11 of the Best Cheap Vacation Ideas for Traveling on a Budget

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A few years ago my husband and I decided we wanted to take a dream trip before we had kids. The only issue was that we didn’t have a “dream” amount of money for this vacation.

Instead of putting it off and waiting to take our trip until our future kids had their own kids, we planned our trip around budget-friendly vacation destinations. We talked to friends, read blogs, and ended up with an exhaustive list of the best cheap vacation ideas that would stretch our thin budget as far as possible.

After much deliberation, we finally decided on two weeks in Bali, Indonesia. It was exactly what we pictured and at a price point we could afford. Now, whenever we think about getting away, we don’t underestimate the value of a cheap vacation destination.

11 Ideas for Going on a Cheap(er) Vacation

Deciding where to spend your hard-earned dollars and how to use those coveted vacation days is no light matter. You want to make the best use of your time and money while having fun and experiencing new things.

When coming up with your own list of cheap vacation ideas, decide whether you want to take one big vacation or a few smaller ones. This will greatly impact when and where you travel.

European and U.S. destinations are typically the most expensive places to travel while Asian countries are some of the cheapest in the world. And flight costs have the biggest effect on a travel budget.

If you want to take multiple smaller trips, focus on staying closer to home and coordinating around events that will provide free activities or save you money in some other way.

In the end, don’t let a few big numbers scare you. There are ways you can save money in places you don’t care about so you can splurge in the areas you value and get a great vacation on any budget.

1. Travel regionally

If you’re down for a short road trip, find a major city or tourist destination nearby and visit it. Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are good mid-Atlantic destinations, and New England has great beaches in the summer.

To stay in budget, try a weekend trip within two hours of where you live. Use the website, Cost 2 Drive, to help you estimate gas prices for any route, including multiple destinations, for your vehicle’s make and model.

You can find free events and festivals on Facebook or the city’s tourism website to plan your trip around. Pack lunches for your drive and opt to eat at happy hour when you go out.

Related: How to Find The Cheapest Gas Nearby (When You’re On the Go)

2. Tour a nearby city

Be a tourist, then be back home in time for dinner. Choose a city to take a day trip to and explore what it has to offer. It’ll give you an excuse to visit museums, restaurants, and attractions you wouldn’t normally see.

A ghost tour is a fun way to see a city without the price tag of traditional city tours. You can also watch a show at a local theater. This is a great opportunity to get away without the stress of travel days or feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation.

3. Visit a national park

When talking about cheap vacations, you can’t forget national parks. Most of the nation’s 417 national parks are free to enter, including the National Parks of New York Harbor and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

Nature lovers who want to visit one of the 118 parks that do charge admission can mark their calendars for the five days each year those parks waive their entrance fees.

If you’re a current U.S. military member or dependent of one, in 4th grade, or a citizen with a permanent disability, you qualify for a free annual parks pass. You can also get one by volunteering 250 hours with a federal agency. That’s less than 21 hours of volunteering per month to get free access to every national park for a year.

If you can’t swing a free pass, don’t worry. Entrance is about the cost of a movie ticket at $15-$30 per vehicle.

4. Travel during the off-season

You’ll not only avoid crowds when traveling during the off-season, but you’ll also save a lot of money and be able to visit destinations you otherwise couldn’t afford.

Planning your trip in off-peak or “shoulder” season can save you money on flights, accommodations, admission fees, and more. You may even find specials at restaurants and on activities that aren’t easily available during peak tourist months.

Some attractions are closed in the off-season and inclement weather may be a possibility, depending on the location. If you’re prepared for a few inconveniences, you can still plan a great itinerary.

5. Find lesser-known destinations

For destinations out of your price range, search for comparable attractions in cheap places to travel. You can potentially put your dream trip within your budget if you’re willing to go to a less popular beach or anywhere generally less well-known.

Some surprising examples are Mobile, Alabama, home to the world’s oldest Mardi Gras. The Kansas Cosmosphere has the second-largest space artifacts collection in the U.S. and at more than 4,000 years old, America’s Stonehenge is most likely the oldest man-made structure in the country.

6. Go camping

Camping is the ultimate in cheap vacation ideas, with nightly fees in national parks as low as $15 per night. Pitch a tent on a small plot of land, cook your own food over an open flame, and enjoy the free entertainment nature provides.

If none of that sounds exciting to you, you can still have fun and inexpensive camping vacations sans the sleeping bags and tents. Rent an RV or travel trailer if your vehicle will tow one or stay in a cabin or cottage on a campground.

7. Use daily deals sites for discounted trips

Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial make international travel packages more affordable. You can find thousands of travel packages including flights, hotels, meals, and tours for a fraction of the cost available from an agent or by piecing them together yourself.

If you just need a deal on a hotel, flight, train, or hotel stay, check out popular travel sites. These websites aggregate cheap travel deals to help make the individual parts of your trip more affordable.

Be sure to compare prices across several sites and factor in taxes and fees when booking through them.

 

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India is way more than just the Taj Mahal. But, wow, isn’t the Taj Mahal something special?

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8. Take advantage of sales and last-minute deals

Sign up for newsletters from your favorite travel providers or destinations to be notified of all their sales. They’ll also share sales and promotions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, so follow them on the social media platform you use most frequently.

If you have the flexibility to travel last minute, that’s the best way to save on tours and cruises. At sites like Orbitz and Last Minute Travel, you can find cheap travel deals on not just cruises but also hotels, flights, attractions, and other cheap vacations. Scott’s Cheap Flights is one of the best newsletters for finding discounted airfare for international flights.

9. Book vacation packages

Members at wholesale clubs like Sam’s Club, Costco, and BJ’s have access to exclusive deals on travel packages. For the rest of us, Travelocity and Groupon are great places to find affordable vacation packages.

When booking vacation packages that include hotel stays, look at how far the location of the hotels are from the attractions you want to visit. If one package requires you to take a taxi into town every day, you could save money overall by spending a little more upfront on a package with hotels closer to the city center.

 

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We now have travel packages to places you really want to go… at amazing prices. #notyourinlaws

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10. Travel mid-week

If you can get the time off from work and school, rates on flights and rooms are generally cheaper mid-week, specifically Tuesdays and Wednesdays, than on the weekend.

You’ll also avoid crowds and get through lines quicker. And if you want to get spa services, there’s much better availability mid-week.

11. Take a staycation

You don’t have to leave your house to relax and unwind with one of the best cheap vacation ideas: a staycation. Since you’re staying close to home, do things that make you feel like a tourist. Most of us have museums in our city that we’ve never explored. Many offer discounts to locals, so your trip will be cheaper than if you were a tourist.

Some staycation ideas include riding your bike to a museum, reading a good book from your local library, and enjoying your backyard with a fire pit or slip-n-slide. And don’t forget to enjoy a midday nap in your own bed.

Other Ideas for Reducing the Total Cost

Go above and beyond by finding extra ways to optimize your savings. Here are small changes you can make to your itinerary or expenses that make a big impact on how much the trip costs.

Use cashback sites for extra savings

When you book flights, hotels, and travel packages online you can use sites like Rakuten and TopCashback to get 1 to 5% cashback on your purchase. These sites often run double cash-back promotions where you can save even on your travel costs.

Related: How Does Rakuten Compare to Other Cash-Back Websites?

Buy discounted gift cards

Use Raise to find discounted gift cards for airlines, hotel chains, travel companies, and more. You can save 1 to 5% off the retail value of gift cards and still combine your purchase with a cashback website and sales or discounts.

Related: How to Get Discounted Gift Cards with Raise

Consider bringing family and friends and split costs

Traveling with friends and family can take a little extra coordination of schedules, but it’s worth it for how much money you can save. You can take some cheap trips by splitting the cost of lodging, groceries, transportation, and even some attractions.

If spending your entire vacation with family or friends doesn’t sound appealing, you don’t have to spend all your time with them. You can travel and stay together, do your own thing during the day, and still benefit from the lowered costs.

 

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Shack up with someone you know

Check with friends and family who live in cities you want to visit and see if you can stay with them. Be respectful of their time and chip in for groceries and cooking.

Even if you don’t stay for your entire trip, a few days can save you hundreds of dollars on your vacation. And your friends can be great local tour guides, showing you fantastic cheap places to travel you would’ve never considered.

Try housesitting

Whether you want a quick trip or are interested in slower, long-term travel, house sitting is a popular travel job and a good way to save money on accommodations. People like Amy and Tim Rutherford from GoWithLess house sit for free and have been able to stay all over the world without worrying about hotel costs.

House sitting typically entails taking care of pets, plants, and keeping the pipes warm while homeowners are out of town. It’s a way to get a free place to stay, but it’s also a job you’ll need to take seriously.

You can offer your services and find homes in need of sitting on websites like Nomador.com, TrustedHousesitters.com, and MindMyHouse.com for a small annual fee. House sitting jobs in attractive houses and locales go fast, so if you see one you’re interested in, contact the owners as soon as possible.

 

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Stay at a private rental

Avoid expensive hotels and resorts while still getting the luxury of a full kitchen and multiple bedrooms by staying at a private rental. You can find affordable rooms, condos, apartments, and single-family houses on Airbnb, VRBO, and FlipKey.

If you’re looking for a truly hosted experience where you stay in someone’s home as a guest, try Homestay.com. You’ll get the feeling of staying with family and friends at a very budget-friendly price.

Related: 12 Cheap Vacation Rental Websites to Save Money on All Your Travels

Cash in travel rewards

A good travel rewards credit card can get you free hotel stays, flights, travel insurance, and cashback on your purchases. When choosing the right card for you, start with a general travel rewards card where points can be transferred to a number of travel partners. This way you can get a feel for the brands you like and potentially move on to cards specific to those brands.

Some credit cards with flexible rewards points are the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, Capital One Venture Rewards card, and the Discover It Miles card. Each of these allow you to transfer points and miles to several airline and hotel chains based on your preferences.

If you choose to use travel rewards credit cards to earn points and miles, be sure to pay off the balance every month. Paying interest fees negates any savings these cards offer and adds unnecessary stress to your vacation.

Start with a Budget and Go From There

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, how you’re getting there, and where you’re staying, it’s time to make your travel budget.

1. Identify your big-ticket items and necessary costs. If you’re flying internationally, that may be your flight or travel package. For smaller trips, that may be lodging or major attraction tickets. Find out smaller costs you might easily forget like your visa, passport, or vaccinations.

2. Use guidebooks to estimate food and attraction costs. Lonely Planet guidebooks and wikitravel.com can show you the cost of living wherever you’re traveling to. Numbeo can also show you the average costs of food and drinks.

3. Break the total down into a monthly savings goal. Once you’ve made a total based on the length of your trip and the things you want to do, set up automatic savings transfers based on when payments on your trip are due.

If your monthly savings goal is still a little high, find things to sell, start a side hustle, or give up eating at restaurants for a short period. The short-term sacrifices will be worth all the stories you’ll bring back from wherever you go.

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to have a luxurious or fun vacation. There are thousands of cheap vacation ideas to make your dream trip a reality on any budget.

Author
Jen Smith

Hi, I'm Jen! As a best selling author on Amazon writing about minimalism, spending less, and making more money, my work has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo Finance, Money Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2017 my husband and I finished paying off $78,000 of debt and that's what I help others do here.

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