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Don’t Just Travel Off-Peak, Be Opportunistic on Location

The tip to travel off-peak – meaning not at the height of summer or during holiday periods – is well-known among travel hackers and price conscious travelers alike, but we’ve found our biggest cost savings by taking it one step further: by not just traveling off-peak, but by being completely agnostic on where we travel.

Let’s take our last big international trip, for example — the one we went on days after retiring early. We knew we wanted to go in January, because we’d be retired and I had some global upgrades that were expiring at the end of the month thanks to flying a gajillion flights a year on United while still working. But rather than get focused on going to one particular place, or even one region, I simply called United and asked, “Where can we fly for cheap in January and get our upgrades confirmed?”

The agent replied, “How about Taipei?”

I covered the mic on the phone and shouted to Mark, “Hey babe, you wanna go to Taiwan?”

“Sure,” he shouted back.

“Great. Let’s do it,” I said. And just like that, our trip was on. (That was also the instant, incidentally, when early retirement felt real. Knowing our dates didn’t matter and we could jump on opportunities like that without checking in with anyone else. In that moment, I felt like I could fly.)

Taiwan was spectacular, and if it’s not already on your list, please add it. It’s full of jaw-dropping natural beauty, fascinating history, delicious street food, modern infrastructure, friendly people and super affordable prices. But this post isn’t about Taiwan. It’s about what that trip taught us – and what we’ve learned since then – about the incredible cost-saving power of being a total opportunist on travel, not just when you go, but where.

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Opportunistic-Location

Get to Know Google Flights

Though I always recommend booking your flights and hotels directly through the company you’re traveling with (I’ve had waaaaay too many glitches when I’ve booked through third-party travel sites), there’s no reason not to do your research on another platform and then head over to your airline or hotel (or credit card points) site to book.

If you’re looking to figure out your least expensive options, your new best friend is Google Flights. Because here is the feature that blew my mind when I first learned about it: Google Flights lets you search for many destinations at once. So you can type in your destination, for example, as not just London or Rome, but as “Europe.”

Don’t Just Travel Off-Peak, Be Opportunistic on Location

Don’t Just Travel Off-Peak, Be Opportunistic on Location

Using this method, you can quickly see the best fare options in the whole region to narrow down your search. So if you’re truly opportunistic, you might look not just at Western Europe, where most Americans tend to go when traveling abroad, but also Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Or you can look at more specific regions like Southeast Asia or the Caribbean.

Don’t Just Travel Off-Peak, Be Opportunistic on Location

Related post: A Million Mile Flyer’s Tips for Maximum Efficiency Travel (Part 1)

Our Agnostic Opportunist Travel Approach

We planned an upcoming winter trip to France exactly this way. We entered our general dates (Google lets you search a range), and we looked region by region at the best options. Our best choices by price for our date range were Paris, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney. We took Tokyo and Beijing off the list because we went to Japan last year, and China is too similar to Taiwan to make it the very next big trip. (Though I am dying to get back to Japan. So we’ll be back there in the next few years, I’m certain.) That left Paris, Seoul and Sydney.

To narrow it down to our destination, we did two things: we searched “Where is good to visit in [X month]?” and we did a cursory hotel search to get a sense of prices. Sydney was quickly out because our winter is Australia’s summer, and thus the hotels were priced for peak season. We found great prices in Seoul and all around South Korea, but also found that the weather and temps would significantly limit what we could do and see. France, on the other hand, has a relatively mild climate, and so even though it would be cool and occasionally drizzly, we found that it fell into the sweet spot: uncrowded, affordable lodging and decent enough weather to make for an enjoyable trip. Besides, we knew we wanted to explore the south of France more, and that has the best weather in the country.

Traveling off-peak is letting us do a whole bunch of stuff we’ve never done before: rent a car for more than two weeks ($300 total!), rent an entire stone house in Provence ($70 a night!), attend the Paris Opera Ballet and ride first class on the TGV train (same price as economy!).

Stay tuned for pictures in a few months, because you know I will have LOTS.

Searching Dollars and Points

Though every airline is different, I’m golden handcuffed to United until I cross over million miler status officially, and so that’s what I pay closest attention to. But something I’ve noticed while searching is that Asia is fairly inexpensive to fly to on dollars, but it’s expensive on points. And Europe is the exact inverse: cheap on miles, expensive on dollars. While other airlines almost certainly differ in their pricing, it’s worth the reminder that it always pays to search on both points and dollars, because they don’t necessarily align to one another, and you might get a dramatically better deal on one or the other.

Of course, if you’re into travel hacking and you’re paying with non-program-specific points like Chase Ultimate Rewards points, then dollars are what you care most about, because you’re doing a consistent dollars-for-points trade. And in that case, beginning your search on Google Flights to find the best deals, and then buying through Chase or your credit card company, is your best bet.

Related post: A Million Mile Flyer’s Tips for Carry-On Travel, Including For Business (Part 2)

Broadening Your Horizons

My favorite thing about traveling opportunistically is that it forces you to consider places you may not otherwise have explored traveling to. It’s true that France is not so exotic, but given the high peak season prices, we wouldn’t consider going there most of the year.

And opportunism got us to Taiwan, which is clearly not frequented by Westerners, given how few other white people we saw while there. (When we visited Kinmen, a Taiwan-occupied island close to the Chinese mainland, big tour buses full of Chinese visitors would creep slowly past us on our rental bikes, nearly everyone on the bus gawking out the window at us, potentially the first white people they’d seen in real life.)

We’d never looked into traveling to Taiwan before the United rep suggested we fly there, and I don’t know if we would have otherwise. But as soon as we started researching it, we thought, “How have we never thought of going there before?!” It’s full of mountains and national parks, and a lake that rivals Lake Tahoe. Kinda exactly our thing. (Plus a beautiful, magical town often called the “snack capital of Taiwan.” Any country with a snack capital is deeeeeeefinitely our thing.) But we never would have known that if we’d only searched the travel destinations we’d heard a lot about.

It’s exciting to think about all the new places we’ll visit in the future, thanks to being open to going wherever makes the most economical sense. Not just the spots Rick Steves recommends, or the places where our friends and family have visited, but the less frequented and less touristy places that are no less life list worthy.

Your Turn

Have you traveled opportunistically before? I’d love to hear stories of places you’ve discovered while hunting for deals, instead of just going where everyone else goes. Any other travel tips you have to share? Comment away!

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24 replies »

  1. Wow, thanks for that tip on Google flights, didn’t know that one. Since I don’t hate winter or snow I’ve always made use of times to go to places when others will surely not go. But that flight tool opens up all kinds of new possibilities. Thanks!

  2. Try Skyskanner website too, and search ‘everywhere’ in the location box! :) I got a job and lived in Europe for a few years.. so much cheaper to travel the region on the weekends thanks to all the discount fliers. Since they have better vacation policies, I actually was able to fly back to the states and see my family more often too!

  3. Great tips! My husband and I live and work in Nairobi, Kenya. While we haven’t done exactly what you’re suggesting, we did have two fabulous trips in the last couple of years because we simply looked at where the cheapest direct flights were from Kenya Airways (part of Flying Blue, so additional frequent flyer miles for us) and then narrowed it down to places we hadn’t been that would have good weather at that time of year One trip was to Hong Kong and the other to Mumbai, India. Both were absolutely fabulous trips that we wouldn’t have taken if we had simply been looking at where do we “want” to go. We recently went to Porto, Portugal which we had really wanted to visit (having been there years and years ago) and were actually somewhat disappointed – not so much with Porto itself – which is beautiful- but with how packed and commercialized things were. It reminded us of a trip we took two years ago to Bali. So, I completely agree – that being open to going to places we hadn’t considered can offer the richest surprises and experiences. Thank you again for your inspirational blog!

  4. I am currently in Vietnam where it is low season for tourism and will continue traveling in Southeast Asia where it is currently rain season in parts of the country. It is better discounts in hotels know before the holiday season starts and everybody is looking for sun.

  5. Yessss this is my favorite tip! My husband and I are constrained by time (we take a big trip over Christmas each year because we both work for universities and get two weeks off then) but we are completely agnostic about where to go. Basically our requirements are “anywhere we haven’t been before that’s international and inexpensive”. By picking our destinations in this way we’ve visited Georgia (the country), the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Morocco, Colombia, and Croatia and have loved every single one of them. Some people think we’re nuts but it’s been absolutely wonderful and has saved us a ton of money on flights and trips.

  6. Because of our new found work from home/starting a business we were able to broaden our search for Thanksgiving to visit my parents in Arizona. If I would have been at the 9-5, I would have paid close to $1000 for the flights and shorter schedule. Because we were able to travel on “non-peak” days our flights were closer to $300 total. We are hoping to do this more and more in 2019, so I’m excited for the off-peak travel:)

  7. I’ve never not had a destination in mind when travelling. When you do that are you worried that you’re getting a great deal on airfare but then you might get screwed on the price per night wherever you’re staying?

    When I book travel, I usually factor in both the cost of airfare and the hotel cost per night.

    • It’s not like there’s no way to know. It’s the simplest thing to open say, booking.com and do a 30 second search of hotels at the destination to get a feel for prices. If you’re super-duper worried, remember that you can book an airline ticket and then you have 24 hours to cancel it with no penalty (by law).

  8. This is more or less how we ended up in Hawaii last winter :) We knew we wanted to go somewhere warm, and in November, but other than that we just looked at where we could get the most bang for our buck, which happened to be the Big Island at the time. Hawaii wasn’t even on my short list for places I really wanted to visit, but now we’re headed back in a couple months because we had such a great time!

    Really, almost anywhere can be an awesome trip and by letting cost savings dictate the location can get you to places you might not have considered otherwise.

  9. We tend to be homebodies and travel close by, so opportunistic travel tends to happens when we piggyback on work trips. We’ve gotten to take two extended trips this way, a 2-week train trip through India in our 20s and a week long road trip through the South of France in our 30s (you will love Provence). You’ve got my wheels turning, though, I know there’s a reason I’ve been accumulating a bunch of miles….

    Have fun in France and thanks again for putting together an awesome Cents Positive experience, I loved it :)!

  10. When we were in Nepal, we were at the Boudhanath Stupa wandering around the higher level when we were surrounded by about 20 or so people from India, dressed in their bright colors. Maybe having never seen a white person before, they wanted to take pictures with my partner and I, to a point where I was just getting swung around in circles to be in photos with people and their little children… It was an experience I’ve never had before and it was weird.

    • You encounter that to some extent in China too. I was there last month and there were people that came to you and wanted to take a picture with you. There were also those that tried to sneak you into their picture.

  11. Can’t wait to hear the trip report – if you’re traveling soon, remember to hit the Christmas markets. I’ve spent a decent chunk of time in Europe in late fall/winter – just remember things close earlier and the days are shorter.

    A couple of things:

    TheFlightDeal.com post daily updates with cheap flights all over the world from all over the US. They tell you if it’s a basic economy fare, if it has date restrictions, etc. For example, right now, they’re showing Dallas to Copenhagen on American for $363 basic economy and New York to Barcelona on Delta for $268. They’re especially great for making you aware of fare wars between the major airlines. We went to Morocco a few years ago thanks to a fare sale.

    You should almost never be using Chase points to pay for cash travel. Transfer them to airline partners (ahem, United)! You almost always get more bang for your point that way.

    The super-hacker way to do this is using ITA Matrix (Google bought it a few years ago and is using their underlying technology to let you search “Europe” instead of a destination). It doesn’t have the pretty interface, but it has way more ways to filter your search.

    Ironically, when I want to use my domestic airline miles to travel over a holiday (since my SO has very few vacation days, we try to run vacations over holiday weekends to use fewer days), there is never any availability for traveling domestically. Every time, if I’m willing to travel to Europe instead, there is availability to multiple cities. We just got back from a trip to Czechia for this reason – American started flying nonstop Philly to Prague, so we spent 9 days there. It was beautiful and inexpensive. Last April we flew to Nice – it was well-timed, because it wasn’t super-crowded yet, but the weather was great. (Transferred Chase points to Hyatt to get a free hotel there.)

    • Seconding the ITA Matrix option for more in-depth searching, particularly for multi-city trips. For example, if you don’t care about whether you stop at Paris or Rome first, you can quickly see which starting city and length of stay give the best bang for the buck. Having your potential airport codes handy will save some time with the tool.

      Redeeming miles with a partner airline is also huge for international travel. I’ll take Etihad over AA any day of the week!

  12. I use this methodology all the time (and the google flights trick). In fact, we were thinking of trying to go to Europe in the Spring, but due to some searching and trying to be opportunistic, I think we are changing our plans to head to Hong Kong instead. It will cost about the same, but earn us a bunch of AA points due to a promotion that we are going to take advantage of. Net cost for two round trip tickets and 6 nights in Hong Kong should be around $700-$800 (that’s net of the approximately $500 worth of AA points we will accumulate). Plus, entertainment and food is far less expensive and we might even indulge in a Michelin Star Restaurant in the Macau Venetian at around $25-$30 per person (how reasonable is that?)!!!

  13. This has dictated our recent major trips. Last year we went to Martinique. Quite simply the question was where can we travel that’s warm in February for cheap. The trip was spectacular and so off the normal American travel path. We could barely even find a travel guide book for our trip. Not only is this route cheaper, you get to discover something you might otherwise overlook.

  14. We just booked a trip for my 30th birthday and now that I think about it: it was completely opportunistic. We didn’t have a location in mind and my only criteria was that it was warm, had a beach and was inexpensive. We’re going to Puerto Vallarta! I’ve never been to the west side of Mexico and am super excited. Great tips all around – I didn’t notice the pattern of points vs cash differences between Asia and Europe. Good to know!

    • My wife enjoyed Sayulita so much she made me go back with her. North about 40 minutes-ish, and just a laid back, surfing vibe town with great little beachside dining options. Not city at all, so with Puerto Vallarta you’d get two very different experiences. Either way, have a blast – and early happy birthday! : )

  15. Enjoyed this post.
    It reminds me a bit of how I went to North Korea – a friend’s son is a tour guide there and she went on a tour with him last year.
    When she came back alive and with a phone full of photos, she said, “If you want to go, I’ll go back with you.”
    Never would have dreamed of going if she hadn’t have said that.

  16. Google Flights is my favorite travel tool. Every time we are planning to go somewhere I will just stare at the map looking at all the different options and prices. We ended up going to Switzerland and Hong Kong last year simply by relying on Google Maps to help us find cheap locations. Switzerland was not on our radar because we had already done a lot of Western Europe before. However, the airfare was too good to pass up. Sure the country is a bit expensive but we made the best of the situation (Airbnb helped) and had a blast.

    When I worked for the airline we would travel wherever there were open seats, so we got used to the idea of going to places off the beaten path (Micronesia anyone?).

  17. Thanks for the tips here; they make sense and I will use Google flights. I think that you are right that there is no need to be too prescriptive about destination – there are so many places to go, almost all have lots of interest so you can just book economically and then to the research to maximise the fun once you are there. Regardless of destination, it seems that all travel is illuminating.

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