I’ll be the first to admit that travel isn’t the cheapest hobby there is. The wallet takes hits from plane flights, hotels and all the things you want to do once you get there: scuba diving, safari, cooking classes, guided treks, etc.
One of the questions I get asked most frequently is that of finances: How can you afford to travel so much? It was a massive challenge in my 20s: When I was living in Germany, whether as a student or later as a struggling intern and ultimately starting off my career in translation, I had the rest of Europe at my doorstep and saw it as an opportunity to experience a range of different cultures, food, architecture, landscapes and languages. So I prioritized. I gave up on luxuries. I bought very cheap clothes. I made friends from different countries and slept on their couches, and even slept on their friends’ couches. Often when arriving in a new city, I did nothing but walk around because it was free (ahem, London…). I also took advantage of deals aimed at younger travelers, like the Europass.
Things are a bit different now. I still travel – a lot more, in fact – but I’m in my 30s, have a bit more earning power and find it harder to live the hostel / couch surfing / skimping on food and activities style of travel. While every day is a learning process in terms of my finances, I have figured out a few things along the way that (almost) anyone can apply to their lives if they really want to put a little more adventure into them.
Chances are, you can make travel affordable too. Here are a few suggestions. In a sloppy effort to keep it brief (a testament to how many ways there are to save!), I’m breaking it down into two posts: steps you can take before leaving home and ways to save while on the road.
I’ll start with probably the scariest prospect for most: the savings tip of all savings tips. It’s one that I absolutely wish more people would do, but probably won’t.
1. Sell your car.
I probably just lost about 90% of my readers with that statement. BUT GASP! How will I ever get around without a car? Impossible! If these were your first thoughts, keep this in mind: I’m 34 years old. I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. And yet I’ve never owned a car. Ever.
I know – I left Denver in 1999 and over the next 15 years would go on to live in more walkable, transportation-friendly cities, like Seattle, Hamburg, Munich, New York and Portland. But Denver has more walk-friendly parts as well.
Living in walkable neighborhoods has been a lifestyle choice for me. Growing up I felt so dependent on a car, that when I moved to Seattle’s University District for college and was able to get around on foot and by bus, I loved the feeling of freedom I got from not being isolated, trapped anytime the car broke down, or a slave to gas, insurance and parking prices.
Think about it for a minute. If you move to a more walk-friendly or bike-friendly part of your own city and sell your car, you’ll save several thousands every year on car payments, gas, insurance, repairs/maintenance, parking, registration, tolls and whatever else I’m forgetting. You’ll walk more, thereby improving your health and shedding a few pounds. You’ll be doing the environment a favor. And I’m convinced that walkable environments give you a better sense of community, because you’re passing others other on the sidewalk, popping into shops and sitting in cafes instead of zipping by at 40 mph with panes of glass between you and others, more tempted to just go through the drive-through and get it over with. In essence, daily chores become pleasant because you’re on your feet, getting some fresh air and taking your time.
My friend Ken recently took this step. He sold his car and now relies solely on walking, the Washington DC Metro and, when need be, renting cars by the hour using Zipcar. The latter is a great, economical option for those times when you need to buy a 20-lb bag of kitty litter and don’t want to haul it all the way home, or if you’re picking up friends from the airport.
You’ll have to shift your life around and possibly even move house, but I promise it’s worth it. The absolute best resource to get you started is Walk Score.
2. Give up cable television, Netflix and the gym membership.
It’s slightly hypocritical of me to say this because I had all three of these until I left on my RTW trip. The latter two were a complete waste, as by the time I left, I hadn’t ordered a movie in about six months or set foot in my gym for eight. It’s not that I got no entertainment or exercise during that time, though. There are plenty of movies and TV shows you can stream online for free. Finding a good book is just as, if not more, entertaining.
I did go without TV for three years when I lived in New York City. I’d be lying if I told you I never missed it, but I’d also be lying if I said that the $960/year it saved me wasn’t better spent on the plane tickets I bought to Rio de Janeiro in 2009, Germany in 2010 or Iceland in 2011. I highly doubt I’ll look back from my death bed and think “I regret not having been able to watch Season 3 of Mad Men”.
As for exercise, there are a million solutions that are cheaper than the gym or even free. I was on a volleyball team, occasionally went running and biking, and Oregon is one of the best places in the world for hiking. Meetup groups are a great resource if you need inspiration or encouragement. Although I never tried it because of scheduling conflicts, I was invited to play on a dodge ball team. If you need a more intense workout than that, chances are you have a friend who jumped on the PX90 or (like me) Insanity bandwagon and is willing to lend you the DVDs and equipment.
3. If you smoke, QUIT!
Yep, I’m one of those obnoxious former smokers who now knows better. I spent several years of my teens and 20s as a 1-2 pack-a-day smoker and was full-on, 100% addicted. They say it’s more addictive than heroin. I know how hard it is to quit.
I don’t need to go over the health benefits of quitting smoking – I know you’ve heard it before. But try this on for size: The average price of a pack of cigarettes in the US is about $6. If you smoke a pack a day, that comes out to $2,190 spent in a year. With that amount of money you can go to Thailand and for 10 days sit on the world’s most beautiful beaches, eat the best food you’ve ever tasted (and truly enjoy it since your taste buds will have started functioning again) and get Thai massages for $10/hour. Yes, that’s right – you can get an hour-long massage for the price of 30 cigarettes.
Side note: If you live in New York City, the average price of a pack of smokes is $14, which brings the total savings for a pack-a-day smoker to $5,110 a year. That translates into SIX round-trip tickets to Europe.
The same can be said for coffee, but if you’re not willing to give up your caffeine fix, try brewing your own cup at home rather than paying the usual $4 or so from Starbucks. Your annual savings will also be in the thousands.
4. Take advantage of life opportunities.
As I mentioned before, I took advantage of being in the middle of Europe to see a bit more of the place. Chances are, though, you’re not a student currently living 15 minutes from the French border and 20 minutes from the Swiss border. But there’s also a chance that at some point in the next five years you’ll end up changing your job, your home or both. That’s an opportunity – jump on it.
If you’re changing jobs, for example, you can create a window where taking off for a couple weeks won’t count towards your skimpy 2-week/year vacation allowance. This is how I met my friend Lesley. Two years ago we were both volunteering as English teachers in Laos. Leslie was in between jobs, so she figured she’d take a few months and experience Southeast Asia before heading back to Toronto and rejoining the real world.
It may seem expensive when you’re not bringing in income, but consider this: Aside from the grand or so it’ll cost you to get there, Southeast Asia is extremely cheap. I spent around $20/night for a simple yet clean and comfortable guesthouse in Laos and $15 for a 3-star hotel in Cambodia. A bowl of the best pho I’ve ever had ran me $1.50 in Vietnam. Beers throughout that part of the world are about $1 each. As I mentioned before, an hour-long massage goes for $5-10, depending on where you are.
If you’re in between apartments, do what I did and put your stuff into storage. I spend $60 a month for my unit, which frees up almost all of the money I had always budgeted for rent, utilities, cable, internet, renter’s insurance, etc.
And finally, if you’re young and have no mortgage, marriage or kids to tend to at home, GO! Do it now while you can!
5. Get a part-time job.
This hadn’t even occurred to me until I sat and had lunch with my friend James before heading out on this trip. Like me, James is a travel addict and has been to some cool places, like Brazil, Argentina, Hawaii, New Zealand and Germany. He’s got a great career in the aviation industry and would normally have no need for a second job, but nonetheless works a night or two a week at the Pepsi Center in Denver as a server during Nuggets and Avalanche games. So not only does he have the coolest part-time job in the world, but he uses those funds strictly towards his travel budget. Genius.
Here are a few eye-popping statistics of what we Americans spend every year on average:
Driving: $8,776 a year on car expenses. Gas alone accounts for nearly half of this. (Source here)
Coffee: $1,100 per coffee drinker (Source here)
Cigarettes: Roughly $1500 per smoker, or $3,300 in NYC. (What’s even more amazing is that a single pack of cigarettes is estimated to cause a smoker $35 in health-related costs. That’s 7 times the cost of the pack itself.)
Christmas presents: Estimated at more than $800 in 2012 (Source here. Incidentally, I’m not saying you should stop doing nice things for family members, but why do presents have to come in the form of material goods rather than experiences you’ll look back on the rest of your life?)
Television/radio/sound equipment: $975 in 2009 (Source here)
If giving up some of these seems like a massive life change, you’re right. It is. But seeing the world is worth every sacrifice you might have to make. And impossible these changes are not.
Have you shifted around anything in your life to make financing travel possible? Tell me your thoughts and suggestions.