So you want to travel on a budget. Who doesn’t? Yet it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the cheap travel tips, hacks and strategies out there that promise unbelievable deals on airfare and hotels.
In reality, there’s only one important tactic for traveling cheaply: being flexible with your travel dates, destination and plans. It might sound simple — or even simplistic — but you would be surprised how few travelers are willing to take this piece of advice to heart.
To be fair, this flexibility-first mindset requires a paradigm shift for many in terms of how they start planning vacations. It requires moving from this type of planning:
“I want to go to Amsterdam from Sept. 5th through 13th.”
“I want to go somewhere fun in September.”
For some, this degree of flexibility is simply impossible. Yet for those who can loosen their preconceptions about how to plan travel, it can lead to big savings — and maybe even more fun — whether you’re paying with cash or using points.
WHY RIGIDITY IS SO EXPENSIVE
The cost of travel depends on the interplay between many factors, including:
— Number of options.
When you make specific plans from the get-go, you essentially constrain the last variable — you give yourself fewer options. This means that the cost of your trip will depend entirely on the first three variables, which are completely outside of your control.
This economic interplay will sometimes fall in your favor, and you’ll score a good deal on the exact destination and dates you wanted. But more often than not, you’ll end up paying more than average simply by starting with a severely limited set of options.
HOW TO PLAN TRAVELS WITH FLEXIBILITY
You can still set some boundaries around your search. Example parameters might include:
— I want to travel in the fall.
— I want to sit on the beach.
— I don’t want to spend more than $X.
From here, you can begin weighing different destinations and dates to see which could maximize your preferences. For example, you might start with flights to Hawaii, but notice that airfare is through the roof. So you switch to the Caribbean, narrow your interest to a few destinations with cheap flights, then start researching hotel prices.
Finally, you can find the dates and destinations that offer the best combination of price and features, then book your travel.
Think about how many times you (or someone you know) have gone about it the other way — by starting with dates and a destination, then accepting whatever costs come up.
THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
As this flexible travel approach gains in popularity, travel booking sites and services have begun offering helpful tools specifically designed for the task.
AIRFARE DEAL ALERTS
Airfare deal newsletters, like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club, are how many travelers start thinking in terms of flexibility. These newsletters send a blast to subscribers whenever they discover a low-cost airfare deal.
But there’s usually a catch: These airfare deals are available only on certain dates, or to very specific destinations. You can’t sit around waiting for a great deal from Atlanta to Sydney, because that may not come around in time.
But you can wait for an exciting fare from Atlanta to … somewhere, and jump on it when it becomes available.
GOOGLE FLIGHTS EXPLORE
Many travel search engines, like Kayak or Orbitz, have highly flexible search tools. Google Flights offers a feature called “Explore” that allows you to search in a totally wide-open way.
You enter your departure city, the length of trip you’re looking for and your price range, and Google returns a handful of deals to a bunch of destinations at random times within your date range.
POINTS AND MILES
Travel bloggers love to rave about how they scored a first-class ticket using miles, but they don’t often describe their true secret: extreme flexibility.
Redeeming points and miles for reward travel all but requires a high degree of flexibility to get the most value from them. For one thing, the availability of these awards can be spotty. Before you can even determine if an award booking is a good deal or not, you need to actually find an available award booking option. For another, airlines often double the price or more during high-demand dates.
In short: If you’re looking to use miles on a specific flight on a specific day, you might either pay too much — or not be able to score a ticket at all.
To make things easier, many airlines offer award calendars that let you see which dates and prices are available by month, which can be especially helpful when rooting out hard-to-find premium cabin tickets.
This article originally appeared on the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samsambutdif.