By Connie Golding
My dream in life is to travel the world.
Unfortunately, those jobs are few and the demand is high—so I have to be more realistic for now and try budget-conscious travel with a full-time job. I currently have an awesome job: I work for a historic nonprofit that has great benefits and pays well. I really do love my work, the only drawback being that it doesn’t offer more travel time. That’s why, over the last two years, I have had to figure out a way to become a savvy jetsetter while maintaining a full-time job. And since I’m still starting in my industry, I needed to find a way to become a budget traveler.
I am proud to say that I’ve found a healthy balance that allows me the opportunity to travel to new places while staying on budget and not getting myself fired—and below are a few things to keep in mind for those of you in the same boat!
Know Your Office Policies
This rule really only applies to those of you with a full-time job including paid vacation. If you work part-time or you don’t have built-in vacation time, you can take off as long as your supervisor allows—unfortunately, though, it means you won’t be paid to go on vacation.
If you do have vacation leave, it’s very important to understand your employer’s policies. Some offices provide a set amount of days each fiscal year to use toward sick leave, personal time, and vacation. Other companies give time off, but you need to accrue it throughout the year. My organization has a great policy: we accrue our vacation time and the longer we work, the more annual leave we get each year. We also have a separate amount of sick time, vacation leave, and personal time, rather than one “general leave” policy.
Be certain that you understand your time off policies, as that’s the key to ensuring you can take a vacation while still receiving your regular paycheck. If you have not yet started working, or are looking for a new job but still want to take an awesome vacation or two (or three, or more) each year, check out your prospective employer’s policies before accepting any position. It will make you a happier person in the end.
Friend the Travel Companies
Social media needs to become your best friend! Use Twitter and Facebook and follow all the major travel companies, such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Hotwire. This way, you can stay up-to-date on the most current deals available.
Look up any hotels and attractions you might be considering—they might have a social networking page of their own. They may offer special deals for liking their page, or they could even post occasional coupons for their followers—this has paid off many times for me. While in Miami, we got free drinks for liking a hotel’s Facebook page and while in Charlotte I even got a free dinner! So next time you are “stalking” a friend, stalk your future trip’s hotspots as well to save a little money.
This goes along with social media, but if a travel company, airline, or hotel has a listserv, sign up! If you really get annoyed with the never-ending emails, you can filter them into a special folder that you only check when you’re getting ready to look for your next travel destination.
Listservs for airlines are especially helpful. American Airlines has an awesome email they send out once a week telling you about that week’s (and the next weeks’) current domestic and international travel specials. It’s a great tool to utilize when you want to take a long weekend but can’t figure you where to go.
Hilton Hotels is also a great listserv—they are constantly sending out offers and emails about specials for their hotels. And let’s all face it; Hilton Hotels are nice.
Create a Schedule and Budget
I cannot emphasize this enough. Many people trying to travel on a budget find cheap airlines and hotels and thus think they’re done. No! You need to figure out how much every day you are going to spend on food, what you’re willing to spend on an attraction or museum, and what is realistic to spend on transportation.
When you are making a budget, you cannot simply put estimated numbers on a piece of paper. You’ll need to go online, find the things you are interested in doing, and then write down how much they cost. I’m not saying you need to plan out every moment of every day; however, having a broad idea of where you want to go and what you want to see will go a long way in figuring out what you are going to spend.
I highly suggest going to a city’s tourism bureau website. Almost all major cities have one, and usually include all the information you need about transportation and costs, things to do in the city (including the free stuff!) and insider information on what’s going on while you are there.
For restaurants, I think it is safe to budget about $20 per meal when you are going to a U.S. or European city. You may not spend all of that $20, but that way you have a little extra for a special treat or night out at a bar.
Finally, always remember to budget a few extra dollars. If you don’t spend it, great—but you may come across a Venetian mask shop on the Île de la Cité in Paris that makes your mouth water, and then that extra cash flow will come in handy!
Once you have a budget, you need to find the money to obey that budget. That is where self-restraint comes in. When you plan a trip that you’re trying to do on the cheap, you need to make sacrifices in your everyday life. Of course you don’t need to completely stop going out or starve yourself out of groceries—but do you really need to buy that dress, or get a dessert if it’s offered at that restaurant?
Every time you’re about to buy something that’s unnecessary or even frivolous, think of your upcoming trip. Would you rather have a second cocktail at a restaurant in your hometown, or save that money to have a drink in Milan? Is that scarf really necessary, or wouldn’t you rather buy a scarf in the grand bazaar of Istanbul?
This section is not meant to insult anyone’s intelligence for its obvious straightforwardness, but you would be surprised how much people forget about their trip until it’s time to go. Always keep your vacation in the back of your mind—and then when it is time to travel, your wallet will be a little heavier with Euros!
Deviate from the Crowds
While it may be tempting to take a vacation in the summer when the whole office is gone, it will also cost you more. The best time to travel is during the off-season. If you take a vacation in the winter or early spring, you have many perks—one being availability. Hotels and airlines are usually hurting from low tourist turnout at that point, so you can get great deals during the off season. Another perk is that the crowds are significantly smaller. A visit to the Musee D’Orsay is not going to be packed with high school and college kids in November or February, so you can actually get a good look at the van Goghs.
I know many people don’t like to travel during the off-season because of the weather—and that’s fine! If you don’t want to put up with a little bit colder weather, then try for the spring or early summer, but be prepared to pay more. As for me, I just don a cute beret and pretend I’m in a Tolstoy novel (a happy one, if that exists).
Start a Travel Blog!
Okay, so this is a little tricky and takes preparation. But if you have a legitimate travel blog with a good chunk of followers, maybe some advertisers, and posts on a regular basis, this can be your best friend. Why? Because when you travel you can make up some basic business cards for cheap at Kinkos, and give them to all the restaurants, hotels and attractions you visit. Tell the staff about your blog, and have some simple statistics (like site traffic, subscribers, and so on) and then watch what happens. Some places may just smile and say that’s nice. But many people, especially the smaller restaurants and locations, will bump up their service for you and even give you free things.
I have a friend with a pretty grand following on her blog, and whenever we go out she gets free desserts and drinks as well as top service because the businesses don’t want her to write about their poor food or service. Now, I am definitely not saying to threaten the company you are visiting! Just be polite, explain who you are, give them your card, and tell them you want to write about their establishment.
If you can do all this, you may get an awesome perk that helps keep the costs of your trip down—not to mention you will have the next few entries for your readers.