I wrote a variation of this post a few years ago, but I didn’t think it to be useful. When I look at my instagram, most people probably think we are full-time travelers. (We’re definitely not.) None of our content is sponsored either. Sometimes I make a few dollars off my affiliate links, but we pay for most of our own travel. That being said, I thought I would share some of our travel budget tips while also talking about how we maximize our experiences when we are traveling.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Our Travel Style is Upscale Luxury
If you’re not new around here, you know that this is not a budget travel blog. We are not budget travelers. Nor are we are not backpackers. I spent my study abroad semester being both, and it taught me a lot of travel tips that I have carried over into my adult life. That said, I have no desire to book hostels anymore. I might consider doing the rail pass thing again. If you’re coming here think that this post is about budget travel, that’s not us.
We are generally luxury travelers, but I love to find a great deal and make the most of our travel budget. Most of the hotels we book are four and five-star accommodations. In some cases, we might book three-star hotels to be centrally located, but I like creature comforts. I am Globalist with Hyatt, Titanium (and Lifetime Platinum) with Marriott and Executive Platinum on American Airlines.
I like to use my suite upgrade awards at hotels like the St. Regis Florence or the Park Hyatt Paris. I’ll also use it at hotels that I know have very small rooms. (We got an amazing suite at the Le Meridien in Rome once!) I’m judicious about using them for value. When it comes to airfare, I book economy tickets and sometimes we upgrade with miles or SWUs. I don’t book basic economy because I want seat choice when I book.
When We Travel & How I Don’t Travel
We focus on extended trips and spend most of our time in Europe. When I was young and single, I could take four-day trips to London to maximize my minimal vacation time. Extended weekends in Europe are not a big deal to me, if the price and flight is right. We’ve taken long weekend trips to Cortona (via DFW-FCO), spent our anniversary in Venice and Prague, and celebrated Valentine’s Day in Paris. This year, we spent Thanksgiving week in Barcelona and Florence. Beyond that, we spend about two weeks in Europe in April and we’ve started to spend the winter holidays abroad. Altogether, we probably spend 6-8 weeks in Europe every year.
I travel quite a bit in the US for work. Despite my best intentions, these rarely end up being leisure trips. I was so disappointed to spend an entire trip to New York City looking at the walls of the hotel. Work travel isn’t nearly as glamorous as it seemed when I was a kid. Occasionally I’ll hit up restaurant that I wanted to try. There is rarely any sightseeing, unless it’s part of the official agenda. When I’m at work, I’m at work. Most of my work travel involves significant networking and presentations, so I always want to be on my A-game.
Travel Tips for Maximizing Your Budget
Save Money to Travel & Create a Travel Fund
If travel is important to you, set aside a particular amount of money each month to allocate towards travel. Having a dedicated travel fund helps you to know what you have available. If you don’t spend it all, you can carry it over for a splurge the following year. We do this. Points earned from credit cards and loyalty programs don’t count towards that travel budget either.
Be Flexible on Where You Want to Travel
This is a good lesson for life, but it is particularly important in maximizing your travel budget. We are rarely fixated on one destination. Yes, we end up in Italy and France a lot… but it’s often by chance, not by design. When I say be flexible, I mean in terms of your destination. By having a long list of places you want to go, you’ll be ready when that cheap plane ticket appears. I subscribe to CheapDFW and Scott’s Cheap Flights, and we set alerts in Google Flights. When a flight from Dallas comes up at a good price, I’m ready to jump on it. We have paid less than $500 for most of our Europe flights over the past few years. My most notable deal thus far is $387 non-stop from DFW to Paris for a long weekend in November. (It was magical.)
Travel Brand Loyalty
Being in DFW, we can be a bit of hub captive to American Airlines. That being said, I’ve made the decision that, given the opportunity, I will always book with American Airlines. This allows me to earn status, which translates to additional miles and seat perks. As a result, I often have enough miles to book our leisure tickets and/or use miles to upgrade.
Similarly, I have chosen Marriott and Hyatt as my hotel brands. Both have the largest international footprints, especially in terms of places that we go. There are benefits to diversifying your travel portfolio, but look at who has hotels where you go. For example, I have A LOT of Hilton points, but the only Hilton we’ve booked recently was on a trip to Porto, and it was cheaper to buy the points outright.
Depending on location, I look for opportunities to maximize our loyalty benefits, either through executive lounges, points promotions, and/or room upgrades. While we don’t typically spend a ton of time in the rooms, it is always nice to have a beautiful view or extra space. (A hotel room overlooking the Louvre? Yes, please!)
Know the Value of Travel Points
This is where your own decision making process comes into your travel budget. It’s definitely a judgement call and a value proposition. For me, I like to use our points on aspirational properties and/or upgrades. For example, I’d rather save my Hyatt points for a gorgeous hotel room at the Park Hyatt Paris, rather than staying in one of the suburbs of Paris for less points. Similarly, I’d rather use 25,000 miles to upgrade a cheap flight to Europe than use 25,000 miles for a weekend flight to a US destination.
Last year, I used my Marriott Suite Night Awards to upgrade my room at the St. Regis DC, but I didn’t upgrade the longer stay at the Marriott Wardeman Park because I knew I wasn’t going to be in the room much because of work. (Turns out, I didn’t get to maximize my St. Regis stay as much as I would have liked, but it was definitely nice while I was there!)
When I figure out that I’m going to end the year with extra SNAs, I will use them more liberally – a suite for a work trip when I know I will want more space, a marginally better room over Christmas at Le Meridien Rome AND an incredible room at the St. Regis Florence over New Year’s. Sometimes I will end the year with a few SNAs that I don’t use. Unfortunately, they are use or lose, but I do get good value of the ones I was able to use. I’ll be more deliberate about them this year.
Other people may feel differently and that’s okay. Using points for free accommodation or airfare can stretch your travel budget. It takes all kinds to make the points game go around! You do you!
Traveling in Off Season and Shoulder Season
If you really want to save money and maximize your travel experiences, consider traveling in off season and shoulder seasons. Some people will tell you that there aren’t off seasons in some places, but I respectfully disagree. For example, when we traveled over Thanksgiving, we were able to reserve the Gallery Hotel Art in Florence for $135 per night. This is a four-star hotel right behind the Ponte Vecchio.
In 2018, I booked the Four Seasons Prague for $180/night in mid-December. This was prime Prague Christmas Market season! We were able to be Old Town Square in less than five minutes. When we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Prague, I booked a 3 for 2 deal for $200/night. Yes, it was cold. Both trips were magical and the hotels were incredible. I’ve never tried to find similar accommodations in the summer, but I doubt the prices would be as good!
Travel Budget Tips for Food
Saving Money on Food When Traveling
Food can be a big expense when traveling. It can be really expensive if you don’t think about it or plan ahead, too. Tom and I both practice intermittent fasting, so we typically eat one “big” meal a day. If the hotel we are staying at offers free breakfast, we may pop in for a bit of protein in the morning. (Never pay for breakfast. It’s always cheaper elsewhere.)
Tom and I both use a complicated system to find restaurants when traveling. Tom got me into using Google because they translate local reviews. He is particularly good at finding places that offer local or regional specialties and that are a good value. By focusing on the “value” places, we’ve found delicious, quality street food (like paninis in Florence!). Truthfully, we’ve rarely had a bad meal since I put him in charge of finding restaurants.
Tom does a lot of research on the menu before we walk in the door. When ordering, our goal is to find the best things on the menu that we will both enjoy. Everything is ordered with the intention of being family-style and/or shared. Tom’s research will give him an idea what the most popular dishes are at a restaurant, and I go off of what sounds most appealing. Sometimes that’s the daily special, other times it’s a staple on the menu or what’s in season.
Shop Local Stores, Local Markets, and Grocery Stores
Tom is responsible for finding the grocery stores and markets when we arrive in a new city. The local markets have led us to some delicious finds. In Florence, there is a butcher who sells the most delicious fresh salami with truffle. If I’m in the mood for a warm meal, there’s a fresh pasta stand that sells a 5 euro pasta. You can choose your pasta and your sauce. It’s always on my list of places I want to go.
We typically pick up water, wine, and a few snacks for the room. This way, if we are in a pinch, we can have a deliciously cheap picnic in our room. I’ve had many delicious culinary experiences because of the things that we’ve found in local shops and markets.
Exploring the local grocery store and markets are a great way to find souvenirs to take home. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve really benefits from food tours in Paris and wine tastings in Italy!
Take Cooking Classes When You Travel
At first glance, cooking classes don’t seem cheap. But, when you factor in the fact that you get a full meal (usually with wine), meet other travelers, and learn more about local customs, it’s a great way to spend a few hours. You also get to take home the recipes and the skills, so it’s a pretty tasty souvenir, too. Typically, we haven’t needed another meal after our Italian cooking classes, so you get a tour and a meal for the price of one.
Some of my favorite classes have included fresh-pasta making in Florence, apple strudel in Salzburg, croissants and baguettes in Paris, and learning to make pesto in Cinque Terre. I usually try and write about these experiences so that have a better idea of what to expect, so don’t be afraid to click around on the blog.
Sightseeing Travel Tips
When it comes to tours and sightseeing, I try to find things that everyone will enjoy. I am not a hop on/off bus tour person. If I’m going to see a city without a guide, I’ll use public transportation and travel guides to DIY my own tour. (One of Tom’s favorite activities in Venice is to board the Number 1 vaperetto and listen to the free Rick Steves audio tour.)
Do Your Research in Advance
The best way to waste money on a trip? Don’t do your research in advance. The classic example is the person who shows up in Paris to find the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay with lines around the block – or worse yet – closed. You’ll end up wasting a day either waiting in line or trying to find something else to do. When we spent a long weekend in Paris, we bought the Paris Museum Pass. This gave us the ultimate flexibility because it allowed us to skip the line at all the major Paris attractions but it also allowed us to have a ready-made list of things to do at all times.
Skip the line tickets exist for a reason. Take advantage of them. If you are going to travel across the world, don’t spend your time in line. Your vacation time is worth the reservation.
Get Your Bearings from a Walking Tour
One of the first things we do when we arrive in a new city is a walking tour. Whether it’s a free walking tour (we’ve had some outstanding free walking tours!) or one that we pay for, tours are a great way to get a local perspective on a new place. You’ll learn more about what is important to a place and figure out what you want to prioritize on your trip. We’ve also gotten some great restaurant recommendations from our tour guides, too.
We tend to focus on tours that will give us an introduction to the history and traditions of a place. I also really like night tours because I love photographing cities at night. A night walking tour gives me ideas on places that I might want to photograph to or how to capture the essence of a place. While I have no qualms about taking pictures most of the time, it’s helpful to get some ideas about different vantage points.
Take Food Tours When Traveling
Similar to cooking classes, food tours can be a great introduction too a city and double as a delicious meal. Whether we’ve done Christmas market food tours or walking food tours, we’ve always learned a lot and tried new things. Our Prague Christmas market tour taught us more about Czech Christmas customs than we would have ever learned by walking around the market on our own. While on a food tour of the Marais, we came across an olive oil store that is now a stop every time we go to Paris. In Barcelona, we took a tapas tour that prepared us for the rest of our time in Barcelona. We never had a bad meal after that tour.
I do find that food tours tend to be a bit more expensive, so make sure to read the reviews. You won’t be saving money if the tour is chintzy on the food and heavy on the walking or the touring. I think the reviews are very helpful in ferreting out which tours are a good value for food.
Travel and Tour Discounts
Black Friday is good to us for discounts on tours and sightseeing passes. I love using Viator, Get Your Guide, and Eating Europe. I’ve purchased gift certificates from Eating Europe when they were offering 20% off. This gave me the flexibility of using it once I had concrete travel plans, but not missing the sale. Sometimes Viator offers sales on certain tours, so you’ll want to create a wish list and check it continuously to see if there are any special offers.
Final Travel Tips
We make a lot of sacrifices to travel as much as we do. Our only long-term debt is our house; we’ve both paid off our student loans. After maximizing our retirement contributions, we don’t spend a lot of money on things. Our gifts to each other for holidays and anniversaries tend to be experiences or gifts related to travel. We don’t go out to eat a lot. I splurge on massages (more for health than anything else now). We shop sales for clothes and only buy what we need. When it comes to groceries, Tom says that if it’s not at Aldi, we don’t need it. That’s not too far off the mark for us, lol. There aren’t a lot of impulse purchases and we don’t have expensive daily habits. For us, it comes down to the deliberate choice to put our money and time into travel. Everyone has their own thing, but that’s how it works for us.