Growing up, I wanted to see the world. No one believed me. I don’t even think I believed me. But the last year and a half has shown me (and my parents, friends, and audience members) is that you should’ve believed me. Since March 2016, I’ve been to six countries on five trips and have two more trips on the horizon (plus designs on a bunch more).
Over a short time span, I’ve become the world traveler I always dreamed of being – and you can, too!
I’m not normally one to write how-to articles, but I feel the need to inform friends and acquaintances that I did not come across a large sum of money a year ago and, heck no, I do not have a trust fund. While traveling is pricey, it doesn’t have to be out of the ballpark.
Let’s talk money.
Yes, you’re going to need to spend money to travel. But you don’t need to break the bank.
Lately, airfare to Europe and other faraway places has been super cheap if you’re willing to wait – and be spontaneous.
The most I have spent on a ticket abroad is $538 to Amsterdam. The cheapest has been $307 to Costa Rica. And I’ve seen as low as $250 to some random places. I’ve had to stop myself from buying just because something is cheap – I have to remind myself, it will be cheap again. If you spend above $600 to *most* places, you’re being dumb. I’ve seen flights to China for $550. Switzerland routinely dips below $400. The only place I haven’t seen for super affordable is Australia. Those prices don’t seem to go *down under*.
The idea with affordable travel is this: Don’t dip into your savings account. Wait until your bank account (the one you spend regular money from, e.g. groceries, gas, coffee) has a few extra hundred dollars and buy the ticket to your dream destination* several months in advance. Wait a few weeks for your bank account to recover. (I call this recouping, but let’s be real, you’re not really getting the money back. You’re just letting your bank account save up some more and not putting it right into savings.)
*We’ll talk dream destinations in a second.
Once your bank account has recovered, book the lodging. We’ll talk more about this below. But generally, lodging expenses should not exceed plane ticket price. Also, book transportation, e.g. buses and trains at this point.
Let your bank account recover again. Now go to the bank or AAA and get out some foreign currency.
So about destinations… you need to be flexible. You need to know where you want to go and where you really don’t want to go. Don’t just buy a ticket to somewhere because it’s cheap. And also, you need to know when you want to go.
I booked my first trip abroad because my friends were going to Iceland (Sara, actually). They invited me to go. But I did not want Iceland to be my first trip abroad. I also did not want to go in winter. (I’m not a huge fan of winter wonderlands based on lifestyle habits.)
I ended up buying round-trip to Copenhagen. This was a place I had read about, knew I wanted to see, and I also knew it’s sort of out-of-the-way from other traditional European cities so I wouldn’t feel tempted to see everything else and its mother while there. Also, there wouldn’t be snow (probably).
The place I really, really want to see – top of my list – is Switzerland. I have seen several cheap flights there – but none from Richmond or D.C. Which brings me to: mind where you’re flying out of. If you have to buy a ticket to get to the airport where the good deal is, is it really a deal?
Also, I want to see Switzerland in late spring or summer. A lot of deals are for the winter. No bueno.
A similar parable is, I once saw a $250 flight to Colombia. I almost booked it just because that’s so good. But I’m not dying to see Colombia. I’d rather save that $250 for the place I really want to see.
Book the trip.
Oftentimes I feel people are paralyzed with indecision on travel so they opt not to go. You can’t be this way. You just need to buy the ticket – if it’s affordable.
Again, you should not be spending more than $600 on a ticket. And even that is a lot to pay. I regret my $538 to Amsterdam. I see $450 round trip to Holland regularly. But also, be realistic. In the $400 to $550 range is pretty reasonable.
If this seems like a lot, think about how much it is to fly to Las Vegas. Or Texas. Or Miami. People go to these places much more regularly. It’s about prioritizing destinations (see above).
So where do you find these deals? Get ready to sign up for spam.
I also browse WowAir.Us on the regular. I’m a huge fan of Wow Air and similar airlines. These aren’t luxurious flights. You pack light. You don’t choose your seat. Water costs money. But you get to Europe for $500 or less.
There are two things to mention when it comes to booking your trip:
Be flexible and do your homework.
We talked about prioritizing your destinations. But now you need to be flexible. You have a list. You don’t need to hit it in order.
If you’re #2 or #3 most wanted destination has a deal, go. Don’t wait for #1.
Also, you can’t wait around for the perfect dates. Not every trip will align with Christmas vacation. Flights are cheaper in the off-season. (Again, just make sure you’re okay with either cooler weather – do you want to see a place in the snow or without the greenness of spring? – or the hot, hot, hot. Whoops, I’ll be doing the latter for Italy.)
Doing your homework entails knowing what to expect at a place once you get there. Getting a great deal does not mean the rest of the trip will be affordable. Before I buy a ticket somewhere, I check two things: safety and cost of living. Will I be safe if I show up alone? How are pickpockets? Are American hostages a thing? And how much will my lodging cost? Is food expensive? What other costs will I incur?
Airbnb and hostels are the way.
The cheapest way to travel is by hostel. That said, I’ve only stayed in a hostel once. I prefer Airbnb. I travel solo a lot, and I like my sleep when I do sleep, so I want a private room. This leads me to Airbnbs. However, you don’t meet as many other travelers going this route.
Depending on the country, hostels can be as cheap as $10…and you should never pay more than $50 (unless you’re doing a private room – and if you’re doing a private room, why not Airbnb?).
For Airbnbs, I always check reviews, location (what’s the walking distance to popular landmarks?), and if they provide toiletries (I don’t travel with a towel, and neither should you). Oh, also wifi – that’s a must! I’ve always been able to find Airbnbs for $60/night (and usually much less!).
Resorts and hotels are just a lot more money. I never consider them. And if that’s your default…you bougie.
This definitely applies to lodging, which I already touched on, but this also applies to transportation. Six weeks before I arrived in Germany, I paid about $200 in train tickets to get around the country. If I had bought the train tickets closer to arrival (or once in-country), I would have easily paid $450.
This also means planning ahead…but that’s the fun part – and helps you get more stoked on your travels.
Skip the museums.
But hit up the cafes. Museums add up. You pay $10 here, $5 there, and all to see one famous painting or sculpture. Monuments are usually free. Aesthetics and atmosphere are free. Locals don’t go to museums on a regular basis. You don’t need to either.
Of course, if you love museums, then you should go.
Don’t be so stingy that you don’t have fun.
That’s probably my biggest piece of advice. You’re trying to travel affordably, but you’re also trying to have fun while traveling.
Pair coffee with peeing.
Like I said, hit up cafes. Why?
1.) Free bathrooms (usually). Bathrooms typically cost money outside the U.S. They might be as cheap as 50 cents, but that adds up.
Just make sure the bathrooms are free. I am always peeved when I buy a croissant just so I can pee for free only to find out I still need to pay for the commode. Bishes!
2.) Free wifi. Depending on your carrier, data costs money outside the U.S. (It also costs money inside the U.S., but oh well.) You can probably survive without data – or use data only on limited days. Visiting cafes for wifi is economical.
Tip: Google Maps works without data. Also, the Here app allows you to download maps of countries to use without data.
Other things to consider:
- I favor six or seven day trips, but this is all personal preference. Longer trips are cheaper by rate, but are inevitably more expensive as a whole just because you have to pay for food and lodging more days in a row. You also have to consider how much time you need to take off work.
- In Europe, you should be fine knowing only English. I don’t want to be so cocky as to say everyone knows fluent English, but you’ll be able to get by (and use that café wifi!). In Central and Latin America, you may experience greater communication difficulties unless you’re staying in touristy areas, which is something I avoid.
- Touristy areas are pricey. Venture off the beaten path. Of course, don’t get mugged, but live like a local. Don’t eat at Hard Rock Café.
- McDonald’s has free wifi. And free bathrooms. Except in Munich. They also serve a great cheap breakfast with protein (eggs!). Europeans love carbs way too much for my taste. (But I know; I said, don’t eat at Hard Rock.)
Okay, that’s the bulk of my advice. Now, young wanderer, off into the world you go! Comment below if you have any other advice for aspiring adventurers.
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