It is amazing how Instagram can connect people through photos. I posted a few photos of our family vacations to Europe and now every time I see a long-lost Instagram friend they always ask about our trips. Where did you stay? Your photos were amazing! Did you really rent a yacht and sail around Santorini? How did you afford that amazing hotel room?
My husband and I are both nonprofit professionals. We were born and raised in small towns in Georgia (not trust fund babies to say the least). We work hard, but play harder…while also sticking to our monthly spreadsheet budget courtesy of Dave Ramsey.
How can two nonprofit professionals afford to go on multiple exotic vacations throughout the year? Deals, miles, and a lot of research. Here are my tips, folks. I guarantee you will love them, while also sticking to your budget and finding hacks along the way. So, buckle up, and get ready to book your next vacay on a budget!
My husband and I have been to Europe three times in the last few years. We try to book a trip quarterly that usually involves an airplane. We have never paid for a flight. If we do pay for a flight, one of us usually flies for free. Here’s how:
- SkyMiles – We are lucky to live in Atlanta, Delta’s hub. Delta runs quarterly SkyMile promotions for their American Express credit card. The key is making sure you hit the best deal. For a Platinum card you can sometimes score 150,000 free miles and an annual free plan. A round trip to Europe is typically only 40,000 to 60,000 miles per person.
- Get the Right Card -Some people make the mistake of going with the Gold Delta SkyMiles card. This is a good option, but you can pay an extra $99 a year and get an additional free companion ticket for anyone when you enroll with the Platinum. That is a free domestic flight you can use throughout the year – renewable each year. Worth it for $99 extra dollars a year – especially if you have a dream trip of traveling to the west coast. Those flights can cost up to $800 roundtrip.
- Don’t Join Together – If you are married, make sure to join cards separately. Your spouse can also get a card and earn the same miles for the next promotion! Capital One Venture card is also a good option. It does have an annual fee, but for $100 a year, it is worth it.
- Debt Free Miles ONLY – The key here is making sure you are diligent to pay your card off each month. I do not approve of credit card debt for free miles! We pay our balance off each month and have zero debt. If you spend an average of $1,000 each month (gas, groceries, restaurants, entertainment etc.) why not earn the miles? However, you must be driven to pay your balance off each month. I do not endorse debt for flight miles or travel in general.
- Extra Miles – If you travel for work, always book the same airline. My husband and I travel frequently for our jobs. We are partial to Delta, not only for the miles, but because we are Atlanta natives. Stick to one airline, and don’t forget to add your personal SkyMiles number to each booking. Concur and most work travel sites will not do that automatically.
- Mile Promotions – You can also earn more miles by linking your SkyMile number to apps like Lyft and retail purchase sites. Do a quick Google search on how to earn flight miles. Trust me, you will be surprised how many partners airlines have. Earn those free miles, baby!
If you aren’t good at paying credit cards off (or not good with sticking to a budget – AKA going wild with a credit card), then look into to some of these other options for the best flight deals.
- Scott’s Cheap Flights – Airline deals every day. They usually don’t last over 24 hours, so act fast.
- Google Flight Search – Get the best deal by tracking flights to your destination of choice.
- Book your flight on a Monday or Tuesday – I usually get the best flight deals on Mondays. Also, three months out is usually the best deal in my experience.
Once you get your flights and destination figured out, you can now focus on your hotels. Here’s the thing, if I am going on a trip then I am staying in a nice hotel. It is not a vacay if I am sleeping in a shack. If I make a splurge with my travel, it is usually for a hotel. However, I usually always spend less than $200 a night for a hotel.
- Be Loyal to One Booking Site – Orbitz is my go-to. They have Orbucks. Every time you book a hotel through Orbitz, you get free money to spend on your next hotel. Many hotel sites have a similar program. Make sure the price is the same through sites like Kayak, but always book through the same site while making sure to earn points or free cash with each purchase.
- Travelzoo – If you haven’t joined this site, then you better! This has daily travel and hotel deals. You can search hotels and travel deals for every continent. After reading this amazing blog, stop what you are doing, and join Travelzoo. If anything, it will inspire your next trip.
- Airbnb – You can find great deals on Airbnb. This is scary for some folks, but you can rent entire houses and condos. I have found some amazing places on Airbnb. For any website, like VRBO, always email the owner asking for a discount. Don’t just go with the price you see online. Email them, share more about you and your travel plan, and ask if they would be willing to come down 10%. It never hurts to ask. I once got a 20% discount for an Airbnb in New York. Always ask for a discount, it works.
- TripAdvisor – I love this website for two reasons…the deals and the photos. I love seeing photos from actual travelers before I book a hotel. I also read reviews to make sure it is the perfect place. TripAdvisor also offers deals for some hotels. They have good prices, that may be missing from sites like Kayak and other hotel booking sites.
I am also a foodie. I love trying new places while on vacation. We are not heavy eaters, so to save on costs we usually do a nice dinner each night and save on lunch and breakfast.
- Free Breakfast – I only book hotels on our trips that offer free breakfast. Why the heck not? You are already paying for the hotel room. In Europe, some of my best breakfasts have come from hotels. My favorite is in Heidelberg, Germany. I recommend the Hotel Bayrischer Hof Heidelberg. They breakfast well in Europe and this is my favorite!
- Lunch – We rarely do a heavy lunch, because we fuel up on free breakfast at the hotel. If we do get hungry, we will stop for a small snack. I usually always have a granola bar that I bring from home for emergency eating. There are cheap ways to eat out when traveling. Look for a bodega or street vendor. In Paris, we bought a loaf of bread, wine, and cheese and ate that for lunch. I think that cost us 4 euros. We ate on it for days – usually in front of the Eiffel Tower.
- Dinner – We enjoy our dinners, because we rarely spend much during the day for breakfast and lunch. We will order one appetizer and split that. We also order two entrees. We always skip dessert. We are usually full by then anyway, but dessert is overpriced to us. If we are craving something sweet, we will grab ice cream at a cheap joint on our way back to the hotel. We also love a hotel room midnight snack, so we usually pick up cookies or something sweet to munch on in the room. That has been our dessert on numerous trips, and it usually lasts for the entire duration of our trip.
What fun is a vacation without the best activities? Here’s how we find the best deals for entertainment on our vacations.
- Groupon – Always check Groupon for tickets. If you are traveling domestically, they usually have deals on tickets to museums, theatres, and shows. Groupon can also help you plan activities for random areas. I will look on Groupon if I am having trouble finding things to do when planning my trips.
- Find a Local – Look, I am all about using connections. I rarely meet a stranger. The best guides are usually locals. Use travel as a way to call up an old friend, or connect with a colleague that lives in the area. Airbnb hosts are always great local guides. They love to tell you information about their city (for free!).
- Free Activities – Parks are our favorite! One of my favorite things we did in London was walk through Hyde Park with our best friends. All parks and some museums are free. My husband and I got engaged in Central Park. We can go to New York and spend an entire afternoon in Central Park. Look at free options online to save money. I recommend a local park.
Plan and Internet Surf
I am all about planning when traveling. I build in downtime, but I also know that the best deals come through monitoring and planning. Once you pick your destination, spend the months leading up to your trip monitoring hotels and activity prices. Look on sites like Ebay and Stubhub to see if anyone is getting rid of day-of tickets. We have seen some cheap Broadway shows that way.
Know your budget ahead of time and how much you have to spend. My husband will give me an amount and a spreadsheet, and I make the magic happen. Know your limits and plan accordingly. If you want to splurge on a nice hotel (I did that in Greece – check this place out), then only stay for one or two nights. We will stay at a 5-star hotel for one night, soak it up, then hop to our 3-star down the street for the remainder of the trip.
I believe in traveling. I think it feeds the soul. You can do it, while staying on a tight budget. Make it happen! If you believe you can do it, then with a little internet surfing and planning, your vacation is just one click away.
Comment below and let me know where you are vacaying next! Fill me in on your best travel deals. I love learning new tricks for our next trip.
Love this blog. Great tips for great trips!! I’m thinking Paris!
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I love these ideas! Traveling seems overwhelming to me, so we end up not going anywhere. Thanks for your tips!
Please let me know if I can ever help you! I love planning a trip.
Wanting to head to Germany, Croatia and Greece on our next trip 🙂 Using these tips as I start planning!
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I love reading your blog! Glad you’re doing it! I’m all about traveling on a budget, as well!
Thanks so much, Lisa! More to come. I have over 20 posts written so far! It is so much fun.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a godsend – I second that recommendation! Always ask for an upgrade at the desk or to have your seat moved to a seat you want in the same class. Sometimes if you say you are a nervous flyer, the airline will go out of their way to make sure you are in an aisle seat or near a friend without paying a fee. Play that card! I also agree with getting to know the locals – drinking and eating where the locals hang can save you so much. Usually, if you ask a local directly “is this a touristy area?” they will be honest with you and tell you where the touristy areas are. In Spain, we spent all week paying $7/drink (which still seems cheap to me) until I made a local friend and she took me to a dive bar where I bought *four* drinks for $6. I think a lot of Americans are weary of travelling to parts unknown (across town with the locals) because of fear of crime, but many places abroad or as safe or even safer than the many parts of the US. I’m planning a trip to S America and it blew my mind to find out that many US cities have crime rates when compared to S American capitals. It’s all about perspective.
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Great Blog, Katie!! How about one on trip packing? I always take too much stuff, then don’t need it.
Great idea! I will work on this one for a post soon. I always overpack too!
Wonderful blog. It raised in me the wanderlust