Mrs. Frugalwoods shares how she and Mr. Frugalwoods travel big without spending big.
Despite our extremely frugal lifestyle, my husband and I travel quite often. We’ve discovered that, like most things in life, there’s a way to frugalize travel. And we’re not diehard travel hackers, either: We don’t use a million credit cards or only visit destinations where we can redeem rewards. Rather, we employ our own unique brand of frugal travel secrets.
Be Flexible on Location
Since plane tickets are often the priciest part of any trip, we’re big on location flexibility. Unless we absolutely must go to a particular destination to visit family or attend a wedding, we don’t base our travel around a specific destination. Rather, we’ll decide on a general region or type of vacation. Then, we search for flights to airports that fit these guidelines.
One year, for example, we decided to go to Eastern Europe and searched flights to every major city in the region. Based on these loose parameters, we found supremely cheap flights to Krakow, Poland. Another time, we wanted a tropical beach vacation and found airfare deals to the Riviera Maya in Mexico. Since we’re looking for a general type of experience and not beholden to specific destinations, we’re typically able to save tons of money on that first travel hurdle.
In addition to saving money, we’ve also found this approach often yields more interesting off-the-beaten-path destinations that are less infested with tourists. While we’ve enjoyed visiting hyper-popular locations such as Rome, Madrid, Vienna, Tokyo, and Paris, our favorite trips have been to smaller, lesser-known sites—such as Greenwich, England, and Zagreb, Croatia. We find that smaller cities are easier to navigate by foot, offer less-expensive restaurants, and have a cozier feel.
Utilize Alternate Forms of Transit
To accommodate multiple-destination trips, we opt for cheaper on-the-ground transit options. Often, train travel between contiguous countries or cities is much less expensive than flying. When we went to England a few years ago, we then took the Chunnel train to France for a fraction of the cost of airfare.
Another time, we took an overnight train from Krakow, Poland, to Bratislava, Slovakia. This was ideal because we both traveled to a new destination and didn’t have to pay for one night’s hotel. Our private sleeper car was outfitted with bunk beds, a sink, and a closet, which worked just fine for the two of us.
Eat Like the Locals
Since eating three meals a day at restaurants for the duration of a vacation gets very pricey very fast, we try our best to eat like locals. We scope out a grocery store close to our hotel and stock up on breakfast and lunch foods. If we have a refrigerator in our hotel room, we have more options. But if not, there are plenty of shelf-stable items to choose from. Often, we’ll buy groceries each morning for that day: bread, cheese, and cured meats. This supplies us with plenty to snack on throughout the day and keeps us out of restaurants. Sometimes we’ll extend our grocery store picnic to cover dinner as well, other times, we’ll choose a restaurant.
What we’ve found with restaurants is that guidebooks are often wrong, typically recommending overpriced touristy destinations with subpar food. We prefer the stroll-and-observe approach. We’ll find a neighborhood that’s not packed with must-see destinations and start looking through restaurant windows and reading menus. For example, we don’t try to find a restaurant within a few blocks of, say, the Louvre in Paris. Instead, we choose places locals frequent with menus that aren’t translated into English. It’s true that we often aren’t entirely certain what we’re ordering, but in the spirit of adventure, the food is usually absolutely delicious. One of our best meals in Poland was in what looked like little more than a factory cafeteria. But it was bustling with locals, the menu was entirely in Polish, and the food was outstanding and super cheap.
Scout Out Free Days
Nearly all museums and tourist destinations offer a free or cheap day once a week or month. We peruse our guidebook ahead of time and note the days and times that are free to the public. As a side benefit, this also helps us hone our itinerary. We don’t like to jam pack every day with sightseeing, and we never try to see every notable sight on a trip. By focusing on what genuinely interests us and the places that offer waived admission, we enjoy a more relaxed travel pace.
Use Your Feet
No contest, our favorite way to explore a new city is on foot. Not only is this the thriftiest mode of transit, it’s also the most interesting. Walking through a new city lets us absorb the culture, vibe, and architecture from a local’s vantage point. We’re not in a tour bus trying desperately to cram in all the sights, we’re meandering down side streets and popping into shops that catch our fancy. Since we aren’t spending much money on our meals, we’ll usually stop for coffee in a quaint coffee shop in the mornings and for a glass or wine or stein of beer in the late afternoon.
We’ve walked the entire length of most cities we’ve visited, which provides many opportunities for spontaneity—not to mention free entertainment. In Belgium, while walking down a somewhat deserted side street far from the tourist centers, we happened upon a chocolate-making factory that offered free tours. In Amsterdam, we traversed canal after canal and wended our way into a mostly residential area where we saw local families going about their daily routines. In Slovakia, we found a wine and culture festival with cheap mulled wines and sausages, plus a stage featuring local dancing and singing.
We always take a paper map with us—since our phone maps sometimes don’t work well—so we never feel lost. Most of our wandering is done during daylight hours. This walking approach also allows us to blend into our surroundings. We don’t carry a huge travel backpack or wear clothing that screams tourist—we dress and act as the locals do, to the best of our abilities. I usually carry just a small purse and my husband takes a messenger bag to tote our snacks, bottles of water, and maps. Although I’m sure we still stand out, we’ve been asked for directions on more than one occasion by folks who assumed we were residents.
Make Your Own Experience
The central theme of our frugal travel strategy is to make trips our own. We don’t hew to what guidebooks tout as the “must see” and “must do” attractions. We don’t always go to the cities everyone else does. And we often don’t eat in the restaurants other tourists patronize. Our goal in traveling is to experience the world and learn about other cultures. We’ve found it’s often not terribly expensive to do this and it also doesn’t require backbreaking itineraries. Walking through a city, taking in the sights, shopping in local grocery stores, and enjoying ourselves allows us to create trips that are both relaxing and educational.
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