Before I started travelling regularly I thought travel was expensive. Turns out that it can be cheaper to travel than to stay home! But we usually have to compromise, so here are ways to save money on travel before you leave home.
Learn the Frequent Flyer Game
If a friend of mine didn’t pull me into the frequent flyer game many years ago, I honestly don’t think I would have travelled anywhere near as much as I have. It took months of him nagging me to take a look before I finally did though. I mean, I’m a big believer in “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”.
Using frequent flyer points to book your next flight sounds simple from the outside! Get a credit card, earn some points, and use them on your flight. How hard could it be?
Well, there is a reason I called this a “game”. Remember, the airlines wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t winning in the long run. In fact, the Qantas loyalty program is the most profitable part of their whole business – and many other airlines are likely the same.
But, like other games, if you learn the rules, put in the practice needed, and work hard, you will see some incredible results at the end.
I have used my frequent flyer points for some flights I never imagined I could take.
The first time was back when I was planning to take my family of four to Thailand for my eldest daughter’s 18th. I had two years to plan and save for the trip, but this was when I discovered I could start putting all those school fees to use by paying for them with a credit card and earning points.
In the end, I was able to take our family on a trip to London, Dubai, Thailand & Hong Kong for less that I would have paid for those tickets just to Thailand.
Since then I have flown long haul business class multiple times – and those lay-flat seats are totally worth it – and once flew Singapore Suites, an amazing first-class experience, all on points.
Collecting the points is only half the game though. I’ve had many people say to me that they have thousands of points but they don’t know how to use them. They can’t find flights or don’t realise there is a difference between rewards flights and points + pay flights. They haven’t considered partner airlines, or topping up their points balance by purchasing points.
So always remember to learn how to spend the points as well as earn them.
You also need to be flexible, because the rules are forever changing. You need to plan months ahead – sometimes booking flights as soon as they are released, almost a year before you fly.
I learned most of what I know from the “tool” my friend put me onto all those years ago, the Australian Frequent Flyer forums and website. This is for Australians (obviously!) but if you are in the US or elsewhere, there is a similar US forum called Flyer Talk.
And the “secret” tip I was given that made all the difference – get involved! The best tips are not found online but come by word of mouth once you meet people at events or in lounges along the way.
It’s a lot of work with many moving parts, and certainly not a “quick win” situation, but if you are in it for the long haul (pun intended) then the rewards can be amazing.
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Don’t Forget Hotel Loyalty Schemes
Hotel loyalty schemes often go hand in hand with frequent flyer programs, but there are some differences as well.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is the loyalty programs offered by big-name hotel chains, like Hilton Honors or IHG One Rewards.
These work in a similar way to the airline programs, with stays earning points. Once certain benchmarks are reached, then benefits come your way as well as the points, such as club lounge access or guaranteed room upgrades. The points can also be used to purchase free nights.
While I do still use these programs, I do find it difficult to maintain those higher benefits. Instead, I take up offers as the programs try to entice new members, then take advantage of them as much as I can in a short amount of time.
For example, IHG One Rewards offered complimentary Diamond Elite membership for three months, with only a few nights stay to retain it for another twelve months. One of the benefits is free breakfast, which we have taken advantage of.
These programs can be useful even if you aren’t in one of the higher award tiers. They usually have points for sale so you can top up your points balance to earn those free nights. Occasionally they have special offers, like to 100% bonus points offer I took advantage of last year.
When booking our accommodation for South America, I saw the bonus offer and was able to purchase enough points for 10 nights in various IHG hotels in Chile and Argentina for $500USD – which worked out to be around $75AUD a night. Since one of the hotels was an Intercontinental, this was a great deal, especially since we got a room upgrade and free breakfast thanks to that free Diamond Elite status.
It’s not just the big hotel brands that offer loyalty bonuses, the booking platforms do too. Booking.com for example has its top Genius tier giving 10% off, and Hotels.com give you one night free after ten nights.
Even caravan and camping associations offer discounts and rewards for joining their programs, like Big4 or Discovery Parks here in Australia.
Use Cash Back Schemes
Every single dollar counts when it could be used for travel rather than going towards everyday purchases and there is a range of legitimate cash-back programs that can help you save.
The most popular in Australia is Cashrewards, but you can also use Shopback, Kickback or others. I use Cashrewards, so that is what my experience is based on.
Cashrewards have partnered with over 2000 retailers and when you shop with them online you can receive a percentage of the sale back. With so many retailers, there are sure to be some you use regularly.
My favourites include Booking.com, Virgin Australia, Uniqlo, Apple, and Amazon – but there are so many others, like Coles and Woolworths online, Myer, Viator, Expedia, Chemist Warehouse, Liquorland, Target, Best&Less and The Iconic, just to name a few. So you can save money on travel, and save money on other things which you can then put towards your spending money while on your trip.
Most of the standard rates of cashback are somewhere from 1-7%, but every day there are bonus cashback deals, sometimes up to 50% off – I’ve even seen some 100% deals. Often these limited deals last only for a day or even only a few hours, and the cashback tends to be capped, but if you can take advantage of them, you can get some great cash returns.
The idea here is to get these cash backs on your everyday spending. The easiest way I find is by installing their browser extension. Now whenever I go to a website for a company Cashrewards partners with I get a notification so I don’t miss any rewards. There is also an app available too for shopping from your phone.
Research Free and Cheap Activities
While there are always some big, expensive bucket list activities we want to splurge on while we travel, we can supplement them with free and cheap activities. You might actually be surprised what is available for free.
My favourite is always the free walking tours. They seem to be everywhere now where there is a large number of tourists. They are not actually free, but instead of paying upfront, you tip the guide at the end what you think the tour is worth.
Almost every one of these tours that I have done has been fantastic. The guides know they have to earn their tips, and they are engaging, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
The guides tend to be younger, perhaps university students doing these tours on the side, and they tend to be travellers themselves. This means they are a great source of local information, such as which restaurants and bars are best and which museums are worth visiting.
I always try to do the free walking tours as soon as possible after I arrive in a new location as I end up with so many new places I want to go to and see.
It’s not just standard walking tours – I’ve done a tips-based food tour too.
Look out for free days offered by even the biggest attractions. Museums in particular are good for this. There can also be a range of people who are given free access for various reasons, so read the fine print carefully.
The Louvre, for example, is free for everyone from 6 pm on the first Friday of the month (except in July & August). It is also free for art teachers, journalists, and job seekers amongst others.
Free performances are often available when travelling too. Think of free musical offerings, often held in churches and other venues by very good musicians. A good example is when visiting Salzburg, Austria, the home of Mozart. You can attend rehearsals at Mozartuem University where top students are practising for their paid performances later.
Take a look too at performance venues as they may have smaller “taster” performances to entice people to attend their paid events. Singapore’s Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay is a good example of this.
Plan How to Access Your Money
This is one I am still working on. I think I have it, then I get lazy and it all goes out the window. The key is to plan in advance and understand all the options.
I’ve talked about ways to get the best international currency before, so I won’t go into it too much here, but I will mention a few things that I skimmed over in that other post.
I said to get a fee-free debit card to use. This will need to be done well in advance because some of them require you to jump through a few hoops to qualify for the free transactions. For example, the ING card I use requires me to have transferred in at least $1000 and done five transactions in the month before I want to use it fee-free overseas.
Learn too which ATMs are likely to be fee-free. Even my ING card is not going to be refunding foreign ATM fees soon, so I will need to find out which ones charge the least or even are still free. If it’s a “per withdrawal” amount I will plan to take out larger amounts of cash each time rather than smaller transactions.
You will also need to ensure you have more than one source of getting cash. Imagine if you are travelling and your card is compromised. Your bank cancels it and says it will send you out another one. But what do you do in the meantime? If you have a plan for this scenario, then if something like this does happen, it won’t be so stressful.
Your options could be to have two separate debit cards and keep one stored at your accommodation in case of an emergency. You could carry a credit card (and I absolutely recommend you do and actually use that for everything except getting cash out because they are much more secure) and accept you will be charged if you need to take cash out. You could set up Western Union and have that as a backup for getting cash.
In Australia, Get an Entertanment Membership
There are likely schemes like this in other parts of the world (I know Dubai had one a few years ago too) but if you are travelling here in Australia and New Zealand, pick up an Entertainment Membership and save plenty off all sorts of things, from hotels and car rental, theme park tickets, restaurants, activities, gift cards, even at some grocery stores and online shops.
A Membership is not free though. There are some different prices available depending on the type of membership you buy and how long you want it for. You can get it for just one of the twenty cities/regions offered across the two countries or you can choose a membership that covers them all. Then you decide the time frame. Do you want the discounts for 3months, a year or two years?
Mostly the discounts work through an app, which is shown at retail locations and restaurants at the time of purchase. Other things give you a code to use, such as car rentals, and yet others required you to buy online from the Entertainment website, like gift cards.
Not only can you save hundreds of dollars quite easily, but you can also help support a local charity. Years ago this used to be the Entertainment Book, with physical coupons that were torn out and used. Back then, the only way you could get a book was from a local charity or school or sporting club that used them to fundraise.
Today, if you include the name of an organisation when you order, they will get 20% of the price of the book at no extra cost to you. This means you can support a local charity with your purchase too, and know you are helping out.
If you don’t know who to support, I would love it if you chose Breast Cancer Network Australia, which helped me after my cancer diagnosis and throughout treatment.
Now take these six ways to save money on travel, put them into practice, and get out there exploring the world for less.
Looking for more on budget travel? Try these posts
23 Fun Things to Do in Singapore on a Budget
Best Books for Budget Travellers
Free Things to Do in Sydney
TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS
Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs
Book accommodation – my go to is always Booking.com for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.
Hire a rental car – RentalCars.com is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.
Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.
Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.
Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.
Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.
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