I will freely admit that I enjoy doing extravagant things on vacation sometimes, but I also try to keep costs in check.  I want to be able to have memorable experiences, but if there are ways to keep costs down, I try to find them.  Sometimes, this requires a bit of planning, but I enjoy doing research before a trip – this allows me to get excited about the trip and ensure that my vacation time will be well spent.  Here are a few tips that I have found to stay on budget:

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Accommodations:

We like to stay at the nicest accommodations within our price range.  Surprisingly, you may not always find the best deals listed online.  On our first trip to St. Martin, we were able to call the Westin and found out about an unadvertised deal that got us the hotel room for 50% off for only 1,000 SPG points.  The next trip, when we weren’t able to get that deal, we chose to stay at a vacation rental, which is another way to spend less on accommodations without sacrificing quality (read our thoughts about vacation rentals).  Priceline.com is also a good way to get a nice hotel at a much lower rate, but you have to know what you are doing.   We recommend reading Don Nadeau’s tips on bidding for hotels.

Ground Transportation:

Depending on the location, you could spend a lot of money for transportation from the airport.  Of course, if you are able to pack light (check out our packing tips), then public transportation is probably the best option.  If that is not feasible, some hotels do offer complimentary (or for a small price) shuttles.  Sometimes there are other ride share options as well.  If you have to take a taxi or car service, try to make sure you arrive close to the same time as other members of your party so that you can share the ride.

Food & Drinks:

Food can be very costly when on vacation, but there are many opportunities to save money.  One of my favorite things to do when on vacation is to go to the local grocery store.   I enjoy perusing the produce aisle to see if there are any local specialties and get my supply of Diet Coke.  I start most days with a Diet Coke since I don’t drink coffee, and I can save money by buying these at the grocery store.

When Anisa and I rented the apartment in St. Martin, we also purchased a selection of meats, cheeses, crackers and desserts because we had a refrigerator in the room.  We were able to have a breakfast feast each morning, and because we were not eating in a restaurant, we saved a considerable amount of money.  The same holds true for alcohol.  I find having a drink on the balcony to end the day is a great way to unwind especially when you are in a foreign land where driving can be stressful even during the day.  Plus, if you drink at your hotel, you don’t have to worry about anyone being the designated driver.

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Often restaurants offer prix fix lunches or early dinners that allow you to experience the ambiance and food at a more affordable price.  I enjoy eating at various Jean Georges restaurants.   On a recent trip to NYC, we had a delicious lunch at Nougatine.  We both ordered off the prix fix menu.   We were able to get the dining experience at a much more reasonable price than having dinner there.  Also, if you notice that the portions are quite large at a restaurant, ask to split the entrée.  Yes, there may be a charge, but it will almost certainly be less than ordering two separate entrees.  We split meals often in St. Martin, it saves calories in addition to dollars.

The main course of our lunch at Nougatine
The main course of our lunch at Nougatine

Happy hours are fun, but also a great way to save money.   Gus’s Beach Bar at Baie Rouge beach in St. Martin would offer 2 for 1 cocktails during happy hour.  Many bars and restaurants will offer some kind of special for happy hour.  Since the specials and hours may vary, it is also good to find out in advance.

Bargaining:

In many cases, you can negotiate a discount.  For example, we usually like to rent an umbrella and beach chairs when we go to the beach.  Generally, a person would come up to us and tell us the price.  I am sure there are plenty of people who would just pay that price, but we always negotiate and generally get a better price.  Granted, our plans are often quite fluid – we could go to a different beach or just put our towels down on the sand without an umbrella.  When they notice that we are willing to do that, they generally will come back and accept our offer.

It also helps to have the exact change set aside so you can pretend that is the only cash you have available.  By sticking a $20 bill or a $10 and a $5 in one pocket, I can just pull out that cash like it is all I have.  I was able to negotiate a deal at the Jade Market in Hong Kong when I saw a necklace I wanted.  I had the cash that I was willing to pay for the necklace in one pocket of my purse.  After a bit of back and forth, I ended up with a necklace at the price I wanted to pay.  Bargaining can definitely help you stay on budget.

Frequent Traveler Programs:

Using points can be a great way to save money.  It is important to book these tickets early so you can use fewer points.  In some cases, you may even be able to find little or no difference between economy and first class tickets.  But what if you don’t have enough points? We will cover different ways to earn points in a future post.

Now for some budget busters:

 

High Season:

Flights and accommodations will generally be more expensive and it is often more difficult to bargain.  This is not to say that you should avoid traveling to destinations during high season – clearly there is a reason why vacationers flock to the area during that time.

Tours:

Organized tours can be rather expensive, but they also allow you to see much more in a compressed amount of time.  The cost of these tours just has to be evaluated to determine if they are worth the money.  Sometimes, with some research, you can see all the sights without paying for a tour; however, there are other times when a tour will allow you to bypass lines or see attractions that you otherwise could not see.

When I was in Morocco, we did a two-night trip including a camel ride and sleeping in a tent.  As our guide was driving us through the countryside, we encountered a military road block.  We had to exit our vehicle and wait while our guide dealt with the military personnel.  It was a somewhat frightening experience, but I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if we had not had a tour guide.

Kasbah el Glaoui, former Pasha of Marrakech – we would never have been able to see this without embarking on a tour
Kasbah el Glaoui, former Pasha of Marrakech – we would never have been able to see this without embarking on a tour (photo credit: Hilary Hall)

Airline fees:

You have to watch out for airline fees.  Almost all airlines charge for checking bags, so again, packing light will help you save money.  Also, I don’t think the fees to board early or sit towards the front are really worth it.  Sometimes it may look like those premium seats are the only ones available.  If that is the case, just don’t choose a seat.  Eventually others will open up or you may even end up getting the premium assigned to you in the end without a fee.  Also, some airlines may have high fees to book tickets with miles.  In that case, you might as well pay for the ticket and not use your miles.  Check out more tips on avoiding fees.

So those are our key points for managing travel costs and staying on budget, but we will continue to share other ways to save in future posts.  What other ways have you found to stay on budget when you travel?

Katherine

Expert Tips:

  • The best hotel deals may not be listed online.
  • Eat early or share entrées to save money on food.
  • Always try to bargain if you can.
  • Travel during the low season when possible.

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Budget Savers and Budget Busters
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