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“How on earth do you afford to travel so much?!” We hear this question a lot from friends and family.
Though we aren’t full-time travelers, Sam and I have both visited more than 20 countries. Our travel plans for this year include trips to Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Nicaragua and South Africa, as well as numerous trips within the United States.
So how do we afford it?
We’re certainly not rich by American standards. Neither of us have crazy high-paying jobs or come from wealthy families. But we have figured out some strategies to maximize our resources and make our travel dreams a reality.
So whether you’re longing to jet set frequently or simply take that vacation you’ve always fantasized about, here is our step-by-step guide to saving money for travel:
1. Prioritize travel
If travel isn’t a priority, it will never happen. Saving money takes discipline and is frankly not worth the effort for something that isn’t important to you. If traveling is a priority, the sacrifices will be absolutely worthwhile!
2. Gauge your finances
If you’re serious about traveling, the next step is to find out how much money you actually have. The easiest way to gauge your finances is to calculate your typical monthly income and then subtract your essential expenses (Such as mortgage/rent, groceries etc.). Many people have more money leftover than they originally thought.
3. Calculate how much you can save per month
Planning to set aside every dime that doesn’t go toward bills is admirable, but not feasible long-term. Life throws curveballs, and we often face many expenses in addition to our “regular” bills. Include a cushion in your budget for these unexpected expenses. Also factor in any charitable donations you wish to make.
With these expenses in mind, calculate how much money you can reasonably expect to save each month. That number is your monthly “Travel Payment.” As a rule, we treat our Travel Payment the same as any other bill. Don’t worry if your monthly amount is small. It will add up over time!
Further Reading: How to Travel When You Have a Full-Time Job
4. Set up a separate bank account
Next, set up a separate bank account for your travel fund. We’ve found that keeping our travel savings separate from our regular bank account limits our temptation to spend it on non-travel-related expenses.
If you bank online, set up an automatic transfer to move your Travel Payment into your travel account each month.
Important note: Your travel fund should not be your only savings account. We also make a monthly deposit into our “Emergency Fund” which we use if we face an expensive medical bill or home repair. If your travel fund is your only savings account you will likely drain it every time a mini (or not-so-mini) tragedy strikes.
5. Limit spending
In order to afford your monthly Travel Payment you will likely have to limit spending in other areas. (Remember the afore mentioned sacrifices? Yup, this is the not-so-fun part…) At the time, these financial sacrifices can bum you out. But the long-term payout will be worth it, we promise.
For example, here are some adjustments Sam and I made when we got serious about traveling:
- Limit eating out to special occasions. Though we never ate out frequently, we found that even eating out (or ordering in) a few times a week put a serious dent in our wallet. Now we only eat out for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. And of course when we travel!
- Always grocery shop with a list. Though cooking your own food is cheaper than eating out, shopping aimlessly can be almost as bad on your finances. Every week we make a meal plan, then we only buy ingredients necessary for those meals. Sticking to a list keeps us from wasting money on groceries we never use.
- Clip coupons. Though we aren’t Coupon Clipping Ninjas who basically earn money by grocery shopping, we collect coupons for items we buy regularly.
- Go vegetarian. At home, Sam and I eat vegetarian. We found that cutting meat out of our diet significantly reduced our grocery bill. Even if you only eat vegetarian a few days a week you should notice a positive financial benefit!
- Embrace the Capsule Wardrobe. I recently discovered the Capsule Wardrobe and it revolutionized my life. Basically, a Capsule Wardrobe consists of basic items you can mix and match to create numerous outfits. Owning fewer, more versatile items also makes putting outfits together—and packing—a lot less stressful. Here is a helpful article to get you started.
- Rent movies on Redbox. Has anyone else noticed that movie theater prices have become astronomical? The last time we went to the theater we paid $15 per person. Seriously?? I’m pretty sure my dad’s first car cost less than that. Throw in popcorn and you’re basically committing financial suicide. Instead, Sam and I typically rent movies for $1.50 from Redbox or watch them for free on airplanes. We make an exception for Star Wars and Harry Potter movies because we consider those “essential living expenses.” Don’t judge. Moving on…
- Ditch the Gym. I used to have a gym membership, and I was one of those crazies who actually still used it after January 15th. But the $30 per month added up, so I cancelled my membership and jog/cycle in a local park instead. Not only do I save money, but I also benefit from fresh air and Vitamin D. Double win.
- Make your own coffee. I personally think coffee tastes worse than cow droppings, but Sam loves it. Instead of shelling out $4 to Starbucks every day, he orders green coffee beans and roasts them at home in a cheap air pop. Not only does he save money, but he’s gained a new hobby in the process.
Those are just a few ideas. We recommend looking through past credit card statements to pinpoint other expenses you could either omit or reduce.
The point here isn’t to make your life drudgery. If life without a gym membership is your personal brand of purgatory, keep your membership! Instead, look for other ways to save money. Embarrassing but true confession: I can’t bring myself to give up regular visits to my fancy hair salon. Previous attempts to “explore cheaper options” left me looking like I’d gotten lost in a slaughterhouse. Instead I make financial sacrifices in other areas.
6. Designate “bonus” money to travel
Sam and I both occasionally make money on side projects. We deposit most of this additional income directly into our travel fund.
Even if you don’t have any side jobs, designating a portion of extra income (from birthday or Christmas presents etc.) to your travel fund can give your savings a nice boost.
7. Stay inspired
To be honest, constantly saving money can become frustrating. At times, even the promise of a fabulous trip to Europe doesn’t make the immediate sacrifices painless. When we notice our resolve slipping, we look for ways to reignite our wanderlust:
- Pinterest. Searching the “travel” category on Pinterest never fails to get my feet itching. Or you can check out our Pinterest boards here. (Shameless plug. Sorry. Moving on…)
- Travel movies. Movies set in exotic destinations always inspire wanderlust. You can check out our current list of favorite travel movies here.
- Instagram. Scrolling through my favorite travel bloggers’ Instagram feeds reminds me why the short-term financial sacrifices are worthwhile.
- Travel books. Reading books about exciting adventures in foreign lands always adds new destinations to my ever-growing bucket list. Here is my list of the best books to inspire wanderlust.
8. Pay less for travel
Finding deals and manipulating rewards programs can save hundreds of dollars on flights and hotels, making previously unattainable trips affordable.
Though Sam and I don’t consider ourselves expert travel hackers, we have discovered strategies that have saved us thousands of dollars on travel. Here are a few of them:
- Sign up for deal alert newsletters. Rather than scouring each airline looking for flight deals (which they will rarely draw attention to anyway), let others do the legwork for you. I’m subscribed to The Flight Deal’s free daily newsletter. I especially recommend this newsletter if you live near a major airport (JFK, LAX, BOS), since those are where many of these flight deals originate.
- Search Skyscanner. We’ve found incredible flight deals using this aggregator site. Skyscanner is particularly useful if you have flexible travel plans (For example, if you want to go to Europe in the fall, but aren’t too particular about which city or the exact dates). I typically enter my home airport (ATL) into the “from” search box, “everywhere” as the destination and “cheapest month” as the departure/return dates. Then I see which destinations are cheapest. Twice this year we’ve purchased round-trip flights to Europe for $400 apiece, which is about $800 cheaper than the average price.
- Book immediately. When you see a crazy good flight deal, book it immediately. It probably won’t last longer than a few hours. Most airlines allow 24 hours to cancel without penalty, so you won’t be out any money if you change your mind.
- Accrue points. You don’t have to fly often to earn points. We have gotten (almost) free flights to Boston, Paris, and Japan using miles, most of which we earned through our Delta Platinum SkyMiles Credit Card. Using the credit card, we earn 1 mile for every dollar we spend and 2 miles for every dollar we spend on delta.com. We supplement these miles by shopping through Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping portal (You can earn an additional 1-5 miles per dollar this way). An added benefit of the Amex Delta Platinum card is that we also receive one free companion ticket per year. So when we purchase one ticket to anywhere in the continental U.S., we can get a second ticket free (We just used this year’s certificate for a free flight to Portland, Maine). We also love our Chase Sapphire Preferred card, since we can earn double points on travel and restaurants and we can transfer those points to lots of different airlines. Of course, you can also earn miles through good, old-fashioned flying! Be sure to always include your frequent flier number on flight reservations.
- Get bumped. Airlines are notorious for overbooking their planes and often offer volunteers vouchers for travel credit if they agree to take a later flight. If you have flexible travel plans, this can be a relatively easy way to save money on future travel. When we flew to Nicaragua over Memorial Weekend, Delta Airlines gave us each $1,700 credit for flying a day later than we planned. We used that voucher to fly to Asia…twice! We actually wrote a whole post on getting bumped. You can find it here.
- Spend less on accommodations. Renting rooms/apartments on Airbnb is often cheaper than staying in hotels (especially if you’re traveling in a group or as a family). An added benefit of Airbnb accommodations is that they are often located in neighborhoods where locals live, not in “touristy” areas. We have also found great hotel deals on booking.com. For solo travelers who don’t mind sacrificing some privacy, hostels are a super affordable option.
9. Take the plunge
You’ve been saving. You’ve read countless blog posts. At a certain point, it’s time to take the plunge and book that flight! The reality is that if you’re waiting for the “perfect time” to travel, you’ll be waiting forever. So take a deep breath and go for it!
What are your tips for making travel affordable?
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