11 Best Travel Hacks to Save You Money
When I first moved to Thailand to teach English, I did so on a very tight budget. I arrived with $500 to my name, though I knew I wouldn’t see my first paycheck for at least a month, and I somehow made it work before knowing any of the best travel hacks. I had also spent $800 on my one-way ticket, only to get stuck paying $1,000 to get back home, totaling $1,800 for a round-trip ticket — an ungodly amount in my opinion. Fast forward to today, where I just booked a round-trip from Portland, Oregon to Bangkok, Thailand for only $430….and I didn’t even pay for it.
Needless to say, I’ve learned a few things about the travel industry over the years (can you believe it’s already been six years since I first boarded that plane for Thailand?), and while I no longer consider myself a backpacker, per say (I think I’ve moved on up to flashpacker — someone who travels with her computer and other gadgets for work — or perhaps just digital nomad :), because I’m no longer bargaining for baht at hostels or scrimping on fun things I’d like to do while I’m away, but I do still LOVE a good deal, especially if it means I can travel for longer.
I’m working on a goal of traveling for six months out of every year (starting in 2018!) and being in my beloved Bend for the other six. Obviously my job is the biggest factor that allows me to do this, but these 11 (plus a bonus for the ladies!) travel hacks to save money are also how going to help.
1. Save on checked luggage
Isn’t it silly that airlines started charging for luggage? I mean, who goes on a trip without taking a bag full of stuff? When certain airlines like Frontier started charging even for carry on bags, I was pretty angry. I would be much happier if they just added the price back into the ticket and didn’t talk about it. It’s ridiculous, but there are a few ways around it:
- Fly international. You should get two free checked bags (though your chances are usually better for non-U.S.-owned airlines, like Kuwait Airways or Korean Airways, and more comfortable, too).
- Sign up for the airline’s credit card. Many like Delta and Alaska offer free checked luggage to cardholders (plus awesome sign-up bonuses; see #3).
- Pay for your checked luggage online in advance to save up to 50%.
- Nicely, play dumb at check out or come up with an excuse like, “I thought it said bags were covered for this route?” The attendant does have the power to waive the fee. Trust me.
- Offer to pay at check-in with a $100 bill. They usually can’t cash it and will just waive the fee instead of dealing with it! (I’ve had a 100% success rating with exactly one try, but I believe it will work at least 85% of the time — why would they have that much cash?)
2. Always sign up for the airline mileage plan
Every airline now has their own mileage plan (and many have associated credit cards), and it’s always free to join. I recommend doing so because not only will you earn miles for flying with them that may come in handy in the future (they never expire and you never know when you’ll use them again!), but you’ll also be compensated should anything go wrong, like delayed flights or lost luggage, because you’re now a valued member of their loyalty program.
I’m flying Air Canada for my upcoming trip to Thailand and when I signed up, they gave me 2,000 miles just for signing up! Add that to the miles I’ll earn by flying across the world and I could quickly earn $100 off my next flight just by taking advantage of the free program.
3. Don’t pay for your flight
This is the ultimate travel hack, and also the most confusing. How can all your flights be free, you ask? Well, let me tell you.
You’re going to play the credit card game. Since there are so many credit cards on the market and everyone wants your business, many companies offer great sign-up bonuses which are usually between 25,000 – 60,000 points (typically 10,000 points = $100 in airfare). So you sign up for the cards, do what it takes to earn the points, book a flight, go on a trip, cancel the card. Repeat. For a more detailed explanation, read this blog post from Nomadic Matt.
Here’s the break down:
- Sign up for credit cards with the biggest sign up bonuses (many are offering 50,000 – 60,000 points for signing up).
- Do what it takes to get those points (usually you need to meet a minimum spending requirement within the first three months — but keep reading to learn how to do this without spending anything extra!)
- Get your points, book your trip (make sure you plan on going somewhere within a year from when you sign up).
- Make sure you choose a card that waives the annual fee for the first 12 months (or doesn’t have one, or has a super low one), because after you book your flight and go on your trip, you’re going to cancel your card to make sure you don’t have to pay a single dime for it.
Here’s the catch.
Many, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, want you to spend $4,000+ in the first three months. So, you’ll want to use it for everything you would normally buy in that time period (instead of using your debit card or cash). However, if that’s more than you typically spend in a 3-month period, you can manufacture the rest. Here’s how:
- Use your card to by a $500 visa gift card (some stores won’t let you use a credit card to buy these, but Fred Meyer does).
- Walk right over to customer service and use your visa gift card to buy a money order for $500 (minus the cost of the money order, like $.79)
- Deposit money order into your bank account
- Pay back your credit card.
- Wah-lah! You’ll lose about $6 each time, but even if you do this for the entire 4,000 (which I don’t recommend since it might be a red flag — just get cards when you buy groceries), you’ll spend only $48 to earn more than $500 in a plane ticket.
4. Sign up for a Cheap Flight Service
There are a growing number of cheap flight services out there, but I love Scott’s Cheap Flights because not only is he a pioneer in the “mistake fare” business, he’s also expanded his service all over the world. What it is: you sign up for an email newsletter, and Scott emails you amazing flight deals (he rarely sends roundtrip deals over $600). Basically, he scours the web so you don’t have to! When he notifies you of a great deal, you do have to be ready to buy (and flexible dates help, too!), so I’ve found it works best if you know where you want to go, have plenty of time before you want to go, and just wait for the next deal to hit your inbox. You can sign up for his free subscription to get an idea of what it’s all about, but the best deals are reserved for premium subscribers.
5. Clear your cache before booking
No matter which service you use to book your flight, make sure you clear your browser cache before you do so! Have you ever been shopping for flights and suddenly noticed the prices jump up $50, $100 or even hundreds of dollars? That’s because the site is using cookies to track your IP address, and they’re trying to get you for top dollar. If you clear your cookies (Google how if you’re not sure), it will refresh the system and bring the price back down.
Another perk of using your new travel credit card is that it often will cover things like basic accident insurance, lost luggage fees, rental car insurance, and the like. You do have to read the fine print on the cardmember agreement they’ll send you to know exactly what it covers, but it’s worth it so you don’t pay double on your rental car, etc.
For all the things it doesn’t cover (if you’re going to be adventurous and ride motorbikes or jump off bridges, for example), you’ll likely want to look into my go to at WorldNomads to make sure you’re completely covered while you’re away.
7. Sign up for a bank with no ATM fees
I FINALLY got caught up to speed with this. Yes, ATM fees are usually only $5, but that adds up if you’re like me and don’t feel comfortable walking around with tons of cash (especially when conversions mean that’s a pile of cash!) on your person. I signed up for the Charles Schwab free checking account because it’s totally free, totally online, easy to access, has great customer service, and ZERO international ATM fees, no matter where I go. I know certain smaller banks offer similar deals, so it’s worth looking into a local branch where you live as well.
Always withdraw from an ATM instead when you arrive in a new country instead of using the airport’s Currency Exchange. You’ll get a MUCH better exchange rate, and you won’t have to worry about carrying all that USD on you in the first place. Plus, I’ve never seen an international airport without tons of ATMs (the exception to this rule is Cuba for Americans…unless that’s changed since I visited).
8. Use a credit card with no international transaction fees
While the above is most important because a majority of countries outside the U.S. are cash economies, there are usually things that will take your plastic, such as fancy dinners or hotels. For those things, you’ll want to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees so you don’t get caught paying any extra (and thus gain those extra points!).
9. Use Wifi calling
There’s no longer any need to pay outrageous international calling fees when you’re traveling abroad. With free downloadable apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, you can make calls to loved ones back home whenever you’re connected to wifi. If you’re moving abroad for long term and you don’t want to pay for your plan back home, consider porting your number via Google or another provider for a low, one-time fee and you’ll be able to utilize your same number while abroad, over wifi, for free.
10. Consider couchsurfing
While I don’t consider myself a backpacker anymore, I do still enjoy the occasional couchsurf experience. I don’t recommend doing it just to save money — it should be about the cultural exchange experience and the opportunity to see how locals live/dine/shop — but it is an incredible way to save on a few nights of lodging while also seeing the country from a local’s perspective. I couch surfed my way across Northern India and had an unforgettable, unique experience.
11. Use AirBnb
Are you slacking on the AirBnb train? It’s time to get on board! I LOVE using AirBnb when I travel now because it allows you to rent the comfort of a private home in whatever price range you desire. Plus, here’s $40 off your first stay if you’re new to AirBnb!
BONUS (for ladies). Convert to a Menstrual Cup
When I first moved to rural Thailand, my new Thai friends took me shopping to the nearest Big C (like Target or Fred Meyer). I found the female hygeine aisle and lots of pads but could not find ANY tampons. When I asked the women I was with where to find them, they genuinely had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained, they were grossed out (I can’t blame them!). Had I known that tampons were not widely used in Thailand, I would have come prepared, or switched to a menstrual cup earlier. I’m just now getting on board, but I’m super excited about it. I’ve been sold on the idea not only by several of my friends’ rave reviews, but by the overall benefits of switching from tampons to a menstrual cup, which are, in short:
- You will save an estimated $100-120 in feminine products each year
- You’ll eliminate the need to search for tampons in a new country
- You’ll eliminate the worry about finding a clean public restroom with running water to wash your hands because you won’t have to think about it or deal with it until you’re back in your hotel/Airbnb room.
- You’ll virtually eliminate the added waste, which is so much better for the environment
If you’re worried about using the menstrual cup and experiencing “leaks,” another option is period-proof underwear, as sold by knixteen.com, that comes with a built-in panty liner.
What are YOUR favorite travel hacks? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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