I get overwhelmed just thinking about the effort it takes to plan, pay for, and physically take my tired, unexfoliated body on a summer trip. But then I remember that it’s almost always worth it. Even a wet, buggy camping misadventure makes you appreciate your own bed in ways you didn’t before. (Or so I hear. I have not camped in approximately five years, and I define camping loosely.)
That said, nothing spoils a vacation like being on edge about how much it costs. There’s too much pressure! If you drop a bunch of money on a fancy hotel and your Wi-Fi doesn’t work or the food sucks or your window overlooks a parking lot, you’ll spend the whole time seething about how much more you would enjoy spending the same amount on Seamless with a view of Netflix from your own couch.
Of course, the sweet spot is to get out of town, take a break from your day-to-day routine, and do things you enjoy without racking up a bill that will erase your post-vacation glow. This can be difficult, especially during peak travel season in July and August. Plus, flights and hotels seem to be following their own bonkers inflation trajectory. If we learned anything from last summer, it’s that YOLO spending is a blast, but it can’t go on indefinitely.
So, what are the best ways to save money on summer travel this year? I asked a bunch of financial experts for tips they are currently giving their clients — and using themselves.
1. Decide in advance what you’re willing to spend on and what you aren’t.
Obviously, everything is a trade-off. But it’s smart to consider which financial compromises you’re willing to make before you get talked into a five-course tasting menu after a few glasses of wine on your first night in Lisbon. “Reflect on what you really enjoy and splurge on those things while ‘cheaping’ out on others,” says Megan McCoy, a financial therapist and professor of financial planning at Kansas State University.
It’s also worth thinking about where your money will go the farthest, says Katie Gatti, the host of Money With Katie. “I am almost always willing to pay more for better flight times,” she says. “While you might be tempted to save $150 by opting for the 6 a.m. flight with two connections, the connections take time out of your trip, and it’s absolute torture to wake up at 3 a.m. To me, spending a little more on a direct flight at the time I want goes a disproportionately long way.”
The other is the location of your hotel. “Some people like to splurge on fancy properties or better rooms, but I generally find that spending a little more on location is a good investment,” she says. “It means that you spend less time and money on public transportation or rideshares once you arrive, which can affect how much you enjoy the trip and what you’re able to do in your limited time there.”
Personally, I like to have rules for what I will and won’t spend money on while I’m traveling so that I don’t hem and haw over every temptation. I tailor them based on where I’m going, who I’m with, and what I want to get out of the trip. (I also get to break them in special circumstances, like when my hat blows away on the beach and I must buy a new one immediately.)
Here are some examples: In general, I refuse to pay for travel upgrades. I will be miserable on almost any airplane, no matter what kind of seat I’m in, so it’s not worth it to me to pay hundreds of dollars more for four more inches of legroom. I also have a general policy against shopping while traveling (I learned this after I bought a poncho that looked so cool in Santa Fe but that I absolutely could not pull off at home). This includes souvenirs. No one wants a shot glass from New Orleans. Or if they do, they won’t be getting it from me.
Conversely, I will spend money on nice drinks, good food, art museums, and anything that allows me to skip a long line. You can hate my rules and I don’t care! You get to make your own.
2. Talk to people who live where you’re going or know a lot about it.
“Connect with at least one person who lives locally and knows the area well who can give you tips on things to see, do, and eat for less,” says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and author of multiple best-selling books on personal finance. “These suggestions might be off the beaten path but more authentic and less touristy.” (Another upside to knowing locals is that they might invite you over for dinner and you’ll get to see how people actually live — also fun and freeish.)
If you don’t know anyone who lives where you’re going, cast around for people you trust (and have a similar lifestyle — i.e., budget) who have recently visited and ask them what they recommend and what they don’t. This is how I wound up in a strange neighborhood in Mexico City visiting a free art fair in an abandoned convent that was easily the coolest thing I saw on that trip.
Touristy places are always more expensive, usually crawling with other tourists, and probably just as cool as some other less famous spot that hasn’t been tagged by a million influencers. So why not try the latter?
3. Extend your vacation mentally.
Traveling someplace new can have huge benefits for your psyche — research has found that it’s linked to open-mindedness, emotional intelligence, and enhanced creativity. You can amplify these effects by appreciating your destination before you get there and after you return, says Manisha Thakor, a certified financial planner and author of the forthcoming book MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your Enough.
“A vacation can be a sizable chunk of your discretionary budget, and one way to make the most of that money is to spread out the joy of the trip by watching documentaries about where you are going and even reading novels that take place there,” she explains. “Just doing one of those things before, and maybe another one after, can help you extend the joy and feeling of your vacation.”
Starting about ten years ago, before I went anywhere, I tried to read at least one book set in that place or by an author who lived there. (Gabriel García Márquez before I went to Colombia; Colette before I went to Paris; Roddy Doyle before I went to Ireland.) Watching a movie set there counts too. And I was usually so jazzed up about a place after I came back that I wanted to learn more about it as well, which proves the halo effect that Thakor references.
4. Be strategic about food and drinks.
Everyone I spoke to brought this up: When you’re traveling, eating and drinking gets pricey! But there are lots of ways around this.
First of all, always bring nonperishable stuff to eat from home. “I like to bring a Tupperware of high-protein snacks,” like protein bars and nuts, says Gatti. She’ll also keep them in her hotel room or wherever she’s staying when she arrives. “It means I’m not spending $15 on subpar airport sandwiches or relenting to the $40 continental breakfast simply because I wake up hungry and need to get something in my stomach.”
If you’re staying at a hotel that offers a complimentary breakfast, go to town. “In many European countries, breakfast comes included with a hotel stay,” says Thakor. “These spreads are full of all sorts of delicacies. On a recent trip to Stockholm, every morning I feasted on lox, made-to-order omelets, muesli, all sorts of cheeses, and an array of yogurt and berries.” She’d fill up on that and wouldn’t even want to eat again until dinner.
If you’re traveling with kids (or you just get hangry on a regular basis), it’s almost always worth it to book a room or an Airbnb with a kitchen so that you can store, cook, and eat ample snacks, says Sonya Britt Lutter, a certified financial planner and financial therapist. “As soon as you arrive at your lodging, find the nearest supermarket and stock up on drinks for your stay,” she adds.
You should also try to drink free coffee wherever you can get it (most hotels offer it), and make sure to bring a refillable water bottle so you aren’t paying $5 for Evian out of a minibar, says Stephanie Genkin, a certified financial planner and founder of My Financial Planner. And finally, do your own research — many tourism boards and hotels get kickbacks for the things they suggest. “Don’t ask the hotel concierge where to go for dinner,” she adds.
5. Look at your credit-card offers.
I’m not one for obsessing over credit-card points or signing up for new offers just to get a few hundred airline miles — if you’re into that, great, but I find that it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Still, if you’re planning to travel, it can be worth seeing what your credit card can do for you, says Torabi. The same goes if you work for a big company that might have corporate-travel perks.
“See if your credit card or even your company has discounts or relationships with hotels and resorts where you can, because of your affiliation, snag some freebies and discounts,” she says. “My credit-card website has a travel-booking page where if I book through Amex, I can sometimes get free breakfast for two and $100 spending money at the hotel.” Don’t get trapped into booking a more expensive place because of these perks, but it’s worth checking just in case.
6. Save your splurges for the last day.
Okay, this is purely my own tip: I once read that the last day of a vacation is the most important, because if you end the trip on a high note, you’ll come back refreshed and remember the whole thing more fondly. So now I always save the best for last. During earlier parts of a trip, we’ll stay in more affordable Airbnbs or with friends and family. Then, for the last night or two, I’ll book a hotel room or fancier Airbnb, plan a cool activity, and get reservations for a great dinner. It saves us money overall and still feels like a treat.
The Cut’s financial-advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to email@example.com.