Spending

7 top tips for saving money on travel, from someone who's visited every country in the world

"Taking public transportation is going to be a lot cheaper."

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Jessica Nabongo in Kyrgyzstan.
Photo courtesy Elton Anderson

After a year of staying home, Americans are starting to get back into the swing of travel. The Centers for Disease Control recently cleared fully vaccinated people to travel, as long as they continue to wear a mask and take other precautions. And with the current prevalence of affordable airfare and accommodations, many eager vacationers are gearing up to book their next trip.

But pent-up excitement (and savings) shouldn't push you to spend "beyond your means," says Jessica Nabongo, the first documented Black woman to visit all 195 U.N. member states, who has traveled to 89 countries solo. "You need to be responsible."

Here are seven of Nabongo's best tips for cutting travel costs without missing out on any of the excitement of that first big post-pandemic trip.

1. Sign up for flight discount newsletters

Newsletters are a low-effort way to get deals on flights sent right to your inbox. "I use SecretFlying.com, TheFlightDeal.com, and AirfareSpot.com," Nabongo says. "That's like my New York Times. I read them every day."

Since they highlight specific routes and dates that are especially affordable, newsletters are best for those who don't have a particular destination in mind, Nabongo says. For example, American Airlines is offering $88 roundtrips between Dallas and New York City, according to The Flight Deal.

If you do need to fly to a specific city, you can use deal-finder sites and apps like Airfare Watchdog or Hopper. They monitor fares for your preferred route and send you an email or notification when prices drop.

2. Check third-party hotel sites

If you're planning to book a hotel room, don't head straight to the hotel's website, Nabongo says. Third-party hotel booking platforms often offer lower rates than you can get if you book directly.

Nabongo's favorite booking site is Hotels.com, whose point system allows travelers to redeem rewards across hotel brands. For example, if you earned points for staying at a Marriott, you could later redeem them for a stay at a Hilton.

"It allows you to earn rewards, but still have a larger variety of choice," Nabongo says. "And every 10 nights you book, you get a free night."

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3. Get a travel-friendly credit card

"I recommend getting travel credit cards," Nabongo says. "Your everyday spending ends up going toward your travel budget."

While Nabongo's favorites are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Delta Platinum cards, there are plenty of good options across a number of airlines and hotel companies. Travelers should try to get a card that covers flight delay coverage, trip cancellation insurance, and rental car coverage, says Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy.

Ewen's top card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. It has a $95 annual fee but offers all his suggested protections and has no foreign transaction fees. Plus, it offers a wide variety of options for redeeming points.

"You can use your points to book travel directly through Chase, but you can get even more value by transferring your points to over a dozen airline and hotel partners," he says.

4. Skip the currency exchange and hit the ATM

"If you are in a different country, I recommend using an ATM, because you get a better exchange rate than at a currency exchange place," Nabongo says.

While you'll likely still be charged an ATM fee, some checking accounts reimburse customers for foreign transaction fees. Nabongo has a fee-free account with Charles Schwab. "Even if that ATM charges me a fee, at the end of every month, Charles Schwab will give me all those ATM fees I've paid," she says.

If you are in a different country, I recommend using an ATM, because you get a better exchange rate than at a currency exchange place.
Jessica Nabongo
travel expert

5. Take public transportation

With ride-hailing services spreading across the globe, it's often easier to call a car than puzzle through a subway map. But "taking public transportation is going to be a lot cheaper," Nabongo says.

If you're visiting a destination for more than a few days, she says, it's smart to get a multiday pass, versus paying for each individual ride. For example, a seven-day subway pass in New York City is $33, which might not seem worth it for a four-day visit. But with a single ride priced at $2.75, it could save you money if you plan to take the subway more than 12 times during your trip.

6. Ditch the resort

This year might not be the best time to book a resort vacation, warns Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com. "Resort charges are still in full effect, even though a lot of things they used to say are covered by resort fees aren't even open," she told Grow. That could include pools, gyms, and other group amenities that are still shuttered due to Covid concerns.

The mandatory fees can run $20 or more per night — a hefty price tag for services you can't even use.

Aside from the fees, Nabongo says resorts are often a subpar experience, given their cost. "I personally don't like all-inclusive resorts," she says. "They are serving you bottom-shelf liquor, and the food isn't great."

7. Avoid popular tourist restaurants

While traveling domestically, the average American spends $33 per day on food, according to Value Penguin. That average goes up to $35 for international travelers. Throw in alcohol and expenses can add up quickly.

Instead of visiting a restaurant that makes other tourists' "best of" lists, Nabongo asks the locals where to eat.

Resort charges are still in full effect, even though a lot of things they used to say are covered by resort fees aren't even open.
Pauline Frommer
editorial director of Frommers.com

"I'm a big believer in talking to people on the street," she says. "If I'm at a market or restaurant at a bar, I'll ask the person working, 'Where do you eat?' Not 'where do you recommend I eat?' but, 'Where do you eat?"

Locals will rarely steer you to the most popular or most expensive restaurant in town, Nabongo says. They might even point you to delicious street food — a good way to save money, especially if your stomach is "coated with positive energy," as she says hers is.

"It's not going to be anything fancy," she says, "but it's definitely going to give you that local experience."

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