In some circles, the term Budget Travel denotes being cheap or possibly as being a less valuable client. This concept could not be further from the truth. The fact is discount/budget travel represents a significant element and value to the overall travel industry. Virtually all travelers travel on a budget, the only difference is what constitutes a comfortable budget for you.
There is no correct budget and by default no wrong budget to have. The difference is how you budget your trip. Essentially, any destination can be enjoyed by the budget traveler, be it a family, single explorer, or Digital Nomad. The key is knowing how to budget and engage a specific destination to its fullest on your terms. My upcoming series, Budget or Break the Bank, will look at exactly how to do that with specific destinations as I travel through them, so follow as not to miss out on that.
What is Budget Traveling?
Budget traveling is traveling on your terms. Travel is an industry in and to itself and as such, it is essentially controlled by corporations and governments who are in it for a share of the profit. This makes traveling a large expense, by default, but primarily for the common individual or family. Depending upon the size of a specific budget and/or a specific destination, it could require more work on your part to perfect your itinerary if you truly want to fully engage and experience a destination.
Especially, in the post-COVID era, when traveling returns to its new normal state, most people and families will still be recovering financially. Many will return to traveling but cut back on how they spent pre-COVID. This is not only expected but is in fact the responsible way. Budgets are always subjective to a specific situation.
Regardless of how much you love to travel, how often you travel, or even if you are like me (a Digital Nomad) and traveling is literally a constant aspect of your life, viewing yourself as a traveler can be your greatest weakness. The most important fact for you to remember is you need to see yourself as the industry sees you, as a consumer.
Budgeting for your trip should focus on the most significant expenses involved, primarily transportation and accommodation. These two expenses alone typically account for the majority of the cost, and if they can be lessened, your overall trip will benefit. Addressing these two expenses can be done several ways.
One significant way is loyalty programs. Loyalty programs are pervasive within the travel industry and for good reason. The travel industry, which heavily relies upon repeat customers, realizes that treating people better incrementally results in a win-win situation for all. The best loyalty programs can provide significant advantages for you. The key is in the name, loyalty.
By default, loyalty means returning. Not necessarily to a destination, but to a specific brand. With that in mind, the most significant advantage loyalty programs offer you, the consumer, is the ability to not simply spend money, but create an investment aspect to those costs. The more you return to the brand, the more your dollar/euro will get you as time goes on.
Before you make a reservation, research everything about the available hotels. From the cost, location, amenities, and prior reviews, everything. Remember, you are making an investment with each trip. Even if you are returning to the same city over and over again but vary your bookings from the Marriott to the Hilton to Accor properties, you have lost the value of the money you spent the previous visits. The overall quality of traveling on a budget is significantly increased by leveraging your power of loyalty.
In the hotel industry, these programs tend to provide upgrades to suites, generous cancellations policies, greatly reduced rates, free nights, free gifts, free breakfast, upgraded internet, and even a point system that can be used to cover restaurant/bar expenses. Each hotel brand has a unique program. If you do not like the idea of committing to only one brand, there are loyalty programs offered by third-party reservation sites.
Which one you choose should be directly controlled by the traveler/consumer you are. While not every program offers all the mentioned benefits and advantages, as a Titanium Elite member of Marriott’s Bonvoy program I do get all of those plus more.
Finally, keep in mind that you are not required to stay in a hotel. The online vacation apartment rental industry has boomed over the last decade and gives you the ability to rent an actual residential apartment virtually anywhere in the world. However, you must consider what you lose for the reduced rate, such as housekeeping, breakfast, amenities, language compatibility, just to name a few. Also, to date, these platforms do not offer any type of loyalty program, and as such, you’re just spending money, not creating any form of investment.
Airlines also implement loyalty programs and leveraging them can be beneficial. The biggest difference between hotel and airline programs is the international dimension. As an example, if you fly from the USA to Europe, but need to fly around once you are in Europe, most likely you will not be able to or want to use the same airline. The cost of using the same airline on opposite sides of the world, regardless of loyalty membership, could be counterproductive to traveling on a budget. However, depending upon your destination, you may have better options than flying anyhow.
Always investigate any possible discounts you may be eligible for; from the company you work for, being a veteran, government employee, senior citizen, membership in certain organizations, etc. You may be surprised at what discounts are out there.
Also, remember that the tourist season changes from destination to destination. Just because it’s June does not necessarily mean the hotels have high peak rates everywhere in the world. The more open you are to destinations that offer the ability to maximize your budget, the more you will get for that budget.
Remember that in many places, including most European cities, there are developed and relatively inexpensive public transportation systems which offer weekly passes. To purchase a $20/15 euro pass and stay outside the city center could reduce your overall expenses into the hundreds while still getting to enjoy the city you wanted to visit.
Traveler vs Tourist
The best way to travel on a budget is to be a traveler and not a tourist. Tourists tend to prefer the 4-star hotels, while a traveler realizes that most of the time, they will only be sleeping in the hotel room. Travelers travel light, while tourists pay to check-in bags on their flights. Travelers create their own itineraries, while tourists spend money on group tours and guides. Tourists rely on taxis, while travelers learn how to take the bus and subway. And, travelers eat street food and where the locals eat, while tourists prefer to eat exclusively at all the touristy restaurants as well as the hotel restaurant. Simply put, you will spend considerably less money as a traveler, than you will as a tourist, but still get to enjoy the destination.
While this is far from an exhaustive how-to on maximizing your budget while traveling, it is a good primer. As I mentioned at the top, I have an upcoming series, Budget or Break the Bank, which will detail individual destinations. Also, I will be offering a downloadable guide soon as well. Simply put though, always remember that being a traveler, or a tourist, is being a consumer. While the saying goes, the customer is always right, in the travel industry however, being the right customer is what makes all the difference.