How to Save Thousands of Dollars on the Luxury Trip of Your Dreams
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Take a moment right now, wherever you are, (“taking a break” at work or sitting at home in your bunny slippers) and think about the one place you have always dreamed of visiting. (And don’t pretend you don’t have one—everybody does.) Got it?
Ok, good. Now my next question—if it is your dream trip, then why haven’t you gone yet?
For most people, I imagine the answer is probably one of two—not enough time or not enough money.
Let's consider reason #1—yes, time is a finite resource, but that is all the more reason to spend it on things you LOVE. We all have more or less the same amount of time, and as the wise Gandalf once said, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” So stop procrastinating, and start traveling! Ok, glad we’re on the same page now.
So that means all that stands between you and the trip you have always wanted is the small inconvenience of paying for the darn thing. And while your vacation of a lifetime might seem prohibitively expensive, it doesn’t have to be!
Dreams are for sleeping, so let’s turn this dream into a reality!
Andrew and I celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary with a trip I’d dreamed about since I was a kid—a multi-country luxury safari adventure in Africa. AND we did it without breaking the bank.
With some of these travel hacks, you can save literally thousands of dollars on your dream trip, just like we did!
FLY FOR FREE (or at least save thousands of dollars)
Airfare can be the most expensive part of any dream vacation, especially when you fly internationally, double especially when your destination is particularly remote (*cough* Africa *cough*). But this is also where you can save literally thousands of dollars.
My first ever experience in business class----the lay-flat seats ruined me for coach!
A quick Google search of round-trip business class flights for two from New York to Livingstone, Zambia show prices from $8,000-$22,000 (holy moly! Who has that kind of money? And why aren’t we friends with them?). Guess how much we paid? $200 each for taxes and fees (I know, right?!).
Conservatively, we saved almost $8,000 on our flights alone.
How is this possible? Through the beauty of credit card points and miles. Travel rewards through credit cards and loyalty programs are the most lucrative way to travel more. It does require some organization and dedication to keep track of your programs, but the payoff is worth it!
Here is a breakdown of how we leveraged points for our flights to and from Africa:
Orlando to New York
Carrier: Southwest Airlines
Rewards: Southwest points and companion pass
This perk is one of the most lucrative credit card bonuses out there (which I already extolled in our recent post about CUBA).
Cost: $14 in taxes and fees
Carrier: Multiple through Star Alliance
Rewards: Ultimate Rewards and United Airlines Points
The Chase Sapphire Preferred and United MileagePlus each carry a sign up bonus of 50,000 points. After we each signed up for both cards, we had almost enough points to cover our flights. This cost us literally no money—it just took a good credit score, a little effort on our end to apply for the cards, and a little planning to make sure we met the minimum spend threshold to qualify for each sign up bonus.
Ultimate Rewards Points are my favorite because they have multiple transfer partners (airlines and hotels) and they are some of the most valuable points on the market. We transferred our UR points to United Airlines. Despite their recent bout of bad press, United has one of the best award charts, does not impose arbitrary fuel surcharges (which devalues your points), allows you to redeem one-way awards, AND allows one stopover and one open jaw on award flights! Therefore, we booked business class seats from New York with a ten day stopover in Zambia.
Zambia to Cape Town
Carrier: Mango Airlines
Cost: $90 each
Our round-trip award flight picked up again in Cape Town, so we had to secure our own transportation on this “open jaw” section. While points and miles are one of the most cost-efficient ways to travel, other options include budget airlines, especially for short-haul flights. These budget carriers don’t always show up in airfare search engines, so be sure to do a separate search for local budget airlines and then book through their sites directly.
Cape Town to Orlando
Carrier: Multiple through Star Alliance
Rewards: Continuation of our Ultimate Rewards ticket
We picked up our round-trip flight after our time in Cape Town and opted for economy seats heading back to the States, which cost us fewer points overall, a benefit of one-way award travel.
Flights can be tricky, and can be discouraging when you are on the cusp of taking the leap to booking your dream trip, but all you need is a little creativity! Points and miles are the most lucrative approach, but there are some good budget airline options (which really are bare bones, but worth it if it gets you to where you want to go—like our $99 flights to Iceland!). You can also try setting up alerts to track when air fares dip a la AirFareWatchdog.
EDIT 5/6/18: If opening credit cards or flying on budget airlines aren't up your alley, I just joined a brand new company called CloudClub that specializes in discounted international airfare for hundreds of dollars off published rates on major airlines. Feel free to check it out!
To learn how to get started racking up points and miles for free travel, I recommend you visit The Points Guy.
Set Financial Goals
Ok, I know the advice to “save money!” is not really rocket-science, but it is still important and, ironically, often neglected.
If travel is important to you, I recommend setting up a travel fund with a monthly automatic withdrawal. Otherwise, your hard earned money will trickle away little by little on expensive lattes and lunch out.
Once I realized we had enough points to actually fly TO FREAKING AFRICA, my childhood dream started to become a little more concrete. So I came up with a financial plan, since I knew points and miles could only get me so far. Eventually, no matter where you travel on your wanderlist, there will be excursions or experiences that will require cold, hard cash.
No points and miles programs all the way out here!
To keep all of our dreams and wishes in the realm of attainable reality, we set aside a designated sum of money to go into a separate “travel fund” each month. I personally use SmartyPig to keep track of my multiple financial goals because the program allows me to compartmentalize my budgets. It even has a handy calculator that determines how much money you should put in monthly or weekly to meet your desired goal in time for your trip! Another handy feature? Other people can contribute to your fund! So if you have a birthday, anniversary, or just really nice friends, this could be a good way to get you to your goal.
In short, start saving money NOW so your once-in-a-lifetime-don’t-put-it-off-til-tomorrow experience can be a reality.
With the idea of Africa so close, I tightened up my personal spending so I could put even more money into our newly minted “Africa Fund”. Having a designated fund for Africa in particular is important because much to my chagrin, points and miles do not extend to safari tours. With cash in hand, we were able to book four nights with the luxury safari provider &Beyond in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Dream. Realized.
Take the Road Less Traveled…During the Time Less Traveled
Now that you have spent some time diligently putting money aside, it’s time to put it to work! And I firmly believe in stretching a dollar as far as possible. Another way to travel smart and save hundreds of dollars is to simply look for some secondary or even tertiary “tourist spots”. They can be just as beautiful, and sometimes—bonus!—less crowded. For our first African safari, it would have been understandable if we had visited the Serengeti in Tanzania or the Masaai Mara in Kenya (which, to be honest, we do still really want to visit), but a little research turned up an “up and coming” safari destination in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. The price per person per night was half the price of the more popular safari destinations and we had an incredible (and definitely uncrowded) experience. Plus, our hard saved safari money went further in this location, so we could afford a more exclusive tour.
See? The giraffes are just as beautiful in Botswana as Tanzania!
If your dream destination is too specific for wiggle room, then you might consider visiting during an alternate time. We usually travel to destinations during their “shoulder season”—the season right on the cusp of the tourist and low seasons. For Africa, this meant going in June, which is considered their winter. The safaris were a little chilly in the morning, but that just meant we had hot water bottles set under blankets for us to wrap ourselves in during the sunrise safaris—which I actually thought was pretty cozy!
Use Your Resources and Invest in Your Health!
These days, just about anywhere you travel will require some form of vaccination. And since travel vaccinations are considered “elective” (whoever decided that is obviously NOT a traveler, because I consider travel pretty much compulsory), most health insurance companies won’t cover them.
You can visit a travel clinic for most vaccinations, but sometimes your primary care doctor can provide certain shots. Some annual physicals can include at least the first round of your Hepatitis A and B series, so be sure to ask.
Additionally, if your company allows you to defer funds into an HSA or HRA account, that money can also go towards your travel vaccinations. Ask your benefits provider if they offer any travel assistance—our company regularly sends employees abroad and has a health clinic right on property, so they ended up being a great resource. Finally, if all else fails, you can space your vaccinations out over the course of a few months, so you don’t feel the financial sting quite as much.
Whenever you travel, make sure to check out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for the most up to date vaccination requirements.
Stay "On the House"
Ok, so after flights what is the next biggest travel expense? Lodging. Now, if you are willing to stay at a budget hotel, hostel, or rough it even more in a campervan like we did in Iceland and Patagonia, then you can save lots of money and cover a lot of ground. Or, if you are like my mother (who says the closest she'll get to camping is “sleeping with the windows open”), then you may need another plan. And this is where my good friends, Points and Miles, come in again. A luxury experience without the luxury price tag can be yours with a little research and planning. Look ahead to your destination and see what hotel chains are available, then see what kind of loyalty accounts or branded credit cards those chains offer.
The last leg of our African adventure was in Cape Town, South Africa. Unfortunately, Andrew’s Marriott discount would not help us (darn!), but there were a number of Club Carlson properties in the city. With our leftover points from a prior Club Carlson Visa credit card sign up bonus, we were able to book three nights at the beautiful Radisson Blu. Additionally, if you sign up or are already part of any hotel loyalty memberships, know your benefits. With our Club Carlson credit card, we were offered an automatic upgrade to a business suite, which included free breakfast. Club Carlson’s credit card also offered a sweet (though now, sadly discontinued) perk that you received the last night of any stay free!
Four nights in our beautiful suite with free breakfast would normally have cost us $19,768 ZAR, or almost $1,500USD. But for us, this hotel was on the house.
Get Adventurous: DIY
Ok, I know some experiences are totally enhanced by a professional guide—like a tour of the Louvre from an art-history expert. And some excursions require a professional guide for safety reasons—I would never think of attempting rafting the Zambezi on my own. But, for the most part, a lot of guided tours can be a DIY experience for a lot less money. So I suggest saving your hard-earned dollars for climbing the Sydney Harbor bridge, or having lunch with a NASA astronaut, or whatever excursion tickles your fancy in this dream vacation of yours—and skip the tours that mostly entail transporting you from place to place.
Consider a DIY self-drive tour, like we did on our day excursion from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope. The drive was only a few hours with beautiful stops along the way. Since I like to stop and go at my leisure, I prefer a self-guided road trip regardless, but let’s take a look at the costs of signing up for a tour bus experience vs renting yourself a vehicle and taking to the open road.
Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope Luxury Bus Tour (2 Adults): 1,100ZAR (about $80USD)
Car rental+park entry fee (2 Adults): $700ZAR (about $53)
The US Dollar conversion to the South African Rand is extremely favorable (another thing to consider when selecting your dream destination), so in this case, you might determine that an extra $30 is worth the convenience of the guided excursion. So to give you a better idea of the money you could save, let’s take a look at another destination. The Golden Circle tour in Iceland is one of the top rated tours in the country. Every day, multiple tour buses transport tourists from Reykjavík to the three iconic stops on this tour. Let’s take a look at the costs below!
Guided Golden Circle Tour (2 adults): 21,800ISK (about $22