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Oops, I’m Cash-Poor But I Need a Vacation

Forget staycations—here’s how to work the system and get out of town

With the arrival of summer comes the travel itch, when the combination of warm weather and Summer Fridays urges us to explore in our precious free time. But how do you take a much-needed vacation without breaking the bank? So glad you asked! There are tons of affordable ways for you and your crew to escape the doldrums of your own town for relaxation, adventure, or some combination of the two. You just have to get creative.

Ditch the concept of “Staycation”

Everyone budget-conscious person has tried to sell themselves on a “staycation,” the idea being you’ll explore your own neighborhood as if you were a tourist. “You’ll see it in a new light,” they say. “You’ll save money on transportation and lodging,” they say. But “staycation” is just a different way to say “another fun weekend in town.” There are other ways to get a true vacation without going broke.

Stalk the airlines

If you really need to get out of your surroundings, discount airlines and deal sites can be your best friend. Sites like Secret Flying will email you periodic deals, or you can stalk travel blogs like ThePointsGuy for flash deals that are often airline pricing mistakes, which can get you on trips for deep, deep discounts. A caveat: These kinds of deals require you to make quick decisions and buy right away, so if you’re indecisive about your traveling, it might be hard to benefit from them. If you need to be cheap, you also have to be somewhat flexible.

If you can, invest some cash into a flight now on an airline that allows you to redeposit without a fee. If you live somewhere that Southwest serves, you can buy a flight during a big sale, then if you choose not to go—as long as you cancel 10 minutes before departure—you can bank that money as credit for another flight. Also, if you book and then a flight price goes down, you can cancel, rebook, and reap the savings.

Your best bet is flying between hubs or on popular paths from your preferred airport, so that you have multiple times and flights to pick from and the best chance of discounted flights at least during some part of the day. If there’s only one flight a day between your chosen cities, it’s much more difficult to deal-hunt on that airline.

Once you have a flight booked, finding a hotel or other lodging is your next objective. Last-minute options like Priceline can give you a deal if you’re not picky about the specific hotel you end up in, while search engines like Trivago can help you compare the best deals and keep you from paying higher prices you might accidentally lock in on a singular site. For those who are looking for more distinctive digs, Jetsetter offers deals for more boutique hotel options. You can also try swapping your apartment for someone else’s in your destination. (If you use Facebook to get the word out that you’d like to swap, you can zero in on friends in specific locations.) This will work best if you have a friend or friend-of-a-friend you can trust for a swap, but there are also sites like Home Exchange to help facilitate these arrangements. Airbnb tends not to be a good deal, unless you’re okay with staying in a room in someone else’s apartment (while they’re still there).

Research the two-hour radius of your town

If you can’t afford a flight, or don’t want to commit to a route but need to GTFO, a trip by car is your next-best solution. The two-hour radius is key to finding a few options that are accessible by car or cheap bus tickets or, if you’re lucky, public transportation, lessening both the financial burden and the time commitment of travel that can eat away at your precious days off.

If you, like MEL, are based in Los Angeles, weekend-jaunt options include Palm Springs, Big Bear and Santa Barbara. If you’re only investing in four hours total roundtrip in a car, it can make sense to go for a single night. You can get two full days of activity, often enough to clear your head, and not spend on a second night in rented sheets. The two-hour radius also means it’s easier to talk a friend or two into joining—the other perfect way to cut your costs—and you can even pack a to-go lunch from home and not worry about it getting gross in transit. If you end up loving where you go, it’s easy to make return trips on subsequent weekends, and to learn the best locations and deals for an area in the process.

Cash in your miles and enjoy yourself

If nothing is catching your eye nearby (or you’ve exhausted all the options) and you still need to vacation, this is the perfect time to redeem any loyalty points you have lingering on credit cards, airlines or hotel programs. You’d assume that the points required to get a great flight would increase exponentially as you get closer to departure, but they often stay the same as they were a month ago, or even drop to fill empty seats. One year, after regretting my decision to spend the holiday break alone in NYC, I booked a same-day points flight for the bare minimum redemption on Delta, threw a few things in a suitcase, and made it home on Christmas Eve.

Another option is to use your points to offset the total cost of a trip you really want to take. My friend shared a strategy for always keeping her flights at $200 round-trip by using points from her credit card to offset the difference. She doesn’t pull this trick with a $1,000 international jaunt, but if it’s a $300 ticket versus a $400 one, she can make them feel even to her wallet by cashing in the necessarily points. If you don’t have points to spare, you can always (responsibly) sign up for a credit card with a bonus and earn a bounty enough for at least one trip within a few billing cycles. Just know what you can actually afford, and don’t end up letting the credit card cost you more than it earned.

Rae Votta covers the world of digital entertainment for The Daily Dot and writes the newsletter ReadySetGrowup for financial tips.