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10 tips to take a vacation for less than $500

Key takeaways

  • Despite high prices for airfare, hotels, and car rentals, it's possible to get away for under $500 a person.
  • You don't need to sacrifice fun or good food. You just need to be more creative about where you find it.

Who couldn't use a vacation? But with inflation driving up the cost of food, housing, and other essentials, it's hard to know how to travel for cheap. Luckily, a nice break doesn't have to bust your budget. We talked to 7 people who all skipped town for at least 4 days in 2022—for under $500 a person. Here are their travel tips for having a lot of fun for not a lot of money.

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1. Make a swap for a free stay

Lauren Serpico didn't spend a dime on lodging on a 6-night trip to Denver. She belongs to TrustedHousesitters, a pet-sitting service. For a $199 annual membership fee, Serpico, 31, can stay at pet owners' homes for free in exchange for caring for their critters. Besides feeding a cat twice a day, "I had to change her litter box and give her some snuggles, but that's about it." Serpico even gets unlimited pet-sits for her cockapoo, Napoleon, when she's away from her hometown of San Diego.

Not into animals? Meg Knutson, 38, swaps her home instead through HomeExchange. For $220 a year, she and her family earn points for lending out their Crozet, Virginia, house that they can apply toward stays at nearly half a million other homes. She recently spent 4 days in a 4-bedroom house in Blowing Rock, North Carolina—for free. And it had everything her family of 4 was looking for, including a large kitchen and beautiful mountain view.

2. Head to the great outdoors

"We knew focusing on outdoor activities, like hiking, would be a great way to save money on travel," says Catherine Oliva, 34, a Houstonian who visited Sedona, Arizona, with her husband.

One of the highlights of Knutson's North Carolina trip was mountain biking, which cost them nothing because they brought their own bikes. And then there was the 5 a.m. lunar eclipse. "It was amazing," she says. "We had a perfect view of it from the house." On Joe Dello Russo's trip to the White Mountains, New Hampshire, the 25-year-old and his girlfriend climbed Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States, paying only a $20 fee to park their car. They spent most of the rest of their time on another low-cost activity: fishing. Even their outdoor lodging didn't cost a thing. They found it on a national database of free camping spots.

3. Don't settle for high rental-car costs

Car rentals jumped in price by more than 51% between April 2019 and April 2023, a bigger spike than airfare and hotel rates.1 Still, you can borrow a set of wheels for a deal. After airfare, the rental car was the biggest expense of Michelle Jubinville's Orlando, Florida, vacation, and yet it was only $100 for 4 days. "We have access to corporate codes for car rentals through our jobs," says Jubinville, 35, of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

No perk, no problem. To keep their rental car costs down in pricey Sedona, Oliva rented through a peer-to-peer car-sharing company: $250 for 4 days. "We spent a lot less than we would have if we had rented from a large car-rental company," she says.

4. Use flight and gas trackers

Even budget airlines can seem out of budget these days. Jubinville relied on a free flight tracker to find the lowest fares possible. The winning ticket: $210 roundtrip between Massachusetts and Florida.

Dello Russo also knew how to travel for cheap and used a free tracker to find the best prices on gas to get him from Portland, Maine, to 2 hours away in New Hampshire, then to several hiking and fishing spots in the mountains, and back home. At a time when a gallon of gas neared record highs, Dello Russo spent about $150 getting around over 4 days.

5. Pack light

With many airlines charging $30 or more for your first checked bag, and some charging carry-on fees,2 Jubinville and her family of 4 "traveled light and didn't check any bags." One way to keep what you carry to a minimum: Consider ordering what you may use and finish while you're away (such as snacks and drinks) from a site that offers free shipping straight to where you're staying. If you'll be at a hotel, confirm they don't charge extra for receiving packages.

6. Consider hotels that offer more than just a room

"Hotels can be expensive in Sedona, so we intentionally chose one that included breakfast," Oliva says. The Jubinvilles always stay at the same hotel chain, and their high loyalty status scored them free breakfast at their hotel too. Other hotels may offer free shuttles to popular spots around town, so you can skip the rental car or ride-shares. And some may have plenty of fun on the property. Think: movie nights, live entertainment, and supervised kid activities, saving you from having to shell out extra elsewhere. For instance, the Jubinvilles could have dropped big bucks at a theme park, but instead had fun at the hotel pool for no additional charge.

7. Stay near the action

Serpico saved money by taking a train from the airport to a station in downtown Denver before she hailed a quick ride-share to where she was staying. "Ride-shares can run up travel costs pretty quickly, so I stay at homes that are either centrally located or are near public transportation," Serpico says. She spent $80 on ground transportation altogether.

While hotels and homes in prime locations tend to cost more than those far from the sites, what you'd spend on gas or ride-shares might cost more than the accommodations' upcharge. "Because our hotel was close to a lot of hiking trails, we didn't have to drive far each day," says Oliva, who spent $75 on gas for the entire 4-day Sedona trip.

8. Time your trip right

The month of the year, week of the month, and day of the week can make flight and hotel prices jump or drop. Learn how to travel for cheap in your destination before you book, and avoid peak periods if possible. Dani Heinrich, a 40-year-old New Yorker, strategically timed her El Salvador trip, traveling Tuesday to Friday. "The beach towns are popular with Salvadorans who come down to the coast from the capital on weekends, so it's definitely cheaper to visit on weekdays," she says. Staying at the ecolodge she chose cost just $40 a night—and included breakfast.

9. Eat outside of restaurants

Besides hotel breakfasts, Heinrich ate a lot of cheap (and delicious) street food instead of dining at restaurants. "Pupusas, a thick, hand-pressed corn tortilla typically filled with cheese and meat, beans, or seafood, only cost $1. A couple of them will fill you up," she says. Her total food expenses: $80.

To cut his food costs, Dello Russo bought about $70 worth of groceries and cooked meals at their campsite. Jenna Singer, 32, of San Francisco, grocery shopped for lunches and snacks during a Utah hiking vacation.

10. Opt for credit cards that offer travel rewards

If traveling for cheap is your priority, look into charging expenses (if you can pay them off right away) with a credit card with travel benefits. Singer racked up enough points to cover a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Las Vegas. She and her friend then stayed in a Las Vegas hotel for a free night—an annual perk from her hotel-chain rewards credit card. Likewise, the Jubinvilles paid for their hotel stay entirely with points, which they had accrued through their hotel-chain credit card.

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More to explore

1. Sally French, "This Major Travel Cost Is Up 50% Since Before the Pandemic," NerdWallet, September 5, 2023. 2. "Airline Baggage Fees," Tripadvisor.

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