OK it’s a long title, but it’s an important topic! And a question I get asked all the time.“Wait, so how do you travel so much?” “Do you travel a lot for work?” “How can you afford to travel all the time?” “How can you take so much time off?”
First let’s get three things clear –a) I am not rich… like, not at all (as in, I still live paycheck to paycheck). b) I have had a full-time job ever since being out of school, even part-time while in school. c) I do not travel at all for work (save for a couple really unique exceptions at my first job).
Having been to 100+ ‘UN countries’, and just this year having reached 150 on the ‘TCC countries’ list, you might say I have gathered a bit of experience / expertise to write on the subject – and I thought it would be a good time to celebrate those milestones by sharing some of my secrets. So, with that, here are the 10 rules, tips, and guidelines that I live by, on how to travel the world without significantly changing your life!
This is number one, because without this, forget it. You may end up traveling a bit here and there, maybe a trip to Europe, a couple trips to some beaches in Hawaii or Mexico, maybe even Japan or Brazil. But I’m talking about something deeper than that – actually traveling THE WORLD. This is not a post about “how to travel out of the country a few times in your life”. To truly want to travel the world, you need to have this incessantly burning and unyielding passion, obsession, to do it. Every place you hear about, you want to go. It’s true wanderlust. It makes you crazy sometimes thinking about how much there is to see, to feel, to taste, to touch. You want to experience the place, the culture, really see what life is like there. It’s not just sightseeing. You want to see places that don’t even have sights. You want to see the world – the whole world. That’s a passion you either have, or you don’t. If you do, read on. If you don’t, it’s OK you can still read on! 😉
2. Don’t Be Afraid of Debt
Disclaimer alert! I am not telling you to get in debt! This is your choice — BUT, if you really have the passion to see the world, well, this is usually what most people get hung up on. Being in debt is a very, very, smart thing to NOTdo. But it is also something kind of inevitable, if you have the kind of obsession to travel like I do. I’ve never let the cost of a trip stop me from traveling. I do have limits, and I do have my goals of how to keep the debt down (see #6), but to only travel when you have enough money to do so, is really hard. And what usually happens, is… well, life happens, and you rarely end up with enough ‘left over’ to travel. If it’s a real priority for you to travel, like it is for me, then you can do it. I’ve been in debt for years. Just be smart about it. And keep your debt under control.
3. Get a Credit Card
I know, you’re like, “I get it already, be in debt!” That’s not what this one is about though. First, join a frequent flier program. No, scratch that, join ALL of them. It’s free! I am a United MileagePlus member, an American Airlines AAdvantage member, and a Delta SkyMiles member. Why? Because chances are, unless you’re on a domestic flight in a foreign country, whichever airline you’re flying is a member of one of these major airline alliances – Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam, respectively. That covers a lot of flights in a lot of countries. Back to my point – after joining these mileage programs (or their equivalents in other countries, like Lufthansa’s Miles and More or British Airways’ Executive Club), get a credit card with one or more of them, and you’ll be well on your way to free flights. Most programs give you a significant mileage bonus (MileagePlus gives you 20,000) to open a credit card with them, and then 1 mile per every dollar you spend on everyday purchases. I have a MileagePlus card and an AAdvantage card, and they are the only cards I use for everything in my life. Yes, there is an annual charge, but at less than $100 (each), it is worth it if your ambition is to travel a lot. (And now, I feel like I’m a credit card ad!) But seriously, almost every other year, I have a free round trip flight somewhere far, as in across an ocean. And that can help significantly when you’re planning a big trip!
4. A Little Cash Goes a Long Way
Planning a big trip somewhere can sound daunting and expensive, and for most people, it’s the main reason they are discouraged to do it. But along with the willingness to have some credit card debt (up to you how much you’re comfortable with), you need to save up gradually – in a way that is almost unnoticeable. The reality is that most people can’t drop a few grand on a trip out of nowhere, and I get that. This sounds really basic and “duh”, but if you save a little every week, let’s say you put even just $25 bucks away every week (or $50 every other week — pay day!), then all of a sudden, you have $1300 saved up. If you can part with $100 per paycheck (you want to travel, right?), then that’s $2600. Pair that with a little credit, and you can easily fly almost anywhere and spend a week or even two there. So it is doable. You just have to be religious about the saving, and once you put it away, forget about it. It is not a personal bank for you to take from when you need some quick cash for a night out – this is your travel money. It works. I know it works, because I do it. And because I’ve forced plenty of friends to try it, and they’ve been to places they never thought they could go. One step (or $50) at a time…
5. Have a Plan
Not just a financial plan, which is crucial yes, but I’m talking about a comprehensive travel plan. Where do you want to go? Are you like me, and you want to go to every country in the world? You can, you just need a much more serious plan then. But if you’re like most people, you have maybe a dozen or two dream destinations you want to see before you die, but you just don’t think you can afford it now – maybe in the future…… when you’re older or retired?! No! Do it now! (If you are retired, do it NOW!!) Don’t wait, you never know what the future holds. If you want to see the world, just get out there and do it! Write down all the places you want to see. Make a spreadsheet (you wouldn’t believe how many travel plan spreadsheets I have). List every amazing destination or region and put a year next to each one. Prioritize them. Buy a guidebook for that #1 place (Lonely Planet is my favorite), peruse it, and get inspired. Do a little homework and get an idea of how long that next trip would be, and how much it might cost, and then work towards that goal, saving a little at a time (per #4)! Then, go out and enjoy that amazing trip, take tons of pictures, make lots of priceless memories, come back, and starting working on destination #2!
6. Living Simple
For me, travel is the number one thing I really spend my money on. Growing up, I was never that interested in stereo systems, new cars, video game consoles, etc. – all those things my friends and anyone else my age would spend their hard-earned money on. I chose to forgo all of that, saving it up for my next trip. It worked. Even now, I don’t spend so much money on eating out at fancy restaurants, going out drinking, mini-vacations to the beach or mountains, expensive clothes or watches or any of that stuff. Yes, I definitely will indulge now and then, but everything I do buy, I put it into perspective. Should I buy this expensive designer watch because I love it? Nope. I think to myself, “I could travel round trip to Seoul or Amsterdam for that watch.” How about that new cool new curved 3D super-HD LED TV? I could fly to Dubai or Dhaka and back instead. So ask yourself, is traveling really that important to me? If it is, you’ll make the right decision.
7. A Good Steady Job…
First, you need to have a job. Preferably a career. Definitely one with benefits (read: vacation time). Hopefully, a job you enjoy. Then, stay at that job as long as possible. If you’re living anywhere outside of the U.S., this probably doesn’t even apply to you, as you get plenty of vacation time by default, but for those of us who do live in the U.S., you have to really earn that extra time. This isn’t typical everywhere, but stay at a job 5+ years and you’ll accrue a third week of vacation. Stay 10+ years and you’ll accrue 4 weeks. Then, two things. 1) Don’t use vacation days here and there to make little trips. Use already-given 3-day weekends for those trips. Save your vacation time for the two- or three-weekers. 2) Always, always, travel over Thanksgiving. This automatically gives you not only 2 extra days off, but since the holiday is always on a Thursday and Friday, you can capture the weekend, essentially extending your vacation 4 days without taking any more time off. So that’s what I do. I stayed at my job 12 years, racked up that 4 weeks of vacation, saved it all for big trips, and traveled during holidays to maximize the time off. The only problem for me was, I was chastised for using my vacation so much. Even though I earned it. And that’s where #8 comes in.
8. And an Understanding Boss
What’s the point of racking up all that hard-earned vacation time, if you can’t even use it without being made to feel incredibly guilty for doing so? And how about finally getting the vacation approved (not an easy task), but then being required to check email, phone in for conference calls – even being given a satellite phone so you could be reached wherever in the world you were? As soon as I hit those 10 years, I was making plans to get out and find a new job, and a new boss who could understand or at least appreciate how important traveling was to me. The trick, when starting at a new job, was negotiating to keep those 4 weeks of vacation I had accrued at the last one! Thankfully, I managed to do so, and during my interview, when I asked about the expectations in regard to travel and vacations – my future boss said, “If you so much as check your email while you are on vacation, I’ll be angry. What’s the point of vacation then?” Talk about love at first interview.
9. Phone a Friend, or Go It Alone?
While I usually prefer traveling alone, the best way to save money on a trip is to travel with a friend. Instantly, your accommodation costs are split in half, your tours are cheaper, your transportation is halved, even meals can become less expensive, when you’re ordering for two. This is, by far, the most impactful way to bring travel costs down. The only problem is finding someone who is serious about going with you. If you can, GREAT. Sometimes, I do manage to find a willing friend, and have gone on some really great (money-saving) trips. But the typical reaction I get when I tell someone about a potential trip to wherever, is “Oooh, I want to go! Let’s do it!!” It usually starts with 5-6 interested people. Once I start really planning, that drops down to 2 or 3 due usually to “Oh, yeah, I can’t afford it right now”. Once time comes to book flights (commitment!), those 2 or 3 people drop off as well, and I end up solo. So, I’ve learned to plan a trip the way I want it, and expect to go alone – if anyone wants to join, great, but I don’t count on it. That way, my budget assumes I’ll be going alone from the get-go, and I’m not left stranded or surprised when a friend backs out last-minute. PLUS, there are significant advantages to traveling alone… see #10 below.
10. Stay in Hostels, Make New Friends
Aside from airfare, the biggest expense while traveling is usually the cost of accommodation. But it doesn’t have to be. With a little research, and willingness to stay in places other than hotels, like hostels for instance, you can save a lot of money, and usually meet plenty of like-minded travelers too. But hostels aren’t the only way to save money on lodging. While I haven’t tried it personally, you can sometimes even stay for free, by ‘couch-surfing’ or swapping houses with other people, and there are plenty of websites that can help you find those places. The best way to save money on accommodation though, is to know people where you’re going and hopefully, be invited to stay with them. This is where hostelling can have some serious benefits. It’s easy to make new friends staying in a hostel, especially if you’re traveling solo. When you’re alone, you’re far more in tune with what’s going on around you, and you convey an ‘aura’ of approachability. When you’re with a friend, you’re often focused on talking to them and not so ‘open’ to meeting and engaging with other travelers or even locals. These new friends you could meet often live somewhere you might want to travel someday, and now you have potentially free future accommodation around the world. Just make sure you’re willing to reciprocate when they visit your hometown!
I have plenty of other tips on how to save money while traveling, but this should help you realize that it is possible to travel, if you have the motivation and the drive. It’s all about your priorities in life. I realized early on that I didn’t want to work, work, work, and save, save, save, until finally, one day, I reached a time in my life when I could travel. I wanted to see the world now. And I had to find a way to do it, while still holding down a full-time job that could help me pay for my travels, and still pay my rent and bills.
It’s definitely not easy, but where there’s a wanderlust, there’s a way. 🙂