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What did you spend on your last vacation? A house rental for a week on the beach can easily set you back $3,000 in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Disney World admission costs over $100 per person per day (Mickey Mouse ears and souvenir photos not included). And that overnight in Yosemite National Park? Even an unheated canvas tent without indoor plumbing goes for $150 per night. Ouch.
Too often, travelers limit themselves to American destinations because they assume they can’t afford to travel internationally. That’s not necessarily true, though. With careful planning, heading abroad won’t cost any more than a vacation near home. It takes a little strategy but not nearly as much as you think. This is one of the few things that’s actually as easy as it looks.
If you want to travel domestically to enjoy what America has to offer, more power to you. It’s an amazing country with a lifetime’s worth of places to explore. However, if traveling abroad has always been your dream and money is the only thing standing in your way, keep reading. We’ll show you how to take that international trip for the same cost you’d spend domestically.
Look for Deep Discount Airfares
Stop scrolling outdated articles that tell you to clear your cookies and run airfare searches on a Wednesday at 4 a.m. in order to find cheap flights. Those tactics have been disproven time and time again.
One thing that does help, though, is flexibility. The more flexibility you have, the more likely you’ll find the cheapest airfare. Prices can drop when you play around with travel dates, nearby airports and the number of connections you take. This is easy to do, too. Most booking engines have built options to check other regional airports and search multiple dates at once with a single click.
The cheapest flights of all require the ultimate flexibility: choosing your destination based on an airfare sale. Every month, there are a handful of ultra-low airfare sales, like Washington to Tokyo for $285 round-trip or San Francisco to Bergen, Norway for $450. Travelers that are inspired to go anywhere (or everywhere) can use these to their advantage, slashing costs by hundreds of dollars per passenger.
If you think finding these deals is searching for a needle in a haystack, don’t despair. Services like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Thrifty Traveler or The Flight Deal will do the hunting for you and send an email alert when there are sales from your home airport. If you don’t want to sit around and wait, you can also run your own searches on Google Flights and other platforms. Simply leave the destination box blank and then filter by your maximum preferred price to see where there are deals.
Fill in the Gaps with Reward Points
Cheap flights are great but free flights are better, at least when it comes to your bottom line. A stash of rewards points goes a long way toward lowering your total cost whether you have enough for one ticket or for the whole family. Plus, they might encourage you to spring for business class and provide the extra comfort you want for a lengthy international journey.
Reward points aren’t just for flights, as you may already be aware. Hotel points can provide phenomenal value, especially when you know where to find the best rewards deals. Other card perks—like free checked bags, complimentary breakfast at hotels and travel insurance benefits—further sweeten the deal.
The number of points you need for an international escape can feel overwhelming but they add up faster than you think. Airline credit cards often offer welcome bonuses of 50,000 miles to get you started while hotels may offer 100,000 points or more to new, qualified cardholders. For travelers who aren’t sure exactly what type of miles and points they’ll need in advance, transferable currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards let you earn now but decide later.
Once you’ve accumulated enough miles for your trip, make the most of them. Calling the experts can help you find reward flights at a lower price. Here’s how to know if using an award booking service is right for you. And if all of this seems too much to handle, don’t discount cash rewards. A solid cash back credit card means you can reimburse yourself for everything from flights to cruises, specialty tours and dining out with none of the hassle.
Consider Extended Stays
Americans have a tendency to fill their travel schedules to the brim, running from one city to another in an effort to see it “all”. It’s time to re-think that mentality. Not only will you spend half your vacation time in transit but budgets skyrocket from extra trains, planes and taxi trips. Slowing down eliminates many of those costs.
Another advantage to staying in one place longer is being able to save on accommodations. Many hotels offer discounts or throw in extra perks for longer stays so unpack your suitcase and stay awhile. To snag a great deal, you’ll often have to book directly through the hotel but a few minutes on their website could help you uncover a package you can’t pass up.
This is especially true when redeeming reward points for free nights. Marriott Bonvoy offers one free night on award stays of five consecutive nights. Hilton similarly offers the fifth night free—but only to elite members. (Don’t have hotel status? You’ll get it automatically with the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card* and some other credit cards.) IHG has one of the best offers of all, offering the fourth night free on award stays if you have the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card*.
Longer stays might also mean that vacation rentals make sense as an alternative to traditional hotels. Apartments or condos can sometimes be the same cost as a hotel while offering twice as much space. If you’re willing to cook, having a kitchen available can cut costs as well.
Travel Where the Exchange Rate Works In Your Favor
Regions like Southeast Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe are popular with budget travelers for a reason: costs are low across the board. When your dollar stretches further, it’s a lot easier to justify an international getaway. Start looking for destinations with $50 hotels, $5 dinners and $1 museum admissions. You might be surprised at how affordable your total cost is, even after factoring in the cost of getting there.
In some cases, these low-cost destinations will line up beautifully with where travelers want to go. The Taj Mahal in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are both bucket list places that won’t break the bank. However, for some trips you might need to think outside the box.
If you’re dreaming of somewhere expensive, boil it down to the central experience you’re chasing and then start looking for alternatives. An overwater bungalow in the Maldives is an expensive affair, but you can enjoy a tropical vacation with fantastic snorkeling in Malaysia, too. African safaris are expensive in Botswana, but you can do a self-driving version in South Africa for a fraction of the cost. Or, swap out a getaway to Vienna with a trip to Budapest.
Embrace the Mundane
When you’re traveling internationally, free activities can be just as enjoyable as the ones you pay for. Suddenly, everyday activities become incredible entertainment. Peruse the local grocery store on a quest for unusual ingredients. Take a walk around town to gawk at interesting architecture or to enjoy local life at the park. Take a walk through a local park or search for street art. In some cities, even the metro stations are pretty enough to be a tourist attraction. In Naples, Italy, there’s even a museum of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscian artifacts they found while digging up the metro system attached to one of the stations. .
One of the greatest activities of all is also something you’d consider normal at home: meeting the locals. Striking up a conversation won’t cost you a dime and might lead to fascinating conversations or insights into the area. If you’re lucky, you might end up with a new friend.
International travel is only as expensive as you allow it to be. Using miles and points to subsidize your bottom line can knock hundreds (or thousands) or dollars from your total budget, but even without rewards there are strategies to save. If you can afford traveling in the U.S., there’s a good chance you can travel abroad, too.