Budget your vacation: 4 tips to save money
By Nilou Motamed, features director at Travel+ Leisure magazine and Farnoosh Torabi, host of Yahoo's Financially Fit
Viewers emailed TODAY.com about how they saved money on a vacation -- many of them wrote that they had the time of their life while saving money. Travel expert Nilou Motamed and money expert Farnoosh Torabi share more money-saving travel tips.
My boyfriend and I always wanted to go to New Orleans but money was an obstacle. The opportunity arose to attend the Jazz and Gumbo Festival in New Orleans so we took advantage of Megabus for our transportation. The cost, $35 for both of us round-trip. This allowed us to stay at a really nice hotel in New Orleans. The live Jazz festival was PERFECT. And we came back with money in our pockets. -Lynda, Charlotte, NC-
Nilou's tip: New Orleans is a great city for those looking to travel on a budget. There are so many affordable music venues where you can listen to amazing live music for the price of a couple of beers. And plenty of places to get authentic local food without breaking the bank: For hearty Louisiana classics there's Mothers; Casamento's for fresh-shucked Gulf oysters and perfectly dressed oyster po-boys; and Morning Call gives Café du Monde a run for their beignets.
Farnoosh's tip: Megabus and other city-to-city low-fare express buses are growing in popularity. Service rose 30 percent last year. Megabus serves more than 135 cities. Travel is direct, city to city, no stops in between. It's super cheap and offers free Wi-Fi. There are a handful of $1 fares available on every trip so you really can go from Point A to Point B for $1 (LA to SF, or New York to Boston, for example). The key to securing these (and other very affordable fares) is to book your trip as far in advance as you can (Megabus.com recommends 30-45 days in advance). AND those who follow Megabus on Twitter @megabus and look at Megabus' official Facebook page will hear about special rates, promotions and giveaways FIRST.
Last year we treated our family of 6 to a dream vacation in Hawaii. We used air miles to fly round-trip from Houston to Hawaii for free. We rented a house 1 block from the beach about an hour away from Honolulu for $325/night. Everything was there: beach toys, surfboards, snorkel gear, beach towels sand chairs. We prepared fabulous meals in our home. It was a lot of fun staying with the locals in Hawaii!-Janelle, Houston, TX-
Nilou's tip: For extra savings, you might consider a house swap rather than a rental. You have someone else stay in your home while you stay in theirs. Lovehomeswap.com and Homeexchange.com are two sites that specialize in this. House swapping also helps you experience the destination like a local would - the homeowners often leave you a list of their favorite local haunts, and you'll be able to grocery-shop too.
Farnoosh's tip: Maximize your credit card points. If you're in the market for a travel rewards card, it's best to go with a card that offers points you can use across all airlines, unless you always stick to one airline. No blackout dates and no annual fees. You can compare and shop for cards at Creditcards.com and Bankrate.com. Also, with respect to saving money on flights: Don't just surf the web for deals; call airlines directly and speak to representatives about other deals. Maybe there were some cancellations that are not showing up online, or alternate routes that could save you money. There's also the chance you could get on a so-called positioning or repositioning flight, which is a route used just to get the plane from Point A to Point B. They're highly discounted, and not listed on travel sites.
My husband and I recently took a 3,000-mile road trip from Western Washington, down through California, over to Nevada and back through Sacramento. Our official budget was "as cheaply as possible." We found a Road Pro slowcooker online that plugged into our cigarette lighter, and we always take our plug-in cooler. I took leftovers, spices in plasticbags, noodles, and cans of soup. We heated up leftover lasagna. We threw leftover ham and au gratin potatoes in the slowcooker. We stayed with friends and family along the way, so only one night in a hotel, 3 meals out, some groceries, and gas. Best of all, priceless memories.-Andrea, Bremerton, WA-
Nilou's tip: To find out where the lowest gas prices are along your route, check out Gasbuddy.com. If you do want to stay in a hotel (as they did for one night), search for deals at B&B's and inns in the area you're traveling on Bedandbreakfast.com; they have a special hot deals section.
Farnoosh's tip: Score free food with online sites. Couchsurfing.com is a travel social-networking site. Couchsurfing offers meet-ups and events, including free dinner parties for travelers. You'll find listings for such get-togethers on the "activities" page for your destinations on the website.
The most fun my two boys ever had on a trip that cost me zero! In 1997 my boys were 7 & 9 and I took them to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to stay in my dad's time share. One night we ate pizza in the room. The next day we cut the pizza box into two pieces and rode up into the Smokey Mountains. They spent ALL DAY walking up a snow covered area and sliding down. It was just as much fun for me to watch, as it was for them. My boys are now 22 & 24. -Missy, Tennessee-
Nilou's tip: Many national parks have no entrance fees. And the Smoky Mountains National Park is one of those with no fee! However, for those that do charge, there are a selection of days throughout the year when they waive admission. Visit nps.gov to find out which parks are free and when the entrance fee-free days are. And, coming up soon - fee-free days include April 22 - 26, during National Park Week.
Farnoosh's tip: There's plenty of debate over whether money can buy happiness, but what's been actually proven is that spending money on experiences like a vacation, even if it's on a budget and you did some free activities, is time and money well spent. And it does equate to happiness, because it's a purchase that appreciates with all the captured memories.