Every month 1,500 people search Google for “how to travel for free”. Common advice will tell you to save points, teach or work abroad, or look for volunteer options. None of this is necessarily bad advice. However, I don’t find most of the options I’ve read about to be very practical. I would be curious to know how many of those Google searchers are in a position to move to another country for a year to teach English.
Instead of trying to travel for free, I suggest working towards being able to afford to travel. That means two things – first, managing money with travel as a priority. Second, learning about traveling frugally rather than for free.
Manage Your Money to Afford to Travel
The biggest reason most people don’t find themselves be-bopping across this gorgeous planet is money. Travel is seen as a luxury, and often times what we see online is luxury travel. So step one is a paradigm shift, start thinking of travel as a priority.
Budget for Travel
Is travel something you wait and see how the month shapes up and then that’s what you have to spend? Or maybe when you travel, you charge it to a credit card and then pay it off as part of a larger sum.
I have long been guilty of racking up travel spending on my credit cards. The shift I have made though is to set up my budget to be able to afford to travel. Most people have heard of the 50/30/20 rule of budgeting, if not you can read about it here. The basics are that you approach your monthly budget with three broad categories of spending – needs, wants, and savings.
After practicing the 50/30/20 rule for a few months I found that my travel didn’t really fit nicely anywhere. If I accounted for travel as a “wants” I blew my budget every month. If I accounted for it as a “need” then I had too much leftover in the “wants” category to spend on silly things like wine and clothes.
Instead, I just created a fourth category. Now my budget looks more like 40/20/20/20. Yes, I had to move apartments to make this work. I also cut down on a variety of things, like going out to eat and my grocery bill. Frankly, not much of a sacrifice when it means this summer, while my family sweats away and swats mosquitos in Michigan, I’ll be riding some powder in Chile.
Side Hustle to Pay for Travel
A good friend of mine is a lawyer, with a very fat paycheck. Sadly, most of it goes to student debt and what’s leftover pays her mortgage. Rather than give up on travel, she drives for Uber, when she feels like it.
Every cent she earns driving goes into her travel fund. As that account grows, so does her hustle to hit the finish line and get on a plane. Recently she’s back from a week traveling around Mexico.
My dad did something similar. We decided we wanted to do a back to the homeland trip to Sweden. Rather than pull from his regular check, he started working Saturdays at an hourly job. It helped that he loved the role, working at weight watchers, where ladies half his age flirted with him as they walked through the door.
Right now, as we go through the great resignation, it’s a great time to get your hustle on to pay for some travel. Maybe a Friday night bartending gig? Or for introverts, why not deliver groceries?
Know How Much You’ll Need for Your Trip
This is a mistake I have made for years. Rather than set a firm number to goal towards, I just think “a lot”. This has held me back for years from my dream trip of staying in a yurt in Mongolia. I won’t make that mistake any longer. Now, I know I need $3600 for the trip or $150/month for the two years I’ll save for it.
It’s impossible to reach a goal if you don’t know what the goal is, so put together a plan and crunch your numbers. This leads me to point number two…
How to Travel for Less
Resorts. Cruises. Four-star hotels. Spas. All great ways to suck up your money and create a wall between you and really seeing the place you’re visiting. I don’t understand why people shell out cash to travel to a new country just to recreate all of the comforts of being at home. Call me crazy, but I think part of the point of travel is a little discomfort.
If you want luxury travel, then either become a millionaire or travel infrequently. If you want to travel a lot, embrace discomfort.
Discomfort can be a lot of fun though. When I think of being uncomfortable traveling, I think of invites to dinner with families who don’t speak English or eating live squid and feeling it wriggle in my mouth. None of these things would have happened if I put up a luxurious barrier that didn’t allow me to really experience the places I was in.
Don’t Spend a Lot of Money on Hotels
This is my number one rule. I don’t see the need for much more than a bed when traveling abroad, so I usually stay in hostels. I’ve found that more touristed destinations tend to have hostels filled with college students, so I spring for a BnB or Air BnB in popular areas (Europe, Caribbean). But national parks and off-the-beaten-path locales tend to have hostels filled with others seeking adventure. I’ve gotten some of the best travel advice from random conversations in these places.
Minimize Air Travel Costs
I have yet to find a way to get away from air travel being the most expensive part of any of my travel plans. However, there are some things to do to minimize the bill so you can stretch your travel budget as far as possible.
- If you want to travel frequently and don’t have the Hopper app on your phone, hit pause on reading this blog and download it. It’s a great way to know how much you should plan to spend on a flight.
- Do get a credit card that’s highly rated for travel rewards. I use Chase Sapphire, but there are other options. Nerdwallet regularly publishes a list of the best credit cards for travel.
- Try to always fly with the same airline. I used to just take whatever flight was the cheapest. I finally realized that by saving a few bucks here and there I was cheating myself out of rewards. This is especially true if you have to travel for work. Pick an airline and let your job help you build up those miles.
- Forget about being comfortable on a plane. Planes are uncomfortable, full stop. I don’t recommend using precious travel dollars to eke out a tiny bit of extra comfort. In the end, it’s only a handful of hours out of your life that you’ll be on that flight. Drink a glass of wine, find a good movie, and wait it out.
Don’t Miss Once in a Lifetime Experiences
Once you land, you’ll have a set amount of time to experience this new, wonderful world that the plane has dropped you off in. Our time on this planet is limited and you don’t know if you’ll be back in this location (so many others to see!), so make the most of your time.
This really involves knowing yourself and your priorities. If you love food, then don’t eat canned beans the whole time you’re visiting. Make sure that you’ve budgeted for all the dining locations you can’t wait to hit and then eat your face off!
If food isn’t you’re thing, but you absolutely need to whale watch/zipline/mountaineer or whatever amazing thing it is, do it!
My point is, you don’t have time and money to do everything, so do what’s important to you. Don’t miss out for the sake of frugality. Take it from me, who skipped snorkeling in the Greek Isles to study (wtf was I thinking??!!), you’ll regret it.
Your Dream Trip is Not Out of Reach
It just takes planning, budgeting, and some affordable travel techniques. As Time Ferriss says “Someday is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you”.
Don’t let that happen, start planning today.