We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Please be aware that some of the products and services linked in this article are from our sponsors.
Sipping umbrella drinks on a faraway beach, trekking atop mysterious foreign mountains, witnessing eons of architectural history first hand… There's no denying that travelling abroad might be the best way to take a break from the daily grind, broaden your mind, and gain new perspective on your life back home.
That being said, a vacation like this probably won't come cheap… unless you take the time to prepare and be an extra-savvy tourist.
Forget expensive paid tour guides — planning and taking advantage of the cheaper, local, and free options stretches your vacation dollar a lot farther. The next time you plan a vacation, use these smart saving and planning tips to get the most out of your travel budget!
1. Offline GPS and Walking Tours
Depending on your destination, you can probably get away with a smartphone map and a good pair of walking shoes. Offline GPS apps are a godsend for the budget traveller. Before you arrive, simply download the map for areas that you'll be visiting throughout your whole trip. Why pay for tour guides and long cab rides when you can plan a free walking tour by yourself?
With months to plan and prepare some contingencies for bad weather, you can easily create a custom walking tour built around your favorite attractions and interests. A quick Google search might also reveal free printable local walking tour maps or even local guides who run tours in their city on a pay-what-you-can tip basis. These guides are usually super enthusiastic about their hometown, can offer a local perspective on their city, and tend to give some pretty great food, drink and party recommendations if you ask!
If you can avoid buying souvenirs completely, you'll be doing everyone (and your wallet!) a serious favour. There's nothing wrong with gifts on principle, but it's easy to fall prey to the tricks and scams of souvenir shops in tourist areas. Show your friends your pictures, share stories about your adventures, but don't waste your precious vacation time looking at cheap trinkets and t-shirts!
3. Offers and Deals
If you're a student, military service member, senior, or an auto club member, you can probably get some great deals and special offers, even internationally! Many hotels and tourist attractions offer special rates and discounts for students and members of groups like CAA, AAA, airline loyalty programs, and certain credit card companies. If you don't look, you'll never know what you can get with your status cards. Don't be afraid to ask for a discount when you arrive at your hotel check-in, either. It's always easier to get a deal before you pay.
4. Phone Unlocking and Prepaid SIMs
It's tempting to disconnect completely on vacation, but the reality is you will probably need Internet access to get the most out of your trip. Your home service provider would probably jump at the chance to sign you up for an international roaming plan — but most countries offer prepaid cards with 3G (or better) data. It's usually cheaper to go with a prepaid card, but you'll need an unlocked smartphone to use it. Check online to see what plans are recommended in the country you're visiting and if these will work with your phone!
5. Free WiFi and VPN
This is hands down the cheapest option for a connected traveller — free WiFi is available everywhere in most popular travel destinations in the world. If you plan on doing business or banking abroad, you should strongly consider downloading a VPN for your phone while you travel. Snooping software is very user-friendly these days and open networks are a huge security risk for travellers.
VPN apps are easy to set up and use: just search for virtual private networks on your smartphone's app store and install the app. The paid versions will have much more bandwidth than the free ones. But you can probably get away with a limited free trial for your whole trip if you only use it for some browsing and messaging.
6. Homestays and Alternative Accommodation
As a frugal traveller, you probably know all about AirBnB and couchsurfing. But when you're looking for a bargain on hotel costs, it's important to keep an open mind about where you might stay. Hotel prices are often very competitive, and you can save money if you're willing to bend a little. Accommodation outside your tourist destination's downtown core can often offer a peaceful setting in a quiet neighborhood. Public transportation outside the core is typically less crowded outside of rush hour.
One of the best ways to travel (according to this humble writer) is the wonderful world of homestays. If you are heading to a place like Southeast Asia or Central America, you can often find amazing prices on accommodations with family homestays. It's a great way to dive into a new culture, and you will often get the best tips on local hotspots and recurring tourist scams.
Alternative accommodations offer a different type of vacation with a whole lot of savings and irreplaceable authentic experiences!
7. Ditch the Toiletries
This tip won't work for everyone, but a savvy traveller packs light. If you plan to stay in hotels, you'll be surprised how many of your needs can be fulfilled just by asking at the front desk. It's all there: toothbrushes, razors, creams, lotions, shampoos, sanitizers, and many other complimentary necessities. Admittedly, this tactic is a bit extreme for some people. But, it does save you a lot of weight and packing space, so you don't have to pay extra baggage fees. Keep in mind this might not always work out at every remote hostel or budget AirBnB location. That being said, other travelers can be friendly and will perhaps share certain toiletries (toothpaste, shampoo, liquid bodywash, shaving cream), especially if you offer something in exchange, like picking up the tab for their morning coffee, or allowing them ten minutes of tethering to your phone's WiFi hotspot to take advantage of your prepaid data.