This is one of my most often-requested blog posts. I think I’ll turn it into a travel budget series, and maybe even show what I spent at the end of each trip I take.
Travel is one of those experiences that give you a plethora of options, all at varying levels of expense. One of the staff members at my first study abroad experience in Costa Rica told us during orientation that students tend to act more spontaneously while abroad, and are more likely to do things abroad that they wouldn’t do at home. This is absolutely true. When you get to your destination and suddenly all of these new and exciting opportunities are thrown at you, it can be really difficult to stick to that budget.
I am from a lower-middle class income bracket and my career is in the nonprofit sector, so I don’t exactly have tons of money to throw around while traveling. But that doesn’t mean I stopped seeing the world–I just became more tactful about how I budget for travel and spend money while on the road. Here’s how you can, too!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase any of these services from the links below, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. I only recommend services I love!
1 // find cheap flights
This is the most important part. With international travel, the most expensive part is getting to your destination. It feels like airlines are constantly going up on the price of tickets, or charge for every single add-on if they keep ticket prices low. It’s so frustrating, and can discourage you from traveling. But there are ways to find cheap flights that still include things like in-flight meals and carry-on luggage. There are many websites that claim to send members the cheapest flights out there for a monthly fee, but I don’t use them. I’ll elaborate on the 100% free website where I’ve had most of my success. Enter: Skyscanner.
Skyscanner is a search engine for cheap flights. I’ve been using it for the past two years, and it’s still my go-to for finding my next flight. There’s no telling how much money I’ve saved from using this website! It has completely changed how I perceive my travel budget. All you have to do is put in your departure and destination airports, and a date. The platform has a tool where you can pick a departure airport and opt to see flights to everywhere. You can also put in a more vague departure location, like “United States.” I usually start my search by putting in my departure airport, selecting “Everywhere,” and clicking on the “Cheapest month” tool unless I’m restricted to specific dates or I know which month I’m going.
You do have to be careful with Skyscanner, though. It will pull up a long list of vendors that are selling tickets for that flight, some of which are third-party services.
Do not book a flight with anyone that is not the airline. If you need to change your flight later, it will be such a horrible experience that you’ll regret booking at all. Some airlines will even cancel the ticket, and you’re out the money if you booked with a third party. This is speaking from personal trial and error; learn from my mistakes!
What you want is the green box with “Airline” written inside. Even if the ticket price is a little more, it’s worth it. You can use that ticket money to contribute to your frequent flyer mile balance! If it’s way more than the cheapest bidder, start your search again. I promise that well-priced flights are out there, and you can book them directly with airlines!
2 // be flexible with your plans
Tools like Skyscanner work best when your plans are flexible and you have the availability to take advantage of those cheap flights. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to travel in the off-season! The prices I paid as a student in Europe, traveling during those cheaper months, were so much lower than what I paid on average for two weeks in the summer.
If you’re planning far in advance, then look now for those tickets in March, or for fall. I highly recommend to avoid flying during the summer as best you can. Picture this: the vacation you painstakingly planned for has been ruined by crowds upon crowds upon crowds. Your summer vacation is not even remotely the way you thought it would be. I cannot say it enough; book in the off-season. Your stress level and your wallet will thank me later!
3 // use Airbnb, hostels, or book hotels with points
The first thing people do wrong when traveling abroad is staying at a hotel brand they know. Marriotts and Hiltons are great; don’t get me wrong. But they charge so much more than locally-owned hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels that it will blow your mind. I only stay at these brands when I gain enough points through loyalty programs to either stay for free, or the price of that property is offset enough by what I will gain in points.
My go-to is Airbnb. You get more of a local experience, and you can even book an entire apartment with a kitchen and washer for less than the average hotel price. Just like any other experience, I’ve had both positive and negative stays with Airbnb. Most hosts I’ve met are kind, attentive, and open up a whole other side of their hometown that I wouldn’t see otherwise.
Take photos of the apartment or room before you even unload your luggage, just in case the host tries to blame preexisting damage on you. And don’t be afraid to reach out to Airbnb about your stay–I’ve had very good experiences with their customer service team!
The key to a great stay is to research the property thoroughly. Is it in a good location, near public transportation? Does it have good reviews? Do female travelers say it’s safe? What do the negative reviews say, if there are any? Thinking about aspects like these will help you pick the right place for your price range, and ultimately lead to a great stay.
If Airbnb and hotels aren’t looking right for you, check out HostelWorld. I’ve seen some really cool hostels on this website! If you’d rather book directly with the hostel, which I recommend, then look up the listing name on Google and book through their website. If things like WiFi and air conditioning matter to you, then make sure you click the checkmarks next to those amenities. HostelWorld will filter the search results, so you won’t see any properties without A/C and WiFi.
4 // sign up for travel rewards credit cards and loyalty programs
This is where the magic happens. Travel hacking is a way many people manage to afford what would be a super expensive trip–for way less. I recently heard about this, and love how much I’ve already learned about traveling smarter.
As of right now, I’ve added the Chase Sapphire Preferred to my wallet. The 60,000 point sign-on bonus is equal to about $800 in travel credit with Chase’s multitude of airline and hotel partners. You’ll gain 2x the points on travel and food purchases, and 1x the points on all other purchases. In addition to those benefits, this card is a Visa, the only card accepted everywhere in the world. You’re also not liable for fraudulent charges, and get rental car insurance included. Some other favorites are the AmEx Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and airline or hotel brand-specific credit cards.
As with any credit card, be honest with yourself. Look at how you spend your money, and acknowledge areas where you could spend less. If you rack up a mountain of expenses on a travel rewards credit card, the hefty interest you’ll pay will end up cancelling out the rewards you gain. I set up autopay through my Chase portal, so that I never miss a payment. Spend wisely! If you’re not meticulous about tracking your expenses, do not get any of these credit cards. Just don’t.
Loyalty programs, on the other hand, carry less risk. It’s 100% free to become a member of any airline’s frequent flyer program. Just sign up online! You can even save your passport or other ID info, so that you won’t have to fill it in every single time you book a flight with them. You’re also able to save frequent flyer miles that never expire, and spend them on future flights.
With less risk, however, comes less reward. It takes a while to gain from these free programs, but sign up for them anyway. I’ve lost track of how many free airline accounts I have. Same with hotels! It’s free to be a basic rewards member with Marriott and Hilton. Sure, you get more points if you sign up for their credit cards, but you can still gain and rack up points without them. Just be patient. Travel will begin to pay you back if you just sign up for rewards programs, and keep exploring.
As I learn more about travel hacking, I’ll write a series of posts about what’s worked for me and what hasn’t. Stay tuned!
5 // don’t eat out!
I feel like a broken record saying this, but I won’t stop. Eating out is the culprit for the majority of frivolous spending. I try to limit eating out at home, which is hard because I’m from Nashville! We have so many delicious restaurants here. But I remind myself that travel is my top financial priority, and I’m willing to do what it takes to save enough for the opportunity to see a new destination.
Likewise, when I travel, I don’t eat out often. A friend and I agreed for our upcoming trip together that we will only allow ourselves to eat out three meals per city: one breakfast, one lunch, and maybe one dinner. We’d rather spend that money on excursions and museum tickets, not table service. Instead, we’ll go to the grocery store and cook in our Airbnb. Since we’re moving quickly, we’ll bring to-go containers and bring leftovers with us to our next destination. And it’ll be so much fun!
6 // use public transportation
I hate taxis. I really do. So, I use public transportation instead. It’s usually more of a local experience, especially outside the States. The average airport in Europe has a metro or train station inside. Use the maps in the station, or Google Maps on your phone, to figure out which lines to take towards your accommodations. If you’re arriving or departing when the metro isn’t running, take the bus. I know it’s not glamorous, but Uber adds up. Taxis add up even more.
If you must take a car, I recommend checking the Google Maps app for directions to your destination. Then, tap the taxi option to see which apps offer service for that trip. You’ll probably see Uber, and either Lyft or a taxi app like Cabify. Choose the cheaper one, and you can know in advance how much the ride will cost. With apps like MyTaxi/FreeNow, you can pay cash and don’t need to connect a credit card to your account.
7 // pack light
Heavy luggage makes your wallet lighter. Not only will you pay out of pocket to check the bag on budget airlines, but you’ll also pay extra for it in taxis. To top it all off, that bag will feel heavier every time you move accommodations. By the end of your two-week trip all over Europe, you’ll hate the sight of that big ‘ole checked bag. Save the money and the hassle. Hop on the carry-on bandwagon.
Years ago, I was a packrat. The biggest packrat I know, actually. But that all changed when I realized that no one, literally not a single person cares if I wear the same outfit a few times while traveling. If you change destinations often, you’ll be around new people every day. None of them will know the difference. Just pack a few versatile items, and wear them in different ways. I also limit how many pairs of shoes I bring to three: Nike running shoes, Chacos, and one pair of cute sandals/shoes. That’s it. You don’t need any more.
Once you stop bringing so much, it’s freeing. I’m never going back.
8 // make a realistic budget–and stick to it
Things always cost more than you expect, from last-minute changes to detours. Take a look at how much money you have to spend on a trip to begin with. Then, once you’ve found that cheap flight and the deal on Airbnb, determine how much you can spend for on-the-ground expenses. Do you want a souvenir to take home? How much are you willing to spend per meal? What excursions do you want to take? Once you determine those expenses, bring extra with you anyway. Have access to funds in your bank account for emergencies and unexpected expenses. But don’t spend them just because–they could go towards another trip or cool experience at home!
Once you’ve added up the numbers, remember that this is investing in yourself. Money is one of the most stressful things about life, but don’t let it overtake you while traveling. This is coming from someone with quite possibly the biggest buyer’s regret. Life is happening now, so use some of your savings to break out of your everyday routine and experience it.
If you read that and you thought, “What savings?” then I understand. The first thing that helped me was reprioritizing my spending. I suddenly had a travel budget that I insisted was never there! Second, there are ways to work abroad. If you’re looking for something more flexible, then being an au pair or WWOOFing are great options. If you’re interested in living in one place abroad for an extended amount of time, then consider service jobs like the Peace Corps or teach English abroad. The opportunities are endless!
This is the first of many posts to come about how I afford travel. Growing up, I didn’t see people from my income bracket, or people that looked like me getting on planes and seeing the world. Now, travel is more accessible than ever. It has completely changed my life, and I want my experiences to help others see the world, too. You’ve got the desire and the passion. Now all you need is to make a travel budget, save for it, and stick to it. I’m not naïve enough to think it’s equally accessible for everyone, because it isn’t in our current society. But if it’s possible for you, stop hesitating and go. The world is waiting!