Find a way or make one. I remember the first time I walked the hallways of the school where my little sister was teaching first grade in New Orleans, and I saw a banner emblazoned with those words. I couldn’t, and I still can’t, think of a more powerful message to send to those kids. To anyone.
I don’t have a trust fund bequeathed by a long-lost relative. I didn’t make a killing patenting the next post-it note so I could retire at twenty-five. I don’t have a rich boyfriend or benefactor. I never even had a fancy job (though I do think I would have looked great in a power suit), and I’ve never had a bank account balance that came even close to six figures. Yet I have spent the last fifty-five months of my life exploring various corners of this vast planet, slowly amassing stamps from thirty-two countries along the way.
This post, brought to you by my credit card crush Capital One, isn’t necessarily a step-by-step guide to affording travel. Some of the things that work for me won’t work for others. But it is a comprehensive breakdown of how one girl-next-door has stayed on the road for nearly five years straight – with plenty of takeaway tips for everyone, from those hoping to travel indefinitely to those just looking to steal away for a weekend more often. You can find a way, or you can make one.
For most who are reading this post, the secret to affording a life where travel is a priority is deciding to make travel a priority. I work hard. I live simply. I spend consciously. And I jumped. The various points in this post break down into three main categories:
- I saved a lot
- I don’t spend a lot
- I also now earn on the road
Here, in a little more detail and no particular order, are ten ways I afford to travel the world.
1. I use points
Taking advantage of the points building system through strategic use of credit card and airline miles has been the single biggest game-changer in allowing me to afford a life of travel. Over the years I’ve saved thousands of dollars in flights and other travel charges just by being smart and savvy about earning and redeeming credit card rewards.
The first credit card I ever signed up for was the Venture Card from Capital One, and I’ve been singing its praises ever since. My Venture Card earns me two points per dollar spent (plus a sweet sign-up bonus when I first enrolled) which can be redeemed for any expense related to travel. In my first year, I earned a free $550 flight to Hawaii. Mahalo, Capital One! These days, I use the Purchase Eraser to zap charges from hotels, airlines, Uber rides and beyond right off my bill.
Unfortunately, airlines are making it harder and harder to utilize their own frequent flyer point systems. This month, I was devastated when American Airlines (my major point-building airline, along with Southwest) joined Delta and United in basically completely devaluing frequent flyer miles for the average flyer. In the past, frequent flyer miles were an amazing way to get around the world for free. As these changes sweep the industry, I’m likely to focus primarily on credit card point building from here forward like with the hassle-free and reliable Venture Card.
2. I worked multiple jobs before takeoff
In the six months before I took off on this epic exploration of the world in 2011, I worked at a clothing store on the weekends. I worked as a production assistant in a graphic design studio in the afternoons. I babysat regularly for two families in the evenings. Oh, and I was finishing off a full load of classes for the final semester of my BFA — from which I graduated with honors.
I have always enjoyed working, and I’ve been on someone’s payroll since I was fourteen and New York State said I could legally have a job. But once I had the goal of travel in mind I ramped up to hustling multiple gigs at once. I sacrificed a lot of sleep and a lot of socializing. University is such a special, fleeting time that occasionally when I’m back with my college crew and they reminisce about the adventures they had while I was folding sweaters on the sales floor or tucking kidlets to sleep, I feel a pang of sadness at all I missed out on. But I can’t deny the fact that that stockpile of savings got me to where I am today – and I’ve had no shortage of adventures since.
Dad’s sense of humor came for free
3. I go where my people are
When my sister moved to New Orleans, I jumped at the chance to tick Mardi Gras off my bucket list. When a childhood friend moved to San Francisco, I immediately put a price alert on for flights to SFO. The more you travel, the more far-flung friends you make. I’ve slept on a pal’s couch in Guatemala, and crashed in another’s spare room for a week in Phnom Penh. I spend several weeks — if not months — each year basking in the hospitality of my loved ones.
Free accommodation and the ability to cook meals and get insider advice from a local are great, but this is not just a way save money. It strengthens relationships – some of the warmest hugs I’ve gotten in my life were from loved ones I made a trek to visit – and as a bonus, it does make travel more accessible.
Even a requisite trip home can be an adventure – don’t think of it as a waste of vacation days! Look at TripAdvisor for your hometown. Think about what you would bring friends to do if they were coming to visit. Try to see it through the eyes of a traveler. The majority of my trips growing up were to visit family in exotic places like Rochester, New York; Tampa, Florida; and Decatur, Illinois. Today, I challenge myself to have blog-worthy adventures in each of these hidden gems – and succeed!
Are you an orphan with no friends? Try Couchsurfing – the hugs are just as good.
In Hawaii, spending a month couch hopping with friends and fam
4. I learned to need less
It’s not about depriving yourself; it’s about changing your desires. I still struggle with materialism and the impulse to spend money in ways that doesn’t align with my larger life goals (just this summer I purchased a very expensive, very unnecessary inflatable swan) – but I know I’m headed in the right direction.
Recently, I’ve been reading What Are You Hungry For?, a book that applies this concept to the way we eat – building a fulfilling life in which we don’t fill emotional holes with self-destructive food choices. Isn’t that what so many of us do with our spending, as well?
This quote from one of my favorite low-budget lifestyle bloggers hits it home:
“Learn how to need less. I’m not talking about restriction or deprivation here. There’s nothing depriving about cooking your own nutritious food, getting around on a bicycle, having a small collection of clothes that you love, and having free entertainment in nature. What I’m talking about is spending money mindfully. Be aware of what really feeds you, and what’s just filler. Start paying attention to how you spend your money and ask yourself how it makes you feel. Shift towards purchases that fulfill genuine needs rather than quick fix desires.” – Mr. Money Mustache
Kickin’ it in Costa Rica — in hand-me-downs
There are a million blog posts out there about how to trim back your spending, and most of them follow a similar script. Ditch the gym membership and run outside. Cancel your cable and watch TV online instead. You know the drill. Here are a few that were game-changers for me.
- I learned to walk away from the sale rack. Better yet, don’t be at the mall in the first place. I’ve always been a frugal person (my parents are two of the most sensible spenders on the planet), but there was a time in my life when I hit the bargain bins hard. Great deals can distract from the fact that you might be buying something you don’t really need, and using resources that might be better spent elsewhere.
- I stopped coloring my hair. It was hard to give up my highlights at first but it has only enriched my life – I save lots of money, I don’t worry about the state of my roots, I don’t waste days of my life sitting in a salon, and if I want to lighten up my hair, I head to the beach with a bottle of Sun In.
- I’m proactive about my social life. Traditional money-saving wisdom instructs you to give up dinner and drinks out with friends. No thanks! These days I splurge often on nights out, but even back in my hardcore spending diet days I still had a social life. Don’t wait for a friend to invite you to something pricey you’ll have to turn down – invite them to something fun and affordable first. I love setting up walking and hiking dates, or planning giggly nights in with the girls where we make dinner and drink cheap wine.
- I take cash for big nights out. This is the only time I willingly use cash, as the rest of the time it’s cards like Venture for point building purposes. But taking cash means I limit the number of rounds I can buy (am I the only one who suffers from Millionaire’s Syndrome when drinking and wants to buy drinks for the whole bar?), and decide my spending limit when I’m home and stone cold sober.
Before I buy something, I ask myself, “Is it worth a day/week/month on the road?” Often, it’s just not. These days my purchases are mostly electronics that help me preserve my stories and share them with the world, gifts for family and friends who are so perpetually generous with me, and supplies for new hobbies and adventures.
Is it worth a day in South America?
5. I don’t have a car, a permanent address, or a 401K
Not being tied down to a lease, a mortgage or a car plan frees up a lot of discretionary funds. I am blessed to have access to a family car when I’m back on the East Coast, and I often rent apartments for a few months at a time like I’m doing right now in Thailand. But for most of the year I’m regularly-scheduled-payment free (outside my monthly charitable donations).
Forgoing a 401K – thus far – has been a sacrifice that helped me find my footing in location independent self-employment. However, 2016 is going to be the year I search for yet another perfect fit banking solution, and upgrade my currently well-padded checking account into a more official savings situation.
If you love your home base but want to travel more frequently, consider Airbnb-ing it while you’re away (if you want to try being a renter before you try being a host, click that link for $20 off your first stay). If you have a car, consider Flightcar-ing it while you’re on the go.
If you are planning to travel long term or indefinitely and moving home is an option for you, consider doing so until your departure. Many travelers who have blogged about their success in saving huge amounts of money in a short period of time made the sacrifice to move home for a few months before takeoff in order to maximize their savings.
…but I do have a backpack. Time for takeoff!
6. I bank and budget wisely
I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years by using a tightly-researched money management system. I use banking products that I love and trust – and that save me money.
I rely on credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees — like my Venture Card from Capital One — and on debit cards that refund ATM fees. I carry back-ups of each in a separate location in my luggage. I never exchange currency and always withdraw from the ATM, where I get better rates.
I track every single purchase I make at home and abroad and review them with a monthly accounting day in which I update spreadsheets, look over my accounts and check for irregularities in my spending.
Read more about my money management system here.
7. I take long trips at the right time
International flights (and domestic flights in the US) are usually one of the largest expenses associated with travel. As a long-term traveler I have the luxury of traveling slowly overland and exploring a large swath of one region at a time — think six weeks to six months. I always try to get the most bang for my flight buck.
My travel plans follow a pretty logical path. I’m not jetting to Brazil for Carnival one moment and then hopping on a plane to London to sip high tea with the Queen the next. (If it looks like I am doing something crazy like that, it’s usually because I’m on one of the one or two press trips I take per year – which are always disclosed.) While it might appear that I’m always somewhere far-flung and exotic, if you plot my movements on a map they start to seem a lot more sensible.
I try to offset expensive trips and destinations with time in affordable ones. While I still go on blowout Vegas weekends and splurge on expensive festivals, those are few and far between. Currently I’m spending seven months in Southeast Asia, where I like to come rebuild my savings after pricier travels in the US or Europe.
I move slowly. What your average tourist might try to fit into four days in a city, I spread out over eight, slashing my daily spend along with it. Most importantly, I tend to travel in the destinations’ shoulder season. Generally this leads to lower costs, less crowds, and in my mind, an overall elevated experience.
Guatemala, one stop on a four month Central America trip
8. I research like crazy
Over the years, I’ve often treated travel like a graduate degree, putting in countless hours of research into booking cheap flights, nabbing great accommodation, and knowing my upcoming destinations inside and out.
Be aware of what a cab from the airport to your hotel should costs so you don’t get ripped off. Set email alerts for the cheapest airfare and know when the best time is to buy. Pre-book local attractions that give you a discount for doing so. Find a water purification system so you don’t have to buy bottled. Learn a few key phrases in the local language to aid in haggling. Be familiar with your options for public transportation before arrival. I love a night in, travel planning with library books and the internet. Bonus! It’s free entertainment.
Sometimes I sacrifice some spontaneity in the name of locking in cheap airfares and low cost accommodation ahead of time. Sometimes I go in totally blind (either by choice because I want to shake things up a little, or by necessity because I was busy and research fell to the back burner). Even if you don’t pre-book a thing, knowledge is power. From a money-saving standpoint, the more time you put in ahead of a trip, the more savings you can stand to rack up in real time.
9. I sold a lot of stuff
This takes number 3, learning to need less, a step further. I also learned to get rid of what I already had. Honestly, I never had very valuable “stuff” to begin with. Most of my clothes come from places like H&M and Target. Most of my furnishings came from Craigslist. And still, when I gave up my New York City apartment to travel the world in 2009, I made over $2,000 selling my stuff on eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, and at a garage sale. Each summer when I return to my childhood home in Albany, I still find myself listing one or two things on eBay and hauling bags and bags of others to donation centers.
What can you reduce so that you can create mental space and physical resources for what you really value? Even if you aren’t planning to travel long term, selling your stuff if a great way to simplify your life and add to your travel fund. I admit, I do struggle not to rebuild my stockpile – I’m sentimental and I love picking up little unexpected treasures from my travels. But every time I bring a new physical thing into my repertoire I try to release another one back into the universe.
Read more about my downsizing experiment here.
The Brooklyn bike I bought for $10, rode for a year, and sold for $140
10. I work on the road
I started casually blogging in June of 2009. In June of 2011, I launched Alex in Wanderland with the goal of someday partially or fully supporting myself off of it. Within 6-8 months I was making a couple hundred bucks a month. These days I’m humbled to stay I’m making a couple thousand. Also, these days, a large amount of that gets funneled back into the business – there’s a pretty big team working behind the scenes at Wanderland HQ right now!
In the past, I supplemented blog income with freelance design and writing work, though I’ve mostly dropped those in favor of narrowing my focus. Today, I earn money by selling branded content for products I love, working as an ambassador for brands I love, earning affiliate commissions, promoting bloggers in my featured blogger program, and beyond. In busy periods like this one, I’m probably putting in about 60-80 hours per week. (If you guys are interested in the business behind the blog, let me know and I’ll consider a more thorough post on it.)
But blogging is far from the only option for working on the road – in fact, I’d wager it’s one of the least recommended in terms of hours in and income out. Which is part of the reason I started my series Earning Abroad. In it, I’ve interviewed friends who have traveled the world working as bartenders, photographers, ski guides, fruit pickers, surf instructors, English teachers, boat crew and beyond!
Short-term travelers don’t really need to fret over earning on the go. But if you’re interested in traveling long term or working abroad for some period of your life, find a trade you can take with you. Consider a course like the TEFL that will equip you with a skill – in this case, teaching English – that you can go anywhere. Look for countries with temporary work visa programs, like Ireland and Australia. Be open to working jobs you might consider beneath you – when I first moved to Thailand, I happily handed out flyers on the beach for the equivalent of $2 per hour. Know that things have a way of working themselves out, and just when you think you’re running out of cash and all is lost, there will be some crazy blonde blogger wandering around the island you’re on looking for someone to help answer business emails.
I hope you enjoyed this brief (ha!) peek into how I afford a life of travel. I’ve been enormously privileged in this life and I live in a constant state of gratitude for all the upper hands I’ve been dealt — not a drop of it goes unrecognized. Yet I’ve also made an effort to point out several sacrifices I’ve made along the way — not because I want a gold medal for them (I already have a much more valuable prize), but because I hope to convey that most people living an Instagram-worthy life had to make un-Instagram-worthy sacrifices in order to get there.
Questions? Fire away in the comments! Your own take? I want to hear that too! How do YOU afford to travel?
Many thanks to Capital One for sponsoring this post — and for creating a rockin’ product that I’ve been a loyal customer of for six years straight.