I am a wanderlust with dreams of touching every inch of this earth…on a budget. When people hear the word “travel” most assume that this activity requires a substantial amount of money. Yes, travel (especially international travel) will cost you but it shouldn’t cause you to end up in the realm of high interest credit card debt. The trick to affordable travel is rather simple, it is proper planning. There is an exception to every rule, so, yes you will and should pay attention to those last minute deals and glitches.
This summer, I took a 9 day European vacation to Athens, Santorini, and Venice. I paid approximately $1500 for flights and hotels 9 nights. When I added food, excursions, and taxis I added an additional $900 (this was the cost for two people). There were additional pleasures that added to our cost like alcohol, gifts for friends, and Gucci :). I used these 8 steps to keep my costs relatively low. If you’re still with me, read below.
STEP ONE: Set a Budget.
As with most things in life, you should begin with the end in mind. Know your limit. Know your limit for airfare, hotels, food, and leisure. Write the number down and also assess yourself to see if you have flexibility to increase the budget if absolutely necessary. For me, I created a spreadsheet. I determined my target travel month and crunched numbers to see how long I would have to save. I determined a target timeframe for booking based on flight fluctuations. Flights are like the stock market. they go up and then they go down. You never know when its going to do which and how long it’ll stay there, so pay attention! I used google flight watch and hopper.
STEP TWO: Subscribe to every airline and flight deal site’s mailing list.
Trust me, I hear you, your mailbox is full enough with promos, right? This is a necessary evil for all serious wanderlust. This step may seem pretty simple, but I think its worth mentioning. Subscribe to the mailing list all major airlines, minor airlines, Groupon, RetailMeNot, European Destinations, and flight deal sites. An example of a flight deal site is Travel Zoo, there are plenty of others! European Destinations is a flight deal site plus a place to directly purchase costumizable vacation packages at a discount.
Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe to Esquire in Love. Check the corner of your screen ————–>
STEP THREE: Be Flexible.
Flexibility is the single most important step in making sure you have the best and most affordable dream vacation package. Flexibility comes in three D’s: 1) Destination, 2) Dates of travel, and 3) Departure airport.
- Destination: If you’re a wanderlust with an urge to grab your passport and just go, then this part is extremely easy for you. Pay attention to the flight deals, find the perfect priced destination, and book the flight. Then follow the remaining steps for what to do next. If you’re not as adventurous or if you have a dream destination that you absolutely have to get to, then perhaps you can be flexible on the destination(s) in a different way. For example, my dream was Santorini– and a dream it was! (Read it here. ) A flight from any airport in Florida directly to Santorini was easily well over $1500. So I started looking for other nearby countries/cities that I could use as a filler or a long layover. I found a one-way flight to Athens Greece out of Orlando for $300 and I planned to stay for two of the nine days. The flight from Athens to Santorini was $30. (Disclaimer: I waited too late and actually booked it at $70. Not bad, but don’t wait on a good deal.) As you can imagine, a flight from Santorini to any airport in Florida was well over $1K. So I searched again for nearby cities, and found a sweet deal to Venice, Italy for roughly $70 again. The deal to Venice was good, but keep in mind I only booked Venice because the flight back to Florida was also very reasonable.
- Dates of Travel: If you choose to book a flight deal, this part is easy– you book the deal for the dates that are available for the deal. If you have a set destination, then this part will take more time and research. Research your destination and determine the peak travel times and the off-peak travel times– price is largely dependent on these factors. You should also check the weather and make sure you’ll actually enjoy your vacation. Once you have determined these factors, turn your browser to incognito. This part is extremely important because google can and will monitor your searches which can and will cause airlines to jack rates if they believe people are searching for specific dates. Once you’ve gone incognito, insert your departure airport and arrival airport into google flights. Use the calendar to determine the lowest fare, low fares will be highlighted in green. Play with the dates and get creative until you find what works!
- Departure Airport: This part is exactly the same as #2, except now you are playing with departure airports. Check airports that are driving distance. If there are none, check New York. New York always has a deal and you can easily get to New York for a low cost. Spirit, Frontier, JetBlue, and sometimes American Airlines will have fares under $100!
STEP FOUR: Compare, Compare, Compare.
Now that you have a flight, you’ll need accommodations! There is really no trick here other than comparing hotels for prices and quality. A bad hotel can and will ruin your vacation, comfort is always important. I compared hotels based off of star rating, central location, distance from the airport, and reviews. I mainly used Trip Advisor. Essentially you want to find a nice hotel that considers every factor that could potentially increase your vacation cost. You certainly do not want a hotel or airbnb that is so far that you have to rely on a taxi or a rental car. Stay central but compare.
STEP FIVE: Book European domestic flights.
I briefly touched on this earlier. Basically, it is far more expensive to book a flight to Europe than it is to book a flight in and around Europe. A flight from Athens to Santorini will always be significantly less than a flight from Miami to Athens or Santorini. Are you with me? Put it this way, once you’re in Europe you can fly virtually anywhere for a fraction of the cost. So it may be worth while to book the cheapest flight from the U.S to any European City. Then from there, catch a flight to your dream destination.
STEP SIX: Create an Itinerary…and…stick with it.
I can not stress this part enough. If you want to avoid unnecessary cost then have a plan, an itinerary will help with that. Research how much a typical meal cost, determine what excursions you want to do, determine if you can do self-guided tours, plan your activity and map quest the distance from each of your locations. Determine when you’ll need a taxi, if you’ll need a taxi, and price out that cost as well. Plan your vacation.
STEP SEVEN: Shop way ahead of time.
I know I am not the only person who suddenly hates my entire closet once I book a trip! You’re going to want to go shopping, my advice is don’t wait till the last minute. Start shopping little by little and build your killer vacation wardrobe!
STEP EIGHT: Learn your Foreign Currency.
Learning how U.S. dollars are handled in other counties will save you a lot of time, money, and headaches. In some countries you can freely use the U.S. Dollar at no penalty, which is great–but you still need to know the exchange rate for your own sanity and because someone may try and ripe you off. Other countries, like those in the EU, will require you to exchange your currency into the local currency. There a few ways to do this. You can submit and order with your bank or any foreign exchange company and have the currency shipped to your home. You can also wait until you reach your destination and use the ATM or bank to exchange your currency. My suggestion is to order part of your spending money ahead of time and then when you run out of money use the ATM or bank. You should have some money on you to pay for the taxi or whatever incidental issue may arise. YOU SHOULD NOT exchange your currency at a U.S. airport– the rates are ridiculously higher than the other options.
If you you’re going to Cuba, you should order either Canadian dollars or the Euro. Then once you arrive to Cuba exchange it for Cuban currency—at no penalty! If you go to Cuba with American dollars, you will be charged a plenty for exchanges!
BONUS! STEP NINE: Pack, breathe, jetset, and don’t forget your passport!
Bottomline, if you want a low cost vacation it is always best practice to have a plan. Purchase one-way tickets instead of roundtrip airfare. Stay alert on deals, promotions, and glitches. Remember, the world is ours to explore and you’re doing yourself a disservice by not exploring. Meet new people, learn different cultures, and experience life. Wander, explore, and get lost.
— Esquire in Love.