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Traveling Well Without Breaking the Bank

Morningstar.com readers enthuse about the wallet-friendly virtues of off-peak travel, apartment rentals, and dining where the locals do.

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Want tips on maximizing your travel dollars? Morningstar.com readers have advice for you on everything to renting apartments and using your cell phone abroad to saving on credit card fees and fine dining. With summer travel in full swing, I queried Morningstar.com's financially savvy crew to get their best ideas about traveling well without breaking the bank, and a fun discussion ensured. To read the complete thread or share your own budget-friendly travel tip, click here.

'Try to Arbitrage the Same Body of Water'
When it comes to keeping travel bills down, savvy scheduling is key, in the view of several posters.

BMWLover advised planning ahead. Or waiting until the last minute. "Book well in advance or a week before," this reader advised. "Either way can give you the best opportunity at a deal."

Staying longer in a single region makes good financial sense for RetiredinFL. "We now go to two or three major cities in a region and spend two to three weeks," this poster wrote. "Longer stays make the flight cost per day lower, as well."

Several posters noted that you can save serious money by being willing to travel to a given destination at off-peak times. Duanej shared, "Traveling during off-season or shoulder seasons helps on the accommodations side. For example, rates on accommodations in the Caribbean drop significantly in mid-April (and even more during hurricane season, but of course there's a risk your trip will be, um, preempted!). The week between Christmas and New Year's can be a cheaper time to visit city center areas (because there's very little business travel that week). We stayed at a very nice hotel in San Francisco a few years ago, for less than half of the normal rate."

Dragonpat concurred about the virtues of off-season travel. "Winter in Italy offers great weather for those of us from the frigid upper northwest; water is a liquid everywhere. Airfares and lodging was a lot cheaper November through March. Perfect for shorter lines at the Colosseum."

Muniadvocate advised that travelers should let the deals drive their itineraries. "Go where the deal takes you," this poster wrote. "Rather than picking a place to vacation based on the passion to go to that particular location during a specific time frame, take the time to review web sites and other sources to find the places that are offering discounted accommodations, and/ or, where airlines, cruise lines or Amtrak are offering lower fares. Over a lifetime you will probably be able to visit everywhere you want to see and this way maybe you will save the money to travel more often."

Respondents also advised that venturing beyond the usual tourist hot spots--whether they be Orlando, Fla., or Barcelona, Spain--can help save dough and yield rich experiences at the same time.

"In Europe, try to arbitrage the same body of water, if you want sun and sand, so Turkey, not Greece, or Morocco, not Spain," advised MatthewStev. "Usually the same empires left ruins in both places."

This seasoned traveler also suggested that going where others are disinclined to venture can help intrepid travelers save money and steer clear of the madding crowds. "Give a look to countries just emerging from wars or revolution," MatthewStev urged. "Sri Lanka, for example. In those places, often, the dollar is one of the few winners. You will laugh, but I bet Egypt, especially Luxor, is being given away these days, and unless you're heading to Tahrir Square, you will have it to yourself."

South Africa has beckoned as a surprisingly budget-friendly option for DrHelen. This poster wrote, "For an exotic vacation at a reasonable price think about South Africa. It's a wonderful country with a huge range of things to see and do. The game parks are designed to be affordable, providing a range of accommodations including camping options. That's a great deal less costly than most people think of when they think 'safari.' I'd suggest finding a South African travel agent to do the details."

DaveS2013 is also thinking south: South America: "I went to South America last year. It's not expensive and it's as interesting as going to Europe. You can live like a king for less than $100 per day. Maybe a bit more in Brazil or Argentina. The food and in many places, seafood is fantastic."

'Getting There Is Half the Fun'
Readers also shared tips for getting where you want to go--and getting around once you do--in a budget-friendly manner.

Conducting some reconnaissance on airfares can yield rich savings, noted BMWLover. "Shop for the best value in flights. We have the opportunity to travel out of Boston or other smaller regional airports and by doing our research many times we can come up with a really good deal."

RobertK advised, "Some foreign airlines have better fares on their country of origin website. You may have to read their language."

The open road calls to Retiredgary, who suggested, "Within the United States, travel by car as much as possible. This saves money and avoids both the Transportation Security Administration and the other joys of present-day air travel. It also lets you see and enjoy things along the way."

DaveS2013 prefers to see the sights on two wheels. "Ride a motorcycle," this poster advised. "Getting there is half the fun."

Readers also shared great ideas about getting around once you reach your destination.

Posters noted that discount airlines have proliferated throughout the world, but train travel had its partisans. Wrote Tarzan: "If traveling from one city to another in Europe, consider traveling by train. It's cheap, safe, comfortable and gets you straight into the city center."

RobertK advised, "Many countries have discounted fares for seniors--especially trains and local buses. Age varies country by country. It doesn't hurt to ask."

But Danielle noted that train travel may not be the most economical way to get around for larger parties. "It's often cheaper to rent a car to cart a family around than to take the train. The exception to this would be in the cities where driving is next-to-impossible anyway and public transportation is much cheaper."

Cgajowski concurred that it's best to ditch the car when you're in the city. "Even if you will be renting a car, time it so that you don't have the hassle of tending to it in cities. Save it for countryside forays," This experience traveler continued, "Renting a stick shift is way less than getting an automatic; last time out we rented a diesel, too. We were in France for a week; [we] also found that using the 'blue' highways--not the high-speed toll roads--was more picturesque, cheaper and let us stop at small local restaurants in villages along the way."

If you do rent a car, bnorthrop says to "rent a car in town instead of at the airport. It's generally, much cheaper."

Forget car rentals, says MatthewStev. Instead, this poster recommended, "Travel everywhere with a folding bike. Cities are meant to seen over the handlebars."

Amanda agreed that bike travel can provide an ideal way to get to know a place. "A great way to experience a country is doing a bicycle tour, either self-directed or with a guide," she wrote. "Plan a trip with a few friends or or small group for even greater savings." 

'You Actually Get to Experience One Place'
Several posters agreed that splurging on luxe hotels isn't necessarily the best use of finite travel dollars, especially in places where seeing the sights will keep you busy.

Peter5 summed up that sentiment. "When we travel we tend to stay at moderately priced accommodations because we typically aren't in the room/hotel much at all but are instead out exploring and enjoying the area all day. I'd rather spend less money on everything, but not lack comfort or happiness, so that we can stay there longer. It works for us."

Chief K concurred. "If you are in Paris, San Francisco, Istanbul, or wherever, select your hotel/motel as a place to sleep, rest, and clean up, while you spend most of your time touring, shopping, whatever."

BMWLover shared, "Unless you're planning on spending all of your time in your hotel, take a step down in the ranking of your hotel. Many times I've found a 3-star to be just as good as a 4-star."

In major urban areas, a less-than-prime location is just fine for retiredgary, who wrote, "When visiting big cities, consider staying at a cheaper hotel in a suburb and using commuter trains or metro transit systems to go into the city each day."

Rforno offered a counterpoint, however. "I don't mind staying in the middle of a big city (that is, paying up for a hotel). Knowing that I can walk everywhere I want to go while I'm there [enables me to] avoid car rentals and possibly save money."

If you opt for very basic accommodations, Userjm advised that a good towel can make up for a lot. "Bring along a nice thick towel towel for each person (or buy them when you arrive)," urged this poster. "The two big differences I find are smaller rooms and poorer towels in the less expensive hotels."

Numerous posters enthused about forgoing hotels and instead renting houses or apartments.

Advised JHAsheville, "For more than a night or two we use vacation rental properties and call owners directly to obtain better-than-advertised rates and terms."

Cgajowski also favors house or apartment rentals. "If you are going to stay somewhere a week or more, rent a place. I've done this without kids; with them it seems like a no-brainer. It feels more relaxing to 'come home' some days and not contend with hotel employees. You can usually access neighborhood eateries, and maybe do some breakfasts on your own. You actually get to experience one place, too.

Bed-and-breakfasts appeal to Bnorthrop. "B&Bs offer superior location and ambiance at rates often less than ho-hum hotels/motels."

This poster also has guidance for nature lovers. "State parks often have 'luxury' features that national parks don't, such as hot showers, bigger campsites, fewer visitors, and still very cool attractions. If you do camp in a national park, reserve a room at the end of your stay either in the National Park lodge or a bordering town motel for winding-down and relaxing before you hit the road."

'Substantial Savings and a Gastronomic Delight'
The thread also featured many great tips about how to maximize dollars when dining out on vacation.

Do your homework to find the most interesting spots to dine, advised Juris2. "My cost-saving tip--if you want to avoid the fast food alternative--is to do heavy research in advance of your trip finding reasonably priced but interesting/excellent meals. Yelp (YELP), Zagat,  TripAdvisor (TRIP)--any and all guides--are a starting point, but you must sort through the reviews. We have definitely found some reasonably priced gems this way."

JHAsheville likes to eat where the locals do. "Our eating-out dollars are spent at out of the way local dives for authentic food, which usually provides substantial savings and a gastronomic delight."

Harryb and other posters noted that splurging at lunch enables you to experience top restaurants with a smaller price tag. "If you are going to splurge at a nice restaurant---go at lunch time when prices are lower and the cooking is the same. You can get a good table usually without a reservation."

Skipping the three squares appeals to BMWLover. "Many times we only eat two meals a day with a snack in between. We've found that a late breakfast with a midevening dinner works with a snack such as a local fruit, cheese, pastry or some other local delicacy purchased in between. It's fun to see what the local shops have to offer."

Scouting out coupons and other discounts is a good way to reduce costs, in the view of Dndhatcher. "In addition to coupons online and at information booths at the vacation destination, you can get Groupon (GRPN) (and similar site) discounts at restaurants to help reduce food expenses."

"Avoid the minibar," rforno suggested. "Buy your own bottle elsewhere and keep it in your bag if you want a nightcap."

Other posters said they save on food expenses by cooking and preparing their own food.

In this respect, Betsesequim is hard-core. "I carry my traveling kitchen and we eat out of grocery stores in the hotel room: immersion heater, small flexible cutting boards for plates, fold-up camping bowls, plastic mugs, can opener, peeler, heavy plastic spoons/forks/knives, big knife in protective case if checking luggage, salt and pepper. Then we buy bread, cheese, dehydrated soups, shelf-stable mayo, tuna, chips, etc."

Dennis has fond memories of cooking for and with family members in a Tuscan farmhouse. "It was a fabulous experience of learning and family bonding. The dinners were relatively lavish. It made us slow down and observe how the people actually lived and bought in the market."

'It Takes the Pressure Off'
Readers also shared advice on seeing the sights on a budget.

Muniadvocate advised, "Many attractions and activities are available in most areas that are free. A little Web research or asking questions at travel bureaus will turn up lists of possible fun things to see or do for no admission fees."

Dennis' favorite freebie? "In Europe, keep an eye open for church concerts. It can be a great way to spend an evening with a beautiful organ or choir or both in an ancient building."

A little online research can yield rich results, in the view of Danielle. "Purchase as many of your attractions and tickets online and as far in advance as possible. You'll save quite a bit of money and spend less time in line."

If you're seeing multiple attractions in a given place, RobertK suggested to see if there's a discount card available. "Always check to see if there are city tourist cards that offer discounted or free access to museums and local transportation, for example, the Oslo [Norway] card," this poster wrote.

Dndhatcher said that paying for an annual membership can make financial sense--and take the stress out of vacation, too. "Attractions often have annual memberships that allow you to go as many times as you want. For example the zoo we went to this year was $52 for a day pass for a family of four. The annual family membership was only $100. We went four partial days and spent the afternoons in our resort pool. It takes the pressure off seeing the whole thing in one day so vacation is more relaxing."

'Learn How to Maximize the Benefits'
Readers also shared wisdom about conducting financial transactions overseas.

Tarzan advised, "Get a credit card that does not charge you a foreign transaction fee (which typically can be as high as 3%) and which also lets you earn some cash back/miles (such as from  Capital One Financial (COF) or PenFed)."

Readers also discussed the value of having a credit card with an embedded EMV chip while in Europe. "Few Americans have the credit card with the embedded EMV chip," Dennis wrote. "Our magnetic strip cards will not work in some situations. I'm told that this is particularly a problem in France, Italy, and the Netherlands."

Posters also had tips for getting cash when you need it. Avoid currency exchanges and changing money at your hotel, advised RobertK. "Foreign exchange offices and hotels can charge significant exchange premiums. You get very unfavorable rates at U.S. airports. Use your debit card in the foreign ATM machines for the best rates or buy from your local bank before you leave--especially when the exchange rate favors the dollar." This poster went on, "Always pay in the currency of the country--don't accept the option when charging to pay in dollars. It often results in a higher transaction fee.

KathieL advised, "Your brokerage is probably the best place to get an ATM card that does not charge for using foreign ATMs. Mine also charges only 1% foreign exchange premium and refunds any charges the foreign ATM charges for use."

This poster also urged fellow travelers to be savvy about racking up airline and hotel points. "Learn how to maximize the benefits of loyalty programs--consolidate your flights on one or two airlines, choose a couple of hotel programs to concentrate on, and get premium status on your favorite programs."

No matter where you're headed or what you're doing, MatthewStev argued that a value-oriented mind-set is important. "I look at travel the way many of you look at stocks, and avoid high P/E trips and search the world for currency mismatches, low prices-to-book, and warm water trading at a discount. It's not hard to put together a value vacation portfolio, something I have traded on for more than thirty years (and in some 100 countries)."

But BMWLover sensibly urged not to miss the forest for the trees. "We travel to enjoy our life and to reward ourselves for working hard. We will not scrimp and short-change ourselves out of an enjoyable time. It isn't worth it."

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Christine Benz does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.