Going on vacation can be expensive. The average person reports paying $581 per person for a four-day vacation, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. But this notion that vacation needs to be a monetary free-for-all (and budgetary disaster) needs to be challenged—starting now.
In fact, having less money to throw around when you’re traveling can help you enjoy your experiences even more (the true bottom line for all our excursions). Globally, 59% of people report wanting to “do nothing” on vacation over an adventure-packed itinerary, according to a recent GfK survey.
Stretch your dollars (and euros, and pesos) as far as they will take you with these five ways to get the most out of your travels.
Consider a Work-Trade Arrangement
Vacation packages may seem worth the money and convenience, but what if you could get all those fun, local experiences plus free accommodation? Work-trade agreements give you just that. How it works is simple and exactly as it sounds: You work on properties doing anything from milking goats to organic farming to simple house sitting and much more in exchange for a roof over your head.
Time commitments and amenities vary widely depending on the type of work and the host’s needs. Helpx.net, a networking site for hosts and willing workers, explains that some hosts may require a mere two hours of work per day for accommodations only, while others may ask for six hours of work per day in exchange for meals, accommodations, Internet access, bikes and sightseeing trips. Work scheduling is also wildly dependent on the host: You may have to work a full day one day then have the entire following day to yourself, or you may have to put in your work at a set time every day.
In exchange, you not only get cultural immersion, a chance to practice any foreign languages you’ve never taken out of the classroom or learn a new skill, but also a more authentic traveling experience than just staying holed up in a man-made spa.
A couple from Sydney, Australia, who did a work-trade arrangement and spent four months in Europe told news.com.au: “We have both done Europe visiting the tourist attractions and staying in faceless hotels. When you travel like this, you only experience a very small and inauthentic side of the culture … [work-trade arrangements] is a completely unique experience. You get to live with a family in the culture. You eat local food, you meet local people and you have a better chance of learning the language. You also have the opportunity to explore the region on your days off, so you can visit the tourist attractions then.”
Given how contingent work-trade arrangements are on the host (i.e., someone you have never met), this avenue of travel is best suited to the capital “A” adventurous who are willing to trade traditional luxury for the luxury of culture, true immersion and whatever else crosses their path. A willingness to advocate for yourself and remove yourself from red flag situations are also an absolute must. Many work-trade websites require an annual fee with membership (ranging from $30 to $50), so be sure to factor that into your budget.
Rent an Apartment or Do a Home Swap
Traditionally, vacation-goers have had to book a hotel to get the amenities of home in a foreign city, but no longer. Even if you’re committed to having a deluxe trip, particularly for a honeymoon, anniversary or blowout birthday, you can find deluxe accommodations at not-so-deluxe prices.
Apartment and house rentals (within local listings of your destination at HomeAway.com or VRBO.com), home swaps (HomeExchange.com, LoveHomeSwap.com) and renting single rooms within larger homes (Airbnb) mean that you can get kitchen stove privileges, Wi-Fi access and ideal geography without paying top dollar. Sure, you may not get room service or freshly made beds, but you do get the unique opportunity to feel like a local and buy an insider’s look into the city you’re visiting. Plus, depending on what you’re renting, you can rent more space or alternative rooms than your standard hotel room.
This option is ideal for families who may want to spend a few nights cooking at home, say in Italy, but don’t exactly have the resources to book a suite.
Buy Local Food and Cook
By far, one of the biggest expenses when you’re traveling is eating out—usually because you don’t know where to go, where you can get the cheapest (and best!) tacos or aren’t privy to local deals. While Internet access and specialized apps might help you save money, being more selective about where you eat and how can also ensure you get more out of your adventure.
Provided that you’re traveling to a place that has accessible grocery stores or farmer’s markets, purchase local goods and consider a lovely picnic at one of the nearby sites or parks. If you have kitchen access, try cooking with never-before-used ingredients.
In the interest of saving money, research ahead of time what’s local (and therefore, cheap) to your geography. When I lived in Paris, one of the biggest mistakes I made was spending over $14 on pasta dishes (my favorite food) at dinner. Meanwhile, when I hopped over to Italy for the weekend, it cost about a third less than the Parisian price for freshly made authentic pasta in much, much larger portions. Conversely, France has delicious French wine under 5 euros available in most grocery stores.
In the throes of the vacation mindset, tossing unknown sums of (foreign) money at cab drivers can often be a go-to habit for navigating unfamiliar settings. Assuming that you’re traveling in a safe area and are able-bodied, you can stumble upon all kinds of hidden gems and gorgeous sights while navigating on your own two feet.
A slew of offline map apps for your phone—in destinations like Paris, London and more—make scrounging for a paper map inconveniently retro. Note that many of these apps also offer (online) tips and resources, so be sure to use an available Wi-Fi connection before you head out.
Ditch cabs, bikes, buses and even subways. Enjoy your surroundings—after all, you paid just to be there.
Over-priced tchotchkes in tourist shops and airports may beckon, but resist. What are souvenirs but a reminder to friends and family that you were thinking of them while you were far from home? You do not need a $6 keychain from a Hawaiian gift shop to tell them this. It’s generally safe to avoid buying any gift at an airport, hotel lobby or any place that bears the words “gift shop.”
Instead, turn moments of your travels into gifts, whether giving your coin-collecting niece a few of the foreign coins from your pocket or recording a video of street performers in the piazza for your music-loving dad. In the event that you do buy a present, choose an item that is local or handmade such as stationery, a journal or a small piece by a resident artist. Not only are these pieces more cost-effective, but they will endure much longer than a shot glass with their name on it.