Tips to Save Big When Traveling on a Tight Budget

Just a month into our relationship, my husband and I took a trip to New Orleans. 

Later, we went to Memphis.  Then we flew to Japan.

We did all of this travel the first year we were together.  Simply put, we love to travel.

However, we don’t have the money to travel now as we did when we were first dating.  Since travel now usually includes bringing along our 3 kids, expenses can add up fast.  But we didn’t want to give up travel all together.

Instead, we found frugal ways to travel.

Gone are the days of staying at a bed and breakfast and eating out every meal when we vacation.  Instead, we travel in a much more practical manner, but we still get to explore places we’ve never been before, which makes scrimping all worthwhile.  Because we want our kids to travel and see the world, we’re glad to cut corners to do so.

We’ve learned many strategies for saving on travel.

Here Are Some Tips to Save Big When You Travel On a Limited Budget

tips to save big when traveling on a tight budget


We rarely stay in hotels anymore.

Instead, we usually book a vacation rental by owner (VRBO).  These accommodations are usually at condos, apartments, houses, or town homes.  We’ve stayed in VRBOs when we traveled to North Carolina and Boston.  Each VRBO had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen in addition to laundry facilities.

We cook most of our meals at the VRBO, so the savings are significant.

Glen’s note: A couple of years ago we used VRBO to rent a beautiful condo when we visited Portland, OR.  We ended up saving over a hotel and we were able to share the place with some friends of ours as well to help defray the costs.  The place was in an awesome location and like Melissa we had a kitchen so we saved on eating out for all meals.

Other alternatives to save on accommodations that we haven’t yet tried include swapping houses with someone else.  There are a number of websites such as that can help you find someone to swap with.  Of course, while this type of accommodation is very low cost, you are taking risks by letting someone else stay in your home while you stay in theirs.

Another alternative is to book travel arrangements that include accommodations such as a cruise.  You get to see other places, but you don’t have to worry about booking a room in different locations because yours is already included in the cruise price.

If you don’t have kids yet, consider staying in a hostel.  “You’ll get only the basics–a bed and linens–but you’ll save a ton this way.  For example, a private room in the India House hostel in New Orleans costs $23 a night; the Best Western French Quarter Landmark Hotel is $180.  Use a site like to find the going rates” (MSN Money).


My husband and I are foodies and love trying local cuisine.

However, at $50 or more per meal for our family of 5 (and that’s when we’re being conservative), eating out while on vacation is just not practical.  Now, we usually spring for one expensive meal while on vacation.  The rest of the time, we cook in our VRBO.

If we can’t get a VRBO when we’re traveling and have to stay at a hotel, we always make sure that the hotel room has a mini fridge and a microwave.  Then, we typically bring meals I’ve made ahead and frozen.  We simply reheat them for our meals.  This works for a few days.  After that, we stock up at the grocery store and make foods that can be prepared in the microwave.

On the days that we’re traveling, we always bring our own food.

Sometimes we cook up food in our slow cooker in the hours before we leave, and then I wrap the slow cooker in towels and put it in a box.  The food stays piping hot for at least 4 hours.  When we’re ready for lunch, we simply pull into a rest stop, scoop up the meal and eat.  We’re done in 20 minutes, for a fraction of the time and price of stopping by a restaurant.

Combine Trips

All of our travel now, and for the past four years, has revolved around conferences.  Because my husband is in the academic field, he usually has to attend conferences two or three times a year.  This year, for instance, we traveled to Memphis in March and then to Boston in October and Atlanta in December for his conferences.

We usually travel as a family.  My husband goes to the conference during the day, and the kids and I explore the town while he’s away.  Occasionally my husband will skip an afternoon session and visit a tourist attraction with us.

This saves us a great deal of money because his employer pays for the hotel and the transportation.  (We typically drive so we’re reimbursed mileage.  If it’s a conference that we can only get to by air, my husband goes alone or just I come along and pay for my own flight.)

My husband is also given a daily food voucher, and we bring food from home for the rest of us, so typically our only expenses are for entertainment.

If you or your spouse don’t regularly attend conferences, you could still employ this tactic.  Perhaps consider visiting friends or relatives that live in another part of the country for a few days.  If you’re comfortable staying with them, you could stay at their house.  You could either stay with them for the entire vacation, or after a few days, you could get your own hotel room.  This strategy also saves you on hotel costs.

Of course, you don’t want to be a mooch, so you’ll want to give them a gift or chip in money for food or reciprocate and have them come to visit you another time.

Another alternative is to turn your vacation into a business trip.  Then you’ll be able to write off some of your expenses.  Of course, this doesn’t include expenses for your whole family (unless the whole family works for you).  Contact your accountant to make sure you understand what you can and cannot claim and what you need to do to have your trip count as a business trip.


Thanks to the Internet, there are more and more ways to save on entertainment when traveling.

One of my favorite strategies is to subscribe for e-mail notifications from sites like Groupon and Living Social.   I enter my city as the one I’m planning to visit and wait for the good deals to roll in.  To fully take advantage of this strategy, you should sign up at least 3 or 4 months before you visit.

You can get discounts for eating out, seeing plays, visiting local attractions, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Just make sure if you’re visiting a large city that the attraction is somewhere you can get to easily.

Another alternative is to buy a city pass when you get to the city you are visiting.  This pass will give you entry to a number of popular attractions and typically will save you 20 to 40% off the price of buying tickets for each attraction separately.  To  make the most of your money, just make sure that you will visit all of the attractions.

We haven’t personally taken advantage of a city pass yet because our three year old doesn’t have the patience to sight see all day, but in a few years, when she’s older, we plan to utilize this strategy.

Another idea is to buy your tickets online and print them before you travel.   You’ll get a discount for buying online, and because you already have your tickets printed, you can often by pass the lines for those waiting to purchase tickets.

Our best way to save on attractions so far has been to visit free attractions

Many of these have been offered through the U.S. Park Service.  For instance, in Boston we were able to get a free, guided 60 minute walking tour that took us by Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church.  The next day we took another free guided walking and learned all about the Boston Massacre.

When we were in Atlanta, we got a guided tour of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s boyhood home for free thanks to the U.S. Park Service.

One of the best destinations for free tourists attractions is Washington, D.C.  You could easily spend several days there and not have to pay any money for tourist attractions even if you visit several attractions a day.

Final Words on Cutting Corners When Traveling on a Tight Budget

These are some of the strategies that have worked best for our family when we travel.  Even though we’re on a limited budget, cutting corners when vacationing has allowed us to see many big cities within the United States on the cheap.

What’s your favorite strategy for saving money when traveling?

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Published or updated June 17, 2014.


  1. These are great tips! I’d also add that it’s important to try and fly outside of high season as airfare is a huge part of travel costs. Of course this is not always feasible with school aged children but savings can be significant.

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