“You don’t have to be rich to travel well.” —Eugene Fodor
Travel—even when you’re on a tight budget—is one of life’s greatest luxuries. The chance to take a few days off work, hop on a plane, pay for a hotel room, and take yourself out to a new restaurant is a privilege that most of the 7.5 billion people on this earth do not experience regularly.
And while the very act of travel is a luxury, obviously there are different levels to this luxury. While some travelers are perfectly happy in a $25 per night shared room in a hostel, others are more comfortable in a $2,500 per night penthouse suite or a $25,000 per night private villa. (Here at Fodor’s, we’re mostly about the $250 per night boutique hotels.) But just because there are hotel rooms out there in the world that cost more than your yearly salary doesn’t mean you’ll never get to experience some of the world’s greatest luxury travel experiences, like Michelin-starred restaurants, world-famous hotels, and one of those fancy lay-flat seats in business class. In fact, if you know where, when, and how to spend your travel dollars, you too can travel like a rich person—without going into debt.
Never Pay for First Class
Yes, flying in a lay-flat seat is fun, but it’s simply not worth it. It’s usually 3-10 times the price of a regular ticket, meaning you’re wasting hundreds—probably thousands—of dollars just to be comfortable for a few hours. And don’t forget that comfortable is a relative term here, since no matter how much money you pay, you’re still eating microwaved food within smelling distance of farty strangers, all while hurtling through the sky in a tin can. We all know the best part about first class is actually just having a flight attendant be nice to you, anyways. Once you’ve made your first billion, it’s fine to pay people to be nice to you, but it’s truly a waste of money until then.
Stay Loyal to an Airline
Just because you should never pay for first class doesn’t mean that you should never fly first class. Accumulating miles and linking your mileage to credit card spending can get you at the top of the list for free upgrades. Plus, airlines have made it easier to upgrade your seat for free with miles or even buy a first-class ticket with miles. Sometimes your preferred airline is more expensive than the competition, so a good rule of thumb is to only stay loyal up to a point—usually around $100 or 20 percent of the ticket price.
Choose Your Luggage Wisely and Never Pack More Than You Can Carry
You know what’s not luxurious? Dragging a checked bag through narrow cobblestone streets while sweating your butt off and getting frustrated when you can’t find your hotel. Backpackers have already figured this out, but you’ll be just as happy with a small rolling bag as you’d be with a backpack. This is an absolutely essential part of packing.
And speaking of suitcases, it’s actually not a great idea to have flashy luggage. Luis Vuitton was intended for people who fly private and have never seen the inside of a municipal bus. Generally, there are three kinds of bags that won’t out you as somebody still paying off their student loans, won’t draw unwanted attention from thieves, and won’t cost more than your plane ticket. The first option is a technical-ish bag for outdoorsy types—we’re fans of Baboon’s duffel backpacks and Patagonia’s wheeled duffels. If you’d rather have something a bit sleeker, opt for Herschel’s Small Trade Bag or one of those smart bags from ROAM or AWAY. There’s also the option of a chic weekender bag that can easily be stuffed into overhead bins. We like Cuyana’s Classic Weekender Bag and Paravel’s Main Line Duffel.
Public Transportation Should Be Your First Choice
There’s another huge advantage to never packing more than you can carry—you are now free to use public transportation to get from the airport to your hotel. Most city airports are located pretty far from where you’ll actually want to stay, making the taxi from hotel to airport likely to be your single greatest on-the-ground transportation expense. If you’re traveling with a huge checked bag and two carry-ons, taking the subway makes no sense. But with just a small carry-on suitcase and a personal item, you’re now free to take advantage of public transportation in cities like Bangkok, Paris, and New York City, where taking the subway from the airport is 1/10th the price of a taxi and usually much faster.
Dress to Blend in, Not to Stand Out
Fast fashion is evil for myriad reasons (unfair treatment of workers, polluting the environment, contributing to a frenzy of global consumerism, producing mass-market replicas of stolen designs, etc.) so it’s clear that fast fashion and travel don’t mix. Curating a travel wardrobe of stylish (not trendy!) and well-made clothes will serve you well in the long run.
But that doesn’t mean you should bring your “investment pieces” halfway around the world with you either. Opt for something in the middle ground, with well-made, durable items that communicate style instead of fashion. Find silhouettes that you feel fabulous in and keep that in mind while shopping. Monotones, layers, and natural fabrics like cotton, wool, silk, and linen are a traveler’s best friend and brands like Everlane and Cuyana offer simple, ethical, and affordable designs that look good everywhere. They’re the kind of clothes that look better the more you wash and wear them and are meant to last for years.
In general, unless you’re at a private resort or in a tropical locale, it’s better to err on the side of modesty with your clothing. No matter where you’re headed, make sure to pack at least a few items that cover your knees and shoulders (this goes for everybody—not just women).
INSIDER TIPSkip the cheap prints—last season’s florals begin to look like a Forever 21 knock-off after just a few wears and questionable fabrics rarely make it through a few washes.
A sit-down breakfast is a waste of money and a waste of time, so stick with what’s included at the hotel or find a cute coffee shop nearby where you can get your morning caffeine fix along with a snack to tide you over until lunch. If you’re staying at a rental, pick up some toast, eggs, and a bit of fruit and you’ll have supplied yourself for a week’s worth of breakfast for the price of one plate of eggs at a sit-down restaurant.
Sometimes, a breakfast restaurant is more than just a place to eat—it’s a destination. In this case, instead of missing out, make a reservation for the latest possible table. This way, you can consider it more of an early lunch than a breakfast and you’ll still be eating at restaurants for just two meals of the day.
Go to Fancy Restaurants at Lunch
This is a well-known tip, but it will never steer you wrong. There are a few reasons why this is good advice. First, you’ll probably have an easier time getting a reservation at lunch and if it’s a place that doesn’t take reservations, you can better your chances at getting a table by showing up early (eating lunch at 11:30 is no big whoop, but who wants to have dinner at 5?). Second, the menu will most likely be cheaper. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it’s quite common for fancy places to have a lunch menu that’s slightly cheaper than the dinner menu, usually for the same food (but possibly smaller portions) as you’d find at dinner. Third, you’ll save on alcohol. While four people at dinner on vacation will probably get cocktails, a couple of bottles of wine, and maybe some digestifs, at lunch you’ll probably stick to just a glass or two of wine or beer, effectively cutting your bar bill in half.
Get Comfortable With Brunch and Linner
Ah, the beauty of the mono meal. To really avoid wasting money at restaurants, plan your days around just one large midday meal—either having a light snack for breakfast, eating a decadent “linner” at 4 p.m., and snacking on late-night snacks or street food for a midnight snack, or starting the day with a big meal around 11, and just having a light snack when you’re hungry again. What will work best for you really depends on if you’re an early riser or a night owl.
Never Settle for a Mediocre Hotel
This is an idea that most people have trouble with, but you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it. A standard $250 per night chain hotel is fine for 5 days, but that’s all it is—fine. The secret to affording a night in an amazing hotel is going to extremes. Why not stay in a $25/night hostel for the first three nights, then splash out on a $500+ hotel room for the last two nights? There are a few things to keep in mind in order for this to work: unless you’re a brave soul, you have to find a private room in a hostel (private bathroom is not as necessary, but you have to have somewhere that won’t be a bummer to return to in the middle of the day if you need a nap). Make your days at the hostel chock-full of museum visits and dinner reservations, then spend the last day or two at the luxury hotel simply basking in your surroundings: lounging by the pool, taking a bath, or eating room service in your bathrobe. You’re on vacation, after all. Just make sure to always end your trip on a high note—it’s a real bummer to go from five-star to hostel and then fly home.