15 travel hacks for free tickets, free meals and more

If you’re a frugal-minded traveler, you probably already know how to shop around for the best travel deals and snag the best hotel rates. What you might not know is how to score free tickets, free meals and other travel discounts. From scooping up restaurant vouchers to securing last-minute deals, here are 15 travel hacks that can help you save more money on your next vacation.

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15 travel hacks to save money
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15 travel hacks to save money

1. Get Free or Cheap Tickets to Attractions During Your Birthday Month

If your birthday's coming up, keep your eyes peeled for deals and discounts exclusive to your birthday. Tour operators, resorts and other hospitality businesses often run birthday promotions to encourage more travelers to book.

The Catalina Express, for example, will reward you with one full-fare adult ticket if you make a travel reservation for two adults that begins on your actual birthday. If you join the Birthday Fellowship at Medieval Times, you’ll get free admission during your birthday month with an adult ticket purchase.

Celebrate on the Cheap: 61 Freebies You Can Get on Your Birthday

(Betsie Van der Meer via Getty Images)

2. Share Your Birthday or Anniversary Announcement With Management

From free dessert at the restaurant to free upgrades at the hotel, it pays to share your special day with the person handling your reservation. “Celebrating a special event with a vacation is a travel dream,” said Beth Godlin, president of Aon Affinity Travel Practice. “Be sure to share your reasons for celebrating with anyone and everyone like the reservationist, cruise director, receptionist and concierge."

"There might be additional benefits waiting for you," Godlin said. "Joining frequent traveler programs also can get you ahead of the pack for special services.”

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Book a Three-Star Hotel

CheapTickets travel experts report travelers can book a three-star hotel in several cities to save money on travel packages and still enjoy an upscale experience. A recent CheapTickets survey revealed that almost three-quarters of respondents would choose a less expensive, but well-appointed room over a room that had more luxurious amenities.

Ramses Meijer, director of CheapTickets, points out that more travelers have realized they give up far less when opting for a three- or four-star hotel because hotels are now competing on the basis of amenities, such as upscale bath products and high thread count sheets.

"The fastest growing segment of the hotel industry is the 'select service' property," Meijer said. "Despite being categorized as a three- or three-and-a-half-star hotel based on offering fewer on-site amenities like restaurants, valet parking or room service, in order to stand apart from the crowd, these hotels are competing on the kinds of in-room amenities that would have only been found in much higher tier hotels just a few years ago."

4. Ask for a Free Hotel Upgrade

You might be wondering what it takes to upgrade your standard hotel room to a luxury room or suite. Although some people pay extra for the privilege of ocean views or deluxe amenities, you could get all those five-star perks for free.

“Many hotels will often upgrade their guests simply so their customers will have a good experience,” said Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot. “All you need is a bit of courage and a smile and more often than not, the front desk staff will do what they can to give you a little something special. Whether that means upgrading your room or simply offering free breakfast, a small and polite ask may go a long way — bonus points if you’re celebrating a special occasion and operate discreetly.”

5. Book Trips With a Travel Rewards Credit Card

The average Bank of America cardholder spent nearly $1,000 on travel, according to Bank of America’s 2016 customer spending data. Jason Gaughan, a credit card product executive at the bank, recommends using a credit card that provides benefits for these types of purchases.

“Travel rewards cards earn travelers points — not miles — which can be redeemed for all travel-related purchases," Gaughan said. "For example, with the BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, you can earn 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on all purchases.”

This means you could earn 1,500 points for that $1,000 travel-related spend and use those points to pay for other travel purchases.

Find Out: 7 Times You’ll Actually Save More with a Travel Agent

6. Double Dip With Rewards Programs

Using a travel rewards credit card is a smart move, but you could save even more money — and get free tickets or hotel stays — when you double up on the earnings. Bank of America Preferred Rewards Executive Kevin Condon recommends “layering” your airline, hotel, banking and/or credit cards rewards programs to maximize earning opportunities.

“You’ll receive those airline and hotel benefits, and you may earn even more rewards by paying for the flight and hotel with a travel rewards or cash back credit card," Condon said. “And, those credit card rewards could be multiplied even further if you’re also a member of a banking rewards program. For example, Bank of America Preferred Rewards offers perks that really come in handy for travel — such as no-fee ATM transactions, credit card cash back or points bonuses of up to 75 percent and waived fees on everyday banking services.”

7. Save on Checked Luggage Fees

You have several options to avoid the $25 checked luggage fee that many airlines now impose on passengers. Skirboll recommends using your credit card miles to have your checked bag fee waived. It’s also a good idea to shop around — especially for a different class fare that lets you check bags for free. “I’ve actually seen 'Comfort+' seats that are cheaper than economy,” said Skirboll.

Something else to keep in mind: “Many vacation rentals have in-unit laundry facilities,” said Laurel Greatrix, TripAdvisor Rentals spokesperson. “Travelers can rinse and repeat outfits throughout the trip. Pack light for your rental, and skip the added airline fees.”

Don't Miss: Smart Ways to Save on Airline Baggage Fees

8. Take Advantage of Credit and Debit Card Perks for Free Tickets

Don’t miss out on discount tickets or free admission to local attractions that you can get just for being a credit or debit cardholder. For example, the Bank of America Museums on Us program offers free general admission to a number of U.S. museums and cultural institutions during the first full weekend of each month for Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust credit and debit cardholders. All you have to do is show your qualifying credit or debit card at a participating attraction, and they’ll waive the admission fee.

9. Watch for Seasonal Trends

When resorts and popular hotels are in the low season, you might be able to score free spa passes or other vacation deals to save money during off-season travel.

“Watch how the seasons impact travel trends and pounce when the deals are hot,” said Godlin. “Resorts may offer complimentary spa passes or valuable food vouchers that give travelers great perks at little to no cost.”

10. Have Resort Purchases Shipped for Free

If you’re planning an extended stay at a luxury resort or other destination where you plan on buying souvenirs, clothing, gifts and other items, you don’t want to worry about paying for extra checked luggage or extra baggage fees on your return flight. Consider having your purchases shipped to your home free of charge instead. For example, you can use the Shop Disney Parks app when you’re shopping at Disney resorts and have orders of $75 or more shipped to your home free of charge.

11. Get Mobile Deals on Meals

Many restaurants use daily deal sites like Groupon or LivingSocial to generate business, but you might not be able to find good dining venues nearby. You can still find money-saving restaurant coupons and discounts on other sites and mobile apps.

Take advantage of money-saving AAA discounts. If you're a member, use the app to access cheap tickets, discounts and special offers based on your location, and browse the deals section of the website to find exclusive offers available along your travel route.

12. Ask Your Hotel or Resort for Free Tickets to Attractions

Many hotels and resorts partner with area attractions to offer free tickets or deep discounts; so, once you arrive, check with the front desk for details. For example, Eagles Ridge Resort provides free tickets to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and other attractions just for staying with them. They’re available year-round and expire the same day, so you’ll need to plan accordingly.

13. Enjoy Free Food at Local Events

Art gallery openings, open houses and other free events in a city or town you’re visiting might offer free food as part of the occasion. For example, as a guest at a local grand opening, you could enjoy free appetizers, beverages or sweet treats. Check the city’s chamber of commerce website, area university campuses or event listings online to find current events and details.

(fototrav via Getty Images)

14. Head to the Bar for Free or Cheap Meals

If you’re heading to a bigger city on your travels, forget about searching for restaurant coupons and head straight to the bar for your meal, instead. Many bars serve up complimentary snacks — beyond peanuts or popcorn — that can turn into a mini meal during your pit stop.

For example, the Alligator Lounge in Brooklyn, N.Y. serves free pizza every day with the purchase of a drink. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in New York City serves free hot dogs with the purchase of a drink. Scope out local dive bars and venues that host happy hour to find meals on the cheap.

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15. Attend Your Hotel’s Happy Hour

If you’re having a hard time finding cheap meals for a light dinner nearby, many chain hotels — including Marriott and Hilton hotels — host an evening reception where you can enjoy free drinks, snacks or even a light meal as a guest. At the majority of Residence Inn by Marriott properties, guests can enjoy complimentary drinks at social gatherings throughout the week. If you’re staying at an Embassy Suites by Hilton, you’re automatically invited to the complimentary Evening Reception every night that includes alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, light appetizers and snacks.

Up Next: 30 Secrets to Save Big on Last-Minute Travel

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