Here’s a hot take: People who say that they love to travel … rarely ever do it.
Instead, they’ll pepper you with excuses as to why they haven’t traveled but still wish they could.
“I don’t have enough vacation days!”
“I’m just way too busy with work/school/binge-watching-the-entirety-of-Game-Of-Thrones.”
“I’ll finally go backpacking eventually.”
However, the most common excuse that gets uttered by people who wish they traveled is this:
“Traveling is too expensive.”
I’m sure you’ve found yourself saying it. Hell, I’ve used this excuse before too — and there’s a good reason for it.
Society tells us that traveling (especially international travel) has to be expensive — that unless you’re dropping thousands of dollars on airplane tickets, hotel rooms, tours, museum passes, and expensive travel gear, or spending hundreds of hours studying the mysterious art of travel rewards hacking, you’re going to break the bank.
In reality, you CAN save money without having to do any of those things.
Ask the travel experts
If you know one thing about IWT it’s this: We’re all about expert advice.
That’s why we decided to talk to a few professional travelers to help give you the lowdown on how to travel cheap. You’ll find out exactly how to leverage your money to start traveling without breaking the bank.
Because once you remove the barrier of money…what’s your excuse?
Matthew Kepnes (aka Nomadic Matt)
Started traveling: July 2006
# of countries traveled to: 80
Matt quit his cubicle job for a life of travel more than a decade ago and hasn’t looked back. He’s since launched his website, NomadicMatt.com, where he’s helped millions of readers get the most out of their travels financially. Oh, and he became the New York Times best-selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day (which puts him in good company with other cool people).
Started traveling: 2011
Favorite travel experience: Living like royalty in Thailand
Bryce first caught the travel bug after he was able to essentially score a free spring break trip during college using the rewards on just one new credit card. When his friends kept asking him advice on how to get into travel hacking, he decided to launch his own business to teach readers how to best leverage travel rewards and points. He’s since accumulated millions of travel points that allow him to travel abroad in luxury several times a year.
Started traveling: 2002
Number of travel credit cards: Lost count
He’s been called the “godfather of the [frequent flyer] hobby” — and with good reason. He started leveraging points while travel reward programs were still in their relative infancy. Gary’s knowledge and acumen in the world of maximizing rewards spans literal decades, and plenty of others have taken notice. He’s been featured on Good Morning America, The Washington Post, and even The Colbert Report.
Matthew Karsten (aka Expert Vagabond)
Started traveling: 2010
First place traveled to outside of US: Guatemala City, Guatemala
For the past 7 years, Matt has hitchhiked across America, gotten a magical tattoo by monks in Thailand, and went cage diving with Great White Sharks, all the while providing readers with insights on how to get the most out of traveling on his website, ExpertVagabond.com. No, he isn’t the Most Interesting Man in the World — he’s better.
NOTE: We have not one but TWO Matt Ks who are travel pros. (Go figure!) As such, I’ll be referring to Matthew Kepnes as Nomadic Matt and Matthew Karsten as Expert Vagabond.
3 rules on how to travel cheap
They all had a lot of a whole lotta great ideas on how to best travel on a budget that easily distilled into three simple rules:
- Get the best travel credit card
- Travel at the right time
- Budget consciously
At the end of each rule, we’ll provide action steps you can take today to make that trip (and that Rich Life) even more attainable.
Cheap travel rule #1: Get the best travel credit card
We’ve written about travel credit cards before — but since I’m sure there is someone out there who hasn’t read it (shocking, I know), allow me to politely reiterate a lesson that goes for anyone who isn’t in any form of credit card debt.
YOU SHOULD GET A TRAVEL CREDIT CARD!!!!!
Travel credit cards offer some of the best ways to earn Big Wins. By maximizing and accruing points through their associated rewards programs, you can save thousands per year on travel.
This is also the way most of these travel experts we’ve talked to do it so cheap: on points. It’s the bare minimum you should do if you want to travel cheap.
“The biggest bang for your buck when it comes to your travel is definitely rewards points and miles,” Bryce told us. “People think that if you don’t travel for work or travel all the time that you’re never going to earn enough points and miles, and that’s really not true. For the vast majority of people, you’re going to earn more points and miles on the ground through responsible credit card use than you ever will traveling for business.”
Though a good travel credit card has a number of components that make it great, when you boil it down, it all comes down to two things: points and perks.
Airlines and travel credit cards give you points on certain purchases that you can exchange for things like flight tickets and hotels. However, not all points are made the same.
“What you really want out of your credit card earnings are points that transfer to a variety of frequent flyer programs. I’d rather have a point with Chase that can be transferred to United or to another airline or hotel programs than just earning a point with United.”
So you want points that can be exchanged to a wide variety of frequent flyer programs with different airlines. That way, you can maximize your spend when you want to exchange your points.
The airlines that you prioritize will depend on a number of factors, including:
- Proximity to your home. Does the airline operate at an airport near you?
- Your loyalty to them. Do you absolutely love your experience with a certain airline? Is there one you’d rather avoid completely?
- Your destination. Does that airline operate in the place you want to travel to?
By deciding on the airlines you’d like to prioritize, you can make a better judgement about which rewards card you get.
The amount each point is worth in dollars varies from rewards program to rewards program. Luckily, our good friend Brian Kelly over at ThePointsGuy.com keeps a monthly tally of how much certain points are worth.
Each travel credit card rewards program is unique in the perks they will offer you.
Often times, those perks can be amazing.
“I’ve flown with all the bells and whistles using perks,” Bryce says. “Lying flat seats, amazing meals with a chef on board, Dom Perignon champagne before take off. That’s all what you can really understand your perks. That alone has been life changing in a travel perspective.”
That’s why it’s so important to take the time to understand all of the benefits that come with a certain card before you get it. The small amount of time you spend learning about your card can actually save you a lot of headache later on.
“Take ten minutes to understand the perks of your card,” Bryce suggests. “Many people don’t understand the perks that they have because they get the card and don’t read the fine print or read blogs like mine. That’s why people still contact me saying their flight got delayed and how much it sucked — when many times their card might reimburse them $500 to cover those issues. And they had no idea!”
And while you’re going to want to tailor your card to your goals (more on that later), there’s one travel credit card that recently came to market that has been making waves for its undeniable awesomeness: The Chase Sapphire Reserve.
The king of all travel credit cards: Chase Sapphire Reserve
Annual fee: $450/year
Bonus: 50,000 points (after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months)
If this card went to your high school, it’d be the prom king quarterback who still managed to get straight As and become an Eagle Scout. It’s really that good.
“This is by far the best card to go with. It’s been very widely publicized in the financial press and with good reason,” Bryce says. “It comes with a ton of perks including free travel insurance, car rental insurance, TSA PreCheck, and Global Entry.”
NOTE: TSA PreCheck allows you to breeze through the line at security, while Global Entry allows you to breeze through the line at immigration. It’s totally worth all the dirty looks you’ll get.
And if that $450 annual fee throws you off, don’t worry — the card practically pays for itself with $300 in annual travel credit as well as its perks.
“Many people get scared away though because of that $450 annual fee,” Bryce continues. “Sure, you’re paying $450, but the perks alone are worth that each year, plus the big sign-up bonus on points.”
The card also offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months, and you’re earning triple points on dining and travel.
Other fantastic perks:
- Lounge access in over 900 airports. Chase gives you access to airport lounges all over the world. These are areas where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the airport terminal, grab a drink, use Wi-Fi, relax in comfy chairs, and even shower in some lounges.
- Reimbursed Global Entry and TSA PreCheck ($100 value). If you travel frequently for work or life, this perk should have you salivating. Free Global Entry means you’ll be able to speed right through the immigration line at the airport AND get access to TSA PreCheck, allowing you to speed through the line at security.
- Better protections if your flight is canceled. If your flight is delayed more than six hours, Chase reimburses you for up to $500 per ticket.
And while we recommend the Chase Sapphire Reserve, we encourage you to get a card that’s tailored to your goals so it’ll best suit your individual needs (Hop down to our “Set a travel goal” section for more info).
How to maximize your travel rewards
Once you get your card in the mail, there are 3 great tactics you can take in order to get the most bang for your buck.
- Stop using cash. “Use your card for everything you can,” Bryce says. “Try not to pay cash.”
The best way for you to get as many points as possible on your travel rewards program is to spend it on everything you normally would. That means leaving the cash in your wallet (unless you’re at one of those weird bars that don’t take credit cards like it’s the dark ages).
You can even spend it on things you wouldn’t have expected.
“The amount of money you spend is often more than you mentally think it is,” Bryce says. “You can start paying off your utilities on your card. There’s even ways to pay off your student loans, mortgages, and rent.”
- Don’t go into debt. While this may seem painfully obvious, it’s a lot easier to be more liberal about spending when you know each dollar is going towards that awesome trip to Nairobi.
“When you get a new card, it’s easy to get really excited about points,” Bryce explains. “You decide maybe you do need that new flat screen TV and that new coat when you might not otherwise have purchased it.”
Instead, don’t change your lifestyle for your travel credit card. Instead, be judicious about your purchases and make sure you pay your credit card bills.
You can do both of those things through one of my favorite financial systems: Automating your personal finances. Keep reading to find out exactly how to get started doing that today.
- Track your points.
If you decide to really get into the weeds of travel rewards hacking and get multiple travel credit cards, you’re going to want to keep track of all of your points in one place.
Gary’s tip for the best way to do this? Use AwardsWallet. It’s an incredibly helpful online travel rewards tracking tool that’ll even notify you if there are any changes in your flight.
“AwardsWallet lets me track most of my points in one place and it’ll flag when your points are going to expire,” Gary says. “It also helps me track when there are changes to the itinerary or if I have to change my seat. It’s really helpful.”
For more information on how to maximize travel credit cards, be sure to check out our article on the best travel credit card of 2017.
While your travel credit card is only one part of how to travel cheap, the most important thing you could do to get started is setting a goal.
Set a travel goal to help you choose the best card
Much like literally anything else you want to do in life, set a travel goal. Not only will setting a goal help you keep focused (and as a result, increase your chances of accomplishing said goal), it can also help you save money when it comes to travel.
“The important thing to do when you begin travel hacking is to come up with a plan,” Nomadic Matt says. “Have a goal in mind. What do you want?”
And I get it. The question of what you want to get out of your travels is a HUGE one. After all, we’re talking about a literal world you can travel here. That’s why Nomadic Matt suggests you niche down your goal with some specific questions:
- What do you want out of your perks?
- Do you want free flights?
- Do you prioritize hotel points?
- Are you loyal to one brand?
- Is there a specific trip you have in mind?
The answers to these questions can help you come up with goals that can help you decide on which travel credit card you want to go with.
From Nomadic Matt:
“If you’re a loyal flier with American Airlines, the best cards to start off with would be the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard (50,000-point sign-up bonus) and the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express (25,000-point sign-up bonus, plus a 20% bonus when you transfer your SPG points to one of their partner airlines like AA). That way you get the perks the card comes with (free checked bags, special discounts, and priority boarding) and can jumpstart your point balance right away.
Just want free hotel rooms? Sign up for the card from the hotel brand of your choice.
Having a trip in mind and then working backwards to see what cards get you there is the best way to optimize your spending. That way you don’t get any card with a flashy bonus, you get the right card. I skip a lot of cards because they just don’t meet my travel needs.”
ACTION STEP: Sign up for a travel credit card
Now it’s time to actually sign up for a travel credit card that’s tailored to your goals. Doing so is simple — but it’ll take a little bit of time (one to two weeks). But if you’re patient and you do your research, you’ll end up with a card that’ll be earning travel points for you in no time.
Step 1: Set a travel goal. Use the questions above to help you find out what exactly you want out of a travel credit card.
Step 2: Research 3-5 travel credit cards. Based on your goals, you’re now going to try to find a good travel credit card that’ll fit your needs. Start with a simple Google query for your goal (ex. “Best travel card for hotels” “Best travel credit card for flights”) and go from there.
Every travel credit card has a web page that’ll contain all of the minutiae related to the card’s perks and rewards program. Spend 10 – 20 minutes reading through each of the pages so you understand what each card has to offer.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Best for hotels: AmEx Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card. With the sign-up bonus that gives you 25,000 points to spend on hotels, as well as 2 points for every dollar spent for Starwood properties (not to mention the fantastic transfer partners), this card is great for the accommodation conscious.
- Best for beginners: Chase Sapphire Preferred. This one is a perfect introductory card as it has a relatively low annual fee ($95) that’s actually waived the first year. You also have plenty of great rewards as well including 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in your first three months.
- Best overall: Chase Sapphire Reserve. Seriously, this card is just GOOD.
Step 3: Sign up for one.
Eventually, you’ll want to niche your choices down to one — and only one for now.
We’re going to start slowly here because you don’t want to run up a bunch of new lines of credit and go crazy. Instead, choose the one that’s the best for you.
Signing up is easy. Simply go to the credit card’s website, click on the “Apply Now” button (each site will have a variation of that), and start the application process.
The application itself is relatively simple and will ask you for the following information:
- Date of birth
- Employment status
- Yearly salary
Once you’ve applied, the credit card company will find out your debt-to-income ratio (your risk as a client) to determine whether or not you can get a card. If you’re approved, great! You’ll receive your card in the mail in one to two weeks.
If not, that’s okay! I have a great system that can help you improve your credit score and get out of debt.
Cheap travel rule #2: Stay flexible about travel
Much like comedy, travel is all about…
Flexibility can mean the difference of hundreds, possibly even thousands, of dollars in airfare and points.
More specifically, you should be flexible in these three areas:
- When you fly.
- Where you stay.
- Where you go.
When you fly
“Flexibility is the most important thing in finding a cheap flight,” Nomadic Matt says. “You need to be flexible in either your date or destination. If you have to go to Paris on a specific date, then you have to pay the fare. There’s no magic bullet to make the price go down.”
He continues, “But by changing your date by a day or two, you might be able to drop the price. Same works for destinations. If there’s a cheaper flight to London instead of Stockholm, consider going to London instead.”
It also helps to travel during times when there are drastically less people traveling. Off-peak season for uber-popular destinations like New York City or London can have a huge effect on not only airline prices but also hotels, museum entry, and tours as well.
“One of my wife and I’s favorite thing to do each year is to go to Western Europe either over President’s Day weekend or MLK Day weekend. Those days aren’t holidays over there and everything is half the price it would be if you went during the summer because summer is the peak travel season.
For example, we were in Paris just over a weekend and in just a couple days we were able to hit all of the highlights of what we wanted to see because you’re not waiting 2 hours in line for the Louvre, you’re not having to buy Eiffel Tower tickets weeks in advance. You can just walk into all these places!
Also, our flights were insanely cheap.”
Along with traveling during off-peak season, you can also leverage a variety of online tools to help you travel on a budget.
“Using multiple flight search engine websites like Google Flights, Skyscanner, and Momondo before you choose helps narrow down the cheapest options,” says Expert Vagabond. “You can sign up for fare alerts on these sites too, and they’ll notify you by email if the prices for your destination change.”
Where you stay
This means you can skip the expensive Big Box hotels that are looking to squeeze you of as much money as possible.
“But Ramit,” you might be saying. “I don’t want to stay in a hostel that’ll require me to get a tetanus shot afterwards.”
A common misconception is that traveling cheap means you have to stay in sketchy hostels or flea-ridden hotels.
“When people picture hostels, they picture the dirty, smelly, cramped places of the 70s and movies that have entered our cultural consciousness,” Nomadic Matt says. “That’s not really the case. Hostels have modernized themselves to meet the demands of the market. They often have nice beds, restaurants, bars, free Wi-Fi, offer tours, and all have private rooms and showers.”
He continues, “I’ve stayed at hostels that rival boutique hotels. I wouldn’t count them out as an option. You can find some really nice ones out there.”
If hostels aren’t your thing, websites such as Airbnb offer a wide array of fantastic alternatives to hostels AND hotels.
“If you’re not into hostels, then hands down the best way to save money on accommodation is via Airbnb (or similar websites),” Nomadic Matt says. “You have a huge selection and great prices. That’s the only way to go if you want something that’s between a hostel and a hotel.”
Where you go
While big cities like Paris, New York, and Tokyo are undeniably alluring, they’re also insanely expensive. In fact, those three cities I just mentioned consistently rank in the top ten most expensive cities in the world.
If that is enough to turn you off from traveling, have no fear! Instead, you can choose to travel to a place with a lower cost of living. Doing this can help you save a ton of money.
“One of the best ways to travel cheap is to go to places that have a cheaper cost of living than the place you currently live,” Bryce says. “People get caught up with costs of the $1,500 to fly to Asia. What they don’t realize is that once you get there, you can live a really similar lifestyle to what you do in the States for about $30 a day.”
HOWEVER, this isn’t to say that in order to travel cheap you have to avoid places like Paris and Tokyo at all costs. If you want to go to a more expensive destination AND not break the bank, you’ll need to learn how to practice conscious budgeting.
ACTION STEP: Use the right tools to book your next travel
So if you’re flexible about when and where you travel, as well as where you stay, you’ll be able to save a lot of money.
Use the tools below to help you book cheap flights and find good accommodations.
- Skyscanner. This is an excellent flight aggregator that allows you to receive price alerts on specific flights when the price goes down. Skyscanner also comes with a handy mobile app that’ll alert you as soon as price for flights drop.
- Google Flight Alerts. Another great flight data aggregator by everyone’s favorite search engine (stop trying to make Bing happen, Bill Gates. It’s not going to happen). This one will send you an email notification as soon as there’s a price change.
- Scott’s Cheap Flights. A best kept secret amongst travel budgeters, Scott’s Cheap Flights will send you insanely low deals right to your inbox.
- Airbnb. This site is great to find some really cool places at a relatively low cost (you can even stay in a freaking castle!).
- HostelBookers.com. With over 35,000 hostels in over 170 countries, HostelBookers should be your first stop when trying to find a good hostel. You’ll have no trouble finding an awesome (yet budget friendly) option here.
- HostelWorld. Another great option to find hostels. The site’s 24/7 customer support is also at your call in case you have any questions or concerns about your bookings.
Cheap travel rule #3: Budget consciously
Budgeting for travel is going to come in two different forms:
- How you save money for travel
- How you spend money while traveling
You can approach budgeting for both of these things through painless, automatic systems that do the work for you.
How to save money before travel
Long time readers can probably guess what the best way to save money for travel is, so let’s all just say it together:
“Automate your finances.”
For those who don’t know what that is, I’ll give a quick breakdown.
Automating your finances is a system wherein your money works passively for you. It’s the ultimate cure to never knowing how much you have in your checking account and how much you can spend.
When you receive your paycheck, your money is funneled to exactly where it needs to go — whether that be your utilities, rent, Roth IRA, 401k, or your savings account.
How do you save for travel using this system? Simple: You start a sub-savings account exclusively for travel and automate your finances so money goes there every month.
Most banks allow you to create a sub-savings account along with your normal savings account (you can even name them too!). Create an account for your traveling goals and start saving today.
“You need to make travel a priority [if you want to do it cheap],” Nomadic Matt says. “Start a separate savings account. Audit your expenses. Keep track of everything you spend money on for a few weeks and find out where the low hanging fruit is.”
“BUT RAMIT! THIS GOES AGAINST YOUR RICH LIFE PHILOSOPHY! WHO AM I TO BELIEVE???”
Look, there’s more than one way to save money. I actually LOVE that the experts and I disagree on this topic. It goes to show that Rich Life philosophy might not work for everyone…and that’s fine. What matters more to me is that you are willing to put forth the effort and start saving money for your goals, whether it be traveling, buying a new house, or getting a new car.
“Not everyone can save a ton of money or even has the means to travel all the time,” Nomadic Matt says. “But with enough time and dedication, the majority of us can get somewhere.“
How to save money while traveling
This one can be boiled down to one line: Live like a local.
“Do you think local Costa Ricans pay for tours all the time when traveling in their own country?” the Expert Vagabond asks. “Or stay at fancy hotels? Or eat out at nice restaurants every night? No. They go to the beach and chill. They stay with friends or in cheap guesthouses. They take the bus. They visit a National Park. They eat at cheap mom & pop eateries. You, as a traveler, can do the same. All you have to do is pay for a flight to get down there!”
And often times, there are also resources at your destination tailormade to help you get the most out of your travels while saving money.
“Go into the local tourism office too,” Nomadic Matt suggests. “They exist to help you save money. They know everything going on in your destination and can point you to free exhibits, attractions, and discounts you won’t find in your Lonely Planet guide. When I was in the Loire in France, they sold discounted entrance to all the castles. I saved about $30 bucks by just walking in. Too many people skip them.”
ACTION STEP: Automate your finances
If you want to learn more about how to automate your finances, check out this 12-minute video of me explaining the exact process I use below. Setting everything up won’t take more than one or two hours out of your day, but it will save you thousands of dollars over your lifetime.
Earning money while abroad
Saving money isn’t the only way you can hold onto cash during your travels. There are actually a variety of ways you can earn money while abroad too.
That’s why my team and I have worked hard to create a guide to help you navigate all the systems that’ll help you earn more money today: The Ultimate Guide to Making Money.
In it, I’ve included my best strategies to:
- Create multiple income streams so you always have a consistent source of revenue.
- Start your own business and escape the 9-to-5 for good.
- Increase your income by thousands of dollars a year through side hustles like freelancing.
Download a FREE copy of the Ultimate Guide today by entering your name and email below — and start blowing up your net worth today.