you’re ready. I’m all for booking spontaneous trips like this, however just make sure you do some quick preliminary research (discussed below) before booking anything nonrefundable. That way, there are no surprises which end up defeating the entire purpose of the deal (i.e., insane lodging prices or everything being closed for the season).
Note: as an affiliate, I get a very small commission if you sign up for this.
What to look for right away when deciding locations
At this point, there’s need to actually find where to stay or plan an itinerary and I’ll show you the tools I recommend to carry out this research later on. The goal here is to just do a quick gut check to make sure your expectations are aligned with where you’ve chosen to go.
Distances between potential things to do
Again, no need to come up with an itinerary here, but just consider how long it will take to do what you want to do and how you’ll get from hypothetical place to place.
General lodging prices
At this phase of planning, the goal is really just a gut check to make sure there will be options within your budget. Look for trends on a monthly or seasonal basis. For example, pick 3 random hotels or Airbnb's of varying luxury. Then, look at the nightly rate for the same place and amount of time during a few different weeks of the year. Test a few stays over weekends vs weekdays as well.
Tip: If the area is common with business travelers, try to do the opposite of them for the best deals or chances of upgrades. Typical business travel starts Monday morning through Thursday evening, so some places (think cities) can be dead on weekends. This doesn’t apply everywhere and could be the opposite some places, just something to look for.
General flight prices
Cheap flights can be less important as lodging is generally more expensive than flights. However, do a quick gut check on Google Flights with a destination just to make sure this will be possible with your budget before being disappointed later.
Decision 3: When to go?
Hopefully at this point, you have an area in mind and a general idea for prices during each season.
In most cases, timing will be the #1 factor in your trip cost. I think you can travel to most places in a budget friendly way as long as you pick the right time to go and are patient. This is where you need to decide what your tradeoffs are with respect to your goal's vs cost. If you really want to see the Cherry Blossoms blooming in Japan, you don’t have an option on when you go. Lack of flexibility forces your hand with price. This all comes down to priorities, but be cognizant of this.
Now, here’s my “secret” to traveling as much as possible for as little money as possible: shoulder seasons.
Assuming you can deal with less-than-ideal conditions, off-season can be great for certain places like cities where the weather doesn’t usually shut things down. However, in some places, off-season can be quite challenging due to closures like snow make certain places literally impossible to visit off-season.
Shoulder season on the other hand is relative to the location and is defined as the time between off-season and around the beginning of peak season. In some parts of the US, think of months like April/May/June/September/October/November. I find this to be the sweet spot because crowds are lower, costs are lower, conditions are tolerable, but most places are actually open and accessible. Something to look for with shoulder season is when school starts and ends; do whatever you can to pull off a trip while most kids are in school.
Don’t forget to look into peak times and cultural reasons for locations to be closed on days or during certain hours. Also, check out events listed on the chamber of commerce website for nearby cities (both for events that appeal to you and others that aren’t relevant but bring in more traffic driving prices up). When we talk about tools for finding and booking logistics, finding the shoulder seasons and off-seasons for specific places should become obvious right away when looking at prices.
Word of caution: when traveling anytime other than “peak” seasons, triple check that places and things you want to do are actually open during this time. For example, there are parts of the world where some activities are literally impossible to accomplish due to snow.
Decision 4: how to get there and where to stay
Hopefully by now you have a general time of year in mind, but if you don’t have exact specific dates picked out, that’s actually a good thing as our research next will be easier to do. If you only have specific dates you can travel, that’s okay too, just know you may need to sacrifice some cost savings.
Determine if you’ll need to rent a car
Google Maps and Street View can be your friend here. I think this is good to know before going into lodging research so you know what to look for.
Is the area car friendly or public transportation friendly? Consider costs associated with getting to/from the airport if flying.
How does parking look at the places you want to go? What about at some places of lodging? In some cities, parking can cost more than the nightly rate. In those cases, check out Spot Hero over traditional options. Pay a visit to the city’s website to see when parking is actually enforced. I had a hotel one time with $50/night valet parking where they just parked your car on the street for you outside of the hotel, but street parking was free on weekends.
How far away are the highlights? Can you get by with one central home base or will you need to have multiple? It can be helpful to pin your top things to do in Google Maps (blue pins in the example below) so you can quicky get driving direction estimates to/from each location. If you haven’t gotten that far yet, for now just use the recommended spots for a location on Google Trips by searching ‘Things to do in X’ on Google.
I recommend looking at lodging options before flights as this is usually going to be the most expensive part of the trip. If you’re staying with someone, awesome, feel free to skip this part.
Location, location, location
What’s the tradeoff between distance to the lodging location and the cost? Staying further away from attractions can be far cheaper, but how long will you spend getting around? Not only consider if there are hard transportation costs associated with this, but how willing are you to spend your precious vacation time on moving around?
In a city without a rental car, how far is too far from public transit?
In nature, how spread apart are the things you want to do?
In more mountainous areas, are there direct routes or will you be spending a lot of time driving?
Once you have an area pinpointed, let's look for specific accommodations.
This is my preferred resource as you can view options as a map with filters. For several reasons I’ll get into in another article, I’m loyal to a chain and Google Hotels is perfect for this because it allows me to look at a map view with a filter by a brand AND maximum price. This way, I don’t get overwhelmed by results that don’t meet my expectations. Too much choice can be a bad thing if the choices are not relevant. If results are sparse, I can be less strict on the filters.
Their website is pretty self-explanatory, so I’m not going to go through anything. However, my top advice is to look at the map view before the list view (remember location, location, location).
Something I don’t like about Airbnb compared to hotels is their cancelation policy, which is not 100% free for most reservations. Therefore, if you find a cheaper flight for another weekend but already booked lodging, you can’t take advantage of it. Some hotel locations let you cancel the day of.
I swear by Google Flights. Why?
1. Ability to search by multiple departure and arrival airports – this is huge because often times flying out of or into a nearby airport can save substantial money. However, consider the full opportunity cost of doing this (time/fuel/parking). I find it to be half comical and half useful, but the MSN airport website has a calculator for the predicted costs associated with flying out of MKE and ORD.
Pro tip: you can even change the drop down from ’Round trip’ to ’Multiple cities’ to look at open jaw options (returning from another city). Keep in mind that if you’re renting a car, the policies will be different for returning a car to another location.
2. Date grid – fine tune the date you’re leaving and arriving and save money. Weigh this with hotel costs though. Sometimes a cheaper flight may result in another night of lodging and will overall turn out to be more expensive. Factor in check-in time here as well for lodging. A red-eye arriving at 6 AM to maximize the day is less fun when you can’t take a shower until 4 PM.
3. Advanced filters to get rid of long trip durations, multiple layovers, price, etc. Make sure you set up these filters BEFORE searching as to not get your hopes up with a cheap route that has a 16+ hour overnight layover in LHR (unless you’re weird like me and that’s something you’re into).
4. Alerts – not only can you track prices, but the alerts respect the filters you have set up. If press the track button on a search filtered by nonstop and trip duration less than 5 hours, that will be respected in the alert. If you press the track button when looking at a specific flight schedule instead of just dates, the alert will track that flight only. When planning, I usually set up tons of alerts with different variables (dates/specific schedules/etc.) to keep an eye on several options.
Tip: Even if you already have booked, keep your flight alerts so you know if the price drops dramatically after you book. Triple check every policy they have before executing this, but some airlines will allow you to cancel and rebook the lower cost for free when traveling on full fare tickets.
If you're looking for more information on how flight prices work, check out Scott's guide ‘How to find cheap flights’ https://scottscheapflights.com/guides/how-to-find-cheap-flights
Time to book!
Maximize points and loyalty programs
Ensure you’re using the best credit card for each transaction and you’ve activated any relevant offers. For example, Chase and Amex sometimes have 5-10% back offers for select chains that you must activate before spending.
Consider the tradeoff of your personal information with what you get in return for a loyalty program. They’re almost always free to sign up for, but they will market to you constantly. For example, Marriott gives all members free Wi-Fi regardless of status. If that alone is worth it to you, you might as well sign up before your stay and get the points for the stay, even if you end up cashing out the points for a shopping gift card and canceling your loyalty account.
I recommend staying away from booking sites and booking directly with the provider. Why?
The cancelation policy is from the provider vs an intermediary
The hotel/airline can see how you booked and if you don’t book direct, you’re less likely to get upgrades/extras and more likely to get bumped during overselling
Points/upgrades/member perks (i.e., free Wi-Fi at Marriott) are seldom offered when you don’t book direct
If you find a cheaper price on a booking site, it’s either not a like for like (for example, pay very close attention to bed type and room type) or can be matched. In fact, Marriott is so confident in this that they will give you a 25% discount if you can find a cheaper price on a site that isn’t their own (hint: you’re almost never going to, I’ve only used this successfully once)
Leverage bundles and programs
If you work for a business with a decent size travel organization, see if they have pre-negotiated deals with certain travel providers which can be used for personal use. For example, in the car rental policy at my company, there’s one promo code to use for business travel and another one for personal travel.
If you don’t have access to discounts from another source, usually there’s usually a booking portal from hotels/airlines to bundle and possibly save. Generally, you can just find the discount codes for a particular hotel/airline on their respective websites. For example, American Airlines and Marriott publicly publish their AWD# for Avis which typically results in 30% off standard rates plus points. Just search around the web to find these.
Before pulling the trigger
If traveling with others, make sure every person checks every calendar they have and set expectations up front for what happens if scheduling conflicts arise.
Consider cancelation prices and ways to lock in deals with low risk
Overall, try to book things in the order of most cancelable to least cancelable while locking in prices you know are better than usual. You don’t want to book a nonrefundable flight only to find out since you looked hotel prices skyrocketed. One of my favorite features of American Airlines that I can’t find on other carriers is the ability to hold a flight for 24 hours for free. This is huge, because it allows you to lock in a flight price while figuring out everything else.
Also, airlines removing change fees removes a lot of risk when booking. Some policies are better than others when it comes to refunds, so skim the policies with care. Some airlines give you a credit vs a refund that must be redeemed for travel within a year. Some airlines (cough cough United) don’t give you the refund if you rebook to a cheaper fare. Overall, just be informed and stay up to date as these policies can change.
Finally, by wary of basic economy. It’s great for some trips but risky for others. For most airlines, what you lose is the option of flexibility and the ability to cancel. If nothing else, just read the rules and don’t expect any employee to bend them for you when traveling on a bare fare (they all know the fare type you booked and computer systems are logged to monitor policy exceptions).