A philosophy our team abides by is to always have something to look forward to, and this particularly applies to getting through the thick of winter. Granted, we aren't exactly in the middle of a blizzard in L.A., but after the excitement of the holidays, it helps to have something planned to look forward to. For the past three years, I've beat the winter blues by traveling somewhere each March. I've visited family in Guatemala and road tripped through New Zealand with a friend, and this year my boyfriend and I are going to Paris for a week. Each year, through careful budgeting and planning, I've been able to take each trip without breaking the bank—New Zealand, including airfare, food, and excursions came to under $1,000, and I'm planning on spending only slightly more in Paris. Here's how to travel on a budget and get out of town this winter:
1. Save in increments and book flights and lodging far in advance.
Saving $1,000 or more can feel almost impossibly daunting, but breaking the total amount into bite-sized goals helps to make the total feel more approachable. I've always found it helpful to save in three different steps: plane ticket, then lodging, then spending cash, since that's usually the order I buy things in. To do this, I save for the plane ticket using the saving app Qapital before I even know where I'm going, then buy a ticket based on the best deal (more on this below), ideally 6 months in advance so I have time to save for the next goal, lodging, which I usually buy 3 months in advance. Once I hit one goal, I'll start over in the app, setting rules like, "Round up to the nearest $1 every time I make a purchase" so I can set it and forget it (which makes the trip feel almost free).
2. Set app and email alerts.
My boyfriend and I only decided to go to Paris after we passively learned that it was among the most affordable options. I'd set up alerts from multiple airlines—Norwegian, WOW Air, Jet Blue, and Easy Jet, which all have great deals, as does the app Hitlist—and saved while I waited for a great flight deal to come through. By the time we saw round trip flights to Paris for $450, we had already saved enough to book them instantly. P.S., January through March is the best time for deals since most people travel over the summer and holidays, and consolidator sites marketed towards "students" like Momondo aren't actually limited to students—use them!
3. Don't stay in a hotel.
Don't get me wrong, hotels and all they offer—room service, daily cleaning, extra-fluffy comforters—are magical, but there are so many alternative affordable options that the perks can be hard to justify if you're on a budget. Instead, consider alternatives like VRBO, Airbnb, and HipCamp, a nature-oriented lodging site. Just to give you an example, when my boyfriend and I were looking for Paris lodgings, the cheapest (non-hostel) hotel we could find in a nice area was around $300, but we found literally hundreds of options around $100 on Airbnb. The apartment we eventually landed on has floor-to-ceiling windows and is in the heart of the desirable Marais neighborhood for $100 per night (though we found competitive options for as low as $60 per night).
4. Make lunch reservations instead of dinner.
One of my favorite parts of traveling (okay, definitely my favorite part) is the food. Since it's so important to me, I always make a point of visiting a critically renowned restaurant in any large city I visit. "Critically renowned" usually translates to "really freaking expensive," but I've learned that most high-end restaurants offer lunch reservations at a fraction of the price of their dinner reservations, which is a great way to experience the restaurant and its great food and ambience, without paying an arm and a leg. For other meals, I use apps like Zagat and Yelp to find affordable restaurants and street food. Also, if you're in a foreign country and a restaurant offers menus in English, it probably means they cater to tourists and have tourist prices (read: run away to the nearest dive packed with locals).
5. Whenever possible, travel with friends.
The more people you travel with, the more ways you get to split costs like rental cars and Airbnb which can help significantly with budgeting. I've even known a couple who rented a two-room Airbnb apartment, then found someone via social media to take the other room and split the cost with them, getting them a bigger place with a nicer kitchen at a rate lower than a studio apartment would have been. And, if you travel with a large group (five or more), you may be able to score group rates for site-seeing excursions.
6. If a flight is out of the budget, make the most out of your staycation.
If flying is completely out of the option for you, staycations are the perfect opportunity to take advantage of all of those magical hotel amenities since so many offer last-minute deals and price cuts for locals. For example, The Standard hotel has an app called "One Night Standard" that allows you to book night-of stays for amazing rates (HotelTonight does the same thing for a wider variety of hotels) and many hotel spas offer 10% to 20% off for locals.
7. Don't exchange money at the airport—just use an ATM.
Any place that specializes in money exchange generally has the worst rates (especially if it's at an airport). You're better off taking money out of an ATM, which is often the best deal despite transaction fees. To keep those fees at a minimum, make fewer trips by taking out large amounts at a time.
8. Use public transportation whenever possible.
Public transportation in large cities, particularly in Europe, is cheap, convenient, and a great way to get to know a city since it forces you to rely on your own navigation skills rather than hopping into a cab. If you're in the city for a while, check to see if there are day or week passes available to save even more.