Travel hacking usually involves earning “reward points” using credit cards, which you then use to pay for travel. But because of my history of overspending with credit cards, I’m not a big fan of the practice.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I do use credit cards. Just not to the extent that I can travel for free. Instead, I’m content to add money to my travel savings fund each month and then use it wisely, choosing frugal travel options to get the most bang for my buck.
For example, I recently took a seven-day road trip from San Diego to Portland, Oregon, for less than $700 (not including flights from Kansas — where I live — to get there). This is less than $100 a day for the rental car, gas, parking, food, accommodations, and entertainment.
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Here are a few cheap travel tips that helped me pull off the trip:
1. Split Expenses With a Companion
On this trip, I could split expenses two ways because I traveled with my best friend. We each paid for half of the rental car, gas, parking, and accommodations. We paid for our own food and entertainment costs.
Splitting expenses by traveling with friends or family is one of the easiest ways to cut down on costs.
If you can travel with more than two people, it will make your trip even less costly. That said, too large a group could work against you, starting with a bigger, more expensive rental car and accommodations. But with just my friend and me splitting, my share of the rental car, gas, and parking was $367.42.
2. Consider Alternative Accommodations
Hotels and other overnight accommodations are one of the most expensive parts of traveling. However, with a couple of tricks, we were able to significantly cut down on the cost of our accommodations, spending only $181.32 each for six nights.
We mostly stayed in hotels on this trip. We used a “friends and family” discount code we had from another close friend. This helped us save about 50 percent on the cost of a hotel room each night.
We also stayed at an Airbnb one night, costing us only $17.50 each due to a discount code I received for referring friends to Airbnb.
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My total even includes one night when we were in a remote location, forcing us to stay in a hotel that was quite expensive, since we were unable to find one that was eligible for the “friends and family” discount.
Airbnb, VRBO, and Booking.com can easily help you cut your costs for accommodations if you don’t have a friend and family discount as we did. Since Airbnb hosts are largely people who let you rent out an extra room in their home, it’s easy to find an incredibly inexpensive place to stay if you’re tight on cash and just passing through town for a night.
3. Don’t Eat Out
We all know that eating out gets expensive.
To cut down on food expenses while traveling, look for hotels that offer a free continental breakfast.
Some Airbnbs also offer light breakfast items for their guests.
We also took a lot of food with us on this trip. We flew with Southwest Airlines, which allows you to check up to two suitcases for free. So we each checked a suitcase with our clothes and personal items, plus one extra suitcase between the two of us with snacks and breakfast food items like granola bars, trail mix, and fruit cups. We also took paper plates, plastic utensils, napkins, and a picnic blanket so that we could eat at various outdoor locations.
Once we arrived in San Diego, we bought things like sandwich meat, fresh fruit, vegetables, and salad. We stored these items in a cooler bag with ice. Each night, we would put them in the mini fridge in our hotel room, and each morning we would refill the cooler bag with fresh ice from the hotel ice machine (for free!) before putting the food back in the bag.
We ate out for only two meals — one when we first arrived, and one planned splurge later in our trip. 3In total, I spent $107.50 on food over the seven days.
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Cheap Travel Tips: Final Thoughts
Luckily, almost all our entertainment was free. We enjoyed walking around, exploring neighborhoods, window-shopping, and hanging out on the beaches and piers. We spent money on entertainment only one time for something we both really wanted to do — a tour of Alcatraz, which cost us $44.25 each.
At the end of the trip, I had spent $700.49 total. That’s not bad for seven days full of fun, sightseeing, and new experiences. I’m proud that I did it without travel hacking or going into debt. Now I can’t wait to plan my next frugal travel adventure!
Additional reporting by Jazmin Rosa.