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Here’s one of the most unglamorous photos ever. This is me sitting in a gas station parking lot in Jasper National Park, putting together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my lap in the car. I ate PBJ for a few days during my road trip through western Canada.
Sitting there balancing a slice of bread on each knee was not cute. For a moment, I wondered, “Is this really worth it?” But then I remembered that the $50 I was saving by eating PBJs instead of restaurant meals in the super-expensive towns of Jasper & Banff would allow me to take a ride on the Jasper Skytram, which soars high above Jasper National Park. And it would give me enough extra cash to check out some attractions in Calgary. So the peanut butter and jelly sacrifice was totally worth it.
Like everyone, I enjoy a taste of luxury on occasion, but for the most part, I’ve been traveling on an “average budget” for several years now. The most common question I get asked is, “How can you afford to travel so often?”
This post attempts to answer that question in extensive detail with my best budget travel tips. The short answer: Use airline credit cards to earn free flights, find affordable lodging and food, avoid expensive tours, and take public transit. For the long answer, keep reading.
FLIGHTS: Use Airline Credit Cards to Earn Free Flights
The one thing I wish I had done sooner was get into airline credit cards. If you’re not using airline cards, you are throwing money (and free flights) down the drain.
I won’t go into all the credit cards and rewards programs you can join, because that’s an entirely different article. But I will mention a couple great cards to consider.
The first card I got was the Chase Southwest Premier Visa. They offer between 40,000 and 50,000 bonus points for signing up. The only catch is that I had to charge $2000 to the card in the first three months. That’s a pretty standard spending requirement for airline credit cards.
If you’re thinking that it would be difficult to spend that much on a credit card, it’s really not. Use it for all your monthly bills, use it for your groceries and gas and trips to the movies and Target. In some cases, you can even use it to pay your mortgage or rent (Venmo payments count as acceptable spending.) Just make sure to pay off the full balance at the end of each month so you’re not dealing with interest charges and late fees.
Keep an eye out for new signup offers for these cards, and wait until you see a really good one. The Southwest cards, for instance, sometimes only offer 30,000 points. But a couple times a year, they run promotions in which they up their offer to 50k. Wait for the better deal if you can.
How far will 50,000 Southwest points take you? If you wait for sales, they can take you really far! I once booked a flight from Chicago to Ft. Lauderdale for only 3500 points (one-way), from Las Vegas to Seattle for 4600 points, and even from Pittsburgh to Mexico City for only 7100 points!
If you are selective about how you redeem your points, 50k points can get you anywhere from 5-10 free one-way flights on Southwest. That’s so much free travel!
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is another great one. This one has a high annual fee ($450), but your first $300 of travel spending (hotels, rideshare trips, flights, etc.) each year is refunded. And they give you a ton of other cool perks. Chase points can be redeemed on several airlines, including Southwest, United, and British Airways.
Every airline has its own card(s) – American, United, Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska, Jetblue. Which one should you choose? Do some research online to find out the maximum number of points that each card offers, compare the annual fees, and think about which airlines you fly most often. I prefer Southwest because their points redemption offers are more favorable than United and American.
I currently have about 250,000 points from several different airline cards, but that’s small potatoes compared to the pros. Some people take this credit card thing to an extreme. They call themselves “churners,” people who sign up for dozens of cards to get the bonuses, then cancel them before the annual fee kicks in a year later. If you want to go hardcore into the practice, check out the churning sub on Reddit.
FOOD: Keeping Meal Costs Low While Traveling
Food can be one of the big hidden expenses in a vacation. There’s a reason you rarely see me posting photos of myself eating at fancy restaurants. I’m not a picky eater, so I’m able to save bigtime when it comes to feeding myself on the road.
Of course, when I visit a place like Cuba or Mexico or Iceland, I want to sample the local dishes, because food is a big part of culture. But I make sure to limit those purchases and fill the rest of my time with cheap food. I’m more than happy to eat a Subway sandwich every day if that’s necessary to keep costs down.
In Iceland, I took things to an extreme by purchasing cheap foods at grocery stores and living off those for 10 days. Food in Iceland is crazy expensive, so we splurged for one $35 meal at a traditional Icelandic restaurant to get our fill of the local delicacies (fermented shark!) All other meals were from the grocery store, gas station, or fast food joints.
We saved a fortune eating that way for ten days. And all that money saved will be used to fund my next trip. See how easy this is?
I understand that for some people, eating fancy meals is an important part of a vacation. And that’s fine. Just understand that you’re going to pay for it!
LODGING: Using Airbnb and Hostels When Necessary
My lodging is a mix of hotels, hostels, campgrounds, and Airbnb. I used to use Couchsurfing, but not many people really couchsurf anymore, at least in America. I hear it’s still somewhat popular in Europe.
Hostels are typically the cheapest option, but I’m at a place in my life now where I’d rather not share a room with eight other people. I will still use hostels on rare occasions when it makes too much financial sense not to. Like in Banff, Canada and Akureyri, Iceland, where the only other options were very expensive hotels.
The price you’ll pay for an Airbnb depends on the location. I was surprised to find that Airbnbs in Canadian cities (Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver) were dirt cheap. Like $20 USD/night for a room. I’m guessing this is because these cities have a ton of hosts, so they have to price their rooms cheaply in order to get guests.
For an Airbnb coupon for 2021, click here. That will get most users $40 off your first booking (amount may vary by location.) The Airbnb coupon is only for new users, however.
Las Vegas also had Airbnbs in the $20 price range. In Chicago, meanwhile, it’s hard to get a decent place for less than $40/night. This is partly because the city imposes hefty taxes and fees on hosts. And a place like Key West, Florida… well, forget about Airbnb altogether. You’ll have a tough time finding anyplace less than $100/night.
If you have to stay at a hotel, use a site like booking.com that allows for easy searches by city and date to find places that are affordable and also have great reviews.
You can also get hotel credit cards, although I don’t do this often since the point redemption levels are pretty high. I do have one hotel credit card, a Chase Hyatt card, which has gotten me a few free hotel nights so far.
EXCURSIONS: Skip the Tours or Use Groupon
I tend to avoid group tours and excursions planned by tourism companies, because doing things on your own is generally cheaper than group tours. The exception is for activities that you cannot do on your own, such as shark cage diving and hiking on a glacier.
My shark-diving experience in Hawaii would not have happened if not for the Groupon I found a couple weeks before the trip. Take advantage of Groupon deals in the city you’re visiting to find affordable tours, activities, and meals.
As for glacier hiking, in most places you can’t walk onto a glacier without the proper equipment and guides. In Iceland, most glacier treks were at least $200, but after much searching, we found the cheapest available deal for just over $100 through Viator.
Another useful budget travel tips is to decide whether a particular attraction is really worth it. In Iceland, most everyone goes to the famous Blue Lagoon natural spa. But it’s crazy expensive (around $70 USD) and there are lots of other, cheaper options. I went to Myvatn Nature Baths in the northern part of the country for half the price. And most cities have public pools that are essentially the same thing but cost only a few dollars.
One final example of a good excursion worth purchasing: My Africa overland tour that I embarked on. Here’s the exact tour I took. It looks super expensive, but when you consider that all lodging, transportation, and most meals are included, suddenly the price seems a lot more manageable.
TRANSIT: Using Lyft and Buses to Get Around
If you’re visiting a city for a few days, the cost of taking taxis and Ubers can add up fast. Public transit is so much cheaper. In Denver, to cite one example, the light rail from the airport to downtown costs $9, while an Uber would run close to $40 for the same distance. The same is true in many other cities.
You can get discounts on Uber and Lyft if you’ve never used them before. Here’s my Lyft referral link that gets you a discount credit coupon of $5-30 depending on market.
People in every city love to complain about their public transportation, but they’re always exaggerating. I’ve taken public buses and subways in numerous cities with no issues. I even spent a week without a car in Los Angeles, one of the most notorious car-necessary cities in America. I got around by bus and subway with absolutely no problems. The Google Maps app shows bus routes and even the cost of the ride, so there’s no excuse for not giving the bus a try.
I’ve taken buses and trains in dozens of cities across America and around the world, including: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Detroit, Portland, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Edmonton, Mexico City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Denver, St. Louis, Nashville, Minneapolis, Tijuana, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, and San Antonio.
You can get around any city with public transit if you really want to. Those $2.50 bus rides will save a lot of cash when compared to $15 rideshare trips.
For longer vacations or road trips, it may make sense to go for a rental car. Cars are usually cheap if you use sites like Kayak or Expedia, and today’s cars are so fuel-efficient that gas costs are minimal.
EXTRA CASH: Be a Nomad or Take Side Jobs
When I lived in Mexico City for four months, I gave up my apartment back in Chicago and put all my stuff into storage with my family. As a result, I had no bills or costs except my basic living expenses in Mexico.
Similarly, when I go to Africa this summer, I won’t be paying rent because I found someone to sublet my room for those two months. I’m essentially a digital nomad with no costs at home while I travel.
If you have the flexibility to give up your place, or to rent it out while you travel, you can open up a lot more travel doors. If you do have your own place, I highly recommend hosting people on Airbnb. Depending on your location, you should be able to make several hundred dollars per month, all of which can be used toward your own travels.
Another option for bringing in extra cash is taking a side job like driving for Lyft or Uber. I drove for Lyft for several months and was able to make a few thousand bucks to partially fund my travels. You can also find online jobs as a writer, photographer, or any number of other possibilities. Side jobs like that are a fantastic way to bring in more income to afford new travel experiences.
Budget Travel Tips Wrap-Up
For me, real travel experiences are much more valuable and rewarding than sitting in a restaurant eating overpriced food. So I take buses, find affordable Airbnbs, and eat cheap meals. Then I use the savings toward more travel.
And I even make that PBJ sacrifice on occasion. It’s not glamorous, but who cares? If I hadn’t published the photo at the top of this post, nobody would have ever known.
Some folks won’t be willing to commit fully to these suggestions, and that’s fine. If you love fancy wine and upscale restaurants, or you just hate public transit and don’t mind paying for rental cars, that’s great. Do whatever makes comfortable and will give you the most enjoyment out of your travel life!