Now that you have gathered up all that junk around your house, sold it on eBay and saved your winnings, the next step is to spend it wisely. Let me preface this by saying that I did some extreme budget travelling as a poor college student and this isn't that. Sleeping in hostels, sharing hotel rooms with 6 other people, and eating free samples at grocery stores for your lunch is cool when you're 19, but when you're a real adult you want to have a true vacation, not a scary lesson in how homeless people survive on the streets.
We are not wealthy, but we like to travel, so with that being said, here are MY tips for travelling well on a tight budget -
Don't be afraid to fly on the really cheap airlines. Last June we traveled as a family to Hawaii on Allegiant Air. Contrary to popular belief, the plane was not made of cardboard, but was actually a nice new jet! It actually turned out to be a really good experience and we saved a lot of money flying this way. I made it my goal to fly the whole way to Hawaii without buying anything extra during the 5 hour flight (because that is how they really make their money). I brought empty water bottles to fill up after we went through airport security and packed lunch (salami, crackers, yogurt and fruit) in cold bags for us to eat at the airport and on the plane. Since there was no in flight entertainment, I made sure to load our iPad and iPhones with lots of movies. I didn't pay extra to reserve seats with the hope that maybe I wouldn't have to sit next to my kids during the flight. (Plan failed. They seated us together anyway.) It may sound like a lot of extra work, but I saved over $1,500 this way and got to fly home on a very popular holiday weekend.
Regardless if you have to pay for your luggage or not, pack as little as possible. Diapers? Buy them at your destination. You can see in this picture how we packed only 2 large suitcases and 1 carry-on for our family of 5 to spend 2 weeks in Hawaii. This included our snorkels, fins, beach towels, and even a laptop! Pack light. It'll cause less stress and will easily fit in any rental car.
I love to use Hotwire's secret rates to reserve a hotel room. A few weeks ago we booked this really nice 3 star hotel with a fireplace in the room (ooh la la!) on the beach in Morro Bay for half the price of the 2 star ones further up the road. Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" is also great, but I feel like I have a little more control when I use Hotwire. Betterbidding is a great website that enables you to make an educated guess at what your "mystery hotel" will be before you book it. Another great option is Hotels.com. Sometimes I will reserve a good backup hotel on Hotels.com that I can easily cancel just in case I don't find a better deal through a different website. Also, it is important to read reviews and look at other tourists' pictures on Tripadvisor. Be advised, this type of research can reach OCD levels when you are trip planning and there comes a point when you just need to make a decision and book a place to stay. Don't turn into a crazy person. I warned you.
Do not travel without a hotel reservation. We did this in South Korea. Worst. Decision. Ever. (I still love you, honey.)
Don't rent a car unless you absolutely have to. It can be such a pain and cost to drive/park sometimes. Familiarize yourself with public transportation and don't be afraid to use it. In big cities a car is actually a hindrance not a solution.
Most rental car companies have a "mystery car" plan where you pay significantly less at the time you make the reservation with the understanding that you don't know what your car will be. Each time we have done this, we have not been disappointed. Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" is another good bet.
Stay at a hotel or bed and breakfast with the best breakfast ever. It isn't a deal breaker if they don't have a breakfast, but it definitely helps. Take a look at the breakfast that was included with our place in Rome. I never had to buy lunch. Instead I would just snack on the leftover pain au chocolats and prosciutto I had shoved in my backpack (and coat pockets) from breakfast. I know it sounds borderline crazy to eat leftover prosciutto out of your coat pocket, but I was saving money!
If you are traveling internationally, make a commitment to eat only one meal out a day. While eating out can drain your budget, I still think it's an important part of exposing yourself to the culture of the country you are visiting. If your "free" breakfast isn't cutting it, hit up the local grocery store deli or street vendors. I like to look on Tripadvisor for good, local, and cheap, restaurants. Also, ask locals and go there. If the menu is translated into another language and has pictures, avoid it at all costs. The prices at those kind of places are usually hiked up big time for the confused tourists who treat the local currency like Monopoly money.
Never ever use a credit card. I know many travel gurus will tell you to use credit card points to get all sorts of free airplane tickets and hotel stays, but this has never worked in my favor in the long run. Also, when I swipe a credit card to pay for things, it causes me stress because I know I will have to pay for it later. Pay for your whole vacation before you leave and as you go, so that you can come home and start saving for your next trip, rather than digging yourself out of a financial hole from the last one.
Travel off-season as close to the "on" season as you can. I know this doesn't work for every destination (I don't think Hawaii has an off-season), but you will see a huge price difference with everything. When following this rule, remember not to be disappointed if it is still snowing in Salzburg in March when you travel there to fulfill your lifelong dream to see all the Sound of Music movie locations. I'm just sayin'.
Take a splitter and two headphones when visiting any place with an audio guide, so that you only have to rent one instead of two. People always comment about how smart Erik and I are when they see us doing this. No, you don't have to get the audio guide, but it really does enhance your experience quite a bit. Pompeii is just a pile of rocks unless you know what you are looking at.
When in doubt, PRICE IT OUT! Sometimes it is cheaper to purchase a rail pass, city attractions pass, or vacation package, and sometimes it isn't. Take the time to look at the real numbers.
Plan, plan, plan and then... be spontaneous! I use Tripit to create a very detailed itinerary (with backup plans) of almost everything I want to do. This will actually allow you to be more spontaneous. I know it makes little sense, but believe me, when you know what your options are you are able to make better decisions. Some of the best things we've done have been things we did not plan at all.
Do your research. If you want to go to Legoland, look for tickets on Retail Me Not. (There is no reason to ever pay full price for Legoland.) If you want to visit an Aquarium, look on the Internet for free children's tickets at the local library. Look up the opening and closing times of museums, restaurants, parks, etc. before you leave on your trip. It will cause you so much less stress in the long run.
Ask locals for advice. If they are nice, they will guide you to the best places to see. If they are really nice, they will treat you like a celebrity and ask to take lots of pictures with you!