Traveling is something I never really did as a kid. I remember one sole trip to Disneyworld as a child, but the rest of our vacation time was spent at home playing outside or visiting family. Even in my own early adulthood, there was very little travel. I had no money to travel and then when I finally got a full-time job, I had no time! But with my Dad’s early-onset dementia and my brother’s untimely death at age 39, I’ve really had a lot of life “stuff” shake me and make me realize that I can NOT put off my dream of travel until the kids are older, or until retirement, or until whatever fill-in-the-blank time has come because I may never get the time.
At Arch Rock in Joshua Tree National Park, February 2023
Travel does NOT have to cost a fortune
Even though I’m committed to fitting in more travel opportunities and experiences, it doesn’t mean I want to break the bank! I’m only interested in traveling within our means, saving up in advance, and paying cash as we go! I don’t consider myself a pro at this point (we’re just really beginning to dip our toes into the travel waters!), but I have learned a few tips I wanted to share and I’d love to learn more tips from others, too! I 100% believe that some travel (when budgeted and done wisely) can co-exist alongside efforts to get out of debt. Life is about balance, folks!
1. Set a budget and stick to it
This seems so simple, but I think so many people plan a trip based on the destination and/or the experiences and don’t think about price until they see their credit card bill at the end of the trip. I do the exact opposite. I set a budget and save up for a trip well in advance. That way when I’m planning everything (places we’ll stay, things we’ll do, places we’ll eat), I have the budget in mind and I know if we splurge on one thing, we’ll need to cut back someplace else. This keeps expenses from spiraling out of control and I’m pretty good about coming in under budget at the end of the trip!
2. Pack your own food
One of the key places where we often try to save is in the food department. When our family went to California in February, I had planned and brought food for 3 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner, plus snacks. We still got to eat out some, but we’d pick a good dinner spot and save leftovers for lunches the next day and really stretched our dollars. Sometimes the trip is about food (e.g., when we went to Vegas last year, it revolved around eating at different restaurants), but if the trip is more about the experience, then it’s wise to save money on the food!
I splurged on a Mickey Macaroon at Disney (100% worth it!!), but we ate microwavable oatmeal cups packed from home for breakfast and made PB&J sandwiches to eat for lunch while in the park. Did you know Disney lets you bring in food? They do! Take advantage!
3. Use credit card points to pay for hotel and/or airfare
Last year I took the plunge to upgrade my normal credit card to a travel rewards credit card. I do NOT recommend credit cards for folks who are drowning in credit card debt. But I like to use them to earn rewards, and then pay them off in full each month. My previous credit card also had rewards, but I’d keep getting these $25 gift cards to Home Goods or Old Navy – nothing that really excited me or pushed the needle too much. But my current travel credit card has been amazing! I used it to book my hubby’s flight to Nashville next month (my flight is covered by work), so it cost $0 out of pocket. And for our California trip last month, I used it to pay for 2 nights of our hotel, which helped dramatically with cost savings. I earned some points just for signing up, and I referred my hubs, and earned points when he signed up as well.
If anyone else is interested, consider signing up with my referral link (I get some extra points, but there’s a huge 75,000-point sign-up bonus for new users right now, too). I had never leveraged travel rewards cards before, but am really excited about the benefits and plan to keep using them! A hotel or flight is waaaaay better than the occasional $25 gift card, in my opinion!
4. Purchase through a cost-saving service
I’ve found that sometimes we can get better savings when we book through a serve or agency. For example, my husband and I booked through Costco Travel when we went on our honeymoon and saved compared to the same trip when I’d priced it out myself. Travel agents also often include some type of perks. For example, this summer my mom has generously paid for our family to go on a cruise. She paid the cost of the cruise – which is bulk – and we are paying our own way for excursions, gratuities, and any add-ons. She booked through a travel agent and even though the price is the same as had she booked through the cruise directly, the travel agent promises upgrades like chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne in the room upon arrival, etc. So even if there isn’t a monetary advantage, there may be other perks or advantages for the same price.
5. Learn the art of the carry-on
I’m still working on this one! Last year I went to Peru for work and on the way home I missed a connecting flight due to the added time of having to retrieve my checked bag at customs and re-checking it for the next flight. My travel companions only had carry-ons and made it through on time. I have another international work trip this summer, and even though its 10 days long (!!!) I am committed to somehow fitting everything into a carry-on. Not only will it save time and energy, but learning the art of the carry-on will save me money when I travel for leisure with family. I’m going to practice in April when I travel for a work conference. I’d normally pay the $25 bag fee each way(!!!), but I am going to make it all fit into a carry-on. Any tips for this, leave them in the comments!
6. Leave the kids at home!
Finally, I know not everyone has the luxury of this, but one last tip is to leave the kids at home! Obviously, the more people you’re paying for, the more costly it’s going to be. We have intentionally planned some trips with kids (like when we went to California last month) and some trips without the kids (like when we go to Nashville next month). I share custody with my ex-husband, so we try to plan adult-only trips when the kids are scheduled to be with their Dad. That saves on childcare and allows us a quick getaway when we’re only paying for 2 instead of 4. More importantly, I think it’s healthy and good for spouses to have time alone together to intentionally reconnect without any distractions. So if you are able, alternate trips with the entire family versus with just the adults.
Last year hubby and I did a quick weekend Vegas trip without kids. That trip was all about the food, and our fanciest dinner was in the Eiffel Tower, which we NEVER would have done if we were also paying for kids! And honestly, the food was just okay. I recommend skipping the fancy dinner and just paying to ride up to the top of the tower for the million-dollar views, instead!
Bonus: Double-Dip Business and Pleasure
Again, not possible for everyone, so this is an unofficial bonus, but I’ve talked before about double-dipping business and pleasure travel! My Nashville trip next month is actually for work! I’ll be presenting at and attending a conference from Tues-Fri. Hubby is flying out Thursday night and staying through the weekend, and us traveling back together on Sunday. This helps immensely with travel savings because some of my costs are covered by work. And we get a fun weekend getaway at a fraction of the cost!
Share all your travel tips! How do you save money and still travel? Also, how do you pack 10 days’ worth of clothes (and a mix of business and casual) into a carry-on! I need allll the advice!
Hi, I’m Ashley! Arizonan on paper, Texan at heart. Lover of running, blogging, and all things cheeeeese. Late 30’s, married mother of two, working as a professor at a major university in the southwest. Trying to finally (finally!) pay off that ridiculous 6-digit student loan debt!
We like to have a nice late lunch, then just have a snack or appetizer for dinner.
Lunches are cheaper and usually less crowded too.
Good tip! And very true!