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!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Somsiah 5 February 2013 at 19:09

Matt, I have to research on the “GAME THE SYSTEM” being out of the USA, as I believe where this article applied most. I’m sure there is airmiles offered by the local airline. We have to look at that. I can vouch that “THINK LOCAL” strategy works. Especially when it is the intent of our travel itself, to know or live like the local, to the best that can be achieved. Our own experience as couchsurfers has been exellent and rewarding both as hosts and visitors. However it is not acurate to treat couchsurfing as just free lodging. There is more to couchsurfing of course, be it based on paying it forward or exchanging what we bring/offered as visitors/hosts, to each other and to the community we are in. So yup, bring it on!

From fellow nomad,
Somsiah

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2 Somsiah 9 February 2013 at 23:14

Oppsie, that was supposed to be “Depend on the kindness of strangers” startegy, and not to “Think Local”, not to say we don’t “think locally”. In fact the more visitors we have the more we become a tourist in our own city, town and country.
Again, all the best Matt.
Love the topic, JD.

Somsiah

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3 Martin 5 February 2013 at 22:59

Great piece Matt. I recently have been diving into travel on my own site. There seems to be this myth that only the rich travel.

“It must be nice.”

I always hear this when a buddy sees me with a tan in the cold Canadian winter or when someone hears about trip. I respond that it must be nice to have a new iPad or new shoes every month.

If you want to travel, I believe that you need to earn your freedom. Go after it mercilessly. Do NOT let anything stop you. I work like a mad man before a trip.

Two years ago I finally pulled off a solo trip. I bought a ticket to Poland and hit the road. My goals were simple: speak better Polish and learn to become the most social dude in the room.

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4 Inki 6 February 2013 at 13:49

JD, I believe I remember you saying something about planning to go to Norway? If that is part of your trip in March and your travels take you to Bergen, we have a guest room that’s empty most of the time… Just sayin’ :-)

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5 bethh 6 February 2013 at 13:59

I think it’s important to note that for Couchsurfing, it’s best if you’ve built up a profile as a host before you show up in a host country looking for a couch. (At least this is how my friend has explained it to me – he’s big into the CS world whereas I’ve only dipped my toe in it.) If you know you want to go to a certain country, you could focus on hosting people from that part of the world for a while before you head over – not only will you learn more about the country and people in general, you may well have started some real friendships!

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6 debthaven 8 February 2013 at 17:11

With all respect, I disagree with this comment. My son is a humanitarian aid worker and whenever he went to a new country, he’d always start with getting there a few days to a week early and Couchsurfing. He’s been to three “Stans” in the past few years. He was always very warmly welcomed, and always returned the favor, through meals and long lasting friendships.

In reality, depending on where you go, it is not always realistic that your “host” will make it to your country, let alone first.

And lest anybody think CS is only for young people, the two biggest adepts I know are my son (26) and my former boss and good friend (about 58).

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7 Somsiah 9 February 2013 at 23:39

You are so right Beth, having adequate profile will give our potential host to make better judgment if we could be a guest he/she could host with ease. As couchsurfing is a two way exchanges, for a host, having a profile with all the necessary information will also tell our would be visitors who we look forward to meet. But again as with life, we only plan, there is a higher power that put all the final touches ;) Like my son I, when we are traveling and looking for host, we prefer a family or female host, yet we have had wonderful experience hosted by the young men of the couchsurfers geng. As for developing real friendship, not just through couchsurfing, but other online interaction, my son and I have made detours to see our new friends, and that make a place extra special too.

So all the best,
Somsiah

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8 Carla 7 February 2013 at 09:43

Thanks for posting these links! I’ve always wanted to travel abroad but even domestic travel is limited due to the high cost of airfare. I’m trying to build up mileage and points without traveling and without credit cards, but I know that will be a challenge if not impossible. Ill definitely look into it more.

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9 chacha1 7 February 2013 at 09:46

As a middle-aged, high-income, married couple, the husband and I don’t have much interest in “budget” travel. There are a lot of places in the world we’d like to go, but so far it hasn’t been a huge priority. We are waiting on trans-oceanic trips; saving for retirement is more important.

We’ve spent about half of our travel since our marriage on trips to see far-flung family members. The other half has been on real vacations. We’ve kept the cost down by staying in North America: Hawaii, the Olympic Peninsula, northern Mexico, and a lot of places in California where we live. Drive-to vacations mean an automatic discount!

We haven’t even begun to exhaust the places on the West Coast that we want to spend a week in. What has made our vacations most luxurious: buying a timeshare that’s in a giant network. For the cost of the annual maintenance and exchange fee, we get a week in a two-bedroom condo with full kitchen, laundry, etc. … it is not “cheap” but definitely cheaper than 3-star hotels plus dining out.

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10 chubblywubbly 16 February 2013 at 19:20

Up until the age of 22, I did mostly budget travel. I had no choice, it was all I could afford.

But travel was never something I really enjoyed when I went the budget route. Nowadays, I go on less trips and in shorter duration but I make sure that I splurge during my vacation. That to me is ideal.

I went to Hawaii recently, I am sure that I would not nearly have enjoyed it as much if I went the budget route. See my post:http://www.chubblywubbly.com/hawaii-a-must-visit/

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11 Darcy 10 February 2013 at 07:49

My travel issue isn’t money — I “game the system” pretty well as it is plus I’m disciplined enough to save up cash for things I really want. My issue now is TIME. I started a new job last year and we’re given 10 days (80 hours) of time off per year — this is time off for EVERYTHING — vacation days, sick days, doctor appointments, attending funerals, letting the plumber in the house, inclement weather, etc etc. I basically get to take one continuous week of vacation per year. Occasionally, I can tack an extra day onto a holiday weekend (which, of course, is when airfare prices are highest!) I love my job and my chances of finding another like it in this economy is very low, so I’m not going to quit any time soon. It just means that my dreams of travel aren’t going to happen for the time being.

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12 stellamarina 11 February 2013 at 18:21

Ha….I have the opposite problem to Darcy. ( With vacation time like that you must be American) Now that I am retired I have Time….but Money is an issue. That being said….my priority is travel and I go to at least one new country a year for an extended, budget travel, exploring trip. US $3000 covers total expenses for two months in Egypt or SE Asia, and one month in expensive Western countries or Tahiti…..including plane. I also have a goal of exploring one new US state a year. Bus travel is the way to do it cheaply….just like you would in the UK or Australia.

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13 Valerie Malla 12 February 2013 at 04:49

Hi J.D. Roth, do you have an email? My computer is not set up for automatic emails, i.e. Outlook.

You wrote a blog on “The Texas Ranch House” and I wanted to comment on it, but couldn’t because it belonged to your old site. I found it by googling, and think others who are new to the old reality show may find it nice to access and partake in the discussion/leave comments. Any way to access that entry?

Thanks :)

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14 EW 28 February 2013 at 17:30

“When you’re young you have time and energy but no money. When you get older you have money and energy but no time. And later when you finally have time and money, you no longer have energy.”
–Annette Gulick

I’m sure there are exceptions to the above quote, but I find it remarkably accurate. My wife and I are in our early 30′s and love to travel, but our biggest impediment is definitely time!

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15 philip ross 2 March 2013 at 22:12

my son wants to go to spain next year for the world cup how can i give that to him for a graduation gift from college. tks in advanced

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