How to have a 5-star vacation without the price tag

March 08, 2019
Urban Adventures

Vacation is meant to be relaxing: it’s the opportunity to put work and the stresses of daily life aside and spend time doing what you love with the people you love to be with. Not only that, but studies show vacationing reduces stress, increases happiness and creates a favourable work-life balance — all good reasons to pack up and go. But often, the significant expense of travelling can, unfortunately, counteract all those positive benefits.

If you’re looking to plan your next getaway and want to make it something special without busting your budget, consider these eight tips for having a five-star vacation on a three-star budget.

Choose your location wisely

There are ways for reducing the cost of virtually any vacation, but certain locations make the task far less arduous. Whether you’re travelling within your own country or planning on going abroad, keep an open mind and do your due diligence to pick the right destination for your budget. Consider the average cost of lodging and living expenses and, if applicable, current exchange rates. You might be surprised to learn that some international flights are the same price, if not cheaper, than domestic ones depending on the time of year and the airport from which you leave. This author has had the pleasure of flying to Europe from New York for under $300 on the roundtrip thanks to Iceland’s Wow Air.

And cheaper destinations doesn’t mean less enjoyable or exciting. Montreal, Athens, Lisbon, Rome, Barcelona and Xian are all on the list of surprisingly affordable places to visit.

travellers in Athens with a tour guide

Gather your friends and head to Athens for a surprisingly affordable getaway | Photo by Athens Urban Adventures

Rack up points

You’re most often going to be spending more than usual while on vacation no matter what, so you might as well use a credit card that offers travel benefits. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that each time you reach for your wallet, you’re stockpiling points to pay for a future vacation.

There are a variety of cards available that specialise in travel rewards, and if you’re going by air, the carrier will often offer an in-flight deal providing enough bonus miles to cover transportation for your next trip.

Find an inexpensive flight

Whether you’re okay with budget economy or want the luxury of business class, don’t settle for the first ticket price you see. Start looking for flights early using multiple travel search engines and cross-reference quotes directly with the airlines. The ability to be flexible with dates is an advantage. Most websites allow you to view flights on a monthly calendar and highlights which days have the lowest rates. Be sure to extend search parameters to all viable area airports for departures and destinations, and set price alerts to let you know the best time to pull the trigger.

This can be a time-consuming part of the process, but it’s worth taking the time and having the patience. Doing your research early on will allow you to have a clear idea of the prices you’ll find for wherever you want to go and exactly what kind of travel budget you’ll need to put together.

Consider the timing

Avoid travelling to somewhere during the heart of its busy season and you’ll save money. Instead, go during the shoulder-season or off-season, when prices are lower and there is less demand for flights and accommodations.

This is a smart strategy for vacationing in cities or visiting locations where the climate is hospitable all year long. Just make sure it’s not a bad time of year to travel there — some places, such as the Brazilian Pantanal, have long rainy seasons that involve flooded areas and limited mobility and opportunity to explore unless you want to be waist-deep in water the entire time. Similarly, some locations may close down the main attractions at some points in the year, making the trip a missed opportunity for you.

travellers with a tour guide in Paris

Popular cities like Paris won’t break your budget if you go during the off-season | Photo by Paris Urban Adventures

Get creative with lodging

Popular vacation websites have created myriad options for discovering places to stay around the world. In most cases, you can find private condos and entire homes for rent with the amenities you’re looking for (such as a pool, multiple bedrooms, kitchen, outdoor space and beach access) for less than you’ll pay at a fancy hotel or resort. Even if you splurge for a more opulent place, you’ll have the opportunity to save on meals you can cook at home, on-site laundry (pack less and cut out baggage fees), free parking and extra room charges if you’re travelling with kids or a group.

If you want to go the more traditional route, take the same approach you did to find your flight and conduct a broad search to identify the best options and rates. Look for online travel agencies that also offer additional discounts and membership rewards you can put toward future bookings.

Find activities and experiences online

If you walk up to the booth in the airport or resort lobby and purchase a travel experience or tour, even if they say you’re getting a discount, chances are you’re paying top dollar. Research the things you want to do online before you leave home, comparing prices and looking for deals.

Services such as Groupon offer coupons and specials on local attractions at destinations far and wide. You can also explore one of the many travel-oriented websites or check out the latest vacation guidebooks from the library to find information on the best free and low-cost things to do by location.

Book tours

Tours can be very economical, especially when they bundle activities you’re excited about experiencing. Rather than travelling to and paying individually at each location or attraction, the tour takes care of all the details for you and typically includes discounted entrance fees and money saving offers. You’ll see a lot, and get more out of it thanks to the local knowledge and expertise of your tour guide.

travellers and locals at a food stall in Yangon

Go where the locals go for delicious cheap eats | Photo by Yangon Urban Adventures

Eat like a local

If fine dining is at the top of your list, partake at least once during your stay. But to offset the cost, ask around to find where the locals go for satisfying, authentic food at budget-friendly prices. Vacations are all about making memories, and the experience of eating tacos roadside from a fantastic food truck or discovering a little fish market that serves fresh plates in a casual environment by the seas are just the type of indelible moments that stay with you for a lifetime.

Final thoughts

If you love to travel, you know that the best things in life aren’t usually free. Don’t let finances stand in the way of your ideal getaway. By using these tips and taking a thoughtful approach, you can plan a vacation that allows you to live it up for less.

Brian Davis is a digital nomad, running his own small consulting business, working on freelance projects, and contributing content and advice on the benefits of travel. He’s originally from Michigan but is currently based in beautiful Thailand.