Empty Pocket Travel Guru

How I Afford International Travel (without a trust fund)

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Cheap international travel

A $300 flight to Bogota ended at this $70/night hostel (split with a friend) which included breakfast and wifi.

Most of my cheap international travel has cost between $900 and $1200 for 7-10 days. Which means about $100 a month, saved up over the course of a year, will get you a fabulous, all-expense-paid trip to ___________. Heck, you don’t even have to wait a whole year to start booking flights and lodging! We’ll talk later about how to trim that money out of your budget… Meanwhile, here’s how to score the deals!

Cheap international travel

Travelzoo top 20 deal – a $600 fly & drive to Cost Rica – landed me in the Monteverde cloud forest,  on a volcano, and on a river raft checking out sloths & crocodiles. Suh-weet!

My typical travel budget for a 7-10 day trip:

Airfare = $500-700

Lodging = $200-300 (On my own, or 400-600, shared with another person)

Meals = $140-200

Activities $100-200

Total $940-1400 (less than most people spent on their last TV or furniture purchase) I never spend the full budget in every category, so $1200 is a good top figure to aim for.

If you travel with your spouse or child, you have to cover the expenses for two people out of a single family budget — that’s rough. For most couples, the doubled expense — PLUS the fact that only one of them really yearns for travel — is what kills the notion of going anywhere. My advice is for the partner who really wants the trip to split costs with a friend, while the other partner enjoys a week of peace and solitude. If you both really want to travel, cut back to biennial trips.

Be Flexible

 You’ll get the best deals by being willing to go when/where the deals are. I never start out with a specific destination in mind. I just set aside a rough time of year — “next spring” or “early fall” is about as specific as I get — and see what arises.

My favorite tool for finding great prices is Kiwi.com. You can put in your home airport (or even several nearby airports) and a date range and see on a map all the great places you can go and how much each one costs. It’s a brilliant tool.

Plan on buying plane tickets three months to three weeks before the trip. I cap my airfare budget at $700 and won’t go anywhere that costs more than that (usually I can find trips to Europe, Central & northern South America for $500-700, occasionally less). If you’ve already decided on a specific destination and/or timeframe, double your airfare budget.

TIP: You’ll get the best deals on airfare AND lodging if you travel during the off-season. Fall or spring are great times to travel. It’s almost impossible to score deals from June–August.

Cheap International Travel

I never set out to visit Morocco, but I’d already been to Barcelona… next thing I knew, i was spending the night in a Bedouin camp in the Sahara!

TIP: Found a great airfare to a place you’re not interested in? Start looking for cheap ways to get from there to somewhere that you want to go! Once I bought a $640 fare to Barcelona and for $30 flew to Fez, Morocco. It was like getting two trips for the price of one! I use Rome2Rio to find the best bus, plane, train and ferry options from place to place. In Europe, try EasyJet,  RyanAir and Eurail to hop from place to place. In South America, search Lan and Taca, but also google for buses. Many buses in S. America are far nicer than flying! Also google “best way to get from _____ to ______” and you’ll often find a TripAdvisor discussion on the topic – or ask on the TripAdvisor message boards.


Go Where the Airlines Want to Take You

As soon as I have $600-750 in my pocket, I start watching closely for airfare deals to places that sound interesting.  My favorite resource for this is Travelzoo. Subscribe to their newsletter and read the weekly top 20 deals that come to your inbox so you’ll learn to recognize a great deal when you see one. As your target gets closer, start perusing the Travelzoo site for international and European airfare deals in addition to reading the Top 20.  For deals to Central and S. America, also check out Spirit Airlines (no luggage included, you’ll have to add $60 for your carryon right off the bat), Lan and TacaRemember that you may have to get yourself to the nearest decent international airport to catch a great deal. From St. Louis, I can take Amtrak to Chicago for $50 round trip – I recently scored a $300 flight to Bogota, Colombia from Chitown! I’ve also used Frequent Flyer miles to get to Miami or New York to catch a cheap flight.

Cheap International Travel

Taking the train from Fez to Marrakesh meant having several hours to get to know this family… Mohammed, age 6, taught me my numbers and letters in Arabic on the way.

Research your destination before you buy your ticket

Get a quick sense of a destination’s overall appeal just by Googling the name of the city and looking at image results. Always check the State Department’s list of travel warnings to make sure you’re not entering a political hotbed (although I’ve traveled to countries on the list before, sometimes it’s just certain areas within a country that are problematic.) Wikitravel can give you an overview of a place, or read travel sites like BootsnAll, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, etc.

TIP: Look up climate information before you book. Make sure you’re not getting a great deal because it’s hurricane or monsoon season at your destination.

Forget hotels. Rent an apartment or stay in a hostel

An apartment (or hostel with kitchen privileges) will save you a fortune over dining out three times a day, offer a more unique experience, and will likely put you in the middle of the city’s walking zones. Hostels are full of young Euro and American hippies, who are full of budget travel advice and lots of fun to get to know. I like to book private rooms or dorm beds in quiet hostels (you can always tell from the reviews which hostels are party houses, or just look at the photos. Party hostels will picture groups of drunken revelers). Apartments give you even more privacy and autonomy. Here are the sites I use to find lodging (I depend heavily on the reviews from these sites, but I’ve also learned I can trust my gut reaction to the photos.) Airbnb is my go-to site, but I also use  TripAdvisor,  Hostelworld, and  homeaway.com.


I found this gorgeous treehouse in Turkey on AirBnB.

TIP: If you’ll really only feel safe in a four-star hotel, or one owned by a US chain, then budget world travel is not right for you.

Book side trips and activities after you get there

 It’s fine to have some idea of what you want to do in the area, but you’ll find better prices on tours and activities after you arrive, and you’ll also discover that many regional sites are easy to get to on foot or by subway, without paying for a guide. Some activities need to be booked early  — trekking the Inka trail in Peru requires a reservation at least three months in advance, for instance. But it’s cheaper to hook up with tours and activities after you’re in a city. There will often be storefront agencies booking excursions for half the cost of setting up the same activity over the internet (often the same local companies that international outfits are subcontracting with, anyway). You can always stop in an internet cafe and look for Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews on an outfit before you book. Advanced and fearless travelers:  look for hostels outside the city, in rainforests or on mountaintops or near volcanos. Contact them and ask the best way to get there without a car. I like to stay in cities, where I won’t need a car to get around — but then leave I my luggage in my primary hostel or apartment and take a bus or taxi out to see the countryside for an overnight at a hostel or lodge.

Don’t eat all your meals in restaurants

You can enjoy the aura of a sidewalk cafe for the price of a cup of coffee. If you buy groceries and cook in your apartment or hostel, you’ll save a fortune. It’s better to enjoy one truly memorable meal than to have a dozen cafe sandwiches. Shopping in local markets, or corner grocery stores, helps you get in touch with a place more deeply. Try cooking one of the regional delicacies with local  ingredients! Tip: Be sure to research whether the local tap water is potable. If not, buy large bottles of water and use them for cooking, brewing coffee, even brushing your teeth.

Don’t obsess over your luggage

I promise that you will be fine with just a carryon bag with a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush. Wherever you’re going, the people there manage to shower, brush their teeth, protect themselves from bugs and sun, cure headaches, put bandaids on their owies, and take care of all their personal needs. Everything you need will be available when you arrive.

Volunteer for your room and board

You can have an all-expense-paid trip for just the cost of airfare if you’re willing to do a little work on arrival. I once stayed in a four-star hotel, with all meals paid, in Spain. All I had to do was talk all day with Spaniards who were learning English. I made wonderful friends, had a beautiful vacation, and learned more about life in Spain than I ever would have on my own. That program was through Vaughan Systems language school. Through Workaway,  I stayed in a cabin in an orange grove for a month on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey in exchange for helping with meals and public relations, and I hope to spend a month in a treehouse in Kenya soon. I hear HelpX is also good, but haven’t tried it personally yet. There are websites for housesitting as well, but I haven’t had much luck with those personally.


I had free room and board in this beautiful organic garden for two weeks, courtesy of Workaway.info.

So, how will you save the money for this trip?

1) Turn off your cable. There’s enough free entertainment on network TV, youtube, and your favorite program’s websites to keep you entertained for the rest of your life. For most people, just this one act will pay for a major trip each year.

2) Get rid of the internet on your phone. Be honest with yourself, what do you really use it for? Get back in the habit of looking up directions before you go… the rest you can live without.

3) Work your rewards card. I prefer the flexibility of cold, hard cash over airline miles. I use a cashback card and pay all my bills with it online — power bill, water bill, even property taxes — and also use it for groceries, gas, and restaurants. I autopay the balance in full every month, so I never have to pay interest or fees. I rack up over $600 a year in cashback bonuses, which pays for half an international trip or an all-expense-paid long weekend in Cancun via Funjet or Apple Vacations.

4) Downgrade. What are you spending too much on? Your car? Your health club membership? Restaurant meals? I’m going to tell you a powerful secret right now, so lean in: You can measure your dedication to a dream by the sacrfices you’re willing to make for it. If you’re not willing to drive an older car, drink fewer lattes, or stay out of Applebee’s for a year, maybe you need to admit that travel just isn’t very important to you after all.

5) Sacrifice something big if you have to. Going a little deeper into the powerful secret I just shared with you: I knew a man once who was very poor. He struggled to pay his bills every month. But his choral group was planning a trip to Jerusalem, and he desperately wanted to go. So he had his electricity shut off for four months. He showered with cold water, kept his food in an ice chest, and read by lantern at night. He survived, he went to Jerusalem with his group, and lived happily ever after. So , the question is… how badly do you want to travel?

Lauren Haas is a nomadic freelance writer.

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  1. Pingback: A different approach to thinking about travel - The Soul of a JourneyThe Soul of a Journey

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