There are two main approaches when you want to travel cheaply. One is to visit a place that isn’t too expensive. The other is to find ways to keep expenses down when you’re in a city renowned for its high costs.
These tips will help you save money in famously pricey cities, but they’re also good travel habits wherever you go. When I was a younger traveler and fretting over every penny, I used to think that some day when I’d “made it” I would be able to take a cab from the airport instead of public transportation. Now I see that cabs are simply a waste of money when a bus or train is just as comfortable and nearly as fast.
Recognizing the difference between the expenses that give you value for your money and the ones that simply drain your bank account will make you a smarter traveler. You’ll come home with better memories and no financial hangover. So the next time you’re about to dismiss a place as “too expensive,” use these tips to travel cheap:
Basic strategies to travel cheaply
Travel in the right season
We’ve written about flying in the off-season, which for most destinations is October-April (except for Christmas and New Year’s). Not only will your plane ticket be cheaper, you’re also likely to save on accommodations. But when you’re planning a trip to an expensive place, think about what most people go there to do. For example, if you want to visit a country that’s known for skiing, such as Switzerland, consider going in the warmer months when you could appreciate the Alps with a free hike instead.
Get large sums of cash from the ATM
When you’re in a foreign country, you can get the best exchange rate by using your American debit card at the ATM. However, you’ll have to pay a transaction fee (and your bank may also charge you for using an outside ATM) so take out as much as you can at once to minimize fees.
Use the local sharing economy
Think beyond companies like Uber and Airbnb to cheaper (or free) alternatives such as Hitch-A-Ride for transportation and Couchsurfing for a place to stay.
Explore the non-touristy areas
If you only hang out around popular attractions you’ll end up paying more for anything you buy. Plus you’ll suffer from the illusion that you have to spend money in order to see all the right things and have a good time.
Walk past tourist destinations to the rest of the neighborhoods where locals live. You’ll find better prices on food and other shopping. And you can create your own sightseeing tour with a more authentic exploration of the place you’re visiting.
Getting there and getting around
Buy an “open jaw” plane ticket if you plan to visit more than one city
Also called a “multi-city” ticket, it means you would fly into one city and out of another, which is often cheaper than traveling back and forth to leave from the same place you arrived in. For example, let’s say you want to start your trip to Australia in Sydney and end it in Melbourne. A multi-city ticket that takes you from New York to Sydney and then from Melbourne to New York currently costs about $1,800. A round-trip ticket from New York to Sydney is the same price. But with an open jaw ticket you only have to pay once for transportation between the two cities.
Look for budget airlines that fly to smaller airports
When I searched for flights in September between London Luton and Paris Orly, I found one-way fares as low as $27 on budget airline transavia. In addition to going straight to low-cost carriers, Priceline can be helpful in bidding on flights that fit your budget. As always, the key to lower airfares is flexibility.
Explore the city on bike
Most large cities now offer public bike share programs. Paris’s Vélib’ bike share offers free journeys under 30 minutes. Ticket options include a one-day pass for 1.7 euros and a 7-day pass for 8 euros. In comparison, a 90-minute Paris metro ticket costs 1.8 euros. So getting around on bike is a cheaper transportation option that also allows you to see, smell, and hear your surroundings as you go from place to place.
Walk as much as you can
This is a no-brainer except in the coldest weather. When I visited Paris the metro workers were on strike, so I walked everywhere. It took a little longer but I got a better sense of the city from exploring it on foot. And even at the end of November it wasn’t uncomfortable to be outside.
Where to spend the night
Depending on your budget and what you’re comfortable with, there are plenty of options for finding inexpensive lodging in a pricey city. Staying outside of the center will also help to keep the cost down. Our recommendations are listed here in order from least to most expensive.
Find a free host through Couchsurfing
Hosts aren’t supposed to charge, but you should still express your gratitude with a gesture like cooking a meal for your host.
If you can’t find a host or don’t want to couchsurf, dorm-style sleeping in a hostel will be your next cheapest option.
Rent a bed or a room through Airbnb.
In some cities, Airbnb can be a bit cheaper than a standard hotel.
Do you belong to a travel rewards program? You may have enough points for one or more free nights in a hotel.
Food and drink
Prepare your own meals as much as possible.
Choose a place to stay that will give you access to a kitchen.
Eat out at lunch instead of dinner
Most restaurants offer lunch specials, which allow you to eat well at a lower price than dinner.
Seek out local ethnic restaurants
They are always a good choice for tasty food and friendly prices.
Do your drinking in a hostel bar
Even if you aren’t staying there. The prices are often better than in regular restaurants. You can also buy beer and wine at the grocery store and have a drink at home to save money.
Look up the appropriate tipping percentage for your destination. It’s usually always less than the standard American 20 percent. You should also look at the bill to see if a tip has been included in the total.
Ask for tap water instead of bottled
When you’re at a restaurant, go for the tap rather than the fancy Evian. And carry a reusable bottle to fill up throughout the day.
Sightseeing and activities
Free walking tours are available in many cities
When I was in San Francisco I took advantage of its City Guides tours. There were more options than I could fit into a 10-day trip. And since the groups are different each day you also end up meeting a variety of fellow travelers.
Look for free or discounted admission to museums
Sometimes it’s limited-the Louvre in Paris is free on the first Sunday of each month between October to March. In other cities, like London or Washington, DC, all or most of the museums have free entry every day.
Be a flâneur
A flâneur is a “passionate wanderer” who is entertained by the sights and sounds of the landscape and by the happenstance of turning onto unfamiliar streets and popping in and out of cafes and shops.
Avoid the standard sights altogether
Check expat websites and local entertainment guides for upcoming free activities.
While a high cost-of-living might deter you from moving to an expensive city, it shouldn’t keep you from spending a few days or a week there. When you’re willing to re-think what you “need” to do or have when you travel, you can experience an enjoyable trip to any destination.
How do you keep costs down when you travel to an expensive place? Share your tips in the comments.