12 steps you can take to make travel affordable

So you love to travel. Or you love the idea of international travel and you’re ready to give it a try. Funds are not exactly flowing, but you want to try to make it happen. I’m not a travel agent or a global nomad–just an ordinary person who’s somewhat obsessed about finding travel deals. Here are some no-nonsense tips to get you started and to help make travel affordable for you.

1. track fares to your chosen destinations

Create your list of destinations you’d like to visit in the next 12 months. Next, plug each destination into one or more of the tools below. This will give you a sense of when airfares to each of those destinations are highest and lowest, so you’ll know when it’s time to buy.

Create alerts on at least one of these sites so you’ll know when the price drops.

Book your flights when the fare drops to a reasonable level. Don’t tear your hair out worrying about getting the absolute lowest fare. If you’ve been tracking it for a while, you’ll know a good deal when you see one. Book it and move on!

Best tools: Google Flights, Skyscanner, ITA MatrixMomondoHipmunk, Hopper
(Stay tuned for a future post with tips on how best to use each of these essential travel tools!)

2. Sign up for deal alerts

Deal alert sites track price drops, airline sales, error fares, and more. Sign up for email alerts (or follow on Twitter or Facebook, if you prefer) from one or all of the following:

If you’re wary of being inundated with alerts, just pick a couple favorites and just casually watch the rest.

3. Befriend the airlines

Which airlines have hubs at the airports near where you live? Don’t know? Find out, then sign up to get deals emails from these airlines .

Find out which airlines service the airports at your chosen destinations, then sign up to get alerted to deals from these airlines as well.

4. be open to going when (and where) the fares are cheap

High season is expensive for a reason. I mean, who wants to go to Iceland in December? Well, maybe you do. Because if the price is right, you can even afford to do that Northern Lights tour!

Shoulder season is more affordable and you can avoid the coldest and the hottest temperatures (and the biggest crowds) at your destination.

5. Get creative

Nonstop business class makes for a quick and painless journey–but it’ll cost you. If you want or need to save money, you’re going to have to get creative. By getting creative you may be able to take a trip that at first appeared out of your reach.

Would you be willing to drive or bus to an airport outside of your home base? Would you be cool with jumping on a cheap flight to, say, Scotland, then taking a discount carrier to your destination? Would you be willing to buy an open-jaw flight and figure out later how to get from, say, Jakarta to Hanoi? Would you be willing to skiplag (which entails packing only a carry-on bag, buying two one-way tickets, and possibly pissing off one or more airlines)?

Any of these options could drastically reduce the cost of your trip. They could also exponentially increase the pain in your ass (literally and figuratively). Only you can decide what amount of inconvenience is worth the savings.

Best tools: Rome 2 Rio, Skiplagged, Clever Layover

6. have a travel fund

Having money set aside makes it possible for you to jump on airfares. There are numerous ways to get this done: Set up direct deposit so that a portion of your paycheck goes to a separate savings account. Pursue a side hustle and use the extra income to fund your travel habit. Sell some of your unused stuff on Craigslist, eBay, or an app like OfferUp. Put every 5-dollar bill that passes through your hands into jar, then dump them into your savings account every week.

This saving thing is easier when you…

7. Cut your non-travel expenses

Saving up to travel means being intentional about how you spend your money. Every time you buy something you don’t need, that’s money that could have gone towards a trip.

So for example, instead of carrying an expensive cable service, you can use a combination of Roku, Firestick, Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, to name a few. You can borrow books from the library. (Does your local public library enable you to download the latest magazines to your tablet? Mine does, and I’m guessing yours does, too.)

Other ideas: Cook your own meals. Reduce the frequency of lawn and cleaning services, or do the work yourself. Go to happy hour for lower-cost nights out. Join your local Freecycle. Buy used clothes. Do your own hair and nails.

Having lower monthly expenses should enable you to pay off any consumer debt you have, and then you can use that money towards your travel fund.

Best resources: Mint, You Need a Budget, Mr. Money Mustache, Michelle Singletary, Dave Ramsey

8. Use miles

If you have good credit — and if you commit to paying off your card’s balance every month — you can sign up for a good travel credit card with a generous sign-up bonus (like 30,000 to 50,000 miles). That’ll get you a nice trip for free after you spend the required minimum.

Then you can charge everything you are going to buy anyway (utilities, insurance, etc.) and pay the charges off the same week. Keep going with this strategy and you’ll be flying pretty regularly.

The miles game is almost a contact sport in some circles. It gets really deep and complicated. It’s not for everyone, but chasing miles can be a really good way to get flights.

Best tools: Nerd Wallet,  Million Mile SecretsThe Points Guy

9. Stagger your purchases or pay in installments

If you buy each part separately, you can buy your plane tickets one month, accommodations the next month, and any tours or extras a few months later.

Another option is to use PayPal Credit, which gives you 6 months to pay off your purchase with no interest. (The interest rate is %19.99, so make sure you do pay it off in time!)

There are also options for layaway or installment plans for travel with deltavacations.comAirfordable, and Tuzola, for example.

10. Keep your travel accommodation expenses low

Stay in a place with a kitchen so you can cook at least some, if not most, of your meals. Having your own space means you can chill with a coffee in your living room or on your patio instead of a coffee shop. I like Airbnb, but shop around to see which services have the most/best places at your destination.

Best tools: Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, Wimdu, 9 Flats, FlipKey

11. take public transportation when traveling

Do research ahead of time to discover any discounts available on the local bus / subway / light rail system (like 10-trip ticket, unlimited weekend pass, or whatevs). Can you buy one it the airport? If it’s possible to take the subway from the airport to the city, can you swing it?

If your flight gets in late and you need to spring for an Uber, do it. There’s no need to drag yourself exhausted through dark, unfamiliar streets with bags (and, possibly, a kid) in tow. This travel thing is supposed to be fun, right? But after you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, take a walk around your neighborhood and start putting that glorious bus pass to good use!

Not sure whether to walk or take the subway? Use an app that gives you walking and public transportation options. You can download a local map so you don’t have to use your data plan.

Best tools: Google Maps, HERE mapsRome2Rio

12. Get travel medical and trip insurance

Shit happens. Travel insurance might seem like an unnecessary expense now. But if you need acute medical care abroad, or if you have to get back home in a hurry to deal with an emergency, you will be ever so grateful you have it.

Plug your details into Squaremouth, a portal that enables you to compare travel insurance policies from multiple companies in one place. Find a policy that covers both health (medical evacuation) and trip insurance. Buy it and sleep easy.

Okay, dear reader:
What did I leave out?
What steps do you take to keep travel affordable?


4 thoughts on “12 steps you can take to make travel affordable

  1. Africa S says:

    Wonderful article with helpful tips! I’d just add the baggage game. Low cost carriers are now allowing only a personal item, charging more for carry-on than checked baggage, etc, so the savvy traveler has to learn how to pack light, come up with alternate arrangements or factor baggage fees into costs.

    • Cat says:

      Oh, absolutely–thanks for pointing that out! With low-cost carriers, it definitely pays to read the fine print and know the rules. For example, if you do need to check bags, it’s more cost-effective to pay for it in advance. Paying for a checked bag at the airport will cost more!

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