Ways to Make Necessary Travel Affordable When Money Is Tight

Photo: Amy Fontinelle

Sometimes you're forced into going on "vacation" whether you want to or not. You might be a member of the bridal party for an out-of-town wedding or have a family reunion or milestone birthday party to attend in a distant city.

I think Suze Orman has it right when she says “people first, money second,” but that doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in a bad position financially to be there for the people you care about. There are things you can do to minimize the cost of your trip no matter where you’re going. Here are a few suggestions on how to cut back.

Airfare: Do you have frequent flyer miles you can use? If not, if you’re close to an award ticket, consider buying a few miles to top off your account. It may not be the best deal in the long run, but if you have to travel now and you don’t have money now, it’s better to spend $150 to buy miles and use a frequent flyer ticket than to spend $350 to buy the ticket outright.

If you have a few months until your trip, try signing up for a credit card that awards a generous number of frequent flyer miles for new signups to get enough miles for your trip. Keep in mind that the miles will take a while to post to your account, and frequent flyer seats get snatched up fast, so if your travel dates and times aren’t flexible, you may have a hard time actually using those miles. I know we have at least one out-of-town wedding coming up in about a year, so I've been using this technique to rack up enough miles on a variety of airlines so at least one of us can fly for free.

Also look at flying on Southwest, because if the fare drops after you buy your ticket, you can get a refund for the difference. You can do this on other airlines, too, but their ticket change fees usually eat up the savings from the lower fare.

Other options include trying your luck with Priceline and adjusting your trip so you’re traveling on unpopular days and/or at unpopular times. On a recent trip, we flew home from New York on the fourth of July because it was the least expensive option. We didn't get to attend any barbecues or go to any fireworks shows, but seeing a few fireworks from the plane and saving a couple hundred dollars was worth the trade off.

Transportation: Renting a car can be expensive especially if you reserve it at the last minute. If you’re traveling specifically to attend an event, you might be able to catch a ride with someone else (and offer to pay for gas or help offset their rental costs)--that's what we did when we attended a wedding in Puerto Rico.

And while navigating public transportation in an unfamiliar city is never fun, it might be worth figuring out if it means the difference between an affordable trip and an unaffordable one. You might also be able to use a flat-rate car service instead of taking a cab--that saved us money on airport transportation in New York. Instead of paying for every minute we were stuck in traffic, we were able to relax knowing that we had already locked in a flat fee, and our driver had an incentive to get us to the airport as quickly as possible so he could get his next fare.

I've also had good luck securing inexpensive rental cars through Priceline. Renting cars from the airport can be less expensive than renting from a neighborhood location, but sometimes there are airport taxes that make it cheaper to rent a car near where you're sleeping. I've also borrowed friends' cars while visiting them instead of renting a car.

Accommodations: Obviously, the easiest way to save money on travel is to stay with someone you know at your destination and room for free instead of shelling out $100+ per night. If you’re traveling to attend a special event, perhaps there’s someone else going who also wants to cut costs that you can share a hotel room with. I've also known people to go camping (even when attending weddings), though I'm not a camper myself.

Food: One of the major expenses of traveling is eating out for every meal. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can try to find an extended stay one that has a kitchen, which means you can buy some groceries and prepare your own, inexpensive meals. You might think this type of hotel room would be more expensive, but it often isn’t.

If an extended stay hotel isn't an option, a hotel room with a fridge and microwave can still save you money. As a last resort, you can eat picnic-style: get a cooler and some ice and plan to eat sandwiches for the length of your trip. You’ll save a bundle. If you’re staying with friends or family, they probably won't mind lending you some fridge space and letting you use their kitchen.

Souvenirs, gifts, and travel supplies: It probably goes without saying, but if money is tight, you should skip these items altogether. Whatever suitcase, clothes, shoes, etc. you already own will have to be sufficient. Save your limited funds for the expenses you can’t avoid. If you already own a digital camera and a computer, you’ll be able to create plenty of trip mementos for free. If you absolutely must get new clothes (such as for a wedding), find a way to fit them into your usual monthly budget and buy items that you’ll be able to wear again to work or for other special occasions. Stores like TJ Maxx really do have designer brands at surprisingly affordable prices.

If you find yourself faced with a trip you can’t say no to this year, change how you usually do things to make your trip affordable. You may be able to scrounge up the money for it by looking at ways you can cut your monthly expenses (which will pay off not just in terms of making one trip affordable, but giving you more breathing room every month).

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