My Family's Top Ways To Save Money When Traveling
We love traveling with our three kids. I let each of the kids pick any destination in the world every year for a one-on-one trip with me, and we take full advantage of school breaks and other opportunities to see the world. There’s absolutely no way we could be doing that if we were paying full price for everything or getting hit with avoidable fees.
These are the top 10 things I do when traveling, and while booking travel, to make our dollars stretch as far as possible so that we can get the kids to as many great places as possible.
1. Play the mileage gameGet credit cards that give you miles or points for every transaction that can be redeemed for free flights and hotel stays. The game changes all the time, but it’s still worth accumulating all of the miles or points that you can and then not waiting too long to convert them to free travel. We redeem miles for a minimum of 15 tickets a year -- it adds up! And stay loyal to one airline, because the higher your status, the more miles you get from travel, and the fewer fees you pay to book and change travel.
2. Book early, but check prices constantlyThis doesn't necessarily work for airline tickets, because the change fees are usually more than the potential savings, but it works for hotels and rental cars. I have weekly reminders on my computer to re-check the rates for travel that I've already booked. If a hotel reduces its prices for the nights when we'll be there, I rebook, and I do the same with rental cars.
Just always be aware of the cancellation terms in your booking. I’d guess that I rebook at least one element of half of our trips and that it saves at least $50 each time for rental cars and $50 per night for hotel stays.
3. Buy plane tickets at the right timeLast year Cheapair.com determined the prime booking window was one month to 3.5 months before departure. I personally use search engines that note whether they expect fares are going to increase or decrease.
Wendy Perrin also has some good tips on her website -- namely don't book too early, fly through unusual connecting cities and try separating your family into different reservations to see if two seats may be cheaper than the others (airlines work that way).
4. Travel during off-peak timesThat can apply to the days of the week when you're traveling, but it primarily has to do with peak travel seasons. For spring break, think Venice instead of Hawaii. Go to Greece, or most of Europe for that matter, in May or September instead of during the summer.
Obviously school breaks dictate a lot of travel times, but there are ways to work around those. If your school gets out the first week of June, immediately head to Europe -- you'll get there before a lot of other tourists, and before the peak summer prices kick in. And although my wife hates that I think like this, consider taking your kids out of school for a week. Travel is the best education. If there's an off-season deal to the Galapagos, and it doesn't coincide with any school breaks, go anyway! You can get to and see a lot of places if you fly out after school on Friday and come back 10 days later on Sunday evening.
Also, be aware of school calendars in other countries. For example, if you're looking at Bali, don't go during the Australian school holidays (early April, late June and late September).
5. Use T-MobileI hear stories all the time about people getting surprise bills for hundreds or even thousands of dollars for international data roaming, and I’ve also waited patiently while friends went from store to store or waited in line in various countries to purchase local SIM cards.I go for a much simpler option: I use T-Mobile. You don’t have to sign up for a separate travel data/calling plan -- their standard Simple Choice plans come with free 3G or 4G data and texting in more than 120 countries, and calls are 20 cents per minute.
6. Choose the right credit cardA lot of cards charge a 3% foreign transaction fee on every charge, so look for a card that doesn't. Several cards from Chase don't have any fees. The same is true for cards issued by most credit unions. HSBC, American Express, Citibank, Barclay and Bank of America all waive foreign transaction fees for select cards.
If you're not sure whether your card charges you the extra 3%, just call them and ask -- preferably several weeks before a trip, so that you have time to get a new card.
7. Use ATMs wiselyATMs can be the least-expensive source of local currency, but make sure that you know your bank's ATM fee schedule as some banks charge several dollars every time you use a foreign ATM. If you're with a large international bank like HSBC, using their ATMs while traveling can save you money. Or your local bank may waive ATM fees.
If you're not sure what fees you're paying, be sure not to frequently withdraw small amounts of currency because you may be paying fees each time. It’s better to take out large withdrawals every few days.
Also, try not to change money at zero-commission foreign exchange booths at airports or urban areas. You're avoiding commissions, but you're also getting an exchange rate that could be 10% worse than the actual rate.
8. Always pay in local currencyWhen you're in a store paying with a credit card, you'll frequently get asked whether you want the charge to go through to your card in dollars or in the local currency. Always choose the local currency. If you choose dollars, you have no control over the exchange rate and you'll likely pay 2%-3% more than you would have if your credit card had done the conversion.
This is true for PayPal as well. If PayPal asks you if you want a charge to go through in U.S. dollars or the local currency, choose the local currency as long as you have a credit card without foreign transaction fees. I’ve tested PayPal’s conversion rates over and over and have found that I would paid an average of 2.1% more letting PayPal charge me in U.S. dollars.
9. Think apartmentsI mentioned hotels above, but we also frequently book apartments through airbnb, VRBO and other sites. With three kids we usually require two hotel rooms. Apartments are typically much less expensive than hotels -- especially two rooms -- and they let us be in the exact areas where we want to stay.
In Paris we love the 7th Arrondissement. Specifically we want to be within a couple blocks of the markets of Rue Cler, a metro stop, and the Champ du Mars park at the Eiffel Tower. There are numerous apartments that perfectly fit those requirements, but very few hotels.
10. Have a lot of picnicsEating out can be expensive, it's difficult with young kids in some places where meals tend to stretch to two or three hours, and if you don't love the food, that's a lot of time and money to invest only to be disappointed. From Santiago to Florence to Paris, we love getting food from bakeries, produce stands, grocery stores and take-out places (not fast food!), and finding parks for picnics. The kids can run and play, we can relax, and we can leave whenever we want.
And if you're staying in an apartment (see Tip No. 9), you'll be able to prepare your own meals and have an excuse to peruse local food stores.
But that’s just what we do most frequently. There are a lot of other ways to save money as well, like taking advantage of AAA or alumni travel discounts and using Skype for calls when possible. If you have favorite ways to save money, please comment below!