So you want to travel on a low budget. Who doesn’t? Still, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the cheap travel tips, tricks, and strategies that promise incredible deals on airline tickets and hotels.
In reality, there is only one important tactic to traveling cheaply: being flexible with your travel dates, destination and plans. It may sound simple – even simplistic – but you’d be surprised how few travelers are willing to take this advice to heart.
To be fair, this flexibility-driven mindset requires a paradigm shift for many in terms of how they begin to plan their vacations. We must get out of this type of planning:
“I want to go to Amsterdam from September 5 to 13.”
“I want to go to a fun place in September.”
For some, this degree of flexibility is simply not possible. Still, for those who can loosen their preconceptions of how to plan their trip, it can mean big savings – and maybe even more fun – whether you’re paying in cash or using points.
WHY RIGIDITY IS SO EXPENSIVE
The cost of the trip depends on the interaction between many factors, including:
– Number of options.
When you make specific plans up front, you are essentially limiting the last variable – you are giving yourself fewer options. This means that the cost of your trip will depend entirely on the first three variables, which are completely beyond your control.
This economic interaction will sometimes be in your favor, and you will get a good deal on the exact destination and dates you want. But more often than not, you’ll end up paying more than average just by starting with a very limited set of options.
HOW TO PLAN TRIP WITH FLEXIBILITY
You can always set limits around your search. Examples of parameters can include:
– I want to travel in the fall.
– I want to sit on the beach.
– I don’t want to spend more than $ X.
From there, you can start weighing different destinations and dates to see which ones might maximize your preferences. For example, you might start with flights to Hawaii, but notice that plane tickets are skyrocketing. So you move to the Caribbean, narrow your interest down to a few destinations with cheap flights, and then start researching hotel prices.
Finally, you can find the dates and destinations that offer the best combination of price and functionality and then book your trip.
Think about how many times you (or someone you know) have gone the other way – starting with dates and a destination, then accepting any costs that might arise.
THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
As this flexible travel approach grows in popularity, travel booking sites and services have started to offer useful tools specifically designed for this task.
BUSINESS ALERTS ON AIR RATES
Airfare newsletters, like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club, are the point many travelers are starting to think about in terms of flexibility. These newsletters send an explosion to subscribers every time they discover an offer of cheap airline tickets.
But there’s usually a catch: these airline ticket deals are only available on certain dates or to very specific destinations. You can’t sit around expecting a lot from Atlanta to Sydney because it may not happen on time.
But you can wait for an exciting rate from Atlanta to… somewhere, and jump on it when it’s available.
GOOGLE FLIGHTS EXPLORE
Many travel search engines, such as Kayak or Orbitz, have very flexible search tools. Google Flights has a feature called “Explore” that lets you search in a completely open way.
You enter your city of departure, the length of trip you’re looking for, and your price range, and Google returns a handful of deals to a bunch of destinations at random times in your date range.
POINTS AND MILES
Travel bloggers love to rave about how they got a first-class ticket using miles, but they don’t often describe their real secret: extreme flexibility.
Redeeming points and miles for reward travel almost always requires a high degree of flexibility to get the most out of it. On the one hand, the availability of these rewards can be uneven. Before you can even determine whether an award reservation is a good deal or not, you actually need to find an available award reservation option. On the other hand, airlines often double the price or more during high demand dates.
In short: if you’re looking to use miles on a specific flight on a specific day, you might either be overpaying or not being able to score a ticket at all.
To make it easier, many airlines offer reward calendars that allow you to see the dates and prices available by month, which can be especially useful when looking for hard-to-find premium cabin tickets.