Traveling is something most people love doing, but wish they did more. It can be expensive, time-consuming and complicated. Planning an entire trip seems intimidating and often impossible to many people — where do I start? Will I be able to afford it? Where do I even want to go? How long should I go for?
We sometimes completely rule out certain destinations in our heads because they look too picture-perfect, luxurious and expensive on social media. But with a bit of planning, research and flexibility, it can be possible. I was able to travel to five countries in Europe for three and a half weeks and finance 90 percent of the trip myself with just a part-time job. Although I understand that circumstances are different for everybody, consider these tips when planning your next trip on a budget.
1. Book in advance.
This one more or less speaks for itself, but book as far in advance as possible. If traveling from the U.S. to Europe, I recommend booking four months to six weeks in advance — any later and you'll notice prices rising quickly. I booked a flight to Iceland from NYC three months in advance for $220 and checked a couple weeks before my trip just to see how much it was then, and it was over $400. This tip is even more helpful for accommodation as well. Flight companies will add flights if one is fully booked, but there are a definite number of rooms and hostels available. Do yourself and your wallet a favor and start planning way ahead of time.
2. Use multiple flight search engines (and incognito browsing).
My favorites are Student Universe, Skyscanner and Momondo. Student Universe is geared towards college students and young adults in general, so this one is my go-to. You'll often find similar prices on each, but switch back and forth between them and you may get lucky with a great deal. Use the Student Universe code "newfor20" to get $20 off your first flight leaving from the U.S. or Canada. Also, make sure to use incognito browsing when you're still in the planning stages. Cookies on websites will track that you've been looking at certain flights and may raise the prices if they see you've been visiting flight search engines frequently. When you're ready to book, you can get out of incognito mode.
3. Book one-way trips.
This tip is more for multi-city trips, because it doesn't always make sense to fly back home from your first destination. Instead, play around with flights once you've mostly decided where you want to go, and you'll find some combinations to be significantly cheaper. If your destinations within Europe aren't connected by train, you can find some really cheap (less than $100) flights between major cities. Also, try to book to larger airports as much as possible because those flights tend to be cheaper (and maybe take a train from there to your final destination).
4. Be willing to travel at inconvenient times.
This tip is one that took me a while to warm up to, but eventually saved me a ton of money. If you're willing to have a few short nights and mess up your sleep schedule a bit, you can save hundreds of dollars. Booking a flight that leaves at 4:45 a.m. might sound unnerving if you do the math and realize you have to leave the house at 1:30 a.m., but you can catch up on your sleep at your next destination. I saved about $100 by taking the midnight flight from Santorini to Athens instead of the 10 a.m. one. However, make sure you do your research on how to get to your hotel/hostel/Airbnb if arriving in the middle of the night, because a lot of public transportation may not be running or simply may not be safe at that time. Perhaps check Uber or a car service company in advance to make sure saving the money is worth it.
5. Don't be picky (with accommodation).
If you're traveling on a budget, you won't get 5-star hotels and infinity pools. I was able to book full apartments on Airbnb for very reasonable prices after splitting them with my friend. We did so mostly to have a kitchen to cook our own meals. In Iceland, however, we had to book a room in an apartment a bit outside of the capital city of Reykjavik instead of a full apartment because the price was just too high. You don't need a luxury suite in Santorini to get amazing views and nice swimming pools. Realize that you'd rather be there than not be there at all because you were too picky with accommodation. Keep your options open — if you're not comfortable staying in hostels with a few other people in your room, look into cheap Airbnbs.
6. Don't eat at restaurants with people standing outside.
Generally, restaurants where there are people standing outside with menus covered in pictures are more expensive. They cater to tourists and will hike up the prices. Go somewhere more low-key by doing a quick Google search or just walking around in the area, and you'll find the same quality food (sometimes even better because it's more authentic) for lower prices.
7. Budget and plan.
Once you have an idea of how much money you have or how much money you'll need, start splitting it up and budgeting. I recommend budgeting by location rather than by giving yourself a limit per day. For example, 20 euros in Milan on a Tuesday got me a lot farther than 20 euros in Amsterdam on a Saturday. When you're budgeting, take into account how long you'll be in that city, how expensive it is in general and what days of the week you're there. Weekends are generally more expensive because you may go out at night. Don't give yourself a hard time if you go over your budget a bit, I did it often. To balance it out, maybe get a cheaper lunch the next day or take less cash with you so you're forcing yourself to spend less.
8. Don't buy souvenirs at touristy places.
If you're looking for little gifts to take home for family and friends, avoid the city center and the main streets. Smaller areas of town will sell the same things for less money. I also recommend (unless you find a really good deal somewhere) buying souvenirs on the last day you're in a city because you've seen a bunch of different prices at that point and have a sense of what is cheap and what isn't.
9. Consider buying day passes.
Look into purchasing 24/48/72-hour passes for public transportation. If you know you'll be taking the bus/train/tram a lot, this makes the most sense. If it's a city where you can do a lot of walking, it might not be the best idea. Oftentimes, such passes will come with free entrance to museums and other public facilities as well. It wasn't worth it for me to buy a pass in Amsterdam or in Reykjavik, as I found I could walk around the whole city and see more of it if I didn't take public transit, but buying a 24-hour tram pass in Milan was very useful. As with anything, do some quick research beforehand.
10. Use debit/credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.
If you haven't used your debit or credit card abroad before, first call your bank to let them know you'll be traveling so they don't freeze your card because they think it's been stolen. Then, check their policies on foreign transaction fees. My Citibank debit card charges me fees for using a foreign ATM as well as for simply using my card at all. Although those fees were small and usually less than $1, they add up very quickly. I was able to get myself a debit card that didn't charge any foreign transaction fees at all through the credit union at my school. If it's too late for this and if you can't find a card without fees, you can avoid this by taking out cash in larger amounts. Remember to never carry it all on you at once, but you'll save ATM and card fees if you do so. (Check out the Charles Schwab debit card — it gives you back all the ATM fees from abroad in one payment at the end of the month and charges no other fees.)
11. Cook your own meals if you can.
If you have the luxury of having a kitchen where you're staying, try to cook (at least some) of your own meals. I know it isn't always realistic and I did this far less often than I thought I would, but it will save you money if you're staying in a country that is expensive. If you can't cook your own dinner because the ingredients are too expensive or you're out for the day and won't be coming home until nighttime, try at least saving money on breakfast. Breakfast foods are relatively simple to prepare and buy — if you get some oatmeal packets you can just add hot water, or some cereal and milk with a few pieces of fruit is easy as well. Don't let your budget stop you from going out and trying awesome food in the city, but we all know what it's like to spend unnecessary amounts of money on food.
12. Search for free things to do.
Every city you visit will have cool things to do for free. The simplest way to do this is to type "free things to do in [city]" and you'll get everyday places such as museums and public spaces to visit. If you want more specific things to do, try adding "today" at the end of the search, or search specifically for the day of the week it is. Also, don't underestimate the power of your student ID. It will get you discounts in tons of places, even really famous places like the Acropolis in Athens.
13. Download travel apps.
This tip is more for longer-term travel and just browsing for future trips, but downloading travel apps will give you a good sense of what a good flight price is and when to book. My favorites are Hitlist and Hopper. Hitlist allows you to select as many places on your bucket list as possible and will send you occasional notifications for great flight deals. Although the dates are completely random, you may get lucky if you happen to be planning a trip anyway or if your summer schedule is pretty flexible. Hopper is an app that lets you track flight prices and predicts when they'll be at their lowest, giving you an alert that lets you know it's time to book. In terms of actually getting around, my go-to is Google Maps. It's easy to use and if you don't have data on your phone abroad, you can preload a walking or transit route and your location will update via GPS without internet connection, so you can still make sure you're going the right way.
Keep in mind that these tips are ones I've used mostly for traveling to and planning in Europe. Remember that before budgeting comes safety — don't walk home late at night to save the cab fare if it feels unsafe, and make sure you're buying flights from reputable websites. Remember to try to stay within your budget but don't be too hard on yourself if you don't. It's normal. Start looking at flights and accommodations for places you've always wanted to visit now, and you might have a dream trip coming up soon.
Lead Image Credit: Pixabay