November 16, 2011

How to Travel Cheaply

Eiffel Tower at night
























As you know, I recently embarked on a 16-day adventure through Europe: 5 nights in Paris, 2 nights in Milan, 2 nights Rome and 5 nights London. Sounds expensive, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Here are my secrets on how I saved tons of money on this vacation!

1. Rewards programs. About a year in advance of the trip, I applied for a Marriott Rewards credit card (I pay off the balance each month and just accumulate points). The person I went to Europe with travels for work often and only stayed in Marriott hotels for a year. Between the two of us, our hotel stays were free for this trip. Even further, with Gold Status we got free breakfast every morning, and unlimited bottled water and snacks. Goes without saying that this was a huge money saver!
2. Fly round trip. I started scoping out flights months in advance, and what I noticed is that round trip flights to Europe were way cheaper than flying to one country and then home from another. So I booked a round trip to London, which only cost about $600 per person (including taxes and fees). The trip started in Paris, which meant getting on another (separately booked) flight from London to Paris once we arrived, but then I ended the trip in London for easy access going home.
3. Stay longer. If you are investing in a $600 flight to Europe, my strategy is to “see it now, while you are here” to get your money’s worth. The only catch to this? The longer you are away from home, the more money you spend on food and other expenses, so it’s all about finding a balance between the two. Overall I wouldn’t opt to fly to Paris for just two nights if you can help it though – might as well stay longer if you are spending the money to fly across the pond!
4. Visit less cities. Every city I added on to the trip added major expense. One-way flights and train rides between cities in Europe are often only about $100 per person, but they add up quickly. Looking back, I wish I would have just gone to three cities (versus four) on this trip to save even more money.  

Colosseum at night


5. Use public transit. Another huge money saver: we took public transportation, not only for sightseeing, but also to and from the airport. This means lugging your own suitcase up and down the stairs on the subway, fighting your way onto a crowded subway car, etc. but you will save hundreds of dollars this way. (I also kind of enjoy the challenge of navigating public transit so this part was fun for me!)
6. Stick to free stuff. Pretty much every historical attraction is free, but then they have optional fees. You can pay to go inside Westminster Abbey, the Colosseum, Nortre Dame, etc., and while all of those places are amazing, at the end of the day you will be spending hundreds of dollars if you pay at every single one of them. You can chose to explore a few of your favorites, but for the most part there are plenty free things to do, so paying is really unnecessary. In London, I recommend skipping the huge fees at Westminster Abbey and focusing on the totally free (!) museums throughout the city. In Italy, all churches are free to enter including my favorite thing ever (St. Peter’s Basilica). In Paris, the Louvre was worth the extra money, but I opted to tour only the free parts of Nortre Dame.
7. Don’t buy American. It’s tempting to buy things at H&M and other stores we have in the U.S. while traveling because there is an extra appeal in that “I got this in London!” Just don’t do it though. Because of the exchange rate you will be paying 50-60% more than what you would at home. Stick to the stuff you can’t buy in the U.S., especially when buying clothes!
8. Get a VAT refund. If you do some shopping in the U.K., save your receipts!.You can get a refund on taxes at the airport by showing them the item and the receipt. Look for signs when you get to the airport for the VAT refund office, and be sure to bring your items and the receipt with you to the office.

What are your tips for saving money on vacation?

Rome at night

57 comments:

  1. Great post, J! But darn it - now I want to go to Europe!

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  2. LOL, thanks Ashley!

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  3. As someone who has been to Europe 6 times, I agree with most of these points! I've gone to Europe for $ and for $$$$. It's easy to go crazy spending money trying to see everything, but if you plan your trip out smartly (looking into what attractions are free) you'll be surprised where you can save.

    As for hotel location, sometimes it's cheaper to find a hotel that's outside the city center, but near public transport. A10-15 minute train ride to the city center could save you almost $100/night in a hotel.I usually find hotels that include breakfast, that's a great money saving tip! If not, I usually go to a bakery for a quick espresso/pastry most European restaurants don't server "American" breakfasts anyway. Also, try to find places for dinner that have prix fixe menus - a set menu where an appetizer, dinner and dessert are all for once price. it's usually a good deal. Also, try going to a grocery store for a bottle of wine and bread and cheese. Sit in a public park and enjoy your meal instead of eating in a tourist trap restaurant!I disagree with the H&M statement only because the European stores like H&M (including Zara and Mango) tend to be ahead of the trends, and carry different clothes than we can find in the US. The again, they are chains. The local boutiques are usually a better option for shopping! And VAT Tax is around 17% (or it was...too lazy to google) so you can save a lot by saving your receipts!

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  4. Great tips!! Thanks SO MUCH for sharing!

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  5. Great post! We plan on going to Europe within the year and these are great tips. We use a AA Citi credit card, so our flights are covered! yay!

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  6. I assumed you went with your husband.  Who was your travel buddy?

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  7. Yay, thank you so much for adding your tips Betsy! Awesome tip about staying in a hotel outside the city but near public transit. That is a strategy we used in all four cities! Also love the idea of enjoying your dinner in a park. :-) I found that H&M in London had the exact same stuff I had just seen in Florida. The selection was maybe a tad bigger, and I did actually wind up getting one inexpensive shirt from there, but overall I tried to contain myself and only shop at stores we don't have in the U.S. like River Island and Topshop. I'm planning a post on everything I bought and why, so I'll be sharing those purchases with you guys soon! :-)

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  8. This was a terrific post, and very helpful! My biggest tip would be to try to rent an apartment for a week as opposed to staying in a hotel. We rented a flat in Barcelona in September right in the center of the city and saved tons! Plus, everyone in our party was able to stay close together and we had the option to cook some meals at the apartment so we didn't have to eat out for every meal.

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  9. I studied abroad in Rennes, France and then went back and worked/lived there for 8 months after college. I definitely didn't have a lot of money but wanted to take advantage of Europe and travel! Some things that I found:

    Couch Surfing! It sounds sketchy and probably is in the US but I stayed with lots of awesome people (never alone) all over Europe who helped me get to know the REAL city, not the touristy city.Hostels! There are a lot of quality hostels and staying in a room with 14 other people isn't actually that bad (as long as you don't go alone).Flying in Europe isn't always that expensive! There are a lot of cheap airlines and you should always check the prices (RyanAir, EasyJet...)If flights are expensive...take the train! My (now) husband and I took over-night trains a couple times. It saves money because you're paying for both a place to sleep and transportation.Don't eat out at restaurants! Go to the grocery store, buy a (cheap) bottle of wine and have a picnic (lunch or dinner!).Public transportation is cheap, but you can usually walk farther than you think you can! And it will make  your legs look AMAZING when you get back to the US ;)p.s. I absolutely LOVE your picture of the Eiffel Tower. Makes me miss France and Europe so incredibly much!

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  10. I thought you went to Europe with your husband (you used to mention him in your blog)? Are you not married??

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  11. Was your traveling partner your husband? I notice you haven't been wearing your rings since before the trip? I love your set!

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  12. I LOVE this post. My life (and blog and radio show) is all about saving money and getting fabulous tip on deals. One of my favorite travel tips is that flights are the cheapest on Tuesday evening and Wednesday Mornings. I always used to buy tickets on the weekends because thats when I had time, but now I make sure I book them late tuesday nights. I know I am getting the best price that way!

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  13. I like many of your tips (we went to Paris and London last Christmas) but I urge anyone reading this to DEFINITELY visit Westminister Abbey. I have seen a lot of historical places...and Westminster Abbey is the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life. The history there, kind and queens and the beauty is just too amazing to miss. I would spring for it 100%.

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  14. Thank you!! That is another great tip! I also try to fly Tue-Thu to save money. On this particular trip it was cheapest to do Sun through 3 Mondays later (if my memory is correct), but I always do a check of the entire week to see what days are best!

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  15. Rebecca, I've been making an effort to be more private on the blog. I won't be disclosing a lot of details (such as who I'm with), I took down a lot of my personal photos, etc. Thanks in advance for respecting that! :-)

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  16. Allyssa, I've been making an effort to be more private on the blog. I
    won't be disclosing a lot of details (such as who I'm with), I took down
    a lot of my personal photos, etc. Thanks in advance for respecting that! :-)

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  17. Marcie, I've been making an effort to be more private on the blog. I
    won't be disclosing a lot of details (such as who I'm with), I took down
    a lot of my personal photos, etc. Thanks in advance for respecting that! :-)

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  18. Awesome tips!! I plan on getting a credit card and doing the same thing! I really like the tip about the roundtrip tickets being cheaper... it makes a lot of sense but something that i might have neglected to think about. 

    Since I'm usually on a strict budget when i travel i usually like to find hostels or other options to big hotels. Sometimes you can find a cute bed and breakfast for a lot cheaper then a hotel. I was in Costa Rica recently and found an awesome B&B for $60 dollars a night. The owner served us breakfast on the beach. The hotel that was located right by it cost $100 dollars a night and didn't come with such awesome service. I figure I'm not going to be spending a lot of time in my room anyhow so it doesn't have to be the best (safety is a must though). 

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  19. Good to know! Thank you! Hopefully I can go back someday and check it out. :-)

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  20. Awesome tips!  Whenever I travel anywhere I love to scope out new places to shop.  There's no point in buying something in Europe only to come home and have someone else have the same thing.

    I know you said you are keeping your personal life private.  I totally get that, I just hope that you are ok and in a good place!!

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  21. Oh that works too! I meant actually buying the tickets (but I don't think i worded it right) :) Airlines post their sales on Mondays and by Tuesday the other airlines are in price-matching wars. Actually booking the trip on those trips saves tons of money too! We got two tips in one!

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  22. Ashley, I am totally the same way about hotels! That B&B sounds perfect. I have to admit it was kind of nice to stay in fancy hotels on this trip though. It wasn't really "splurging" since they were free nights, but it sure felt like it. :-)

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  23. Oh my gosh, I totally misunderstood! I did NOT know that. Awesome to know, thank you. I'm currently booking my trip home for Christmas and will keep that in mind. Thank you!

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  24. Thanks Joceyln! Appreciate the sweet note. Things are honestly great! :-)

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  25. I disagree with Westminster Abbey. By far one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been inside! Also, many major attractions are NOT free....I recently did 21 days in Europe (mostly Italy) and many churches in Rome were free but they weren't in other Italian cities. The majority of my budget goes toward seeing the sights. Shoot, in Amsterdam alone I spent 80 euros for a museum pass! London is a rarity in terms of free museums.

    As for traveling cheaper....

    1. Priceline for hotels

    2. I use reward miles for everything. Last trip we flew in first class to Europe for free. I now have enough for another trip anywhere in the world in first class for free. Plus a bunch of hotel points.

    3. Public transportation to/from the airport

    4. We visit a local grocery store and buy munchies/sodas to save money.

    5. Consider staying in an apartment for longer visits.

    6. Carry-on bags only and then we do laundry somewhere during the trip

    We love Europe and have really stopped penny pinching....we travel in Europe the same way we would in the US (4-5* hotels, cabs everywhere, etc.).

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  26. I enlarged your Above #3 photographs, (just here online), to show my husband, who is an amateur photographer;  and we almost felt as if WE were actually  *T.H.E.R.E.*, J............ i.e., really  *I.N.*  the scene at the Eiffel Tower;  at the Colosseum;  and in your "Rome at Night" shot.    Great camera work!!

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  27. I love to pack snacks when I travel to save on eating out too often. And I've recently saved a lot using sites like Groupon and Living Social. Thanks for these great tips!

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  28. Eating in food courts also saves a hell lot of money... It is much much cheaper than eating in restaurants...

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  29. My husband and I are huge travelers.  One way we really like to save money is figuring out what the priority is for the trip.  While I would love to be able to spend a ton of money on absolutely everyone when we travel, that's just not feasible.  So, if a gorgeous view is key to the trip, we will focus the funds on staying at an amazing hotel and skimp on the luxurious restaurants.  If experiencing the city or doing excursions is more important, then we skimp a little on the hotel and make sure to allocate the money toward great restaurants and activities.

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  30. This post was very helpful. My boyfriend and I hope to travel to Europe in the next couple of years and we will definately use this.  I'm thinking about getting a rewards card now to start earning my points for the trip, and I had no idea about the tax refund.  Great information! :)

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  31. She is separated

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  32. I thought they might have gotten a divorce because she dropped her husband's last name recently and also moved out. On fb, it shows that Matt was the one who went with her to Europe.

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  33. Thanks for the tips! hopefully hubby and I can plan our trip soon!
    http://work-it-blog.blogspot.com/

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  34. Great post!  And now I want to go back to Europe too.... But another great $$ saving tip, which you took advantage of, is to travel "off season".  I went backpacking in Europe the summer after I graduated from college, and accommodations and plane fare was really pricey.  Plus, summer is when it seems everyone wants to go to Europe, so lines were long and it was more difficult to get hostel/hotel reservations.  I went to Ireland this past April, and I couldn't believe how much less airfare and hotel prices were.  And, it was much easier to get reservations at hotels we wanted and tourist attractions were much less busy. 

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  35. Love this idea Amanda! There was definitely a "focus" of the trip (historical attractions!) but it's a great idea to actually define that out loud and put your money where your goals are. :-)

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  36. I should have mentioned - I ate at McDonald's at least once a day and that saved tons of $. I'm SO not a foodie and just wanted to eat and run so I could see more sights, so it was usually the best option, and cheap too!

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  37. I pack snacks too! :-) I brought a jar of peanut butter with me, and one morning I had a really early flight and was standing in the Italian airport eating it with a spoon for breakfast, haha.

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  38. Thank you Rosanna! I didn't take these pictures, but I was there witnessing it in person and I agree, the photos came out great! I will pass along the compliment.

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  39. I assume by removing the comments not answer directly, you are no longer with your husband.

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  40. Hey J! I am curious what site you booked your flight through. My parents are moving to London and I am planning a trip next summer to go visit them, and a $600 round trip to London would be beyond perfect! Thank you for all your tips. This was really helpful!

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  41. Tara @ taranomics.comNovember 17, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    I have made a few trips to Europe now, but on two of the trips, I stayed in apartments that were rented through homeaway.com.  If you are going to be in one town for more than a few days, I highly recommend going this route.  When we stayed in Florence, Italy for 6 days, we had an 800 year old apartment!  And it was nice to have a kitchen and washing machine available.  Don't get me wrong:  hotels are nice.  But we saved alot of money on food and laundry in addition to the money we saved on accommodations, and it was a really cool experience.

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  42. Great post!  Loved reading everyone else's tips in the comments was great too.  I have one tip that I used when I went to Egypt in January - we scheduled a one day layover in Rome.  It didn't add that much onto the price of the roundtrip ticket to Cairo, and we found alot of cities that that would have worked for, including Amsterdam and Moscow.  One day isn't long to spend in a gorgeous city, but it was also kindof a fun challenge - pick one thing you'd like to see in Europe and we'll see it.  We saw the Coluseum, walked around and had an incredible meal!

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  43. Great tips! I loved all your Europe recaps as well!!

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  44. I would add that you should try to travel off-season when the rates are cheaper all-around. Just note that off-season varies per country. For instance, we're going to Australia next summer, which is luckily their off-season (it's also their winter), though it would be high-season in the US at the same time.

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  45. Hey J! I tried leaving a comment yesterday, but I don't think it ever posted...Anyways, I was wondering if you could provide information on what site you used to purchase round trip tickets to London and exactly how far in advance you booked them? My parents are moving to London, and I am already looking at tickets for next summer, but I couldn't find anything for less than $1400...Thanks for the tips for traveling. They came at a great time!

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  46. Meghan, I like to use cheaptickets.com to scout for which airlines have the best prices, and then I book directly with that airline. In this case, it was Delta that had such cheap prices. The flight had a layover in Boston, but the entire month of September was $600 round-trip (that price includes all the taxes and fees!).

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  47. I've done some European traveling, and I definitely agree that transportation (even buses and trains) can cost a lot.  I would definitely recommend Ryan Air.  It's a small, but very inexpensive airline that travels within European cities, such as London, Paris, Rome, etc.  I travelled from Milan to Rome via train, which cost me about $100, when I could have spen 20 Euros on a Ryan Air ticket!

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  48. I've done some European traveling, and I definitely agree that transportation (even buses and trains) can cost a lot.  I would definitely recommend Ryan Air.  It's a small, but very inexpensive airline that travels within European cities, such as London, Paris, Rome, etc.  I travelled from Milan to Rome via train, which cost me about $100, when I could have spen 20 Euros on a Ryan Air ticket!

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  49. I've done some European traveling, and I definitely agree that transportation (even buses and trains) can cost a lot.  I would definitely recommend Ryan Air.  It's a small, but very inexpensive airline that travels within European cities, such as London, Paris, Rome, etc.  I travelled from Milan to Rome via train, which cost me about $100, when I could have spen 20 Euros on a Ryan Air ticket!

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  50. Really like this post and I agree with everything you said!  I love that you used points to pay for your hotel stays.. what a huge money saver!!! Did you go to the Natural History Museum whilei n London?  LOVE it and it's free! When I was in London a month ago I was disappointed to hear that Westminster Abbey charged so much to get in.  So we opted out as well.  Gotta save the bucks!

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  51. Leah, I didn't go to the Natural History Museum but I did go to the National Gallery and absolutley loved it! So many of my favorite Van Gogh paintings and it was free!

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  52. Very cool, thank you! I flew Delta, Lufthansa and British Airways with one, checked 50 lb suitcase and never paid a luggage fee. I would also recommend traveling via train - no luggage fee and no hassle of having to check it, either!

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  53. I would encourage people to stay in hostels. They aren't all gross or party-like - especially in Australia. For $30/night, you can get a great room in the heart of the city!

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  54. Marcie, sorry I wasn't able to disclose more when I answered this question two weeks ago. A lot of our family and friends didn't know yet, so we were trying to be respectful of them and I couldn't talk about it publicly. I made an announcement yesterday on the blog though that we have split up. I did go on the trip with him, but we went as friends (and had a great time!). Thanks as always for reading the blog! xoxo, J.

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  55. Allyssa, sorry I wasn't able to disclose more when I answered this question two weeks ago. A lot of our family and friends didn't know yet, so we were trying to be respectful of them and I couldn't talk about it publicly. I made an announcement yesterday on the blog though that we have split up. I did go on the trip with him, but we went as friends (and had a great time!). Thanks as always for reading the blog! xoxo, J.

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  56. Rebecca, sorry I wasn't able to disclose more when I answered this question two weeks ago. A lot of our family and friends didn't know yet, so we were trying to be respectful of them and I couldn't talk about it publicly. I made an announcement yesterday on the blog though that we have split up. I did go on the trip with him, but we went as friends (and had a great time!). Thanks as always for reading the blog! xoxo, J.

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