During my 19th summer, I got on a plane and landed in Paris with a backpack, a Eurail student pass, a few hundred dollars in waitressing money, and the vaguest of plans that could only be described as, "Get on a train, lie on a beach, do some cool things in Europe." Sitting on Florence's Ponte Vecchio, I met people around my age from Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States. We had so much fun that day, eating gelato and flirting with each other, we decided to travel together throughout the continent. Our accommodations would usually be a hostel, sometimes a hotel, and once even under a tree on a beach towel at the foot of a volcano in Santorini, Greece. We'd all chip in for bread and cheese and wine and eat as locally as possible—pizza in Venice, spaghetti bolognese in Rome—that kind of thing. I came home a month or so later flat broke, sunburned, with a lifetime's worth of memories, and even a friend I've kept to this day.
My travel style has evolved since those heady beer-on-the-beach-for-breakfast days, and happily, there are more options than ever before for groups who want to stay together—think Airbnb and VRBO.
The only thing that's rarely negotiable is airfare—but keep an eye out for low ticket prices on Kayak.com or TripAdvisor.com if you can plan ahead. The rest is up for grabs—especially accommodations. "Accommodations are the biggest place you can save when you're traveling with a friend or group. A single person renting a one-bedroom holiday apartment in Amsterdam is probably going to spend upwards of $100 per night. Add a second person and you've halved your cost. Upgrade to a two-bedroom (whose pricing starts around $174 per night on Airbnb) and add another couple and you've got yourselves down to just over $40 per person per night," says guide book author and travel writer Gigi Griffis.
During a big trip, there are some areas where you'll want to save so you can splurge on other things, depending on what you value the most in your travel experience. For example, travel journalist Carol Sorgen saves on food by picking up groceries for breakfast, snacks and dinner, and then heading for a nice restaurant for lunch, where the same food served at dinner is priced much lower. "Splurge on an experience–tickets to theater/opera/ballet; a memorable restaurant even if you just have a drink (I recently had a light lunch at Le Train Bleu in Paris and it was worth every euro to be in such a setting); a piece of art, jewelry…something that will remind you of the trip forever," she says.
Other ways to save include:
Pool your resources: Blane Bachelor, a San Francisco-based journalist and travel writer, says that when you go with a group, you not only save by renting an entire home, but you can also all chip in for food when you eat in. She's even got a strategy to avoid nickel-and-diming each other : "I highly recommend on group trips, to avoid stress and hassles over who pays for what, to have a 'kitty' that everyone chips a certain amount into, which then goes toward shared expenses. When it gets low, everyone kicks in the same amount, and if there's any left over at the end, you split it"
Check for deals in advance: Scour coupon sites like Groupon, as well as the hotel website to find packages. "Many hotels have special deals you might not be aware of," Sorgen says. She adds that hotels located in college towns in the United States, for example, often have packages for families on college tours.
Work directly with the hotel: Prices are often as good or better on the hotel's website. And sometimes just showing up in person, not looking too eager, and asking for the best possible rate works. This is a risky move in the high season, however, as you may be priced out or forced to sleep under a tree outside if there are no available rooms. You can also see if there is wiggle room in the rate you've been quoted. "Sometimes, all you have to do is ask nicely to have an unplanned expense like those annoying 'resort fees' that have popped up in cities like Las Vegas removed from your bill," Bachelor says.
Consider a house exchange: Swap houses for a fraction of a hotel stay via very similarly named services such as Home Exchange, Travel Home Exchange or Home Link USA.
Leverage the length and season of your stay: The off-season and shoulder season offer significant discounts. "I found one-bedroom spaces in the Italian countryside willing to give me pricing as low as $600 per month in the winter months. And even if you are traveling in high tourist season, sometimes you can negotiate with holiday apartment owners for a lower rate," says Griffis. "On my trip to Amsterdam this October, I wrote to a number of Airbnb hosts to ask if they would accept my budget, which was a few hundred dollars less than their asking prices. One said yes."
Buy passes: If you're traveling around a city, a day, week or month long transit pass can help counter the fees of paying a fare each time you get on or off a bus and train. Also look for museum passes that allow entry to more than one site, and "ground passes." "Many castles, botanical gardens, and other attractions charge a hefty fee for those who want an all-access pass... but secretly also have grounds passes that give you access to all the outdoor areas for sometimes half or a quarter of the cost of a full pass," Griffis says. "This was the case for some of the French chateaux I visited this past September and since I was visiting several castles a day, the savings added up pretty quickly."
Save transaction fees: Griffis uses a Capital One card that offers no extra international transaction fees. "Similarly, some banks reimburse you for foreign ATM fees. That's something to check into and can add up to a lot of savings if you travel often," she says. Also, forget the traveler's checks—not everyone takes them, and if you're haggling for something you'll be laughed at or waved off.
Get to know the locals. You'll learn more about your destination from them than from any guide book: "They know the cheap, good restaurants. They know the free days for the local museums and castles. They know the best happy hours. If you want to save, the people who live in the city are your best bet," Griffis says.
Finally, don't feel guilty about what you've spent. "Resist the urge to stress about travel being an unnecessary expense or a luxury splurge. Travel—the kind that opens you up to new places, people, and cultures—is one thing that's really worth spending on. There's such joy in looking back at memories you made on a trip, and those kind of invaluable experiences offer a lifelong payoff in a way that material possessions just can't do," Bachelor says.