How to Plan a Trip on a Budget

I get a lot of people asking me what I do for work, or how much money I make, because I seem to travel so often. People assume that I am raking in major cash, or have some sort of inheritance that I’m using – but trust me when I say that I definitely do not. Traveling is so easy, and can be so cheap, yet so many people do not utilize (or may not know about) the resources that are at their fingertips, and end up spending significantly more money than they need to – resulting in a significantly expensive vacation. For the gal (or guy) on a budget, here are some helpful tips on how to plan a trip on a budget!

  1. Sign up with travel websites/apps.
    I am a member/have an account with Expedia, as well as with WestJet, and both are free to join. There are a ton of travel sites out there, but these are the two that I utilize the most. They are both entirely free, will not charge you to use their services, and have no hidden fees that pop up. They will send you emails with flight and hotel promotions, which can hold some really great deals. They also hold all of your travel information together within their apps, so that you don’t need to go searching through endless emails to find your reservation codes, etc. Other great apps/websites are AirBNB, Sky Scanner, and Hopper. Using these sites has saved me hundreds of dollars on flights and hotels, and I can always find some great last-minute deals on there if I get the itch to go someplace but have no clue where I feel like going.
  2. Travel during off-peak times.
    The biggest tip I have would be to travel during off-peak season for the location you are going to. Keep in mind that 99% of places will be more expensive to travel to during the summer – so travelling in the summer is not ideal. During the summer I find that the best places to go are all within driving distance, as flights are always significantly more expensive at this time. When Megan and I went to Monaco, we went during October, which is off season for that area. Though it was still beautiful, sunny and warm, most people opt not to travel at that time and we saved hundreds of dollars! Most places are in peak season in the summer, but others like Amsterdam are in peak season during the spring, Aspen & Whistler are in peak season in summer and winter – you get the idea. The most ideal travel time for most places would be spring and fall, with a handful of places being great in the winter. Doing your traveling during off peak season ensures a few different things; the weather will not usually be too hot or too cold, it will be significantly less busy, you will get a better deal on airfare and hotels, and if you are working, most people will not be taking their vacation days during this time, which helps if you have a vacation approval process at your job.
  3. Book as far ahead as you can – but don’t panic if you can’t.
    The more in advance that you can book, the cheaper your flight/hotel/experience will most likely be. There are however, usually a couple of last minute deals, but these are snapped up quite quickly, so you will need to monitor different travel sites frequently to find these. Occasionally if a hotel has a lot of open rooms and it is 1-2 nights before your stay, they will lower their prices to encourage last minute bookings, but these are few and far between. If it cannot be avoided and you need to book last minute, be sure to do your research and check for the best deal – you can find one, you just need to be patient and not book the first thing you see because it seems reasonable. Research makes a trip run much smoother.
  4. Pre-book all activities and supplemental travel if possible.
    If you are going to a place that uses a specific type of travel, such as the London Oyster Card for the Tube/busses, purchase one in advance or as soon as you arrive. Pre-pay for train tickets to and from your supplementary destination, or pre-load a travel card with money for travel for the entirety of your trip to ensure you never run out of travel money and can use any cash left for the things that you need to buy while abroad, such as food, gifts, etc. As well, a lot of the tours you intend on doing are likely purchasable in a package with other destinations, that are cheaper as a bundle. Always look in advance to see if there are packages for the areas you’d like to tour – this way you can compare them to get the best tour for your money.
  5. Be intentional about the money you spend on food.
    Food and drinks can be the most expensive part of a vacation. Depending on your appetite, planning your meals is the best way to get the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to food. When you arrive at the location you’re staying, scout out the closest markets or grocery stores. If your hotel has a mini fridge, purchase some bulk snacks to take with you. If you are able to book a hotel with breakfast included, grab an extra pastry or piece of fruit and pop it in your bag to take with you for later. If this isn’t an option, then I recommend finding a cheap café in the morning and eating a light breakfast with a coffee or tea, and then bring snacks that you purchased at the grocery store/market in your bag to eat for the remainder of the day. This way you will save money for a nice dinner, or if you are really needing to budget intensely and choose to forego a nice dinner, you can easily pick up something from the grocery store for dinner as well – food at a market or grocery store is always significantly cheaper than food at a restaurant. Speaking of dinner, be sure to read the menus before eating at any restaurant! Find out what you want to eat and don’t be afraid to take the time to look around at different restaurant menus to find the best price. It may be frustrating if you’re hungry and just want to eat, but taking the time to find food you’ll enjoy at the best price will always be worth it! It helps to look in advance on Google or Pinterest for restaurants close to where you will be staying and pre-plan where you want to eat, and budget the appropriate amount. As well, be sure to bring a water bottle with you during the day, as most places you visit will let you refill it for free (restaurants will often allow this as well – you just need to ask) to ensure you are keeping hydrated, and avoid spending unnecessary money on bottled drinks or takeaway smoothies/coffees.
  6. Book your hotel/AirBNB in a walkable location.
    When I look to book a hotel, I like to look at the map to see what is around it, and the ease of walking/transport in the area. A hotel near the airport may be cheap, but is likely not ideal since it will cost you a ton of money to travel to and from the airport into the city centre. Typically I look on the map to see where the places I’d like to visit in the city are, and try to book something that is a short(ish) distance to those. Being able to walk for the majority of your trip will save a ton of money in transportation fees. Most of the time – if booking on a budget – your hotel will not be immediately in the city centre, but if you have a 20-30 minute walk to get to the main attraction points of the city, you’ll likely not need to use much transport as long as you’re prepared to walk! As well, in large cities such as London, Paris, or Toronto, you can rent a bike for a day, which is returnable at many locations, which is usually around £2/$4 for 24 hours use, and that can easily get you around anywhere you need to go (plus giving you some added exercise, which is never a bad thing!)
  7. If it’s not walkable, use public transport.
    As I mentioned before, transport can be expensive when you’re traveling – especially if you are coming from North America to Europe, as the Canadian and US dollar are both not faring well at the moment. As much as it can be easier to take a cab or Uber to destinations across the city, if you are going a distance that is much too far to walk or you are unable to walk to, use public transport. Whether it is my train, bus, tube, streetcar, or boat, public transport is always the best way to get around while traveling if you cannot walk to your destination. Be sure to download any public transport apps for that city prior to arriving, and screenshot or print out maps so that you are always knowledgeable about where you are going – especially if the primary language where you’re visiting is a language you do not speak! Buy any transport cards you may need upon arrival, and as I mentioned before, pre-load them with the amount you will need for your entire trip. If you do enough research, you can find estimates of fares to every location and plan out the exact fare you will require for your whole trip – but I tend to overestimate just to be on the safe side.
  8. Pre book airport travel.
    There are always public transport links at any airport, and while it may add some time onto your journey, it will save you so much money in the long run. You can even pre-book group busses that will take you to and from the airport, and some hotels even have their own shuttle – which you should check once you book your hotel! While taking a car may be appealing (especially if it’s hot or you’re tired) it really adds unnecessary spending to your trip. Most airports allow pre-booking for public transport, and if they do not, then there will usually be a desk or other area where you can purchase tickets, cards, or other requirements for public transport – they also will usually have staff there that speak a multitude of languages, and are always eager to help you find your way. It’s worth going up and having a chat even if you’ve already purchased public transport requirements, as they are always very knowledgeable about the city and can give you some great tips!
  9. Pack light and walkable. 
    When I am packing, I always do carry on luggage only – I never check baggage. The time required to wait for bags is always long, it’s not worth the price, it’s difficult to lug around massive bags, and there is always the chance that your bags will get lost by the airline – which is never good. Find a quality carry-on suitcase with a lock, and it will be your new best friend. As I’ll mention below, check the weather, so that you can pack accordingly. I try to plan the outfit I will be wearing each day in advance, and bring pieces that can be worn more than once or mixed with other outfits. It’s always good to bring a light coat, a sweater, and a hat with you – as they are good for a variety of weather types. Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes for walking, and something comfortable to wear for your flights, and aside from that bring as little as possible with you, trying to take up as little space as possible. The lighter you pack, the easier it will be to take your bags around. As well, be sure to know yourself and how best you can walk around with things; for me, I initially tried a weekender size hand-held bag for one of my first trips, and honestly got so exhausted. I couldn’t carry it for long, it got too heavy, and I didn’t want to walk around with it. Once I realized that it would be better for me to bring a carry-on suitcase, I never brought a weekender bag again, and it has been significantly easier for me to walk around while travelling. Again, be sure that your suitcase has an attached lock – or purchase a lock – to ensure your belongings are safe.
  10. Check the weather. 
    As I said above, check the weather. This will not only help you pack, but it will help you to book activities on the best days. If it is supposed to rain one day, that’s the perfect day for a museum tour. If it will be hot and sunny, that’s a great beach day. Moderate temperatures are great for hiking or intense walking. Also, be sure to have all of the appropriate accessories with you so that you will not need to purchase any extra items – such as sunscreen or an umbrella. If it is an area that I know will be raining, or has a reputation of raining (London, I’m looking at you), I tend to bring waterproof shoes with me. This way I can walk for the entirety of the day and not worry about soaking through my shoes – wet feet are the worst.
  11. Fly overnight. 
    One of the best things I have ever done on trips is to fly overnight. Though it may not be a great sleep, you’ll get a chance to sleep on the plane, which will save you one night’s (or two if you do overnight flights both ways) hotel fees! You can arrange an early check in at most hotels, and this will give you a chance to shower, freshen up, set your things down, and then make the most of the day! Arriving in the morning always helps as it gives you essentially a full day to enjoy the city, and makes you tired enough to get to sleep at a decent time that night, which will help with any jet lag you may experience. I tend to do this heading home as well, as it saves me money on a hotel for a total of two nights which makes a huge difference in budget! If your destination is close enough for a flight of 5 hours or less, book at the least busy times, such as the first flight at 5am or the last flight at 12am. These tend to be quieter, less busy, and cheaper than daytime flights. If you are going to fly overnight, be sure to bring an eye mask and a neck pillow – you’ll thank me later.
  12. Be practical.
    Above all else, be practical about everything in regards to your trip. If your hotel is 1.5 hours walk from the city centre, take a bus. Don’t try to walk if you know you will be too tired, or it will take away from the time you have at your destination. If you know you are going on a hike, don’t wear high heels or a dress. As much as we all want to look cute for the ‘gram – there are a ton of ways to do that while being practical as well. It’s not worth looking cute if you are soaked by rain, trip and break your ankle, show too much skin in an area or landmark where the culture does not typically do so, overheat, or freeze. If you know you’ll be walking, bring running shoes. If you know it will be hot, try wearing linen fabrics. If you are going to religious landmarks such as the Vatican be sure to bring a sweater to cover your shoulders, dress in layers, and just be sure to be appropriately prepared for the area you’ll be in and the weather that is occurring. If you’re not, it will adversely affect your trip and, not to mention, can lead to you buying items that you were not prepared enough to bring.
  13. Get travel insurance.
    I know it’s an added cost, but it is rarely expensive and will give you peace of mind for all those ‘what if’ moments. If you are booking with Expedia, they really don’t charge much, and if you run into any problems while abroad then you’re set and won’t need to worry about ridiculous fees for healthcare! I know that especially us young people tend not to think about if something were to happen because we’re generally in great health, but accidents can and will happen, and it’s never a bad thing to be prepared.
  14. Get a data plan, buy a sim card, or use wifi.
    Depending on how long you will be away from home, you can buy a data plan with your phone company that will allow you to roam with data abroad, which is incredibly useful while abroad. Another great thing, is that you can buy a very cheap sim card in most countries if you have an unlocked phone, which will then allow you to use it as you please for mapping and googling if you need to! If you are just going to be on a short trip, it isn’t worth buying a data plan as there is wifi almost anywhere you go. If you search a destination via Google Maps or similar apps while on wifi and set the route, it will still work as you travel the route, which is great. You can also be an eager beaver like me and print physical maps of things just in case your phone dies – though I tend to have a charger with me always, as well as a small portable charger. Using wifi is definitely the best budget friendly way to get around, but if you are going to be away for an extended period of time, a sim card or data plan may be useful for you!
  15. Learn the tips of the locals.
    Last but not least, it’s always best to learn the tips from the locals. If you have friends of family who have been to that city, ask them for tips. Another great source is Pinterest, which has a ton of tips for many places. For example, in the UK most places charge different prices if you are eating in or taking away. Takeaway is cheaper, and you’ll pay more just to sit inside. The same goes with cafés in Italy, France, and many other destinations. Be sure to check and see what places you are meant to tip in, and which may be considered rude if you tip them. Preparation is everything. If you know in advance to ask for takeaway, or ask to have your coffee standing, you’ll save yourself some pocket change that will come in handy and add up in the long run! If you watch locals in the city you’re visiting, you can also mirror their mannerisms, which can aid you when bartering for different things, and knowing when someone is trying to take advantage of you as a tourist. Knowledge is power.

I hope that these tips and tricks from my travels help you plan some of your future travels! Remember – travel is always possible on a budget! You just need to be willing to put in the effort, and do some digging. Happy travels!