Cheap travel is achievable.
What are the first things that come to mind when you hear the word “travel”? Do you imagine something along the lines of Hawaii, first-class flights, the Eiffel tower, and a big bag of money you’d need to pay for all that? Fear not, I’ve got your back.
First, a bit of a disclosure: although I’m really good at traveling on a tight budget, most of that traveling was done in the US and Canada. Until and unless I become a snowbird in a couple of years (gotta get that Canadian citizenship first, eh), my travel experiences will remain limited to North America, as well as a couple of vacations I took to Costa Rica a few years back.
That said, I like to think my advice will prove useful. There are two main components when it comes to travel expenses: your airfare and your lodging. Let’s break them down.
There’s a lot of variability when it comes to plane ticket prices. If you ask a plane full of people how much they spent on their tickets, you’d get a very wide range of answers. Some flew first-class and dropped a few hundred dollars on that temporary luxury. Others bought at the last moment, and ended up paying a lot more than those who bought months in advance. Others yet got their flight for free through some rewards program.
I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending that “please don’t buy at the last minute” is some sage advice, so let’s just focus on the exact opposite: get your tickets as early as you can. I would routinely buy them 2-3 months before my flight, and get a pretty good deal in the process. One of the coolest (and least known) Google sites is the Matrix Airfare Search. If you click on “See calendar of lowest rates” and if you’re not picky about the exact dates of your vacation, you can see an amazing breakdown of the lowest prices for both your outbound and your return flights.
A lot of this intuitive, but it still bears saying: mid-week flights are typically cheaper than weekend flights, and you should read the fine print very carefully. Some airlines specialize in luring people in with the cheapest tickets, only to nickel and dime them with extra fees. I try to travel light, so my awesome Osprey backpack qualifies as a carry-on item: it was specifically designed not to exceed those dimensions.
It’s possible to hack the airfare game if you go all in on credit-card churning, as long as you keep immaculate records and cancel those credit cards once you collect the sign-on bonus. (There are some pretty funny stories from the aspiring churners who forgot to cancel their cards, and ended up paying a lot more in annual fees. That’s not quite frupidity, but it’s pretty close.) If you get carried away with this churning game, it might affect your credit score, but if you’re not planning on making large purchases (real estate, a car, etc), that shouldn’t be a huge factor.
Going a level deeper, it’s also possible to take advantage of airfare inefficiencies: an old college friend of mine is an expert at this. He’d spend literally hours on the phone with a booking agent, applying his frequent flyer miles to the cheapest flights with the longest layovers (see Paris in 18 hours!) or out-of-the-way routes. He knows more about the topic than 99% of the population, but he also managed to arrange a very long trip around the world for just $300. The guy is my hero.
If you decide to follow that path and become a master churner yourself, it’ll involve a lot of reading and learning, but in the end you’ll be the envy of all your friends. (And have some great stories to share at parties!)
Not all travel involves planes, however. Greyhound and other buses get a lot of bad rep: yes, people get decapitated on Greyhound buses, but that only happened once! In my experience, they’re pretty quiet and civil, with that unspoken social pact of leaving one another alone. For years, I was a broke warehouse worker and my annual vacations consisted of going to the annual Berkshire-Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha (Buffett sold passes for $5 on eBay), which meant taking the bus for 18-36 hours each way. That’s hard to beat in terms of pure efficiency. Also, make sure to look at regional bus networks: if you book far enough in advance, you can get great deals, like a $1 ticket for a ride between two cities, or a bit more if you want to sit on the top deck, right above the driver. (That’s a great way to travel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.)
The second component is a bit more manageable, and that’s your lodging. There are several main options at work here: discounted AirBnB, WWOOFing, house-sitting, hostels, etc.
AirBnB can provide you with some great bargains if you’re willing to spend a few hours playing with their filters and zooming in and out. AirBnB hosts often provide discounts if you book for a week, and bigger discounts if it’s for a whole month. (Having one long-term guest means less drama to deal with, and a lot less cleaning.) Some of those discounts are merely okay (10-20%), but others can be very alluring. When my then-girlfriend and I left Toronto at the very beginning of the pandemic (she was immuno-compromised and had lots of irresponsible roommates), I tapped into my savings account to find places where we could hide out for a while. After a great deal of zooming and searching, we found a beautiful condo at a shut-down ski resort in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. It was ours for a whole month for just $1,000 or so. After that, we found a smaller and less beautiful condo in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side is prettier, sorry), which became a ghost town with all the shutdowns. That cost just over $1,000 as well.
Play around with AirBnB’s map, pay attention to customer reviews, and see what you can find! I’m aware of the ethical issues of hosts buying up all the real estate and converting entire buildings, but a) you can always rent just a room (or the basement) in an average person’s apartment/house, thus helping the local economy, and b) if the only lodging options near famous landmarks are expensive hotels, does this mean poor or frugal people shouldn’t be allowed to travel at all?..
WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” and WWOOFing means trading your manual labour for basic free lodging on – you guessed it – organic farms. I haven’t tried this myself yet, and I’ve heard as many good stories as bad ones. As with everything else, do your research, read up on your particular destination, read the rules, and make an educated choice. A lot of these farms provide free meals as well as a place to stay, but some might not have electricity (BYOSC – bring your own solar charger!), and others might have all the volunteers sleeping together. WWOOFing is something I personally aim to do in my snowbird future, and it sounds like a great way to make new friends and memories.
House-sitting is an interesting travel option that’s technically open to everyone. The system is based on trust and reviews: once you flesh out your profile and get a few house-sitting gigs (and reviews!) done, you’ll find it easier to find a good match in your target destination. You might not score a place to house-sit in, say, the middle of Paris, but if you’re just looking for a cheap adventure and there’s an open opportunity in, say, Lithuania, why not? There are caveats, of course: you’ll be expected to take care of the plants, the pets, not trash the place, etc. If you live in a sufficiently big city, you can start by accepting house-sitting gigs for the locals going on vacation: you’ll get a nice change of pace in a shiny new house or apartment for a week or two, and get a positive review in exchange. Keep doing that, build up your reputation, and more gigs will open up. Typically, there’s no monetary compensation (though there are exceptions, I’m sure), but hey – free lodging. Combine that with a free frequent flyer plane ticket, and that’s an unbeatable combo.
Hostels are another great alternative to the more traditional and consumerist way of travel. You probably won’t be able to check in if you’re traveling with pets, but if you’re a low-key traveler with flexible standards, you’ll be able to get a nice deal. I remember traveling all over Costa Rica by bus, staying at random hostels for anywhere between $10-$16 a night, and it was almost always a pleasant experience. (One gigantic hostel on the east coast had the capacity for 400 travelers, and played god-awful loud music almost all the time. The sloths living on the nearby beach didn’t seem to mind, though.) Of course, common sense is always a must-have: you shouldn’t leave your jewelry or valuables on the nightstand, or they might be gone by the time you wake up. (Lots of travelers leave before dawn…) Having a good combination lock for a locker will help. With covid, dorm-style hostels are most likely not available anymore, but once we finally get through this pandemic, things will return to normal. Meanwhile, you can still rent individual hostel rooms: pricier than the dorm-style beds, but still cheaper than hotels.
And lastly, there are ways to travel that combine transportation and lodging: vans and RVs. One of my all-time favourite books is Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon. (Full disclaimer: that’s an affiliate link that’ll help keep the blog running.) It’s a beautiful tale of one man and one van, traveling across the US in the 70s, taking the most remote roads imaginable. He made it work with a van, a mattress, and a little portable oven. Modern-day van dwellers have perfected that practice, and you can find a lot of tips on their sites. (Though, obviously, many did that out of necessity, not because they wanted a cheap way to travel.) Depending on the price of gas in the coming years, that might not be the cheapest option out there, but if you like variety and aren’t in a hurry, why not give it a chance?
There are lots of other ways to save money on travel: everything I’ve just written barely scratched the surface. Like with so many other personal finance topics, the more time and energy you spend learning about it, the greater your rewards will be. What creative and money-saving travel hacks do you know and love and practice? Sound off in the comments, and let’s share some knowledge!