Probably the number one question we get asked by our friends and family is how to we afford to travel so much. While we definitely prioritize our fringe spending on traveling and sacrifice on other areas (for example we go out to eat less often) we also follow some general principles to help maximize our travel budget and see as much of the world as we can.
Set a personal budget: First and foremost, if you want to travel you have to set aside some of your personal budget for it. While we set aside much more of our budget for travel compared to others, we do this consciously and decide what isn’t as important to us in light of all of our other spending. We track all of our spending every month (necessary if you play the points game with multiple credit cards) and make the choice to prioritize some of our savings for travel. This means going out to eat less when we’re not traveling, sacrificing on getting the latest iPad, and not having a lot of subscription services, but it’s the choice we make to take an extra trip every year. Saving for a trip can be hard unless you prioritize it, but with a set monthly budget and review of your spending it can come closer to a reality. I use a spreadsheet in Google Drive to track our spending, but there are other apps (such as Mint) you can use to help review your spending and set savings goals.
Set your travel budget: Once you’ve set your personal budget, the next step is to set your travel budget and decide how you want to spend it. There’s no worse feeling than coming back from a trip and having way overrun your budget, but with some planning ahead you can make it happen. Similar to a monthly budget tracker, we use an Excel document when planning our trips and do our best to stay within our categorized spend. Rather than set a maximum spend for hotel, airfare, transportation, we try to stick to an overall budget and set amount of dollars per day. This gives some flexibility in case you want to splurge on a nice hotel for one of your nights or need to spend extra on an intra-country flight to make it to your following destinations.
Note that part of setting a travel budget is to prioritize what you want to spend money on during your trip. For example, most days we spend minimal on two of our meals- buying at least one meal from a farmer’s market or grocery store – which leaves extra money to splurge on dinner. Other easy ways to save some money are to maximize overnight flights or trains which can save you a night of spending on hotel room. Also, be wary of trying to save a buck by staying in hotels outside of the city or flying into airports further away. If you do your research (and likely take public transport) you can come out ahead (see below), but often times you could end up paying more on transportation (taxi/rental car) versus just paying a slightly higher premium when staying in town or using major airport. In the end it’s all a trade-off deciding where you want to splurge and where you can live with skimping (it’s truly a personal preference) as long as you stick to that overall budget.
Shop around for hotel and flight deals: It takes doing some homework, but shopping around for deals is helpful for making your budget travel stretch. Some of it is obvious, such as by checking around at different travel accumulator sites to get a good hotel room deal (check with the property before you book, they may honor a rate you find somewhere else) and when abroad staying in apartments or smaller 3-star hotels instead of major chains or 5-star hotels. However, if you have a good chunk of PTO you can search around for cheaper airfares by departing and arriving mid-week versus on the weekend or living with a long layover (sometimes these are a great opportunity to take a quick visit into the city – 4 hours in Amsterdam is plenty to grab a quick bite to eat and head back to the airport). Visiting large cities on weekends can also be cheaper or have greater award availability if you look for hotels in business districts that likely won’t be in such high demand as during the work week. Additionally, a little homework can also help you find cheaper rooms if you’re willing to slightly commute. We visited Amsterdam over a Christmas break and rooms were over $500 if you wanted to stay near the city center. However, we found a room for around $100 in a new hotel that was right near a tram and metro line that took no more than 10 minutes to get into the city center.
Travel during shoulder season: Another great way to save is by traveling during shoulder season. This is obviously much harder if you have kids, as often times the shoulder season is when kids are in school (although, while not a parent yet, I’d argue you can learn just as much in a classroom as you could exploring and interacting with other humans from a different culture), but if you’re either willing to pull the kids out of school, or if you don’t have to worry about that responsibility, you can save a lot of money by traveling in shoulder season. Unlike the offseason, when many towns may be empty and stores shuttered, you can still take advantage of all the great things your destination has to offer with a portion of the crowds and likely much cheaper accommodations. You do run the slight risk of less than ideal weather ruining a part of your trip occasionally, but the payoff can be worth it – we at least thought so on our trips to Greece and Thailand.
Use your CC points: It’s not a game for the faint of heart, but you can score some major savings if you even dip your toe into the credit card points game. To really score big you essentially have to make points a hobby that you can dedicate some time to (we currently have 7 cards and track our spending on them all), but even with basic rewards cards you can help subsidize your travel budget. If you decide to play the game, just remember that you have to pay your bills off in full every month (or else you’re losing money) and you can’t forget to pay your bills which requires strict tracking of your spending and bill due dates. However, once you start to bank them you can begin to get creative with your points and maximize their value (Pro tip: the highest value is transferring to partner programs rather than spending on their portal).
Fly with a single airline if you spend more than 3k a year in flights: I definitely wouldn’t recommend someone flying just to chase a bottom tier airline status, but if you fly often (especially for work) enough to hit both a spending requirement (all U.S. legacy airlines currently require $3,000 a year) and number of miles flown, you can score some perks that save you money on your travels if you stick to a single alliance instead of always going for the cheapest fare. Do the math in your head to see if it makes sense, but with status you often get free bag check (this alone could save you $50 round trip depending on your destination), free seat selection, priority security and boarding, and free lounge access (depending on your level), all of which can make a long flight in steerage slightly less exhausting while saving you time and money (I don’t think I’ve shown up more than an hour before a flight in years).
There are so many websites, blogs, and influencers who try to tell you how to save money by backpacking, sleeping on dirt floors, and performing in the street to see your way around the world. While doing that is fine and dandy (I stayed in hostels and had some questionable lodging in my college travel days), I prefer to travel as luxuriously as possible WITHIN my means. By following these steps, you will be well on your way to staying in an overwater bungalow in the Maldives in no time. Just remember to send me postcard!