This is the first post in a five-part series. Over the course of these posts, we will cover general travel tips & tricks, our favorite apps and companies, travel hacking strategies, packing lists, and our choices for travel items/gear.
I must admit, I have a love/hate relationship with this subject. It is, however, the number one most requested thing we get asked. I get it. Before we started traveling, we had a lot of questions too. Reading travel blogs and watching YouTube travel channels helped answer many of our questions. Things that now seem second nature as we travel were likely tips received from someone else. So, on one hand, I find travel advice helpful and necessary. On the other hand, I abhor how most of the information is presented.
Always. Most. Never. Best. Only. Complete: Declarations commonly used but rarely true.
Travel anywhere and you'll quickly realize the recommendations you got from "Aunt Shirley" weren't exactly what you hoped for once you experience it yourself. Travel is very subjective and your experience anywhere will and should be different than Aunt Shirley's. I find articles that utilize the definitives listed above are usually exaggerated and don't show the full picture. Your experiences may have been wonderful, but they're not the "only" or "best".
Travelers and travel styles are also unique and wide-ranging. Aunt Shirley may be the type of person who enjoys having every detail planned, every hotel & restaurant picked, and each minute on her itinerary planned down to the last croissant she'll eat at the airport cafe. Conversely, your cousin Greg may be more of a "fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants" type of traveler that plans next to nothing until he arrives at his destination. Neither is wrong. The point here is: take tips, recommendations, and advice as suggestions rather than facts. Nothing is black and white. Something Greg finds helpful maybe doesn't apply to Aunt Shirley and vice-versa.
What kind of travelers are we? I'd say a little of both. We don't love planned itineraries, however, we will take a tour with a group if it makes sense logistically. Would we land in a new country without accommodations reserved? Not yet, but never say never. It took us many trips to learn our own travel style and it's constantly changing. We like to research and plan just enough but not know too much about any new destination. We personally like to explore on our own, get lost, and talk to locals for recommendations. We know this isn't for everyone, but it works for us.
"Clear is Kind." -Brene Brown
Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I'm direct and tell it like it is. Good or bad. This is why I have a strong aversion to "top ten", "must-see", and "must do" lists. There I said it and I'm not taking it back. To me, it's only clickbait (which is another thing I detest, but I digress). It's just keywords to fit into some algorithm in order to end up at the top of some "search". I get it, but you'll never get that from me.
Without further delay, here are some budget-savvy travel tips as well as some general recommendations on things that have worked for us or helped in some way.
Budget(ish) Travel Tips
Be flexible: I can't stress this enough. If you want to save some serious cash on your next vacation, this is key. Book your airfare first, then find accommodations. Again, being flexible on your booking days, times, and length of stay will save you hundreds of dollars. If you need to leave by 9:00 am on X date and return by noon on X date, your chances of finding a great deal are limited. Let your flight guide your planning.
Travel During Shoulder Seasons: Travel during peak times will almost always be more expensive (e.g. holidays, school breaks, summer season). Every destination has a high and low tourist season. The times in between are considered shoulder season - which means fewer tourists and lower costs. Win-Win in our travel playbook! For example, this is why we love traveling to Europe in February and March (or October and November).
Utilize Fare Alerts: Google Flights and AirfareWatchDog are two that we utilize, but there are many great sites to choose from. AirfareWatchDog allows you to sign up for airfare alerts on your favorite routes. They send you an email when a low fare is detected on any route you've listed to watch. Currently, this is only available for US & Canadian airports. Google Flights has a similar "track prices" feature, but includes the entire world. It pays to know what fares normally price out for your route - that way you know when a great deal comes through. Check out their price graph and date grid to show you typical prices. Play around - it's literally one of my favorite tools!
Try Google Flights Explore Feature: Research the lowest-cost flight option anywhere by utilizing the explore feature within Google Flights. Type in your departure airport and in the "Where to?" box enter an entire continent (try North America or Europe) then click "Explore". It will give you the cost to fly to any destination within that continent. You can move around and zoom in/out to find smaller airports. PRO TIP: We utilize this search to find the flight we want, but then book directly with the airline.
Book Directly with the Hotel/Airline/Car Rental, etc: We don't use most third-party sites to book any travel. We only like them to research and compare prices. These sites are OTA's - online travel agencies - like Expedia, Orbitz, Hotelsdotcom, Bookingdotcom, etc. If issues arise, you will get better service directly from a hotel, car rental agency, or airline than a 1-800 number (believe me, we've learned this one the hard way). Additionally, by calling the hotel directly most will price-match. They pay hefty commission fees to these sites and would much rather have your direct business.
Compare Costs with Nearby Airports: You may be surprised! Sometimes flying into a lessor known airport in a larger city can be less expensive. Also, traveling an additional 100 miles can occasionally mean saving hundreds of dollars on your flight.
Subscribe to Thrifty Traveler: Yes, they have a yearly fee, however, if you like to travel this can pay for itself in ONE travel deal they email you. We have been members for years and have literally saved thousands of dollars on flights. It is my all-time favorite travel tip/hack. However, refer back to tip #1. You need to be flexible and sometimes have to be willing to book the flight within hours. (All flights that touch US soil have a free 24-hour cancellation policy, with a few caveats. See this article from Thrifty Traveler that explains the details.) Their service is not going to help you if you need to travel on specific dates/times. However, if you're thinking about going "somewhere" warm in February, this will absolutely save you money. By using this link, you & I will both get $10/off our subscriptions.
Utilize Positioning Flights: Let's say there is a great deal from Miami to Aruba, but you live in Minneapolis. Check/watch prices from Minneapolis to Miami (or an airport near there). Many times (especially for international travel), the best deals are from hubs around the country. You can save hundreds by taking a positioning flight.
Sign-Up for Airline, Hotel & Car Rental Reward Programs: It still blows my mind there are people who don't utilize these programs! Points and miles = free flights, hotel rooms, upgrades, and more. Every program has unique benefits, but absolutely sign up! I will cover more on this in Part Three of this series which will feature Travel Hacking & Credit Card Rewards.
Embrace public transportation. North Dakota & other rural parts of the US are way behind in this respect. However, major cities and many other countries have amazing public transportation. Use what the locals use - buses and trains are usually a fraction of the cost of an Uber or taxi.
Ask For an Upgrade: Worst case scenario, they say no or have no availability. You're out nothing for asking.
Try Lesser-Known Destinations: You can always fly into a major hub, but stay in a nearby village or lesser-known area to save money. Utilize public transportation to get you to the larger attractions you'd like to see. Some of our most interesting and amazing experiences have been in smaller villages where locals don't always expect tourists.
Search for Free Things To Do: One of our favorite things to do in a new destination is take a free walking tour, usually with a local guide (just Google free walking tour in your destination). It gives a great overview of the area and you're able to ask your guide questions. Even though it's usually free, tips are generally appreciated. Other free places we explore? Parks, churches, and grocery stores. Yes - one of my favorite things is visiting grocery stores in foreign countries!
Bring Your Own Water Bottle/Coffee Cup: Not only does this save the environment, you'll sometimes get a discount by bringing your own cup!
General Travel Tips
Don't Overplan: Write down everything you'd like to do on your trip, then cut your list in half. I'm not kidding. You will be far less stressed and enjoy yourself so much more if you take your time. This will also help alleviate any stress over mishaps, missed connections, late arrivals, or anything else that unexpectedly pops up on your trip.
Stop Stressing About a Foreign Language Barrier: With Google Translate and so many great language learning apps, this really isn't an issue. You can also use Google Lens to literally hover your camera over a menu and it automatically translates it. Sometimes technology is amazing!
Chateau de Chantilly, Chantilly, France
Start An On-Going Travel Bucket List: When I started reading travel blogs I quickly realized I needed a system to keep track of sites, places, festivals, villages, countries, restaurants, and recommendations from others or I'd go mad! I use OneNote, but you could use any program you prefer (or an actual notebook would work too!). My travel notebook is broken down alphabetically by International vs. Domestic Destinations, then by Country, then by City or Village. I keep all my notes, photos, and info in this one place. For example, we're going to Ireland in June. This is the first place I look to start researching and planning our itinerary. I had saved two pages of notes with photos from online articles, recommendations from friends, and links to blog posts I loved. This saved me so much time! I continually add to it any time I run across something I want to remember or a new destination I'd like to see.
Talk to Locals for Recommendations: They know what you can skip and likely have ideas about things off the beaten path. Don't be afraid to make friends!
Embrace Obstacles: There is a "hack" out there for almost anything. Dull knives at your AirBnb? Flip over a ceramic cup or bowl and sharpen them on the bottom edge. No shit - it works! Bottom line - don't let inconveniences get the best of you.
Pack Light: Not only will this save you money on baggage fees, but it will be much easier to transition from place to place with only a carry-on suitcase or a backpack. PRO TIP: Wear your bulkiest layers on the flight. Also, you can always find laundry facilities/services wherever you travel.
You can take an excellent vacation on any budget and traveling full-time isn't as expensive as you may think. The more you travel, the savvier you'll become. We love learning new tips and tricks --- leave a comment below to share any of your own travel tips!
What We're Up To and What's Next for Us?
Our first three weeks in Paris have been interesting. Garbage piles everywhere, protests over pension reforms, and worries of rats overtaking the city. Overall, we've been able to steer clear of most of the chaos, and thankfully the garbage was picked up this week so that should help alleviate the rat infestation.
Our daughter and her boyfriend were here for 10 glorious days and we made the most of our time with them by visiting every single tourist site they requested. We had so much fun and miss them already. We were lucky enough that their trip coincided with our dear friend's market research wine trip to France so we all got together for a marvelous dinner, great conversation, and amazing wine. After dinner, we hopped on the Metro and made it just in time to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle. My heart was so full!
We have three weeks left in Paris before heading to the southwest part of France for a 2 1/2 week dogsit. It's near Bordeaux, so of course I have wine on my mind. Come May, we fly home to North Dakota for a short visit and look forward to catching up with as many of you as possible!
I am currently planning out our summer months. It's looking like we'll be in Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Croatia, and ??? who knows! Plans may change but that's our current list.
Cheers, Peace, Love, and Kindness,