Travel Well on a Budget, Part 1

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 25

Living life on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice living well. Our family has a savings rate of about 25%, of which a large portion goes toward investing for our future. However, we’re still able to maintain a healthy travel budget so that we can enjoy life now while still prioritizing saving for retirement.

We have an annual travel budget of $12,000. That can go fast with a family of 6, but we find ways to make it stretch. In 2020, we took the following trips as a family (while following mandated protocols and state-specific restrictions):

  • A week at Disney Land and Universal in Feb (pre-pandemic)
  • 6 days in New Mexico and Colorado in March (departure just before pandemic closures)
  • 5 days in Colorado (again) in July
  • A week in Wisconsin in July
  • Several weekend trips to the beach and to see family over the year
  • 2 days camping at a state park in Sept (plus several day trips to other state parks)
  • 5 days in Lake Tahoe in October
  • 6 days in Wisconsin (again) in December

In addition to trips with the kids, my husband and I spent a weekend alone in Boston in January and a weekend in Charleston in November. I was also able to do a short getaway with my mom and sister for their birthdays in November.

That equates to over 50 nights away without going over budget! Strategically earning and taking advantage of credit card points, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, helped a lot. We also stayed with family for about 20 of those nights, saving money on hotels or vacation rentals. But being flexible with travel dates and doing the right research also led to big savings.

Today’s post will focus on tips for the transportation aspects of travel. The following 2 days will be focused on accommodations and activities.

Airfare

Check credit card miles and what they might “buy” you first and foremost. If you don’t have a travel card, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least two months before your travel dates. (Advice from yesterday’s post applies here.)

If the above option is not actually an option and you need to find the best prices on flights, check the Google airfare search tool first. All you have to do is type in “flight from _________ to _______” in the Google search bar, and you will be provided a calendar of fare prices for multiple airlines. If you can be a tad bit flexible with when you travel, you can simply choose the cheapest dates to fly when looking at the calendar.

Certain days of the week are often cheaper to fly than others, usually Tues, Wed, and Saturday depending on the location. (It can be cheaper to purchase on Tuesdays and Wednesday as well.) For popular tourist destinations, avoid weekend travel. For popular business destinations, avoid weekday travel and morning flights around 8-10 am, especially on Mondays and Fridays. Choosing off-season months to visit a specific location can also save hundreds or even thousands of dollars, such as visiting Boston in winter or traveling to a popular beach in early November.

I also search nearby airports for better prices. I’ll do a comparison of 3 to 4 airports within a 3-hour drive from where we live, as well as from our final destination. I’ve saved hundreds many times by selecting an airport just 1 to 3 hours away. For example, when we go to visit family in the Green Bay area, we often fly into Chicago, then rent a car to drive the rest of the way. Even after paying for the car, we usually save $500 – $1000 on the airfare.

Additional Savings Tip: Take advantage of flight times to give you *more* days on vacation. If you want 3 full days for your trip, book the earliest outbound flight in the morning and a return flight late in the evening. The airfare is usually cheaper at these times, and you get 3 full days while only paying for 2 nights of hotel.

Transportation in your Final Destination

Rental car or public transportation? Walk it or Uber? The decision on whether to rent a car or use other forms of transportation has to be based on not only the cost of the car but other factors as well.

Are you staying in a walkable city? Will your hotel charge parking fees? Is gas especially pricey where you’re staying? Do you need a car because you feel safest with your kids in car seats instead of in your lap? Is Uber or Lyft readily available in that destination? Will you be taking any long day trips from your location or did you fly into an airport that’s a bit of a drive from where you’ll be staying?

If, after this analysis, you decide you need to rent a car, use these tips to get the best rates.

Road Tripping

Taking your own vehicle definitely saves on airfare and a rental car in your final destination, but it can help save on many other expenses as well. It might be helpful to factor in these additional savings and skip air travel altogether.

However, you may decide that the added savings aren’t worth the extra time you spend in the car, especially if you’ve found incredible deals on flights and a rental car using the tips listed above. Before determining that driving is the best value for your trip, do a comparison of gas costs to airfare. Use this calculator to get a good estimate.

Today’s action step is to make a list of where you want to travel this year. Download (and print) a travel budget spreadsheet for each major destination on your list. Use some of the tips above to determine the best dates for those trips based on airfare prices or to decide whether driving would be a better value. Jot down a few scenarios including traveling to/from nearby airports or staying in a location that limits transportation needs once you’ve arrived.

Keep those spreadsheets nearby because tomorrow, we’ll dive into saving on accommodations.

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