How to Travel Like You're Not Totally Broke

In Depth

Everyone wants to travel like they’re rich: flying first class, staying in top resorts, dining in the world’s best restaurants, and enjoying the coolest nightlife. But unfortunately, most of us are relegated to middle seats in coach, possibly dodgy hostels, cheap street cart food, and bars riddled with drunk backpackers. We deserve better, dammit.

Flygirl spoke with an expert from the Travel Education Network — a company that hosts classes and seminars to help people travel at reasonable prices — as well as writers for Lonely Planet and Let’s Go to figure out how we can all live the high life when we’re traveling with a tight a budget.

Give up your dream of a free first class upgrade.

Over a decade ago, I saw an episode of Friends where Monica was pissed off because an airline gave gave a couple a free upgrade to first class on their honeymoon over her and (ugh) Chandler. That episode made me believe that free first class upgrades were a thing, which is why I’ve habitually tried everything I can to get a free upgrade.

In my attempts to score that mythical upgrade, I’ve told flight attendants that my travel companion and I are “so in love like that couple on Friends,” and one time I even faked a pregnancy, both to no avail. I figured that my failure could be chalked up to the same reason why I can’t get out of traffic tickets: I’m a terrible liar.

According to Howie Rappaport of The Travel Education Network, however, I shouldn’t necessarily blame my subpar manipulation skills. “The airlines have really monetized the upgrade process, so complimentary upgrades are typically reserved for elite status fliers within an airline’s program,” he said. For example: You enroll in American Airlines frequent flier program, which keeps a tally of how many air miles you log with them and their partners each year. If fly between 25,000 and infinity miles, you are awarded “status” of varying tiers (according to your road warrior level), which in turn makes you more likely to receive complementary award upgrades.

“For the everyday flier that may hop on three or four flights a year, the likelihood of a complimentary upgrade is practically slim to none,” says Rappaport. “The old, ‘Oh I’m going on my honeymoon, can I get an upgrade?’ — sometimes they would [indulge] that. But as a general rule, getting an upgrade from economy to first class is a challenge.”

But those award upgrades can work in your favor, even if you’re not a frequent flier. When an elite passenger scores a complimentary boost up to first or business class, the economy seat they previously occupied will suddenly become available. So if you’re relegated to a middle seat near the bathroom, you’ve got a shot at improving your lot. Pro tip: Sign up for the website Expert Flyer, which alerts you when certain seats on selected flights become available.

“It’s not as good as a free upgrade to first class, but it may get you out of that middle seat or it may get you into an aisle or it may let you sit next to a family member you are traveling with that you may not have booked a seat with,” Rappaport said.

Pick swanky hostels over swanky hotels.

Gone are the days when staying in a hostel entailed solely staying in a smelly 16-bed room with people fucking and snoring in close quarters. Nowadays, certain hostels now act as defacto boutique hotels — thank you, flashpackers — offering the option of private rooms and cool amenities that give the illusion of being ultra luxe, all at a fairly low cost.

“The lines are starting to blur between hostels and luxury hotels. Oftentimes these hip hostels that are geared towards millennials will have different tiers of accommodation to their properties,” said MaSovaida Morgan, an editor for Lonely Planet. The Freehand properties in Chicago and Miami are two examples of hostels that feel luxurious, or at least kitschy-cool, without costing as much as a typical hotel. They have pools (at least in Miami) and hip lounges, and offer private and shared rooms with hip décor and mixology bars.

Morgan also recommends the Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland, which is located in a repurposed biscuit factory and from it’s website, basically looks like it belongs in Kinfolk. “Hostels are not completely off-limits if you feel like you’re a grown-up but still want to have a budget experience,” she explained. “You could be paying $50 a night instead of $100 at the Holiday Inn, and because these properties are targeted to a specific kind of traveler, they could be a really cool experience.”

But if you’re dead-set on staying in a hotel, Rappaport suggests thoroughly shopping around for the best rate. Luckily, most hotel reservations aren’t pre-paid; as long as you remember to nix your reservation during the cancellation period, there’s no harm in booking a room, then trying to find a better rate elsewhere.

Steer clear of tourist traps and full-priced activities.

The most expensive aspect of traveling is usually covering the cost of flights and a place to crash. Once you get there and have a place to stay, though, you can dine and enjoy cultural activities for relatively cheap, provided you’re willing to live a little more like a local.

“A lot of your extra money goes to touristy things that aren’t worth it. If you do things that the locals do, you don’t actually spend a lot in most cities, and that’s the better experience,” said Ana Chaves, a writer for Let’s Go.

When it comes to dining, try finding a quaint restaurant outside of the main tourist district, where you can likely get a great meal at a fraction of the cost. Don’t discount chain restaurants, either (they’re not all horrible, particularly abroad, where Guy Fieri has yet to leave his hideous mark) — chains often offer gift cards and certificates. Rappaport suggests keeping an eye out for these on sale on eBay or Cardpool, where you can find cards and certificates that are being resold at lower rates than they were purchased.

Most cosmopolitan cities across the world offer certain discounts on museums or publicly-funded cultural events during different times of the week or year. For instance, in New York, admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is pay-what-you-want (at least for the time being). The Tate Modern in London is also free, except for special exhibitions.

Another great thing to do, according to Rappaport, is to sign up for discounts through AAA or AARP. To my utter shock and surprise, he informed me that you don’t have to be over 50 to sign up for AARP discounts, and you can use them to get cheaper tickets to events.

Rappaport said that certain hotel companies – like the Starwood chains – allow you to use the points you get for staying at their properties for certain cultural events. He and his wife, for example, got to trade in 10,000 Starwood points in Germany for tickets to a hospitality suite for a soccer game this past December.

“It wasn’t just a 300-square-foot room; it was probably 800 square feet of eating and drinking with television screens, free food and free booze,” he added.

Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. She likes Tim Hortons and aspires to brunch with Amal Clooney. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.

Image via Shutterstock.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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