I'll be the first to say that I've planned some trips that definitely went outside of my budget and I'll also say that I don't regret it one bit! I frikin live in Europe! Soon, I may never get this opportunity again- shoot, I may not even see tomorrow so I would be lying if I said every single one of my trips were "cheap".
For the most part, I do my best to plan cheap trips by snagging those under 50€ RT tickets from RyanAir, staying at cheap home rentals, or if I'm traveling alone I'll stay in a hostel, I'll go on free walking tours, cook my own food, etc.
But if you're traveling with other people aside from yourself, especially if you have a larger family, traveling can get expensive! If you're trying to travel cheapER, I may be able to tell you why you're probably not getting those cheap trips:
1. Waiting Until the Last Minute
Listen, I'm going to be real: If you want to plan your trip a week before you plan to travel and it requires a flight, accommodation, and tickets for activities and tours, you're probablyyy not going to get the cheapest deals. There are far more people ahead of you who have booked the cheap, advanced deals.
Now, this is not to say that last minute deals don't work out, because they can, especially in smaller or lesser known towns. But if you solely rely on booking popular destinations spontaneously and it is a trip that requires planning, you can't be surprised when places get booked up or are 200% higher in price!
I also want to point out that I have a full time job and my husband is Active Duty with a crazy schedule that's always subjected to change so I DO know that Leave can be denied or it is "too early" to plan trips. People must think I'm crazy when I tell them that I book most of my trips that require plane tickets about 5-7 months in advanced. That's one of the biggest keys to getting tickets under 50 Euro RT for me.
Pro tip: Free cancellations and trip insurance. You'll have to pay slightly more but not nearly as much as you'd pay for last minute deals or paying and not going at all!
2. Not Searching in Incognito/Private Mode
If you haven't tried this idea yet, give it a shot and it might work! It doesn't always make a difference but I've seen it happen right before my eyes!
Whenever you search online for flights or hotels, the website stores your data so that when you return to the website, they practically already know who you are. If the search engine notices you're tracking a certain flight, it might be possible that the price may differ.
As mentioned, I've rarely seen it happen but there was a time where I searched for the same flights to go back home to the States and I had two windows opened up on my PC. One was in incognito mode and the other wasn't but it was the same search with about a $45 difference. Now, that might not seem like much for an overseas flight but for once I was able to prove that it sometimes does work.
To get in Incognito mode in Google Crome on a PC, you'll just need to go to File>New Incognito Window. To search on an iMac or MacBook by using Safari, click File>New Private Window.
3. Being Picky/Not Lowering Your Standards
Look, this is your trip, you do what you want to do. I'm not anyone to tell you how to travel but if your expectation is to travel dirt cheap and stay in a 5 star hotel in Santorini with a balcony overlooking the ocean, breakfast included, champagne delivered to your room, again- probablyyy not going to happen if your budget is set to $500 in 4 day weekend for a family. (Well, I suppose there are some tools you can use that can possibly make that happen but I'm just realistically speaking).
I'm not saying to eliminate any standards you may have and just stay in a sleeping bag outside and forego showering for a few days while eating ramen for every meal, but have an open mind and try to just "go with it". If you've never traveled outside your country or don't travel often you may feel a bit apprehensive to changing your standards but just give it a shot and it might not be so bad.
Some alternatives to staying in a top notch hotel could be home rentals such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway. The trend nowadays for accommodation while traveling is renting a home for your trip. Now that might seem odd to some people but think of it as a bed and breakfast. I'm sure you've heard of those before, which by the way, still do exist! (I stood in one in Czech Republic for $18 a night)!
You'll be able to opt for either a private or shared room in the home or have the entire house/apartment to yourself! Some hosts interact with their guests often while other hosts are not even in the city and just let you do a self check in to the home (usually by a key code or lock box). This option is usually safe and affordable especially because you'll have access to a kitchen where you can prepare your own meals if you wanted to. My recommendation, if you are hesitant still, is to be sure to read each review on the listing you're potentially wanting to book.
Pro tip: Tripping.com is a search engine for home rentals such as the ones I just listed so you don't have to search each website one by one. The prices are all compared right there for you for the listings that are on multiple websites (say for instance a rental home listed on both Airbnb and HomeAway at the same time).
To be honest, not every home rental is cheap. I find that in some cities or areas that the hotels will be cheaper and come with more amenities than a home rental from Airbnb, so your best bet is to do your research and compare your options.
If you're not already a member of Hotels.com, sign up now-it's free. If you're interested in staying at hotels only or a combination of hotels and home rentals during your travels, you'll be able to earn free nights through the Hotels.com Rewards Program. For every 10 nights you stay with them (given that you're not using a discount code from them), you may be eligible to earn you're 11th night for free! You actually get the average value of your stays that you've booked through hotels.com. So you'll add up the cost of the 10 rooms you've stayed at and then divide by 10. That value is the amount you will use for you're 11th night which could be free if you book a night under that value.
If you're traveling alone or even as a couple and want to stay somewhere for nearly free, check out CouchSurfing.com. What was once a tight-knitted community for travelers to crash on a strangers couch around the world, has now grown into experiences and a way to meet and connect to likeminded travelers. Please keep in mind that this community of travelers are offering their couch or bed to you at no cost so be considerate and offer a gift or to cook a meal or even do some chores to give back to them.
4. Not Being Flexible
This kind of ties in with waiting until the last minute and not lowering your standards. Being flexible can be hard if you're a full time student and/or an employee (especially if you're Active Duty).
I mostly plan my trips for the weekends (check out my Weekend Adventures series) knowing well that I could probably get a better deal if I traveled during the week where most cheap deals exist. But if you have a fluid or open schedule, I would definitely recommend snagging those cheap tickets and accommodations throughout the week. Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the cheapest days to travel by air if that's your frequent mode of transportation.
My favorite way of searching for cheap flight is using Skyscanner because they have a helpful tool that lets you set your destination as "anywhere" while having the option of searching for the cheapest time and the search engine will list in order the cheapest destinations to fly to!
Another way to be more flexible is searching for flights out of different airports, not just the one closest to you. Of course, this will require you to spend more money in either gas or your train ticket might cost more but some airports are just cheaper to fly out of for some destinations. If you do the math and it is STILL cheaper to fly out of an airport that is further, definitely choose that option.
And my last recommendation on being flexible is to use all your options for your mode of transportation. If you know that the accommodation might be above your budget, then look at ways to cut down in other areas. Instead of paying more for a flight that might take only 2 hours, book a bus journey from Flixbus.de instead. It will take longer, sometimes twice as long but could save you loads of money, especially if it's an overnight bus such as the one I took from Nuremberg to Copenhagen which helped me save on a night at a hotel.
5. Traveling During High Season
Of course it's called high season for a reason - it's the most popular time to travel to a destination. June and July are not always the "high season" months for every travel destination you may go to but for most of Europe it is.
Ski resorts and ski towns in Europe will consider their high season to be when the slopes are ready for winter sports from December to April, depending on the snow. If you're not much of a winter activity kind of person, try to plan your travels in those towns in the off season and I'm sure you'll still find great things to do and see.
Same goes for warmer destinations that become overly crowded with hiked up prices in the Summer. A "hot" summer destination in Europe is the Greek Isles so June, July, and probably also in August you'll see either plane tickets go up or hotels/home rentals go up. A good time to travel there would be just before the season starts or right after it ends (May and September). For cheaper accommodations, you can also look into areas that are further away from the city center or in the Greek Isle example, further from the coast, more inward into the island.
Again, you can still probably catch a good deal but that involves researching and planning ahead.
6. Not Planning to Use Public Transportation
I know it seems so much more convenient to just pay the taxi driver or Uber to take you where you want, I was once that way as well, but taking the metro around a city is more liberating and can be cheaper. It will probably take you longer but if you're in cities like Paris or Rome, especially during rush hour, it might actually be better. I once took an Uber in Paris from my hotel to the Eiffel Tower and there was so much traffic that it delayed the route at least by 20 minutes. I could've easily taken the metro and would've been there much sooner. You'll find that most cities will also give you a discount for buying multiple day tickets so you'll be saving in that aspect as well.
Pro Tip: Study the public transportation map prior to arriving in the city. Download a map onto your phone or even screenshot it in case you don't have a physical map on hand.
7. Not Purchasing City Discount Cards
This is something I need to remind even myself more often. Something I want to get into a routine of doing is exploring the tourism website of the destination I'm wanting to travel to so I can see if there are any city discount cards. One city card that I realized after the fact how beneficial it would've been is the Roma Pass while traveling in Rome, Italy which consist of direct access to the Coliseum, free unlimited access to urban public transportation, free entry into a museum or archaeological site, and a bunch of discounts. You pay a set price for the card for a certain amount of time you'll be in the city and you'll receive more benefits than if you hadn't purchased it. Many of other cities do something very similar to this so its best to check out the tourism website of the city you're traveling to.
8. Not Going to Free Activities
If you're into going on city tours but don't want to spend too much money or arrange a tour in advance, check to see if the city you're going to offers free walking tours. I raved about one the of the free walking tours I went on in Bratislava, Slovakia and want to make a point to do this in each city I travel to.
Another free walking tour that's on the rise is a free FOOD walking tour. Free food is always a good idea so while I was in Bulgaria, I stumbled upon the Balkan Bites Food Tour and could definitely rate this one as the best. Now, although the name of these tours are said to be free, the tour guides will mention that they work solely based off of tips. You get to decide how much the tour guide deserves at the end of each tour. My recommendation is to compare how much a tour like this would have cost if you had to pay upfront at a set rate. So although said to be free, it would be rude to not chip in your part.
If you truly want absolutely free tours, then you could use your smartphone (if you have one) to listen to Rick Steves' free self guided audio tours!
9. Ignoring the Fine Print
If you've ever flown with RyanAir or any budget airline before, you probably know by now the saying "if it's too good to be true, it probably is"! I've seen airfare from RyanAir as low as 2 Euro for a one way flight to multiple cities in Europe but there is a fine print that comes with that low price. The catch is to travel lightly, print out your tickets (RyanAir), and don't expect much from the aircraft and the services itself. Ryanair and many other budget airlines in Europe bring the cost of tickets low because they are not spending their budget in areas such as amenities (and probably customer service training) that most major airlines do. So before looking at those super cheap tickets, read the fine print and be sure you abide by them if you don't want to get charged any extra fees.
10. Not Utilizing Military Benefits
If you're reading this blog post and you're stationed in Germany, please utilize the benefits the Military offers to you because it can save you some big bucks if you're traveling within Germany.
VAT forms can be super helpful if you're traveling long distance by train or sometimes even for accommodation within Germany. If you are going outside the country and are going to travel by train, go to your local train station (bahnhof) and ask the customer service representative if you can apply the VAT form for the trains that are within Germany. I suppose if you are in Kaiserslautern and are traveling to Paris, it may not make too much of a difference because of the distance to the border of France, but if the route you will take by train has more stops in Germany, it can help bring down the cost of the ticket.
If you're wanting to apply the VAT form to a hotel in Germany, always ask the hotel first before assuming that they will take it. This goes for any vendor within Germany, they make not always accept VAT forms, so your best bet is to ask first.
Lastly, another benefit you may be eligible for if you're stationed in Germany is the use of US gas prices, the average gas price that is. Gas prices on the economy are not cheap and with today's exchange rate, it's not getting any better. To save money on gas while traveling by car, look up ESSO stations that accept the ESSO card and be sure the location is open so you can plan your route by the gas station. Sometimes, it might be a bit out of the way but better than paying for the gas prices on the economy.
If any of these tools helped you plan your trips cheaper or if you have any other suggestions, shoot me a message!