Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be rich to travel — and more importantly, you don’t need to be rich to travel fabulously. Even tightwad budget travelers can use a few travel “hacks” to spice up their frugal trips, and add a dose of luxury to an otherwise modest vacation. While I have plenty of tips for how to travel affordably, here’s how to “fake it ’til you make it” if you’re after a more posh travel experience:
First…sign up for a travel rewards credit card with an intro bonus
Cards like Capital One’s Venture, Chase’s Sapphire, and the American Express Gold Card offer huge incentives for signing up, including bonus miles after you spend a certain amount in the first few months. Currently, all three cards are offering 60,000 bonus points if you spend $3-4,000 in the first 3-6 months. I have had Capital One’s Venture card for four years and LOVE it – it earns 2x bonus miles for every dollar spent, which can then be redeemed for cash back, rewards, or to “erase” travel purchases from your statement. In other words, these cards reward you with travel for spending money you’d already be spending. Plus, some cards even get you added perks like automatic car rental insurance, airport lounge access, priority boarding, and free checked bags. (The Capital One Venture covers your rental car insurance in almost every country except Ireland…which I was bummed to find out last year!)
Stay in a 5-star resort…in an affordable country
The idea of a 5-star luxury resort is often way out of reach for the average traveler, who expects posh accommodations for 3-4 digits a night. But a travel hack is to think outside the box: places with weaker economies or a currency that’s weak against your home currency can be fantastic choices. For example: Southeast Asia and the South Pacific are often much more affordable than people make them out to be (particularly Fiji, which is tropical island paradise for pennies on the American dollar.)
Sweet-talk your way to a hotel upgrade…
I wouldn’t recommend lying about a life milestone (plus, how awkward would it be if you were caught lying?), but otherwise, make it sound like your trip is a celebration – even if you just milk the fact that it’s your first vacation in a long time. When you check in, express politely and genuinely how excited you are to celebrate a special occasion and ask if there’s anything else you can do to make the experience more enjoyable. Often, hotel staff are more than willing to throw added perks your way – and if they don’t bite, at least you haven’t lost anything.
…But know hotel rush hour
The sweet spot for hotel check-ins is usually between 4:45 and 6:00 p.m. Hotels generally clean from 7am-3pm, and front desk rush hours are from 8-10am and 6-8pm. If you check in too early, many rooms are still being cleaned and serviced, so there’s little chance of upgrade options. Likewise, if you get there too late, you’ll get the last room available.
Make use of a luxury hotel’s facilities (and sleep elsewhere)
If the luxury hotels are really just not within your budget, book a decent and affordable room elsewhere and visit the luxury hotels for the day. Many will let you visit the pool, spa, restaurants, and bar even if you aren’t a guest there, and you can enjoy the fine amenities without paying the overnight price.
Spring for the airport lounge
Many lounges these days don’t require you to be flying with a certain airline, and instead charge a day fee to use their facilities. In many cases, particularly if you’ve booked economy class on long-haul flights, I find it’s well worth splurging the $20-30 to be able to take a shower, enjoy complimentary food and drinks, relax on the sofas, and utilize the WiFi.
Consider a vacation rental for long-term stays
For stays of 5 days or more in one place (and especially if you’re traveling with another person or a group), it’s worth looking into a vacation rental versus a hotel room. You’ll have the luxury of home comforts, and you can save extra money by purchasing food at the grocery store to cook in the kitchen instead of spending it on overpriced restaurant meals. Bottle of wine for $10 instead of $30? Yes, please.
Skip the meal at gourmet restaurants
Opt for dessert and a cappuccino at that 5-star restaurant after dinner hours. You’ll get the luxurious atmosphere and service, without having to shell out a ton for the whole meal – or worry about securing an elusive reservation.
Find half-price or discounted tickets
It’s a well-known budget traveler’s fact that theaters will sell their tickets at half-price the day of the show — if you can get there early and have some patience, you could be sitting orchestra with a drink in your hand at the ballet…for half the cost. Likewise, many museums sell tickets at a discount later in the day – you’ll have less time to explore, but strategize your priorities and you can make it work to your advantage.
Check local deals sites for discounts
Coupon sites like Groupon and Living Social often have massage/spa, local activity and restaurant deals, so check the city you’ll be visiting — you can cash in on a 5-star experience for the price of 2 or 3!
Related: More tips and tricks for traveling on a budget