Every few months, I receive a message from a friend asking me how I afford to travel. Before I started traveling long term, I didn’t understand either. I thought traveling was expensive: A round trip flight, the hotel room, eating out every meal, excursions! It adds up quick. This post lives to breakdown how I afford to travel most months out of the year and how you can do it, too. All you need is a little courage, willingness, and creativity!
There are four main areas you spend your money on while traveling—transport, accommodation, food, and activities—and things you can do it sustain your travels—working on the road, saving, and having an open mind. I’ll break it down for you using my own experiences and stories to explain how, for me, travel is generally cheaper than living a “normal” life at home.
First up: The Flight.
FLIGHT SEARCH ENGINES
It’s crazy how much flight prices can fluctuate from day to day. While you’re planning your trip, use flight search engines to find the cheapest days and routes to travel. I use Skyscanner. Skyscanner has an option to check out flight prices for the entire month to easily see what dates are cheapest.
Another feature I use on Skyscanner is searching broad. Rather than searching from a specific airport, type in your country or state of origin. This will show you a list of cities in your country that are cheapest to fly out of. This is super convenient; often you’ll save money (although, sacrifice time) buying a connecting flight to that cheapest option.
For example, flights from the Philadelphia International Airport to Sydney, Australia cost around $1,200 one-way. After doing some research and trial and error searching, I searched “USA to Sydney” and found a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney for around $600 one-way – half the price, baby!
Next, I booked a flight from Philly to LA for about $200 so came out on top saving about $400, oh yeah! Who knows what flight deals are out there, so it’s worth an extra half hour of research to find the cheapest leaving points and connecting flights.
Once you’re in a new country or continent, do more research or ask a local what smaller, domestic airlines are cheapest. Searching for only big airlines will cost you more.
TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS
One last tool I’ve recently used to afford flights is travel credit cards. I’m not the biggest fan of racking up debt (who is?), but last year I signed up for a rewards credit card and love getting points that are redeemable on flights and other travel expenses. When looking at your travel credit card’s rewards, know there are three options: points, miles, and cash back. I choose to use points since they can be applied to anything. Just for signing up I received 40,000 bonus points (~$400) and best of all, the points never expire. I try to buy big and small purchases using my travel credit card so I can exchange my points for dollars. Basically free money.
Once you’re there: Getting around.
DO AS THE LOCALS DO
Once you’ve landed, take a minute to research or simply ask what’s the cheapest way to get around. Do as the locals do. This is the golden rule. If you’re in New York, walk. If you’re in London, take the bus. If you’re in Mexico, find a collectivo. If you’re in Europe, check out ride shares. If you’re in Bali, rent a scooter. If you’re in New Zealand, hitchhike. This will save you heaps of money, but also give you a more authentic experience being amongst the normal crowd.
FIND, RENT, OR BUY A CAR
For longer trips, find a car or van. A set of wheels will give you endless freedom and a way to explore the less touristy areas. Look into ride share or hitchhiking groups online to find a group to join. This is very popular in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Europe, especially vans or cars with room for a bed because you’ll save heaps on accommodation!
Personally, I searched on the Australia’s version of Craig’s List and found a group of 10 people road tripping down the coast. I joined them for nearly 6 weeks and only had to pay for gas and food since we slept in tents and the van! In Spain, I found a group of Dutch surfer guys at a campsite with a surf bus and a van (and a dog!!) and cruised with them for a few days to Portugal. Both were an incredible experiences and didn’t cost much at all.
If you have enough funds and/or people, you could go all out and find a backpacker vans to buy/rent. For renting, popular companies are Wicked Campers in Australia and Europe or Jucy in NZ. If you’re buying, look in Facebook Backpacker groups, Gumtree, Craigslist, hostel message boards. If you’re lucky, you can buy the vehicle then sell it for the same price or more once you’re finished.
When dealing with longer distances, check out all of your options. While in SE Asia, I saved a lot of money on taking overnight buses. Not only were they cheaper than domestic flights, I was able to see the countryside AND saved money on a nightly accommodation. As I said, look at your options; sometimes, the domestic flight could be cheaper.
Where to stay: The many options.
Often housing is the most expensive part of traveling so if you eliminate or cut down on this expense, you’ll be saving tons of dollar-dollar bills.
If I am passing through a place for a night to a week, I use the website Couchsurfing. This website is a way to find a free place to rest your head with locals in the area. That’s right: FREE! I stayed in the Granada, Spain surrounded by mountains with Tom saving over $75. I stayed in The Blue City, Chefchauchen, Morocco with Marwa for saving over $50. I stayed in a village somewhere in Cambodia while volunteering at an orphanage saving who knows how much money but adding REAL, AUTHENTIC memories that will last forever. [Disclaimer: I’ve actually only slept on a couch once!]
Yes, Couchsurfing can save you a ridiculous amount of money, but I’ve discovered the true benefits of this community: the people. Couchsurfers are generally open minded, overwhelmingly generous, friendly, interesting humans with a story to tell. Let’s be honest, these people are opening their homes to you and exposing their day to day life. Remember that golden rule? Do as the locals do. Discover a place’s authenticity, go outside your comfort zone, and see a place through the eye’s of a local.
HOSTELS / AIRBNB
If you’re not into Couchsurfing, I recommend staying at hostels (use Hostelworld.com to check our reviews) or Airbnb. While road tripping through Portugal, my friends and I would split Airbnb apartments paying around $8/night each to stay in beautiful apartments situated in most prime locations! We felt like royalty.
Another option for the more open minded travelers is camping. Stay in nature for free! This is a great option and one of my favorites! If you have a car, you can find free places to stay (depending on where you are) or pay half the cost of a hostel or hotel in a beautiful location.
STAYING LONG TERM
If you would like to stay longterm, a few weeks to a few months in a new place, Airbnb is also an option since most hosts will offer a monthly discount. I will message hosts and ask if it’s not listed on their page.
You can also find the web pages that locals use to find housing to ask about open rooms. For example, while living in Morocco and Puerto Rico I posted in the “for rent or sale” Facebook groups to search for open rooms, room mates, and general housing leads.
But you should know for long-term stay, FREE RENT also exists. Eliminate this cost (and sometimes even the cost of food!) doing a work exchange program. How it works is you work anywhere from 1-8 hours a day for free rent and food. You get time off to explore the area and sometimes even get use of your host’s car.
There’s three popular, trusted sites I use: Workaway, WWOOF, and Helpx that have openings all over the world. For example, you can cruise on a sailboat through Croatia with Tom, work on an organic farm in Hawaii, or live in a mud hut in the desert in Morrocco completely for free!
Another random option is house sitting. My friend has stayed all over the world by using the website House Sitting World and searching for more local groups on the web and Facebook.
Fuel up: Food.
This one is pretty obvious. Try not to eat out for every meal especially if you’re in the more expensive countries. If you have access to a kitchen, use it. Go to the grocery store and try the what’s available locally. It’s great if you can find at least one other person to split your meals with and to buy things that won’t go perishable. If you are going out, which you should, avoid the touristy places and look for deals. Ask a local what’s the best place in terms of price and authenticity.
Activities: Have fun.
THINK OF THE ALTERNATIVE ROUTE
Be frugal and be creative. This is what I tell myself while I travel; Although, I think the latter is more important. Obviously if you want to save, avoiding spending your money on “the extras” is essential: souvenirs, tourist traps, tours, group events, meals out, drinks, etc. But, wait a minute; you’re in this new, exciting place! You want to see things! You want to do things! This is where the second part comes in: creativity.
I was living and traveling through Australia long term for about 8 months. Towards the end of my trip, my bank account was slowly depleting, but I was in one of the most sought after areas of Aus: The East Coast, home to the Whitsundays Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Of course I wanted to see and experience it all, but trips to the islands or reef ranged from $200-600/each. “Fuck, I can’t afford that!” I knew I had to find a way.
I had heard of backpackers who would work the day on a sailboat in exchange for a free trip so I wandered around dive shops and travel agencies asking if there were any openings. Every trip was booked or had to be arranged in advance. Ugh.
My last hope was the community sailing center’s bulletin board. I stared at the cork board and there it was, my free ticket: “Heading North – Mid June with Experienced Sailor. Call Steve.”
I was going north, it was mid-June, I had never sailed a day in my life, but damn right, I called Steve. Long story short, I ended up cruising on a 40’ sailboat for one week straight through the gorgeous Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef FOR FREE. (Ok fine, I paid for food and drinks ~ $150 for the entire week of sailing, but still.)
I spent my days watching every sunrise and sunset, sleeping on the boat deck, wandering deserted islands, snorkeling, singing, writing, and best of all learning to sail from the genuine sailor/pirate named Steve. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. All thanks to my frugalness and creativity. Thank God I didn’t go on that tour. (Be on the lookout for a full post on this sailing adventure!)
Phew, back to the basics… In general, stick to finding free activities to do. Here are some of my suggestions based on past experience:
- Some of my most memorable travel days were spent aimlessly roaming and seeing what kind of people I could meet. Most cities offer donation based walking tours or find routes and info in guidebooks or online.
- The Internet is a wonderful thing! Get online and look into what’s happening in the area or look in guidebooks. Find free admission to events and museums, student deals, street markets, happy hours, etc.
- Get outside. Find a nearby hike, lay on a beach, walk through the forest, climb a tree for a great view. All of these things are freeeeeee J
- Rent a bike. This is a cheap and quick way to cover a lot of distance in little time. Extra bonus: exercise!
- People watch. This is one of my favorite activities to do when I’m getting to know a new place. Sit it a park, plaza or café and simply watch the local life go by. I always bring my journal and document what I see or talk to strangers.
Money: Find work while on the road.
Whether it’s in an office, on a farm, or from your laptop believe me when I tell you it’s 100% possible to find ways to pay for life while you travel.
As I started the framework for this post, I was working at a surf and yoga house in Morocco taking pictures, running social media, and writing blog posts in exchange for free rent and food. I had my own room with a full sized bed and a Moroccan rug, three home cooked meals a day, free day trips to other Moroocan cities, free use of all surf equipment, and two yoga classes a day – ALL FOR FREE!
This means all I had to spend money on was the occasional coffee, any travel I wanted to do in my free time, or buying extra things like clothes or gifts. I was able to get to know to local culture, eat the countries cuisine, make friends (both locals and internationals), see new places, surf and do yoga everyday only spending $100/month.
These days, wifi is available nearly everywhere (cafes, wifi dongles, hostels, etc.) which means that online or remote work is available, too. The rise of websites like Fiverr or Taskrabbit prove that the demand for online/remote work is on the rise.
Popular occupations of people I’ve met who are working while traveling includes: designers, coders, writers, consultants, business owners, language teachers, bloggers, photographers and entrepreneurs.
Here are some examples. I met an Irish woman who set up a life coach business in London. She spent about three years in London building the business and now resides in Morocco managing it from afar. I met a web designer in Malaysia who moves to a new country every three months while working for clients remotely. “All I need is an apartment and wifi,” he said, “plus the cost of life is much less than back at home.” I met a girl traveling through Sri Lanka who worked as an online English teacher and I’ve encountered various travel bloggers and photographers getting paid for projects and free complementary trips simply to highlight a place. The options are endless!
So where to find online work? I contact businesses, use social media, network, and use online freelance websites like Freelancer.com, Upworthy, Fiverr, and even Etsy. Are you less of a freelancer and need some sort of management? Forbes lists the Top 35 Companies Hiring Remotely in 2016.
Another option is finding work on the ground in a new place. Popular choices for the young backpacker types include working at hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars, travel agencies, or tour companies. I have tons of friends who travel by being an au pair, outdoor guiding, working on a cruise ship, or being a travel nurse or therapist. Use the website like backpackerjobs.com to browse your options.
Personally, I’ve funded my travels through a combination of online work, finding work abroad and work exchanges. Here’s a quick run down:
Australia: Worked at a restaurant, dog walked, sold jewelry at markets and freelanced online.
Puerto Rico: Freelanced online, worked in marketing for a local entrepreneur, and sold jewelry at markets.
Spain: Freelanced online and worked for a travel company guiding trips which included a weekly stipend and covered my food, housing, transportation, and alcohol.
Morocco: Freelanced online and did marketing, photography and blogging for a surf/yoga retreat in exchange for free rent and food.
SAVE: Watch your spendings.
Of course one thing you can do to help while you work is save, save, save: Between my big trips, I will spend 3 months in one place working a more “stable job” while saving money for explorations. I try to spend as little money as possible and work as much as I can and watch my bank account grow. I know people who have worked their asses off for one year so they can then travel without a job for a year or more.
While working in Australia and was able to save $6,000. I didn’t buy new shit, cut back my partying and spent my free time chilling on friend’s rooftops and at the beach instead of clubs or bars. With this 6k, I was able to travel 2 months in Australia, 6 weeks in New Zealand, and 4 months in Asia. That’s nearly 8 months of travel!
I came home completely broke and started the process all over again: Working for 3 months and living at home to save up for a short term move to Puerto Rico. There, I found work locally and online to balance out my bank account. I headed to Spain for work where I was hardly spending anything since the company I worked for covered most of my expenses. I pocketed my weekly stipend and then used that money to travel throughout Europe and Morocco for a few months.
Your best tool: An open mind.
Some of my best advice would be simply saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way, even the ones your parents wouldn’t approve of. Traveling is the perfect time to try something new and step outside of your comfort zone. If you surrender to life, you’ll find yourself in most unlikely places. What do I mean, exactly? When you pass a local home and the mother invites you in for a tea of coffee, say yes. When a group of Irish backpackers ask if you want to join them on a night out, go. When you get an offer to work at a hostel in exchange for free rent, take it. You’ll be surprised what can happen when you let life run its course.
My best experiences while traveling have been unexpected and unplanned: Sailing through the Great Barrier Reef, volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, befriending a deaf man in Sri Lanka and teaching him to swim, working at a surf and yoga retreat in Morocco, all those hitchhiking rides, Couchsurfing hosts, advice from strangers and that one naked bungy jump. I couldn’t have planned those moments; they just happened.
You’ll get into funny life situations while traveling. Say yes to them. Embrace each moment and go beyond your limits. Approach strangers, look for alternative routes, meet locals, cross boundaries. Anything that gets your blood running, is definitely worth doing. You can do it, get out there.