How to Have a 5-Star Vacation on a 1-Star Budget

Updated 02/21/17

We know that vacations are good for our mental health and well-being, but in reality they can also be a big financial drain. When you factor in the cost of flights, airport transfers, accommodation, and experiences when you arrive at the destination, it can be easy to admit defeat and stay home.

If you're among the massive group of Americans who left a record-setting 658 million vacation days unused last year, here's how to make sure you don't make the same mistake in 2019. We've mapped five remarkably simple ways to book a champagne vacation on a boxed-wine budget. Travelers who make the most of the sharing eceonomy—ride sharing, house swaps, etc.—and think outside of the box when it comes to planning a trip save hundreds and are rewarded with a truly unique experience. 

Forget resorts, airplanes, and packaged tours. Follow these five travel tips for a five-star vacation on a one-star budget. 

Go With a Group

Boutique Homes

If you've been putting off a vacation because you and your S.O. can't fathom the cost of a luxury hotel room in your dream city, it's time to change your approach. Sharing a rental home is a great way to divide the cost between multiple people, allowing you to get better quality accommodation for a fraction of the price. If you're looking to save even more money, consider a long-term rental. Ask friends to nominate a few weeks they'd like to use the property during that period, and distribute the cost evenly. 

Start planning: 

  1. Fire Island: The Hamptons is an obvious share-house choice for New Yorkers, but Fire Island has a ton of equally stunning waterfront properties that are best shared with friends. 
  2. Palm Springs: Round up your closest crew and spend the weekend by the pool. 
  3. New Orleans: Sharing accommodation during the city's popular festivals can be a great way to make your money go further. 

Utilize the Sharing Economy

Yury Gubin/500px

The sharing economy has revolutionized travel over the last five years. This is particularly true in Europe, where ridesharing services like BlaBlaCar and accommodation sites like Airbnb dominate the market. Ditch costly hotels and overseas car hire for locally run B and Bs and carpooling. A ride from Paris to Brussels can be as cheap as $26, while a flight can cost around $180. 

Start planning:

  • Spain: BlaBlaCar is prevalent throughout Spain, so there are tons of drivers and routes available every day.
  • Portugal: Car hire can be very costly in Portugal, especially if you want to cross the border to Spain. Avoid the fees with ridesharing.
  • Paris: Accommodation is notoriously expensive in France's capital. Book a private room via Airbnb in advance for a truly authentic experience.

Take Your Car

Pondyrock/500px

Traveling within the U.S.? Flight prices can surge during festivals and key events, so consider a road trip instead. It'll place an emphasis on the journey, rather than the destination, so there's no need to splurge on a luxury hotel because you'll spend most of your time on the road. Consider accommodation just outside of the city center if you're happy to drive in each day. You'll likely find a much more affordable room than if you were to stay in the heart of the city. 

Start planning:

  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: Michigan or Wisconsin locals should venture to this picturesque vacation spot at least once in their lives. 
  • Vancouver: Just a two-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle, Vancouver is the perfect place to hike, ski, and explore nature. 
  • Washingon, D.C.: Forget crowded trains and buses during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Take a road trip and spend a night just outside of the city.

Consider a House Exchange

Third Home

House-exchange schemes are becoming increasingly popular among homeowners. Simply register your home or vacation house on sites like Home Exchange or Third Home, and stay in someone else's luxury abode for a hugely discounted rate. 

Start planning:

  • Mexico: Luxury vacation homes abound in many key Mexican cities.
  • Australia: Stay in a cliffside mansion in Coogee, or shack up in a modest coastal townhome to see Australia at its best. 
  • London: Get the true British experience in a wrought-iron fenced townhouse. 

Book at the Last Minute

Damien Tachoires/500px

Travel experts agree—being flexible with your travel dates and destination is key to secure the best deals. Keep an eye on discount flight websites like The Flight Deal and Secret Flying for flash sales. 

Start planning:

  • Iceland: Direct flight routes from major East Coast cities mean there are often flash sales to this buzzy destination. 
  • Cuba: A number of budget airlines have started offering flights to Havana, Cuba, so it's worth waiting for introductory offers. 
  • Hawaii: Set price alerts for Hawaiian, Alaska, and American Airlines, which offer occasional flash sales to the island paradise. 
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Searching for the best flight deal? Here's why you should book with Google Flights.

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