I love helping people travel more. Not as much as I love helping people get their finances under control, because that always takes precedence over vacations, but almost. Obviously the Warckens love to travel, and we are massively fortunate to be able to do it so often. We make it a point to set guilt-free money aside in a designated ‘travel’ savings account, and are always looking to for ways to spend less and travel more. Here are a few of our favorites:
Make it your priority. Make a plan. Write it down. Decide you’re going to take that trip to NYC you’ve always dreamed of, or to Maui to see whales, and make a list of goals for how you’re going to get there. I call this a “Life Plan”. I have life plans for everything- saving money, losing weight, maintaining my sanity. I find them tremendously effective, and you might too. Let’s say you do want to go to Maui, which we would recommend to absolutely anyone unless you hate nice weather, gorgeous water, and breaching humpbacks. Make a list of goals for the next seven days you could accomplish in the next seven days that will help you achieve your Maui dreams. In the next week you could research when you might like to go (the whales are in Dec – May), then search airfare from your home airport to OGG during that time. You could find your dream hotel and get an idea for what you’d potentially be paying for lodging. You could start a Couch to 5k running plan to help get in bikini shape, or find a few good Keto recipes to try out. I love seven day plans because you can establish a habit in that amount of time, and habits are powerful, powerful things.
As always, make a budget. Tell your money where you want it to go. Sometimes we budget a set aside a certain amount for travel every month, sometimes it’s a percentage of our income, currently it’s everything left over from Greg’s checks after maxing out his 401k. After going over your expenses maybe you find you have an extra $200/month. Great! That could start your travel fund! Mind you, I think a travel fund should come only after you’re contributing to your retirement accounts and have an emergency fund in place. Retirement and emergencies are necessities, vacations are most definitely luxuries.
Open a travel savings account. I love bucket savings. You know, putting money in different buckets instead of having all your assets in just one. Eggs. Basket. Okay, I’ll call it Basket Savings. We have multiple retirement, investment, and savings accounts, and nary the 13 shall meet. If we run out of travel money, tough. We’re not taking it out of our giving fund because we decided Galapagos was suddenly in our budget. If I suddenly decide I can’t live without an Airstream, it’s certainly not coming out of my Roth IRA. There’s a saying in my family: “That’s gamblin’ money.” While we mostly use it in reference to actual gambling, it means this expense isn’t what that money is for. I can’t buy Caesar’s Buffet of Buffets pass with my gambling money- that means less time at the blackjack table and that’s not something I’m willing to negotiate. p.s. One of the many ways Greg and I are mfeo: these frugal beasts love to gamble. And I love being able to see exactly what we have in each basket so when an opportunity presents itself I know whether or not we can make it happen. We use CapitalOne 360 as our main bank because all their accounts and services are free, and they actually encourage basket savings. In addition to our checking, we have four high yield savings, and one money market with them. CapitalOne 360 offers $25 to open new checking and savings accounts, and $100 to open a new money market account. Full disclosure: We do get a commission for new accounts opened through our link, but I recommend them regardless, because they’re free, easy to use, you can deposit checks on your phone, they offer some of the highest interest rates in online banking, and because I’ve never had a negative experience with them in the 4+ years we’ve been members.
Automate your savings. It’s harder to actually take money yourself and set it aside for something, but if do it automatically it’s like it never even happened. You can set up monthly transfers into your savings account from your checking, or have a certain amount of each check go directly into your travel savings account. Out of sight, out of mind, until you’re sitting on the beach with a Mai Tai. Or drinking coffee in a Swedish hut.
If you have a great grasp on your financial situation, and are willing to consider a few things beforehand, you could apply for a travel credit card(s). This has afforded us, and hordes of others, the opportunity to save thousands of dollars on vacations, as well as the chance to go to and stay in places we may not have ever dreamed about otherwise. The quickest, most lucrative way to earn with credit cards is through initial sign up bonuses, but take note that different companies have different policies in regards to a card’s particular bonus, so apply wisely. We started earning all willy nilly, but mainly focus now on Chase’s Ultimate Rewards and different hotel points. It’s actually better to plan your credit card applications around a trip you’d like to take, and earn accordingly. Purposeful spending, you know.
Credit card offers. Some credit card companies offer extra benefits on top of earning miles, points, and cash back, and could be in the form of bonus miles and points, or cash back on purchases. We’ve gotten the most use out of AmEx Offers & Benefits, but Bank of America has a few of their own, and Chase offers a shopping portal for earning extra Ultimate Rewards points by shopping online.
Award travel. Pick a destination and book award travel far in advance. Award pickings often get slimmer the closer it is to the time of travel, but keep in mind while hotels and Southwest don’t typically charge a penalty for cancelling award reservations, other airlines may charge a fee to ‘reinstate’ award miles, upwards of $150.
It’s free to sign up for frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs, and I suggest doing it anytime you travel, even if you never plan on traveling with that company again. Before Virgin America merged with Alaska Air we booked all our Airbnb stays through Virgin America and earned their points, even though we had never flown, or had any plans to fly Virgin. But then Virgin merged with Alaska, who we do have plans to fly with, and all our Virgin points transferred to Alaska with a with a 10,000 miles bonus. Score! Before Emirates had any partners I signed up for their program for a flight to Africa. I was never able to use the miles for travel, but I did redeem them for a gift card which I used to buy perfume. Score! See Airline Alliances for more information on earning and redeeming on partner airlines. And again, I wouldn’t sign up all willy nilly, but only if you’re already traveling with a program, or if you have an idea for a future trip you’d like to take. Earn with a purpose!
Earn miles and points without flying or staying in hotels. Most airlines, and some hotels, offer other ways to earn, like shopping online, going to restaurants or bars, paying utilities, donating to charity, sending flowers, taking cruises, renting a car, taking online surveys, or filing your taxes. Check out your favorite program’s partners page for more info:
Book travel online through shopping portals. We always book hotels through cash back portals and often see 8-10% cash back. All cash back earned could go straight into your travel savings account.
Only book flights through the airline’s website. You can still book through a portal if there’s the opportunity, just make sure it’s United’s actual website, for example. Greg and I have both been burned on flights by third-party companies (Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire) when our travel plans have changed. And by burned I mean it was cheaper to have my mother change the name on her passport than it was to rebook a flight purchased on Priceline.
Don’t ever book travel under your nickname. I never would’ve dreamed of this until I booked a flight for my mother to Munich under the name I’ve always known her as (no, it’s not ‘Damn it, Deb!)- Debby- instead of Deborah, which is what was obviously on her passport. Luckily everything else in her life aside from that and her birth certificate said ‘Debby’, so we were able to have her passport changed to her nickname before our flight.
We’ve never had any trouble booking a hotel through a third party site like booking.com or hotels.com, but you typically don’t earn loyalty points on those reservations so we only use those sites when the hotel isn’t part of a chain.
If you book a refundable hotel, keep an eye on hotel rates up until your trip, then cancel and make a new reservation if your room gets cheaper.
If you book an award flight on Southwest, you can cancel your flight for a full refund up to 10 minutes before your scheduled departure time. This is like the best deal on the planet. Because of that you can keep your eyes out for cheaper flights, and if one comes up you can book it and cancel the original. FOR FREE. FULL REFUND. B.D.O.T.P. We have done this on multiple occasions, no problem.
If you fly Southwest a lot, or apply for their credit cards, you could qualify for their Companion Pass, which allows one companion to fly with you for just taxes and fees through this year until the end of next year. THIS, combined with the ability to cancel award flights, is TRULY the best deal on the planet. Read about the trip we took to New York City, courtesy our Companion Pass and free nights at the Park Hyatt.
Hotels booked through southwest.com earn Southwest points that count toward Companion Pass status, but typically will not also earn hotel points.
Work part time at an airline. This is neither lucrative nor glamorous, and requires copious amounts of flexibility, patience, and grace. But it is a whole lot of fun.
Work part time at a hotel chain. Our ‘retirement’ dream is for Greg to work part time for an airline, and for me to work part time for a hotel chain, like driving shuttle for an airport hotel. Cash tips and hotel benefits- can you imagine?!
Work part time anywhere. Put all your part time earnings into your travel savings account, which is not only excellent motivation for working part time, but also for keeping you away from other activities that encourage spending what-could-be-travel-money on things that may not be as high a priority in your life- i.e. going to restaurants, or bars, or watching Netflix five hours a night.
Work overtime. We’ve done this in the past- taken everything over our usual take-home pay and put it straight in our travel savings. That way all our responsible bases are covered first, and we have some dope motivation for working extra.
Be flexible. If your dream is to visit all our amazing National Parks, plan your trips in the offseason, when the masses of humanity are at work and in school. Go to cities (Vegas is a prime example) during the week and save hundreds of dollars on weekend hotel rates. Stay at airport hotels over the weekend to save hundreds of dollars on business traveler rates.
Announce your vacation plans and be held accountable by your friends and family. And your ego.
Free apps. In addition to a slew of hotel and airline apps, we use:
Award Wallet. Manage your loyalty accounts
Google Translate. If smiles and gestures don’t work
TripAdvisor. Things to do and places to eat
GasBuddy. Find cheap gas and earn points for a chance to win free fuel
FuelRewards. Get a minimum $0.05/gallon off at Shell stations
Receipt Hog. Scan receipts to earn points for Amazon gift cards or PayPal cash
Walmart Savings Catcher. If Walmart doesn’t offer the cheapest price around, they’ll find it and give you the difference
Ibotta. Grocery rebates. Redeem on PayPal, Venmo, or a slew of gift cards
Checkout 51. Grocery rebates. Redeem via check or PayPal. p.s. You can use both Ibotta and Checkout 51 to stack rebates
Airbnb. Book through Delta to earn at least 2 miles/$1 spent. Sign up through this link for $40 off your first stay.
McDonald’s, Cafe Rio, Starbucks, Chick Fil A, or any other restaurant you know and love. Earn points for food rewards, get special deals and $$ off.
Take your food. I pride myself on traveling as long as possible without spending money on a meal, much to Greg’s dismay. We try to always fly with a snack bag so we don’t starve in airports or on long flights that surprisingly don’t offer a meal service, like Iceland or Hawaii. On road trips we always pack a cooler, and plates, bowls, pots, pans, cutlery, a French press, a propane stove, literally everything but the kitchen sink.
Buy groceries. Eat breakfasts in, make dinners at ‘home’, and go on picnics.
Take food (and disposable cutlery) from the plane. Don’t be afraid to ask your neighbors if they’re going to finish theirs. And don’t be afraid to offer your neighbor what you won’t eat. I, for one, really appreciate that.
Travel with your own water bottle and coffee mug. Take a Steripen when traveling to developing countries and really do the world a favor. Last time we went to Africa we didn’t utilize a single plastic cup or bottle outside our own, which in Africa is a big deal. I felt like world’s greatest human being.
Take instant coffee or tea bags from home.
Drive instead of fly.
Camp or sleep in the hotel instead of getting a hotel.
Sleep in your car instead of camping.
Pack a sleeping pad(s), a silk sack(s), and a pillow(s) for sleeping in cars or airports.
Wash clothes in the sink and save room in your luggage, and money on a laundromat and detergent.
Walk, ride bike, or use public transit. Check public transit for group tickets, or a reloadable transit card for multiple people or trips.
Don’t check a bag. Take compression sacks and squeeeeze all your clothes down to make room for souvenirs on the way home.
Take collapsible totes to get a refund on grocery bags, or to avoid getting charged for them in other countries (which I just love).
Borrow travel guides and e-books from the library.
Don’t go to Europe without a Rick Steves’ guide, full of time- and money-saving advice, and free walking tours.
Fill reusable travel size bottles at home, and don’t take from hotels what you don’t need. I don’t open anything new in hotels, but if we’re traveling with family I’ll happily take other peoples’ leftover soap and the rest of the toilet paper.
If you have any great tips to add, please let us know! We’re always looking for ways to spend less so we can travel more.