We Only Spent $376 on a 5-Day Vacation — Including Airfare and Hotels. Here’s How

travel hacks
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My wife and I just returned from a Colorado vacation.

Monday we arrived in Denver, ate at a Nepalese restaurant in Boulder (the best meal of the trip), hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park and checked into a resort boasting 19 hot springs.

Tuesday we hiked, drove around, found another Nepalese restaurant, stayed at the Marriott in Glenwood Springs, drank at the hotel bar and enjoyed views from the hot tub.

Wednesday we explored waterfalls, caves and the ghost town of Independence, hiked at 12,000 feet and stayed in a little hotel in Leadville — the highest city in the U.S. at 10,578 feet.

Thursday we hiked and I played chess in a coffee shop in Canon City, where we used to live.

Friday we visited friends, explored canyons and had great Mexican food before heading for the airport.

Two round trip plane tickets from Tampa, Florida, airport parking, car rental, hotels, gas and meals — it all came to $376.

Plus, we had to pay $250 for the cat sitter — an expense we could have avoided if we asked friends to watch the cats.

Vacation packages might be a good deal, but you can often save even more money taking an à la carte approach to arranging your travel. Here’s how we planned such a cheap vacation, and our favorite travel hacks so you can do the same.

Find the Cheapest Flight

Booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz are a good place to look for tickets, but they don’t have all of the airlines in their systems.

For example, Southwest only sells tickets through its own site. To be really thorough when comparing prices, check each airline’s website for flights out of your closest airports.

Play with dates if you have some flexibility in your travel plans. I’ve seen a difference of $200 for a flight leaving a day later or sooner.

We work from home on our own schedules, so I was able to try many combinations of dates and times. By taking a late flight back, we saved at least $100 on our tickets.

If you want really cheap tickets, search for “hidden-city” fares on SkipLagged.com. These are longer, but sometimes cheaper, flights that have a layover in your destination. You just don’t get back on the plane for the second leg of the ticket. This strategy only works if you travel without checking any luggage.

Even though I paid with Citi credit card points, I used less of them by finding the cheapest fare. I had enough leftover points to book a car rental, too.

Use Credit Card Points for Flights and Cars

It takes a long time to earn enough credit card reward points to pay for a flight — especially through just normal purchases.

But many cards offer hefty sign-up bonuses.

I got 50,000 points just for signing up for my Citi ThankYou Premier card and putting $3,000 on the card within three months. Since I also earned points for the purchases I made, I had about 55,000 points within a couple of months.

The best travel cards give you more than the typical penny-per-point. My points were worth 1.25 cents if I used them for travel bookings through Citibank’s “ThankYou Points” system.

It made them worth almost $700 — enough to book two cheap flights and pay for all but $2 of our car rental. With the points used up, I later canceled the card before the annual fee was due (the first year was free).

Frontier Airlines had the best price at $234 round trip for each ticket (18,720 points), but it wasn’t in the Citibank booking system. The next cheapest would have been $100 more per ticket, but on a hunch I called the booking center rather than booking online.

They got me the Frontier tickets, and a car rental even cheaper than what I had found.

Lesson learned: Call and ask about your options.

Getting the Frontier MasterCard may be the easiest way to earn enough points for a flight. It has an annual fee of $69, but put $500 on the card within 90 days (groceries should do it). You’ll get 40,000 points — enough for two round-trip tickets anywhere they fly.

I’ll be using my Frontier card points to pay for our next trip.

Book Odd-Hours Flights

Travel time on your departure and return dates typically leaves you with less than four days to enjoy on a four-night vacation.

Flying at odd hours is one solution. You can often find cheaper fares and save money by reducing the number of hotel nights you need.

For example, we flew out of Tampa at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Denver at 9:30 a.m. after a four-hour flight, thanks to the time difference . The early start let us enjoy the whole first day.

Our return flight left Denver at 11:59 p.m., so we had the entire last day to enjoy, too. We slept a little on the plane and caught up at home.

Booking early and late got us the cheapest tickets and a full five days of vacation with only four nights out. Plus, we only fully paid for one hotel night, thanks to credit card points and a visit with friends.

Find Cheaper Airport Parking

It costs $18 per day to park at Tampa International Airport — which totaled $108 for us, since we returned to the car the sixth day.

But a search online turned up a highly rated nearby parking lot. It charged us just $40 and had shuttles to and from the airport at all hours.

Check prices and the reviews — you don’t want an off-site parking company to make you miss your flight.

You can also park with FlightCar to save money — and you might even make money.

Avoid Additional Fees and Costs

Additional airline charges add up quick — check out my guide to avoiding baggage fees. Frontier charges from $25 to $60 for carry-on bags — each way!

We made sure our backpacks were smaller than 18-by-14-by-8 inches, so they counted as no-charge “personal items.”

We discovered it’s $2 for a bottle of water or soda on the plane on the Denver flight. We brought empty bottles through security and filled them at a drinking fountain before boarding the return flight.

Frontier also charges for selecting your seats — which we’d never pay. Turns out, we were assigned exit row seats with extra leg room. We’ve never been separated, but it’s a possibility when you don’t pay to select seats.

Unless you travel light and simple like us, check on the extra charges before booking your tickets. It might be cheaper to pay for a more expensive flight on an airline that doesn’t charge for carry-on bags.

Eat Lunch, Skip Dinner

We were at a Nepalese buffet in Boulder, Colorado, shortly after we got off the plane.

Our total with tip was about $20 — but it would’ve been $10 more at dinnertime. To save money, make lunch the day’s big meal.

Eating at a buffet helps, too. We were so full after lunch, a snack in front of the TV was sufficient for dinner. And check out my post on other ways to eat out for less.

To save even more, buy food and drinks in grocery stores. In addition to being cheaper, it’s nice to have food in the car when you can’t find a decent restaurant. Find a place with a great view and have a picnic.

Choose Inexpensive Activities

We missed the free national parks day by two weeks, so we paid $20 to enter Rocky Mountain National Park.

But we had plenty of free activities too.

There was no entry fee to hike in and around the ice caves (the “Grottos”) near Aspen, or to explore the Ghost town of Independence, or to hike at the nearby pass (12,000 feet up).

Keeping it cheap isn’t a sacrifice. We’ve paid for a helicopter ride through the Royal Gorge in Colorado, a catamaran cruise of Lake Tahoe in California, and a train ride through the mountains of Ecuador.

But if you focus on cheap and free activities, you’ll save money to spend on the expensive stuff. Or you’ll never even get around to them because you’re having so much fun.

Use Credit Card Points for Hotels

We used 8 of the 19 hot springs at Hot Sulphur Springs Resort, which were included in the $118 room charge.

I called and applied my Bank of America Travel Rewards card $100 travel credit to the bill, reducing it to $18 out of pocket.

At the moment, the card offer is even better: You get $200 toward travel expenses when “you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening.”

You’ll find some of the best deals with hotel-specific credit cards.

We stayed at the Marriott in Glenwood Springs for free, using about half of the sign-up bonus points for my Marriott Rewards Premier credit card.

I regularly use my Hyatt card points for free nights, and the current sign-up offer is two free nights for spending $1,000 on the card within 90 days.

Get a Wyndham Rewards Visa and you’ll earn a free night just for buying a cup of coffee using the card — any purchase gets you 15,000 points.

Visit Friends and Family

While sometimes you can score cheap vacations at all-inclusive resorts, ditch the hotel and stay with friends and family.

We spent our last night with friends in our former town of Canon City, Colorado. Of course, friends and family visit us here in Florida every winter.

Some of your friends and family probably live near nice destinations — plan a visit as part of a vacation!

If you know enough people who’d be happy to see you for a night, plan a route that avoids hotel bills altogether.

Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror, and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).