We all remember the good old recession days when airlines, resorts and hotels pulled out deals that almost begged us to travel the world.
But as more people find money to travel, popular tourist destinations are becoming less desperate to lure tourists, and those cut-rate deals are becoming fewer and further apart.
Getting around on a budget can seem difficult, especially if it means eating something disguised as food out of a can and sharing a dorm with strangers to cut expenses.
But for those of us who prefer a more luxurious vacation complete with restaurant meals and pleasant hotel stays, there are other ways to cut the costs.
Use the power of points
Without a doubt the most effective way to save on travel is by using a credit card that gives you miles or other travel rewards every time you spend money on purchases.
Some hotel or airline credit cards give you high points for purchases you make from a specific hotel or airline, but that will only really benefit you if you use a specific airline or hotel each time you travel. If you use a more flexible rewards credit card that lets you earn points throughout the year which you can redeem towards travel purchases, you can use one of these cards to pay for all your everyday purchases, and the points can add up quite fast.
Many issuers also offer attractive bonus offers when you successfully apply for a travel rewards card and fulfill certain requirements.
So just getting the right credit card and using it to pay for your daily purchases could already help you earn rewards towards your flight. When you take the cost of the flight out of the equation, travel on $100 a day begins to look more realistic.
Be an off-season traveler
There is no better way to get more travel for your money than to take your vacation during the low season. Not only will you avoid those annoying tourist crowds, you will avoid the high prices that accompany them.
Everything from hotel stays to restaurant meals and souvenirs tend to become cheaper during the low seasons, and flights may cost as much as 50% less. As a rule, plan your vacation as far away from school holidays as possible.
Low seasons generally span from mid-January till mid-June and then from mid-September until December, although Spring Break and Thanksgiving tend to send prices surging temporarily. Peak seasons can vary a little bit from one airline to another, but the above is a good general guide.
Traveling during off-peak seasons can also help you avoid blackout dates and betters your chances of getting upgrades on airlines or at hotels.
Airline ticket prices will often skyrocket in the high season, and this applies even more when you redeem miles for airfare. For example, to take a peak season main cabin flight to the Caribbean on American Airlines from the contiguous 48 US states will cost you 17,500 AAdvantage® miles each way (plus applicable taxes and fees). This drops to 12,500 miles each way during off-peak seasons, meaning you can get a round-trip for 10,000 less miles (accurate as of June 2015).
Keep your options open
Most of us have more than one place we'd like to experience before we kick the bucket. Travel costs change faster than politicians change their minds, so be ready to choose your destination based on the cheapest option this year.
According to the TripIndex™ Europe released by popular travel website TripAdvisor, the basic cost of spending a week's vacation in Europe has gone down 11% on average in 2016. The wonders of ancient Athens can now be enjoyed for an average of just $84.87 (per hotel night) compared to $99.51 in 2014. Istanbul (half of it is in Europe) had the biggest decline in hotel costs this year. The $97.13 price-tag on a hotel stay in this fascinating city in 2016 is 25% lower than last year's $132.08 average. An average return flight to Istanbul has gone down to $1,197.47 from last year's $1,570.99. Even holidaying in Switzerland is not as expensive as it was last year. At $3,236 for a week of hotel stays plus a return flight, Zurich is by far the most expensive city to visit. But that price tag is 9% lower than last year, so if you have a fat travel wallet then 2016 may be the year to tick the Matterhorn climb off your bucket list.
But even $84.87 per hotel night doesn't leave you with much spending money if you are vacationing on $100 a day. Sure, you could head to one of those alternative destinations (Bucharest averaged just $66.94 per hotel stay) or bunk in a youth hostel, but vacation is about enjoyment as well as new experiences. A much better alternative is to search for the best hotel deals online. Or if you are more adventurous try finding a good deal at a smaller, local hotel when you arrive. Mom and Pop hotels or B&Bs might not show up online, but often offer very good value for money. Be prepared to carry local currency and a phrase book if you go that route. If you find a decent pad for $50 per night, you'll still have $50 left to enjoy life.
If you can pull off dividing your everyday spending between an airline card and a hotel card (or use one travel card that gives you points that can be redeemed for both), you could easily enjoy a trip on $100 a day without pinching pennies too much. Even if you only earn enough rewards for just your airfare or just your hotel stays, you will be saving a lot of money.
Get off the beaten path
Some destinations are an absolute must, but major tourist hotspots tend to command top-dollar prices from long lines of tourists. As with low and high seasons, the supply and demand rule applies to travel destinations as well.
Many less-marketed destinations offer sights and experiences comparable to the tourist magnets, but with a much lower price tag.
For example, the average of a hotel stay in Paris is nearly double the average price in the rest of France. Many less-known cities within reasonable traveling distance from Paris have a lot to offer. You can take day trips to the tourist hotspots and then retire to a more authentic (and cheaper) town that's off the tourist map.
Avoid currency change rip-offs
One of the quickest and easiest ways to waste your travel money is by paying fees to change dollars into local currency. Most money exchange outlets charge a commission of 2% to 5% and often don't give you the best rate.
Credit cards normally charge a 3% foreign transaction fee when you use your card to pay outside of the US, and if you withdraw cash you will usually be hit with ATM charges as well.
If you aren't prepared to spend $3 out of every $100 on fees, then you should consider getting a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Avoiding foreign transaction fees can save you from $3-$5 a day on your travel expenses. That's your souvenir money right there.
Don't get too much insurance
Traveling outside of the US has its perils, and making sure you are properly insured is always a good idea. Just try not to buy the same thing twice.
When you pay for your travel bookings using many popular credit cards, you get certain types of travel insurance coverage.
Some credit cards give you additional insurance coverage that you would usually pay extra for, when you use them to pay for your travel purchases.
Considering travel insurance costs 4%-8% of the price you pay for your flight (according to US Travel Insurance Association report), getting complimentary travel insurance by using your credit card to pay makes a lot of sense. For example, if your airfare costs $1250, cutting out travel insurance expenses could help you save up to $100, or 1 full day's budget.
So can you enjoy a pleasant vacation on $100 a day? Yes and no. If you subsidize your trip with rewards that you earn with your travel credit card then yes (depending on amount of rewards accumulated). With your flights covered by points or miles, you can get by on $100 a day if you look for deals and keep off the tourist hotspots. If you can cover both your airline and hotel expenses using rewards earned with airline credit cards and hotel credit cards, you can actually live it up on your vacation (tours, amusements, shopping, restaurants) without scraping the bottom of the barrel.
If you haven't collected rewards to boost your travel fund, you may find it nearly impossible to enjoy a decent trip on $100 a day at this point in time. Even if you head for a low-cost destination and stick to budget hotels, the bulk of your $100 daily budget will be bitten off by the airline ticket before you even get started. If 100 bucks is what you've got, you can always use your vacation to visit family and friends and try to crash out at theirs, or consider postponing your trip while you fatten your piggy bank.
Here are some of my favorite rewards travel cards for hotels, airlines and everything in between: