How to Save Money on Your Next City Vacation

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Some people prefer to spend time in the great outdoors camping, hiking, and communing with nature while others find it more relaxing to stay at a 5-star hotel in the heart of a bustling city with plenty of venues and nightlife.

While certain outdoor-oriented vacations can be pricey (a week-long guided tour through Yellowstone National Park, for example), most are more budget-friendly than city vacations. This doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to save money while enjoying city life; it just tends to be pricier. Whether you purposely seek out a city vacation or just end up there, here are some simple tips on ways to save money and still enjoy your time.

Book a Hotel That’s Not Immediately Downtown

While convenience is certainly a plus, downtown hotels are notoriously pricier than outlying hotels. In larger cities, many ‘outlying’ hotels aren’t more than a few miles from downtown, a distance easily overcome by walking, biking, or taking a commuter bus, train or subway.

When you book a hotel in the heart of a city, you will often have to pay extra for hotel parking, which can run upwards of $60 a day. So, unless you take a train, plane, or bus into the city and walk the rest of the time, you’ll be paying more for your hotel stay. In addition to saving money on your hotel stay and parking fees, choosing an outlying hotel will provide a less hectic and touristy atmosphere. It’ll also possibly offer some better views of nature.

Don’t Drive in the City

Driving to your hotel may be necessary, but driving in cities (especially ones you aren’t familiar with) isn’t recommended. Not only will city driving automatically increase the stress level of your vacation, but you will also get poor gas mileage and pay outrageous parking fees. Plus, you’ll spend so much time looking for parking all over that you might as well stay home because half of your trip will be spent driving around.

In rougher neighborhoods, you even risk having your car robbed or stolen. Why do you think so many locals walk, bike, or use the subway? It’s more convenient, better for your body, and gives you a chance to actually see what the city has to offer.

Find Unique but Cheaper Dining

While staying in a city, it can be easy to drop a lot of money on food. The best way to cut your dining costs is to choose 1-2 special places to dine out and try to eat as cheaply as possible the rest of your meals. One easy way to do this is to choose a hotel that offers continental breakfast. Consequently, these hotels are often cheaper in general.

Hotels with their own restaurant offer much pricier food, even for breakfast. Continental fare may not be fancy, but you can eat as much as you like and it’s included in the price of your hotel.

Finding cheaper lunch and dinners at reputable establishments in the city can be a gamble since you don’t know the area, but try online restaurant review sites or even smartphone apps to help you choose something unique yet inexpensive. For the best advice, ask a local.

Choose Lunches Over Dinners to Eat Out

If you are a foodie and part of the reason why you travel is to taste the local food, then remember that lunches are generally cheaper than dinners. I mean, if you had to choose, you really do get a better bang for your buck by having a big lunch at a restaurant instead of dinner.

The beauty is that it is the local food you don’t really get to taste often, so the lunch menu may even be more special because many restaurants have similar dishes for dinners like steak or some other meat dish you see everywhere else in the world.

Avoid Stores That Anticipate Tourists

Finding a special keepsake or souvenir is an important part of remembering your vacation, but you don’t have to hit the tourist shops to do so. Many of the cheaply-made knickknacks and tacky souvenirs sold in these stores are extremely overpriced. (Would you spend $35 for a white t-shirt if it didn’t say Hawaii)?

Instead, try to find something unique that you will enjoy and be able to display with pride. Forgoing souvenirs altogether is an even better way to save money; taking plenty of pictures and making memories are the greatest souvenirs you could ever hope for.

Pack Light

You will save some money if you pack light because you simply have less luggage space to put souvenirs. Nowadays, you’ll also save on airfares because airlines charges for each check-in luggage.

Think about how many of those cute souvenirs that you actually still have (or even remember?) Don’t waste money getting more junk and use that money to have more vacations in the future instead. Plus, there’s less of a chance your stuff will get stolen so that’s potentially a money and trouble saver too.

Go Off the Beaten Trail

Sometimes the greatest treasures are found in the places no one else is looking. Don’t be afraid to go down a different street or explore beyond the bounds of tourist-thronged areas. The thing with popular tourist spots is that everybody knows that the places are popular. That means their buildings charge the owners more rent and the owners charge you more too.

Of course, you’ll still need to exercise caution to avoid dangerous places, but there are great eateries, shops, architecture, and music to be found where the locals live. If you take some time to look at the menus, you might be surprised that the quality of the lesser-known places can actually be better.

Groupons are No Longer “It” But the Deals Still Work

No one really talks about Groupons like they used to anymore but that doesn’t mean that the deals are all gone. The website is still great to find deals on things to do in an unfamiliar city.

Do some research before you head out on your vacation and you’ll have plenty of ideas for your trip and a pocketbook full of savings (and cash).

Consider Exchange Rates If You Travel Internationally

Being flexible is the tried-and-true way to save money on vacations anywhere. When the dollar is strong, then go to other countries. When a certain country’s currency is weak, then take a closer look.

Cities around the world have fairly high standards of living so if you don’t look at the exchange rates, you might be in for a shock. When my friend got married in Montreal, Ontario over a decade ago, I remember going there and getting sticker shock when coffee was twice as much as back home after factoring in the currency exchange rate.

If I go back to the same place nowadays, coffee from the same shop would be cheaper than Starbucks here. Exchange rates matter a great deal on the cost of your vacation.

Get a Place with a Small Kitchen and Do Some Light Cooking

If possible, get a room that includes a kitchenette area with a refrigerator. You can buy staples at a local grocery store to save even more money on food or at least have a place to keep your leftover take-out deep dish pizza.

It would be even better if the place has a microwave, but that may not be possible. Lodging with fridges, on the other hand, is easy to find so you really have no excuses.

Oh, and speaking of buying groceries, remember to get a jug of water. You need to be hydrated with all that walking in the city and you really don’t want to keep paying the $3 water bottles at the hotel. It’s an easy way to save a good deal of money.

Pay with a Credit Card and Pay with the Local Currency

Luckily, more and more foreign countries are starting to accept Visa and Mastercard as a form of payment. This is especially true in cities. When you are asked, always pay with a credit card and in the foreign default currency of your visiting place.

Don’t ever agree for the merchant to charge you in US currency because you’ll get killed on the foreign exchange rate. When you pay in the local currency with your card, Visa and Mastercard will route it at their own foreign exchange where the rates are the best you’ll ever get anywhere in the world. If you pay with US currency, the merchant’s payment network will do the exchange and charge you a high fee.

Also, remember to use a card that doesn’t charge you a foreign transaction fee. Plenty of credit cards offer this benefit nowadays, so you probably don’t need to apply for a new card. Just figure out which one has it and use that one unless there’s a card you have that still gives you a better deal after they charge you a fee once you factor in the rewards. Just do the math before your trip to see which card is the most beneficial.

Be Wary of Data Usage

Most urban cities around the world have world-renowned bad street planning. This means that there are plenty of one-way streets and roads that are extremely close to each other.

Thank God for GPSs but you may be staring at the phone too much while you try to go from place to place. This can make you a target for pickpocketing, but you may also be using too much data on your phone. It’s one thing if you are traveling within the country and you have an unlimited data plan, but it’s a whole other ball game when you are traveling overseas.

Those five-figure roaming charges don’t just appear in a far-fetched story on the news. It could happen to you if you’re not careful.

Bottom Line

The economy is opening back up slowly worldwide, which means vacations are back on the menu. You may think that there are plenty of deals to be had because the travel industry needs to attract customers to make up for lost ground but the deals are quickly disappearing.

The pent-up demand that everybody is talking about is real. There are still plenty of ways to save but you have to be a little bit more creative than expecting a killer deal at your dream 5-star hotel.

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  • Beau W. says:

    Good tips David. I never thought of using the outside of town for a place to stay. And yes your very correct for the best food in town ask the local store owner. They always have the low down for the greatest food.

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