Help! I want to travel, but I’m broke. What now?

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Ask almost anyone what they wish they could do with their free time, and you’ll hear, “What free time?”

Just kidding. Sort of.

Seriously though, most people wish they could travel more, but think they don’t have the time or the money to make it happen. They’re wrong.

Plenty of research exists that shows Americans are really bad about taking a break. In fact, in 2014, 41 percent of Americans didn’t use all of the vacation time their companies allotted. Justifications (excuses) people cited included the belief that no one else could do their jobs, they didn’t want to be seen as replaceable, or they felt it would show greater dedication to their company and their job not to take vacations. A full 63 percent of American adults surveyed in the same year said they hadn’t traveled at all in the last 365 days. But when you ask leaders what they think, 40 percent of executives say employees would be more productive if they took more vacation.

What gives?

Whatever the reason, we seem to have it in our heads that taking a break is a bad thing. It’s not. Traveling, in particular, exposes people to new experiences, cultures, views, cuisines and more — all of which allow us to recharge, expand our thinking, and bring a brighter mind to the table when we return to work.

I’m here to show you that even if you only have the weekend to work with, and your budget is a shoestring, you can still take advantage of the chance to get away. Here are some tips to make it happen:

1. Be flexible about your destination.

Sure, if you decide you want to go to a certain place on a certain date, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the price of your airfare alone. But if you’re more open to exploration and want to simply embrace the spirit of getting away — you can find some amazing deals.

I personally love searching on Sky Scanner, because you can enter your home airport and select your destination as “everywhere.” It’s sort of like spinning the wheel of airfare fortune, and it’s nearly guaranteed to find you a reasonably priced adventure.

Remember, you don’t need to hit the most popular tourist hot spots to have a unique and worthwhile experience. There’s plenty to do, see, eat and explore in often-overlooked destinations throughout the U.S.

2. Be flexible about your travel dates, if you can.

For some people, the weekend is the only option. But for others, you might have a few days off to play with. If that’s the case, and when you can take those days isn’t set in stone, jump on Hipmunk and search using the “Price Graph” feature.

This will show you the cheapest days to fly in a grid format (or calendar, if you’re searching on their mobile app) so you can find the best possible deal. For example, you might find a fare for hundreds of dollars less if you travel from Saturday to Tuesday, instead of the typical Thursday to Sunday. Being willing to look outside of the usual long weekend days will likely leave extra money in your wallet, both from an airfare and a hotel perspective.

3. Consider a road trip.

Have you ever looked at a map to see what destinations are within a reasonable driving radius of your city? You might be surprised by what you find. There are tools that can help you figure out what falls within the radius you’re personally willing to drive.

Sure, if you live in Washington, D.C., you probably already know you can take a weekend trip to Baltimore, and that might not excite you. But you might not realize that you can go whitewater rafting in West Virginia, or tour the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, or go camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, until you see it on the map. Check out what’s out there and get inspired! Plus, it’s a great time to take advantage of low gas prices.

4. Get creative when it comes to accommodations.

Speaking of camping, that’s certainly one way to save money while you travel. If you don’t mind getting close to nature, check out KOA locations to save a bundle on where you rest your head. It won’t always mean roughing it — many campgrounds have cabin options and nearly all have showers and other amenities.

If camping is a little too outdoorsy for your taste, consider searching for a hostel. These incredibly affordable accommodations have come a long way, and many are clean, safe and centrally located in cities all around the country — and the world. To give you an idea, you can stay on New York’s popular Upper West Side in the HI NYC Hostel for as little as $42 a night. That’s a far cry from prices near $500 a night for nearby hotels.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest Airbnb, which often has excellent choices for far less money than hotels — including individual rooms, shared spaces, and entire homes.

If you’re relaxed enough to wait until the last minute, you can always try Hotel Tonight, which lets you book unsold hotel rooms at a major discount.

Finally, there’s a new player with an established community base in Los Angeles that I expect will continue to expand rapidly across the country. Overnight is a new type of accommodation search app that somewhat represents a cross between Airbnb and Hotel Tonight. It allows both hosts and travelers to be a bit more adventurous and noncommittal. You can find last-minute accommodations within a certain radius of your current location; you send out a signal through the app that you’re looking for a place to stay, and nearby hosts can look at your profile and decide whether they want to offer up their place. If so, you’ll receive a notification from the host and can go from there. It’s based entirely on need, so unlike other services, you won’t find yourself scrolling through endless options. You just say you need a place to stay and wait for a host to answer the call. Sort of like the bat signal! This is an app to keep an eye on over the next year.

5. Don’t rule out day trips.

So you’ve got zero vacation days, you don’t even have more than one day off in a row, and you have less than $50 to spend on an outing? You can’t possibly travel.

Not so! Don’t rule out day trips. You can even search online for a scenic drive or hike in your area. Pack a picnic, bring a camera and prepare to experience the world around you.

The bottom line

There’s always something new to explore and discover. Whether travel takes you thousands of miles away or to a new experience in your own backyard, it’s time to stop making excuses and find ways to travel outside of your everyday routine. Seriously, America — take a break!

Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

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  • Matt

    Also, Look into alternative airports for departure. Leaving from an airport 75 miles away might be cheaper (of course this complicates getting to the departure airport).

    Apply for a couple of credit cards for airline or hotel points. Redeeming can be complicated but can result in much lower travel and stay costs.

    Look for free/low-cost activities at your destination.

    Eat our big meal at lunch rather than dinner.

  • Jeff W.

    This is a good article for how to travel on the cheap, but the headline does it no favors.

    If you are broke, you should not be traveling. Full stop. Shoestring budget is one thing, dirt poor is another.

    This site is full of stories where something goes wrong. You name it. And often, it requires additional funds to get home, get your room, etc. And sure, sometimes you can some of that back (and this site often helps with that), refunds take time.

    If you do not have an emergency fund of some kind to help you in a pinch (and maybe that is mom and dad, who knows), then you are better off placing the money in a rainy day fund. Depending on the article you read, there are many stories about a significant percentage of Americans not having enough savings for emergencies or retirement. The numbers are frightening.

  • Regina Litman

    In Philadelphia, our alternative airports are now Trenton, home of Frontier; Atlantic City, home of Spirit; and Allentown, home of Allegiant. I have read too many horror stories about these three airlines on this site that I’m not sure I ever want to fly on them.

  • Éamon deValera

    I’ve flown on all three and as far as I know I’m not dead. You get what you pay for.

  • Regina Litman

    I think horror was too strong a word. What I meant were too many fees and the lack of ability to book passengers on other airlines if the flight is cancelled, and there’s no other flight by this airline with space available for a few days.

  • John McDonald

    don’t be ridiculous. Nothing wrong with these airlines. They must be doing something right, as they are making money & being copied by all other airlines.
    Flew DeltaConnect & American last month. Nothing special about them. Delta at least gave us peanuts, not on American.
    Had interesting debate with America about whether we should pay anything for checked bags(we were on international tickets, not domestic only). AFAIK only Southwest within USA on domestic only tickets, doesn’t charge for checked luggage.
    Most horror stories, as you call them are from people who paid virtually nothing but want better than 1st class treatment.
    Get with the programme. If you want to carry lots of luggage, pay for it.

  • John McDonald

    there’s no apace available for days, as they are so incredibly popular they operate many flights 100% full !!!

  • John McDonald

    in Australia right now, the biggest travel agency group(probably the biggest agency group in the world) is pushing people without funds, to get a certain credit card. Just like buy now, pay later schemes at big retailers, it costs you no more, as long as you pay it off in the required time frame. Catch is, many don’t & they then pay exhorbidant interest rates of 20-30% pa. Oh & by the way, there’s a $99 annual fee for this credit card.

    Still not a bad deal, if you need a holiday now & have the ability to pay card off in the required time, without any interest added.