Budget Travel

People Always Ask Me How I Can Afford To Travel So Much. So I’m Answering Them.

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If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me some version of the question ‘how can you afford to travel so often’ my response would be: Well, it really helps that I get paid a dollar every time someone asks me that exact question.

Sadly, no one pays me that dollar. Which means that I don’t really have that many dollars. Thus, today I’m going to answer that question at length, with the hopes that you, too, can some day be asked the question. And maybe you will find a way to get paid the dollar. If you figure it out, please let me know. Thanks.

Why Take My Advice?

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My normal dogs on my normal couch with my normal husband’s normal feet. (And a slightly abnormal world map on my living room wall.)

This topic? This ‘how to afford to travel more often’ topic? This is not a new topic. In fact, it has been written about more often than perhaps any other topic in the history of travel blogging (I base this theory on absolutely zero actual data. But I have read many, many such articles.) So why should you listen to me, of all people? The reason is quite simple: because I’m unbelievably, entirely, mind-blowingly normal.

That’s right. I’m just like you. Well, assuming you are also normal. Which I suppose you may not be. But the odds are in my favor that you are a regular person with a job and a house and a life and stuff. I have those things too. I didn’t quit my job to travel. I didn’t become a digital nomad (yet?) and I have not sold all of my worldly possession minus what can fit in a backpack and hit the road permanently. I don’t live in my car. I have–gasp!–a mortgage. Minus these past four months, I’ve had a job consistently since the age of 14.  I have a husband and two dogs. And honestly? It’s the dogs which cramp my travel style more than anything else, time or money. Damn furry little balls of love. (Anyone want to watch my dogs for me?)

*Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with quitting your job to travel, becoming a digital nomad, selling everything you own to travel or living in your car. I just have chosen to not-do those things. Thus, this post is for those of you who, like me, also would rather not right now.

How I Afford Frequent Travel (And How You Can, Too!)

There are two big reasons everyone gives for why they don’t travel even though they may really, really want to. They are: lack of money and lack of time. The terrible irony is that for the most part, you typically have one or the other, but never both. Because if one is working a good job–and thus presumably has some money–one typically does not have time to travel as much as they’d like. And if one is not working, money is understandably tight, if present at all. I’ve been in both of these situations even within this calendar year, and I’ve still managed to maintain a more rigorous travel schedule than most (or, according to my mom, a more rigorous travel schedule than anyone should maintain ever.)

The thing is: I can’t help you find the time to travel. Everyone has their own circumstances, job requirements, and family commitments, and those trump all else. So today I’m here to talk about money.

The bulk of my financial advice surrounding how to afford more-frequent travel can be summed up in two words: be thrifty. Notice I did not say ‘be cheap’. This is because I care about precision of language. To be thrifty means ‘to use resources carefully’. ‘To be cheap’ implies that you will accept a product or service of a lesser quality. We’re not going to be doing that here.

So what does thrifty travel entail? Thrifty travel involves work, commitment, and a passion to want to see the world, damn it. Thrifty travel also involves flexibility. Thus, it is very important to keep this travel reality in mind:

When planning a trip, every time you say ‘but I need ____’, the price goes up and the amount of travel you can afford goes down.

This is not to say that you have to give up everything you need. There are things I’m willing to trade for an increase in price. But there are also things I am willing to compromise on. It’s all about finding balance and keeping an open mind.

And so, I bring to you my personal take on how to make more-frequent travel a reality. All of the following tips are at once simple and challenging. They are brought to you in no specific order. Please pick and choose based upon your own unique needs. Happy travels!

Tracy’s Tips for Thrifty Travel

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Book your own travel

I am not here to bash travel agents. Far from it. They have loads of inside information and first-hand experience and can be a great resource for those who require them. But using one will almost always result in higher travel costs, as things are packaged together in a convenient bundle that all but guarantees you will not be getting the absolute best deals. Thus, if you are looking to save money, book your own travel.

More than this–book your own travel wisely. Do your research. Will this take time? Yes. Is this work? Absolutely. I told you this would be work. Hopefully the rest of the tips in this post will help ease the load.

Tip: a great travel planning strategy involves reading the blog posts of others who have written about the destination you will be visiting. Now, where can you find a great travel blog? Where oh where…? 

Care less about where you are going

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If this post looks way too long to read, take this one tip with you and go on your merry way. And that tip is: to make travel affordable, you have to be flexible. (Yes, I know I already made this point. But it’s a really, really important point. Maybe I’ll even make it again later in this post. So there!)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying ‘don’t care where you are going’ or ‘go anywhere’ or ‘always vacation in Tulsa’ (not that there’s anything wrong with Tulsa; I’m sure it is lovely.) What I am saying is this: there are more-expensive places to visit and there are less-expensive places to visit. If you want to travel but don’t want to spend a lot of money, choose a less-expensive place.

So how do you do this? Here’s a little exercise:

First, think about where you want to go. Close your eyes and imaging yourself there. What kinds of things are you doing? What draws you to this place? Maybe jot these things down.

Next, brainstorm a list of other places that offer similar experiences. Do a bit of brief research and determine which of those new destinations is the most budget-friendly, and then go there.

A personal example: This past June we were supposed to go to Iceland. But then financial things happened in my life–none good–and suddenly a 10-day trip to one of the most expensive countries in the world didn’t seem like that great of an idea. So I thought about what I wanted from this trip. And I wanted:

-to see waterfalls and volcanoes and epic (cold, cold) beaches.

-to spend as much time in nature as possible.

-to explore a country I’d never visited.

So instead of going to Iceland, we went to Costa Rica. I got to experience all of those things–waterfalls, beaches, a very volcano-y volcano, all at an actual fraction of the cost. And as a bonus, I got a tan.

See that view in the photo, above? That was the view from our rooftop terrace outside of our room in Costa Rica. It was one third the price of the cheapest Iceland hotel option. I clearly suffered not at all in making the trade.

Does your alternative need to be as drastic as my Iceland/Costa Rica decision? No. It could be something as simple as picking a lesser-known beach town, or a slightly-more out-of-the-way ski resort. Camping in New Hampshire instead of Vermont; spending a week on Block Island instead of Martha’s Vineyard. New Orleans instead of Vegas. The beaches of Ecuador instead of the beaches of Jamaica. DC instead of NYC (or, even better, Pittsburg instead of NYC). You get the idea.

Care less about when you are going

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That being said, let’s say you absolutely, positively want to see Paris. Or Machu Picchu. Or the Grand Canyon. If you can’t be flexible in your choice of destination, perhaps you can be flexible in your choice of when to visit that destination (of course, being flexible with both will make travel even more budget-friendly. But that’s asking a lot, I know.)

For U.S domestic travel, the absolute best time of year to travel is late August and all of September. The reason for this is simple: everyone is broke from all of their on-peak summer beach trips, and the kids are back in school.  Even Steinbeck knew this; he set off on his Travels with Charley trip in late summer, calling Labor Day “the day of truth when millions of kids would be back in school and tens of millions of parents would be off the highways”.

In September, you will find rock-bottom lodging options in beach towns and in national parks across the country and record-low rates on airfare. And when you arrive at your super-inexpensive hotel via your steal-of-a-deal flight, you will be rewarded with little to no crowds, easy-to-get dining reservations, and your choice of activities with little need for advance booking. Travel in September: it’s the best thing ever.

This information made me very angry when I was a teacher, as that was a really difficult-to-impossible time of year to take off (which is a tiny part of why I am no longer a classroom teacher). Of course, parents will bemoan this as well, because to take kids out of school during the first few weeks seems like a bad idea. Except that here’s the secret: it isn’t. I taught in the public school system for ten years, so believe me when I say: they aren’t missing much that first month. It’s a lot of review and a lot of introduction to rules and routines that they will get caught up on through immersion when they return. Unless your district has an insanely strict attendance policy (as some do), there’s no reason to not take your kids out of school at the beginning of the year to travel.

Of course, perhaps you really just can’t travel in September. That’s ok. There are other off-peak times, depending upon the destination you choose. Hurricane season greatly reduces rates (yet increases the risk of, you know…being in a hurricane). Ski destinations are still lovely in the summer, and even Chicago is a great option in the dead of winter (really. I promise. Check out the photo, above.) Sometimes even the time of the week you visit will have an impact on your budget. Interestingly, many major metropolitan areas are less expensive over a weekend than they are during the week. This seems counter-intuitive, but in major cities–like New York and DC–hotels are in higher demand during the week, when business travelers fill up limited rooms. When they all fly home on Friday, rates plummet.

A personal example (and a non-example): Last February, I found myself in Miami for a long weekend. I stayed in a not-great location (on points–more on this later) because hotels anywhere near the beach were upwards of $600/night. During this visit, I decided to drive down to Key West for the heck of it. I figured I’d stop wherever I got tired and get a room. I figured wrong. There were zero rooms anywhere in the Keys for less than $300/night, and even those were far and few between. It was the height of snowbird season, and those snow birds had…roosted. Or whatever snowbirds do. I ended up driving all the way to Key West and back that day, because there were truly no rooms at the inn. There were no rooms at any inn.

I returned to Miami in September for another long weekend (I really, really like Miami, ok?) I stayed directly on the beach for a little more than $100/night. And by ‘on the beach’ I mean ‘on THE beach’–at 5th and Ocean Drive, in the heart of South Beach. And both days, my friends and I were one of maybe three groups under the umbrellas on the beach; we were often the only people at the pool. We walked up and were immediately seated at restaurants we’d never dream to attempt in, say, February or March. Miami in September: it’s a good idea. So is Virginia Beach. And Disney World. And darn near anywhere else.

Embrace the fare sale and utilize social media

There’s some quote by some person I don’t recall (or maybe it is just a popular meme, I don’t know): What you surround yourself with, you become. The point of this maybe-a-meme quote is that you should surround yourself with positive, successful people if you wish to be positive and successful. Pretty good advice, I’d say. But here in the 21st century, we do not only surround ourselves with people. We also surround ourselves with information. Through the magic of social media, every human with any semblance of an online presence is surrounded by an array of self-curated content, so much so that most people don’t even notice it.

Do me a favor. Open up another tab or screen and navigate to your favorite social media outlet. Take a quick scan of your feed. What types of content do you see? Now think about how that affects your day-to-day life. Have you ever made a recipe from a food site you follow? Have you ever contributed to a Go Fund Me or a Kickstarter campaign someone posted? Have you ever bought a pair of cowboy boots because Country Outfitters was having a sale? Ok, that last one may just be me, but you get my point. Whichever social media platform you choose, be sure to follow websites, pages, and bloggers who post about travel deals and fare sales. If you are not on social media (which makes me question how you even found this post, but whatever) then sign up for email alerts and have travel deals sent right to your inbox.

Personal example: I’m going to Stockholm in January. Do you want to know why? Because The Points Guy posted a flash fare sale and I got a round trip trans-atlantic flight for $240. (Seriously, if you do one single thing after reading this, go follow The Points Guy. Oh, and then follow me. Thanks.)

Updated personal example: I saw a crazy $15/each way fare sale on Frontier a couple of days ago. I’m flying to Minneapolis (to drive to South Dakota) this Wednesday. Total airfare cost, $30. I’ll let you all know how that goes.

You will note that I am also going to Stockholm in January because I followed the previous two tips: care neither where you are going nor when. Did I do some research about Stockholm in January? Of course. I did so during the 24 hours after I booked the flight but before the 24-hour 100% cancellation refund time period ran out. See how this is all starting to work together? Which brings me to my next point:

Consider alternate airports

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Unless you live in a major metro area, chances are that your local airport is not the most budget-friendly option. And even if you do live in a major metro area, you may be limited to where you can travel inexpensively depending upon which airline dominates your local airport. So think outside the box and be willing to do a bit of on-the-ground travel before you even get up-in-the-air.

Will you be spending time to save money? Again, yes. I didn’t say that making more-frequent travel possible was easy. I said it was possible. Like anything worth having, you have to want it. And I want to see the world enough to endure seeing a little bit more of it between my house and the airport.

Personal example: I live near Allentown, Pennsylvania. There’s a little ‘international’ airport in Allentown–ABE. In the hundreds of thousands of air miles I’ve flown in the past several years, I can count on one had the number of times I’ve flown from ABE. Because ABE is expensive and, worse, almost always requires at least one layover. I consider Philadelphia International to be my home airport–which is a 90 minute drive from my home–though I have often traveled to JFK or even BWI to snag a good deal. To get to JFK, I take a 90-minute bus ride ($33), a 45-minute subway ride ($2.75) and a 30 minute AirTrain ride ($5). It takes about three hours, all told, to get to the airport, and costs a little more than $40. In doing so, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars (thousands, actually, when added up) on flights to London, Madrid, and on one weird occasion, New Orleans.

Consider alternate lodging options

This is the part you’ve been waiting for, right? Where I tell you that I make travel affordable by staying in flea-infested rooms with no running water, sharing a single bathroom with 20 other travelers and proclaiming that air conditioning is for the weak. Yeah–no. I’m not going to tell you that because I’ve never, not once, done that. In all of my many travels, I have always, always had a clean place to sleep with my own toilet and shower in the room with me and the option for some form of climate control (in locations which require climate control).

There are often good reasons to stay in a standard hotel room. If you are traveling for business, or if you are staying for a very short period of time–say less than three days. And very seldom, it is the only option. But more and more, renting an apartment or a vacation home is not only possible, it is preferable. And less expensive.

Personal example: I spent two weeks in Paris in the summer of 2010. And while I hated Paris, I did not do so based on the astronomical cost of my lodging. That’s because I rented an apartment for two weeks for one thousand US dollars. That’s 14 nights for $1000. In a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and a washing machine. Two years later, while researching that book I never finished, I visited Orlando for three weeks in the fall of 2012. For less than the cost of my two weeks in Paris, I lived in a two bedroom, two bathroom condo located ten minutes from Walt Disney World. I booked both of these trips on VRBO.com–Vacation Rentals By Owner. It is owned by the same company as HomeAway.com. And then there’s always AirBnB, which I’ve never personally tried but which many of my friends swear by.

Use bidding sites and Google Flights

…or any of the other myriad options for booking cheap flights or rooms.

I subscribe to the ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way’ school of thought. And I darn-near always find a way. I’ve had the extreme fortune of visiting many of my own country’s best cities–New York, Miami, Chicago, LA, New Orleans, DC, San Francisco–and have frequently done so on a scary shoe-string budget, often thanks to online booking sites.

My new favorite site is Booking.com. The customer service cannot be beat, and the cancellation policy is top-notch. But there’s still something to be said for Priceline, which I’ve used to book rooms for under $70/night in cities across the nation (and once in Amsterdam). I stayed in midtown Manhattan last Thursday for darn near nothing, in a perfectly nice room housed in a gigantic chain hotel at 53rd and 7th.

Google Flights is a great way to find less-expensive airfare. I’ve even used it when booking business travel (because staying under budget is always smiled upon.) I’ve found fares on Google Flights that are upwards of $100 less, round trip, than if booked not-through Google Flights. And best of all, Google Flights is just the first part of the process–once you find a good fare, you click through and book directly with the airline. Which is super-important, because it allows you to….

Earn and maximize air miles and hotel points

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You know all of those airline and hotel loyalty programs? Yeah. Join them all. Join all of them. Go. Do it now. I’ll be here when you get back.

Did you do it? Good.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is easier to amass miles and points if you travel frequently. Like very, very frequently. In this case, it really helps to have a job which requires travel. It also really helps to be an independent contractor and thus charge all kinds of things on points-earning credit cards and then immediately pay them off. I did both of those things. You may not be able to do those things, and that’s ok. There’s still all kinds of other ways that you can ‘travel hack’ (I hate the term ‘hack’, so apologies for using it.) And there are all kinds of websites which will teach you how to do it. If you are looking to get started, here’s a great post to help you on a blog which I am not affiliated with in any way (though I wish I were, because it is a fantastic site).

But even if you don’t want to ‘travel hack’, you can and should still join all of the loyalty programs. And then, you know…be loyal. For two years, unless it was absolutely impossible, I flew on US Air (now American Airlines). For two years, unless it was absolutely impossible, I stayed in Marriotts (or Choice Hotels, which are a great alternative if you are traveling domestically in non-metro areas.) By actually remaining loyal–which is what these brands want you to do–you gain status. And with status comes the ability to amass miles more quickly; with my high-level status on US, I was earning double the miles as someone without status. You’ll be surprised how quickly you begin to build up points.

Of course, along with the amassing of loyalty rewards comes the importance of using them wisely. Yes, I’m even thrifty with my points and miles. I redeem awards travel for super-saver (coach) flights and at low-tier hotels to make them stretch as far as possible. I have never and will never use a single air mile to upgrade to business or first, nor will I stay at a Ritz-Carlton.

Personal example(s): This past spring, my husband and I wanted to take a trip. So I looked at the awards booking site on my airline and discovered that it was really ‘cheap–in miles–to fly from NYC to Madrid–only 80K miles total, for both of us, round trip on a direct flight out of JFK. So that’s what we did. Pictured, above, was our first breakfast. It didn’t suck.

Note that I’m also following the ‘care less where you go’ rule as well as the ‘consider alternate airports’ rule here. Rule combining: it’s powerful!

Additional example: I have a favorite Marriott property. It is a totally not-exciting Courtyard property in a not ideal location in north Miami. But it is also only ten thousand points per stay, which is ridiculously low. And it is driving distance to all of the things I love, most of which live in Miami. I can stay for a week for the same amount of points I’d spend on one night at the Coconut Grove Ritz. And so I do.

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As you can see, there’s really no big secret to being able to afford more-frequent travel. Just like anything else in life worth doing, it takes time and effort. But unlike many things in life, it almost always pays off.

Do you have any great tips on how to afford more-frequent travel? Please do share them in the comments below. If not for your fellow readers, for me. Thanks! 

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