How to Travel the World (Without Spending a Lot of Money)

5 February 2013 · 15 comments

This is a guest post from Matt Kepnes, who writes about travel and more at Nomadic Matt. His advice has been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, and Yahoo! Finance among others. Kepnes is the author of the just-published How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.

When I first stumbled across Get Rich Slowly, I figured J.D. didn’t travel much. Or if he did, he didn’t mention it often on the site.

But as we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ve been excited to discover that he travels frequently. He’s hiked the Inca Trail, spent time in Turkey, and I hear he’s making big plans for a European trip with his girlfriend at the end of March.

As a travel writer and someone whose personal mission is to get others to travel more, I’m excited. Seeing people travel makes me smile.

Crossing the 4950-meter pass near Salcantay
J.D., crossing a pass near Salcantay, Peru

Blinded by Marketing

Since I write about travel, I field a lot of questions about the practicality of seeing the world. People always tell me, “I want to travel more, but I can’t afford it. It’s too expensive.” But you know what? It’s not.

Forget what you’ve read in magazines and seen on TV. Travel can be very inexpensive. The reason you believe it’s unaffordable is because of marketing. Giant resorts have advertising budgets to match; small hotels do not. If all you’ve ever heard of is posh resorts, that’s what you’re going to believe travel is about. It’s hard to unlearn a lifetime of mass marketing.

Discouraged by the perceived cost, many people don’t travel. But if you really stop to think about your destinations, you can see they don’t have to be expensive. After all, locals don’t hundreds each day to live at your desired destination. (Just as you don’t spent tons of money to live your everyday life.)

Just like me, J.D. and thousands of others have found that when you make traveling a priority, instead of being discouraged by prices, you can work around them. In doing so, you get to see behind the curtain and discover travel isn’t expensive.

How to Make Travel Affordable

What are your priorities in life? Maybe it’s travel, maybe it’s gardening. Whatever your priorities, don’t you do everything in your power to fulfill those desires? You cut out expenses in other areas of your life, rearrange your schedule, research the hell out of it, and do whatever it takes to make your dreams happen. You make your dreams happen.

That kind of prioritizing is what happens when people want to travel more. (J.D. would call this conscious spending.)

“Well,” you might say. “That’s easier said than done, Matt. Flights and everything still cost money.”

You’re right. Even if travel is your highest priority, without money and a plan, it’ll never happen. To make that dream come true more quickly, here are five financial tips to make your next trip happen sooner.

Separate needs from wants
Before you travel, you’re going to need to save. Nothing in life is free. There are many ways to cut expenses, but one thing that really helped me was separating my wants from my needs. A need is my electric bill; a want is Starbucks. By categorizing my expenses, I could cut out the unnecessary expenditures and really watch my travel fund grow. If I didn’t need it, I didn’t spend money on it. Before I knew it, I’d saved enough money to travel.

A reader of mine recently saved over $14,000 while working a minimum wage job as a fry cook. If he can do that, so can you.

Making Lomo Saltado

Think outside the box
Want to visit Europe but can’t afford Paris or Italy? Head to Eastern Europe, where prices are cheaper. Want a tast of the tropics but Fiji’s too far and Costa Rica’s too touristy? Head to Nicaragua, which has beautiful weather and lower prices. Visit Cambodia instead of Thailand, or see South Korea instead of Japan.

There are always cheaper and safer alternatives to the world’s top travel destinations. We think of the big names first because they’re always talked about; there are just as many great places out there that you haven’t heard of and don’t have the crowds.

Game the system
Travel hacking is the best way to make luxury trips affordable. Travel brands offer so many ways to gain loyalty points that you can easily rack up tens of thousands without ever having to travel. This is an oft-discussed method of traveling but with good reason: It works extremely well.

If you really want to make your next trip happen sooner, get a travel-related credit card, sign up for a frequent flier and hotel loyalty system, and accumulate points like there’s no tomorrow. Moreover, don’t forget to sign up for newsletters so you can find out when there is an offer of 1000 points for taking a survey. Good resources for finding the latest point deals are:

J.D.’s note: Matt mentioned that I’ll soon be traveling to Europe, and he’s right. One way I’m going to keep costs down is by booking my flights using air miles I acquired by applying for a credit card two years ago. Another way is by using Airbnb to book lodging.

Think local
Travel doesn’t always need to be to some far off and exotic destination. Travel, to me, is about getting outside your comfort zone and exploring what you’ve never seen before. That could mean heading to Fiji or visiting the state next door.

If you don’t have a lot of time, driving somewhere for the weekend can give you a travel fix and still allow you to see something new. The U.S. is such a diverse country geographically that you don’t have to go far to feel like you’re somewhere entirely new.

Depend on the kindness of strangers
There are many hospitality websites that help travelers find free places to stay, as well as free guided tours around their destination. The most common are:

Couchsurfing is probably the most popular, but each of these websites connects you with locals who will give you a free place to stay. If you’re not quite comfortable with that, you can still use the sites to arrange meet-ups and plan social activities with locals.

Staying a while longer in one place? Try house sitting. Have a home? Swap it with someone in the destination you are going to visit! Both methods allow you to eliminate accommodation expenses and save more money.

Final Destination

Traveling is about goals. Like everything else in life, without a good plan, you’ll never reach your goals. My hope is that you can see there are many ways around the “high prices” of travel. It’s easier than you think to make travel happen. These five tips alone can cut hundreds of dollars from your trip — and they’re just a start.

I used to work an entry level job but I prioritized travel and made it happen. J.D. makes travel happen. Every year, millions of others make it happen. Now, I want you to take these tips and make it happen too!


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