How to Travel on a Budget

More people are looking for adventures; here’s how to get out while keeping your wallet happy.

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If the uptick in travel on Memorial Day is any indication, Americans are ready to hit the road again—but they want to save money while they do so. AAA reports a 1.2 increase in travelers over Memorial Day this year as compared with last year. That means it estimates about 34.8 million people traveled at least 50 miles from their home over the holiday weekend.

With the economy still getting its legs back, many travelers are searching for frugal options. Woody Woodring and his wife, Janie, scour travel sites such as www.travelzoo.com, www.vacationstogo.com, and www.smartertravel.com, which alert them to discounts. On a trip to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in the Great Smoky Mountains, the couple cooked their own meals, which saved them a few hundred dollars on the three-night trip. Woodring, a retired procurement official who lives in Greenville, S.C., shares his tips for frugal living at www.woodysretirementblog.com.

Judie Fernandez, a retired attorney who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., takes advantage of Road Scholar, a nonprofit that organizes educational trips for seniors. She took her grandsons on a Harry Potter-themed trip to London in 2007 and has also traveled to Russia, Mongolia, China, and India with Elderhostel groups. "It's like a university without walls," she says. Unlike many commercial tours, Elderhostel trips cover all costs—including food and activities.

Many of Don and Judy Mac Isaac's trips have taken them far from their home in New York's Catskill Mountains. The couple, authors of Adventures After 50, went on tours to Tanzania, Nepal, and Antarctica after Don retired from corporate life. They managed their costs by focusing on tours that incorporated camping and other low-cost accommodations with regular hotel stays. As the couple has gotten older, they have opted for lower-key getaways, such as visits to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the adjoining home of Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park, N.Y.

The Woodrings, Fernandez, and the Mac Isaacs make their trips affordable by planning extensively, taking advantage of group programs, and carefully selecting their destinations. Travel experts also recommend the following strategies:

Make the most of discounts. AARP negotiates discounts for members with tour providers, hotels, and car rental companies. An Expedia website designed for AARP members (www.expedia-aarp.com) lets seniors search for discounts—usually about 10 percent off the regular price—that apply. AARP isn't the only organization offering deals: For those 62 and older, the National Park Service sells $10 lifetime passes to parks, and Amtrak gives a 15 percent discount. Many cities also offer reduced-price or even free rides on public transportation systems. Non-seniors can look for discounts related to locality (many pools and museums offer discounts to local residents), days of the week (some museums are free on Mondays or Tuesdays, for example), and veteran status. Certain organizations, such as AAA and neighborhood groups, also offer discounts to members.

Make sure you're getting the best deal. Travel expert Peter Greenberg recommends finding out whether the discount being offered is really the lowest price. If it's 10 percent off the highest rate, travelers might be better off doing their own comparison shopping online. Making a phone call to speak to a tour operator or company also can result in more savings, he says. "The myth is that the Internet is displaying all the inventory, but it's not," says Greenberg. He recommends calling a hotel and asking to speak to the director of sales or manager on duty, who will know if there have been any last-minute cancellations or if the hotel has special deals that aren't listed online.

Ask for additional perks. Joan Rattner Heilman, author of Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures that You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50, points out that breakfast and parking can cost as much as a $60 nightly hotel rate, so she suggests asking if they can be included. "Don't expect anybody to offer you anything. You need to ask," she says.