For years, readers, strangers, friends and family have asked me how I “afford to travel so much”. To which I’m partially compassionate about, despite being asked this almost every day, because I too was once in their shoes believing that travel was only for the rich.
The very simple explanation is: prioritizing, sacrificing, and hustling. But there are various travel hacks which once I start going into detail about, I notice the interviewer’s eyes glaze over and I realize they were expecting a simple answer like: I’m rich. I won the lottery! But… actually I’m not rich! 🙂 I do not come from money. I am a Bronx-Dominican daughter of immigrant parents.
My travel privilege is that I was born in one of the most powerful countries, that I am relatively healthy and physically able, and that my passport is accepted without a costly/lengthy visa process in many countries. But this alone is not always enough, or I wouldn’t have so many Americans asking me “how can you afford to travel?” Which by the way, is kind of like asking someone how they can afford children, or a new car, or a house. All of which, separately cost more than my travels.
So if I hail from a very humble background, graduated with student loans, have always either worked a full-time job or studied full-time, then how have I been able to explore hundreds of cities and over 40 countries in the last decade?
If you are really serious about wanting to travel without breaking the bank, then here are some of my TOP budget travel tips.
*Originally posted in 2015 – Recently UPDATED June 2019*
1) Sign Up for Free Airline Frequent Flyer Rewards Programs
Accruing airline miles is one of the best ways to literally get free flights (with the exception of flight taxes $5-$150 for some programs).
Airlines form partnerships with each other so that if, for example, you fly on Turkish Airlines or Air China but you are a member of the United Airlines mileage program, you still collect miles from those connected airlines to your United Airlines account because they’re linked to the same alliance: Star Alliance. There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and Skyteam.
Below are links to sign up with one of the biggest three airline alliances:
2) Sign Up for a Points/Mileage Travel Credit Card
In addition to getting miles for flights, depending on your country, you can also accrue miles/points much faster through travel credit card expenditures. For example, for every dollar you spend with a travel credit card, you should get at least a mile. If you sign up for certain cards, you can get 3 points per dollar on categories such as travel and dining.
Most importantly, most travel/mileage credit cards have sign-on bonus miles from 50,000 to 100,000 miles/points.
So in the last decade since college, I’ve probably accrued over 500,000 miles in bonuses, flights, and totally legal mileage credit card “hacks” WITHOUT succumbing to credit card debt. And WITHOUT hurting my credit score.
Anyway, this means I rarely ever pay for flights unless the price is too low to justify using my miles! 😉
Tip: Do not settle for one with a sign-on bonus less than 50,000 miles.
2nd tip: Every time you fly with the specific card’s carrier (like Chase United) you can get double bonus miles for any travel you book on United.
3rd Tip: Make sure your credit card will:
- not charge you foreign transaction fees (big money saver)
- offer travel insurance (amazing in case of accidents or delays)
- include car rental insurance (another huge money saver if you love road trips)
BONUS: Some cards will multiply your mileage accrual if you shop at certain businesses or eat at specific restaurants with specials.
My personal favorites:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve = points instead of miles
- Chase Ink for Business = also points instead of miles and has a huge 80,000 sign up bonus right now
Each bank has its sign-up own perks, so do your research and consider some of the following questions:
- Which airline do you prefer to fly on?
- How much can you afford to spend to meet the minimum for the big bonus?
- Which airlines go to your preferred destinations?
- Which airline flies the most out of your nearest airports?
- Which has bank offers the best interest rates?
- Which charges the least annual fee?
- Which card and airline combination will cumulatively afford you the best benefits?
And remember, you can pay for your internet, phone, cable, and household items 12 months ahead of time if you want to meet the minimum spending requirement to get the bonus points. You can also offer to pay for group dinners with your credit card, and have your friends Venmo you their part. You can offer your family or close friends to make big purchases for them to meet the minimum spending requirement.
But do NOT go into needless debt. The banks are betting against you for this, so you have to win at their game. Plan strategically.
For more tips on this, check out this subreddit.
3) Open a Charles Schwab Account
It’s free to open up an account with Charles Schwab. There are no service fees, no account minimum, and you can easily apply for it online. The best part? You will never pay for ATM withdrawals. Not in the U.S. and not internationally. This is a major money saver for travel and everyday spending.
If you don’t have access to Charles Schwab, look into what may be available for you in your country.
Create a couchsurfing.org account. This website allows you to meet travelers from around the world and connect with hosts who offer you free accommodation. This is not to be taken as a free hotel.
Couchsurfing should be about cultural exchange. Most surfers and hosts expect interaction, not just a place to crash. While some may actually be too busy and prefer the latter. Check it out. It’s an amazing way to do a free homestay and get a local experience wherever you travel.
Remember to be safe in your choices. With its growing popularity, Couchsurfing has attracted both amazingly benevolent souls and creepy people who just want to have sex. Ninety-nice (99%) of my CS experiences were life-changing.
My only weird experience out of like 50, was in 2011 when my Argentine host came back drunk from the bars and decided he wanted to leave to Patagonia to go skiing at 5 AM in the morning. So he abruptly asked my friend and me to wake up and leave at 4 AM… with a 10-minute notice.
I never stayed in a couchsurfer’s home without checking their:
- References – Everyone leaves everyone a review, check the accounts of the reviewers to see if they have good reviews, too. Also, check for accounts where male hosts only host hot women, and no couples or men, this can be a big indicator of their intentions.
- Verifications – CS allows users to pay with a credit card and to confirm their mailing address with a code sent to them via postcard
- Vouching – To get vouched for on Couchsurfing.com, you must be vouched by a person who was vouched for 3 times.
If you can, do something nice for your host such as: bringing them a gift special to your hometown, cooking them something, taking them out for a drink or dinner, etc.
5) Be an Airbnb Host
An excellent way to get paid while you travel is to sublet or rent out your couch, air mattress, spare bedroom, or actual bedroom to a traveler who’s going to be in your city while you’re away.
Airbnb is generally safe because it offers insurance protection (up to $1 million in damages) and both hosts and travelers must go through a verification process to use the platform (similar to what I described above for Couchsurfing.com).
I have never had an experience that made me feel unsafe through Airbnb. If you’re like me and enjoy having peace of mind through being extra cautious, you can get a security camera and lock all your valuables away while you’re gone. Since I like to engage in minimalism (see my previous post on minimalism), it’s pretty easy and becomes an automated habitual pattern for me to clear the place for a guest. I have mattress covers which I throw away after I get back, and I drop all laundry at the cleaners right after.
I repeat: I’ve never had a bad experience doing this. I am also very selective as to who I allow in my place (I even interview them on Skype). NONE of this is at all necessary, but I do it anyway for peace of mind and to further fund my travel expenses.
This is by far, one of the best ways to make up for your travel expenses.
6) Be an Airbnb Guest
Airbnb has revolutionized the way we travel because we are no longer at the mercy of big hotels charging $100+ a night. Now you can rent a room in someone’s home for $20/night. It’s like Couchsurfing but there is no expectation from you to socialize or to have a cultural exchange. Like I mentioned above, it also offers insurance and a middle-man platform for support and customer service. It’s like if Couchsurfing and Expedia had a baby.
7) Buy Food at Markets and Cook it at Your Airbnb/CS Place
Depending on your destination, budget, time constraints, and where you are staying (hostels, hotels, Airbnb homes) you may be able to cook your meals at home for a fraction of the price. If you are going somewhere expensive like Paris, you can buy cheap groceries and cook meals for the day and skip pricey restaurant meals.
Of course, this can depend on where you go. If you’re going to somewhere like Vietnam, don’t bother. The meals in Vietnam generally range from $1 USD to $5 USD a plate. And if you’re going to somewhere like Cuba, it’s not worth cooking for yourself given the difficulty of food shopping there.
While in college, I loved going to local markets to buy local fruits, nuts, and veggies at a nominal price and then making my meals (often sandwiches) and snacks for the day. I call them my Traveling Sammiches (see the top photo). Some places offer free breakfast, this is where I would pack bread, cheese, tomatoes, veggies and whatever else in a napkin and save it as a snack for later.
Bonus benefit: Local fruits and veggies can boost your immune system and save your money, all while giving you the opportunity to taste the unique local harvest of the region you are exploring. Win, win, win.
8) Find Cheap Flights (Flight Deals)
This to me is one of the most fun parts of my travel scavenging. I subscribe to blogs and forums that announce all sorts of flight deals and “errors”. In February 2014, I flew from NYC to Italy for $130 RT on United, non-stop. In May of 2016, I flew from NYC to Vietnam for $399 RT.
These are just two instances of several other flash deals. I’ve seen these kinds of discounted rates for destinations around the world. Even better is when I came back from my super cheap flight to Vietnam and saw my AA mileage account had accrued an additional ~20,000 miles from that trip! That’s enough for a round-trip domestic flight or a free one-way flight to Latin America!
Beware: When prices are this low, you have to pounce on buying it immediately. Within minutes of the announcement. Most airlines (with the exception of a few) and online travel agencies have a 24-hour cancellation policy. So I always buy first, ask myself questions later.
Here are my favorite websites to follow flights deals:
TheFlightDeal – One of my favorite blogs. They announce mega-cheap deals based on redeemable mileage per dollar cost.
SecretFlying – In addition to flight deals, this website also provides blog updates on hotel stays. They once published an Expedia promo code that discounted $250 off a hotel stay. I ended up stayed at a 5-star hotel in Jarabacoa for 2 nights for $35 total. Incredible!
Skyscanner – You put your location and select the destination as “flexible” or “everywhere” and choose the date or “cheapest month” option, and see where you can go in the world at any certain time for the least amount of money. You’d be amazed at how many cheap flights there are!
Kayak (Explore) – This is similar to the above but you can not alter it as much. It will show you the cheapest destinations you can fly to from your origin in an interactive map.
Flyertalk – This forum provides an open space for travelers to post flight deal finds.
Google Flights – You can view a large map, add your city and travel dates and then choose world regions instead of countries to see which destinations have the best price.
Here is a FULL and comprehensive guide to finding the best airfare hacks and deals. If you’re serious about flying without breaking the bank, read this article.
9) Don’t Check in Your Luggage; Travel Light
Unless you’re traveling abroad for a long time, consider packing everything in a carry-on if your airline charges a lot for checked luggage. Moreover, checking in your luggage can cause some delays and you run the risk of losing it if you have layovers.
Low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Spirit Airline charger over $100 at the gate for you to check in your luggage. That’s $200 hit, round trip.
10) Find Legal Work or Volunteer abroad
This is how you can travel at a lower cost especially in countries with a stronger currency.
Volunteering – This and this are just two of many examples websites that offer several opportunities to meet folks who seek volunteers. In exchange for services, they offer free accommodation and food!
Example from my friend, Mariel: You can live and eat for free with a family in the south of France, while volunteering two days a week on their vineyard.
Great Aupair – I spent months living in the most expensive district of Paris, on the same street as the French President and Johnny Depp, for free. I was hired as an Au Pair, where I taught French girls English and looked after them for 20-40 hours a week. It was not a glamorous experience, but it saved me several thousands of dollars while studying at La Sorbonne during a time where $1 USD was worth a little more than half a euro.
Teaching English Abroad – There are several, several, opportunities that allow people to live abroad to teach English throughout the entire world. It can be an incredibly lucrative industry. I couldn’t begin to list all the options. From Thailand to Korea to Spain. It could be a fun way to travel, work, and meet locals, all while having extra income on the side to help with expenses. And often through these programs your rent is paid for!
Work in Australia – Travel and get to know Australia, and work a few days on the side! Or full time, up to you. The working holiday visa agreement between Australia and the USA is for Australian/American adults under 31-year-olds. This visa allows young adults to supplement their travel with temporary employment for up to 12 months. Australia’s minimum hourly wage is $17.85. Enough said.
Work in New Zealand – I applied in 10 minutes and within two weeks the government of New Zealand had e-mailed me a free working visa. Amazing!
11) Don’t Waste Your Vacation Days!
Some readers have asked, “Do you even work? How do you travel throughout the year so much with a full-time job?”
In my years of working in a 9 to 5 job, I NEVER EVER used paid vacation or sick days just because. I meticulously, and religiously hoarded my vacation days thinking about my next adventure abroad.
If your job frowns upon taking vacation time, then try to take time off around major holidays (like New Years). This may be more expensive, but it’s less frowned upon, much more understandable, and there is generally less demand for your presence at work during this time.
12) Travel to Places Where Your Money Goes a Long Way
Consider destinations where the currency exchange and local prices work out in your favor. For most people, this means countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, south of Spain, and Myanmar where you can get by on very little per day. Where meals cost no more than $3.00 USD, Ubers are $1-ish, and accommodation ranges from $5.00 to $20.00 per night. By traveling to these destinations, and not being in say NYC, you are actually saving money!
Countries like Iceland, Switzerland, and Japan should be avoided if you want to stay under a certain budget.
You can actually spend time living in someone else’s home for free, simply for taking care of their pet or home. This is a great way to spend a week or a month abroad rent-free. My favorite website for this is Trusted Housesitters – click here for 25% off your membership.
Often, I’ve gone up to nicer hotels, brands, and other travel service providers and offer them my services in exchange for collaboration. I have offered them whatever I see they could use. Think about what are your skills? Are you a good writer? Can you write them a blog post on their website? Can you provide them with photography? And then go up to them and ask. Anything from setting up their social media profiles to helping them translate a few things on their website can go a long way!
Obviously, not everything free is worth it. In my opinion, time is also money. But depending on your time and budget this may be a great option for budget travel!
15) Check out the Free Walking Tours & Free Local Activities
Big cities usually offer an array of free activities and events to take part in. For instance, New York City has entire websites, groups, and magazine dedicated to free events or low budget activities. Many hostels or organizations will offer free walking tours based on individual tips that you choose to give them. These tours are usually done by locals and are a great way to contextualize your experience in a destination without breaking the bank. Here is an example of the free things to do in Wellington, New Zealand which is one of the pricier travel destinations in the world!
16) Hostels are Great for Budget Solo Travelers
If you’re a solo traveler it may be more expensive for you to travel since you don’t have anyone to share costs with. This is where hostels can be an amazing way to save accomodation costs. Hostels are often located in the epicenter of towns and offer an array of budget-friendly activities and excursions.
Hostels generally range from $5 a night to $20, depending on the location. If you’re a woman and feeling hesitant about sharing a room with strangers you can opt for female-only dorms. That’s what I’ve done in the past and it’s been wonderful!
17) Become a Travel Blogger / Writer / Photographer / Influencer / Travel Agent
This is a great way to partner with airlines, hotels, tourism boards and more. They are often looking for content that helps promote/give exposure to their business. So you can work with them on your upcoming blog post travel guides or photography. And if you have a strong platform, you may even get all your expenses paid and then PAID compensation for your time and work.
Disclaimer: Everyone’s situation is different. Please take discretionary initiatives for your own specific circumstance. For instance, if you have credit card problems, then taking out a mileage credit card might not be good for you. If your passport is from a country that is hard to travel out of, then travel will always have that extra visa “tax”, unfortunately, but hopefully, these tips help mitigate the costs in other ways.
Disclaimer 2: If you don’t have a lot of money, but you also don’t like the idea of sacrificing some luxury to be able to afford travel, then… Please know you could possibly afford to travel but you choose not to because it is not your priority. And that’s OK. Budget travel/travel, in general, is not for everyone!