Travel budgets are under pressure. On one hand, high demand for flights, car rentals, and cruises is pushing prices up, according to AAA. On the other, historically high levels of inflation have made for eye-watering increases in food and fuel costs. But with careful planning, you can make the most of your travel dollars.
"Your vacation doesn't have to be expensive to be memorable," says Chris Kawashima, CFP®, a senior research analyst at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "There are many ways to save money, and none of them make the experiences any less special."
Here are five ways to help keep travel costs down.
1. Go off-peak
You could save a lot of money if you can travel when others (like families on a school calendar) cannot. The prices of not just airplane tickets but also hotels and rental cars vary significantly based on demand. Think weekdays versus busy weekends.
If you want to be really contrarian, go to a summer resort destination in the fall, or head to a ski mountain to go hiking in the summer.
2. Buy early
Planning a trip can be fun on its own—and if you're thoughtful, you can also save money in the process.
Although you'll have a greater selection when airlines first publish fares, the price tends to fall in the months leading up to departure. A 2023 survey by CheapAir.com found that flyers get the best ticket prices around one and a half months ahead of their travel date but no more than five and a half months prior (even booking nearly a year in advance was more costly). But don't wait too long: Airfares also tend to climb fast in the weeks right before departure.
3. Be adventurous
A number of travel websites offer discounts, exclusive packages, or low fares and may even notify you when these specials are available only for a limited time. If you're open for an adventure and not set on a specific destination, take advantage of these deals to help plan your next trip.
If you favor experiences over expensive indulgences, you may come away with a more memorable vacation, Chris says. For example, camping in a beautiful park may cost less than a hotel in ho-hum surroundings.
The travel industry likes to market luxury, but good company can make any meal or outing more fun—no matter how much you spend. Your vacation doesn't have to be the occasion for your most expensive meal of the year.
4. Mind the fees and costs
The revenue airlines collect for flying you from point A to point B has quadrupled over the past decade. Ancillary revenue—including fees for baggage, extra legroom, onboard food and beverage sales, boarding early, and other niceties—earned U.S. and Canadian airlines more than $39 billion in 2022. Minimizing those charges can save a lot. Review the fine print, and if you travel frequently, it may be worthwhile to use a travel-focused credit card that covers first-bag fees or offers other perks.
Similarly, be mindful at the rental car counter about selecting add-ons—ranging from satellite radio to enhanced roadside assistance—that you don't need. Opting for rental car insurance, especially, may be redundant if your credit card or auto policy already provides it.
If you need to withdraw cash during your trip, try to find an ATM owned by your bank. Non-bank ATM fees can add up when you're in an unfamiliar territory, so check if your bank has a policy for refunding such fees.
And even before you leave, be sure to research different attractions or events you want to enjoy on your journey. Many cities offer free access to museums, parks, or walking tours. Or you may be able to pay a lower price by purchasing tickets or passes in advance. Also, depending on the length of your stay, popular tourist destinations may have package deals for various attractions that can save you money.
5. Be flexible
Keeping your options open and doing a little extra legwork can help keep your travel budget low. For example, you might be able to cut costs by booking accommodations in the next town over from your destination or flying at a less convenient time.
If you're planning to spend more than a couple of days in one location or traveling with family or a large group, renting an apartment or vacation home can be more affordable—and practical—than staying at a hotel. Because you'll have access to a kitchen, you can save quite a few dollars buying groceries and cooking for yourself instead of eating out for every meal. Sometimes, "living like a local" can help save money and make your vacation more interesting.
Finally, don't fall into the trap of feeling like everything has to be perfect—no matter the expense—when you go on vacation. Travel experiences tend to get better in retrospect. "When you look back on a trip, the less-than-perfect parts will fade away, and the good stuff will be what everyone remembers," Chris says.
A cost-conscious travel companion
The Schwab Bank Visa® Platinum Debit Card (available with a Schwab Bank Investor Checking™ account linked to a Schwab One® Brokerage Account*) provides a wealth of benefits, including many that are helpful when traveling:
- All ATM fees you incur are rebated on a monthly basis.†
- The card's travel benefits include Fraud Protection for Unauthorized Transfers or Purchases, Travel Accident Insurance, and Travel and Emergency Assistance Services.
- It's accepted at millions of merchant outlets and ATMs in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.1
- And if you travel abroad, you pay no foreign-exchange transaction fees for purchases made with your debit card.‡
1Visa Inc., as of 09/30/2021
*Schwab Bank Investor Checking accounts are available only as linked accounts with a Schwab One® brokerage account. The Schwab One brokerage account has no minimum balance requirements, minimum balance charges, or minimum trade requirements, and there is no requirement to fund this account when opened with a linked Schwab Bank Investor Checking account.
†Unlimited ATM surcharge rebates apply to cash withdrawals using your Schwab Bank Visa® Platinum Debit Card wherever it is accepted. ATM surcharge rebates do not apply to any fees other than those assessed for using an ATM to withdraw cash in local currency from your Schwab Bank account. Schwab Bank makes its best effort to identify those ATM surcharges eligible for rebate, based on information it receives from Visa and ATM operators. In the event that you have not received a rebate for a fee that you believe is eligible, please call a Schwab Bank Client Service Specialist for assistance at 1-888-403-9000 (or for clients of independent investment advisors, a Schwab Alliance Service team Member at 1-800-515-2157). Schwab Bank reserves the right to modify or discontinue the ATM surcharge rebate at any time.
‡If you use your card to withdraw foreign currency from an ATM or to pay for a purchase with foreign currency, Schwab Bank charges your account for the U.S. dollar equivalent of the transaction. Depending on the specific arrangements that are in place, the exchange rate will be determined by the bank at which you conduct the transaction, the network to which the ATM belongs, or Visa.
Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. and Charles Schwab Bank, SSB are separate but affiliated companies and subsidiaries of The Charles Schwab Corporation. Brokerage products, including the Schwab One brokerage account, are offered by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., Member SIPC. Deposit and lending products, including the Investor Checking account, are offered by Charles Schwab Bank, SSB, Member FDIC and an Equal Housing Lender.
The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.
All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.
Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.
All corporate names shown above are for illustrative purposes only and are not a recommendation, offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security.
The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.0323-32C7