This post is all about options. Budget options. You don’t know what you don’t know, and my aim with this post is to provide you with food for thought and see if there are ways you can save money travelling.
A lot of us want to travel, but a lot of us cannot afford to go.
Or so you might think.
That’s what I thought when I dreamed of a family holiday travelling through Europe for a couple of months. But, unfortunately, the quote from the Travel Agent came back at $40,000 and didn’t include half the trip!
I saw my dream fly out the window until I started researching myself. I found a huge variety of accommodation and talked to travellers, finding out about their experiences.
Another world opened up—one with lots of options.
Suddenly I knew what questions to ask. I became more confident. I suggested the airfares that my traveller friend had shared. I wanted the Travel Agents to look at those instead of the ones they suggested.
I discovered apartment rentals (long before Airbnb existed) and self-catering.
I became very good at researching what I wanted.
In this post, you will find budget saving ideas and alternatives for – Travel and Transport, Accommodation, Activities and Food.
If you are like me initially, you might also take a holiday idea to a Travel Agent and get a quote. Then, you may look at that quote and decide there and then if you can or can’t afford it.
But that shouldn’t be the end of it. Anyone used to budgeting knows that the best bargains come from research.
The issue arises because organising travel is not something you do regularly. Therefore, we may not know our options or what questions to ask.
Think about it. We can save money on groceries. After all, we are familiar with prices and products because we buy them every week.
Travel is rare, or at least it is for most people. Unless you travel regularly, how do you know what your options are? You are relying on a Travel Agent to tell you, but they only have a certain number of service providers from which to choose. They earn commissions, so it’s only natural they provide you with quotes from their suppliers.
And then there are the stories of Travel Agents and hidden fees. The less honest ones that add money to a quote. If you are curious if an agent is doing this, ask them for an itemised account.
You should do this anyway to see exactly what you are paying for each component of your trip.
In my opinion, Travel Agents deserve to be paid a fee for their work. Too often, they put in hard work planning a client’s dream holiday only to have that client take the quote (and the itinerary) and see if they can get a lower price. Or decide to book it themselves, using the itinerary. And that’s not fair.
But those are not the Travel Agents I am talking about. I am talking about the ones who add even more. I am not here to create controversy. I am here to make sure you are aware.
If you find an excellent Travel Agent you trust, then stick with them. Someone who has an understanding of your preferences is invaluable.
But you need to realise you have choices — lots of them. And if you don’t have a lot of money, but want to see where you can go and what you can do with that money, then it’s in your best interest to know all your choices.
Sometimes flying indirectly can save you a lot of money. It may seem like a roundabout way of doing things, but it can be worth it.
In 2010 we purchased Round the World Tickets for a family of four flying from Australia to New York and onto Europe.
The Travel Agent provided a quote. A work colleague had told me to check out Finnair (who is now part of the OneWorld Alliance, but I don’t think it was then).
The overall cost of the tickets was $4000 cheaper than the original quote — the only catch was we had a five-hour layover in Helsinki on our way from New York to London.
Was the five-hour layover worth it? Absolutely! Had there been more money in our budget, I would have planned a stay in Helsinki.
The moral of the story is to check out all your options yourself. Then you ask a Travel Agent to book it for you. Paragraph
For the trip to Spain, I decided to fly with Korean Airlines. The ticket was $1100 return (compared to Etihad $1465) but included a free 20 layover in Seoul.
You can read my Korean Airlines Review here.
Prices drop in Europe around mid-September and are even lower in the winter months.
Why not throw in a few extra clothes (layering works a treat) and explore a new destination without the crowds?
I know a lot of people fear the cold, but honestly, Europe is prepared for winter. Once inside, you will be peeling off the layers because of the central heating.
I travelled to Italy for three weeks in November and December last year and packed a carry-on suitcase only. And I was fine.
It’s called Slow Travel, and I am a HUGE fan. I love staying in a place longer than a few days. Yes, it means fewer places in my itinerary, but I have more time to explore, relax and take it all in.
More destinations mean more travel between each place. Travel costs add up. Fast. Add taxis or transfers for hotel pickups at either end, even public transport, and your travel budget is in trouble.
Be honest, does spending a day and a night or two in a place mean you have really experienced it or have you just ticked it off your list?
Research all your travel options before booking. Rome2Rio is an excellent way to find your way from Place A to Place B., But it is still a good idea to do your research. Here’s why.
I am currently planning my Camino trip. I need to catch a train from Paris to St Jean Pied de Port,
Prices differed depending on the day I travelled and whether I booked both sections of the journey together. Or separately.
My suggestion: Enter the starting point of the journey and endpoint first. Take note of the cost, train times and changes. Take particular note of the actual stations. For example, Paris has many main train stations (as do most cities), don’t make the mistake of going to the wrong one. Then enter each leg of the journey separately. It might not make a difference, but it can. It is worth checking out.
I used to organise a private transfer from the airport because it was easy. But on recent trips, I have caught the train from the airport. This is because I wanted to travel longer, and that meant stretching my budget further.
I don’t like taking buses. But that’s just me, I get very anxious, and it just isn’t worth the stress.
But I love trains, and once I conquered my fear, I was able to master the Subway in New York, the Metro in Paris and Tube in London.
If you stay in one place for more than a day, consider purchasing a pass, like a Metro Pass. Most of the time, they will be valid on trains and buses.
We purchased a 7-day Unlimited MetroCard in New York with a current price of $33 US. One ride (regardless of destination or length) costs $2.75 US.
We averaged four rides a day – 28 rides for the week – which would have cost a total of $77 if we paid individually.
Most cities offer a transport pass of some kind, so do your research before you go. You might even be able to pre-purchase yours and not have to worry about organising your ticket when you land.
You will save a lot of money by using the public transport system instead of relying on taxis or Uber. I only use these if I really need to. Check if Uber is available in your destination; it is not legal everywhere.
An easy way to see a destination is via the Hop on Hop off buses that operate in most cities. I agree it is convenient, but you will have to decide if the extra cost is worth it.
Depending on how long you travel, you could look at leasing a car rather than hiring one. It could mean a considerable saving, and you get to drive a nice new car.
You will need to lease the car for a period of 21 days or more.
On the trip to Europe with my family, we leased a car picking it up in Paris. Then, we drove through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia and Italy, dropping it at Rome airport.
It was excellent. We received a brand new car, but we did incur a one-way drop off fee. But I was aware of that beforehand and included it in the car budget.
We leased from Citreon, but you also have the option of Peugeot, Renault and DS.
For up to date information on the Vehicle Leasing Program, check out this article by Holidays to Europe – A Step by Step Guide to the Tax-Free Vehicle Leasing Program in Europe.
Even if you are not looking at a five-star hotel but a three or four-star, you can try the alternatives.
I stayed in a two-star hotel last year on my trip to Florence. It was basic. Very basic. But I was travelling on my own, and the small room was all I needed. It was clean and comfortable, and the friendly staff at the reception desk happily provided me with any assistance or information I needed.
Staying in nicer accommodation would have been great, but it would have meant less time in Italy.
Weigh up your options, do your research and read the reviews provided to gauge if you will be comfortable.
On that trip to Italy, I had to change my accommodation. It was my mistake. I had booked a B&B 15-minute walk from the centre of Verona.
If I had been travelling with someone else, it would have been OK. But since I was travelling solo, I hadn’t realised that I needed to think about things differently. Like walking back into the city at night for dinner, which I was not comfortable doing independently.
So, I booked a small budget hotel closer to the centre and realised it was a lot cheaper than when I had looked at it in the planning stages of my trip.
If you travel out of high season, you should be fine finding accommodation. The key is to be flexible.
There are so many accommodation choices other than hotels. I love apartments because it means I have access to a kitchen. I like to cook and enjoy shopping at local markets, a cheap alternative to eating out for every meal.
You can also consider Airbnb (click the link for a discount on your first stay). Not only will you find apartments but also studios, cabins, private rooms in homes and all manner of different, quirky and alternate accommodation.
When checking prices, don’t forget to factor in service and cleaning fees. To see the full charge, enter your dates, and you will see on the right-hand side of the page the cost per night and any associated fees.
I also like to search for Super Hosts and read the reviews. You should only communicate with your host on the Airbnb site. Do not use any links they provide (which they should not); log onto your account first to ensure you are on the Airbnb website before communicating.
You can also consider Glamping or camping. Camping grounds in Europe provide fantastic facilities, including grocery stores and restaurants. If you want ready-made facilities such as tents, cabins, mobile homes and more, check out companies like EuroCamp (highly recommended by a work colleague) and Canvas Holidays (I have no recommendation for this one), both UK companies or we used the Dutch company, Tentsetters (you will need to use Google Translate for this website) for a week in Lake Bled.
It was a fantastic experience. I would be happy to do it again. This type of holiday is how a lot of Europeans spend their summer holidays.
I like to join a walking tour in each new destination, usually as soon as I arrive to get my bearings and learn more about my new location. Most cities have free tours, and for the most, these have been good. However, even though they are free, you should tip what you think is fair for the tour. In Europe, I usually tip between €10 and €20, depending on how good the guide was. Tipping is the only way some of these guides get paid.
Use the opportunity to chat with the guide and gain local insight into places to eat and see.
Global Greeters Network is another excellent way of discovering a new city for free. Jump onto the website, check for your destination, register for a greeter, and wait for a response.
Global Greeters Network is run by locals passionate about their city who volunteer to show visitors around. It is NOT a tour of the city, but a local showing you their favourite places. It is entirely free, and they will not accept any tips. I joined Fabio in Milan as he showed me around his beautiful city. He showed me many places I would never have seen on my own or with a tour guide. I highly recommend them.
I know this is about saving money, so why would I be talking about paid tours? But stay with me.
If you decide to pay for a tour, make sure it does what I call double duty.
For instance, I love food, and I like walking tours. So, if I don’t join a free tour, I am happy to pay for a guided food tour. This way, I indulge a passion, learn some history and get my bearings walking around the city, AND I don’t need to buy myself a meal because there is usually ample food tastings.
If you don’t want to pay anything but want to get acquainted with your new destination, you can try a self-guided tour.
Occasionally the Tourist Information Office can provide one, or websites like Rick Steves may offer a downloadable self-guided tour. I found one for the Roman Forum, which was great.
If visiting museums, check out the website and see if they offer self-guided tours. I downloaded one for the Louvre in Paris that the kids could follow. It was a great way to find our way around to all the major exhibits.
Look for Plan Your Visit on those websites.
Every city seems to have free “stuff” or heavily discounted things to do.
For example, the Central Park Conservancy in New York has volunteer-run tours, some free, others charge a small fee, of all park areas (no tips accepted).
And did you know they sell discounted Broadway Show tickets in Times Square? Find the TKTS stand in Times Square and purchase tickets for 25-50% off. Just buy your ticket in the morning for a Matinee show or in the afternoon for the evening session. I purchased from the TKTS booth twice and had great seats each time.
Some museums and art galleries have either discounted days or free days, usually once a month. Or check if they have late opening hours during the week at a lower admittance fee.
A quick Google search on your destination should uncover some gems.
I understand you are on holiday, and supermarkets usually mean grocery shopping, but I love exploring supermarkets in other countries. It always seems like such a novelty.
Venturing into a local supermarket will usually yield something easy and tasty to eat, and because it’s different from what you have at home, it will seem like a treat.
Here are just a few examples of meals I have thrown together over the years of travelling on a limited budget. And if you have an apartment with a kitchen, even better.
Antipasto Platter – laden with dips, olives, local cold meats, fresh, crusty bread and local condiments. Sometimes an antipasto platter doesn’t sound like much of a meal, but it fills you up quicker than you think and accompanied by some delicious wine; it is the perfect meal to throw together after an extended, tiring day sightseeing.
Salad. I know, it sounds a bit boring. But if you start with lettuce, throw in chunks of crusty bread, some nice cheese and crispy pancetta or prosciutto (or similar) mixed with a tasty dressing from the supermarket and anything else that takes your fancy – pine nuts, anchovies, avocado, tomato or boiled eggs – you have your version of a Caesar Salad. Yum!
Seafood. Prawns, oysters, lobster – ready to go. Add them to toasted bread with a delicious mayo, some lettuce and avocado. Or cook some pasta, add some herbs, garlic and onion, a healthy dollop of cream and then the seafood to warm through. Or throw it in the salad you created before instead of the pancetta.
Bruschetta. No, you don’t have to be in Italy to enjoy a tasty bruschetta. Just chop some tomatoes, add some chopped onion, torn basil leaves (or any other herb that takes your fancy) and a good slug of olive oil and let it sit for the flavours to infuse. Spread some sliced bread (it doesn’t matter if it’s not fresh) with butter, pan fry till golden and add your tomato topping. Delicious! You can add some tapenade if you like, or see what other delights the supermarket has, maybe pan-fried eggplant, zucchini or topped with mozzarella. Get creative!
Fried Sandwiches – one of my favourites (not healthy, but you’re on holiday!). Bread smeared with mayonnaise topped with shredded chicken (or ham/prosciutto) and layered with a generous serving of cheese – any cheese will do – and then pan fry it until that cheese is oozing and delicious.
Eating out can create a massive hole in your travel budget. For example, if you plan on eating out three times a day plus snacks and coffee, you will spend a substantial amount of money.
I have found cutting down on eating out to be one of the most significant ways to save money when I travel. Don’t get me wrong; I love to dine at a lovely restaurant, and I do, just not for every meal.
And did I mention that in Europe, you can buy inexpensive but good wine at the supermarket?
Supermarkets can also yield cheap gifts for family and friends at home. For example, on a trip to Holland, we wanted traditional butter lollies for the kid’s friends and found them in lovely traditional tins while picking up some groceries and wine.
Markets have great food stalls, which are an excellent way to sample the local cuisine for a fraction of the cost of sitting down for a restaurant meal.
If you want a local experience, find out where the locals go shopping. A lot of the time you can find hot food as well as fresh food stalls.
I ate twice at Mercato di Mezzo in Bologna, Italy, sitting shoulder to shoulder with local workers at lunchtime. The pasta and wine were excellent.
When we were in Venice, my friend and I posted a photo online of her drinking an espresso.
A lady commented on how she hoped it was worth the €12 we had paid.
We were puzzled. It only cost €2 (which was double our morning espresso).
It turns out that the lady had been visiting Venice while on a cruise and had sat in St Mark’s Square for coffee.
Suddenly we understood. Because of its popularity with tourists, St Mark’s Square is not only crowded but expensive. Very expensive.
Venture away from the famous sights. Everything will cost a lot less. And you will probably get better service.
The key to cost-effective travel is research and planning. It takes time and effort, but if you are passionate about travelling and want to maximise your budget, it is worth it.
Don’t rush; take your time. And don’t panic. Yes, you want to save money, but don’t get crazy. A few dollars here or there won’t make a difference.
I love the challenge of travelling with a small budget and seeing how much I can achieve for little. Somehow it makes my travel experiences more meaningful because everything I chose to do is done so with purpose.
Even with a lot of money, I would still choose to research my options and choose the alternatives. I prefer this style of travelling. For me, it provides a richer experience.
Make your travel dreams come true. Don’t wait for lots of money, see what you can do with what you have.
At the very least, research a trip and plan a budget you are comfortable with, then do whatever you can to reach your goal.
It’s easier to make things happen with an actual dollar amount in front of you instead of a perceived cost.
Let me know how you go.