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Here’s How I Travel On a Shoestring Budget

frugal family travel

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I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like the cost of travel has skyrocketed over the past few years. Every time a city wants to raise some money to balance their budget or pay for some new initiative, it seems like they decide to just add another surcharge to restaurant purchases or hotel room charges. Pretty soon, it seems I’m paying twice as much for the same thing I was getting before.

Luckily, I’ve found some tricks to saving money on travel that allow me to get away even on a shoestring budget. Frugal travel can take a bit of extra time and work, but there are definitely a lot of deals to be had that can allow you to stay within your means if you use some of these frugal travel tips.

I Choose Free When I Can

If you have family members or friends who offer you a chance to stay with them when traveling, take them up on it. I grab coupon books as soon as I get into a new town and check for Groupon offers that buy one get one meal and attractions. When I stay in a hotel, I choose one with free wifi, free breakfast, and complimentary snacks.

Anything I can get for free helps keep my costs down and lets me do more with my limited travel dollars. But I’m thoughtful about freebies, too. If it wasn’t something I would have bought anyway, I don’t spend precious vacation time and energy going after it. And if anyone wants to give you a free vacation for attending an “informational session,” just say no unless you can resist a hard sell on a timeshare that you probably can’t afford and won’t use anyway.

Bartering Can Be a Win-Win Situation

A frugal family vacation can be yours for a lot less if you can find some way to barter for a place to stay. Maybe you can find a family who wants to visit your town and you can visit theirs and stay in each others’ houses, or you can use your skills like home or car repairs, gourmet cooking, sewing, or web design for a week in a distant friend’s guest house.

An informal bartering arrangement usually doesn’t have tax ramifications, but if you barter through an organized group, you may have to claim the value of your deal, so be aware of those rules.

Read more: On The Road- Plan the Perfect Road Trip on a Budget

Earning Travel Rewards

Most hotel chains have reward programs and credit cards that offer points toward free stays. If you pick one hotel chain that you like and that has locations pretty much everywhere you like to go, you can maximize your rewards to get the most free nights possible. Be sure to familiarize yourself with how the programs work so you don’t miss out on anything like free upgrades or wifi.

A general travel credit card can go right along with specific rewards programs to save you on hotels or flights. Some cards even offer hundreds of dollars in points for signing up and making a certain amount of purchases in the first few months, which can put a serious dent in your travel costs. My next vacation is going to be almost $1000 cheaper because of travel rewards, which is a welcome relief when I’m paying college tuition for the first time.

Discount clubs can get you better rates on the hotel nights you do have to pay for, especially auto clubs (think AAA) or warehouse clubs (think Costco). Most hotels will give these discounts and still give you points on their rewards programs as well, so you can double or triple stack the savings. Discount sites like Priceline or Booking.com don’t always have the lowest rates, even if they say they do, so be sure to check the hotel’s own website and compare to be sure you are saving as much as you can.

Family posing for the camera while on vacation
Family vacations create priceless memories.

Frugal Food on Vacation

When you’re on vacation, food is typically a significant cost. Eating out adds up quickly, and nobody wants to eat McDonald’s when they are in a new locale full of local eateries that look delicious. Here are some of the things I do while traveling to save money on food besides staying in a hotel that provides free breakfast.

1. I choose a hotel room or rental property with kitchen facilities.

While it may not seem like a true vacation if you have to cook, having kitchen facilities at least gives you the option. I have rented beach houses with my extended family, and we all took turns cooking and cleaning up and saved hundreds of dollars over the course of the week, while still eating out most days for one meal to enjoy the local cuisines.

2. I pack snacks and drinks. 

My kids are always hungry and thirsty, and I could easily spend a few hundred dollars in a week buying them snacks and drinks in between meals. I quickly learned to always have some snacks and drinks handy so we didn’t have to constantly buy them while we were on the go or hanging out at the hotel.

3. I just eat two meals a day. 

Restaurant meals are huge, and my family tends to be the type who clears their plates. We find that we often aren’t hungry yet when the next mealtime rolls around and can wait a while longer. If you time the meals right, you can hit the off-peak times and avoid long waits as well.

4. I look for coupons and Groupons. 

You can save up to half the cost of a meal with coupons and Groupons to stretch your dining dollars a little bit further. Free kids meals or discounts are usually available to help you feed those hungry mouths for less if you have kids.

5. I don’t order beverages other than water.

The rest of my family is not on board with this one yet, but ordering drinks can easily add up to $20 or more to a restaurant meal, especially if you order alcohol. Even sodas can be $3 or more each, and don’t forget 20 percent more for the tip on those drinks. An exception is kids meals, which often come with a drink.

Last-Minute Deals

I’m a planner, so I haven’t used this tip too much yet, but I keep hearing about how you can save a ton of money if you look for last-minute deals on hotel rooms, flights, and even cruise tickets. So if you are the spontaneous type, some online searching could save you a huge amount of money on your next trip.

Using these frugal travel tips, I have been able to save thousands of dollars traveling over the years, with many more great frugal trips to come. If you hate paying full price to travel as much as I do, there are lots of ways to save a buck.



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