HOW TO AFFORD TO TRAVEL (Updated in 2019)
Maybe I should be calling this article “How I Afford to Travel”, since everyone has different circumstances financially and other obligations. I can’t really tell you how you can afford to travel this vast and interesting world of ours. I can, however, tell you how I make it work, and hopefully provide some tips for making travel a possibility for you. I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone and see at least one part of the world far from where they live. I think travel experience broadens the mind and provides perspective. If nothing else, you gain some new skills from the experience and a better understanding of how diverse and complex this planet is.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that don’t venture out of their comfort zone. Some have no interest to go abroad, opting to sit in their living rooms watching TV and scrolling through social media feeds on their phones. Others want to travel, but are under the misconception that it is too expensive. For the latter (those of you who have a pulse), and those of you who may have been somewhere once or twice and would like to travel more often, this post is for you.
I’ll be writing from a photographer’s perspective, but the following can apply to anyone. In the last several years, I’ve traveled to France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, all across Canada, Iceland (three times), Sweden, most major U.S. cities, and my home state of North Carolina from the mountains to the Outer Banks. Though I have not been to Latin America, Asia, or Africa as of now, that wont be the case for long I assure you.
How I (We) Afford Travel:
Let me start by making a few things clear. I am not one of those people that sold all their belongings and started an adventure across the globe (as tempting as that is). I’m not a “nomad.” I am not independently wealthy, nor do I come from a filthy rich family, or have a trust fund. Until recently, I had outstanding college loans, high credit card bills, and a mortgage. So, how on earth can I afford to travel internationally a couple times a year? Frankly, the financial particulars of how much my wife and I make and all that are no one’s business, but here is my list of ways we save money and afford to travel.
I Sell Travel Photographs
Mainly, I license images through a few reputable and well-known stock agencies, or picture libraries as they are also known (including Robert Harding, Getty, and Alamy). I’ve licensed images for editorial and commercial use to buyers all over the world.
I used to do the micro-stock thing, but grew out of it. I got tired of selling several images a week for only a few bucks each, so I ended my accounts with micro-stock and shifted the whole of my expansive portfolio of hard earned images to more serious and professional photo agencies. As my portfolio grows, so does the frequency at which my images are licensed. If you’re amassing a large portfolio of images, you might want to consider "selling stock" in order to make residual income. Over time, you might even be able to make a living at it.
We Search for Cheap Flights on Budget Airlines…Hard
My wife, Alison, and I first visited Iceland in 2015 after hearing that a new budget airline called Wow Air (which has since gone out of business) offered $99 flights to Reykjavik from DC. It sounded too good to be true and a lot of people passed it up. We didn’t. There was no catch, only that the $99 got you to Iceland and not back. The return flights were still some of the cheapest we had seen to any European destination, so we jumped on it. I believe the total cost for round trip tickets for two ended up being $895. Not bad. This started an addiction to the Wow Air website, and after constant searching over the course of several months, we were able to book flights for our second trip to Iceland for only $600 round trip for two. That’s a great deal. The flight plus apartment totalled $1,068. When we tell people about the flight deals we find, they almost never believe us. They assume that I am confused and mean to say that the flight only totalled $1,068 each, but I know what I paid for. Wow Air also got us to Sweden cheaply. We flew from Baltimore-Washington to Reykjavik, then from there to Stockholm and back for $964 round trip for two. There are other budget airlines of course, Aerlingus, Jet Blue, and Spirit Air just to name a few. Now that Wow Air is gone, we use Iceland Air from Western Canada.
The key to finding cheap airfare is constant search. That, and being flexible with your dates. I don’t recommend using sites like Orbitz or Travelocity or whatever. They’ve never given me the prices I want (that’s where you’ll usually get ridiculously crazy fares like $1,800 per person round trip to London and that’s exactly why people think travel is expensive). Instead use Google Flights, which includes budget airlines in their search results, or simply go directly to the airline’s website. Other good options are Skyscanner and Momondo. I used STA for my first international trip when I was 20 because, at the time, they had the best fares for students. I believe I paid less than $500 for that round trip flight to Prague. Not too bad!
We Choose Apartments and Use Airbnb Instead of Hotels
I do not like most hotels. I do not like paying high rates and taxes and shelling out extra for crappy food. A typical hotel in a downtown area costs an arm and a leg. A typical hotel that is more affordable is probably too far out in the boonies. But thanks to Airbnb, Agoda, hostels, and independently owned apartment rentals, there are alternatives to stuffy, expensive hotels. We search Airbnb first because it’s usually where we can find the most affordable options in an area we want to stay. Airbnb has listings all over the world. I actually helped run one owned by my parents in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Occasionally, the rates for an Airbnb listing may be no cheaper than a hotel or apartment (such is often the case with Reykjavik, Banff, and Savannah, GA for example).
Our next option is to search for an apartment rental company through a site like Booking.com. That’s how we found Rey Apartments in Reykjavik. They have awesome, fully equipped apartments with full kitchens for lower rates than hotels and they’re centrally located. We can typically expect to pay less than $100 per night in Reykjavik, which has a reputation for being an expensive place to visit. Hotels are much, much more and are not centrally located in Reykjavik. Agoda is another great option for finding top notch budget accommodation. They have countless listings for hotels, apartments, and hostels all over the world.
Then there’s the hostel option. It’s cost effective for sure, but my wife doesn’t like to rough it or share a bathroom. The first hostel I stayed in was not your typical sleezy college kid backpacker hole in the wall where 10 people share a bathroom and sleep on cots. It was in Prague, located in the beautiful historic district. It was a large studio apartment on the top floor of a historic building with great views of the city and a fully equipped kitchen with a private full bathroom and exposed wood beams. It was also cheap. I don’t remember the exact amount paid, but I’m pretty sure it was around $200 (that may have been in Euros) for the week. I wish I remembered the name of the place because I would definitely stay there again. If you’re on a really tight budget, hostels are the way to go. Keep in mind that they don’t have to be sleezy tenement-like accommodations, they can, in fact, be quite nice. If you’re on an even tighter budget, camp.
We Cook Our Own Meals and Embrace Cheap Eats While Traveling
One simple way to save money while traveling is to make at least one meal a day at your place (provided it has a kitchen). We typically eat out for lunch when we travel and make our own breakfasts and dinners using local products from a farmers market or grocery store. This not only saves some cash, it allows us to experience life a little more like locals than tourists. We try to stick to goods made in or popular in the country we’re visiting instead of foods also available in the states. I love to cook, and spent a decade working in various restaurant kitchens from up-scale to casual, so I have experience cooking and am very comfortable with it. It’s not a chore for me.
In most western European cities, one trip to the grocery store for a week’s worth of goods is equivalent to the average dinner out for two. That’s how we are able to save money in both Stockholm and Reykjavik, which are misunderstood as a expensive food towns (check out Bonus Grocery Stores in Iceland). If you stay in a hotel, you’re going to spend a ton on eating out three times a day (or simply eating their crappy “complementary” breakfast). So, rent a place with a kitchen! We do usually splurge on one or two dinners out on the town, however, just to make sure we’re not missing out.
We’re Frugal at Home and Abroad
We’re not extravagant people. We don’t even have a car. We don’t have cable. We sold our house when we moved to Canada and have embraced the savings and lower stress that comes from renting. We only eat out once a week and it’s usually for less than $30 total. I cook every other night and typically keep our meals under five bucks each despite using the best organic produce and products I can get (it’s all about smart budgeting). Little changes in lifestyle can add up to big savings. My wife even enjoys canning and preserving produce as well. All of these easy-to-learn skills help us keep our bills down so we can more easily save for travel.
If you’re not the uber-frugal or homesteading type, there are still was to save in your day-to-day life. I feel like these options are obvious, but also feel the necessity of stating them. Quit smoking. It blows my mind that anyone smokes cigarettes in the 21st century, but lots of people do. In our area, a pack of cigarettes averages $6-8. A pack a day chain smoker, at minimum, pays over $1,800 a year for cigarettes. That’s crazy. That’s also more than enough money to go to Paris, or Costa Rica, or Thailand, or wherever you want to go! In fact, I’m confident that I could squeeze two awesome trips for me and my wife out of $1,800. So, when a smoker (and this does happen to me) tells me travel is too expensive, I’m thinking, “more expensive than cancer?”
Other vices include daily coffee purchases. Cut out daily coffee splurges. Make coffee at home. It’s easy. I never go out for coffee, but drink it every day. Buy a french press and a pound of quality grounds, doctor it up any way you like, and watch the savings pile up! It never ceases to amaze me that people will spend $5 a day on a cup of Tanzanian-mocha-soy-latte-jiminy-crickets-gluten-free-cold-brew-caramel whatever. That’s another $1,800 a year!
Another biggie is eating out often. That gets expensive fast, even with fast food. Cook at home. Plan out meals and stick to a strict budget. Believe it or not, you don’t have to skimp on quality to save money at the grocery store either. Meals consisting of real food (aka “whole foods”) are not only better for you than salty-preservative-riddled junk food and pre-prepared crap, they actually cost less in the long run. Say you go to McDonald’s (or wherever) 3 times a week for breakfast or lunch, if you order a value meal every time, you’re going to spend $6-8 (up to $10 in Canada). That’s $18 a week minimum, or $936 a year. That’s a plane ticket at least (plus, your arteries are in bad shape). Trust me, $18 a week goes a lot farther at the grocery store in meat and produce than at any fast food restaurant.
We Don’t Have Kids
And here we arrive at the big elephant in the room. Readers with kids are now forming judgments about me and my wife without reading further. We don’t have kids. That does, obviously, make it much easier for us to save money and travel and have lots of time and flexibility. Having kids does not have to mean that all of your dreams of world travel are over. Sure, it makes it a bit more pricey and complicated, but it is possible to travel with your kids, and if you employ some of the budget travel tips I’m providing here, you might find that (at least occasional) travel is a possibility for your family.
Lots of people do it on a shoestring budget. Just google “how to afford traveling with kids”, and I’m confident you’ll find lots of helpful advice from people with experience in international family travel. I’ve never been on a plane overseas that didn’t have at least one family of four on it. It is possible. It’s up to you to figure it out. We do have two dogs that require boarding when we’re away. If not for that extra cost, we could travel a bit more frequently and cheaply. But as I’m constantly reminded by a cold nose or wet tongue in my face (sometimes mouth…you know how it is), dogs are the purest form of love in physical form.
We Buy Experiences, Not Things
Our friends and family probably think we’re super stingy because we rarely bring souvenirs home from our trips. One reason for that is that extra baggage weight costs money on most airlines. The lower the cost of travel expenses, the faster I’ll see a return from the photos I sell, and those baggage fees can add up fast. It’s always tempting to buy things, especially at all those neat Scandinavian design stores in Sweden. Ultimately, we think our funds are best spent on experiences. We’re not big on tours, but if they’re the best or only way to experience a place, we’ll do one or two. We prefer self-guided and free experiences. Things eventually wear out, get lost, or end up at garage sales. The experiences we have together traveling, however, will stick in our minds all our lives. I’ll always remember renting a car, driving out to the middle of the Icelandic nowhere, and climbing a random volcanic crater with my wife, but I don’t remember what kind of crap I brought back from my college study abroad trip or even where any of it is.
We Studied Abroad in College
If you’re in college, definitely try to take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. It can be a life-changing experience. My wife and I actually met on a study abroad trip to Europe while we were both studying history at Appalachian State. We had our first conversation under the Eiffel Tower (I was apparently supposed to kiss her then, but I couldn’t read her mind…missed a perfect opportunity, though).
Two major things changed for me when I traveled through France, Germany, and Austria that summer: First, I met my lifelong travel partner, and second, I decided that I wanted to be a real travel photographer. I bought my first DSLR right before the trip (a Canon Rebel) and had a blast taking pictures even though I barely knew how to work it! I actually left the manual at home. I learned a lot about photography through trial and error and by visiting galleries in Paris. I got few keepers, but I also got a lot of great memories (plus two A’s and a GPA boost). The image below, though made by a novice, is one of my favorites from that trip.
Go. Do. See.
Travel does cost money, but you don’t have to completely drain your funds. You just have to figure out ways to make it work for you. You don’t have to fly far far away, either. Most people in the U.S. and Canada live a half day’s drive from something or somewhere awesome. Personally, I’d always rather allocate funds to experiences instead of stuff. It takes careful planning, patience, the willingness to jump at good deals, and some careful budgeting, but if I can do it, you probably can too. I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the places I want to see and images I want to make, and I’ll continue chipping away at it. I hope this article was helpful, and you’re ready to jump on a plane. Happy travels and thanks for reading!
( Curious about the gear I use for travel photography? Check out my gear list. )
(c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved.