Travelers arrive at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on June 30, 2023. Credit - KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI—AFP/Getty Images
For travelers, planning a vacation doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank.
More than half of Gen Z adults are frequent travelers, taking at least three annual trips for leisure, according to data research group Morning Consult. And many of these travelers come from households that are less financially affluent—meaning they are not letting lower funds limit their travel excursions to one summer vacation a year.
Experts say that numerous apps and third party sites make traveling on a budget possible; it’s just a matter of knowing how to best use these resources to meet financial constraints while checking off must-haves when visiting particular locations.
“First, you’ve got to know how you're going to attack the beast,” says Jo Franco, a host of the Netflix travel show World's Most Amazing Vacation Rentals and CEO of her journaling company JoClub. “What are the things [you] want to see and experience, what lights [you] up, and pick one daily splurge.”
Here’s what experts told TIME about how to travel on a budget.
Know your limits before planning a trip
Experts say budgeting doesn’t have to limit a trip, but rather means travelers have to make adjustments when it comes to finding affordable options.
Travelers should first assess how much money they would like to spend on a particular vacation to best accommodate their financial constraints, Madison Lee, a 25-year-old travel content creator, tells TIME that can mean being open to a variety of travel dates, flying from a smaller airport, or traveling midweek as opposed to over a weekend. Traveling during the shoulder season of a particular location—typically spring and fall—is also more cost effective.
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Before planning, travelers should determine whether they are constrained to vacation during a specific time of year, or if they have more flexibility. “Are you going to look for the destination first and find the cheapest flights, and then work backwards and plan it into your schedule? Or do you know that you only have these two weeks off and your time is limited to those two weeks,” asks Franco, who created travel-related YouTube content for more than a decade.
Travelers should keep in mind that a vacation will always be more expensive during national (and international) holidays. Franco warns that people should be aware of “phenomena travel,” which is when a certain event occurs in a city that draws in tourists and increases prices. “Not to say you shouldn't experience those things,” Franco says. “But if you're sticking to a budget and you're traveling for the sake of traveling and not necessarily to experience [something], then it would be good to research what happens in the locations during the year.”
It may also be ideal to choose a location that is less known, according to Lee. “Choosing countries where your currency goes further will allow you to experience amazing things for much less than you would in popular tourist destinations. Decide what you want to see on your trip: mountains, beaches, cities etc… then look at less visited places that have those qualities—Milos vs Santorini, Albania vs Croatia, Chiapas vs Yucatán,” she says.
Know what you want to get out of traveling
Franco suggests travelers ensure they know what they most want out of a particular location, whether that be visiting a particular museum, eating at a specific restaurant, or exploring nature. Analyzing their preferences should help them decide whether to splurge on an experience, or meal for the day.
For trips that are a week or longer, Franco suggests people only plan the first three days of their trip and leave the rest to fate. “When you travel on a budget, you're going to be in more communal places… you're going to meet more people,” Franco says. “The spontaneity that makes a trip special … usually happens when you meet somebody. They tell you about a place. You take their advice, you go to the place you end up having a magical time, or you meet a person that ends up becoming your travel companion and you sync up and you plan the rest of your trips.”
Waiting to arrive at a vacation spot can make the journey much more fun. If someone’s budget is really tight, Franco also suggests that it may be more worthwhile to go to the second most popular destination in a country rather than the first as it’s less costly.
Saving on hotels
Travelers can save on the most costly portions of their trip by being smart about their reservations.
Solo travelers should consider staying at a hostel, which also tends to offer community events or discounted activities in the area. They can also provide amenities like laundry machines or kitchens. Lee also mentions services like Couchsurfing, which allows guests to stay with locals while abroad. But, “if you're traveling in a big group it'll be cheaper to get Airbnb with multiple beds in the Airbnb and to get multiple hotel rooms,” Franco says. (Airbnb prices have seen increases over the past few years, though some experts say prices are expected to fall in 2023.)
Franco also suggests that users check out apps like Hotel Tonight or more popular websites like Booking.com, which also offers mobile deals for people. It may also be useful to look at companies that do bundle save options—which happen when someone books a flight, hotel, and car rental—on a site like Expedia or Priceline.
Experts warn, however, that people should consider the full scope of a vacation, which includes money for transportation to and from each location. “Staying outside of the city can sometimes look like it is saving you money, however, if transportation costs are expensive within that city, you might rack up more money on transportation costs than you would spending a little bit extra on the accommodation,” Lee notes.
Saving on flights
Knowing when to book a flight is key to keeping prices low. Lee adds that airlines typically release new fares on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so booking on those days can help travelers pick the best seats or save the most.
Cassy Martinez, a 31-year-old based out of Rio Grande, Texas founded Globethotter, an online travel community that hosts group trips in Europe and Mexico. Martinez recommends not waiting too long before booking their flight and stay. “I plan the group trips that I host nearly half a year in advance and do a lot of price estimates. I’ll often notice just five months later a significant spike, so you should really plan in advance."
Franco uses an app called Hopper for flights. The app informs buyers of the best time to book a flight based on historical pricing. Google Flights and Skyscanner are also great options, according to experts. For those who frequently travel, picking one airline and staying loyal to that company can help them rack up points to check bags, or get free upgrades. A travel credit card is also a must have for borrowers who want to use their points towards travel miles.
However, people should also be aware of flights that may be too good to be true. “Flights [may be] really cheap, but a lot of times you can only get one personal item on the plane,” Franco says. Travelers with extra luggage might also consider booking an overnight train or bus, which may extend the length of time to reach a destination, but is much more affordable.
“Travel is what you make it,” says Martinez, “There is always something to match different people’s bank accounts and meet you where you are.”
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