Early tomorrow morning, the Babyface and I are flying the friendly skies to NYC to spend a few days soaking up the Big Apple. Honestly, early on in 2011, we had decided we were going to avoid traveling this year. In order to save a pretty penny for our #1 goal, we decided to skip any vacations. We weren’t too crushed about it (after all, we’re still mentally enjoying our beach vacation from last summer). All that being said, when my office offered to cover part of my expenses for our trip to the Webby Awards in NYC, we jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Being frugal is great and all, but how often do you get to walk down the red carpet with celebrities in your life?
So, even though a lot of my expenses are being covered, it is still super important for us to do NYC on the cheap. I know the city can quickly blow through anyone’s bank account! We’re expert budget travelers, so here are my favorite tips for traveling (and having fun) on a budget!
1. Eat at least one meal a day “in”.
You knew the first tip was going to be about food, didn’t you? You can save a boatload of money just by eating one meal a day “in”. My absolute favorite part of traveling is experiencing local food, but it is also the quickest way to drain your travel budget. Each day of your trip, plan one meal that you don’t eat out at a restaurant. Our favorite meal to eat in? Breakfast! If your hotel offers a continental breakfast, make the most of it—I’ve been known to stash a bagel or two in my purse for snacks later. If not, making breakfast in a hotel room is a breeze. This may sound food nerdy, but I always pack food in my suitcase. Instant oatmeal (make using hot water from the coffee pot), bananas, peanut butter packets, trail mix, and granola bars all make for an awesome, packable breakfasts. If you are lucky enough to have a fridge where you are staying, scope out a local grocery store and grab yogurt, milk and anything else that you can turn into a hotel meal. Still want to splurge on a fancy dinner out? Go ahead! But on that day, eat two meals “in” and try to order the small/appetizer portions at the restaurant (or just have dessert). All the fun and atmosphere of the fancy restaurant without the budget-crushing bill.
2. Walk the town.
Pack your most comfortable shoes and get out and see the sights on foot! Double-decker tour buses and popular attractions may be fun, but the best way to see any city is to just walk around and enjoy the sites. You can go at your own speed, skip things you aren’t interested in, investigate things you are. Bonus: you get a great workout in without even noticing it. Going to tour a larger city? There are lots of great websites out there that offer cheap walking tour guides. We’ve downloaded three tours from this company for the low, low price of $6! With our smartphones, the walking tour is easily accessible and a great way to see the sights in a limited amount of time. Since you are saving so much money by getting a tour on foot, you can afford to splurge a little on a destination or two. We’re spending our sightseeing money on a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
3. Game the system for a cheap hotel room.
I used to be terrified to use booking sites like Priceline and Hotwire. They may offer great deals, but you never actually know the name of the hotel you are going to end up with until you’ve already forked over your credit card numbers. Scary! But then, I discovered Better Bidding, a forum that helps you “cheat” and know which hotel you are booking before you book. By matching up star numbers, amenities and location, the Better Bidding forums give you an idea of which hotel you might be actually buying. Then you can go to other sites and check out the reviews. The matches aren’t guaranteed (it’s an entirely user-ran site), but I’ve used BB a handful of times and have been matched with the correct hotel each time. By using these type of sites for booking hotel rooms, I can usually get them for 50-70% off the usual list price. My favorite score was booking a 4 star hotel in Downtown Louisville for $40 per night!
4. Pay attention to the perks.
All of the different travel companies throwing marketing vomit at you can become super overwhelming, but it can definitely pay big dividends to pay attention. Southwest doesn’t charge baggage fees. When we booked our flights, there was a much more conveniently timed flight through another airline, but we chose to go with Southwest to save the money on baggage. If both Babyface and I check a bag, that saves us $100 just because we woke up a bit earlier. Can’t live without the internet? Make sure your hotel offers free wi-fi. I’ve seen that run as much as $15 a day! Want to get in your elliptical workout? Make it paramount that your hotel has a gym so you can avoid paying a day fee for one nearby. Those numbers individually might not seem like a lot, but over the course of a trip, they can add up to hundreds of saved dollars.
5. Make money on your travel purchases.
Do you book your travel online? Yes? Then you should be making money off of it! I’ve talked about my love of Ebates before, but using it to book travel is one of the best ways to rack up some serious cash back. For example, if you buy one of Expedia’s vacation packages through their Ebates link, you get 2% cash back. 2% sound pitiful? Trust me, it adds up fast! Beyond that, any of your “pre-trip” purchases can be made through Ebates as well. Clothes, luggage, shoes, electronics! We made $40 cash back just in travel purchases in the past two weeks. Woohoo!