If you really dream of traveling more, then get ready to have all your excuses removed.
Too many times I hear, “I wish I could travel more, but I can’t afford it.”
The thing is, I haven’t heard this common excuse from a homeless person or someone who has been out of work for years. I would really believe it in those case. Instead I hear it multiple times a year from people who earn more money than I do. Or from teachers who have the whole summer off and yet they just stay home.
Usually what’s holding them back is a misunderstanding of how inexpensive travel can be. Or it boils down to just not having their priorities straight.
If you want to travel more, it’s not hard to find a way. But if it’s #7 on your list behind the latest iPhone, 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 if you’re not loaded with extra cash, it does require a little effort and some contrarian thinking. Here’s what to do if you want to travel more and are willing to do a little work to make it happen.
1. Game the Loyalty Programs: Sign-up Bonuses
If your personal 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–starting with a good sign-up bonus. I once got four free international flights in the course of one year by playing this game, to destinations as far away as Chile and Thailand.
For instance, you can go sign up for a Southwest Airlines card right now and spend $1,000 on it, you’ll get 40,000 points in their rewards program. That’s enough for a $400 plane ticket. You can go most anywhere in the USA for that, and often Mexico or Belize.
Assuming you’ve got good enough credit to apply for multiple cards, you can play several angles to cover the main costs of your vacation.
A) Start with 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 just see who is offering a good sign-up incentive. Usually you’ll get between 30,000 and 60,000 miles. If you sign up for the United Explorer Mileage Plus card right now you can get 40,000 miles. You have to spend $2,000 on the card in 90 days, so plan on putting some big purchases on it (which also earn points). That many miles will get you to Canada, Mexico, or Central America just on the bonus—or across the USA.
Then do it again for another airline to bank miles for different locations. Delta is offering a 60,000 mile sign-up bonus for their Gold Delta SkyMiles Card. With all of these you can use the miles to book with their partner airlines, so those 60,000 miles can really open up the world. Following that referral link though; if you just pull it up on Google they’re only offering 30,000.
B) Then get a credit card that’s tied to a specific hotel chain. You’ll usually get the best sign-up bonus from the IHG one (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Kimpton) from Chase or the Club Carlson (Radisson) one from US Bank. Right now the IHG Rewards Club Premier card gives you a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points after spending $2,000, Platinum status (free room upgrades) and a free night when you renew the card in a year.
After you get the bonus, you’ll have several free hotel nights. Marriott is currently offering a 100,000 points deal, but it’s not apples to apples with hotel loyalty program points needed. In my experience, you’ll get more free nights with 80K from IHG than you will 100K from Marriott or Hyatt. As always though, a hotel chain you use a lot is going to make more sense than one you seldom stay with.
C) Get a credit card (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, which some Amex cards still annoyingly do.
With these cards you can transfer over just the points you need for a ticket, as I did last week with Delta to “buy” my wife a ticket to come with me to Montana later this year.
2. Game the Loyalty Systems 2: Leverage Your Spending
Once you have one or more of these cards, use them for as much of your spending as possible that you’re going to be able to pay off. Every dollar you spend each month on cable, internet, phone bills, gas, Uber/Lyft, or public transportation 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.
Some people get rid of a card after a year or two because they mainly got it for the sign-up bonus. If you get lots of perks from your card though, like upgraded status or free checked bags, it’s usually worth it to keep paying the annual fee and rack up miles from your spending. I have cards for four airlines. This way I avoid the bag fees that put me in a bad mood and I never purchase a flight without earning bonus miles.
There may be spending discount promotions too. In three different countries I’ve gotten a night at a Holiday Inn or Holiday Inn Express where I wanted to go for just 5,000 points because the place was one their “points breaks” listings at a huge discount. I’ve gotten several Hilton rooms for 10,000 points. I once flew from Mexico to Peru and back for just 20,000 airline miles on United (actually flying on Avianca) because of a discounted miles promotion they were running for United Chase credit card holders.
3. Be Spontaneous With Your Travel
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, Jetsetter, Hotwire, CheapCaribbean.com, and now 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 thinking you can’t get a summer vacation deal from NYC, think again. You just need to be flexible. Granted, I only found one flight under $600 to Europe then (Madrid), but there are plenty of deals in this hemisphere in mid-June for a week:
Go check from your own city, but here are the round-trip price highlights from that screen shot above: Atlanta $135, Miami $207, Mexico City $309. If I could fit it on here, you’d see some South America destinations for less than $500 and some Canadian ones less than $200.
You can do something similar with the Skyscanner app or website, just putting in your 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.
Don’t forget about regional flight options either. You can pick up some surprisingly cheap flights within Asia or Europe, or with one of the many Mexican airlines. There are great deals in the USA with Allegiant if you’re traveling light.
4. Extend Business Trips
Many people travel hours away from their home city, then don’t see much beyond a hotel, offices, or a convention center. This is a big missed opportunity. Make it a bleisure trip instead.
When I worked in a corporate job, here are just a few places I traveled on my own over a long weekend: Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, D.C., Dallas, San Jose, Boston, 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. 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 for the soccer match or swim meet. But if you don’t, what’s your hurry?
A couple hours from Orlando…
Sure, Orlando might not be your scene, but you can reach beaches on either coast in a rental care in two hours. Or you could head to St. Augustine. 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, including the Grand Canyon. Almost anywhere can be a fun adventure or at least a good springboard to one.
5. Go for Local Adventures Nearby
When I lived in Nashville I had great vacations in Memphis, Lexington, Chattanooga, Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, 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. When I lived in Tampa, I discovered Deland and Fort Myers, took a trip to the Florida Keys, kayaked the Calusa Blueway, and went tubing down a spring-fed river–all without ever getting on a plane.
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.
6. Live Abroad to Travel More
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.
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.
If you follow just one or two of the tips in this article, you will take more vacations without spending more money. You can stop saying “I wish I could travel more” for good. Instead your challenge—if you’re an American working stiff—will be getting enough vacation time instead.