Pretty much anyone can have an amazing vacation if they have unlimited funds to spend, but what’s the fun in that? It is possible to have a perfectly splendid time on a tight budget; I’ve done it for years. Below you’ll find some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. But first, the most important tip of all: the one thing you absolutely cannot scrimp on is your attitude. You can be miserable in a luxury resort or happy in a hostel—and vice versa. Decide you’re going to enjoy yourself and you probably will. The reverse is also true. So let’s decide to have a good time and start saving money.

Getting There

How do you plan to get from Point A to Point B? If you opt to fly, there are multiple travel sites that will check for low fares (Hint: Airlines often cut prices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so you may save just by booking on those days). If your schedule allows, you may be able to take advantage of last-minute deals and save even more. Sometimes (but not always) bundling airfare and hotel will save you money. Check out transport options from the airport to your ultimate destination; trains, buses, and shared shuttles may take longer than a taxi, but will probably cost less.

Even with gas prices at their current level, travel by car may be the easiest, most economical option. If driving, get your oil changed, make sure your tires are properly inflated, and see that your vehicle is roadworthy. Years ago my then-car left me stranded all alone on the side of the road three times on the same trip, so believe me when I tell you this is worth the effort. You don’t necessarily have to take your car, either—you may find a good rate on a rental car that will get better gas mileage and have fewer issues than your beloved buggy. 

Lodging for Less

Are you the type of person who is only in their room to sleep, spending every waking moment out seeing the sights? Then you don’t really need fancy-schmancy sleeping quarters, do you? Alternatively, do you prefer spend long, luxurious hours lounging by the pool, working out in the on-site fitness center, and enjoying the amenities? Then you probably want to plump for some place a little more plush and economize elsewhere. 

One alternative to spendy hotels is to rent a room or apartment or someone’s home. Bed and breakfasts are fun, but U.S. versions tend to be pricey and geared to couples rather than singles or friend groups. However, there are several online services (I’ve used both airbnb.com and homeaway.com) that offer a variety of places for a variety of prices. My friends and I shared a roomy apartment on a tree-lined street in New York’s Upper West Side for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room and found a tiny-but-functional spot just down the street from the Old North Church in Boston for less per night than we paid for dinner. Hostels, college dorms (often available when school is out), campground cabins, or even actual camping may be options for you, too.

If you’re an able-bodied, adventurous type who doesn’t mind physical labor, consider WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). The organization can put you in touch with farmers who will trade x number hours of work per day for room and board. You’ll get to meet people and become part of the community in a way traditional travelers never will.

Then there’s the cheapest option of all: free. Do you have friends or family who would lend you a bed or couch? You might even be able to do them a favor and house sit while they go off on their own vacation. (Would they like to stay at your place while you’re at theirs?) 

Dining for (Fewer) Dollars

On one early-morning flight, as fellow travelers whipped out their credit cards for airline snacks, my little group unpacked breakfast bags we brought with us from home. It beat the airline’s offerings all to pieces and cost significantly less. Pack snacks and food you can prepare in your room or visit a local shop once you arrive. If you’re in foreign parts—even other areas of the country—visiting their version of a grocery store can be highly entertaining and give you a look at how the locals live.  

Don’t be afraid to ask those locals where they like to eat. You may find a wonderful, one-of-a-kind café that doesn’t show up at any guide book. Check the paper or shop window posters to see if a church or local group is having a fish fry, spaghetti supper, or similar event. You could make new friends and eat yummy food for one low price.

If you long to dine on a fancier fare or just have to try that expensive five-star restaurant, try them at lunch. You’ll enjoy the same delicious cuisine at lower prices. Or eat at the bar; you often pay less there, plus you can chat with the bartender and sometimes the people around you (Do exercise caution if you’re alone—a single at a bar can be a magnet for unsavory types and I want you to stay safe).

Sight-Seeing on a Shoestring

When it comes to making the most of your sight-seeing dollar, research is your best friend. 

Check out the city or area’s Visitor and Convention Center Bureau’s Web site. Not only will they have information on what to do, they often have coupons.

If you’re driving to a U.S. location, stop at the state’s welcome center for information and coupons. They also tend to have clean restrooms and room to stretch your legs.

If you have enough lead time, sign up for Groupons or similar programs in the city you’ll be visiting. You may be able to score deals on food or activities. 

Find out if the place you want to see offers free days (many museums do).

Many attractions offer discounts to members of the military, AAA members, and so on. It can’t hurt to ask.

If you’re a museum or zoo buff, see if the one in your vacation spot has a reciprocal agreement with the one you’re a member of back home. You may get in free or at a discount.

A multi-attraction pass can be a great deal IF you’re actually going to use it at enough places to make it worthwhile.

Visit the local library. Not only can they be fascinating in themselves (have you seen the one in Seattle?) I’ve found librarians to be smart, friendly, often-underpaid people who know what’s worth seeing in their area and how to see it on the cheap. 

If you have additional cost-saving ideas to share, please pass them along. Meanwhile, are you ready to head out? Fantastic. Pack your snacks and your spirit of adventure and let’s go! 

Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends. She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life. Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.

Publication date: August 2, 2012