9 tips for taking a luxury vacation on a budget
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I'm often amazed when I learn how much friends and family spend on travel.
That's because travel -- yes, even luxury travel -- doesn't have to be excessively expensive. And it's possible to book a luxury vacation even when you're traveling on a tight budget.
Of course, it's essential to understand that traveling on a budget will look different for every person. Plus, every traveler has a different vision of what a luxury vacation entails. So, although I'll give some examples of luxury travel in this guide, these examples may not align with what you consider luxury based on your budget. But, these tips should be relevant regardless of your budget and desired level of luxury. So, let's get started.
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Make and stick to a budget
When making a budget, consider significant expenses such as airfare and lodging as well as minor costs like dining, activities and souvenirs. In addition, you'll want to allocate an emergency fund you can turn to if you face unforeseen yet unavoidable costs during your trip.
Of course, two travelers with identical trip costs may budget their funds differently. After all, a crucial part of taking a luxury trip on a budget is assessing your priorities and budgeting your funds accordingly.
Related: Which budgeting technique is right for you?
Set your priorities
If you want to take a luxury vacation on a budget, you can maximize your enjoyment by splurging on the aspects of your trip that matter most to you.
For example, I typically prioritize hotels in loyalty programs I care about. And I try to stay at hotels that offer in-room workspace for two guests (which is surprisingly rare). I'm also starting to prioritize location more when selecting hotels.
In addition to considering what to prioritize, you also must decide what's unimportant. For example, I rarely splurge on fine dining or chic bars. Instead, I usually eat at cafes and buy regionally produced beer or wine from a nearby grocery store.
Related: Why I prefer limited-service hotels over luxury chains
Visit an inexpensive destination during the off-season
One of the easiest ways to unlock a luxury vacation at budget prices is to visit an affordable destination during its off-season. For example, you can stay at the Conrad Cairo in Egypt for as little as 19,000 points or $88 per night (including taxes and fees).
And you can stay at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal in the United Arab Emirates for as little as $152 per night. Granted, you'll need to endure the summer heat and book a pre-paid rate for the lowest price. But, you won't need to pay much more for a flexible rate or a night during the shoulder season.
You can also unlock luxury stays in inexpensive destinations when using hotel points. For example, I've had my eye on a stay at the World of Hyatt Category 1 Park Hyatt Chennai. This hotel in India is the only Category 1 Park Hyatt, and you can book a standard room for just 5,000 points per night. So, even though some of the reviews say this hotel is outdated, it's still an excellent opportunity to stay at a Park Hyatt on a budget.
Finally, being in a location where your money goes further may let you splurge on experiences even when traveling on a budget. For example, I loved getting a quality 60-minute massage in Da Nang, Vietnam, for just 220,000 Vietnamese dong (about $10).
Related: 10 of the world’s cheapest cities for luxury points hotels
Stay outside the most popular neighborhoods
Travelers on a budget can often save money by staying at a luxury hotel in a less popular neighborhood.
If you're visiting Istanbul, for example, you can frequently snag a good deal at luxury hotels located outside the most popular business and tourist areas.
And if you're willing to stay on the Asia side of Istanbul or even in the Old City, you can often save money without sacrificing luxury. However, you may also find good deals in centrally located areas, so it's worth looking at the map view when searching for a hotel. For example, the W Istanbul may provide a compelling level of luxury at a modest price on some dates.
And travelers who prefer Hilton may want to stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Istanbul Sirkeci in the Old City or the Hilton Istanbul Kozyatagi. But, if you're looking for an even lower price, you might consider the DoubleTree by Hilton Istanbul Esentepe, which is near a metro station and has a Turkish bath on site.
Travelers with Hilton Diamond status or Marriott Platinum Elite or higher status may prefer to stay at a luxury hotel with an executive lounge, such as the Hilton Istanbul Kozyatagi. Luckily, even if you don't stay enough to earn hotel elite status organically, adding select hotel credit cards to your wallet can help.
Related: 11 tips for traveling Europe on a budget
Leverage credit card perks
There are also many other credit cards you can leverage to take a luxury vacation on a budget. Look for cards with perks such as:
- Airport lounge access:
Select American Express cards, including The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, provide access to Amex's Centurion Lounges and various other airport lounges through Amex's Global Lounge Collection.
Many travel rewards cards provide a Priority Pass Select membership. Here are some of the best cards for Priority Pass lounge access.
The American Express® Green Card provides up to $100 in LoungeBuddy statement credits each calendar year (enrollment required).
- Luxury hotel booking programs:
Select American Express cardholders can get elite-like perks and sometimes a third, fourth, fifth or sixth night free when booking through Amex's Fine Hotels & Resorts program.
Select Chase cardholders can get elite-like perks when booking through Chase's Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection.
- Hotel discounts and free nights
Cardholders of the IHG® Rewards Premier Credit Card and IHG® Rewards Traveler Credit Card can get a fourth-night reward when redeeming IHG Rewards points for a stay of three nights or longer.
Cardholders of the Citi Prestige® Card get a complimentary fourth night when booking a hotel stay of four nights or more through the Citi ThankYou travel portal up to two times per calendar year. So you might get a lot of value using your fourth night free at luxury hotels.
Many hotel credit cards offer an annual free night that may justify the card's annual fee. For example, I’m happy to pay the annual fee on the IHG Premier Card and I'm keeping my Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card for the long term due to the annual free nights I get on these cards.
- Elite status shortcuts:
If you want elite status with a particular program, it's worth considering one of the best credit cards to jumpstart elite status. Some credit cards can help you earn airline elite status, and you can get top-tier Hilton Diamond status just for having the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.
Having personal and business Marriott Bonvoy credit cards, such as the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card, gives you 30 elite nights each year.
The information for the Amex Green Card, Citi Prestige Card and Hilton Aspire Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Related: I use my hotel credit card benefits to travel in luxury — here are 5 ways to do it
Mix luxury and budget on the same trip
Especially if you can book through the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts program or the Chase Luxury Hotels and Resorts Collection, you may want to mix luxury and budget travel on the same trip. If you can snag early check-in or late checkout, you could experience more than 24 hours at a luxury hotel on a one-night stay.
Plus, when you book through these programs, you'll typically get extra perks like breakfast for two and statement credits for use during your stay. For example, I once got $160 of food and beverages included on a $153 Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts stay at the luxury Loews Chicago Hotel where I received a $100 food and beverage credit plus breakfast for two.
One night may sound like too short of a stay. But, I've had some very memorable one- or two-night stays at luxury properties when traveling on a budget. For example, I loved my short stays at the Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay, InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso, The Ritz-Carlton Osaka and The St. Regis Osaka. And I'm considering a one-night stay at Marriott’s Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, the next time I'm in Dubai.
Related: When to book through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts vs. Chase Luxury Hotel and Resort Collection
Jump on deals and sales
Deals and sales have let me take many luxury vacations on a budget. Back on Dec. 31, 2018, my husband and I booked Cathay Pacific first-class round-trip tickets from Da Nang, Vietnam, for about $850 each. That's a lot of money, but compared to the typical cash fare for this ticket, this was a fantastic deal.
But, airlines don't always honor mistake fares. Luckily, it's often possible to find great airfares that aren't mistakes. Airlines frequently offer sales you can find just by subscribing to TPG's deals feed (@tpg_alerts) or by signing up for one of the many flight deal mailing lists. Or, if you want to take a vacation on set dates, use the Google Flights explore feature to find an inexpensive destination.
Of course, there are also award sales such as Flying Blue monthly promo rewards and American Airlines reduced mileage awards. And, in some cases, buy points and miles promotions can provide excellent value.
For example, reward nights at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa typically cost 100,000 points. And you can typically buy IHG points for 0.5 cents per point several times a year. So, if I bought points at 0.5 cents per point and found availability, I'd effectively pay $500 for a night -- which is much less than the $1,004 paid rate I found on one date with award availability.
Related: How to decide whether to use cash or miles for airline tickets
Redeem points and miles
Even if you aren't booking during an award sale or a buy points and miles promotion, you can still unlock luxury hotels and flights by redeeming points and miles.
Besides booking deals and redeeming hotel free-night certificates, redeeming points and miles are the primary way I book luxury vacations on a budget.
If you need more points or miles, several of the top travel rewards cards currently offer massive 100,000-point sign-up bonuses, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening). TPG credit cards writer Stella Shon, for example, recently redeemed 100,000 Chase points to book a Costa Rica trip of a lifetime.
Related: Why I usually redeem points for mid-tier hotels (and when I opt for luxury instead)
Look beyond the major programs
I ignored hotel loyalty programs for many years and instead booked independent properties through online travel agency (OTA) rewards programs. After all, you can often snag luxury hotels and guest houses through an OTA for less than comparable hotels that belong to major hotel loyalty programs.
Similarly, you may want to consider using a platform like Airbnb or VRBO to secure a luxury vacation rental. Airbnb even offers luxury rentals and experiences through Airbnb Luxe. You can also rent vehicles (including luxury types) from individuals through a service such as Turo. Just don't assume your credit card car rental insurance will cover you on peer-to-peer Turo rentals.
Related: Maximizing points and miles on vacation rentals with Airbnb and VRBO