Affordable travel is no secret, with plenty of sites and services designed to shop around for the best travel deals and snag the best rates on hotels and car rentals. What you might not know is all the ways you can score free tickets, free meals and other travel discounts. From scooping up restaurant vouchers to securing last-minute deals, here are 15 travel hacks that can help you save more money on your next vacation.
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Last updated: Sept. 24, 2021
1. Get Free or Cheap Tickets to Attractions During Your Birthday Month
If your birthday’s coming up, keep your eyes peeled for deals and discounts exclusive to that time. Tour operators, resorts and other hospitality businesses often run birthday promotions to encourage more travelers to book when they’ll be in the mood to celebrate.
Destination hotels, for example, will give you a 20% discount on rooms for your birthday, and certain hotels will even offer you a special birthday treat. If you join the Birthday Fellowship at Medieval Times, you’ll get free admission during your birthday month (and seven days after your birthday month) with an adult ticket purchase.
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2. Share Your Birthday or Anniversary Announcement With Management
From free dessert at the restaurant to free upgrades at the hotel, it pays to share your special day with the person taking your reservation. “Celebrating a special event with a vacation is a travel dream,” said Beth Godlin, president of Aon Affinity Travel Practice. “Be sure to share your reasons for celebrating with anyone and everyone like the reservationist, cruise director, receptionist and concierge.”
“There might be additional benefits waiting for you,” Godlin said. “Joining frequent traveler programs also can get you ahead of the pack for special services.”
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Book a Three-Star Hotel
CheapTickets travel experts report travelers can book a three-star hotel in several cities to save money on travel packages and still enjoy an upscale experience. A recent survey they conducted showed that almost three-quarters of respondents would choose a less expensive, but well-appointed room over a room that had more luxurious amenities.
Ramses Meijer, former director of CheapTickets and current GM at LendingTree, points out that more travelers have realized they give up far less when opting for a three- or four-star hotel because hotels are now competing on the basis of amenities, such as upscale bath products and high thread count sheets.
“The fastest-growing segment of the hotel industry is the ‘select service’ property,” Meijer said. “Despite being categorized as a three- or three-and-a-half-star hotel based on offering fewer on-site amenities like restaurants, valet parking or room service, in order to stand apart from the crowd, these hotels are competing on the kinds of in-room amenities that would have only been found in much higher tier hotels just a few years ago.”
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4. Ask For a Free Hotel Upgrade
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. While it’s commonly accepted that you’ll need to pay extra for the privilege of ocean views or deluxe amenities, it’s possible to get all those five-star perks for free.
“Many hotels will often upgrade their guests simply so their customers will have a good experience,” said Sara Skirboll, vice president of communications at CareerBuilder. “All you need is a bit of courage and a smile and more often than not, the front desk staff will do what they can to give you a little something special. Whether that means upgrading your room or simply offering free breakfast, a small and polite ask may go a long way — bonus points if you’re celebrating a special occasion and operate discreetly.”
5. Book Trips With a Travel Rewards Credit Card
Back in March, when vaccines were starting to become available and the last round of stimulus payments went out, Bloomberg reported that Americans were itching to travel. Jason Gaughan, a credit card product executive at Bank of America, recommends using a credit card that provides benefits for these types of purchases.
“Travel rewards cards earn travelers points — not miles — which can be redeemed for all travel-related purchases,” Gaughan said. “For example, with the BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, you can earn 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases.”
If you want to get a little creative, you can also figure out ways to “pay with points,” as chief technology officer Len Covello at Engage People explains.
“While travelers spend to earn points, the ability to spend points on more purchases, in turn, saves money, (which) could be perceived as receiving ‘free stuff.’”
6. Double Dip With Rewards Programs
Using a travel rewards credit card is a smart move, but you could save even more money — and get free tickets or hotel stays — when you double up on the earnings. Bank of America senior vice president Kevin Condon recommends “layering” your airline, hotel, banking or credit cards rewards programs to maximize earning opportunities.
“You’ll receive those airline and hotel benefits, and you may earn even more rewards by paying for the flight and hotel with a travel rewards or cash back credit card,” Condon said. “And, those credit card rewards could be multiplied even further if you’re also a member of a banking rewards program. For example, Bank of America Preferred Rewards offers perks that really come in handy for travel — such as no-fee ATM transactions, credit card cashback or points bonuses of up to 75% and waived fees on everyday banking services
7. Save on Checked Luggage Fees
The $25 checked luggage fee was an unwelcome addition when first introduced, however, there are a few ways around it. Skirboll recommends using your credit card miles to have your checked bag fee waived. It’s also a good idea to shop around — especially for a different class fare that lets you check bags for free. “I’ve actually seen ‘Comfort+’ seats that are cheaper than economy,” he added.
Something else to keep in mind: “Many vacation rentals have in-unit laundry facilities,” said Laurel Greatrix, vice president of communications and brand at Viator. “Travelers can rinse and repeat outfits throughout the trip. Pack light for your rental, and skip the added airline fees.”
8. Take Advantage of Credit and Debit Card Perks for Free Tickets
There are also discount tickets or free admission to local attractions that you can get just for being a credit or debit cardholder. For example, the Bank of America Museums on Us program offers free general admission to a number of U.S. museums and cultural institutions during the first full weekend of each month for any Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust credit and debit cardholders. Just show your qualifying credit or debit card at a participating attraction, and they’ll waive the admission fee.
9. Watch For Seasonal Trends
If you’re looking to travel to a destination during its off-season, you might be able to score free spa passes or other vacation deals that wouldn’t otherwise be available. “Watch how the seasons impact travel trends and pounce when the deals are hot,” said Godlin. “Resorts may offer complimentary spa passes or valuable food vouchers that give travelers great perks at little to no cost.”
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10. Have Resort Purchases Shipped for Free
If buying souvenirs, clothing, gifts and other items is on your agenda, and you don’t want to pay for all that extra luggage, consider having your purchases shipped to your home free of charge instead. For example, you can use the Shop Disney Parks app when you’re shopping at Disney resorts and have orders of $75 or more shipped to your home free of charge.
11. Get Mobile Deals on Meals
Deal sites Groupon or LivingSocial have become a regular fixture for the restaurant industry, but you might not always be able to find good dining venues nearby. You can, however, find money-saving restaurant coupons and discounts on other sites and mobile apps.
Take advantage of money-saving AAA discounts. If you’re a member, use the app to access cheap tickets, discounts and special offers based on your location, and browse the deals section of the website to find exclusive offers available along your travel route.
12. Ask Your Hotel or Resort for Free Tickets to Attractions
Many hotels and resorts partner with area attractions to offer free or steeply-discounted tickets; so don’t be afraid to ask the front desk for details. For example, Omni Hotels & Resorts offers free tickets to the nearby Ripley’s Aquarium as part of a package deal.
13. Enjoy Free Food at Local Events
Art gallery openings, open houses and other free events in a city or town you’re visiting might offer free food as part of the occasion. For example, as a guest at a local grand opening, you could enjoy free appetizers, beverages or sweet treats. Check the city’s chamber of commerce website, area university campuses or event listings online to find current events and details.
14. Head To the Bar for Free or Cheap Meals
Instead of searching for restaurant coupons, consider heading straight to the bar for your meal. Lots of places serve up complimentary snacks, particularly during happy hour, that can turn into a mini-meal during your pit stop.
For example, the Alligator Lounge in Brooklyn, New York, serves free pizza every day with the purchase of a drink. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in New York City serves free hot dogs with the purchase of a drink. Scope out local dives and venues that host happy hour to find food on the cheap.
15. Attend Your Hotel’s Happy Hour
If you’re having a hard time finding cheap meals for a light dinner nearby, many chain hotels — including Marriott and Hilton hotels — host an evening reception where you can enjoy free drinks, or snacks if you’re staying there. At the majority of Residence Inn by Marriott properties, guests can enjoy complimentary drinks at social gatherings throughout the week. If you’re staying at an Embassy Suites by Hilton, you’re automatically invited to the complimentary Evening Reception every night that includes alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, light appetizers and snacks.
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