“Travel more” is on endless bucket lists and 2019 New Year’s resolutions, but when life happens, it can be hard to fit into our jam-packed schedules — let alone afford.
For the past 10 years, Anna Mazurek has been traveling the world, and figuring out how to cut costs on travel in the meantime. In her new book, Good With Money: A Guide to Prioritizing Spending, Maximizing Savings, and Traveling More, Anna talks about all of the ways she’s figured out how to travel without debt, all on an income of $30,000.
In the meantime, she’s shared 15 of her top tricks for cutting travel expenses with us — so this year, you can take the trip you swore you’d take in 2018.
1. Free Entry Days
Most museums and botanic gardens offer free entry monthly and sometimes weekly. Others will at least offer a reduced admission day — for example, the Brooklyn Museum is free the first Saturday of the month. Keep this in mind when planning your itinerary, it can tremendously cut down on your expenses.
For popular museums like the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the line might be very long for the free entry times, so it’s important to arrive early. Be sure to take advantage of cities like London that have a plethora of museums that are always free.
Tip: Bank of America customers receive free general admission to select U.S. museums the first weekend of every month by showing their debit or credit card.
2. Avoid Bank Fees
When I first started traveling, I was annoyed by all the ATM fees. My bank would charge me a fee, and the ATM I used would also charge me a fee. Nowadays, ATMs that don’t charge fees are a rare breed. (The ATMs in Argentina currently charge you $10 per transaction!).
An expat friend in Singapore told me about Charles Schwab’s free High Yield Investor Checking account, which has unlimited refunds for all ATM fees charged by other banks! The account also doesn’t have any minimum balance or direct deposit requirements, there are no foreign transaction fees. (This is a one to three percent fee charged by many banks and credit cards to convert the currency for purchases made overseas). Last month, they refunded me $37 in ATM fees! I love it so much that it’s my main bank account now.
I only use credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, which includes all Capital One cards, most airline cards, and Chase cards. I also pay off my credit cards monthly so I never pay interest.
3. Stay in Hostels
Don’t worry — hostels are nothing like the movies. They are the best place to meet other travelers, because you essentially rent out a bed in a dorm of 3-20 people. They feature shared showers and lockers for your valuables. (Pack your shower shoes and a sturdy lock). Private rooms and female-only dorms are also available. Most have full kitchens, and some even offer free breakfast. It’s basically like being in college again without having to go to class. Prices range from $6 (in Asia and Central America) to $50 (NYC and Japan).
You can find hostels and reviews on Booking.com, Trip Advisor, and Hostelworld. To avoid booking fees, book with the hostel directly. If you are planning a long stay, only pay for the first couple nights when you arrive to make sure you like the place. I personally use Booking.com with an Ebates.com referral link to earn a commission on my booking. If the price is cheaper elsewhere, Booking.com will match it!
4. Turn off your phone service
If you are going aboard, buy a local SIM card instead of paying for international coverage on your current plan. I’ve tried to use international plans, but they either never work or were insanely expensive! Last month, I paid $15 for 4.5 GB of data for 30 days in Thailand. This week in Singapore, I paid $9 for 100 GB for seven days of data, which was the cheapest plan offered. Verizon allows users to pay $10 a month to suspend their service without billing, which is what I do while I’m abroad. Chances are paying the suspension fee and buying a local SIM card is cheaper than your monthly phone bill!
5. Buy Quality Gear
Before my first long-term trip, I searched forever for the perfect camera backpack — nothing would fit my camera efficiently. I settled on a hiking day pack with a laptop sleeve made by Osprey that I bought at a hiking store for $100. After three trips around the world, it finally started to rip, so I went to buy another one. I asked the staff at the same outdoor store if they had a similar model. Then, the angels started singing and he said, “Call Osprey, and they will fix it for free. They have a lifetime warranty.” I sent it to Osprey who, indeed, fixed it at no cost. After sending it back for a few more repairs, they decided it couldn’t be fixed and replaced it for FREE. They are literally the nicest folks and have the best customer service. They have my loyalty for life.
The lesson here is to invest in quality gear with warranties. Here is a list of a few other things that I’ve had replaced under warranty:
- Marmot replaced my five-year-old, $100 raincoat when the lining ripped.
- Western Digital and LaCie have replaced three external hard drives that crashed ($100 each).
- Patagonia just replaced my $60 thermals that had a unraveling seam.
- Energizer sent me a refund for a $30 AA battery charger after it started smoking one day.
- Apple has fixed and/or replaced every Mac and iPhone I’ve ever had under warranty. (Always buy the AppleCare. Trust me, it’s worth it!).
6. Be Aware of High and Low Seasons
Costs can triple during holidays and high seasons. Ideally, it’s best to plan a trip between the madness of high season and the emptiness of low season. Book in advance, and be aware of national holidays in your destination country. It’s easier to negotiate prices in the low season, but the weather might not be ideal. Guidebooks provide a good breakdown for seasons and holidays on their first few pages, or a quick Google search can yield the same results. Christmas, New Years, and Easter are always peak seasons. During the low season, I lived well on $15/day in Khao Lak, a beach town north of Phuket in Southern Thailand. It was the rainy season but only rained a little each day — it was cheaper than any place I’ve lived in the States!
7. Work Exchange Programs
Work exchange programs are a great way to volunteer your time in exchange for room and board. Many companies link hosts with volunteers, and the time frame can range from days to months. There is no age requirement, and it’s also possible to volunteer as a family with children. I’ve met many people during my travels who have used the programs below.
- Wwoff.net specializes with opportunities on organic farms across the world.
- WorkAway.info offers a variety of options including positions in schools, cafes, hostels, and farms. Membership costs $38 per year. (I stayed at many amazing hostels run by WorkAway staff and was offered jobs at a few!).
- HelpX.net is an alternative to WorkAway that provides positions at hostels, ranches, and many other options. It’s free to sign up but costs 20 Euros for two-year premier level membership. (One of my friends worked on a farm in New Zealand through HelpX and loved it!).
8. Loyalty & Rewards Programs
For every 10 nights you book on Hotels.com, you get one free. Sign up for hotel specific loyalty programs as well that offer free upgrades, Wi-Fi, and other deals. Hotels.com and Hotwire.com both give you discounts for signing up for their free loyalty program. Booking.com offers a discount of 10 percent on select properties if you book five stays in less than two years. (I used this a lot in South America recently for all types of accommodation).
9. Eat with the Locals
If a restaurant is full of foreigners, it’s not going to be cheap. Street food and local restaurants offer the best quality food at the cheapest prices. A meal at a street market in Thailand will only cost a couple dollars; you can get a street quesadilla for $1.50 in Mexico. Most local markets have a section of vendors serving prepared meals. Ask your hostel or accommodation for suggestions of great places where they — not the tourists — eat.
10. Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights
Scott’s Cheap Flights is an email list that sends out flight deals, which are often mistake prices. When you sign up, you set your region to get the most relevant deals for you. Each email will list prices and departing cities. They also give you a rough idea of how long the fare will last. In September, one of my friends booked a $410 roundtrip flight from Houston to New Zealand (a mistake fare) that was listed in one of the emails. It’s completely free to sign up, but there’s an option to upgrade to the premium ad-free list for $39/yearly that offers more deals and even more customizable filters for locations.
Booking.com will give you a $25 credit on your credit card for each friend you refer to the website that makes a $50 or higher booking. Your friend gets the same bonus. I’ve referred several of my friends on my current trip! Rewards programs like Marriott’s will give you up to 50,000 bonus points for referring friends.
12. Stay with Friends (or Friends of Friends)
The more you travel, the more your traveling network expands. Your friends also have friends. Ask around before your trip or put a post on Facebook to see if anyone is in your destination.
I am eternally grateful for all the people who have let me crash on their couches. They’ve been an essential part of my traveling experience. I recently took a two-week Amtrak trip through the East Coast and stayed with friends the entire trip except one night in Vermont. When I moved to Australia, I emailed a lady I met at a wedding about grabbing lunch after I got to Sydney, and she instantly offered to let me stay with her family until I found a place to live. The kindness of others is astounding.
Most people will offer you a place to stay instantly. If I ask, I always make a point to say, “If that’s not a convenient time, then I completely understand.” That gives them the option to be honest if the timing is not good, and there are no hard feelings. I always make a point of leaving handmade cards for people who let me crash at their place. Or I buy them beer/wine and add them to my postcard list.
When I travel in the U.S., I camp almost 90 percent of the time to cut back on costs. I stay mostly at KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campgrounds or campgrounds in national parks, which cost roughly $15-35/night (the price is even lower when I split it between the people I’m traveling with). Every KOA I’ve stayed at has been extremely nice with spotless bathrooms and WiFi! (My favorite is in Santa Fe!). If you don’t have camping gear, borrow it from friends, which is what I always do!
14. Free Breakfast
Look for accommodation that includes free breakfast to cut down costs. Be sure to inquire about the type of free breakfast. I just emailed two hostels in Medellin, Colombia, asking what they offer for breakfast — the one with the best breakfast gets my business. Check reviews — if the breakfast is bad, it will be noted.
15. Priority Pass
Priority Pass makes travel easier and less stressful. The pass allows access to 1200 airport lounges around the world. All lounges offer free Wi-Fi and food — lounges in the U.S. also offer free alcohol, and some even offer showers. If an airport or specific terminal doesn’t have a lounge, the pass will often give you a free $25-30 credit to spend at a specific restaurant. There’s no lounge in the Charlotte, N.C. airport, but the pass gets you a free hour in the Minute Suites hotel, which is a $40 value. Priority Pass comes free with many Chase credit cards, but can be purchased for $299/year — you can even take guests with you for free! For me, it means I can work in a calm environment with good Wi-Fi and not waste money on overpriced airport food. If you travel frequently, then it’s worth the cost. Check to see if it’s offered by your credit card!