how to travel more

“I wish I could travel more, but I can’t afford it.”

I haven’t heard this common excuse from a homeless person or someone who has been out of work for years, because then I might believe it. Instead I’ve heard it dozens of times from people who earn more money than I do. Or they have the whole summer off and just stay home.

In either case, what’s holding them back is a misunderstanding of how inexpensive travel can be. Or just not having their priorities straight. Or both. If you want to travel, it’s not hard to find a way. But if it’s #7 on your list behind gadgets, new cars, a bigger house, weekly clothes shopping, a Starbucks addiction, and your three pets then yeah, that makes it harder.

Traveling more doesn’t require winning the lottery, but it does require a little effort and some contrarian thinking if you’re not loaded. Here’s where to start if you’re not ready to chuck everything in storage and become a budget backpacker.

Game the Loyalty Programs: Sign-up Bonuses

If your credit is good enough to get an average credit card, then don’t get an average credit card. Get one that will really reward you in a big way for your spending. I’ve talked before about the Travel Hacking Cartel and how some advice I gleaned from that got me four free international flights in the course of one year. If you don’t want to pay for that though, you can spend some time on various reward-oriented blogs and get the lowdown on which credit cards are currently paying the biggest sign-up rewards.

airline rewards cardIf that’s too much effort, here’s a simple rundown that’s good enough to get started. 1) Get one airline card, preferably for the airline where you already have the most miles or the one you’re probably going to fly on the most over the next year or two. If you live somewhere with lots of competition and won’t use the card internationally, then get one (or more) of the American Airlines ones from Citi. That’s now the best domestic frequent flier program and at the time of writing they’re giving you 50K miles just for signing up and completing the minimum spend. That’s enough miles for an international ticket or two domestic ones.

2) Then get one that’s tied to a hotel chain. You’ll get the best sign-up bonus from the IHG one (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn) from Chase or the Club Carlson (Radisson) one from US Bank. After you get the bonus, you’ll have several free hotel nights. The Amex Starwood one is good too because you can transfer points to some airline programs if needed.

3) Get (or use one that you already have) that allows you to contribute miles to multiple programs and top off your accounts. American Express has the Membership Rewards program, but better bets these days are Chase Sapphire and Barclay Arrival Plus, which have a more useful array of programs and offer more bonus earning opportunites. Also, they don’t levy a foreign transaction fee and they have a chip rather than just a strip—both important factors abroad. I’m not getting a commission from any of these; I just know they’re some of the best options at the time of writing.

Game the Loyalty Systems 2: Leverage Your Spending

Once you have one or more of these cards, unless you’re prone to rack up a balance you should use them for as much of your spending as possible. First of all, every dollar you spend on cable, internet, phone bills, and gas could be putting more points on your balance. Then there are all kinds of bonus earning opportunities from mileage malls, dining programs, and using the card for purchases at that airline or hotel chain. Add up what you spend in a typical year that you could put on a card and it’s probably enough to earn another flight or couple hotel nights.

IHG reward card

On top of all that, there are all kinds of spending discount promotions too. In three different countries I’ve gotten a night at a Holiday Inn where I wanted to go for just 5,000 points because the place was one their “points breaks” listings at a huge discount. I’m likely going from Mexico to Peru and back this spring for just 20,000 airline miles on United (actually flying on Avianca) because of a discounted miles promotion they’re running for United Chase credit card holders.

Be Spontaneous

Sometimes taking advantage of these great deals means doing things in the opposite order of most people. Instead of deciding where to go and then figuring out how to jam that place into your budget, save the destination choice for last. If you can use miles and hotel points in Place D but not in A, B, or C, then go directly to D!

Or use a site that specializes in last-minute deals and just see what pops up. Examples in all budget ranges include LuxuryLink, Groupon Getaways (or your local Groupon/Living Social site for local travel), Jetsetter, Hotwire, CheapCaribbean.com, and most of the big online travel agents like Priceline. Or throw it wide open: go to Google Flights, put in your home airport, and see what comes up. If you’re freezing your butt off in Chicago right now, for instance, check this out for round-trip prices on an 8-day trip in January to go warm up:

everywhere flight pricesClick to expand, but here are the highlights: Phoenix less than $200, Florida less than $300, Mexican resort areas and Costa Rica around $400.

You can do something similar with the Skyscanner app if you have that, just putting in hour home airport and picking “anywhere” for the destination. Haven’t heard of the place before? So what. You can learn most everything you need to know about it in one day online, or just buy a guidebook right before you take off and read it on the plane. You’ll probably have a better time than you did on any previous long-planned vacation because there were fun surprises.

Extend Business Trips

When I worked in a corporate job, here are some places I traveled on my own over a long weekend: Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Cleveland, D.C., Dallas, Richmond, San Jose, and Las Vegas. In all these cases, there was some biz meeting or convention I had to go to, but I always booked my flight back a few days later whenever possible. As long as the price was the same or less (it usually was because I stayed over a Saturday), then they couldn’t have cared less. So all I had to pay for was a couple days of local expenses. Could you do the same but you just don’t?

When I travel through airports on Fridays, they’re always packed wall to wall with people in business clothing coming home from their work on the road. A lot of them have families with kids I’m sure and need to get back. But if you don’t, what’s your hurry? Sure, Orlando might not be your scene, but you can reach beaches on either coast in a rental care in two hours. If you’re in Vegas and don’t like to gamble, there are a  lot of cool things to see and do within driving distance. Almost anywhere can be a fun adventure or at least a good springboard to one.

Go Local

When I lived in Nashville I had great vacations in Memphis, Lexington, Chattanooga, Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Hollywild, Birmingham, and some state parks. I can think of a year’s worth of cool weekend trips worth taking from where I grew up in Virginia. Weird places to visit

There are probably at least 20 places worth visiting within three hours of your home that you’ve never been to, but have some vague intention of visiting someday. There are probably 20 or 30 more that just haven’t gotten onto your radar. Then there are the ones that may not be all that notable, but are probably still going to be an adventure.

Take the commuter train to the end of the line. Pick a town on the map and drive there. Get a local book on strange things to see in your state and start visiting them. You might not think my sometime home of Tampa would have all that much worth checking out nearby, but this book of one-tank trips from there I got from the library once has been through several editions and has 57 entries.

Live Abroad

You want to really expand your travel options? Move somewhere that’s already foreign. Then everywhere you go will be exciting.

From where I live now in central Mexico, I can take a direct bus to a few dozen destinations and all of them are going to feel exotic. Who’s ever heard of Cuetzalan or Zacatecas? When my wife and I taught English for a year in Korea, we went all over the country, to strange places like Maisan and not-so-strange ones like Cheju Island that still felt very out of the ordinary to us foreigners.

maisan Korea

If you already live in Budapest, you don’t have to pay $1,200 to go somewhere in Europe. If you already live in Malaysia, you can just hop on a bus or train to get to Singapore or Thailand. Not only are you already living a better life for half the price, you can now travel to foreign lands without flying across an ocean to do so.

 

Tim Leffel Ecuador

December is shaping up to be a record traffic month for this cheap travel blog, a mere 11 years after I launched it. More than 50,000 readers a month land here normally, which is more readers than a lot of magazines I’ve written for, so it’s a safe bet a lot of you are first-time readers.

This is not, however, one of those blogs that screams, “Look at me and all the cool places I’m going!” I don’t think I’ve ever posted a selfie on here and half the time I don’t even write about where I’m traveling until weeks or months later. Heck, those Panama photos I put up a couple weeks ago were from April of 2013. Instead, this is a blog about the cheapest places to travel in the world, the cheapest places to live, and how to get the most out of your traveling budget. I share what I know and what I’ve learned so you can do more for less.

But I should probably get a bit personal now and then to explain who I am to the new people. Especially since the last time I did so, in this 7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me post, was more than two years ago. Since then I’ve moved back to Mexico, put out another book, published 17 more issues of Perceptive Travel, reviewed 100+ travel gear items, and traveled to a bunch more places.

That tells you a good bit about what I do for a living, but I’m also still a freelance writer for a lot of publications that aren’t mine, plus I get quoted in the media a lot as a bargain travel and destinations expert. On that page I linked to there you can hear interviews on pocasts like The Week in Travel, the Daily Travel Podcast, and Overseas Property Insider. Next week I’m recording ones for The Suitcase Entrepreneur and The Budget Minded Traveler.

Tim Leffel Bolivia

This blog is very conversational and casual, but I’ve won dozens of awards for my more crafted prose, from all three major annual award programs in the USA. As editor at Perceptive Travel, I’ve also commissioned a few dozen more stories that have won best travel writing awards.

I currently live in Guanajuato, Mexico, where I bumble along in Spanish, run occasional street food tours, and work out of a house I own. My wife is more fluent and my daughter takes subjects like history, math, and science in her adopted second language. We travel within Mexico on school breaks and we’ve probably been to more Mexican states together than U.S. ones at this point. Here’s a shot from Puebla outside the lucha libre arena.

Leffels Puebla

I like adventure travel, exploring offbeat places, and finding great bargains. I’m not a country counter: I’d rather spend a week or two in one place or return to the same country to get to know it better than to fly through a bunch just to check off boxes.

mezcal OaxacaI like trying local food and drinking local hooch. But I do miss the vast array of microbrews you can get in the land of my birth. As with coffee and wine, the country that used to be a laggard when I was a kid is now on top in many respects. (The USA doesn’t like to be outdone when it comes to consumer choice.)

I’ve never owned a fancy car, or had a massive house, or felt like I had to go get the latest iSucker gadget the week it came out. Instead I’ve collected a huge treasure of great experiences. If you’d like to do the same, you can sign up for the RSS feed, follow me on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+), or get the Cheap Living Abroad newletter.

Adios for now.

living in Bulgaria

I’ve talked before on this blog about how Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places in the world to travel. It’s also one of the cheapest places to live, a real bargain by European standards. It has a starring role in two of my books. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the scoop from Maria Stoynova, a blogger who actually hails from there. Take it away Maria!

Bulgaria is the small Eastern European country you’ve probably never heard of. This is a country with high mountains; great sea resorts, and cute, cozy little towns you will crave to visit once you see them in pictures. This little known Balkan gem has a lot to offer its visitors. There are two main reasons to re-shuffle your travel plans for 2015 and put Bulgaria on the list. #1. It’s unbelievably beautiful and charming and #2. It’s ridiculously affordable. The first one is obvious through the pictures you may have seen. It’s the second that I want to tell you more about.

Accommodation

The minimum wage in Bulgaria is around 170 Euros but the actual average wage is around 400 Euros a month. Bearing that in mind it is obvious that the accommodation costs should not exceed that amount. For a decent one-bedroom apartment in Sofia’s city center you can pay as much as 220 Euros a month. Outside of the center the rent decreases by around 50€ and if you venture further out the accommodation is even cheaper. The average monthly utilities would not exceed 50 Euros which includes electric, heating and water.

Tryavna Bulgaria

Transportation

TetevanIn the big cities there are plenty of transportation options to choose from. One-way tickets usually cost around 1 lev which is around 0.50€. In Sofia, the capital, you can find a metro system which has 2 lines and is again 1 lev. If you’re staying for a while a monthly pass costs around 25€ and you can use it on all means of the transportation system.

Taxis in Bulgaria are also fairly affordable, for a good 15-minute drive they will charge you no more than 5-7 Euros but usually it’s around 3-4 Euros.

If you’re staying a little longer in Bulgaria and plan on buying a vehicle you can find a decent used car for as little as 1500 Euros. The cost of running a car is also fairly cheap by European standards, with one liter of gasoline coming in at around 1,20€.

Eating Out

If you‘re coming to Bulgaria make sure you pack some bigger jeans because for really reasonable prices you’ll get a lot of food. Eating out is very affordable. Bulgarians love having “banichka” and “boza” for breakfast, which costs no more than 1 euro for both. Restaurants, taverns and pubs are not only a local’s favorite place for socializing but are also very easy on the pocket. A nice three course meal in an inexpensive restaurant will cost you around 10 euros and with a large beer in Bulgaria costing only 1-2€ you can be wined and dined for very little money.

shopska salad

And let’s not forget the famous “shopska” salad, which recently topped European Parliament’s campaign “A Taste of Europe” (getting around 20,000 Facebook likes). This will cost you around 2€.

Social Life

Bulgarians love to have long coffee breaks with friends that can sometimes last more than 2 hours. It’s great to catch up and take our time indulging in doing things like going to the cinema which only costs around 3 to 5 euros. If you’re feeling like doing something a little fancier a ticket to the theater can be found for 5 to 10 euros.

Sofia theater

There are a lot of night clubs in Bulgaria simply because Bulgarians know how to party. The clubs are full every night and on Fridays and Saturdays it’s almost impossible to find a seat. If you want to experience the Bulgarian nightlife you should budget around 10-20 euros.

This is a guest post by Maria, a travel blogger from Bulgaria, who also shot the photos. She blogs at Travelling Buzz where she shares her stories, tips and tricks on budget travels and destinations such as her home country Bulgaria. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Berestagi Sumatra travel

It’s time for the year-end issue of Perceptive Travel online magazine, home to great travel stories from book authors on the move. We’ve got some demon dancing, some extreeeeme adventures (say it like an ad announcer for full effect), and some village touring in the land of scowls. Plus some good and bad new travel books as well as some old and new world music.

Marco Ferrarese finds himself in the middle of a bizarre street festival while visiting the town of Berestagi in Sumatra, Indonesia. He’s warned not to look anyone in the eyes and is transfixed by demonic creatures putting people in a spell. See Street Walking Demons in Sumatra.

Huasteca adventure

I wrote before on this blog and posted some pics from a crazy adventure travel trip I went on during the summer in the seldom-visited state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. That was a dashed-off blog post, but now you can read a more literate narrative with some different photos. Check out Taking Adventure to the Next Level in Hidden Huasteca, Mexico.

James Dorsey often writes on Perceptive Travel about interesting tribes and expressions of spirituality, but he finds little of either in modern-day Russia, where even a celebration day is dour and devoid of life. See A Grim Commemoration Day in Modern Russia.

Susan Griffith takes on the book reviews again this month, with one she wished she’d never read and one most parents of gap year kids should probably avoid. See the December travel book reviews.

Laurence Mitchell spins a batch of world music albums, from a dub Christmas to a classic Cuban collection to a mash-up of India and the Sahara. See the December world music reviews. Steripen Freedom purifier

As always, we’re giving away something cool to one of our regular readers and this month it’s something I’ve used and preached about a lot: the SteriPEN Freedom water purifier. I’ve kept hundreds of water bottles out of the ground and streams by using this in countries where you can’t drink the water and this one is both small and USB rechargeable. Sign up for the monthly newsletter to always be sure you get the announcement. Or act like your in Vegas and follow us on the Facebook ad generation platform. You may see our newsfeed one day after that if you get lucky and can enter.

Docking Duffel

It’s time for the annual Passports with Purpose drive, which I think I’ve supported every year since 2009, and this time I partnered up with one of my favorite gear companies, Eagle Creek. They are supplying one of their new Docking Duffel bags as a prize you can bid on for just a $10 donation. (I’m proud to work with them again—they supplied a DigiHauler backpack in 2012 and it was a big hit.)

So what is Passports with Purpose? It’s a once-a-year charity project run by a few volunteers and made possible by a slew of travel bloggers and donors. Each year there’s a very specific and attainable project the money is going toward, teaming up with someone who already has the local means and contacts. In the past the group effort has resulted in some amazing outcomes:

– Built and funded a school in Cambodia

– Built an entire village in India

– Built two entire libraries in Zambia

– Funded the drilling of five village wells in Haiti

– Funded schools and adult literacy programs in southern Mali

Sustainable Harvest InternationalThis year PwP is teaming up with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) to train farmers in Honduras. The organization’s goal is to provide farming families in Central America with the training and tools to preserve our planet’s tropical forests while overcoming poverty. Here’s more info on them. You can bid on a whole array of great prizes and the worst thing that can happen is you helped some people who really need it.

See the prize catalog here.

So about that bag…

This Docking Duffel from Eagle Creek is two bags in one. It’s a duffel with a removable shoulder bag that you can use as your daypack when sightseeing or to have with you in your seat on the plane. When you take that off, the duffel can expand, so you get more storage space where that other bag was. You get lots of useful pockets (including a clear 3-1-1 cosmetics pouch), a padded tablet sleeve, and a panel that allows this to slide over the handle of rolling luggage.

At 41 linear inches, it easily qualifies as a carry-on and will even fit in the overhead bin of those tiny regional jets. It only weighs 1 pound, 7 ounces (less than a kilo) but has a capacity of 43 liters. The company’s “No Matter What” warranty is one of the best you’ll find from any luggage maker, covering the bag for life. In my experience, that’s a reflection of good design and manufacturing: I’ve had close to zero problems with Eagle Creek gear over a 21-year travel span.

This transformers bag retails for $155 and comes in two colors. Winner must reside in the USA or Canada for this one, but there are loads of other prizes to choose from, including some digital goods and gift vouchers that can ship anywhere. Bid on this bag here, or see the full prize list at the Passports with Purpose site.

But hurry! The drive ends December 17, 2014.