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Travel Tip Series – Saving Money on Your Vacation

Tulip-mania! We enjoyed five free nights in Amsterdam during the city's annual tulip festival by using SPG Starwood points.

The only thing better than being on vacation is saving money on your vacation. Getting off the plane and putting your toes in the sand will help you relax and forget about your troubles back home, but finding a special deal for that same vacation will give you an additional warm embrace that normally only comes from the third pina colada.

To help you get that double-buzz on your next vacation, here are some of the best money-saving tips we picked up on our year of travel. This is the final of a three-week series of the best travel tips we picked up along the way during our One-year Retirement.

Walk with Rick Steves

Iconic European travel guru Rick Steves has a great app for travelers that also includes walking tours of many European cities. If you’re traveling to Europe it’s definitely worth downloading, and it’s free. As a kid I’d watch Rick Steves on PBS with my family and dream about seeing medieval castles and strolling through picturesque villages, never expecting one day I’d quit my job and do just that. When I put his Berlin walking tour on and walked through the city, it was great to have a familiar voice to guide me. Yes, his monologues can sometimes be super-cheesy, but that’s part of the fun. A live guided tour in many European cities will run you 10 euro or more. While it’s great to have a real person to answer your questions, Rick will do just fine, as you don’t have to meet at a set time -- he’s ready to start when you are. And did I mention it’s free? Thanks to my friend Julie Walsh for this great tip.

Save on Hotels via Temporary Rebates

So you’ve done your research and you know exactly where you want to stay. You have the perfect trendy neighborhood and even decided on this great boutique hotel with the fun rooftop deck. How do you get the lowest price for that room? Despite what the Trivago guy would have you believe, prices for an individual hotel room are at about the same price from one hotel site to another, with only a few exceptions. But where you can really save money is through short term rebates that the large hotel search sites offer.

For example, about every 2-3 months Orbitz has been offering the same 15% rebate off the final cost of your hotel booking. For a multi-day booking those savings can really add up. Your $150/night hotel over seven days in Paris just went from $1,050 to $893. That’s a savings of $158, which can buy a lot of bourdeau and brie. also frequently offers a similar deal with a 10 percent price reduction.

To get the Orbitz deal, just add yourself to the Orbitz email list. I know, it sounds like I’m asking you to add spam to your email inbox, and yes, there are some unneeded emails, but they’ll also send you the notices when the 15-percent promotion codes are available. They are pretty flexible offers, usually giving you about three to five weeks to use the code, and allowing you to usually book for travel that is as far as nine months down the road. Although many major hotel chains are excluded, there are plenty of great independent and boutique hotels that are allowed. Even better, you can use the same code for two different bookings (Ooh! Let’s add a week in London to that trip to Gay Paree for another $158 in savings!). If you’re making several stops with shorter stays as most people do on longer vacations, you and your companion could use it twice to save 15 percent on four separate hotel stays. Bon voyage indeed! We’ve used the Orbitz code ten times over 36 nights of hotel stays, saving us a total of $850 on hotel rooms.

Save Like a Luddite with Offline Deals

Everybody knows that it’s online where you’ll find all the best deals, right? Do you think only Luddites still book over the phone, and that they pay through the nose because of it? Not so fast. Here’s a scenario where booking offline pays off: at small independent hoteliers and bed-and-breakfasts. These little guys of the lodging world are largely at the mercy of the massive online booking sites like and Orbitz to fill up their rooms. They have to agree not to provide any online rates that are lower than the booking service. But if you call and ask them if they’ll give you a lower rate by booking with them on the phone instead of online, sometimes they’ll go for it. Just call and state that you see the rate online, but you’d prefer to book with them instead and save you both the booking fee that you’ll both be giving to the online middlemen. Often with these small hotels, and especially the bed-and-breakfasts where it’s the owner answering the phone, you’ll be able to negotiate a lower price than what’s being offered online. You can also do this in person when you need to book a room that night. In lovely Dornoch, Ireland, I walked up to a hotelier, told him I had found a room at his hotel on my phone that I was ready to book, but I’d like to see if he could provide a better deal. He did, and I booked over the counter with him at a rate that was almost half the online booking rate.

More Hotel Savings

Lodging costs were by far our biggest expense on the One-year Retirement, so I worked for savings opportunities at every turn. Here our some of my other favorite ways to save on lodging:

  • Airbnb instead of Hotel - When we booked an Airbnb instead of a hotel, we saved about 30 percent on average on lodging costs. But the savings vary by city, and the decision between choosing Airbnb or a hotel is based on several factors. I wrote an entire piece on how you should decide between the two, based on which of six factors you value in your travel. But for almost all travelers, Airbnb should be part of your online lodging search, as the savings can’t be overlooked.

  • Agoda - If you’re traveling anywhere in Asia, make sure is part of your online search. We spent more than 60 nights traveling through Indonesia, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and India, and found that Agoda’s rates were generally 10-20% cheaper than other online hotel booking sites, for the exact same hotel rooms.

  • SPG Membership - Starwood Preferred Memberships is a fantastic hotel awards membership. You have plenty of hotel options — including W, Sheraton, Aloft, Le Meridien and Four Points — and if you are using points for a four-night stay, you can add a fifth night for no additional points. There are many other great benefits to this membership, but one of the most important for SPG (and any travel rewards program, for that matter) is its usability. With thousands of high-quality locations worldwide, SPG is hard to beat. We utilized the free fifth night to secure a great deal in London, and also used points from stays and credit card rewards to book free nights along the way in Lima (home of great ceviche!), Budapest(check out the Chain Bridge!), Amsterdam(what beautiful tulips!) and Tulsa(requires no promotion).

I was constantly on the lookout for ways to save money on our One-year Retirement trip. And saving my money for more than 30 years put me in a position to go on this excursion in the first place. A vacation will rest your mind for a week or so, but smart saving will money will give you peace of mind for a lifetime.

I’d love to hear your best tips for saving money on vacation, so please comment below with your best money-saving advice on the road.

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