10 Clever ways to make travel affordable for any family
It’s a common perception: all travel is expensive. Not so, says Matt Kepnes, New York Times best-selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and founder of the website, Nomadic Matt. He insists that American travelers, including families, need to adjust their mindsets. “Travel is actually really inexpensive, if you travel the way you live,” advises Matt.
KidTripster caught up with Matt at the New York Times Travel Show, where he was speaking to a standing-room-only crowd. Follow his 10 ways to save money on travel, and you’ll be shocked by where your family can go and for how much! We guarantee that you’ll learn something new, like why you should purchase airfare in New Zealand dollars. Read on!
Photo courtesy: Slava Bowman
1/Use your money wisely
Avoid ATM fees
One of the best ways to save when you travel is to avoid ATM fees. Matt advises, “Get a Charles Schwab account. They don’t charge ATM fees, and if you are charged an ATM fee while you travel, they reimburse you. They are the best out there.” Fidelity, Capital One, and the Global ATM Alliance also don’t charge ATM fees, but they don’t reimburse ATM fees that may get tacked on while abroad.
Spend in local currency
If you’re buying something in Europe, for example, and the merchant asks you if you want to be charged in U.S. Dollars or Euros, choose Euros. Always use the local currency to avoid bad exchange rates.
Never change money at airport
If you need money at an airport, Matt suggests using a credit or debit card instead of changing your dollars into the local currency. When you do need local cash, use an actual bank.
2/Get a travel credit card
Consider your spending and travel habits
No matter how much you travel, everyone should at least get a card that gives them something back, Matt says. But when choosing the right card, you really need to consider your travel and spending habits. “I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card which has a $450 annual fee. Whoa! Right? But I get $300 back in travel credits, so to me, it’s really just $150. And it comes with access to over 900 airport lounges, credit toward your Global Entry or TSA Pre application fee, and a bunch of benefits like car insurance and hotel statuses. So for me, that has value, because I use all of those benefits,” he explains. “If you’re not going to use all those benefits, just get a 2% cash back card and use the money that you save on fees for flights,” he says.
Use your everyday spending to earn points
Putting everything from groceries to your taxes (yes, you can do that!) on your card each month (and paying off the monthly balance) will help you bring down the cost of travel. “Go get one of these new cards and put your taxes on it. You’ll instantly meet any minimum spending requirement and automatically get 50,000 to 100,000 bonus points just for signing up,” Matt recommends.
Beat them at their own game
Use your points; don’t hoard them. The key is to be flexible on locations and dates when booking for flights. “I just took a first class flight from Germany back to Austin. It cost me $7. I used points that I got from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, transferred them to United, booked a first class flight, and flew home in style. The caviar was amazing,” says Matt.
3/Find cheap flights
If you don’t want to use points or miles, the key to finding great deals is to use the right sites and be flexible on either your destination or your dates.
Shop the right sites
Don’t just search one site. “I usually start at Google Flights, because it gives you an idea of what prices are like around the world,” says Matt, “but it only list major carriers. Then I move to Momondo. If I don’t see something I like there, I’ll go over to Skyscanner, and then I’ll go to Kayak, which… tends to focus on U.S.-based airline carriers.”
KidTripster Tip: Search Southwest Airlines separately, as it doesn't come up on any aggregate sites.
Norwegian Airlines has recently expanded operations in the U.S., offering great deals on flights to Europe, but Norwegian also flies from Oslo to Bangkok. “You can go from New York to Bangkok, connecting through Oslo for about $400,” says Matt.
Search in other currencies
Airlines adjust their pricing based on local markets. “Find a currency that is really weak, like say the New Zealand dollar, and search for flights in that currency.” Your flight could come up 50% cheaper! Then just go ahead and check out as normal, using your credit card.
Search for one passenger
“If you’re searching for a family of four, and the lowest-priced ticket is $80, but the others are $100, the site is only going to show you the $100 rate." So search for one ticket at a time and buy separately. You can always call the airlines afterward and try to adjust assigned seating, if necessary, or ask a fellow passenger to switch on the plane.
Hostels aren’t the dorm rooms with 20 people that you may be imagining. Thanks to millennials with high expectations, hostels have really upped their game, offering private rooms, kitchens, en suite bathrooms, breakfasts, organized tours, and free WiFi. Matt encourages families to check out HostelWorld and consider staying in a private room to save money. “Plus, everyone who stays in a hostel is usually a cheap-o, so everyday the staff gets asked, ‘where’s a cheap place to eat? Where’s a cheap place to go? What’s free?’, so they are a great resource of information about what’s going on that’s inexpensive,” adds Matt. Even if don’t stay at a hostel, go in and ask the staff for advice.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re traveling with three people, and the hostel only offers a quad with a private bathroom, chances are that you’ll pay less for four people than booking a comparable hotel room for three.
Photo courtesy: Stayokay Soest
5/Use the sharing economy
One of the best things to happen to travel in the last few years is the rise of the sharing economy. “You don’t have to stay in hotels or resorts and go on tours or cruises,” Matt says. “You can bypass all of that and connect with locals directly. You lower your costs and have a much cooler experience, because you’re with people who know the area.”
And it’s not just sites like Airbnb. Camp In My Garden is a website with listings around the world, where you can literally pitch a tent in someone’s backyard. For $30/night, you can go to France and camp in someone’s garden (with a pool!) in Provence! There’s also a good site for cyclists called Warm Showers that connects bike tourists and host families around the world.
And then there’s the free lodging sites like beWelcome, Global Freeloaders, The Hospitality Club, and Couchsurfing that connect you with locals, who’ll host you free of charge. It’s not just for 20-somethings. Many families offer other families a free stay as a way of introducing their kids to other kids from around the world.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re looking for free stays, find a family with similarly-aged children to yours.
Photo courtesy: Camp in My Garden
6/Eat on the cheap
Skip fancy dinners and don’t eat out every meal. Instead, go to the local markets or supermarkets and cook your own food.
Use apps to find local hot spots
Apps like Foursquare, OpenRice, and Yelp show you what’s popular in various destinations. These apps also can geolocate and show you what’s trending nearby.
Follow the “5-block rule”
Never eat within five blocks of a tourist attraction. When you eat near popular attractions, you’re paying for the location. “The people who run that restaurant know you’re never coming back,” explains Matt, “so they don’t really have to give you a good meal.”
Ask the locals
Ask the staff in hostels, hotels, taxi drivers, and other locals where a good local restaurant is, but here’s the trick: “Don’t ask ‘Where should I eat?’ because they’ll know you’re a tourist. Ask them, ‘Where do you eat?’ I don’t want to go where everybody goes. I want to go where the locals eat,” says Matt.
Photo courtesy: Clem Onojeghuo
7/Get around cheaply
Take public transportation, avoid taxis, and get a train pass
Again, hostel staff can tell you what your cheapest options are and will often give you timetables.
Another great option is using ride-sharing apps like Bla Bla Car, Lift Share, Gumtree, Zip Car, Jayride, and Kangaride. “I was in Switzerland once, and the trains there are really expensive. I went from Geneva to Zurich using Bla Bla Car with a man who was driving his son back to school in Austria. It was $10, and I got to practice my terrible French. And they gave me chocolate,” says Matt.
Photo courtesy: Daniel Roizer
8/Save on sightseeing
Get city tourism cards
One of the best-kept secrets is city tourism cards. If you’re going to a city where you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, go to the tourism office or its website and buy a city tourism card. “They come with free entrance to most of the major attractions and often come with free public transportation,” says Matt. Some even include discounts at restaurants and stores.
KidTripster Tip: Price compare before you buy a city tourism card. If you plan to see five attractions, check the prices of those five attractions individually. Is it more or less than the cost of the city tourism card?
Look for passes for citizens
“London has this restaurant discount card that you can buy if you have a U.K. address, and it gives you free access and discounts. Guess who has a U.K. address? Your Airbnb host or your hotel!" The Netherlands has a kind of similar card that gives you unlimited admission to nearly 400 museums throughout the country. Search things like, ‘French resident museum pass’ or ‘Italy resident city pass’ to find what kind of tourist passes are available for your destination,” advises Matt.
Ask for a family rate
Many attractions in Europe and Australia have a discounted admission rate for families; you just need to ask!
Photo courtesy: Maarten van den Heuvel
9/Find free activities
Visit tourism offices
Go into a tourist office at the airport or city center and ask, “what’s happening now that’s cheap or free?”
Search for free events
Check out TimeOut or search online for free events and activities for your destination. If you’re traveling in Europe, check out The Local; it’s a great resource for free and inexpensive events and activities happening in various cities.
Take a free walking tour
You’ll find free walking tours in 90% of the major cities in Asia, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and South America plus New York City. They’re a great way to get your bearings and see major sites without spending a dime. Matt recommends Sandemans New Europe Tours and Free Tours by Foot or simple search “free walking tour (city name)” online.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to always tip your guides, whether it’s a free tour or not.
Photo courtesy: Markus Spiske
10/Tour with locals
Connect with local guides
Cities all over the world have local greeter programs that are often free. For example, Big Apple Greeters in NYC will pair you with a local New Yorker, who’ll show you around for the day with advance notice. Don’t forget to ask them for restaurant and attraction recommendations. It’s completely free, and there is a no-tipping policy.
Go on quirky local tours
“Free walking tours are great, but you know what’s a lot cooler?”, asks Matt. “Taking a taco tour or an art tour of Queens or a street art tour given by a street artist in Melbourne.” Show Around, rent-a-guide, and Vayable are full of regular people who offer tours to travelers. Sometimes they’re free; sometimes there’s a nominal fee, but they’re almost always interesting, like Hidden Treasures of Paris, A Photojournalist’s NYC or Bike the Local Backroads of Florence.
Marcia Breen lives in Manhattan with her husband and 3-year-old daughter and spends her days exploring places and writing about them. Well, that and doing laundry and making meals her kid won’t eat.