Tips for Cheap Travel #AdventureIsOutThere
I once met a friend to catch up over coffee, and somehow an hour later had her signed up for a semester of studying abroad in London.
I guess you could say I’m a big advocate for travel.
Study abroad had not at all been the reason for our get-together and the application deadline had already long passed. But when conversation circled around to my own semester in London the previous year, I sensed in her what had been in me then: a soft whisper of desire and curiosity, quieted by the more prominent shouts of fear.
As I listened to her reason her way out of it, I tried to figure out who’d managed to tape-record me the year before in order to play it back so seamlessly in that moment.
I don’t know if it’d even work with my classes. What would it look like? I wouldn’t know what to expect. What about all I’d miss here, with my friends? I don’t know if now is the time to do something like that. I’ll do it someday in the future.
Right then and there I knew that I had to fight for her whispers, because I had the gift of hindsight to know all that I would have missed out on had my own shouts won.
I knew that God’s best for us often lies just beyond the wall of our fear, and that fear is a liar who’d love to keep us from it. I also believed strongly in the richness that an experience like a semester abroad had to offer, so I encouraged her to just try. To see if it was even still possible. If the door was closed, then that was that.
My own decision to apply for London came about when I realized, why not? For a long time I looked at people who traveled and wondered what it took to become someone like that. Someone so fearless, and able to just make it happen. Then I realized that the only thing stopping me was myself. The only thing different about “those” people was that they didn’t come up with reasons for themselves why they couldn’t. They didn’t listen to the shouts.
I think my friend must have had a similar moment because within an hour, we’d tracked down the faculty member at our university in charge of this particular program, and gotten her all set up with everything she’d need to complete her application by the next day. And she was excited. It gleamed in her eyes and spread from one ear to the other in the form of a grin.
I’m an advocate for travel because of the learning it affords the traveler. Travel is an opportunity to bring to life the places you’ve only seen in photos. It’s an opportunity to experience new cultures and try new things. It’s an opportunity to expose assumptions when you witness something being done differently. And as you’re plucked from a familiar environment then dropped into one entirely unknown, it’s an opportunity to learn about yourself.
It's all too easy to come up with reasons to put off traveling. And the reason I haven’t yet discussed is arguably the biggest one.
I’m all about trying new things and experiencing new places and chasing after the things that make you come alive and engaging opportunities to learn. But if that at all includes travel for you, your roadblock just might be those annoying green papers people are always asking for when you try to have fun.
I used to think that travel was too expensive, and I let that be my reason not to do it. But that was before I started doing it and learning the tricks from those who went before me. That was before I flew six times (personal, not work trips) in the course of a year and didn’t pay a dime for a single one of those flights.
Travel can be broken down into three basic categories: accommodation, transportation, and food. I’m not at all the pro, but below are some simple little tricks I’ve picked up along the way.
Stay with friends! You never know how far reaching your friends, or friends of friends might be. Even if you don’t know someone in the particular place you’re looking to go, you’d be surprised at what you may find if you start asking around.
At the close of my semester in London, one of my best friends, Alexis, flew out to join me for three weeks of backpacking Europe before our return home. At the time, she’d been attending acting school at a world renowned studio in NYC. Many of her school friends were from different places in Europe, and were happy to have their families open up their homes to us. Our itinerary included Paris, Zurich, Prague, Vienna, and Bratislava and between her connections and mine, the only place we had to pay for accommodation was Paris.
This is a great option not only for your wallet, but the quality of your experience as well. There’s something so special about getting to experience a new culture through the locals hosting you. Some of my favorite moments from our trip came from our time with the families we stayed with. Like the time we got to stay with a Christian missionary family in Prague and hear about their experiences, or the time our host family in Switzerland showed us around the family dairy farm, then taught us how to cook (and enjoy) a traditional Swiss fondue dinner (YUM!).
The biggest cost in travel is getting there, wherever there is. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who's related to a pilot or flight attendant (oh how I envy you!), you’re going to have to pay for your flight. And flights aren’t cheap.
I used to save up and pay full price, but that severely limited the frequency I could travel. Now that I’ve discovered this one little trick, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to pay full price again.
Ready for it? Here it is:
A TRAVEL REWARDS CREDIT CARD.
Now, I’m a BIG fan of Dave Ramsey and his financial wisdom, and he is 100% against credit cards, because they often get people in traps. BUT, if you are able to use a credit card and only spend money you already have in your bank account, then not doing so is kind of like leaving money on the table. Or, at least, flight points. And lots of them.
I use the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card, which is great because it has no foreign transaction fee and its smart chip allows it to be used in any country. And I use it on everything. Gas, food, that floss and deodorant I picked up on my way home, and the big one: my student loan payments. BUT, I only spend what I already have. In essence, I treat it like a debit card.
Instead of paying for those things with cash or an actual debit card, my travel rewards credit card allows me to earn points for things I’d already be buying. And those points are my lifeline when I want to go on a trip. In the course of a year I flew (from SF) to NYC, Spokane, Chicago, and LA three times (several close friends are there and well, so is Disneyland). Because of my points, each of those flights was completely free, aside from the unavoidable $11.20 in airline security taxes. I'm heading off on another trip in a few months and guess how much I paid for the flight? Yup, $11.20.
Note: If you think that a credit card could be a slippery slope for you, this is not a good option (I gotchu, Dave Ramsey).
This is where you have flexibility. If you’ve managed to keep your expenses to a minimum with first two categories, then giving yourself a bit more freedom with your food budget is a great way to experience the culture of the place you’re visiting. After all, what’s Paris without crepes or Scotland without haggis? (JK DON’T DO IT).
On the other hand, if you'd still like to keep it cheap then this is also a category you can save big by buying food from local markets or grocery stores. Before my semester in London I backpacked through Italy and because I had five whole months in front of me to make my money stretch, I mainly ate food from the markets and splurged once on pizza, once on pasta, and once on gelato (okay, twelve times on that last one but who’s counting?). And my experience there was still thoroughly satisfying.
These tricks have done me well and I hope they’re a help to you as well! What are some travel tips that have worked for you? Let me know in the comments—I’d love to hear!