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Tips for Traveling on a Budget

Tips for Traveling on a Budget

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Many people wish they could travel wherever and whenever they want. Well, me too. Unfortunately, flying overseas, long cross-country road trips, and tropical vacations are expensive. Most of us have a budget to stick to. Although traveling on a budget may seem impossible and lame, with these tips it can certainly be done! (AND be enjoyable).

Social media has ingrained in us a certain idea of what “traveling” really is. It’s time to change those expectations. You don’t have to go half way around the world to have it count as traveling. You don’t have to take weeks off work or spend months saving for every trip. Keep reading for some great tips for traveling on a budget.

“Big” vs “Small” Travel

What is the difference between “big” and “small” travel?  In the context of this article, big travel refers to large, expensive trips out of or cross country. Traveling big usually costs a lot, involves significant planning, and is considered a trip or vacation of a lifetime.

In contrast, small travel refers to staying closer to home – within a 10 hour drive. If the purpose of a trip is solely to travel and explore a new city, for me, 10 hours away is the absolute limit for a weekend trip. This gives you a huge radius of endless travel possibilities!

10 hours may seem incredibly long to drive 2 ways just for a weekend trip. I agree – it’s certainly not ideal. However, it is doable. I grew up in Marquette, Michigan, located in the Upper Peninsula (Google Maps it!). The closest mall with actual name-brand stores was a 3 hour drive away in Wisconsin. In high school, we drove 5+ hours every weekend for softball tournaments.

Although those frequent long drives weren’t always fun, I got to experience a lot of places growing up. It showed me just how much there really is to see in the US, even when staying close to home. When I started dating my boyfriend that lived 8 hours away, we were forced to find small, obscure towns in the middle to meet for the weekend. We made a lot of great memories in small, po-dunk towns I had never heard of.

With a good attitude and an open mind, staying close to home while traveling on a budget can be a lot of fun. If there’s a cute, relaxing city waiting to be explored, a long drive is totally worth it.

Map of the USA laying open on a table
Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Don’t Rely Only on Travel Websites

Research the extent of activities a city has to offer before traveling there. This is especially important when traveling on a budget. Some cities may only have expensive museums or restaurants. Or, you might not like what free activities are available.

Also, make sure to research your plans with both you and your travel companion in mind. Different people have different preferences of how they like to travel and explore. Do they have a specific budget to stick to? Do they have certain interests they like to explore in a new city? These are all considerations to keep in mind.

Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google Maps are all excellent resources to use when researching a trip. However, don’t just automatically plan to see the top rated attractions listed. These are often the busiest tourist spots and are many times geared toward kids/families.

Another way to find activities or places not in the travel guides is to ask a local. Ask your innkeeper or local worker what they suggest to do, see, and where to eat. They will have some honest input of what in the area is worth your time.

I’ve found that my favorite travel memories have come from improvising and finding spots that are not mentioned in any travel guides. Sometimes when traveling, it’s better to let your sense of wondering and wandering take over, and leave the smartphone behind.

Have a Plan, But Be Flexible

I suggest waiting to buy tickets of entry to attractions like museums or zoos until you physically get there. (Ignore this for specific events like concerts or sports.) There are just so many unknowns you can’t account for until you get to your travel destination.

You may end up enjoying your first activity more than expected. Or it might take longer to get from point A to point B than expected. Or, you might just get tired. Buying too many tickets in advance puts a lot of pressure on your plans. If every moment of your trip is scheduled ahead of time, you’re more apt to be disappointed if something goes wrong. Also, there’s no worse feeling when traveling on a budget than wasting money on an experience you didn’t have time to enjoy.

Find Free and Public Spaces

I cannot tout the use of free and public spaces enough when traveling. Parks, libraries, bodies of water, woods/hiking trails, beaches, some museums, tennis and basketball courts are all worth researching before picking a travel destination. These are great ways to appreciate the natural land and history of an area. Plus, they’re often free!

Free activities and places are your best friend when traveling on a budget. The more free things you have planned, the less tempted you’ll be to spend unnecessary money at shops or on other activities. Research as many free activities and places you can before hitting the road.

White Mountain National Park - a free place to visit while traveling on a budget
A beautiful scene from a hike through the White Mountains in New Hampshire. This hike took all day, wast totally free, not to mention had amazing views along the way.

Travel in the Off-Season

There are many perks to traveling in the off-season, especially when on a budget.

1. It’s cheaper. Hotel and Bed & Breakfast rates will be significantly lower than peak tourist season. Museums, amusement parks, ski resorts, and other attractions often have discounted ticket prices during the off-season. In addition, restaurants may even have better happy hours or specials during that time.

2. There are less people – hence the term “off-season.” For me there is absolutely nothing worse than having an experience ruined because of too many people.

I was incredibly excited to visit Acadia National Park last summer in September. There were so many people that there was no parking at several spots we wanted to explore. Then, the places that did have parking were inundated with other people. Most of them were taking a million pictures with total disregard for others enjoying the scenery in person. It was not enjoyable, to say the least. If we would’ve planned to go during a more “off-season” time, we could’ve avoided some of these annoyances.

3. The locals are nicer and more receptive to conversation. When there are less tourists, locals are more likely to be out and about – and friendly, for that matter. There are less annoying and clueless people who don’t know how to act in a new place, so this is a great time to strike up a conversation with a local resident. If you meet someone in a bar or shop, ask them what their recommendations are for sightseeing and eating. Also, you will probably get much better service at restaurants during the off-season when it’s not busy.

Snow-covered city near a lake
Winter is a great time to travel if you want to avoid tourists and save money.
Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

Be a Tourist In Your Own State/City

This one seems pretty cliche, but have you ever done it? Have you ever visited the tourist hot-spots in your own city or state? If not, it could make for a fun adventure. Although it might be annoying due to a lot of tourists, there is a reason so many people go there. I suggest going to your local library and borrowing a travel book on your state or area. This can be a great resource for travel ideas. Travel books will give you a general ballpark of how much activities cost, in addition the best times to go.

Forget About Instagram

Ugh. This gets me every time. Traveling is not about what will look cool on Instagram. How can you truly enjoy your experiences when that is top of mind? Some of the smaller towns within your 10 hour radius are not Instagram hot-spots that influencers are posting about. There may not be a crazy, picture-worthy donut shop around, or a beautiful lake with a mountain in the background – but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you are enjoying the moment as much as you can. That you are immersing yourself in a new place or culture. Whether it’s relaxing on the beach, touring some breweries, or just walking around, pictures are not the end game – enjoying yourself is. Remember this the next time you take your phone out and pose for an Instagram picture.

Traveling on a budget may seem hard or un-cool, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. With a good attitude and a little savviness with your money, you can have a lot of fun. Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re looking for an adventure, and you won’t have to break the bank.

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