Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a trust fund to traverse the globe. If you’re often lost in wanderlust but seldom turn those reveries into realities, your less-than-impressive bank account is not to blame. I’m a 20-something writer paying Manhattan rent who's in over their head in student loans, and I’ve been able to send myself to more than 30 countries across five continents thus far; my life is no enigma. These are my not-so-secret tricks of the trade.
1. Understand your monthly obligations.
Recognize that you need to pay your rent, utilities, loans, groceries, laundry and transportation costs before all else. Deduct those expenses from your monthly income and set them aside. Then consider how often you extraneously treat yourself each month, and set aside a restricted but realistic portion of your paycheck to cover it, remembering that you want to travel new roads more than you want that Rocky Road.
Take what’s left of your paycheck and put it in your savings where it can grow; don’t touch it. There are apps like Mint to help delineate your budgets and alert you when you’re close to going over, but I find that if you regularly check your accounts and keep mindful of your spending habits, you’ll do just fine on your own.
2. Write down your travel priorities.
Thinking of your wants and having tangible evidence of them are entirely different. When you’re equipped with a palpable written list of your travel goals, you’re more likely to achieve them — instead of inadvertently changing them in your head. Do you want to hit every tour a city has to offer or would you rather chill out at the local watering hole? Is trying new food a large part of travel’s appeal or are you content with the hotel’s free breakfast? If you want to stay at a specific spot in the city’s center, you may need to save more money than the backpacker who’s grabbing a hostel bed or surfing on locals’ couches. Be honest with yourself and rationalize.
3. Schedule a small auto-transfer from your checking to your savings every month.
I put $100 away every month which I don’t even notice anymore. In three or four months, that turns into a round-trip flight to the Caribbean. In a year, it’s a ticket to Europe. Even if you set aside $50, consider it a few more lunches you’ll pack instead of buy, or a few more times you’ll take public transportation instead of an Uber.
4. Apply for a travel credit card.
Use your credit card, and solely this credit card, for all of your travel costs and then some. I use a Capital One Venture Rewards card and was granted 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Then I get two points for every dollar spent on travel — cabs, ride shares, subway tickets, flights, hotels, et cetera — and that equates to a rewards rate of two percent if I choose to redeem for flight miles or hotels. Other notable cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards card.
5. Weigh all options.
If you plan on traveling for travel’s sake and you want to visit multiple destinations, do so in the cheapest possible order. You want to exhaust all possible combinations of the destinations you plan on visiting (eg: Budapest to Vienna to Prague or Budapest to Prague to Vienna and so on). Google a math combination calculator, assign a number to each city and plug it all in. Then head over to a site that allows you to search multi-destination flights (like CheapOair) and try out all the combos to book the cheapest order.
6. Take advantage of layovers.
Flights with layovers are, on average, cheaper than direct flights. They’re also essentially free rides to more cities you can check off your bucket list. If you can find an overnight layover and are not in a rush, those are always worth it. Otherwise, eight hours is a safe amount of time to get through customs and enjoy a few hours in most places before heading back to the airport without rushing. I’ve pulled layovers off in six hours in some cities, but any less time would probably be wasted on commute time to and from your destination.
7. Be flexible about where you go and when.
Keep an open mind and, rather than taking days off and planning a trip for that time, request your time off only after you’ve explored the abyss of the internet a bit. Sites like SkyScanner.com will allow you to search flexibly; put “everywhere” as your destination and research an open time frame like entire months or the “cheapest month.” It’s worth noting that flying when most people choose not to is typically more cost-effective — like the inconvenient middle of the week or on American holidays when, in general, people have plans.
8. Consider multiple modes of transportation.
Flying between cities in Europe might be your quickest bet, but taking the Eurail is much easier on your wallet. Get a global pass, which will allow you access to trains in 28 European countries for up to three months of continuous travel for $351 - $1,277 USD. Also check out ferries and sleeper buses, which would allow you to travel through the night and save on accommodation. Apps like Rome to Rio will help you find the best alternative routes from Point A to Point B.
9. Be wise when converting currencies.
If you’re leaving the country, you’ll probably have to exchange your dollars for the local currency. But too many exchange vendors will rip you off with rates, or give you false information as to how much you’ll need. Use multiple currency converters before heading out to determine the current exchange rate — if you even need it, as some countries widely accept US dollars. And make sure you don’t take out more than you need; if you have to switch it back later, you’ll lose some in translation, and you never want to be carrying around a lot of cash anyway.
10. Keep an incidentals fund.
There’s always something for which you’ll forget to account — sunscreen, a phone charger, an outlet adapter, pharmaceuticals in case you get sick. Be sure to consider the oft-overlooked expenses, and keep some extra money on hand that you can always put back if it ends up untouched.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
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