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How to Afford Travel Even if Your Change Jar Isn’t Full

Seinfeld, Season 1, Episode 4: George:I know a guy who took a vacation on his change.” Jerry:Where did he go, to an arcade?

I do a ton of traveling, mostly for work, but every year I take a vacation with one or two of my best girlfriends, to a place that none of us have ever been before. It started as a tradition five years ago. We’d put a bunch of countries that we were interested in into a hat, pick one, and then put another round of countries relatively close to that one into another hat (or bucket, or what have you), and pick another. In this way, we’ve done Colombia and Nicaragua, Belize and Mexico, Thailand and Cambodia, Bali and Hong Kong, and this March we’re going to Guatemala. I feel very fortunate in my life that I’ve been able to do so much adventuring, especially with people that mean so much to me, and have met so many incredible folks along the way (Michael Cassini, founder of Cannabis Cactus, being one of my favorites).

I get a lot of questions about how I can afford to travel… Do I have some sort of secret trust fund? Am I living in a van and subsisting off day-old bagels when I’m not flying somewhere? After all, I’m a self-employed business owner, and I’m not rolling in the dough. Honestly, I’ve just kind of made a decision in my life to focus on experiences rather than things, which has created more opportunities to travel, but also means that I cut back on clothes, shoes, makeup, furniture, and other tangible items that have less meaning to me than hiking up a volcano in Bali at 2am to see the sunrise from the top. But if you’re the kind of person who wants both, don’t fret— I also have a bunch of travel hacks to help you see the world on a budget, and I’m here to share, because I think we should all be able to get out of our comfort zones once in awhile.

Location, Location, Location:

You may have a dream vacation in mind, and that’s totally fine, but if you’re open to different locations, start by picking somewhere affordable! It’s going to be hard to travel cheap in Paris, Switzerland, and Australia, but places in Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America and South America will get you a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you can book your flight with miles. When I was in Ubud, Bali last May, our incredible hotel was $12 per night, split between 2 people, and included an amazing breakfast for both of us. I’ve had similar experiences price-wise with Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico City, Nicaragua, and Colombia… it’s possible to feel like you’re staying in luxury for low double digit numbers in a lot of these spots.

Make your spending count:

I cannot scream this from the rooftops enough… get a travel credit card and HOARD YOUR MILES FOR FLIGHTS. You’re spending that money anyway, so you might as well be getting something out of it… I put every possible bill on my credit card and just pay it off every month. Some credit cards have fees, and some don’t, but the ones with fees are generally completely worth it. I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which costs $450 per year (yikes!), but $300 is refundable on ANY travel you do, including booking flights, hotels, and even Ubers and Lyft. That card gets me into Priority Pass lounges for free meals, drinks, and showers in pretty much any airport around the world, which means I don’t spend much money eating and drinking at airports— the traveler’s bottomless pit of wallet hemorrhage. This card also allows me to transfer my points to any airline instead of just committing to one. The Amex Platinum and Southwest credit cards are also big favorites of frequent travelers. I’ve gone on an international trip every year for the past 6 years, and 90% of those trips have been booked using all or primarily points from my credit card.

Be flexible on flights:

You can save a ton of money on flights, literally, hundreds and hundreds of dollars, by having flexible travel dates and leaving on days that most people don’t travel on (I find that Saturdays seem to have the lowest cost for flights recently). I like to go to Google Flights to look at the low fare calendar, and then use those dates to search for flights either with my credit card points or on Kayak, SkyScanner, and Expedia. You can set flight notifications on all of these sites for your dates and desired travel destination, and you’ll get an email if (typically when) the price drops. I never book anything without looking at multiple sites for the best deal, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and add another stop or a few more hours of travel for significant savings (I got my flight to Guatemala for $270 instead of $700-800 because I was willing to travel on off days, and also do a 6-hour layover). If you’re booking Southwest, you can also book your flights, and because of their transfer policy, if the flights drop, you can re-book your flight and get a credit for the extra balance to use for a future trip. I do this every time I fly Southwest, and will randomly check to see if the prices have gone down… if so, I change my flight to the exact same one for the exact same day, and boom, money for the future or points back in my account! Scott’s Cheap Flights is also an excellent source for deals on certain destinations, with discount levels varying with a free or paid membership.

Nix the luxury suite:

If you’re staying for more than a few days, I prefer Airbnb, because they start to feel like home and also come with important amenities, like a washer and dryer, so that you can pack light and not spend money on laundry and god forbid, hotel washing services and dry cleaning. Hotels can be great for the amenities as well, and finding a spot with free breakfast will eliminate the need to pay for one meal of the day. My favorite site for booking hotels is, which offers mostly refundable options with the option for a significantly cheaper price if you select the “non-refundable” option. I typically book refundable, as I occasionally have to change my trips for work purposes, but if you’re sure the trip is happening, it makes sense to pocket a few dollars and make a firm commitment. Hostels are incredible options for travelers on a budget, and before you stop reading, you don’t have to stay in a 12-person room with other people’s unpleasant nightly noises and emissions… Most hostels have private rooms for one or two, if you’re traveling with a friend, for very low prices. Hostels are also a great way to meet other travelers and locals who can make recommendations for budget-friendly things to do, places to eat, and where to go. Wherever and whenever possible, I stay on friend’s couches and floors. If you’re comfortable with it, you can also use CouchSurfing, which is basically a FREE Airbnb for travelers… You can even read other surfer’s reviews of their hosts to reduce the risk of creepers.

Pack to prevent hanger:

I always, always make sure to pack snacks for flying and my time in airports, because it’s easy to drop $50 before you even take off on your trip if you aren’t careful and the hanger strikes, and some budget airlines charge for meals on board as well. I alo save the snacks from flights to take with me, in case I’m hungry at my lodging and need just a small bite. One of my favorite things about traveling is trying new foods and experiencing the local cuisine, but if I’m going to do a nice or upscale restaurant, I do it at lunch and take advantage of smaller portions and daytime food and drink specials. I get a lot of snacks, fruits, and breads from local markets, and try to support small local eateries, which not only saves money but helps promote the economy and small businesses. Many of my friends who travel frequently also say that they save a great deal of money by bringing coffee and tea with them to make in their room, as even a few dollars in beverages quickly adds up day after day. If you’re in a place with drinkable water, bring your own thermos to nix the cost of buying bottled water, and reduce your carbon footprint— two-in-one bonus!

Get around like a local:

It’s not always practical, but whenever possible I use public transport instead of renting a car or taking Ubers and taxis. This is a great way to get to know your way around the city a bit as well. Most locations with any sort of reasonable public transport have a map that you can download online (if you’re out of the country and don’t have service, download it on WiFi before you leave your room) that make it really easy to get around. Worst case scenario, you look a little lost and stupid and have to ask for help… but really, unless you’re a man who doesn’t like to ask for directions, who cares?

I asked a bunch of well-traveled friends for their favorite tips, and I thought I’d share a few from the other experts as well:

If you can remember, always try to hit up the tourism centers — they usually have tons and tons of coupons for activities. Even better, once you TALK to locals, (hopefully you’re making friends) they will often tell you how to experience things for FREE.– Ashley; Quit her 9-5 job and is currently traveling the world with no intent to return any time soon… last I heard she was swimming with sharks in French Polynesia.

Biggest money saver for me? A thorough travel list and keeping a pre-packed bag. When I travel, I get home and my suitcase goes to the laundry room. I open it, wash, put everything back (using the kondo packing method so no wrinkles), refill anything toiletries. I have travel makeup in there as well. That way I never forget anything any have to pay $6 for a travel toothpaste in the airport, and if I forget anything, I have one at home so it’s not a big deal.” – Ginger; Hemp Entrepreneur

I always find that in the States, the cheaper hotels usually have laundry rooms where you can do a full load of washing for only a few dollars. If you’re traveling for long periods of time, which I have in the past, it can save you so much money on checked bags etc. Just pack light with hand luggage, then wash as you go.” – Lee; Writer to book your car rental at great rates and then will track them and email you if rates drop so you can rebook at the lower price. It’s free to use!– Daniel; Follows Phish a lot

I always bring a good amount of cash in case the conversion on the streets is better than an ATM (ex: Argentina where it was 14:1 instead of 10:1 at the banks!)– Kendra; Traveling Mom

“The best advice is to always try to travel at night to save on a hotel. Train? Night train! Flight? Night flight! You get the idea. But, I also know pairing different cities and building your own routing can make a huge difference. I.E, MKE-LAX could be $500, but MSN-DFW and then DFW-LAX could be as low as $200.– Adam; Diva of the Skies

Traveling through NZ and Australia, I used a site called Transfercar (I believe they just opened up in the US now too!) and it’s basically a free rental car. You move their cars from different cities/locations that are in need of the cars and they give you a free rental, sometimes pay for your gas, ferry crossings/etc.. It just depends on how desperate of need they are in! I rarely ever paid for a car while traveling, just relocated them and went from place to place.– Amanda; Left for Australia for a month and stayed for years

One of the biggest expenses when traveling (besides airfare), is food. Airbnb or hotel rooms that have small kitchens are a great way to save money. You can buy groceries and snacks and cook your own food. Sure, sometimes you’re just exhausted and want someone else to cook for you (or you’re in a city like Paris, where you just HAVE to experience the cuisine at least once), but what you can save is significant. – Joe; Flight Attendant

Bolt Bus is a cheap way to get around the west coast. I’ve used it to travel between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC! 🙂 Bolt Bus $15 fares between PDX and Seattle with daily buses.” – Kat; Creative Designer

…and my personal favorite:

I will literally sleep in a tree… traveling is a must!” – Josh; Will literally sleep in a tree because traveling is a must. He’s totally right, me too dude.

Heidi Keyes is the Founder of Puff, Pass & Paint, and Co-Founder & President of Cannabis Tours. Heidi writes about her experiences, sharing her advice, travel tips, and wisdom in Puff, Pass Ponder.


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