Americans don’t travel as much as they’d like, due mostly to how expensive it can be. A very large part of that expense is transportation. A Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) taken by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that a typical American family spends almost half their travel budget (44%) on transportation- getting to, from, and around at their destination, to the tune of over $2,000 a year. Thankfully, with some careful planning and tips, we’ll show you how you can travel smart and lower those costs.
Note: This is part 5 of our six-part series on Traveling on a Budget. Be sure to check out the Travel on a Budget overview, as well as the other posts in this series (links at bottom of post)
Travel Smart: Airline Tips
No doubt flying takes up a large chunk of any travel budget. The CES found that households spent over $3,300 on airfares. This is about 54% of the budget for international travel and 39% of the total spent on domestic adventures. To trim some of the fat, take a look at the big (and the not so big) ways you can cut expenses without sacrificing the quality of your time off.
Sign up for oops! deals
Several travel websites watch for oops or mistake deals. Flight price mistakes occur for numerous reasons: human error, cost miscalculations, computer glitches, currency exchange errors, etc. If you find a crazy good deal thanks to an obvious mistake, book it! US law protects you from fees for canceling a flight within 24 hours and most of the time airlines honor the price. Want to learn more about the ins and outs of booking mistake fares? Thrifty Nomads has an excellent tutorial on how to find airline mistake fares to score low-cost flights.
One of my favorite sites to watch is Flytrippers. They have some amazing resources for traveling on a budget and scoring some oops! deals. You can sign up for their newsletters or like them on Facebook to catch the latest airline sales errors. Saves hundreds or thousands of dollars off flights by cashing in on the airline’s errors. But, you need to be signed up for their newsletters to get notified fast because error sales don’t last long!
Currently, FlyTrippers specializes in select cities in Canada, the US, and Europe, but they are adding several more cities soon. It’s one of my favorites because they showcase deals from our nearest airport, which is known for having high flight costs. Check out their site and see if your city is on their list of deals.
Sign up for frequent flyer & loyalty programs
Consider signing up with regularly used travel sites or companies to take advantage of their perk programs and incentives. Loyalty programs can also score you free upgrades or services. Airline frequent flyer programs often offer free miles when you sign up. Pairing this with a travel reward card can be even more lucrative.
We use the Capital One Venture card and earn free travel on our regular purchases. We don’t recommend charging expenses if you can’t pay off your credit card at the end of the month, but if you have the funds to pay the statement in full, this is a great option.
For instance, we pay for our utilities, car insurance, and cell phone with our credit card. These would get paid whether we charged them to the card or paid them directly from our bank account, but this way we earn free miles. Paired with the free miles we received opening the card, we were able to offset an entire flight to Milan when we traveled to Italy a few years ago.
Watch for flight deals
Sign up for online fare alerts and know when your preferred flight goes on sale. Regularly checking flight prices is a great way to travel on a budget. You can save several hundreds of dollars off each ticket by waiting until the best time to buy.
Buy flights at the best time
Industry analysts suggest buying your flights about 7 weeks out from your travel date, or about 3 months out if you’re flying during the busy season. The very best time to book a flight is on Tuesday at 3 pm; that’s when airlines put flights on sale.
Sign up for fare alerts and periodically check pricing so you will know a good deal when you see it. Then, set an alert in your phone for a Tuesday afternoon at 3:00, three months out from your flight departure, to score the best deals!
Travel smart: budget travel tips for the airport
- Have someone drop you off at the airport instead of paying for long term parking.
- Bring your own packaged snacks & drinks (just be sure they’re unopened or you won’t get them past security)
- Reduce baggage fees by traveling with just a carry-on
- Take the intimidation out of packing light- check out the benefits of one bag travel and learn how to pack for a trip using just a carry-on.
- Essentials bag- create an essentials bag so you won’t spend money on got-to-have travel items such as:
- Light blanket
- Travel pillow
- Book, e-reader, or magazines
- Snacks & mints
- Lotion, perfume, and/or deodorant to keep fresh
- Travel charger
Travel Smart: Car Travel
With the cost of gas being a relatively good deal compared to world fuel costs, the road trip is still a great American past time. According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, over 20% of Americans embark on an adventure in their vehicles in a typical quarter. Whether it’s a weekend getaway, or an epic, cross-country road trip, here are some tips and tricks to help you keep costs down and adventure up.
Rental car tips
Just like accommodations and flights, car rental companies can often raise prices for holidays, special events, or high seasons (this is known as surge pricing). Pricing numerous rental car companies over a period of weeks can help ensure you get the best deals.
If you are concerned you might lose out on a good deal while waiting for a great deal, consider reserving more than one option and canceling within the allotted window if there is no penalty. Never prepay if you take this route & always check the car rental company’s cancelation policies before you book! Another travel smart tip? Ask about optional discounts- travelers club discounts (like AAA), senior discounts, or military discounts can often be found.
Used car rentals
Renting a used car can be a great choice for traveling on a budget. Check local, non-franchise shops for bargain car rental options. Be sure to do research to ensure that you are going with a reputable company, but many independent options can be great choices.
When we visited Kauai, we found a budget car rental company that leased brand new or slightly used cars. We opted for a used Mustang convertible and found it to be a great choice! Aside from it being a better financial choice, it didn’t have a major rental company logo on it. This made us look like locals, not tourists, which greatly reduced our chances of being victims of a vehicle break-in (tourists are often targets of vehicle theft in Hawaii).
Small shops rely heavily on customer satisfaction and reviews, as they don’t have large advertising budgets. Often, I find this means great customer service. When I lost my wallet on the way to the airport in Hawaii, the owner of the rental shop searched the car, retraced our steps, and drove around searching for it. She was finally able to locate my wallet and rushed it to the airport, but we were already past security. Out of the goodness of her heart, she priority shipped it back to me the next day. I can tell you one thing- that level of help would never have happened at a big franchise rental company.
Not all car rental companies are created equal. To ensure the rental company is on the up & up, check Trip Advisor, Yelp!, or other review sites. If you can’t find any information, or reviews are not high, take a hard pass. Better to spend more money than to get stranded with a broken down car and bad customer service.
Know your insurance
Know what your regular car insurance covers before you get to the car rental service counter. You don’t want to pay for insurance or services you already have or don’t need.
Score a free rental car or RV with Transfercar
Transfercar is a website that specializes in connecting rental car companies with people seeking road trips. Essentially, car companies arrange for you to take a car, RV, or rental truck from point A to point B on their behalf. In exchange, you get a free/$1 rental for an agreed upon period of days. In some cases, companies even pay for gas and/or insurance!
With the right timing & the right destination, you can score some crazy good deals! For example, I recently saw a deal for a $1 RV rental for three days travel from Miami to Orlando (which is only a three-hour drive!). You could visit Disney for three days and only pay $1 for the RV and roughly $15-20/daily RV rental in a local park. Find a hotel in Orlando cheaper than that! Additionally, many Transfercar arrangements come with the availability to add rental days to the transfer for a small fee, such as adding four extra days with an RV for only $60/day.
The drawbacks are that this service is location and date specific. You would need to travel to point A and arrange for travel after arriving at point B. But, for the right person looking for the right destination, it can be a pretty sweet deal.
Budget travel tips for driving
- Pack food for road trips and day trips
- Reusable water bottles cut down on waste & allow you to always have access to water.
- Consider an electronic cool box or travel cooler bag
- Scope out the Gas Buddy app (or view Gas Buddy online) to find the cheapest gas nearby and to discover how far away the next station will be.
- Create a road trip survival kit:
If you’re planning a road trip, be sure to check out our Road Trip Tips for an Epic Adventure.
Travel smart: budget transportation decisions
- Always choose public transportation over private. Take the bus over a taxi, the subway instead of an Uber, or a train instead of a rental car.
- Weigh the options of driving versus flying
- Consider whether you will use your own car or rent a car
- Consider if a single-use public transportation ticket is your best bet, or if a rail or city pass might be a more economical option.
Travel Smart: Make Your Transportation Dollars Stretch
While transportation can be one of the biggest expenses when you travel, by planning wisely, you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars. I’ve known people who have been able to save so much cash in their transportation budget that they changed their destination entirely, finally going on that trip of a lifetime! With careful planning and incorporating these travel tips, you might just be surprised what you can afford. Don’t assume the vacation of your dreams can’t be your reality!
Looking for more ways to help your travel budget stretch? Check out the other posts in this six-part series!
Introduction: Travel on a Budget: See the World for Less
Part 5: Travel Smart: Keep Transportation Charges in Check
Part 6: Maximizing Your Attractions & Experiences Travel Budget