Because I know for a lot of people, new year means resolutions around traveling more and saving more money, I figured I would put together a list of the tips that I’ve figured out over the last few years of being on the road for work/fun/adventure. While I’ve never really lived the #vanlife, I’ve spent months and years without one specific home base (and even now with a home base, I’m rarely there for more than a couple weeks at a time.) All of that leads to smarter, and more economical, traveling. So, what have I learned?
Cheap Travel When Flying:
Pick an airline
Sure, sometimes a deal will be too good to pass up or your destination might require a different airline, but over the years, I realized that status matters. (Ugh. But seriously.) If you fly a lot, using one airline helps you rack up miles so that you can actually get free flights, and having status on airlines can also mean free checked baggage and priority boarding/security checkpoints. I haven’t flown as much this year, so my United status went away for a couple of months, and when I did fly without it, I was surprised to see how much more I spent on checked bags. (Sidenote: with status, I’ve even gotten my bike bag through as a free bag!)
Get a travel scale / good bathroom scale
If you show up to the flight and your bag is 10 lbs overweight, you’re setting yourself up for a pricey disaster. Because airlines have such weird oversize policies, a bag charge of $30 for a 50lb bag can easily go to $150 for a 60lb bag. So, spend the few bucks and get a luggage scale, or if you have a bathroom scale, weigh yourself, then yourself plus your bag so you can make sure you’re under (bag) weight.
…Or live that #carryon life
No baggage fees? Amazing, right? When you’re traveling and can manage to pack a carryon instead of a suitcase, that’s fantastic. It makes for such an easy on-and-off the plane experience, and I love it for SHORT TRIPS. There’s a reason so many travel/capsule wardrobe bloggers tout it. But honestly, it’s not my favorite tip because it means you can’t bring normal size toiletries / you’re packing for the bare minimum so for longer than week-long travel + if you have any activities planned other than hanging out, it can get dicey. Those who can do this for long trips, I salute you.
(my rage against the carryon)
HOWEVER. The carryon is a double-edged sword. I’ve been burned on this quite a few times, because while I packed carryon for a trip, I ended up in a destination where the weather changed and I needed to go actually buy some rain/cold weather gear because I didn’t have any and needed to buy a few things. More recently, in Costa Rica, we found ourselves spending a ton more money on food than we wanted to, when we would have been better checking a bag that had some snack stuff like almond butter (and extra sunscreen!) packed in it! You can’t bring a multi-tool in your carryon, so your bike tools/handy corkscrew likely will get impounded at security. Forget full-size toiletries. Forget that raincoat you *might* need, or that pair of extra sneakers. Having to buy that stuff when you land will almost always cost as much as checking the damn bag would have to begin with.
Be friendly to airline staff
A tale of two bike racers: I’ve seen on multiple occasions the power of being polite when checking bikes. I watched two cyclists roll their bike bags to the check-in counter. The first was pretty snippy, got upset about bike fees, started raising his voice.. and got charged $200 for his bike. A couple people later, the second cyclist got to the same counter, but was super friendly, amicable, and polite. His bike fee? $30 for a checked bag. You don’t need to be a total pushover, but putting on a friendly (not fake) face at the check-in is always going to trump being grumpy/loud about it. You’re not going to win that battle — if an airline worker wants to charge you for a bike, the odds are, the charge will stick no matter how loud you get. But if you’re friendly and polite, but firm, you’re likely going to get the cheaper option. Or, worst case, you’ll have better karma and your bike WON’T end up on the opposite side of the country (I also have a story about that.).
Bring snacks + bottles. More than you think you need.
When I started managing Aspire Racing a few years ago, I started flying more than I ever had before, and quickly realized my flying methodology was not budget-friendly. I’d buy coffee, water, snacks, magazines… You name it. Now, I still will buy a coffee if I’m in the airport for a while, but I always have a travel mug so I don’t waste coffee by spilling it immediately (happened 3 times) and a leak-proof water bottle that I fill as soon as I can (flying is wicked dehydrating!). I also bring tea so I can make my own by asking the steward for hot water in the flight. And while I do occasionally buy a croissant or treat, I always have a few bars, packets of nuts, apples, easy-to-eat snacks like hard-boiled eggs, ready to go. (Like this concept? I wrote about my favorite sachets of protein powder, PB and greens a while back.)
Cheap Travel When Driving:
Plug-in cooler and electric kettle
I can’t say enough about these two things. Honestly, it’s hilarious how much easier it is to stay in a super cheap motel, car camp, or stay with a host family/crash with friends when you have these two things. The cooler we have is awesome because you can plug it into the car’s lighter, or into a normal outlet. So if you travel with food — of course you do, you’re traveling on the cheap! — you can stop and plug in, instead of trying to cram stuff into your buddy’s fridge or wasting food because it goes bad as your ice melts. A kettle is fantastic because for the cost of a couple of coffees at Starbucks, you can have coffee/tea anytime. Even at a rest area, there are outlets where you can boil water, so if you have instant coffee, a pourover, or just plain tea, you’re caffeinated for almost nothing. You can also use it for instant oatmeal, and in a pinch, I’ve hard-boiled eggs in it! (And no Starbucks line at 7am!)
This is the cooler we have, and it’s lasted 3 years at this point, with no issues!
We also have a bag of blankets that comes everywhere with us, and again, this makes car camping / host housing super easy. We have this two-person sleeping bag, plus a set of sheets and two tiny pillows, and it has come in handy so many times! This can actually also apply to air travel: We usually will pack a big comforter around a bike as added padding, and it’s come in handy at chilly host houses.
Spare toiletry + medical bag
With what you have under your sink at home, you can probably cobble together a spare set of toiletries: sunscreen, body wash, shampoo, toothpaste, razor and toothbrushes are all often things you have hanging around in bulk at home, but when you’re on the road, you forget them at a hotel or run out at inopportune moments. Having a few extras packed in the van can save you from paying a premium if you’re in a remote area. (I also do this with things like ibuprofen, cold medicine and allergy meds — I have a couple of each stashed in a secret bag to avoid needing to buy a big pack or a super pricey ‘travel size’ single serve while on the road, when all I need is a single dose. After YEARS of running out and needing to buy a whole pack of Claritin, I legit had probably 10 different packets of them in our medicine cabinet at home, because I’d get a full one on the road, use 3, and then unpack the packet when I got home, never put it back in my bag, and then repeat the process. Sigh.)
Weird, but effective. We’ve saved a shocking amount of money and space by having a baggie that we keep stocked with a few ketchups, salt and peppers, mustards, vinegars and hot sauces. It’s amazing what a tiny pack of salt can do to a meal, and you save $$ by not needing to eat out / buy big containers of stuff that takes up a ton of space (and things like ketchup and mustard need to be refrigerated when opened, so single-serves are way easier).
Build a food box
Combining a couple of these tips, I highly recommend building a food box or bag, even if you’re not thinking about full-on #vanlife. Ours has gone through a lot of iterations, but right now, in addition to our cooler, we have a bag with the kettle, plastic plates and wine glasses, a bottle opener, can opener, small cutting board, small chef knife, baggie of condiments and our travel coffee mugs. This makes putting together roadside/hotel salads and dinners super easy. I’ve had a hot plate in the past and loved it, we just haven’t replaced it yet but we will if we’re taking another big trip. (I’m just debating the best configuration.) And like the plane tip, have easy snacks that you actually want to eat, so you can avoid paying $4 for a Clif Bar at a gas station.
(Pro tip: Add laundry stuff to your food box. We bring a baggie of powdered detergent and it saves a TON of $$ at hotels/laundromats.)
Look at your calendar/to-do list
Before we go, as I pack I try to think through all the things we’re going to do and that we might do. I’ve fallen victim to the ‘I need to buy a new X because we’re doing Y’ thing before because I really do enjoy fashion / really like having the right gear for a task, and once I get it in my head that I ‘need’ something, it’ll make me crazy. So now, I try to really think through everything I might possibly need, and if it doesn’t take up a ton of space, I bring it.
Have a ‘banned buy’ list
When you have a van to fit everything in, it’s easy to start picking up a bunch of stuff while you’re on your trip. For me, this is dresses. For someone else, it might be purses/sunglasses/mascara/whatever. Most of us have a couple of things that we tend to buy on impulse / for one occasion and never use again (or never use at all!), and for some reason, travel brings out that impulse in us. Head it off by a) knowing what it is that you tend to buy impulsively, and b) maybe even packing an extra one or two of those things so that when you get the urge, you have options. (Yep. I bring 2-3 dresses even when we have no plans to go out, because I know myself. It’s weird but it works.)
Cheap Travel in General…
Use the Internet
I use Expedia for cars and Hotels.com for hotels, and both have solid rewards programs. Hotels.com is particularly great for the stay-10-nights-get-1-free option, and bonus, both of these sites work with Ebates so you get cash back as you book. (I always pay online when possible, because you get the points and the Ebates, but also because it avoids random weird upcharges from hotels.)
Make a list
Seriously, the most money I’ve wasted from traveling is forgetting / opting to not bring stuff that I easily could have brought — especially when driving. So make the most comprehensive packing list that you can before you go. Just because a town you’re in has a Target in it doesn’t mean you need to go there.
Plan first, book second
When I’m booking a multi-leg trip, it’s tempting to book an ‘anchor’ point first, then figure out the details. But I’ve realized this often ends up with me being stuck to one thing and spending too much to work around it. Make your whole plan — written out, with prices/times/dates/URLs — first, and then book.
Go out for drinks, eat at home (or vice versa)
When we’re on the road, we almost never go out to eat and drink in the same night. We’ll go out for a drink, then cook at home/in the hotel/in the van, or go out for a meal, then come home and crack a bottle of wine. This weird shift has saved us a $hitload of money over the last couple years. (This is also where the food box with a wine opener and our two plastic tumblers comes in handy—makes for much classier imbibing at a campsite!)
Use a credit card with travel rewards
A lot of credit card companies have a travel card that offers rewards on travel points. I didn’t think this would amount to much, but over 5 years, I’ve actually gotten a TON of cash back on travel. So if you’re constantly booking hotels and paying for flights/rental cars/gas, find a credit card that supports it. (And pay it off every month, obviously. I’m not talking about creating credit card debt!)
Book a hotel with the right amenities
When you are looking for a hotel to stay, I’m a fan of looking for ones that offer free breakfast. If it’s a price difference of $5 between one that does and one that doesn’t, I will almost always get the one with the free breakfast, because by the time I buy my own at a coffeeshop, it’s going to run me more than $5. (Breakfast buffets also are great supplements to the stuff that we always bring with us in the cooler/food box.) Other amenities to look for: wifi and parking. I’ve booked the cheapest motel only to get hit with $5/day for internet + $10/day parking, plus no fridge or microwave, bringing Motel 6 up to the cost of a Holiday Inn that would have had a hot breakfast, free parking and great wifi.
Forgot something? Try Goodwill first
I get suuuper tempted by the allure of Target, and I admit, I often end up buying something there on extended trips. But the best move I ever made was when Nationals turned icy and rainy in Austin and I had only packed for warm weather (mistake #1!), instead of trying to go to a Target or Kohls to get some gear, I went to a Goodwill and spent under $10 outfitting myself with a sweater, jacket and boots. It wasn’t the cheapest option, but at least I didn’t end up wasting a ton of cash on stuff I didn’t really need. (I actually then just re-donated that stuff so I could still fit all of my stuff in a carryon to fly home.)
Weirdly, the thing that I often forget to pack and miss desperately is slippers. When it’s unseasonably chilly or you’re in a cold house / camping and the weather has turned crappy, having a pair of cozy slippers can make a huge difference in comfort level (and possibly save you from buying a new pair / a sweatshirt / another blanket). Warm feet = happy you. I like a pair that can double as normal shoes that you’d wear around during the day, and to that end, I love the fur-lined Minnetonka moccasins with the normal shoe soles. It’s amazing what a simple thing like this can do for your overall mood and comfort. Even long driving days are super improved by warmer, comfier feet!