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9 Secrets to Traveling Cheap, According to Travel Agents

Whether you're a first-time traveler or a seasoned flyer, budgeting for a trip can be tricky: Do you splurge on a hotel or save your euros for dining and touring? One travel agent tells all.


Skimp or splurge?

Traveling is expensive, so between the exchange rate and foreign transaction fees, you want your money to stretch as far as possible without sacrificing the quality of your trip. The first step: Figure out your budget and then rank what’s important to you, says Robert Miller, president of Travel Advocates, a Hoboken, New Jersey-based travel agency. While it’s up to you to determine your personal priorities, Miller says travel agents do have some secret budgeting strategies.


Skimp: Luggage

A checked bag—or two—can cost up to $200, which really cuts into a travel budget. Opt for a capsule wardrobe—filled with pieces that are easy to mix and match—and pack only the bare necessities. You can find a laundromat or buy almost anything you need at your destination. Budget traveling without a checked bag also means you have more time to explore instead of waiting for lost luggage! Make sure you have enough room to bring home souvenirs, though.


Splurge: Big ticket item

This is where personal preference comes into play, says Miller. “I’m a hotel snob,” he says. “I’ll pay for that instead of first-class airfare any day.” Like Miller, some travelers might want to stay in a luxurious hotel with amenities that might be out of their price point at home, like an in-room jacuzzi and a wrap-around balcony. Others might be happy crashing in a hostel, which can run as little as $5 a night, and spend their money on a business class round-trip ticket. Nervous flyers, take note: Extra legroom or amenities in the air might make your travel on the ground run more smoothly. If you’re thinking of booking a flight soon, see the best time to buy plane tickets.


Splurge: With your credit card

For Chase Sapphire cardholders, your trip will pay dividends for every dollar you spend on vacation, says Miller. He recommends using a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, and after your trip, apply any cash back to the credit card statement. However, it’s always a good idea to carry some local currency on you for small purchases from local vendors. Your bank will likely charge a small exchange rate. Likewise, you can also exchange your money for local currency at your destination, but it might require some haggling to get a good exchange rate. Find out how to use credit card reward programs for an amazing vacation.


Skimp: Hostels

If hotels seem cliché—or are just financially out of reach—travelers should opt for hostels. The prices can range from a few bucks a night to $50 for a private suite, depending on the destination. Hostels outside of the United States tend to be nicer, but websites like HostelWorld can help travelers with planning and booking. To really cut down on costs, some backpackers might opt to camp on the hostel grounds rather than reserve a cot or bed inside.


Splurge: Food

Splurging on food doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money. Travelers should make an effort to taste the local cuisine, like Cape Malay food in South Africa, or delicacies like guinea pig in Peru. If you’re traveling to a destination where you might not trust the food, like in China, travelers should splurge on restaurants that cater to tourists, says Miller. While those restaurants are likely to be more expensive, it may give you peace of mind—and a calmer stomach. Travelers should aim for an immersive dining experience, a splurge meal with a great view, and a meal that will be a good talking point when you return from your trip, says Miller.


Splurge: Bikes

Bike-sharing programs can be found in most major cities, and it’s a great way to get exercise on vacation. Most services offer a flat rate for the day, which will allow you to see as many places as possible. A 24-hour bike rental in Nashville, Tennessee, will cost $5, while a bike in San Francisco will cost $9; any trips longer than 30 minutes will cost extra, so be wary of the time to stay on budget.


Skimp: Tourist traps

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Parisian at the Eiffel Tower or a New Yorker in Times Square, even though 7 million and 26 million tourists visit those locations, respectively, each year. Some tourist destinations won’t give you bang for your buck, especially in pricier cities. Miller suggests pre-planning any sites that are popular or special to your itinerary. Once you arrive at your destination, locals can give you more authentic suggestions and help you skip tourist traps altogether.  Make sure to check out these other tips on cheap travel from booking companies.

Skimp: Tour companies

As with tourist attractions, booking with tour companies can be pricier compared to booking similar amenities on your own. Travelers on a budget should inquire at their hostel or hotel about local tour guides to show them around a city. Many cities have free walking tours, where travelers are expected to give a small tip to their guides. If you feel it’s important to splurge on a tour company, ask a travel agent to find one based in the country you’re visiting. For Machu Picchu visitors, for example, Peruvian-purchased passes for the train and entry to the citadel are cheaper than foreign-purchased passes. You’ll save a lot more money by working with locals.


Skimp: Taxi service

Budget-conscious travelers should seek mass transit options to get around. Subways and trains in cities like Buenos Aires and Cape Town will cost about $1 per ride, while fares in cities like Washington, D.C., depend on the distance traveled. Public transportation allows travelers to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a local. Especially in high-traveled areas like New York City, cabs can cost a lot and take longer to get you where you need to be. Overall, public transportation is the fastest and cheapest way to get around, says Miller. Next, don’t miss these cheap travel destinations that can still feel like VIP adventures.

Amanda Eisenberg
Amanda Eisenberg is a New York City-based journalist. She's covered everything from unlawful nursing home discharges in Maryland to excess helicopter noise in Hoboken. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Elle Decor, McClatchy-Tribune Wire Service and dozens of other publications. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland (go Terps!). In her free time, Eisenberg enjoys traveling, volunteering and cliff diving. She can be reached at [email protected]