If you often find yourself lost in wanderlust, and your thoughts frequently flutter to sun-drenched beaches and cobblestoned streets far away from your cubicle, chances are you’ve probably read a lot about travel hacks already.
Like me, you’ve read things like: How to upgrade to first-class for less, how to comp luxury hotel rooms, how to maximize your luggage without paying baggage fees. But I’m not here to tell you how to be a baller on a budget. I’m here to tell you very simply how to get yourself from Point A (your cubicle) to Point B (anywhere else) without wiping your bank account clean.
I’m a writer paying Manhattan rent, in over my head in student loans and other expenses. But in the past few years I’ve made some small changes and learned how to think outside the box. Because of it, I’ve been everywhere from Argentina to Morocco to Indonesia and have saved myself thousands of dollars. So pack your bags; here’s how to leave footprints in places you’ve only dreamed of even if you don’t have a trust fund.
Take advantage of layovers. Not only are flights with layovers cheaper than flying direct, but they’re also free rides to more places you can cross off.
1. Schedule a $50-auto-transfer from your checking to savings account every month. You won’t even notice it after some time. It’s one week of lunch you’ll pack instead of buy, or realistically just two times you’ll subway instead of cab. And, in six months, it’ll magically turn into a ticket to the Caribbean or, in a year, Western Europe.
2. Volunteer abroad. Most programs will pick you up, put you up and feed you; you just have to cover the cost of getting there. Travel and medical insurance are usually added bonuses, plus support from on-site staff. Through programs like Projects Abroad, Go Overseas, Go Abroad and Cross-Cultural Solutions, you can sort by country, price or cause!
3. Hostel hop. You can opt for a private room, so it’ll feel like a hotel without the price tag of one. There’s usually free breakfast and tours offered to guests, as well, so you’ll save some bucks there. Some offer free ground transportation to and from airports, and plenty of them (like these) are just as lavish as hotels!
4. Be flexible about when and where you go. So keep an open mind and, instead of taking days off and then planning a trip to France for those days, request PTO only after you’ve exhausted all of your options. Sites like SkyScanner.net allow you to put in a flexible destination of “everywhere” and a very open timeframe—search for whole months if you know you can take off in September but want to know the cheapest week, or search for the cheapest month if you can go whenever. Then you’ll get the cheapest destinations during the cheapest timeframes.
5. Take advantage of layovers. Not only are flights with layovers cheaper than flying direct, but they’re also free rides to more places you can cross off. If you can find an overnight layover, do it. If not, eight hours is typically enough to get through customs and enjoy a few hours in most cities before heading back without rushing (I did Panama City in 10 with plenty of time to get lost). You can do it in six in some cities, but any less would be wasted on commute time to and from the city center.
Get a decent credit card for travel points. Use that and solely that for a month. Reap the benefits. Cancel said card. Get new decent credit card for travel points. Repeat.
6. Befriend math. If you’d like to hit multiple destinations, do so in the cheapest possible order. Pay a visit to MathIsFun.com. You want to exhaust all possible combinations (Belize to Argentina to Uruguay or Uruguay to Argentina to Belize or Argentina to Belize to Uruguay, etc.) and this site has a handy dandy combination calculator to help you do just that. Assign all the destinations a number, plug it into this calculator, then head over to a site like Momondo.com, which is great for plugging in multiple destination trips. Open multiple tabs and try out each combo until you find a cost that sits well with you.
7. Get a decent credit card for travel points. Use that and solely that for a month. Reap the benefits. Cancel said card. Get new decent credit card for travel points. Repeat. If you use ones like Capital One Venture Rewards card, you’ll get 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months—which is a lot easier than you might think. And you can use points toward fancy shmancy hotels, too.
8. Consider multiple modes of transportation. Flying from Switzerland to Italy might be quick, but options like the Eurail are much more cost-effective. Get a global pass, for example, which will allow you access to trains in 28 European countries for up to three months of continuous travel for $351-$1,227 USD—a fraction of the cost of one flight. Other options include ferries and sleeper buses, which are ideal for long trips since some offer beds. Travel through the night and you won’t have to pay for accommodation or waste daylight hours.
Live a few days by the motto “Food is fuel.” Eat the airplane food even if it’s ratchet. Eat the free breakfast at your hostel, even if it’s basic.
9. Go when no one else does. Fly when no one else typically can, like mid-week, or go to places when most people wouldn’t want to—like Canada in the dead of winter. Also, flights out of the US on American holiday weekends are less expensive because, funnily enough, most Americans want to spend times like the 4th of July and Labor Day, well, in America. If you couldn’t care less, onward and outward you go. Likewise, flying during odd late night/early morning hours will benefit you money-wise, afford you more daylight hours and, again, save you dinero you’d otherwise spend on a room for that night.
10. Do your homework. I stand by the idea that tourists go to see what they want to see and true travelers go to see what they see, but homework still helps. Research some things you definitely want to see and make even a mental agenda prior to your departure. This will help you better avoid cheesy, over-priced tourist traps and tours you could do more authentically on your own anyway.
11. Live a few days by the motto “Food is fuel.” Eat the airplane food even if it’s ratchet. Eat the free breakfast at your hostel, even if it’s basic. And be smart about daily spending because you do want to eat the real food—it’s part of the experience. Eat cheaper street food or actually buy groceries like you would at home, and then save for one bigger, fancier dinner or lunch a day.