Some of us aren't quite ready to take that overseas trip, while others have long given in to the travel bug and have been on flights since before the U.S. required negative COVID tests to return home. (Oh, I know I'm not the only one). If you're a travel lover like me, you might have been keeping a watchful eye on those coins in the past few months, looking for ways to save just to book the flight and luxe accommodations. Well, I'm also a discount lover with the I-got-it-but-I-ain't-spending-$5,000-on-nobody's-travel-package bougetto kind of traveler.
Whether you're among those waiting another six months or so before using those travel credits, or you're all set to go on your next adventure soon, check out a few tips that have helped me in planning luxury travel on a budget:
1. Venture beyond the usual third-party discount sites for booking trips.
Listen, we all know about the whole savings tip of traveling during off-peak times, and we know that Groupon is the go-to OG for booking discounted trips. (So are Expedia, Orbitz, Hopper, and Kayak.) However, sometimes I don't have the time or just don't want to fly out somewhere during some weird season where the vibes are nonexistent or just not festive. (Oh, and let's not forget the "revenge travel" that's going on now, making us all forget what a "peak" season even is with all the crowds and price surges.)
I've found great deals and discounts by going directly on a hotel's or airline's official website and signing up for their membership programs. Doing this allows you to avoid missing out on perks like having the ability to upgrade or have to deal with the sneaky third-party fine print that says the booking can't be changed or adjusted. For example, Hilton Honors offers some amazing perks for members to stay at their more than 5,900 properties around the world, their options are diverse and fabulous for staycations and overseas trips, and their customer service is everything.
I also love the Marriott Bonvoy program, where you can earn free nights and get updated on special member rates. (And don't think of Marriott as that budget hotel your family always stayed in for the annual reunion. They've got some pretty amazing luxury properties around the world including the W and the Ritz Carlton brands.)
2. Tap into rewards.
It's also a good idea to check out your favorite airline's rewards programs and, for trips that take more than 8 hours or might be that one-time-a-year treat, book directly with them as a member. I absolutely love American Airlines Advantage, and they're my fave for my many trips to the Caribbean. The miles seem to rack up pretty quickly, the boarding process is typically seamless and stress-free, and miles can be used without a lot of annoying and inconveniencing stipulations.
Many credit card companies offer rewards on travel (NerdWallet has an excellent list of the best, by the way) and if you travel a lot, it's a good idea to look into the best ways you can make both your debit and credit cards work for you in terms of saving coins. Several banks offer cashback rewards on your purchases, so check out a few of those as well. (Here's a link to get you started, sis. You're welcome.)
3. Add luxury touches pre-trip.
You might have a coach ticket, but that doesn't mean you can't have a bit of luxury during your commute. I'm a huge fan of airport lounges, and if you're not into spending $600-$800 for access, try a day pass. American Airlines offers one for its Admiral's Club access where, for $59, you can get chef-inspired food and drinks, comfy seats to scroll the web via their free Wifi, and some even have shower suites. United, which has more than 45 lounge locations, also offers a $59 day pass that can be purchased via their app.
I also have no shame in bringing my own mini-bottles of top-shelf alcohol (if it's that kind of trip!), which can run you just $1.50 to $7.00 per bottle for brands like Johnnie Walker Black, Patron, Kettle One, or Ciroc. I simply pack my "nips" in my carry-on bag and add them to mixed drinks (virgin, of course) or juices for a pre-boarding cocktail.
You can also add luxury to the commute to and from the airport by spending a few extra dollars with Lyft Lux and ride in style via a high-end sudan or SUV. Only drivers who are highly rated and experienced are allowed to participate. And who wouldn't like getting picked up from the airport in a nice, clean BMW, Lexus, or Cadillac?
For the times when I can't swing hundreds of dollars a night for lodging, I pack luxury items to take with me to the budget digs. Items like a silk robe or lingerie, aromatherapy bath oils and gels, satin pillow cases, small scented candles or bottles of sparkling water (bought at the airport of course) all add that luxe touch to my stay.
4. Book a villa or home rental vs. the usual resort packages.
I get that many people are just used to resorts and like the one-stop-shop vibes of just booking a weeklong stay for $2,500 or more and enjoying all-inclusive amenities the property offers. But I've found that traditional resorts just aren't my cup of tea. My idea of the "luxury" I should be getting for that price just never seems to match up with what many offer. (Either I don't like the food or the customer service as much as I should for the price, or the entertainment is just not within my tastes.)
Sometimes spending that same $2,500 to book a longer stay at a villa or home rental is a much better experience, and you get to really tailor or choose the version of "luxury" you prefer.
For example, in Negril, Jamaica you can get a private home with a pool, proximity to a private beach, and modern amenities for $250 to $300 per night, and simply hire someone to come in to cook custom meals for you. (Trust me, they're out there. If the host can't connect you, it's easy to find one by asking a taxi driver or restaurant host.) You can create your own fun, utilize the technology, and have privacy. To me, that's a more luxurious experience (and more bang for my buck) than being limited to cafeteria-style and chain-food-serving restaurants, sharing a resort pool with dozens of people (who apparently flew thousands of miles to hear Top 40 hits of the early 2000), or being underwhelmed by drunken tourists doing absurd versions of twerking.
5. Think outside the (location and type) box when it comes to lodging.
There are so many so-called hidden gems that have a luxury vibe but are not among the popular or well-advertised spots. For example, instead of staying on the popular Hip Strip of Montego Bay, sometimes I opt for Lucea, Jamaica, a small town located between Negril and Montego Bay. Try the Grand Palladium, which will run you about $250 to $321 per night vs. popular resorts in Negril that cost upwards of $400 per night for similar amenities. Or instead of staying in Tulum or Cancun, Mexico, where luxury hotels might run you upwards of $350 per night, try Playa del Carmen or San Jose del Cabo, where the average prices for luxury stays start around $200 per night.
Boutique hotels in popular vacay destinations also tend to offer good deals on room rates, and you'll still get the luxury feel of a resort. I like Villas Sur Mer which features the cutest cottages, a beautiful pool, cliff-side access, and amazing views for as low at $126 (during some seasons).
Also, luxury hostels are a thing. (Travel Binger has an awesome list of top spots around the world.) You get luxe touches like modern amenities (think: underground clubs, laundry services, private terraces, chic cafes, and travel shops), great views, and customized extras at super-affordable rates.
6. Research organizational affiliation and student deals or corporate discounts.
I often overlooked this until I found out that as a grad student, I qualify for quite a few discounts or deals on everything from plane or train tickets, to transportation vouchers, to hotel stays. If you're part of a sorority or volunteer organization, you're a military veteran or active service member, or you're a church leader, you might be eligible for discounts. Also, memberships with orgs and companies like AAA, Costco, BJs, and credit unions can have the added benefit of travel deals. Your school's alumni association might even offer discounts.
I've also, in the past, worked for companies that had partnerships with other brands and offered discounts via those partnerships. Check your job's website or ask an HR rep about any sort of travel discounts you might be eligible for as an employee. (Oh, and check out these companies that offer competitive benefit packages that put vacation at the forefront.)
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