The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I started out traveling wherever and however our budget would allow and gradually worked our way up to more exotic locations with, sometimes, more luxurious lodging. While our travel style has changed significantly over the years, we’re still always on the lookout for great ways to save cash. Below, learn some of the tricks of trade we’ve used, good for budgets big and small, and gain some leverage on your lodging expenses.
Think hostels are just for kids? Think again. I’d take a random guess that 65% of hostels are not at all specific to teenagers (some are). They’re a great way to save money on the road, and they are perfect for family travel. Kids stay cheaper (or for free!), you have a full kitchen at your disposal, and you would basically end up having a whole room to yourself at the cheapest rates possible. For my fellow DINKs: While the cheapest hostel rooms are dorm-style bunk beds, many hostels offer private rooms with private bathrooms for just a few dollars more. And you might be surprised at the facilities and locations of some of these places! Most of the hostels we’ve stayed at are completely on par with a Holiday Inn, maybe even better. The hubs and I have snagged a private riverside cabin outside Denali; we’ve stayed waterfront in Iceland with the sound of whales breaching overnight; we’ve sat fireside in New Zealand with a six-pack and watched movies of our choice from the largest digital movie collection I’ve ever seen. It’s true, we’ve also had some… “interesting” hostel experiences, but we’ve never felt unsafe or threatened in any way, just your standard perils of communal living spaces. Other things to know about hostel savings…
- You can pay just a little for a membership and save even more, just do the math to make sure it evens itself out. Two nights probably isn’t worth it, but five nights might be. You’ll also get a few additional perks, depending on the organization and hostel. My favorite hostel site is Hostelling International. You can book online, get your membership online, and it’s a super easy site to use.
- A lot of them have organized recreational activities or equipment. Sometimes it’s free, and sometimes there’s a small surcharge. At one of our hostels on the Tasman Sea, they had bikes and kayaks you could check out. They’ll have wi-fi and even computers available for use. They almost all have communal libraries.
- If you’re a true budget traveler, you can work around the hostel to pay off your stay. They also have bulletin boards available to hitch rides with fellow travelers.
A lot of fellow budget travel gurus open multiple credit cards and pay for entire international flights with the initial rewards (never mind lodging costs, which pale in comparison). I, personally, don’t want the credit score dings that come along with this approach, but I do use our rewards to pay for lodging gift cards. We also have a “travel eraser” program where we can credit travel-related expenses later; you actually get more for your money this way than with the gift cards, so check the points ratios. On top of that, I book through Hotels.com, which has its own rewards program—every tenth night, you get a night free. It adds up quickly and it’s double the savings. They also have “secret savings” (reduced prices) for loyalty members.
Non-Refundable Price Points
In addition to its rewards program, Hotels.com offers another way to score discounts—non-refundable price points. I’ve seen them offer up to $30 off per night if you’re willing to pay for your stay up front, non-refundable. If you’re flying from Phoenix to Cancun, you probably won’t run into any major travel snags. Or, if you tend to book travel insurance, this is definitely the way to go. There have only been two times in my travels where this was a problem. Once was when I accidentally booked the wrong night in LA, and the company happily refunded me for the wrong night and booked the correct day (they have great customer service, by the way). The other was when my husband dislocated his kneecap and we had to reschedule our trip to Istanbul, and the hotel refunded us 50% as a courtesy since it was a medical-related cancellation. The odds are ever in your favor here.
Since travel packages are purchased by providers in bulk, you’ll most likely (but not always) get a reduced price for airfare and lodging. I usually do some quick research to see if the cost balances out. You might want to be careful of standard hotel choices when booking packages because “tourist class” (usually 3 stars) is not the same in every country! Never fear—most of the time, they offer upgrade options. Airfare sites, like Orbitz and Expedia, offer their own versions of package discounts. Once you book airfare, they’ll ask if you want to book a hotel or a car as well at a reduced rate and, if you don’t, they’ll send you a promo code good for a day or two. Yeah, use those. (Orbitz also has “Orbucks,” by the way. Dumb name, but money back all the same. Not much, but a dollar’s a dollar.)
Change It Up
After we’ve been on the road for a few days and have racked up some extra cash with hostel stays, we’ll sometimes book a night at a four- or five-star hotel as a special treat to break it up. Who doesn’t love room service and high-end toiletries and movie channels and steam showers and…? Just… yes. It’s a good way to get a little luxury in without paying for luxury the entire trip. Be warned: this trick does give you a taste of the finer things in life. And you just might like it!
Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck
So, how do I know I’m getting a good return on investment for my money? Gotta love TripAdvisor. They have a ranking system for their hotels. #1 all the way down to… however many hotels they have listed. The reviews are reliably written by customers and they have customer photos available for viewing (i.e., the real deal). Enter your location, date range, and budget; filter by ranking. TripAdvisor allows you to see several booking agents and their prices. (I still book through Hotels.com for the rewards after confirming cost.) If you’re an overachiever, cross-reference the guest rankings in your chosen booking agent and go with the overall best selection.
There are a lot of additional ideas out there that the #AdventurePartnerForLife and I have yet to test out. Some, we might. Others, we never will. For real shoestring travel and true adventure, try Couchsurfing (not for us). A more mainstream option might be AirBnB (perhaps). Test out house swapping for a free way to stay somewhere new, possibly have a car, and have your own homes and pets looked after (maybe). Check out HotWire if you’re okay with booking a good hotel deal blind (we’re planners, but non-planners might go this route). Additional ideas? Add them to the Comments section below!
Today’s featured photo: We knew we were getting both a great deal and a great stay with this $30-a-night waterfront hotel in Sozopol, Bulgaria when its TripAdvisor ratings checked out. A half-mile walk from downtown and one of the city’s main beaches, we weren’t disappointed.
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