Photo Credit: Jason Devaun

There are a few well-documented travel “secrets” everyone knows will save money. But what if you have school-aged kids and can’t travel in the low season, or don’t have the ability of rack up airline miles to earn elite status? Maybe you are unable to commit to booking a vacation a year in advance or simply don’t have the schedule to stay weeks or months abroad. Good news: it’s still absolutely possible to save money on your trip. Our #1 secret weapon to saving money on travel can be summed up in two words: plan ahead.

With planning, it’s easy to save money no matter when you travel, who you travel with, and where you travel. Here’s how to put pre-trip planning into practice for real-life savings:

Pick a destination based on affordability.

When we decided to travel to Europe, we planned on including Switzerland in our itinerary. After making a list of attributes we were looking for in a destination -- scenic cityscapes, castles, and a wintry, festive atmosphere during the Christmas holiday, we were surprised to learn that Belgium fit our criteria just as well. Since the cost of living (and vacationing) is much lower in Belgium, we placed the medieval town of Ghent on our itinerary instead and had just as a great of a time. If you just want to view the cheapest country to fly to on any given day, check out and don’t input an endpoint.

Plan your lodging strategically.

Most of the time, savings are overwhelmingly found in vacation homes, not hotels. Flats and apartments rented through AirBnb, HomeAway, and similar sites afford families the much-needed space and amenities like kitchens and laundry facilities to save money over the course of a vacation. However, be sure to take location into account. If your apartment rental is a long distance from the attractions you’ll be visiting, you may end up spending more money on gas, taxis, tolls, or parking. Sometimes, accommodations within easy walking distance of downtown can equal better savings, even if they start with a higher price tag.

Book your airfare carefully.

For the largest savings, plan to purchase airfare at least six months before an international trip and 2-3 months before a domestic trip. We recommend search engines or to compare prices, then going directly to the provider’s website (instead of a third-party booking site) to book tickets. Doing so will ensure you receive the best possible customer service. I learned this the hard way when experiencing weather delays. Customers who booked directly through the air carrier were treated to quick rerouting and upgrades long before I was taken care of. Customers who booked through third party websites were treated like third-class citizens. Save yourself some anguish (and money on food and lodging) by booking directly whenever possible.

Expect to deal with discount airline policies.

Discount airlines, such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet in Europe and Spirit and Frontier have their place and can save you money – as long as you know their policies inside and out. We recently took a flight from Rome to Paris for 35 euros each. However, unlike standard airlines, discount airlines often charge for carry-on bags, and almost always have rules about checking-in online and printing boarding passes ahead of time. Frontier now even charges for water onboard (so bring a water bottle with you). As long as you know the rules of the game, you’ll be in good shape, but let one sneak by you, and you may be looking at a hefty charge.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many discount airlines use regional or outlying airports instead of major transportation hubs. Why does that matter? It may end up costing just as much to transport yourself to the city center. For example, when we flew from Paris to Pisa on Ryan Air, we needed to pay $125 for an airport shuttle. Even with this fee, it was still cheaper than taking a regular carrier.

Research when you’ll go.

After you decide where you’re going and where you’ll stay, when you go is the next biggest factor in money saving. If you’re tied to a school schedule, fear not: you may be surprised to learn that in many destinations, spring break and winter holidays are actually off-season. Of course, there are exceptions: theme parks will also peak in spring and summer, and ski resorts will also be busiest during winter break. However, think outside the box, and you may end up with a fantastic and cheap vacation during Christmas or Easter. Look at various cities or national parks. During summer break, skip the beach and head to a desert, the tropics, or a ski resort for some off-peak mountain fun.

Purchase what you can ahead of time.

We always purchase city passes, museum passes, and metro tickets ahead of time. Not only does it save a few dollars, but it breaks up the cost of the trip once you’re at the destination and saves you time. With a Chicago CityPass, families can bypass the majority of the long lines, saving hours. Ditto for major attraction across the US. When we bought the Paris Museum Pass before our trip, we skipped long queues at every attraction and time is money!

No matter when you travel or who you travel with, you’ll save money every time if you do your homework…weeks and even months before your departure! With a well-formulated plan, once you’re on vacation, you’ll be able to relax knowing you did your best to maximize spending. Want to save even more cash once you get there? Check out our currency conversion hacks.