You don’t need a trust fund to travel the world—I know because I’m a starving New York City writer, and I’ve still managed to cover more than 30 countries across five continents thus far.
Most recently, I booked a flight from New York to Bangkok for $7. That’s cheaper than some IPAs, the sunscreen I’ll pack for this trip and the bus ticket I buy to visit my parents 30 minutes away in New Jersey. It’s cheaper than a lot things, and yet it’s a 20-hour journey to a far corner of the globe.
Truth be told, it wasn’t even that difficult. I woke up one morning feeling adventurous, grabbed my laptop and, before breakfast, had a Thailand trip confirmation in my email inbox. Here’s how I did it, and you can, too.
1. I kept an open mind.
I wasn’t sure where I wanted to travel, but I knew I wanted to travel for travel’s sake—and the general region of Southeast Asia was on my radar. I therefore kept open minded about specific destinations and timeframes, and simply looked into the cheapest countries to travel to in that region for the cheapest dates possible. For me, Thailand was cheap enough throughout most of January, so I picked the cheapest day in January to make the trek.
You can do the same, even if you do have time constraints. Rather than taking days off from work and planning a trip for that timeframe, request time off only after exploring cheap dates to travel to destinations in which you’re interested. Exhaust all your options and then request that PTO.
2. I searched in an incognito browsing mode.
Katie Stanwyck, North American PR & marketing manager of TourRadar, once advised me that searching for flights in an incognito window makes it appear as though you haven’t visited that site before—which is good because if you’re continually going back to the same sites to check prices, airlines may track your visits and increase prices accordingly. By searching under their radar, “you can check as many times as you want and they’ll never know you’re a returning visitor,” she said.
In order to open an incognito window in Chrome, for example, you simply need to open a regular Chrome window, go to “File” and select “New Incognito Window.” While the window warns that your activity may still be visible to the websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider, the chances of airlines tracking your visits and inflating prices are rare, and Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies, site date or any information entered in forms.
3. I used cheap flight sites.
Of course, there are an array of traditional flight search engines that promise discounts and deals like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Kayak, etc. But some lesser-known sites are invaluable. My go-tos are Momondo.com and SkyScanner.com. I use Momondo primarily to search for multicity travel; it offers you the option to search one-way, round-trip and multicity flights even using the destination “take me anywhere,” which allows you to check out airfare in the cheapest cities given your specified dates.
Through the multicity option, you can swap cities in and and out in different orders to determine the cheapest routes. Sky Scanner also boasts a flexible airfare search engine through which you can search “everywhere” as a destination and explore specific dates, entire weeks, months or the “cheapest month.”
For this trip, I first searched Momondo and SkyScanner to see what countries in Southeast Asia would be inexpensive to visit in January and, only after narrowing it down to Thailand for the last week of the month, did I plug that information into Capital One’s flight search (I paid for this trip with reward miles—more on that later). If I’d started with Capital One, I wouldn’t have known what my cheapest option would be.
There are other good sites to try, too. For one, SecretFlying’s Facebook page finds and posts error fares, which are falsely advertised flight prices (and totally valid flight deals). These happen when computers glitch or humans type in the wrong numbers or forget to add things like taxes. Some airlines won’t honor these deals if they catch them, but will cancel your flight and refund you, while others will bite the bullet. Meanwhile, Rome to Rio is a great app that helps users find the best (and most cost-affective) alternate routes from Point A to Point B via any form of transportation.
4. I chose a flight with a layover.
I’ve long been an advocate of layovers; I consider them free rides to places I’ve never been, so I always try to book international flights with layovers that offer ample time in someplace new. If you book a flight with a layover of at least six hours, you’ll have enough time to at least leave the airport, grab a meal and head back. But, on top of that, flights with layovers are, on average, cheaper than direct flights.
My flight to Bangkok stops in Taipei, Taiwan for about two hours. Though I’ve already been to Taipei, I chose the flight with this leg because it was cheapest and, this time, I just want to get there and get settled as I’ll be traveling for an indefinite amount of time.
Another way to maximize layovers is to book through Skiplagged, which exposes loopholes in airfare pricing to save you up to 80 percent on flights. Through Skiplagged, you can actually find and hop on the layover leg of trips, which major site aggregators wouldn’t offer you as individual flights. It can be dodgy if you do this too often, since airlines may pick up on the fact that you keep conveniently missing the other half of your trips—but it’s worth a shot every now and then to save money.
5. I reaped rewards.
My original flight to Bangkok was about $320, which alone is less than it typically costs to fly to, say, LA. But with my Capital One Venture Rewards card, I was able to redeem miles. After putting my miles towards this trip, my balance was just $7. I’ve purposely used this credit card, and solely this credit card, for all my travel costs (and pretty much everything else) because I get two points for every dollar spent on travel (cabs, ride shares, subway tickets, flights, hotels, etc.), and that equates to a rewards rate of two percent if I choose to redeem for flight miles.
While this doesn’t make the trip technically “free,” it certainly feels “free” because all the costs are things I would have had to pay for somehow anyway—transportation, groceries, holiday shopping, sometimes even my rent.
I also obtained 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months, though I’d redeemed those on another trip to Southeast Asia years ago. You can obtain bonus miles and earn the same with the Capital One Venture Rewards card, or earn similar rewards with other noteworthy travel cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard or the Capital One VentureOne Rewards card.
What else is there to say now but good luck and bon voyage?
Photo: iStock/Getty Images Plus/thitivong