The most common question I get when talking to people about my travels is “how can you afford that?” Or they just say “must be nice” or “you’re so lucky!” What’s sad is that most of the time people don’t even believe me when I say I basically travel for free. They think I have some secret source of income or I make more than I let on and just manage my money really well. None of those things are true… so I’ve set out to finally answer this question through this post!
*Side note: If you are one of those people that thinks you need money to travel, first please read the book “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts. It will change your life. After that, come back to this article!
There are essentially 2 ways to travel for free – either by a combination of travel hacking and freeloading, or traveling on the cheap and offsetting your costs in creative ways (or a combination of both). Here is a step-by-step guide!
1. Removing Obstacles
You can skip this step if you have no real obstacles and just want travel advice! Read on if you have obstacles in your way.
No Money – Do you have no money because you don’t have a job? Might seem obvious, but you need to get one. (Keep reading for job options that allow travel flexibility) Don’t make enough? Ask for a raise, or quit and get a higher paying job! Living paycheck to paycheck? Chances are you could actually manage your money a LOT better and put at least 10% of your paycheck towards savings if you rework your budget. When you want to travel badly enough and money is the main issue, the key word and action you need to dwell on is SACRIFICE. Money adds up like crazy, and saving even $5 a day by giving up coffee can mean a Hawaiian vacation in just a few months. Would you rather have 3 months of coffee, or a trip to Hawaii? Most people choose the coffee without even realizing they have a choice. If you’re even more keen to save for travel and are willing to make drastic changes – take the Dave Ramsey approach and dump or trim your biggest bills, and put all the money you save into a travel account. Pay off your car so you have no car payment. Move into a less expensive apartment. Stop getting manicures and pedicures or expensive hair cuts or new clothes.
Kids – I know TONS of parents who travel very successfully with their kids, even babies. I know other parents who cannot even imagine traveling with their children, it seems like a nightmare to them. I’m not a parent so I can’t speak from direct experience here. All I know is that there is definitely a correlation between good discipline and good traveling when it comes to kids. As a babysitter for many years it was incredible to me how many kids I babysat that behaved wonderfully for me, and were terrible as soon as their parents got home. I said “no” to them. I punished them and put them in time out when they misbehaved, even when they told me their parents never did that. Amazing how much better kids behave when they know there is a consequence to their actions. If your kids are very well disciplined… they will generally travel well… It’s easier than ever to travel with kids thanks to iPads, headphones and even online school for when you need to take them out of school for long periods of time. You don’t even need to “homeschool” your kids anymore if you have to pull them out of public school – there are amazing online options available that allow children to learn from a laptop or iPad.
Job that won’t let you travel – If you live in Australia or the UK you don’t have this problem. If you live in the US, you probably do. My advice to you is to read Tim Ferriss’s “The Four Hour Workweek” and try to apply the principles in that book to your current job. If that doesn’t work, consider quitting and starting a “home” or online business. I know people who have started an online business while still at their day job, and in a year or two have built it up to where it’s making them enough that they could quit their day job. Some of them weren’t wise with the added income though, and just added to their expenses, thus canceling out the added income. So remember to budget and put aside all your additional income to savings, don’t be tempted to get a nicer car or house instead, unless those things are more important to you than traveling! If you’re clueless as to what jobs you could do online or from home, there are some good guides out there. My personal favorites are blogging, graphic design, web design, SEO & Marketing, Social media, author/writer, the list goes on!
Pet – There’s nothing like a pet to stop you from traveling. I don’t have a great answer for this one, because the smartest thing to do would be to give the pet to a loved one you trust or pay a good petsitter to care for them – but honestly I think it’s wrong to leave your animals for more than a week at a time, and I think it’s wrong to give them up for selfish reasons. The best answer to this would be if you love to travel, don’t get a pet in the first place unless you have family closeby that loves watching them.
Depending on the length of your trip, lodging is often the deal breaker when it comes to the affordability factor. A free trip is almost impossible to take (even when you offset the expense) if you are paying $80+ a night for hotel rooms. The irony of lodging is you can often have a better experience by lodging for free than you can by paying hundreds of dollars. Not always, but usually. Before the internet, a hotel was your only option unless you were lucky enough to have a friend or relative willing to put you up wherever you were going. Thanks to the internet, dozens of other amazing options are available. Before you pre-judge any of these options, please read my review on each one. I was against every single one before I gave them a shot.
Couchsurfing – I was so opposed to this when I first read about it 4 years ago. Then I was on a trip where I ran out of money and was forced to use it or go home early. I would have never tried it otherwise. After that first experience I realized how close-minded I was being and unnecessarily fearful and cautious. The site has so many verification factors… it would be nearly impossible to find yourself in a bad situation if you use common sense. For instance, it is impossible to remove a bad review once you’ve received one, so everyone can see if someone else has had a bad experience with you. To become a verified member you need to provide an active credit card that they verify by mailing a code to your address on file for the card. If you chose to stay with only verified members who have been on the site many years and have tons of positive reviews (and no negative reviews) and their profile is full and complete and nothing they say raises a red flag, you’re golden. There is NO way to fake a good profile like that. Not to mention – you are in communication before you meet the person. You can ask them questions, ask the people that have stayed with them questions, google them, ask to meet them at a busy coffee shop for a drink beforehand and then make an educated decision if you want to stay with them. Better yet, there are many people that allow more than 1 person to stay with them at a time too – so if you’re traveling with a friend, you have that added security as well. If you’re a female, you can stay with other females your age. Heck, you can even opt to just stay with older women who are moms! If that doesn’t help you feel secure about it, I don’t know what will! Couchsuring has changed my life – I’ve had so many incredible experiences through it and I’ve met life-long friends. I’ve stayed in a bungalow with no running water in the Caribbean, a penthouse apartment overlooking Waikiki in Hawaii, and hosted a girl from Germany who I’ve since done a 2 month roadtrip with across the US! You get a locals experience and expertise about their city and it’s attractions, make instant lifelong friends and save money. It’s win win all around.
Hostels – Hostels are hostels. I’ve never had a bad experience. I put towels up around my bed for privacy. I sleep with my laptop like it’s a teddy bear. It works! I much prefer couchsurfing though.
Airbnb – This is by far the best option if you are someone who swears against hostels/couchsurfing and you want a “safer/nicer” place to stay but don’t want to pay a lot for a hotel room. Airbnb is a fabulous alternative to hotels. However, it can be just as or even more expensive than comparable hotel rooms. You can find really good deals though, especially if you’re looking at long-term options. I stayed in London for a month at an airbnb place that was $80/day but I was splitting it with a friend, so it was only $40/day, and it included a small kitchen and the owners had breakfast ready for us every morning – so I saved a ton on that one meal being included every day for a month. Not to mention how wonderful it was to be staying in a proper cottage with an adorable English couple for a month in northern London…
Wimdu – Similar to Airbnb.
Roomorama – Another one similar to Airbnb, but this one only provides unoccupied living spaces, no B&B options.
Monasteries, Churches, Convents – Stay for free or small donation, but be willing to help with chores or participate in prayer/meditation!
Camping – Duh!
Home Exchange – Featured in the movie “The Holiday” it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Hotel – if you MUST stay in a hotel, use www.biddingtraveler.com to figure out what to bid on priceline for the best deal you can possibly get on a hotel room.
3. Getting there
Reward Airfare & Travel Hacking:
You need to have good credit for this – but if you do have good credit, you’re in luck. Apply for a multitude of airline credit cards, manage them wisely, and you’ll be swimming in reward flights before you know it! If you have a lot of miles, or you want to get them, put a smart system in place to collect, consolidate and redeem them to their maximum potential. This is called Travel Hacking. There is a great site – Travel Hacking Cartel – that for a small fee finds all the best cards and deals to earn miles so you don’t have to.
Here are some tips:
- If an airline says “no” to a rewards flight, don’t give up. Call and ask the agent to check on partner airlines, alternate dates and routes, and if all else fails hang up and call again.
- Many round-trip awards allow free stopovers, either in hub cities or sometimes a completely different destination. Some international awards allow for very creative stopovers: for example, US to the South Pacific via Asia, or Canada to India via Europe. These are good examples of well-optimized travel hacking. Sometimes you can change an award after its booked to get an additional stopover, even if you had already exceeded the limit before.
- A backdoor system allows you to search for Star Alliance availability on any carrier. First, you’ll need to establish a free ANA account to search. Next, search first for “ANA awards”—then switch to “Star Alliance Member Carriers” to see the entire Star Alliance award availability. After you know which flights you want, call the airline to book them. Be specific! Some airlines, especially United and (lately) U.S. Airways employ “Starnet blocking” to prevent you from getting the seat. You can sometimes get around this by requesting a “manual sell.”
- Air Canada allows you to book an award that goes completely around the world, by crossing the Pacific in one direction and the Atlantic in the other. You’ll get at least one free stopover in addition to your destination, but to book this award you’ll need to know what you want in advance. Use the Star Alliance search system and be prepared to spend 30 minutes or more on the phone with an agent. Alternatively, you can use Gary Leff’s great award booking service to do this for you.
Cheap airfare - Finding cheap airfare is easy. The hard part is being flexible and willing to travel on the off-season. Use sites with flexible date charts to see what the airfare is on every day of the year and choose the day with the lowest airfare. Also be sure to check independent and low-cost carriers as well as they don’t always appear on sites like Kayak, Travelocity & Expedia. For the US there’s Southwest, for Europe there’s the wonderfully cheap EasyJet & RyanAir… and there are an assortment of other airlines in Africa, the middle east, Asia, etc. Expedia also has a “last minute deals” page for short-term roundtrip fares that are happening in a quick window that they are trying to fill up for obnoxiously low prices. Do your research & be crazy flexible. If it gets overwhelming to be checking all the time, you can sign up for newsletters like Nomadic Matt where they do the searches for you and send you only the craziest deals.
Driving – Want to see every state in the US? Every country in Central and South America? Your best bet is definitely a road trip. Buy or rent a hybrid vehicle, find a trip companion and either camp or sleep in your car or couchsurf for lodging along the way.
4. Getting Around
Walking - Believe it or not, this option is the least obvious to people traveling. Almost every city is walkable, even in the snow & rain. If you’re dressed properly with good shoes – I don’t know a city on the planet you couldn’t cover by being willing to walk a few miles each day (except maybe my own, Los Angeles, because of the crazy sprawl and lack of centralization). I’ve walked the whole of Paris, London, Amsterdam, NYC, Chicago and DC and although my feet hurt at the end of the day I saw a lot more and got amazing exercise too!
Biking – In some cities bikes can be rented super cheap and are a wonderful alternative to other forms of travel. You can even find a free bike on craigslist usually for a long stay somewhere.
Metro – Obviously always a good cheap option.
Lyft – Cheaper than a cab, services like Lyft and Uber are a better experience too.
Buses – Always a good option in Europe. Never a good option in the US.
Ferry – Ferries are the way to go if you’re crossing a smaller body of water. There is a ferry that goes from Helsinki to St. Petersburg that is a great deal.
Hitchhiking – The most misunderstood and feared method of transport. I don’t think people understand that you don’t HAVE to get in someones car if they pull over for you. Sure, you feel like an ass. But you can decline if they creep you out. If it’s a mom driving her kids to soccer practice, chances are your life is not at risk! The trick to successful hitchhiking is to not NEED the ride. Have a Plan B. But if it’s a sunny day and you have the spare time and there are plenty of normal looking people driving down the road, stick your thumb out and see if a nice looking person pulls over. Another good way to hitchhike is to simply ask people you’ve already met for a ride. I met some nice people on the north shore of oahu at a surfing competition once – we were sitting on the beach talking for a while. Later on they drove past us sitting at a bus stop down the road and asked if we were going back to Honolulu. We said yes and they offered us a ride. Free ride with new friends that saved us a bus fare… sweet!
Rideshare – there is no good centralized site for worldwide rideshare info – you’ll have to google rideshare + the city you’re in to get information on it in that city. In Germany and parts of Europe there are some really popular rideshare sites since it is more common there.
Cheap Car Rental – Relay rides is great, also some Priceline car rentals become available extremely cheaply, as low as $9-15 a day.
Trains - Usually not the cheapest option, but can be smart as an alternative travel option since you can sleep fairly easily on trains. I love taking overnight trains and sleeping on them. Sometimes they can be a little less expensive than airfare.
5. Offsetting & Eliminating Costs
Now, if you couchsurfed, walked everywhere and got a free plane ticket, you don’t need to use this section at all… congratulations! If you did end up spending some money, here are some ways you can offset the cost of those expenses, thus making your travel technically free!
Rent your place out while you’re away – sublet your apartment or house. Put it up on airbnb. If you aren’t able to do that, move to a place where you would be able to, and travel for free for life!
Rent your car out while you’re away – Relay Rides & Just Share It
Buy a place just to rent it out on AirBnB - http://mashable.com/2013/11/04/bought-apartment-rent-airbnb/
Get rid of your place altogether – Put your stuff in storage and eliminate your rent while you’re away.
Ged rid of your place and all your stuff – Sell all of your belongings, live a totally mobile life for a set period of time & when you decide to stay put again, just get new stuff or sublet a furnished place.
Work while you travel – this is the most obvious and least popular option, but let me tell you from experience, it’s way more fun to be working on your laptop at the base of a volcano in Costa Rica after a hike through the rainforest than it is sitting in a cubicle after driving there through rush hour traffic.
Don’t eat out while you travel – Shop at grocery stores or markets, as you would if you were home! And unless you are staying in a hotel, chances are you will have a place to cook. Ironic that hotels are the only type of lodging that doesn’t provide a kitchen, and they are the most expensive. Crazy.
6. Preparedness & Planning
You can save so much money simply by preparing for your trip well and booking everything in advance. The travel industry knows a desperate, last minute traveler will pay more for hotels, flights, etc – and they exploit last-minute decisions. Everyone knows flights go up, but so do lots of other things!
Subscribe to sites that find the deals for you – Thanks to my subscription to Nomadic Matt I found airfare to Europe for $500/RT. I had been searching for a deal like that all year, and finally found it thanks to him! I don’t like paying more than $500 to get to Europe because I know it’s possible, so I wait for the deal. When it comes in, I snatch it up. Airfare Watchdog lets you track when flights are a good deal to a particular destination.
Use travel planning sites to maximize efficiency – Rome2Rio is a fantastic website that lets you plug in one city and then another and get all the transportation options between those two locations. If you aren’t sure whether or not taking the bus would be cheaper than flying from Rome to Vienna, this would answer you question quicker than any other option. I used it to completely plan out my next European trip.
Research grocery stores & metro stations – Simply knowing where these things are in advance makes you much more likely to use them rather than succumbing to the urge to take a much more expensive cab or eat out. If you plan to stay somewhere within walking distance to the tube in London you are much more likely to use it. Similarly if you position yourself near a nice grocery store you can buy your food there instead of eating out every day.
This article is still being developed – I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave any comments or suggestions you have below! Thanks!