Our Guide to Traveling More for Less
“How are y’all able to travel so much?” We get this question a lot and we wanted to write an honest and open blog about this topic because there are so many elements that help us be able to afford to travel. And the best part–everything we do you can do too! Ready to learn how to start traveling more for less? Keep on reading!
Travel has a reputation of being expensive, but there are so many ways to make it more affordable, it just requires more planning and researching up front! Some may be under the impression that we spend tons of money every weekend to go on our adventures, but in reality, the majority of our adventures cost us under $100 and sometimes cost us no money at all. We usually do 1 or 2 big trips a year, and the rest are smaller, more affordable trips. We also share photos from adventures well after they happen, which can be misleading and make it appear that we are always traveling. But promise we work very, very hard to make it all happen!
Our careers have changed a bit since hitting the road. Before we started van life, Adam was a teacher and I worked in event marketing for a 100% remote tech company. We made good money by most people’s standards, but we lived in one of the most expensive cities in the US, just finished paying for Adam to get his Master’s out of pocket, bought a new car a couple years ago, bought a Sprinter van, and were paying college loans, so we weren’t loaded by any means, but we were able to save tons and fund our adventures.
Once we started van life, our income changed quite a bit. Adam quit teaching and started his own web design business, which he is growing, but it does not equal his teacher salary at this time. I still have my full time job as an event marketer, which is our largest source of income, as well as provides us health insurance. We also make money through our blog, YouTube channel, and affiliate marketing. With all of these changes, we are making about 35% less than we used to and despite having less expenses in the van, it still costs a good amount of money to live this way. It has been a big adjustment and required a lot of budgeting, but one thing remains the same–we try to be smart with our money, never spend more than we have (as in no credit card debt–we do have a van payment and student loans), and save as much as we can.
Here is everything we do before and during trips to be able to travel as often as we can. None of it is necessarily groundbreaking news, but we hope that it’s a good reminder of all of the ways you can make travel more feasible. And to make this blog post even sweeter, we’re sharing our super useful travel planning and budget sheet to help you get started! If you follow our tips and download our doc, you’ll be adventuring more in no time!
BEFORE YOUR TRIP
Since the beginning of our marriage we have always had three savings accounts, one of which being a travel fund. Every month we automatically deposit a specific amount into this account to help fund our travels. Doing this helps us know exactly how much travel money we have guaranteed for the year, which helps a lot with trip planning. As we book flights or incur other travel expenses, we transfer money from this savings account into our checking account to pay off our credit card. It’s really satisfying to go on a trip and know that it’s already paid from savings.
You may be thinking, “well this sounds great, but how can I save more?” Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! This is something that we have played around with a lot the last few years and while these methods may seem small, when you combine them all, you’ll start to see the $$$ go up!
- We forgo many luxuries in order to save money. We hardly eat out compared to most people, pack our lunches everyday, make our own coffee everyday, and rarely buy new clothes. We will splurge with a coffee date or cheap meal out on the weekends every once in a while (our monthly budget for eating out and coffee is usually between $100-$175 total depending on other expenses that month), but 90% of the time we make our own food. This saves us hundreds of dollars each month! We also don’t drink, which we know is definitely not the norm, but that also plays a role into how much we are able to save.
- We choose to get smaller paychecks and live off less now. This is definitely not for everyone, but we choose to select “Single and 0” on our W4, which means we get the most amount of taxes taken out of our paychecks. We do this in order to avoid paying taxes at tax time and to also get a fat tax return check every year. Yes, we realize that we are getting our own money back from the government, but it’s a sneaky way to save without realizing you’re saving. This year we got back $3,850, which will pay for our two week trip to Italy this summer.
- I (Kathryn) have never been lucky enough to work at places with bonuses, but if I did, every single bonus would go into our travel fund. Adam on the other hand has a more fluctuating salary due to coaching, summer school teaching, and other random ways teachers can make money. We always try to put this extra money (or “bonuses”) into our travel fund immediately.
Credit cards can be a touchy subject, but we believe that when used responsibly and treated like a debit card, they are the best tools for travel! We started out with a Southwest Airlines Credit Card, which was great when we traveled mostly from Texas to other US destinations, but now that we live in Seattle, we have cancelled that card and gotten two others. We normally are not fans of having more than one credit card (it seems complicated to figure out which one to use when, plus they cost money annually), but we get serious perks from these two and they’re worth it!
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: We cannot say enough good things about this card. It’s crazy expensive every year (which holds most people back from it), but you get a $300 travel credit annually, 3x points on travel and dining, and 1x points for everything else, have no foreign transaction fees, free TSA Pre-check or Global Entry, and various insurance and reimbursement coverages. However, our favorite perk is that you can use it on any airline! We have drained all of our Chase points on flights and then within two months have had enough points to book more free flights. The points add up fast! Another huge perk is the free Priority Pass, which gets you access into lounges across the world. Most lounges have free food and drinks, comfortable seats, tons of outlets, TVs, and bars, and some even have nap pods, spas, and showers! Not only will you save money on food and coffee at the airport, but you’ll also have a comfortable place to relax before your flight or during layovers.
- Alaska Airlines: If you live in the PNW, this card is super valuable. The annual fee is wayyy lower than the Chase Sapphire Reserve and it comes with a massive perk: a companion fare every year. What this means is if you buy a flight for one person, you’ll be able to buy the second person’s flight for $99 + taxes and fees ($121). There are no blackout dates or restrictions for this, which means you can use this fare to fly to Hawaii…SCORE! When we signed up for this card recently we also got a second promotion, a buy one, get one free ticket. We used this, combined with some points, to get both of us to Oahu this Thanksgiving for $550! The tickets would’ve been $1,800 had we paid all in cash. Another bonus of this card is free checked bags for up to 6 people in your party, 3 miles for every $1 spent directly on Alaska Airlines, and no foreign transaction fees.
Here are some other travel credit cards that are worth checking out too!
Budget and research your trips in advance
One of the biggest things that helps us figure out how many trips we can afford for the year is budgeting them out in advance. Being spontaneous is great, but it can also lead to spending more money. We usually sit down in the fall to start mapping out where we want to go the next year, research average costs, and make educated guesses on other costs. We use a Google Sheet where we keep track of the dates, how much PTO we have to use, all costs, you name it! We also track how much we will be saving throughout the year and how much we estimate our tax return will be so we can figure out how much money we’ll have compared to how much we’ll need. Our goal is to always have extra money in our trip fund at the end of the year so we have a head start for the next year and by tracking our estimated trip expenses and savings, we are able to make this happen. To get a better idea of your anticipated travel expenses, download our travel planning and budget sheet!
Tracking flight prices
As soon as we know we will be going somewhere, we start tracking flights. Google Flights is a great tool to track specific flight times you want and their “explore destinations” tool is extremely helpful if you want to see which destinations are cheapest on specific dates or which dates are the cheapest for specific destinations. If you’re feeling more open on when and where you want to travel and just want a great deal, our favorite paid tool is FareDrop, which allows you to pick the departure airports you want to be alerted about, which destinations you want to travel to, and which months you want to travel. You get alerts anytime there is a deal for your specific criteria and the alerts are always relevant to you! Hopper is also a great tool and will warn you if prices will be going up or down or if you’re catching a good deal and should buy now. And lastly, we use Scott’s Cheap Flights (there is a free and a paid version of this) to be alerted about deals and mistake fares, although it works better for the more flexible traveler who can travel at anytime, which unfortunately we are not at the moment (more on this in a second).
Take early flights
We know, this sounds brutal, but hear us out! If you take a super early flight, depending on where you go, you basically get a full extra day somewhere without having to pay for lodging the night before or take off extra time from work. Another big perk of early flights is that they are usually cheaper than mid-day flights. Make sure to pack a pillow to take a little nap on the flight and it won’t be as bad!
Timing is key
This isn’t earth shattering information, but traveling during the off season or shoulder season is always cheaper. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of traveling whenever we want to. With Adam being a teacher he gets a lot of time off, but we are restricted to traveling during holidays and peak season, which means that we usually spend more on trips than others are able to. If you’re not in this situation, we recommend finding out when the off season or shoulder season is for the destination you’re eyeing and going then. The only downside to this is that sometimes things you may want to do may not be open (for example, the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park is only open mid-late summer). In those situations it’s best to look at your priorities and reasons for wanting to travel somewhere and weigh the pros and cons.
Regardless of how flexible (or not) your travel schedule is, one thing that helps us travel more is being strategic with our PTO. Since we always have to travel during holidays or the summer, we try to always take advantage of any days we already have off from work, like Memorial Day or Labor Day. Although we usually pay more to travel during these times, we are able to make our PTO last longer by requesting less time off.
Get creative on where to stay
There are so many more options of where to stay when traveling than there were years ago! You’re no longer restricted to hotels, which can be very pricey. From hostels, to Airbnb, to camping, there’s something for every budget!
We are big fans of Airbnb, camping, and sleeping in our car (hence why we bought a van lol!). Airbnb’s tend to always be cheaper than hotels and provide extra conveniences like kitchens, laundry, and more space. We stay in an Airbnb anytime we are doing a more city focused trip, like our UK vacation this summer. Camping is great for more outdoorsy trips and is usually around $30/night, making it a super affordable option. Our trips to Zion, Bryce, and Banff this summer were all super cheap because we camped the whole time. If you want something more unique than a traditional campsite, we recommend checking out Hipcamp, which is basically Airbnb for camping! One other thing we have been doing a lot lately, which is definitely not for everyone, is sleeping in our car at rest stops or trailheads. We got a small SUV earlier this year and if we put the seats down it fits us, our sleeping pads, and our sleeping bags perfectly. We only do this for one night at a time and it’s usually if we are getting somewhere late and then plan to get up early the next morning. In situations like that, it doesn’t make sense to spend money on an Airbnb. By combining these three lodging methods, we have likely saved $2,000+ this year!
PS: If it’s your first time booking an Airbnb, use our code to get $40 off your first stay!
DURING YOUR TRIP
While a lot of our suggestions on how to save money occur before the trip, there are a few ways we try to keep our money savings going while actually traveling!
Make your own food
We’re not going to lie, half of the reason we love traveling is to eat the food wherever we go. But eating out non stop while traveling definitely adds up! Another great reason to book an Airbnb when traveling is to be able to cook some meals there instead of going out. Whenever we go to Hawaii, for example, we usually cook at least one meal a day at the Airbnb, whether that’s breakfast, dinner, or packing a lunch to go. We also try to buy snacks to have on hand so if we get hungry during the day we don’t spend more money than we planned on food.
Another food tip that helps us save money traveling is packing food and snacks for our flights and waiting for the free coffee on the plane. We will make a homemade meal beforehand and take it with us to avoid spending money on food at the airport. Cause let’s be real, airport food is expensive and usually not very good! We also pack our own food for road trips and hikes to save money on our smaller weekend adventures.
Choose cheap & free activities
Some of our favorite travel activities include hiking, going to beaches, visiting scenic overlooks, and just walking around towns. And lucky for us, these are all usually free! We try to avoid spending a lot of money on activities, like museums, tours, etc by limiting ourselves to one big paid activity per trip. For example, when we go to Hawaii, we will usually go snorkeling or whale watching and then try to do only free things the rest of the trip.
One thing to note is that some attractions have free days or certain times that things are free. For example, if you visit Parc Güell in Barcelona before 8 AM, you get in for free and at Montjuic Castle in Barcelona it’s free after 3 PM on Sundays. This is another great way to save money!
Take public transportation
Our last big tip is another easy one that can save you quite a bit of money when traveling: take public transportation! We hardly ever Uber/Lyft/taxi on vacations. While individually the rides may not be that expensive, they definitely add up. If we aren’t renting a car (which we will do if it’s not a big city), you can find us on the train or busses, which is a fun way to experience a city like a local. Most larger cities have great public transportation systems and different types of passes you can buy, so we advise doing some research in advance to find the right pass for you. The only downside of public transportation is that sometimes it takes significantly longer, so we try to be smart about the time to money ratio. We usually take short and jam packed trips, so we don’t want to waste our limited time getting around either. It’s a balancing act, but in most cases, public transportation is the way to go.
We hope these tips help you find new ways to save money and make traveling more affordable. If you have other tips, let us know in the comments below!
Ready to travel more for less?
Download our detailed, super helpful travel planning and budget sheet (or pin it for later!). Note: To use the sheet, please go to “File” and then “Make a Copy” to create your own version!