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.


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.

Travel on a Budget: Identifying Priorities

I’ve already admitted to being a pseudo-minimalist and I’m ready to put forward a similar disclaimer now. For the next few days I’ll don my travel-on-a-budget hat, after first admitting I don’t have an overly impressive globetrotting resume. I didn’t set foot on an airplane until I was nineteen and have only touched down in 6 countries – but I happen to have married an expert.

Born in Portugal, John has worked in and explored far-flung corners of the globe: from snowy landscapes in Canada’s High Arctic and Norway to warmer shores in Fiji and the Canary Islands; he’s been to Tanzania and Rwanda, Brazil and Chile; he’s spent months working in Australia; he’s crisscrossed the US and visited Thailand, Japan, and too many countries in Europe to count.

Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he also happens to be a really, really great traveler. He’s efficient and smart and unflappable when on the road and, since our priorities are so well-aligned, he’s the best travel partner I could ever hope for (he’s also just really fun to be with and an all-round awesome spouse).

As time and money allow I can’t wait to fill up my passport with all kinds of stamps, but until then I lean heavily on his travel expertise. That said, we’ve definitely developed our own special method of budget travel since getting married.

A quick Google search reveals entire movements devoted to traveling on a budget – from working farm hostels to extreme credit-card reward gymnastics, some of the proposed methods feel a tad intense for my taste.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel or plowed a field to pay room and board. I just thought it would be fun to discuss some of the ways our family has traveled, economically, through the years. This includes periods where we were, on paper at least, living below the poverty line. Those years of financial constraints helped us be creative in our travel plans and many of these tendencies stuck, even as we’ve moved into a new chapter of life that has afforded more financial flexibility.

I grew up exposed to fiscal conservatism (as did my husband), and it comes naturally. Believe me, this can present some drawbacks, including exacerbating my preexisting (and unrealistic) maximizer tendencies. But it also drove us to look for creative ways to solve a problem which was, at first, how to fund international travel on a small bankroll. Today it means we continue to pursue the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

For us, the whole process of traveling on a budget can be satisfying. A mindset of frugality is what led to us having more financial independence in the first place, so why not continue the momentum?

I’ll talk about specifics in later posts, but today wanted to hone in on priorities. Just like identifying what truly motivates you can help you figure out where you want to get to in life, I think it’s helpful to identify priorities before traveling and then allocate money accordingly.

how to identify Travel priorities

  • One of our top priorities (individually and as a couple/family) is finding ways to get immersed in the local culture. We want to eat and explore like locals – do things we can’t do anywhere else. I remember talking to someone who mentioned he would always seek out a cheeseburger and fries wherever he traveled – he had absolutely no interest in sampling local cuisine. He prioritized consistency; we opt for experimentation.
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. This tiny cafe was tucked away on a side street, hidden from the main tourist thoroughfares. Inexpensive and absolutely delicious.
  • Exploring a new location on foot is a huge draw for us. It’s how we like to familiarize ourselves with a new space, and it happens to be a great way to save money.

When we went to our first (and only) all-inclusive resort, we had narrowed it down to two destinations. The selling feature of our eventual choice? Kilometers of accessible white sandy beaches. Every single day we headed out the door and walked and walked and walked. Because we identified walking as a priority before we even started the booking process, it helped us make an informed decision. We aren’t that fussy about a big hotel room or fancy entertainment options. We were never going to be the type to race to the beach at 7 am to reserve a cabana for the day. We weren’t going to use the pool or the hot tub or participate in morning yoga on the beach.

No, more than anything we wanted a long sandy beach – and that’s exactly what we got.

  • We also love art. Top highlights from almost every trip involve art/architecture and we always seek out art galleries – both the famous and lesser-known. If necessary, we know it’s better to forgo the nice lunch with a hefty tip to fund opportunties to explore local art culture.

Years ago when my parents were visiting Paris (without me, I might add), my brother-turned-tour-guide took my mom to the Louvre. My father opted out without second thought and visited a nearby war museum. He is always, always, always going to seek out history. Why pay an entrance fee to an art museum he’d rather not visit?

  • There is no right and wrong in terms of priorities. That’s the beauty of it all. You’re under no obligation to visit the Louvre if you go to Paris (though it’s amazing). You do you.

If I went to Las Vegas tomorrow I’d probably wander through a casino or two (more for the architecture and design aesthetics), but what I’d really want to do is take in a live show and wander through an art gallery. I wouldn’t want to hang by the pool and order an umbrellaed drink. I wouldn’t want to spend my time at a slot machine or playing blackjack. One would assume both drinking and gambling would be front-running priorities for many choosing to visit such a city.

But not for me!

I’ve seen Michelin restaurants, but don’t have any burning urge to visit one. But, if you do, make this a priority and find other places to save…

why travel?

I think most of us have a natural instinct to explore; an innate desire to get to know our world more intimately, to meet new people, and experience new cultures. Leisure tourism can get a bad rap, sometimes justifiably so, but I think it can also make us more informed citizens when we return home. Couldn’t it make us better doctors and lawyers and teachers and parents? In addition to tans and keychains and duty-free alcohol, we might just manage to bring back new perspectives that colour our world for the better.

One night in Paris my husband and I relaxed on the Trocadéro lawn at dusk. This was pre-COVID and people were everywhere. The fading sunlight, and the wine, cast a perfect glow over the setting. I think about that moment often and those few hours spent watching the Eiffel Tower reflect the colours of the changing skyline were some of the happiest of my life.

We travel to experience these moments; to trigger emotions and raise questions and escape routine. We also travel to get an idea of just how big the world really is and our place in it.

Maybe you travel for the scenery or the family hugs at the end of a long plane ride. Maybe you travel for work and pride yourself on relentless productivity, considering tourist traps something to be avoided at all costs. But, I suspect, if we stay open enough, travel could change us all, perhaps in surprising ways.

Frugal Living – How Eating Beef Jerky and Pickles Helped Launch a Startup

What do eating miniature cubes of beef, cheese, and pickles have to do with launching a successful startup (and, for my husband, landing a dream job)? Maybe more than you think.

First, some terminology. There is debate about the linguistics and application of terms frugal (righteous, maximizing value), cheap (unrighteous, miserly), thrifty (a hands-on DIY version of frugality), and stingy (self-focused, uncharitable). I’ve likely been a mixture of all four at various points in my financial history, but I like to think I come down squarely in the “frugal” camp most days.

We all have unique priorities for our money and identifying what’s important is a key component to financial success (retiring at 40 will take different efforts than, say, aiming to eat out once a month at a fancy restaurant). Here’s where frugality comes in – looking for the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

My husband and I are part of a growing trend – working professionals that look for meaning and purpose in a landscape with transient positions; gone are the days of 30-year jobs (complete with a pension). Our generation studies longer, assumes more debt, and changes jobs with a frequency unheard of among our parent’s baby-boomer peer group. Some of this is a product of the modern world, coupled with our determination to extract purpose and joy from our careers. For those of us fortunate enough to be picky, it’s generally unthinkable that work be a faceless void serving only to pad our bank accounts – it must fulfill, challenge, and reward. That’s a tall order but we all seem to be pursuing it relentlessly.

University further blurs the lines. What if you have an advanced degree in International Relations (one family member), or are a microbiologist with an MBA (another family member). What are your options? Better buckle up to navigate them all.

With either of these backgrounds you could be a manager and work up to a C-level position; you could specialize in a specific area of your broader field or launch a non-profit. You could become a university professor, go to law school and join a firm, or enter politics. Have a natural penchant for traveling – what about becoming a full-time sponsored influencer? Many choose to pad their tech skills, and why not take some coding classes on the side? If all else fails, what about dabbling in professional poker – I met someone in university who dropped out to do this full-time and Maria Konnikova’s done alright for herself. (Compare this to being a dental hygienist [another family member]. If you move to a new city, take a wild guess at what job you’re likely to look for in the local classifieds).

Many people look to forge their own trail; we may be tired of hearing about the trajectories of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and other self-made million/billionaires who followed their passion, but their stories are undeniably fascinating. We watch people make it big selling fragrances and makeup, custom planners, and flattering underwear (why hello, SPANX). You name it, someone has done it, marching to the beat of their own drummer…and beating the entrepreneurial odds.

Some of these entrepreneurs come from money. The money that funds Harvard educations, weekend homes in the Hamptons, fridges full of champagne (I saw this on an episode of Columbo last week so it must be true), and no need for a paid summer work. 

But what about those folks (most of us/them) without a big influx of cash?

My father still loves to reminisce about his summers spent working at a local dry-dock. In less than 4 months he made enough money to fund his entire upcoming year at university (tuition and board). Whenever he talks about this I detect a measure of pride in his voice, followed by resignation that no such job exists for students these days. 

So how do we make it all work? How do we pursue something we’re passionate about without accumulating crushing layers of debt? I’d argue one of the most important elements to a successful entrepreneurial trajectory (or just general financial independence) – a lynchpin that supports work ethic, raw talent, and divine intervention – is careful stewarding of money.  

I had an unfair advantage – my parents, living most of their life on the salary of a rural Baptist minister – put money away from the time I was an infant. Small amounts (again, rural Baptist minister) but it compounded over time. Birthday money, $10/month into a registered education savings account, random coins found on the sidewalk. With scholarships and summer work placements, I managed to come out of university with money in the bank.

Despite this leg up, we started married life in a tiny apartment, one of the cheapest we could find; we laid towels across the bottom of the door to stop the smoke that floated down the hallway from entering our little space. We rescued art destined for the garbage to adorn our walls. We scoured weekly sales flyers to find the best deal on groceries and those itty-bitty diapers our newborn kept blowing through at an alarming pace. When we spotted reduced produce at the grocery store, that bruised bell pepper became the base of a soup and overripe bananas became bread.

Our clothes came (and still come), almost without exception, from second-hand sources. We started a business with grand dreams and no real idea how to fulfill them. We worked on the side, me in environmental consulting and student services, my husband fixing electronics; at any given time our apartment hosted stacks of computer towers, phones, and laptops in various states of repair.

I’m not going to lie. It got hard. Not single-parent-don’t-know-where-our-next-meal-will-come-from-hard. I don’t know that hard. But as many of our peers bought homes and drove new vehicles, we put our heads down and trudged forward.

A baby meant we qualified for a larger, subsidized apartment. This one had its own entrance and no smoke curling under the door; this time it leaked into each room through ceiling vents. We closed those and opened windows. Shift workers – or that’s what I assumed them to be – living above us scrapped chairs over tile floor each morning at 3 am. Their kitchen was located directly over our bedroom. When our son developed a milk allergy requiring specialized formula, we were pulling $400 a month from our business or, more accurately, $392 after our measly contribution to the government coffers. We weren’t doing much to remedy the local potholes. We qualified for grants to help with his food. In terms of the black-and-white of our bank account, we were living below the poverty line. Yet, we saved. We researched purchases, haggled deals, and bought things in cash.

And we found creative ways to make more money, including stints as human guinea pigs.

First, we participated in a research study at a local university that was examining how people empathize with a partner experiencing pain. John was texting me about these painful shocks he was undergoing in the adjacent room and they recorded my text responses. I literally laughed out loud – it was clearly ludicrous that in 2010 they would be shocking my husband in a university research lab (they weren’t). I didn’t play along, called their bluff, and we walked out with $15/each. Somehow I doubt our material made it into their final report. Or maybe it did – me as the villain, a heartless and cold wife who didn’t care about the agony her husband was being subjected to in the next room.

Another time I ate probiotic powder every day for 6 weeks and was assessed on my memory skills in an assortment of word and number games. Spoiler alert – I am terrible, probiotics notwithstanding, at remembering number sequences.

Most lucrative was our foray into professional taste-testing. I am not making this up.

Over the course of several years we made $1,000s in grocery gift cards debating the merits of different cuts of grass-fed beef and making flax-flour breads at home. We sat around a conference table with a full panel of taste-testers, giving serious thought to whether a cucumber slice should be rated 7 or 8 on the crunchy scale. I have photos of my daughter playing with her beloved stuffed monkey, thinking there was nothing out of the ordinary while I sat nearby in a tiny booth, sliding open a stainless steel door to receive my tray of crackers and gluten-free quiche like a veritable lab rat. She bummed the saltine crackers, designed to cleanse the palate, and fed monkey pretend food out of the little styrene cups my beef jerky and cheese cubes had been delivered in. We tested flavoured maple syrups, salad greens (this was a months-long project – turns out there’s a lot more involved with ranking different types of baby spinach and kale than I had originally imagined), strombowaffles, and even beer.

Coupled with our ability to minimize expenditures (grocery bill with sales, clothing costs by thrifting and hand-me-downs, vehicle expenses by having a single used car and walking as much as possible, housing costs by living in a small, subsidized rental), these other sources of money provided one of the most critical things for a startup – runway. We hear stories of overnight successes but, in reality, even those “overnight” successes involve years of hard work and sacrifice.

That runway gave us time to network. Fail, make mistakes, and learn. Hire Co-op students and invest lots of time into our products and our vision for our startup (and, eventually, a second start-up). We applied for grants and talked to investors and put in one of the only things we could – sweat equity.

Being frugal was a choice. We could have moved for work or found full-time jobs. We had family to fall back on if the going had gotten impossible. We are also blessed to live in a country with incredible social safety nets. But this was less about money and more about the end goal. Financial freedom (no debt) and entrepreneurial itches we wanted to scratch.

My husband knew a very successful local businessman growing up who was known for saving (and reusing) his tea bags. We did that too. A constant mound of chai and orange pekoe showed up in little bowls in our fridge – and for heaven’s sake don’t mix up the decaf with the regular. We bought the ketchup that was on sale and I waited for sneakers in my size to show up at the consignment store when the old ones wore out.

But we spent money too. We went to Denmark as a family of 3 and swam in the Blue Lagoon during a layover in Iceland; we traveled to New York City and took in Broadway shows. Sure, we ate at McDonald’s and tramped through town in our best second-hand clothes, but the memories were no less exciting! Our financial decisions weren’t about deprivation and total sacrifice but about maximizing, stretching, and then reaping the benefits in ways we truly valued.

Ramit Sethi talks about identifying what will make you feel rich. Is it being able to order an appetizer at a restaurant? Is it being able to give a specific amount to your favourite charity? Is it traveling the world, buying a sports car, leaving an inheritance to your children? Maybe it’s bootstrapping a startup…

Rich” doesn’t have to be a particular number in a bank account, it can represent an outcome – and there can be many ways to get there. Ours just happened to involve cubes of beef and cucumbers.