This week I’ll be answering a series of questions I received during my months away. Monday – Friday will each be centered around a different theme, so be sure to check back daily for your question! I’ll also link the entire series together into one page, available at the end of the week.
There’s a myth going around town that travel is only for college kids and rich people.
Well, my friends, I am neither one of those things. Many of you have been shocked to hear that I only spent $10,000 traveling for five months. And by far the most frequently asked question I get is:
How do you afford it?
I’ve heard it said that the more money we spend when we travel, the more we distance ourselves from the things we went to experience. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about travel and money, it’s that don’t need to spend a lot to exist comfortably in most of the world.
I remember a moment in the Greek isles where I realized I had spent less money that day on everything (room, food, even transportation) than I do on one’s day’s rent back at home. And this is on the Euro, mind you!
That being said, unless you plan on working while abroad, you will need to have a nest egg for basic expenses while traveling, and you’ll want to make good choices with your money while traveling so that you don’t have to cut your trip short.
Here are my top five tips for affording travel:
- It’s all about priorities. Do you want that $10 glass of wine? Or do you want an extra night on the beach in Thailand? Look at where you can cut back on spending at home. Through a series of trade-offs and conscious spending in the year before my trip, I was able to save all the money I needed to travel with for five months. Downsize your living space. Cancel cable. Choose walking over driving when you can. Choose travel, and you will eventually have the necessary funds to make it happen.
- Establish and contribute to a travel savings fund. Take it one step farther and look at your monthly spending versus income. Find out what you can spare each month, and set up an automatic transfer to a separate account in an amount you’re comfortable with. Congratulations, you’ve prioritized your money for travel once more.
- Set up your financial accounts in a way that will minimize travel costs. Get a credit card that accrues miles, and use the miles for your longer, more expensive flights. This consistently takes a chunk out of my overall spending on travel. You’ll also want a credit card with no foreign transaction fees (I use Capital One) and a bank that will reimburse your foreign ATM fees (especially important on a longer trip, or in countries where your bank may not have a local bank partner.) If I had had to pay for each time I used an ATM in five months…
- Do as the locals do. If you eat where the locals eat, stay where the locals live, do as the locals do, and in some cases wear what the locals wear…not only will you be immersing yourself in the culture and flow of a place, you’ll be saving a lot of money. No matter the currency, when you seek local ways of life you’ll be living mostly as they do, which is to say, sustainably. I’m all for splurging on life experiences unique to a place, or on an extraordinary meal from time to time. Most days, shop at the local market and make your dinner. Or eat street food. Look beyond the obvious areas for tourist accommodation. Take public transportation. It’s a win-win for your experience and your wallet.
- Travel off season. There’s a reason there’s a “season.” Often it’s because the weather is ideal. But if you can manage “off peak” timing, the rewards will follow. In most destinations, people live and work there year round, so while you’re likely to encounter less tourists and less crowding at these times, you’ll also find lower prices and more potential to bargain. The best part about traveling in low season to me is the flexibility that comes with high availability. Arriving in an environment in which you can wait to book rooms and activities allows you to stay spontaneous.
Where did your money go the furthest?
Where (in terms of location): Southeast Asia and India. (Luckily, these are two of the most fascinating places to travel!) If I hadn’t spent my last two months in some of the most expensive cities in Europe, I would have significantly reduced my overall costs.
Where (in terms of spending): Food! I was able to eat much cheaper than I ever do at home.
How did you decide on a budget? How did you stick to it?
- Calculate the number of days you anticipate traveling, and create a per day budget. You’ll want to include accommodation, food, transportation, and set an amount for discretionary expenses such as activities and entrance fees. You can separate or include and disperse the inter-destination expenses such as more costly travel between cities or countries and things like visa fees in your per day amount. I personally chose to set aside a separate $1,000 for inter-region flights and visas that I did not include in my daily budget. Don’t forget to consider the higher costs involved in large cities and of course, different currencies and exchange rates. (For example, I spent an average of $10 per night on accommodation while in Cambodia and Laos, whereas it was closer to $35 for Italy. How to find out costs? Do a quick search on your favorite hostel/hotel website before you leave.)
- Know when to cut costs and when NOT to. Finding a cheaper flight just by spending an extra five minutes looking at a different website? Great. Skimping on a hostel in a less than secure location or refusing to buy that malaria medicine because you’ll don’t think you’ll need it? Not great. Be smart with your choices, but never sacrifice your health and safety or you’ll jeopardize the entire experience.
- Track your spending with apps or online. I use Spending to track my own expenses, and Trip Splitter when traveling with a companion. I use mint.com for my expenses at home, but find it only useful when I am charging expenses on credit cards. By always knowing where you stand, you can adjust accordingly and get where to you need to be.
- Use filters when searching for accommodation online. This way I restricted myself only to deciding between places within my budget. Often I will place a price restriction on my search and then sort by rating. This way I can find the best possible place to stay at the price I have set. Or, if you’re traveling off season and have a sense of adventure…show up in your destination and negotiate directly with hotel owners (I did this about half the time.)
- Eat street food. From the crepes in Paris to the food stalls of Bangkok, often the best–and definitely the cheapest–meals you can find on this planet are found on the street.
- Create a trip that lasts. Travel doesn’t have to constantly be the five-star experience advertisers want you to have. I’ve seen people spend in one night what I would spend in a month. Again, it’s about choices. What kind of travel experience do you want to have?
Note: Traveling part-time (with a job) and traveling full-time (without a job) for me led to very different budgeting decisions. $5 extra a night on accommodation doesn’t kill your bank account like $5 extra per night over several months. This was the biggest adjustment I had to make in the transition to full-time traveling, knowing that small daily decisions made a huge impact on my overall cost in five months.
>> Whether your trip is four days, four weeks, or four months…the world is full of backpacker-friendly (i.e. cheap!) options awaiting your arrival. No matter the amount of money in my bank account, this is always the way I prefer to travel.
Think: where could you afford to go if you stopped using money as an excuse and started prioritizing travel?
Next up: On Safety.