If you want to stick to your budget and satisfy your wanderlust, try rethinking your travel style. Just because one type of trip is less expensive than what you're used to, it doesn't mean you're getting a sub-par experience -- you're just getting a different experience. Go out on a limb and try some cheaper ways to take a trip, like cruising, couch surfing or taking a day trip. You'll save money by choosing a less expensive vacation, and the best part is you may even discover a new favorite way to travel.
Go Couch Surfing
Couch surfing is an unconventional way to find cheap or even free accommodations in a destination by arranging to sleep on a local's couch (or sometimes in a spare bedroom, but we think "spare bedroom surfing" sounds less catchy). One of the most popular couch surfing networks is CouchSurfing.com, where citizens of the world meet and arrange couch stays with other travelers. Sleeping in the home of a stranger naturally raises issues of safety, but a good host will provide plenty of references. In addition, CouchSurfing.com has developed a number of safeguards for its users. For example, the site has a verification process for hosts; in order for a host to confirm that he or she is an actual resident of his or her community, the host must enter a special code online after receiving the code on a postcard in the mail.
While couch surfing is generally a safe way to travel, nothing is foolproof. A sense of adventure is a prerequisite for any successful couch surfing experience. If you don't feel comfortable sleeping in the home of a stranger, don't do it!
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
Travel in the Low Season
While shoulder-season deals offer great prices to destinations just as the weather turns favorable, those brave enough to take the less traveled path of low-season trips can expect to put up with less desirable weather for deliciously low prices. In many destinations (like Ireland and Greece), some attractions, restaurants and even hotels close during the low tourist season -- but that doesn't mean that you can't plan a great low-season vacation.
Plan ahead to make the most of your low-season getaway. Buy a good guidebook and call each place you want to visit ahead of time to make sure that it will be open. Dress appropriately, especially if you will be dealing with frigid temperatures. And focus on the positive! Paris may be cold in November, but you won't have to deal with an eternal wait when you want to visit the Eiffel Tower. Spring is mud season in New England, when most ski resorts start to shut down, but you can still eat fresh lobster and tour charming towns. For travel to the Caribbean, save money by booking during hurricane season in the fall (buy travel insurance and closely follow the weather before you trip, and you should be fine). Once you get used to the shorter lines and cheaper prices, don't be surprised if you feel the urge to permanently break from the pack and only take low-season trips!
Find Discount Travel Deals
Take a Day Trip
I'm suggesting a day trip in lieu of the increasingly ubiquitous term "staycation" because frankly, the words "stay" and "vacation" just don't mix. Sure, you can take museum tour of your city's best, or book a day at the spa down the road, but is that really a vacation?
A day trip -- even if it's only an hour-long car ride -- injects an element of actual travel into the uninteresting "staycation." Plus, a day trip is quite possibly the least expensive way to travel to relatively local destinations, even when unstable gas prices are at their peak. Pick a place that's far, but not too far, like a national park, famous landmark, interesting town or historic site. Check out your state's tourism Web site or Google the names of local towns to see what's nearby -- you may be surprised by the number of attractions that are just a gas tank away. Gasbuddy.com is a great Web site that allows drivers to map out where to find the cheapest gas prices along their routes. To avoid paying for accommodations, leave early in the morning and plan to get home late; this way, you'll still have plenty of time to see what you want to see, even if your destination is a few hours away.
Weekend Getaways Under $500
Book a Vacation Rental ... with Lots of Friends
Vacation rentals may not be your best bet if you're a solo traveler or you like to eat out. But if you're traveling with a family or another couple, a vacation rental could save you big bucks over a hotel. Staying in a vacation rental with a number of people is less expensive because each person you add to your party cuts costs significantly.
For example, on HomeAway.com, we found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom ocean-view villa in Maui that sleeps four for just $195 per night -- that's less than $50 per person per night if you can find three travel buddies to bring along. Plus, buying larger quantities of food at the grocery store and cooking in instead of eating at restaurants can help you save even more (who doesn't love a good barbecue?). The downside is you may have to share a room or step around an unfolded sofa bed as you make your way to the kitchen ... but as they say, the more the merrier! For more information, read Vacation Rentals: Right for You?
Arrange a Home Exchange
If you're a homeowner, swapping your property with someone else is a great way to find comfortable, cozy and virtually cost-free accommodations for your trip. Home exchange participants typically stay in each other's residences at the same time, or they may even stay as guests in each other's homes. Uneasy about a stranger sleeping in your humble abode? Remember that since this arrangement is a mutual exchange, your partner will likely take great care to treat your home as she would treat her own. Plus, if you do your homework, check references, chat on the phone or even arrange to meet your home exchange partner in person, you greatly reduce your risk of abandoning your property to the evil whims of a destructive squatter.
Home exchanges are typically arranged through online networks. For links to home exchange resources and more information about setting up your own house swap, check out our Home Exchange: How-To Guide.
All-inclusive vacations: most travelers either love 'em or hate 'em. If you're a member of the former party and only stay at resorts named after summer footwear, you're probably already familiar with the money-saving virtues of all-inclusive packages. But here's a tip for the self-proclaimed independent travelers who associate all-inclusive resorts with sterile buffets and organized line dancing: don't knock it till you try it -- especially if you're on a budget. All-inclusive resorts often offer a convenient and affordable base for exploring a destination, and you don't necessarily have to stay chained to the resort property.
Most all-inclusive resorts are located in the Caribbean and Mexico, which are top spots for active adventure travelers. If you're planning to scuba, snorkel, surf, hike, sail or explore, staying at an all-inclusive resort in a good location could make your trip a lot less expensive, especially if water sports or equipment rentals are included in your rate. A quick search on Expedia.com turned up a number of all-inclusive hotels in Cabo San Lucas during August from just $213 per night based on double occupancy (including lodging, unlimited food and beverages, and even activities like scuba diving and cooking lessons). Like trying out local cuisine and exploring your surroundings? At roughly $100 per person per night, you can probably eat half of your meals in local restaurants, take some off-site excursions and still save money compared with a typical hotel stay.
Vacation Package Deals
Take a Cruise
Given the incredible degrees to which cruise lines have been cutting costs as of late, it may be time to revisit cruising as a means of getting away, even if you've already decided you're not a "cruiser." Booking a cruise yields substantial savings by allowing you to pay for your food, lodging and entertainment together in one low price. Cruise lines regularly offer discounts on standard cabin rates, and this tumbling economy has brought with it a sea of bargain-basement cruise deals. (Need proof? Take a look at our Discount Cruise Deals.) It's not uncommon to see seven-night cruises for under $500 per person -- and when you're paying that price in Europe, where an unfavorable exchange rate increases the cost of everything you buy, you're looking at a true at-sea steal. Read more about cruising in Cruising for Independent Travelers.
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--written by Caroline Costello
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc.