How to Travel Cheaply

Eiffel Tower at night

As you know, I recently embarked on a 16-day adventure through Europe: 5 nights in Paris, 2 nights in Milan, 2 nights Rome and 5 nights London. Sounds expensive, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Here are my secrets on how I saved tons of money on this vacation!

1. Rewards programs. About a year in advance of the trip, I applied for a Marriott Rewards credit card (I pay off the balance each month and just accumulate points). The person I went to Europe with travels for work often and only stayed in Marriott hotels for a year. Between the two of us, our hotel stays were free for this trip. Even further, with Gold Status we got free breakfast every morning, and unlimited bottled water and snacks. Goes without saying that this was a huge money saver!
2. Fly round trip. I started scoping out flights months in advance, and what I noticed is that round trip flights to Europe were way cheaper than flying to one country and then home from another. So I booked a round trip to London, which only cost about $600 per person (including taxes and fees). The trip started in Paris, which meant getting on another (separately booked) flight from London to Paris once we arrived, but then I ended the trip in London for easy access going home.
3. Stay longer. If you are investing in a $600 flight to Europe, my strategy is to “see it now, while you are here” to get your money’s worth. The only catch to this? The longer you are away from home, the more money you spend on food and other expenses, so it’s all about finding a balance between the two. Overall I wouldn’t opt to fly to Paris for just two nights if you can help it though – might as well stay longer if you are spending the money to fly across the pond!
4. Visit less cities. Every city I added on to the trip added major expense. One-way flights and train rides between cities in Europe are often only about $100 per person, but they add up quickly. Looking back, I wish I would have just gone to three cities (versus four) on this trip to save even more money.  

Colosseum at night

5. Use public transit. Another huge money saver: we took public transportation, not only for sightseeing, but also to and from the airport. This means lugging your own suitcase up and down the stairs on the subway, fighting your way onto a crowded subway car, etc. but you will save hundreds of dollars this way. (I also kind of enjoy the challenge of navigating public transit so this part was fun for me!)
6. Stick to free stuff. Pretty much every historical attraction is free, but then they have optional fees. You can pay to go inside Westminster Abbey, the Colosseum, Nortre Dame, etc., and while all of those places are amazing, at the end of the day you will be spending hundreds of dollars if you pay at every single one of them. You can chose to explore a few of your favorites, but for the most part there are plenty free things to do, so paying is really unnecessary. In London, I recommend skipping the huge fees at Westminster Abbey and focusing on the totally free (!) museums throughout the city. In Italy, all churches are free to enter including my favorite thing ever (St. Peter’s Basilica). In Paris, the Louvre was worth the extra money, but I opted to tour only the free parts of Nortre Dame.
7. Don’t buy American. It’s tempting to buy things at H&M and other stores we have in the U.S. while traveling because there is an extra appeal in that “I got this in London!” Just don’t do it though. Because of the exchange rate you will be paying 50-60% more than what you would at home. Stick to the stuff you can’t buy in the U.S., especially when buying clothes!
8. Get a VAT refund. If you do some shopping in the U.K., save your receipts!.You can get a refund on taxes at the airport by showing them the item and the receipt. Look for signs when you get to the airport for the VAT refund office, and be sure to bring your items and the receipt with you to the office.

What are your tips for saving money on vacation?

Rome at night