Whether you’re an avid traveler or scrimping and saving for that next trip, these seven tips will help you get the biggest bang for your buck.
1. Book a reward flight in advance and to a destination with low airport taxes
So you’ve done the hard part – racked up thousands of miles and you’re ready to redeem—only to find out that you have to pay an airport tax comparable to the price of an economy plane ticket on top of tens of thousands of miles. This situation leaves you questioning why you bothered to collect miles in the first place.
Don’t worry, you didn’t waste your time. You just need to get more exotic to get value. Instead of taking a trip to New York City that first popped into your head, try on a once-in-lifetime trip to South America or Asia.
If you want to get even more value:
Book your trip early to grab the super saver reward seats available across cabin classes to early birds.
Spend your miles on business or first class – you’ll get less plane tickets, but you’re getting much more for your miles since those tickets are £/$2K+ depending on your destination. For more info on how to fly business class for free, check out this blog post.
I’ve successfully secured roundtrip business class tickets to Lima, Peru using American miles; Buenos Aires, Argentina using United miles and I’m now racking up Virgin Atlantic miles for my next big adventure.
2. Earn free hotel nights
Unless you’re ridiculously loyal to one hotel chain, it can seem practically impossible to score a free night without a considerable investment. Even using credit card points to get a free room can lead to some frustration with blackout dates.
Personally, I prefer to stay at boutique hotels so the major hotel chain loyalty programs never did it for me. However, in 2013, I discovered Hotels.com had a free rewards program so I could earn and redeem nights staying anywhere I desired. Since I joined the program, I’ve earned nine free nights around the world worth $2,267 (£1,727). Obviously, the more you stay, the more you earn.
All you got to do is sign-up for the program, book 10 nights through the website or app and then a reward night worth the average cost of the booked nights pops up on your account. To use it, just click that you want to redeem the reward night at check-out.
DO NOT use a Hotels.com promo code if you’re trying to get free nights. Using a code means you can’t apply that night toward the reward programme for a free night. Saving a few pounds or dollars on a hotel night is not a great value if you can leverage that night to get a free one. DO click through my link if you're planning on putting my advice to good use. It won't cost you dime, but it will me out!
When I’ve compared prices between Hotels.com and other deal sites, I’ve found that the prices are very similar so the rewards program is truly a value-add.
Hotels.com may have been the first to start such a rewards program, but now you can also earn free nights through Expedia, although the points system is not as straight forward.
3. Get restaurant perks
If you’re not booking reservations on OpenTable, then you’re practically losing money. With one account, you can earn points toward an OpenTable gift certificate or Amazon gift card by booking restaurant reservations in 20 countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States.
Every reservation is worth 100 points (unless you nab a 1000 point res) and here’s how they add up:
2,000 points = $20 (£15) reward
5,000 points = $50 (£35) reward
10,00 points = $100 (£70) reward
Redemption is easy – just click “get your dining reward” under your account or opt for an Amazon gift card. They’re both sent via email. The reward is issued in the currency associated with the preferred city on your account and is redeemable at any restaurant bookable on OpenTable. I’ve been successfully redeeming certificates for the past decade in the US and UK and am almost to my next £70 reward.
There’s no penalty for cancelling reservations, but if you miss too many, you can get kicked out of the program.
Restaurant chains also offer instant access to loyalty treats that you can take advantage of. On a recent trip to Manchester, England, my husband and I were looking for a drink before dinner. We walked past an All Bar One advertising a free glass of bubbly for joining its loyalty app. Within 5 minutes, my husband and I each downloaded the app to get a coupon and were sipping our complimentary prosecco at the bar.
4. Book activity tickets online in advance
If you already know what you want to see and when, then buy your tickets online and in advance—you’ll often be rewarded with discounts around 10%.
For example, on our Northern UK road trip, we knew we wanted to see Lowther Castle & Gardens. An adult ticket is £9 and if booked online, it’s £8.10. On the way to the castle, I booked the tickets on my phone and showed my confirmation screen at the ticket counter. Not all places accept digital proof of purchase so make sure to call ahead.
If you’re seeing 5 sights or more with a partner, these small savings can add up.
5. Pass on the pass
Many major cities offer multi-day passes that cover most major tourist attractions. They seem like a good deal because the cost of the pass is significantly less expensive than the cost of paying the entry fee to every attraction on the list.
I bought a pass once and instantly regretted it. My husband and I were in Paris for the first time. I’m obsessed with art so I thought I wanted to go to a slew of museums and of course see the iconic sights. After taking in the volume of art in two museums, I was exhausted, but in my husband’s quest to break-even on the on the cost of the pass, we pushed on and saw many more than we wanted to. It took the joy right out of sight-seeing.
You’ll enjoy your trip a lot more if you just focus on the museums and attractions that are of greatest importance to you and take your time. Buy online tickets in advance to get a discount and/or to reduce queuing time to enter.
6. Go for a local guide vs a large group tour
With the rise of peer-to-peer commerce, there’s more options for personlised travel experiences than ever before. You no longer need to suffer the coach bus with 80 other people and be subjected to a cheesy canned monologue. Connect directly with a local guide through platforms such as:
Tours by Locals
We hired a local farmer in the Sacred Valley in Peru to take us around Moray and Salinas de Maras. The local perspective was priceless and he introduced me to my first alpaca!
Similar to Tours by Locals, but with more of a focus on Europe and Asia. My sister-in-law, Katharine, provides a brilliant tour of London if you’re looking for a captivating storyteller and a flexible guide.
Often you’ll find listings for private guides or drivers. When we went to Cancun, we found Cancun With Me Day Tours. We got a private driver and guide to take four of us to the ruins in Tulum and Coba and to snorkel a lesser known cenote. The experience was brilliant.
As of last year, AirBnb has enabled hosts to provide experiences as well as lodging. I haven’t tried it yet, but hope to on my next trip.
I haven’t tried this site yet either, but it looks promising if Tours By Locals or With Locals doesn’t have what you’re looking for. Just make sure to double-check that you’re getting a private guide versus signing up for a group tour.
It’s likely that a private travel experience or guide is going to cost the same or more than a large group tour. However, the difference in the quality of the experience is significant.
A few years ago, I was struggling to find an economic option to see Ephesus whilst staying in Bodrum, Turkey, so I opted for a large group tour. The tour was a 12-hour experience where half the time was spent picking people up and dropping them off at their hotels and stopping at cafes and shops where the tour company would profit off any purchases. When we finally made it to Ephesus, we were rushed through the site so the company could bring us to a Turkish delight shop on the way back and try to make even more money off us by offering another side excursion for those carrying cash. The rest of us were left to sit in the parking lot of the shop in the heat for three hours until we were returned to our hotel.
Every five years or so I tend to forget how bad these large group tours are and book one in an attempt to stay on budget. I regret it every time.
7. Ask and you may receive
In the world of travel, most things are negotiable, but you will not receive anything extra if you don’t ask for it. The key is to ask nicely and to always be polite even if you don’t get what you want. No one wants to bend over backwards for a jerk.
Types of things I’ve asked for and had success receiving:
Early or late check-in at hotels
Having special occasions acknowledged such a birthday, anniversary or honeymoon – often this comes in the form of a bottle of wine or bubbly and edible treats in the room upon check-in
Access to hard-to-book restaurants or experiences through the concierge or even a discount on a local guide
Getting a better seat on the flight (if you catch the agent when s/he first gets to the gate—generally not a class upgrade, but extra legroom, aisle instead of middle seat, etc)
What are your travel budget secret weapons? Tell me in the comments below!