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How to Save Money on Summer Travel

I get overwhelmed just thinking about the effort it takes to plan, pay for, and physically take my tired, unexfoliated body on a summer trip. But then I remember that it’s almost always worth it. Even a wet, buggy camping misadventure has the upside of making your regular life seem like a vacation by comparison. (Or so I seem to recall from the last time I camped, approximately seven years ago.) The point is, it’s good to get a change of scene.

That said, nothing spoils a vacation like being on edge about how much it costs. There’s too much pressure! If you drop a bunch of money on a hotel and your Wi-Fi doesn’t work or the room smells funny or your window overlooks a parking lot, you’ll spend the whole time seething about how much more you would enjoy spending the same amount on Seamless with a view of Netflix from your own couch.

Of course, the sweet spot is to get out of town, take a break from your routine, and do things you enjoy without racking up a bill that will erase your postholiday glow. This can be difficult, especially during peak vacation season in July and August. A recent survey found that about 60 percent of Americans plan to travel this summer and one in five plan to spend “significantly more” than they did last year. (This isn’t just because things are more expensive — people are planning more lavish trips.)

If you, like me, do not plan to be one of those people, what are the best ways to save money on summer travel this year? I asked a bunch of financial experts for tips they are currently giving their clients — and are using themselves.

1.Decide in advance what you’re willing to spend on and what you aren’t.

Obviously, everything is a trade-off. But it’s smart to consider which financial compromises you’re willing to make before you get talked into a lobster dinner after a few glasses of wine on your first night in Lisbon. “Reflect on what you really enjoy and splurge on those things while ‘cheaping’ out on others,” says Megan McCoy, a financial therapist and professor of financial planning at Kansas State University.

It’s also worth thinking about where your money will go the furthest, says Katie Gatti, the host of Money With Katie. “I am almost always willing to pay more for better flight times,” she says. “While you may be tempted to save $150 by opting for the 6 a.m. flight with two connections, the connections take time out of your trip, and it’s torture to wake up at 3 a.m. To me, spending a little more on a direct flight at the time I want goes a disproportionately long way.” (Alternatively, if you would rather sacrifice a few hours of vacation and/or sleep to save a few hundred bucks on your flight, do it!)

Also, consider the location of your hotel. “Some people like to splurge on fancy properties or better rooms, but I generally find that spending a little more on location is a good investment,” Gatti says. “It means that you spend less time and money on public transportation or rideshares once you arrive, which can affect how much you enjoy the trip and what you’re able to do in your limited time there.”

Personally, I have hard rules for what I will and won’t spend money on while I’m traveling so that I don’t hem and haw over every temptation. For example, I generally refuse to pay for travel upgrades. I will be miserable on any airplane, no matter what kind of seat I’m in, so it’s not worth it to me to pay hundreds of dollars more for four more inches of legroom. I also have a policy against shopping while traveling (I learned this after I bought a hat that looked so cool in Santa Fe but that I absolutely could not pull off at home). This includes souvenirs. No one wants a shot glass from New Orleans. Or if they do, they won’t be getting it from me.

Conversely, I will spend money on nice drinks, good food, art museums, and anything that allows me to skip a long line. You can hate my rules and I don’t care! You get to make your own.

2.Talk to people who live where you’re going or know a lot about it.

“Connect with at least one person who lives locally and knows the area well who can give you tips on things to see, do, and eat for less,” says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and author of multiple best-selling books on personal finance. “These suggestions might be off the beaten path but more authentic and less touristy.” (Another upside to knowing locals is that they might invite you over for dinner and you’ll get to see how people actually live — also fun and free-ish.)

If you don’t know anyone who lives where you’re going, cast around for people you trust (and have a similar lifestyle — i.e., budget) who have recently visited and ask them what they recommend and what they don’t. This is how I wound up in a strange neighborhood in Mexico City visiting a free art fair in an abandoned convent that was easily the coolest thing I saw on that trip.

Touristy places are always more expensive, usually crawling with other tourists, and probably just as cool as some other less famous spot that hasn’t been tagged by a million influencers. So why not try the latter?

3.Extend your vacation mentally.

Traveling someplace new can have huge benefits for your psyche — research has found that it’s linked to open-mindedness, emotional intelligence, and enhanced creativity. You can milk these effects by appreciating your destination before you get there and after you return, says Manisha Thakor, a certified financial planner and author of MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your Enough.

“A vacation can be a sizable chunk of your discretionary budget, and one way to make the most of that money is to spread out the joy of the trip by watching documentaries about where you are going and even reading novels that take place there,” she explains. “Just doing one of those things before, and maybe another one after, can help extend the joy and feeling of your vacation.”

I actually do this too. Starting about ten years ago, before I go anywhere, I try to read at least one book set in that place or by an author who lived there (Gabriel García Márquez before I went to Colombia, Colette before I went to Paris, Roddy Doyle before I went to Ireland). Watching a movie set there counts too. And the halo effect is real — I feel like I’m already on my trip before it starts and then I can “go back” afterward by reading and watching more about it.

4.Be strategic about food and drink.

Everyone I spoke to brought this up: When you’re traveling, eating and drinking get pricey, and no one wants to pay $7 for a rock-hard bagel in the airport. Luckily, there are ways around this.

First of all, always bring nonperishable stuff to eat from home. “I like to bring a Tupperware of snacks,” like protein bars and nuts, says Gatti. She’ll also keep them in her hotel room or wherever she’s staying when she arrives. “It means I’m not spending $15 on subpar airport sandwiches or relenting to the $40 continental breakfast simply because I wake up hungry and need to get something in my stomach.”

If you’re staying at a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast, go to town. “In many European countries, breakfast comes included with a hotel stay,” says Thakor. If you’re feeling really shameless, you could sneak some into your aforementioned Tupperware and save it for later. Don’t be shy about doggie bags, either.

If you’re traveling with kids (or you just get hangry on a regular basis), it’s almost always worth it to book a room or an Airbnb with a small kitchen so that you can store, cook, and eat meals without being beholden to restaurants, says Sonya Britt Lutter, a certified financial planner and financial therapist. “As soon as you arrive at your lodging, find the nearest supermarket and stock up on drinks, too.”

Drink free coffee wherever you can get it (most hotels offer it), and make sure to bring a refillable water bottle so you aren’t paying $5 for Evian out of a minibar, says Stephanie Genkin, the founder of My Financial Planner. And finally, do your own research — many tourism boards and hotels get kickbacks for the things they suggest. “Don’t ask the hotel concierge where to go for dinner,” she adds.

5.Look at your credit-card offers.

I’m not one for obsessing over credit-card points or signing up for new offers just to get a few hundred airline miles — if you’re into that, great, but I find it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Still, if you’re planning to travel, see what your credit card can do for you, says Torabi. The same goes if you work for a big company that may have corporate-travel perks.

“Your credit card or even your employer might have relationships with hotels where you can, because of your affiliation, snag some freebies and discounts,” she says. “My credit card’s website has a travel-booking page that offers perks like free breakfast for two and $100 spending money at the hotel.” Don’t get trapped into booking a more expensive place just because of these bells and whistles, though.

6.Consider shipping your luggage ahead of time.

Rich people do it all the time, according to luxury-travel agent Jaclyn Sienna India, but so can the rest of us. If anything, shipping your stuff to where you’re going — especially if it’s domestic — costs less than most airline baggage fees do. Sure, you have to pack in advance and go to the post office (a voyage in itself, let’s be honest), but it sure beats schlepping your stuff through various airports and running the risk of losing it en route.

7. Save your splurges for the last day.

Okay, this is purely my own tip: I once read that the last day of a vacation is the most important because if you end the trip on a high note, you’ll come back refreshed and remember the whole thing more fondly. So now I always save the best for last. During earlier parts of a trip, we’ll stay in more affordable Airbnbs or with friends and family. Then, for the last night or two, I’ll book a hotel room or fancier Airbnb, find a cool activity, and plan a great dinner. It saves us money overall and still feels like a treat.


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