Funny thing is, I've never been super wealthy where I can travel first class and stay at 5 star resorts on a whim. I long to visit Dubai, but it's one of the few places I haven't figured out how to visit on a budget.
Are you someone that wants to see the world? Have a limited set of mean? Then pay attention.
First things first, know the seasons in the place you want to go. I am not talking about Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall but Peak, Non-Peak and Slow. Because the rest of the world has cultures that differ from the US, you'll find that at times we are hopping with tourism, some places are pretty quiet. Sometimes it means dealing with less events or perhaps less than ideal weather, but it can save you 50-90% on you trip in total if you time it wisely. A key thing to remember: Some holidays are pertinant to Americans only - in another country, it's just a Tuesday. You could go over a time when you already have a "day off" coming and save yourself some vacation time.
So, you've picked a place at a reasonable time of year. Set up a farewatcher online to alert you to rises and falls in tickets from your airport to the destination and back. With a little research, you can easily find out what the lowest tickets to certain regions are and plan for that in your budget. For instance, you're not flying from Maryland to Japan for under $1000 without the help of frequent flyer miles and a possible miracle. But you don't have to pay $3000 to sit in coach either. Take advantage of discounts through your credit card, insurance, etc. when planning the tickets and lodging. Be flexible with exact dates and nearby airports. Being willing to drive an extra 20 minutes in another direction could save you hundreds. Watch the price of gas, it will impact ticket prices. Keep watch for package deals and programs.
So it's time to buy the tickets: Know that the sweet spot for cheap tickets (if you're not picky about your seats or have more than 2 people traveling with you) is roughly 60-45 days before the trip if you're flying domestically. If that makes you nervous, you can get them 6 months or so earlier, but you greatly risk paying a poor price. The closer it gets, planes with seats sold but aren't empty want to fill up and sites that have repurchased tickets to sell at a "sale price" are interested in unloading as many as possible. However, if you are within 2 weeks of the trip, you have waited too long. These are the most expensive tickets that will sell. They are for the last minute crowd. It's almost like a punishment for poor planning. Don't be that guy (or girl). Check out this Huffington Post article for some more specific timelines for other country travel. I agree wholeheartedly with the tips. Also - make sure you're taking the trip and bypass the refundable tickets. If anything, spring for the $40 insurance in case of an emergency derailing the plans, but otherwise - commit. The ability to refund or change a ticket can double or triple the price you pay! Timing - flying at off-peak hours, while inconvenient, are money savers. Wee hours of the morning on a weekend (not a weekday, that's the commuter zone) or late at night on a weekday (not the weekend, that's the family travel zone) are great spots to find awesome deals. Being flexible with your time is a plus. I also, personally, like arriving in a new country in the morning. It gives you time to put your things at the hotel (Even if you can't check in yet most places will hold your bags and deliver them to your room when it is ready and hostels often have lockers you can lock your things in until you can check in) and start to explore the city. This tends to keep the jetlag in check. Even if you come back and make an early night of it, you've already begun to reset your body to local time and not wasted a day of your trip resting.
OK, great - tickets are purchased, now where will I stay? The question of lodging depends on 3 things: Health, Planned Events, and Length of Stay.
- If you're pretty healthy and walking around or taking an extra 5 - 10 minutes to travel doesn't bother you, you'll find the suburbs of any major city to have cheaper lodging. Look for convenient public transportation and grocery / restaurant / pharmacy availability. If you're less healthy or have a chronic condition, that doesn't mean you can't have a great time. Pick lodging near the best public transportation spot. The larger station areas tend to be handicap accessible. You may pay more for this area, but it's worth protecting your health. Also, know where the hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies are in the place you're visiting. I suggest buying a map and marking them ahead of time. In an emergency, language barriers can slow you down when there is no time. Also learn or write down phonetically key phrases, such as "I am a diabetic / hemophiliac / etc." so you can tell emergency personnel. Let your hotel concierge or hostel staff know as well. They can be a big help when you're unable to speak for yourself.
- If you have planned events, keep your lodging within reasonable walking distance of the main events. On the off chance you find yourself stranded after public transportation has ceased in an area, you want to be able to walk home in a reasonable amount of time. In more rural areas, stay near a main thoroughfare so you can (at a minimum) find a cab or bus. If you have no events, but want to see a lot of various attractions- stay near the point of main transportation. You're going to be taking the subway or train everywhere anyway - why not stay near the airport or train station? Those lodgings tend to be much lower than the core city lodging. Study the areas for the safest and most populated so you are never in jeopardy. This changes with time, never assume because a place was pretty safe 5 years ago it still is today.
- As for length of stay, if you're going to be somewhere 4 days or more, try to find a place (hotel, hostel, B&B) with laundry facilities in it or nearby. There's no reason to pack too many changes of clothing for an area you don't live in full-time. No one will judge you for wearing the same pants or shirt twice - you're a visitor. You can pack less and have more room for souvenirs and gifts if you pack judiciously and interchange outfits. When picking a hotel or hostel - READ THE REVIEWS. You'll notice I'm not recommending anything in particular because over time, places that were once great can change. Check out the current reviews when choosing. If you can read the other language, check out the local reviews especially to see what the natives think of the place. Any place you book, call or email and confirm your reservation - then find a couple places that could be back up lodging in case something goes horribly wrong. Write these down and keep the phone numbers with your travel documents. Try not to pre-pay unless necessary - you may change your mind or itinerary and you can lose your money without sufficient notice. Also - you may get there and not like the look of the place, which will leave you with one of your alternatives. Some hostels have plans and will give you a discount for buying ahead of time from home - always look for a deal. Also, don't fear a decent hostel. You'll save money, it's like a B&B, and get to meet people from all over the world.
Now you have a way to get there and a place to stay - great.
This is where a budget is IMPORTANT. Know how much you have left to spend. Balance that against all the things you want to do and research packages and discounts. Students get discounts almost globally, there are often discount packages for local attractions with public transportation packages, and if you're traveling to more than one country - research the cheapest way to travel. You may be surprised! If you lock in a certain amount you can / will spend and only bring that with you (or put it on an international pre-paid credit card) you won't find yourself over spending.
As for food, I recommend eating like the locals. Pick one place to splurge on, but otherwise if you can eat fresh or from the local grocery - I'd recommend it. Check out the local eating establishments in the neighborhood your lodging is in, there may be some amazing places right there.
Lastly, never buy the first souvenir you see. Nor the second. Or the third. Wait until the day before you leave to go buy gifts and such. Mark down places you visited and what you saw and the price. You may see it for less elsewhere or find a better item in another shop or town.
In 2006, I toured France for 3 weeks for under 2500 - including airfare, lodging, and an extra suitcase worth of gifts for my soon-to-be godchild. I've flown to Japan for 1/3 the cost of my coworkers because I found a deal and shopped at midnight on Tuesday online. My sister and I did a "broke girls" trip to Spain in 2008, including a commuter flight to Barcelona from Madrid for a measly $40 euro roundtrip for both of us. In 2012, we enjoyed a luxurious 5-star honeymoon for a week in Cancun because of a timeshare deal a family member was able to offer and taking advantage of packages to visit the ruins and local entertainments - for well under $2000. While times have change and the dollar and Euro fluctuate, these tips still seem to work. My husband and I use them - hopefully you will find them useful as well.
Here's a site with some awesome additional ideas, check out Nomadic Matt and his travel hacking guide!