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How to Travel on a Budget

Travel costs, if you don’t plan them out carefully, can quickly pile up. I’ve gotten into the habit of traveling only  if my company pays for it — or if I have a friend at my destination so that I don’t have to pay for lodging. I also obsessively build up frequent flier miles and use them when I can.

But there are many more ways to travel on a budget. Because taking vacations is essential for your mental well-being, I want to help you figure out how to do it without getting yourself into debt. And being in debt, I know from experience, is certainly not good for your mental well-being.

Airfare

Airfares are all over the map these days.

Because of the recession, airlines have been cutting back on flights in response to the drop in demand. But operating fewer flights means the airlines can charge more for the seats that are available.

There are plenty of websites that will help you find airfares at a discount. Some of my favorites are Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, Sidestep, and Priceline. There are also websites such as Bing that try to predict what direction airfares will take. Check these websites often until you find a good deal. (Also, Google travel promotion or discount codes. Travelocity, for instance, sometimes has codes that you can use to get discounts.)

But don’t ignore the airline websites. Sometimes they have flights for even cheaper than you can get on the discount sites. That’s because they know many travelers are bypassing them for the Expedias of the world, and they are trying to win customers back. The airlines, too, occasionally offer promotion codes or last-minute deals to their frequent fliers. And don’t be afraid to bargain with them, either. A lot of airlines offer low-fare guarantees now. My friend Elham once found an American Airlines flight on Expedia for less than it cost on the airline’s website. She copied and pasted screenshots of Expedia’s page with the flight and price information and sent it to American’s low-fare guarantee department. She got a $100 promo code that she could then apply to her next purchase.

Keep in mind, though, that most airlines are now charging baggage fees. Only Southwest still lets you check in bags for free (JetBlue let’s you check in the first one for free). Spirit Airlines recently announced it would charge for carry-on bags. The lesson here is: If you want to save money, travel light.

Lodging

There are plenty of websites that link travelers to other travelers who are willing to host them. Some, such as HomeExchange.com and HouseSwap.com, facilitate an exchange of homes: you stay at the owner’s home while he or she stays at yours. I stayed in a lovely home in Barbados using HomeExchange.

With a website such as CasaCasa.org, on the other hand, you become a member of an online community that is willing to host each other. You fill out a form with your hobbies and interests, photos of you and your home, and favorite destinations (yes, it’s almost like a dating website!) and then you ask other members if they are willing to let you stay in their spare room. You have to agree to host at least one person during your year of membership. These websites charge for membership but you can sometimes find promo or discount codes on Google.

If you don’t mind sleeping on someone’s couch, you can also try CouchSurfing.org. Airbnb.com is another website that links travelers to people with extra room to spare.

If you do decide to stay at a hotel, don’t be afraid to ask for discounts or upgrades. The hotel industry has been hurting in this recession and wants to lure back customers. I recently went to Las Vegas for work and stayed at the new Aria Hotel in the City Center. I looked at their website and saw that they were offering a special rate if you stayed a certain number of nights. Plus, they offered a credit that I could use at any of the restaurants and bars at the hotel. And once I got there, my room key would not work so I got another credit for the inconvenience of having to wait for my key to be fixed. There are deals to be had everywhere. You just have to look around a bit.

Traveling abroad? Find the cheapest currency exchange fees

Finally, if you’re traveling abroad, you’re going to have to deal with foreign currency exchange fees. I recently wrote a story for The Washington Post in which I tried to exchange $200 into euros. I went to currency exchange booths at the airport and in downtown D.C., to my bank and to AAA to find out where I could get the best deal. A colleague of mine in Europe went to the airport, train station, hotels, and banks there. She also withdrew money from the ATM.

We found that it’s best to stay away from any airport exchange booths because the companies have to give the airport a share of the transaction fee, which they ultimately pass on to the consumer.

The best bet here in the States was to exchange your money at your bank. You get a better exchange rate and pay a lower fee.

Overseas, we found that you could luck out and find an exchange booth with a good exchange rate and low fees. But it’s no guarantee. So it was best to withdraw money from the ATM or to use your credit card. You will still end up paying a transaction fee-about 3% of the transaction if you use a credit or debit card for a purchase — but in the end, it added up to less than if you went to an exchange booth.

That said, it’s always good to use a combination of methods. Exchange some of your money at a bank at home so you have something when you land, but then hit the ATM once you get there.

Getting around at your destination

Once you’re at your destination, don’t rely on cabs to get everywhere. If you’re in a city with good public transportation, figure out how to use it. I love the feeling of conquering the subway system at a city I’m not familiar with. You will too.

And you don’t have to eat out all the time. Maybe you can have your dinner at a restaurant, but find a good sandwich shop and if it’s nice out, have a picnic somewhere.

Traveling takes a lot of planning if you want to save a few dollars. But it’s worth it because that’s extra money you have to spend on a wonderful meal or souvenirs.

Nancy Trejos is the personal finance columnist at the Washington Post and the author of Hot (broke) Messes, a personal-finance book for young adults.