People often comment to me, “I don’t know how you can afford to travel so often!” Valid question – considering in the last 3 years, I’ve been to France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, New Orleans, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle – to name a few – and let’s just talk about it: I don’t make tons of money. But what I’ve found is, successful travel isn’t about being rich, it’s about being creative and strategic. Up until now, I’ve only written about travel in terms of writing about each one of my trips – but I’m thinking it’s time to write about travel in terms of tips I can share with you, for how to be a world traveler without breaking the bank, or stacking the plastic, as it were. (- yeah I just made that one up…) So, let’s do it!
I know most of you are reading this article to get travel website recommendations from me, and – don’t worry – that’s coming, but first we have to talk priorities. We all have things that we value and “need” in our lives, and it’s different for each person. If you need to travel (like me) and if you’re not independently wealthy (as I definitely am NOT) – then you have to be willing to live your life in a way that prioritizes travel. Where are you willing to scrimp and save in your life?
When you roll up to my apartment, you’ll notice a number of things. My apartment, while charming, is a little dilapidated. The floors aren’t even, something could break if you use it too forcefully, and it’s not well insulated - against sound or the elements. There are no frills – no dishwasher, no central air, and barely any closet space – but you know what? The rent is cheap – especially for the neighborhood of Chicago I’m in.
Honing specifically in on my living room – I have a tiny television, and only about 5 channels on it. Do I like television? Would it be nice to have tons of channels? Yes and yes. But wanna know what I like more than television? Wandering the streets of Europe, by foot, with an espresso in one hand and a croissant in the other. So I’ll happily catch TV shows online, and pay the tiniest cable bill possible.
What else? Oh – my car. When I called my apartment dilapidated, I was lying. My CAR is what’s dilapidated. I won’t even get into it – but you know what? That shady car o’mine doesn’t have car payments. It gets me to the grocery store and to family dinner in the suburbs once a week. Would like a shiny new car? Would I like even just a decent car? Would I like a car that doesn’t have a check engine light on, at all times? Sure! But honestly, my lifestyle doesn’t require me to drive that often – and as much as I dream of having a Prius one day, for now it’s way more important to me to be able to afford a flight across the country than to change out my jalopy for something else.
I could keep going, but I’m sure you get my point. Some things I NEED in my life. I need Greek yogurt from the grocery store; I need a smartphone; I need to eat out at fun restaurants from time-to-time; and I need frequent trips to new landscapes… so my money goes to those things. I WANT tons of other things – and, if I can find a way to afford them as time goes on, then I’ll definitely get them… but till then, I funnel my funds towards globetrotting.
If you want to travel but think you can’t afford it… take a look at where you spend your money and see if it’s aligning with your life priorities.
Okay, now you need a plan. Like, a PLAN. People who complain about never getting to travel “anywhere” are never going to travel anywhere. It’s that simple.
Sit down and write out all the places you want to travel to in your lifetime. Now reorder them, so the places that are most important to you are at the top of your list, and the ones that it’d just be nice to go to are lower on the list. Put a lot of thought into this: sit on it, sleep on it, talk to friends and family, read travel magazines, Google-image it, get on Wikipedia… try to remember what the younger version of yourself liked reading about back in history class. Get it all into a comprehensive Life Travel To-Do List – and put that puppy somewhere prominent. (Yes, I say “puppy” like that sometimes.) But really, hang your Life Travel To-Do List on a wall or keep it in your purse/wallet.
Now, keep learning about those places on your list. Find out when the “good” times of the year are to visit them. Find out which are the best neighborhoods to stay in, and why. Hone your ears so you notice when people talk about those places – and join in on those conversations. Ask questions – take notes. There is nothing like talking to someone who’s BEEN somewhere and the advice they can give you. Keep an eye out for articles in travel magazines and newspapers – read them, tear them out, take them home. Tell your friends and family where you want to travel to – and see what they know about those places. Hell, put it on Facebook. Status Update: “I want to go to Scotland. Who’s got advice for me?” You’ll be surprised how many people will come out of the woodwork with good advice – AND, maybe you’ll learn you have a friend living there you can stay with. (See more on this later, in “Creativity”.) Also, ask friends who’d want to go with you to any of these places – see if anyone else’s Life Travel To-Do List has any matches with yours. If not, decide if you’d be willing to travel somewhere by yourself. (Which can be awesome! Don’t be scared! I’ve done it in New Orleans and San Diego – and one day in Rome – and would happily talk about it at long length with you).
Other homework? Know your calendar. Know when you have busy work functions that you have to be in town for. Know when important family events are, know when weddings are – get a calendaring system in place for managing current commitments, yes, but also for the foreseeable 12-24 months stretching ahead of you. If your dream trips would include certain travel buddies – know their schedules and open windows of travel opportunity.
Why? Why, Holly, are you KILLING me right now with all this writing and lecturing? Why haven’t you given me travel websites yet??? BECAUSE. Because, to travel on the cheap, you have to be READY. When you see the travel deal come through in your email: “$485 roundtrip flight to Paris!” “$69 hotel rooms in New Orleans!” - when those golden opportunities come to you, you have to be ready to book those deals in a matter of hours. They will not be there tomorrow, they will not be there later today – you can’t count on them to ever resurface again. So: you need to know where you want to go, who is going with you, when you’re able/not able to go – and you need to know enough about usual costs so that you recognize a deal when you see it.
Now, now, you’re finally ready for one of my favorite travel deal websites: www.airfarewatchdog.com. This site monitors and publishes travel deals only when it finds “good” deals on the internet. If you see one you like, you click on it – and it takes you to wherever that deal exists. AirfareWatchDog is ONLY for the traveler who knows where they want to go and are willing to wait for a good deal to go there. If you have specific dates you need to be somewhere, this is not the site for you. (In those scenarios, I like www.kayak.com - but honestly, specific travel dates are not the friend of the traveler-on-the-cheap.)
I like to use AirfareWatchDog in two different ways. I’m signed up to get daily emails that show all good deals out of my home airport. (For y’all Chicago folk, I get emails for both O’Hare and Midway). I scan these emails, daily, just to see where the cheap places are to fly – and to start getting familiar with what the average costs are to fly to certain places. Part 2: when I’m ready to really travel somewhere in particular, I sign-up for separate email alerts from my city to the city I want to travel to. Those email alerts do not come daily; they only come when a “good deal” is found. Those emails I do not delete, because that way I can do an email search and visually see the price trending over time for the specific airport I want to fly to. I recommend you set it up so these emails all get filtered straight into an email folder – that way they don’t clog up your inbox. You with me still? Good :) [PS - Kayak will let you sign-up for email alerts, too – and with them, you can plug-in the specific dates of travel you need. But as I said earlier, if you can be flexible on dates, you will get better deals.)
Another great site is www.travelzoo.com. TravelZoo will send you email alerts on whatever cities you ask it to – and they’re not limited just to airfare: they tell you about hotel deals, restaurant deals, cruise deals, package details, Broadway show deals, - and of course, airfare deals. TravelZoo also does a weekly Top 20 list of deals that you should DEFINITELY have emailed to you. Warning: TravelZoo Top 20 deals sell out FAST. Scenario #562 in which you need to be READY to get a good deal.
Who else do I like… I like Orbitz & Expedia okay… but I don’t love them. I like Hotels.com okay… I’m starting to use Priceline more now – and I have friends that SWEAR by Priceline… but I think I need more practice using it or something. The two times I have used it, I’ve only been moderately happy with the results. (If any of you Priceline fans want to comment here on my blog with tips on successfully using Priceline, that would be awesome). If I lost you back at “Priceline”: essentially Priceline is partly a normal travel deal search site – but it’s also got a feature where you can bid on a secret unnamed hotel – pay up front, and get a good deal that’s also nonrefundable – and only then do you find out what hotel you got. Which again, is cool if you know what you’re doing… but it can also land you in a seedy hotel on accident. (You can also use Priceline for flights and rental cars, too. Also I think Hotwire offers this bidding type option, too.)
When it comes to accommodations, though, I actually like these websites best: www.vrbo.com www.bedandbreakfast.com www.eurocheapo.com. Are you surprised I didn’t recommend hostels? I’ve heard good things about hostels from people I respect, but man – they’ve always scared me a bit. And no, I didn’t watch the scary movie of that title. I wouldn’t make decisions based on that. But I dunno, I think I’d need someone to book a hostel and take me there for them to get on my radar. I do know a lot of people who think they are great (- again, please comment if you feel passionately and have advice for others) - so you should not disregard hostels as an option. Beyond not personally being a hostel user, I’m also not really a user of big-name-hotels. Obviously sometimes I am – but I actually prefer small places with character, especially if the places are such that I feel like I am actually living in the place I’m visiting. So: I love bed and breakfasts, for one. [www.bedandbreakfast.com] They’re good because often they’re family owned, you get breakfast, and you can meet other cool travelers. My mom used to have us stay in B&B’s when we were little – and I’m glad, because they’re now on my radar. (I stayed in an adorable one once in the mountains of California, and it was SO COOL.) For Europe, what I really love to do is rent apartments – part of the whole “feeling like a local” thing. Vacation Rentals by Owner [www.vrbo.com] is perfect for that – and also works for the U.S., too. My mom similarly turned me on to that by using it to get big houses for my family vacations with that site. It works for apartments, too – and I’ve successfully used it for my trips to Paris and to Rome. I like it WAY better than staying at some generic chain hotel – but if you’re someone who needs a concierge, then maybe you should go with the legit-hotel option. It’s just not for me. I want to feel like a local – and there’s still a point of contact for you in my scenario, they’re just not on-site usually, you meet them at check-in and check-out. EuroCheapo gives you lots of options: normal hotels, apartment rentals, B&B’s, and hostels.
See? You finally got my website recommendations :) And you ALSO got the strategy/preparation needed behind using them.
Another whole component behind how I am able to successfully travel the world cheaply is to be creative to the max. By that I mean: creatively taking advantage of whatever is available to me whenever I can in life. I maximize my vacation time at work by taking half-days whenever a full day isn’t really needed. I pair vacations around holidays, if there are good deals of course – since holidays usually mean free days off work. If I know when the “good” time of the year is to visit somewhere, I usually go on the cusp of that time (- because the good time is usually the most expensive time, and you can find more deals around the cusp of those times with still decent weather). If you can combine trips – that can save you a leg of airfare.
If you can stay with someone rather than get a hotel room, that definitely saves you money. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can stay with someone! If they aren’t comfortable with it, they’ll make up a reason why you can’t. And you can repay them by taking them out to dinner, or give them a hostess gift for putting you up. Still way cheaper than a hotel – plus you then have local advice!! And that’s always a win. (Do make sure to put a legit “thank you” note in the mail later – not email, snail mail. Goes a long way.) Also, you might want to be willing to return the favor if people ever come to your city… keep that in mind: travel karma.
Next bit of creativity? An obvious one: sign-up for all frequent flyer / rewards member programs you can. This will be more effective if you strategically pick one or two, but do whatever seems to make the most sense to you. My personal favorites: AmericanAirlines Advantage program, SouthWest Rapid Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Marriott Rewards. If your travel with your job sometimes, maybe pick your program allegiance to the airlines/hotels your company prefers, just so you can make sure you’re getting earning points at the same place when on trips for business or for pleasure… all rewards to be used later for pleasure, of course. :) Sugar on top? If you are in the position to get a new credit card, pick one that earns you points towards one of your existing frequent flyer/rewards programs. Definitely do your homework on this one, though – because there can be annual fees and restrictions that you’ll want to know about before you pick “the best” card. Here’s a site that can help you with a decision like this, if you’re interested: http://www.creditcards.com/airline-miles.php Strategically focusing on earning points with certain programs can help you get free flights and/or hotel rooms in a quicker way. And we ALL want free flights and free hotel rooms.
Finally, when you finally get yourself to your trip – you’ll want to get creative there, too. Research what FREE things you can do in your destination city of choice. Some museums have free entry days/times… Bring snacks in your luggage. When you get to your destination, have one of your first missions to be to find a local grocery store. Buy groceries (and wine!) to keep in your hotel room. If you did an apartment rental like I recommended, you probably even have a kitchen! Walk when you can, figure out how to take public transit – so you don’t have to spend money on cabs. There are so many ways to be creatively strategic!
4. Money Management
Basic money saving / smart people stuff will help you with travel and with life in general. If you haven’t yet, sign-up for www.Mint.com. This free site helps you track and budget all your money – even if you have many accounts and credit cards. Big big fan of Mint.com. Also, make sure your bank accounts and credit cards are smart ones for you to have. Get credit cards with good perks, low-to-no annual fees, and low interest rates. Get bank accounts that yield high interest and don’t charge tons of fees. Here’s a great site to help you find better accounts for your money: www.bankrate.com. Through this site, and through a super smart friend, I personally obtained a badass interest-yielding checking account that earns me way more interest than my big-bank savings account ever did. I feel very grown-up and proud of myself for having it… Don’t you want to feel that way? And save money? :) Upgrade to a smarter bank account… Every little bit of smart money-decision-making helps.
Side note: I’m fortunate enough to not have any loans in my life currently – but if you do, study up on how to best manage your loans. (If you have advice on that, or helpful sites for loan management/paying off - comment with ‘em please).
Other than that… Just be smart about how you spend money. It can make sense to buy something expensive IF it’s a good value, good product – and you know it will be worth it in the long run. I do have some nice things: my MacBook, Ugg Boots, and Northface, etc – and I absolutely did NOT purchase them until I knew that they’d be worth the prices and would last over time/save me money compared to if I had to keep replacing cheap versions of them year after year. As I mentioned back in “Priorities”, you want to look at how you spend your money and make sure it mirrors how you want to live your life. Because until we win the lottery or marry a rich person – we just only have so much income to use in only a certain number of ways. Me? It’s worth my time and energy to put the work into how I can spend the least amount of money to go to the places on my Life Travel To-Do List.
So there you have it! TONS of traveling-cheaply advice from your friend Holly. I’m sorry for being so wordy, but well, I don’t know how to not be wordy when I’m passionate about something… and I am *passionate* about travel.
I should mention that I am not famous in any way, shape, of form – nor do my writings here generate me any income. So any endorsements I’ve made in this article were genuinely for something that I personally like/utilize/believe in. Just for any readers who don’t know me :)
I do hope you’ll share your own advice and recommendations to fellow-broke-travelers in the comments space here on my blog. I try to make the commenting feature as easy for you as I can: no word identification verification boxes, no need to sign up for Blogger or have any account at all. Just put some sort of name in and comment away. Maybe I’ll even learn something new – that would be AWESOME.