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Tips on traveling on the cheap

This is us on our trip to the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Every year in journalism I have my students do an investigative reporting project where they have to plan a seven day vacation that keeps their budget under a thousand dollars. They find the project both fun and challenging, as they have to book hotel rooms, flights, things to do, and account for other transportation costs and random purchases.

Seeing as how I have travelled to 48 states and six countries, I have learned how to travel rather cheaply over time. Now that COVID-19 has hit, you can fly really cheap, although you are taking quite a risk for both your health and others. The list below contains some tips on how to cut costs for when you are ready to start travelling once again.

1) Use hotel sites like Expedia or to get the best price on accommodations.

I usually go for the highest rated hotel I can find for under $100. I very rarely pay for a hotel for over a hundred bucks. In certain cities, like New York or San Francisco, it may be hard to keep to this budget, but in most of the country, you can still find a good deal on a hotel room without breaking the bank. After all, why spend a ton of money on a place you'll just be sleeping in?

2) Use Groupon to your advantage!

Groupon has all sorts of vacation packages to all over the world for really low prices. We went to Ireland for five days for $800. That included flight, hotel, train fare from Dublin to Galway, and an excursion to the Cliffs of Moher. I was skeptical about buying off Groupon at first, but it was an amazing trip and everything from the Groupon purchase was honored. The only thing about Groupon packages is that you have to go during the dates that it has listed, and in certain cities it is more money than others. So a package that flies out of New York might be cheaper than one that flies out of Chicago. You just have to look around to find the best deals. But most packages include flight and hotel.

3) Download apps on your phone for flight comparisons

Flight apps like Hopper will keep you posted on where you can fly the cheapest and when. You can search for where you want to fly, and it will tell you when it is cheapest to fly there. The cheapest days of the week to fly are typically Tuesdays through Thursdays. The cheapest months to fly are typically September and October and then again in January and February.

4) Ask for flight gift cards for birthdays or Christmas

Gift cards to Southwest come in fifty dollar bundles. They allow you to use a hundred dollars per flight, but here's the catch. If you book two one way tickets, you an use two hundred dollars for that flight. There's a little loophole that can save you more money on your flight!

5) Ask if there are any seat upgrades at the gate

Sometimes airlines don't sell all their seats, and they are willing to upgrade you for cheap, or at times, even free. When we came home from Dublin, they upgraded us from coach to business for no extra charge. We moved up to seats with generous legroom and had our own personalized TVs that ran unlimited movies. It made for a relaxing eight hour ride home.

6) Do you really need a rental car?

Think about the kind of vacation you are taking. If you are going somewhere and want to drive around, then comparison shop among rental car places. I always found Hertz to be the most reasonable of the companies. But if you're staying in one location, why not walk or take public transportation wherever you need to go? In our stay in Niagara Falls, we mostly walked the entire trip. We not only got great exercise, but we saved a lot of money that we would have spent on transportation.

7) Find things to do that don't cost a lot of money

Sure, you could spend money on tours and exhibits and whatnot. But some of the most fun things that are out there to do cost no money whatsoever. In our time in Hawaii, we spent a great deal of time hiking up mountains and through rainforest at no cost at all. You don't have to do those things to save, but no one said you have to shell out all the money in your purse or wallet to enjoy yourself.

8) How many souvenirs do you want?

It's nice to bring home something for yourself and maybe something for your immediate family, but do you need something for your friends and coworkers? If you want to save more money in this category, you could just make the photos you take your souvenirs too.

9) Find ways to earn travel points

There are a number of ways that you can earn money toward travel. I have a Bank of America Travel Rewards card where anytime I make a purchase it gives me money toward travel. I was able to pay for all the hotels on our week-long New Orleans-Orlando-Miami trip this way. If you sign up for Expedia, it also logs your points each time you book a hotel, and creating an account on Southwest stores your points for Rapid Rewards toward an eventual free flight. It will take time before you have enough points in these options, but any little bit helps.

10) Look for ways to travel for free

Over the years, I have been able to travel for free or nearly free. I went to Little Rock and St. Louis on a journalism conference through my college for example. If you're an AP Reader, they pay for your trip to your destination. I recently got hired to read for AP Lit, so if I decide to read next year, I could get an all-expense paid trip to Salt Lake City.

11) Book hotels with free breakfast

Food is a major expense on trips, but if you book hotels that have a free breakfast, that's one less meal that you have to worry about paying for. I also found that if you just find a snack for lunch, you could save that money for a nice dinner. So essentially, you could go through each day paying for only a meal and a half.

12) Find Groupon deals

If there is something that you want to do, see if there is a coupon for it. Why spend full price if the same event is on sale the next day? You may also find out about local events this way that you didn't know were going on, such as local concerts or fairs.

13) Consider a road trip

If you can't find cheap flights, maybe driving to your destination might be cheaper. You'd have to factor in food, hotel, and gas though. So depending on how far you are going, you'd have to find out if the road trip cost is more beneficial than the flight cost.

14) Do you really need to check a bag?

Unless you are flying certain airlines that don't charge you to check bags, you could pay extra fees for this. Also, many times we tend to overpack. I try to only bring the necessities on trips now and skip having to wait for my suitcase in the airport when I arrive. The last thing I want to do when I arrive in a new city is to wait around in the airport some more.

15) Make a budget

Finally, and probably most importantly, make a budget and stick to it. Don't go on vacation with a bottomless pit of money or you may end up regretting it. Have an idea of what you want to spend and try to stay within that. But don't be too much of a stickler. After all, you are supposed to be having fun! But if you want to save money, don't go crazy and spend money like there's no tomorrow. Because unfortunately every vacation has to come to an end, and you'll need that money when you come home.

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