Travel on a Budget: Transport & Accommodations

Half of the adventure is getting to the destination, right? Unless, of course, you’re driving across the country in a car with small children when it can feel more like a nightmare (or not).

Regardless of your feelings on the matter, the journey is a major part of the final bill. Typically the biggest expenditures for a trip, transport and accommodations are great ways to save and tend to offer the biggest bang for your buck when attempting to travel frugally. I, for one, like to save as much money as I can for memory-making experiences once I’m on terra firma.


An important first step is to identify your priorities – yes even for the more mundane logistics of transport and accommodations. Maybe you want to spend extra points to get that upgrade to first class or maybe you can’t swing a 3 am departure; maybe access to a heated pool and sauna at your hotel is part of what will make a trip most enjoyable. Maybe you want (or need) to be right next to the amusement park or beach, regardless of price.

In no particular order, here are some of the things we’ve done through the years to reduce the overall cost of transport and accommodations.

Maximize loyalty/points programs

For over a decade now we’ve been collecting Aeroplan points (we each have Aeroplan loyalty cards + credit cards linked to Aeroplan). These have helped fund the majority of our trips. My father-in-law is set to visit soon: 9,400 points + $95. Our couples trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago: 200,000 points + $1,000 for a whole week (this was for flights and accommodation). Our (COVID-cancelled) trip to South Carolina for our family of 4: 60,000 points + $320 – we may never manage to recreate that deal.

$1000 for a week of this – everything in.

We don’t muddy the waters with a lot of different credit cards, but there is lots of material out there to help people navigate the options if this sort of thing is up your alley. We have a friend who is constantly joining new programs/signing up for new credit cards and has figured out a way to maximize the system to fund first-class airfare and more luxurious hotels.

  • For us, going with a single points program and doubling up when possible (some stores are Aeroplan partners + we pay with our Aeropoint-linked Visa so we get double points) really works. Beyond that feels like too much effort. You do you.
  • Airlines also offer rewards to regular customers; if you travel frequently for work, try booking through a single airline to accrue status miles (sometimes different airlines will belong to a central alliance, so booking through a “sister” airline will also go toward points/status). Thanks to pre-COVID travel for work John qualifies for Air Canada Super-Elite status which gives him – and the rest of the family – a host of upgrades, extra checked baggage, and cheaper options for many flights (i.e. he needs to redeem fewer points to purchase tickets).

find ways to combine work + leisure

This is likely our biggest hack and not something everyone can leverage. But, when it works, it’s a great cost-savings.

  • When possible, combine work travel with leisure. Stay an extra day or two on your own dime after a conference is over. Or, tag along with your spouse and explore the town while he/she attends to relevant work responsibilities, reconvening when convenient.

Our very first trip of this sort happened back in 2011. We were poor. Both pursuing Master’s degrees and newly married, I was invited to speak at an entomology conference in Orlando. My flights, meals, and hotel were only covered for the duration of the conference and we had a tight budget beyond that. John flew down on points (of course).

One of my labmates happened to mention her grandfather owned a condo in Sarasota and he was willing to let us use it for free. Yes please! We flew down a week early, rented a very inexpensive car, and spent several days in Sarasota. We bought $70 of groceries at Publix and ate one supper at an Olive Garden and another at a very, very sketchy buffet. The rest we fit into my per diem budget.

We walked on beaches (a priority and free) and went to the Ringling Museum on Monday – the day my research supervisor informed me it was free.

I had a per diem for food and accommodations in Orlando, so we found a hotel for $40/night slightly off the beaten track. It was only 5 minutes from the resort where the conference was taking place. Since we already had a rental car, we could easily look for a cheaper hotel (the conference was directly across the street from Disney, so room prices were much higher onsite, but that’s where most attendees stayed).

When the dust settled, a week in Florida for 2 people – including flights, meals, excursions, and accommodations – cost us less than $500.

On our trip to Kennedy Space Centre (the entrance ticket was good for 2 days, so we went twice on a single ticket). We saw a shuttle on the launch pad and met an astronaut.

Look at different flight options

This may sound intuitive, but sometimes small changes (later/earlier arrival times, flying on a different day) can make a huge difference to the bottom line.

If you’re at all flexible on the dates/times, it’s worth hunting around for a few minutes to see if Tuesday at 5 am is $300 cheaper than Monday at 11 am.

Take less stuff

Okay, some habits die hard.

My husband went to Australia for a month with only a single carry-on and laptop bag. This was for work, admittedly, and he was staying in a rental with laundry facilities, but this minimalist packing is doable for more leisurely vacations too.

Perks: no checked baggage fees and no concerns about lost luggage (and the potential cost of replacing items if luggage doesn’t get found quickly enough). Also, having less stuff just feels great on vacation.

Our carry-on still had room for Chicky – a little foam chick our daughter decorated and sent with us on our travels. Here’s Chicky posing in front of the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. This little friend traveled to many places before she retired in 2019.

Accommodations

We often research accommodations (and if they’re being covered as part of a work trip, even better) more than anything else. With some extra digging, we usually find very affordable options.

  • I don’t need a fancy bathroom or spacious room. Clean and safe are my only two requirements. This is a HUGE place to save. To me, a hotel room exists for sleep and as a safe place to store belongings.

Not surprisingly, proximity to the downtown core can be a huge determinant of nightly rates. Both times we visited New York City we actually stayed in New Jersey. It was $88/night at the Super8 in North Bergen, a price hard to beat. We took a shuttle that dropped us off near Times Square. There was nothing special about the hotel, but it was clean and felt (relatively) safe. It was walking distance to a grocery store (a great way to save money on food) and had an edible Continental Breakfast (another great way to save money on food). Would I have preferred to roll out of bed and be in the heart of Manhatten? Absolutely. Was it worth $100’s extra over the course of our stay? To us, the answer was a definite no.

Our biggest coup came with our hotel in Paris. It was in the 9th arrondissement – a solid location – for $110 CAD/night (including all the hospitality fees and levies)!! It cost us almost double to get a night in a sketchy motel room along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia that including a morning flood (story coming soon).

Hotel Touraine Opéra was one of my favourite hotel stays ever – and housed what seemed to be the world’s most comfortable bed. Large by Parisian standards, our room was simple but checked every box. There was a grocery store across the street, a shuttle to and from the airport, and it was very, very clean! Check, check, check.

A stone’s throw from the Opera House it was, admittedly, a fair trek to some of the most notable landmarks. But for $110 CAD/night, it was hard to beat the economy of it all.
  • A bad hotel can be truly terrible and could ruin a vacation. In terms of accommodation reviews – look for themes. Noise issues, cleanliness and safety violations – when things of that ilk come up repeatedly it’s a giant a red flag. But if someone says the heated pool was too cold for their liking, I’m not much bothered by that sort of information (unless, of course, my priority is having a nice, warm hotel pool).
  • The best arrangement, though, is free. I have a brother that has lived in Europe for over a decade now; he’s had a steady stream of North American company in that time. Having free accommodations is a great way to shrink expenditures on vacation.
My brother’s old apartment was located above this set of shops in Copenhagen. There was a bakery directly across the street. The smell of fresh pumpernickel bread and Danish pastries coming out of there was the real deal. The whole scene felt like something out of a picture book.

Take public transit + WAlk

Okay, okay, can you tell we love walking? We might be a bit biased on this one, but it’s hard to argue that public transit and walking are the cheapest way to navigate an urban destination. When the kids were younger and in tow we’d find ways to borrow strollers, and the Ergo helped with many nap on-the-go moments.

Abby, asleep in the Ergo, at The National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). We went on a day with free admission – and we walked. No doubt we packed a picnic to enjoy later in the day.

You can get creative – we took a public bus to Bondi Beach and water taxis to Watson’s Bay; John has done hop-on/hop-off busses in France and NYC; we did trains, buses and bikes almost daily in Copenhagen. Lots of places now rent electric scooters which look very fun (and very economical).

why we’re a big fan of walking tours

Yet another plug for walking, but we’ve had great success with walking tours. Look for ones that have local hosts; these are often a pay-what-you-can donation style. It’s a great way to explore the city at minimal cost and the tour guides are usually happy to share lots of nuggets of wisdom, including ones that can translate into real cost-savings (you should try this diner, it has the best $3 burger in town; this museum is free on Friday’s after 8 pm).


Logistics aren’t always much fun when planning a trip, but they’re undeniably necessary and can consume a huge portion of a vacation budget. Once you’ve identified your priorities, see where that puts you in terms of budgeting. Maybe some priorities need to get shifted (can you make do without a hotel pool, or can you get a 1-week subway pass instead of relying on cabs) to free up monies for something fun when you’re on the ground?

Getting there can be half the fun; even if it isn’t, it doesn’t have to break the bank.

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