Upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador on a Sunday, we got up the next day on Monday and headed to the Old Town area. We were looking forward to walking down the beautiful historical Calle La Ronda street. After we got there, we were confused to see few tourists and little activity. We realized that many of the shops along that street are closed on Mondays. This is one of the many "bummers" on trips we've had due to poor planning and research. We've realized that it's not enough to know what things we want to do. We need to know what days and hours things are open. While TripAdvisor and Google can help with this, they are not always updated. I generally find the museum and business websites to be the most updated. Even better is to call or email the organization ahead of time to make sure everything is in order. The more out-of-the-way you're going to see something, the more important calling becomes. For example, we once drove over an hour to a museum that was closed due to a private event that wasn't mentioned on their website. The unnecessary detour could have been avoided by a 20-second phone call!
As we plan for a trip, we start building a spreadsheet of everywhere we want to visit. We then start creating other columns to note admission prices, hours of operation, etc. It can be tedious, but provides a huge payoff when the trip goes smoothly.
Traveling on a Budget
Traveling can get expensive fast. Airfare + lodging + car rental can have you spending thousands before you've even set foot in your destination. Despite that, most of our trips are much more affordable than one would think. This is born out of necessity. We pay off our credit card every month and don't take out loans (except for a mortgage). Thankfully, there are lots of ways to save money on trips.
First, determine if you can reasonably drive there. The more people going on the trip, the more this makes sense financially since there's often no marginal cost to having one more person in a car on a road trip.
While going somewhere far away is fun, there are often plenty of neat places to check out that are within driving distance of your home. We forget to be a tourist in our own city and state.
If flying is the best option, then working in flexibility is your best option to save money. The more flexible you can be, the more opportunities it creates to find a cheap travel itinerary. This means being flexible regarding:
Where you're going
What dates you travel
How many nights you are gone
For example, if you specifically want to go to Chicago on a certain date and stay for exactly four nights. you're going to be stuck with just a few flights to choose from. But, if you are willing to consider other big cities to travel to, a range of a month for travel, and a 3-5 night-stay, you've opened up a ton more flight options.
Kiwi.com is an amazing site for seeing a global map of flight prices. Our Hawaii trip was planned on short notice so we literally just looked around the map to find a place that was cheap to fly to.
Most of the time though, we want to go somewhere in particular. That's where flexible scheduling is super important. Kiwi and Google Flights (there are probably others too) are good for viewing flight prices across a broad date range. You can also play with the number of nights for your trip. You'd be amazed at how much you can save by shortening or extending your trip by a night.
Also, look into which airport you fly into and out of. If you're flying out of or into a city with two airports, such as NYC or Houston, you could potentially use both airports on your trip (fly out of JFK but back into LaGuardia). Even if you want to stick with one airport, at least consider all airports around you. There may be a regional airport close to you that occasionally offers better deals. Kiwi and Google Flights allow you to search for this by entering a city name and selecting the mile radius you'd consider for airports. This is an especially good opportunity for New England travelers as there's a high concentration of airports to choose from.
Important Note on Flight Booking
While I use flight comparing sites to find cheap flights, I never book through those sites. After finding the itinerary I want, I jot down the flight numbers, carrier, and times, and then go to the airline's website and book there. Sometimes you can save a little money doing this in the event that the third-party site is upping the price. The main reason though is because if any problems pop up on your trip, it's much easier to work directly with the airline than through an intermediary. When we had a self-inflicted delay on our Maine trip (funny story), American Airlines graciously rebooked us for the same itinerary for the next day with no charge. The agent helping us said that doing that so quickly would not have been possible had we booked through Expedia or a similar site.
AirBnB and VRBO have changed the game and opened up a lot more options for lodging. Take a particular look at peak vs. non-peak pricing. We saved a lot by going to Maine in May versus in June which is the start of their tourism season. A particular benefit of AirBnB and VRBO is being able to cook for yourself to save money. A favorite practice of ours is going to the grocery store and grabbing a pound of ground beef, pasta, pasta sauce, garlic bread, and a can of green beans. It makes for a cheap, easy, and filling meal.
While not everyone's cup of tea, hostels (particularly when outside of the U.S.) offer especially cheap stays. In some cases, you can still get a private room but for much cheaper than a hotel.
The Marriott Bonvoy program offers a way to accrue hotel points through Marriott Bonvoy credit card use. Now, as mentioned above, we pay our credit card off every month. We're basically using it as a debit card because we only use it for things we have already saved up money for. We recommend that you do the same. The card doesn't offer amazing value long-term but the sign-up bonus is pretty good if you'll have enough expenses during the first couple of months of use to obtain it. Marriott has a lot of brands so we've gotten a lot of value out of staying at Fairfields, Residence Inns, and TownePlaces. They are generally nice hotels and offer complimentary breakfast but without using up many points. (Residence Inns and TownePlaces have kitchens so you can make a meal or two at your places as well!)
Rental cars can be expensive. We try to avoid them whenever possible, which can definitely be done in Boston, New York, D.C., and a host of cities overseas. A combination of walking, subways, buses, and trains can often do the trick, supplemented by the occasional Uber or taxi ride. In Peru, taxis are so cheap there's really no reason to mess with rental cars. Trains are probably my favorite way to travel in between cities. They are usually cheap, fast, and offer a great way to see the countryside.
We try to avoid paying for breakfast. I (Karson) don't generally eat breakfast when not on vacation, so I'm fine with skipping it occasionally on trips too. If you do want to partake in an early meal, then a hotel's complimentary breakfast can be a great option if available. Alternatively, hit up a grocery store and either buy a few ingredients for cooking (if a kitchen is available) or grab some protein bars and fruit to make your own breakfast.
One Thing to Remember
Something to keep in mind when vacation budgeting is that your vacation costs are not always in addition to your normal monthly budget. While you may spend money at the grocery store on your trip, you were going to have to go to the grocery store back home too. If you fly somewhere and don't have a rental car, then no gas expenses for you. You're also saving a little on utilities back home while you're gone. So if you're worried about the cost of a trip, consider that you might be saving some on your normal monthly budget!