How to Travel on a Tight Budget

The COVID-19 shutdowns have been tough not just on workers, but also business owners. For those that have made it through without suffering any devastating consequences, there's never been a more affordable time to travel.

Despite the pandemic lock ups, there have always been ways to work the system to figure out ways to explore awesome destinations while spending tiny amounts of money.

Most business travelers know the benefits of credit cards with point rewards of any variety. It's an easy way to rack up airline miles so you can travel for very little money or free whenever you have PTO.

But you can apply these rewards to home spending as well. In our case, we picked up a Southwest Airlines credit card that offered not just miles for spending, but tens of thousands of bonus miles for meeting a $4000 benchmark in spending over 90 days. Easy. Additionally, they offered a companion pass, meaning that only 1 out of 2 people flying had to book a ticket against their point total. In our case, my girlfriend and me booked a trip to the big island of Hawaii and then hopped over to Oahu and flew back to Denver for absolutely nothing with plenty of points left over. We spent about 22,000 points out of our 50,000 point budget on airfare for the entire trip.

Since airfare is one of the biggest expenses on a trip, we had plenty of cash left over to do all sorts of other things like snorkeling and helicopter tours.

Rental cars tend to be pretty brutal on point rewards, so we decided to pay cash for the car. Online Travel Agents, or "OTAs" typically have special rates below what retailers usually offer. Even though OTAs typically take an enormous cut of the money from vendors, you can still save money by using them. The old standard Priceline netted us a price of about $260 for a week of rental car use in Hawaii. Hertz directly wanted to charge us $950 for the same car over the same time at the same airport pickup terminal by trying to book directly with them instead of using an OTA.

Due to the variety of options in accommodations, we decided to choose variety when it came to where we sleep at night. Options on the big island on Air BnB can be had for as low as $23 per night. We decided to move around a lot on the big island due to low pricing, local attractions, and restaurants, and picked a hotel for when we went to Oahu that was right on Waikiki Beach. Using Google Maps to find available rooms and rates for our chosen dates netted us a beach front hotel room for $74 per night.

You can use this competition to your advantage. Since many hotels understand that the viewership of Google results are so high, rate pricing can be cutthroat and you may score a great deal. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't check OTAs and direct booking sites. Your travel credit card may also have benefits with business partners that net you a preferred rate with certain vendors (think AAA).

For last-minute bookings, check out Hotel Tonight. Many hotels offer steep discounts to fill their last rooms on short notice. You are taking a gamble by not making reservations and prices in your area still may not be in your budget, but you always have that option.

If the local hotels and rentals in your area are filled or too expensive, it may be time to get a little primitive. In U.S. National Forests, it is generally free to camp almost anywhere you desire with a few restrictions. You must be at least 1/4 mile away from any established camp grounds and 200 feet away from any water sources like lakes or rivers. Take only pictures and leave only footprints. Be sure to always look up any current fire restrictions in your desired area if you plan on having a camp fire. The Forest Service website and their social media channels do a pretty good job of keeping any rules and restrictions current. There may also be restrictions on exactly where and how dispersed camping may be done, so be sure to read the signage and check the rules for that forest area. These dispersed areas are still routinely patrolled by law enforcement, and the fines for illegal fires and littering/pollution can be staggering.

To make it a little easier, you can pay for established camp sites at official NFS campgrounds. These typically include at least a fire ring, flattened area for a tent, toilet facilities, and sometimes showers and may be had for as little at $5 per night.

In my experience, lodging is by far the greatest travel expense you will encounter. This is a significant way to slash your budget and make your desired destination far more affordable. Car camping or "overlanding" has become a new national past time, and there are loads of products to help you customize your vehicle with the comforts of home. Everything from vehicle-matches custom cut inflatable mattresses to expandable tents that mount directly to your vehicle are available.

If you're used to camping or just sleeping in your car, you'll know how to deal with hygiene.

If you're unfamiliar with this practice, There are a multitude of options at your disposal. Many retailers sell mobile shower kits that heat and pump water for you. Since disposing of soap and other hygiene products in protected environments can cause significant harm, be sure you have an outlet for your waste water when you're done. You'll also find quite a lot of shower and toilet facilities out in the middle of nowhere that are run by NFS. You may be able to pay a fee to access a local campground's facilities, or you can stop by a nearby truck stop like Love's and use their showers for around $2.

If you want to make sure you stay within the rules and still want a good clean feeling, use baby wipes. They can be had for about $5 for 200 or so at most drug and grocery stores. We've used them in the military for years for a field shower. You won't feel as refreshed as a real hot shower, but you'll get rid of a lot of stink.

A quality cooler will let you use a bag or two of ice for at least 24-48 hours so you can keep your spending down on food when you're camping by shopping at grocery stores instead of eating at restaurants. Wal-Mart actually sells some private label items that are of fairly decent quality. While they won't last forever, you'll certainly get your money's worth. A cooler is only as good as its insulation. Vacuum insulated coolers will work best as it is the path of greatest resistance for heat energy to enter your cold space.

You don't have to buy a Yeti to get this kind of insulation. In fact, it is becoming more widely known that you simply can't do better than vacuum insulation. Many budget manufacturers are beginning to offer vacuum insulated models at very affordable prices. You can even get vacuum insulated coozies, cups, and bottles at Wal-Mart for $4-$20.

If you maintain a decent stock of camping equipment, you can go glamping across U.S. National Parks while sleeping outside them in National Forest areas for basically the cost of gas, and you can use your own mobile lodging tools over and over again for free.

America the Beautiful Pass
America the Beautiful Pass

One thing that can't be stressed enough for the mobile adventure seeker is the value of the National Park pass. Veterans, those on disability, and those 65 and older qualify for free or reduced price lifetime access. For people that don't fit those qualifications, unlimited National Park access can be had for about $80 per year. If you plan on visiting one or two parks more than once a year, it pays for itself in admission fees. These can be purchased or acquired online, at many ranger stations in NFS areas, and at most NPS entrance gates on the spot. They also routinely get you solid discounts at campgrounds and other facilities and amenities.

One last thing; don't underestimate the incredible recreational activities, scenery, and wildlife of National Forest areas. Remember that National Park boundaries are just legal lines on a map. They have no meaning to nature, and you shouldn't overlook the opportunities to enjoy the spectacular beauty of nature with absolutely nobody else.

A blue waterfall crashed over red rocks on a warm summer day in Colorado.
Vacant and Unknown Spot in San Juan National Forest

You never know what you'll find vacant and undiscovered on National Forest land for free.

Have your own budget travel tips? Leave them in the comments!

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