After the resolutions and goals regarding exercise, diet, and finances get put on paper, one of the other most common goals people put out there is to travel more.
While a third of Americans have a passport and a lot more travel on road trips, the vacation deficit is still deplorable, despite an unemployment rate that’s about as low as it can possibly get. People are still so afraid of losing their lousy job that they’re sitting on vacation days they’ve never used.
I’ve long said that people who say, “I wish I could travel more” don’t really mean it. Unless they’re truly in poverty, if they wanted to travel more, they would. After all, travel money is simply priority money, buying experiences instead of hoarding more stuff you have to store somewhere.
Let’s assume you just need a little nudge though, some tips and tricks that will enable you to travel more without completely revamping your finances. Maybe if you got a free flight or place to stay, you’d have less trouble getting out of the rut and taking off? Here are a few things to try this year to make it happen.
1) Use the Right Credit Cards for Free Travel and Perks
Sure, cash back is nice, but if you really want to travel more, you have to be putting that cash back into a dedicated travel fund to make your credit card spending work for you. Most people don’t have the discipline for that. So I strongly advise getting a credit card that gives you travel rewards so you’ll use the points for travel. That way you’ve got more an incentive to hit the road and use your vacation time properly.
I’ve got a whole slew of travel cards, including four airlines and a couple hotel companies. I like that I get extra perks out of those, like free flights on Southwest (I’m taking one this month), free checked bags on one of the legacy airlines that are trying to be more like Spirit, or free hotel stays when I need them. My IHG card gives me a free hotel stay each year in which the value just of that far exceeds the annual fee.
Or if you’re just going to get one card, you might do best with a Chase Sapphire Reserve one that lets you transfer points to various loyalty programs to cash in.
The best way to play this game is to put expenses on these cards that you’re going to pay off anyway, like the monthly internet or cellular bills. We’ve even been putting my daughter’s tuition on one, earning one of us enough miles to head to Europe and back. See a few of my favorite options here.
2) Become a Housesitter
Half the digital nomad blogger friends I know accomplish their slow travel balance by holing up in someone else’s houses. And they have the whole place to themselves! All they have to do is water the plants and take care of the pets while the owners are out galavanting around the world or visiting relatives. You don’t get paid, but you get a free place to stay.
There are several programs out there, but the most popular is Trusted Housesitters.
3) Do a Home Exchange
When I spent a week in Cody, Wyoming last year and alternated between visiting Yellowstone and working on my writing, I didn’t stay in a hotel. I stayed in someone’s house–again while they weren’t there. We could read their hiking books to find trails, use their bikes, and even drink some home brewed beer from the owner’s collection coming out of his tap. He had hops growing on the side of the house! My kind of guy.
We worked this out through HomeExchange.com, where I pay an annual fee to connect with people who want to do a home exchange. It can be simultaneous, at different times, or through a points system. As I write this, my wife is at the beach near Puerto Vallarta with one of her friends, enjoying another home from an exchange. No money had to change hands. If you can tolerate a little more risk, you can also set these up on Craigslist, on message boards, or through your network of friends and their friends.
4) Pick the Cheap Flight First
Do you know someone at work or in your circle of friends who always seems to find some unbelievable flight deal and they’re jetting off to somewhere exotic on a regular basis? No, they’re not “lucky,” they probably just do things in the right order. They find a cheap flight deal, then build a vacation around that.
Most people do the opposite, so they never get those great deals. They say, “I want to go to Hawaii in March and leave on a Friday” and then they wonder why everyone else gets the bargains. Do a flight search on Google Flights or Skyscanner without picking a destination and see what comes up. Or keep an eye on Airfare Watchdog.
Chances are you’ll find some terrific deals if you just open up your horizons and remain flexible. If lodging prices on HotelsCombined or Airbnb look like a good deal too (or the place is in The World’s Cheapest Destinations book), then just book it already!
5) Pick the Cheap Lodging Destination First
The second best thing to do is pick the cheap lodging destination first, especially if flight prices are making several of your choices a toss-up. Go do a quick search on Kayak or Airbnb, sorting by price, to get an idea of what it will cost you to stay there on vacation. Go with whichever one is the best deal because depending on how long your trip is, lodging might be the biggest budget item on your daily expenses. (Otherwise it’s often meals, so use The World’s Cheapest Destinations as a starting point.)
A $17 hotel room in Mexico’s 2nd largest city
6) Pick the Cheap Car Rental Gateway
One other criteria you can use, especially if you’re considering multiple options in Europe or the USA, is to do a quick search of car rental prices on Kayak or Hotwire. Rental car prices don’t matter if you’re just planning a city vacation, but if you’re going to do a road trip or visit a sparsely populated area where you need your own wheels, the price of a rental car can have a big impact on your vacation budget. I’ve paid as much as $65 a day and as little as $4 a day. The difference between those extremes when you multiply that by seven is $427.
7) Take a Cheap Train or Bus
If you just want to get out of town and have a change of scenery, pull up the local train and bus schedules and you’ve probably got a lot of choices. In the USA and Europe there are dirt-cheap bus options like Megabus and tk and as I write this, Amtrak is running a buy one get one free sale. I just took a ride with them with my daughter from Virginia to Florida and it was less than half the price that flights would have been.
Plus public ground transportation pricing is much less baffling than airline pricing: the further ahead you book, the cheaper your fare will usually be.
Don’t forget about the regular commuter lines either. If you live in New York City, where could you go if you took Long Island Railroad or New Jersey Transit somewhere far? Where could you go on BART or Metra in San Francisco or Chicago?
8) Go Where the Crowd Isn’t Going
This was one of the main points of my book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune that I put out ages ago. The original title was The Contrarian Traveler because easy rule for always saving money on travel is to avoid going where everyone else is going, when they are going.
If you head to the most popular destinations in the world, the ones suffering from overtourism, you’re going to be paying top dollar. If you go somewhere nobody is talking about instead, you’ll probably find terrific bargains. Even within a popular country like France, Italy, or Thailand, finding alternate locations away from the package tour crowds can substantially lower your costs. Plus going in the shoulder season (or if the weather is not terrible, the off season) will present you with lodging rates at the bottom of their range instead of the top.
9) Borrow an RV (Campervan)
Drive around the rural USA much, especially out west, and you’ll literally see hundreds of recreational vehicles parked in driveways, sitting there all but a week or two a year. There aren’t quite that many in Europe where they’re called campervans instead of RVs, but still a fair number going unused.
In one of those obvious after somebody does it moves, there’s a matching service out there called RVShare where you can rent someone’s expensive RV for your vacation and not have to worry about paying for it the rest of the year. This is an especially smart move if you’ll be traveling around the national park zones out west in the USA or parts of Europe that have lots of places to park one. Of course if you have a friend who has one of these sitting in his or her driveway, you can probably work out an even better deal for a trip closer to home, with no middleman.
10) Borrow a Tent and Sleeping Bags
If you have our own camping gear, this is one of the cheapest vacation options of all, especially if you’re willing to carry everything in and out and do backcountry camping. There are plenty of places all over though where you can pull up a car and unpack from there. If you don’t have your own equipment, someone you know certainly has it all sitting in a garage, unused. Ask around and they’ll probably be glad to lend it all out so it gets used.
11) Rent a State Park Cabin
When I lived in Virginia and Tennessee, I rented a lot of cabins with friends and relatives, sometimes with my family, and it was often a great deal. The national park ones get reserved far ahead of time, but often the state park ones are easier to come by, especially in sparsely populated states with good park systems. Bring your own groceries and drinks and this is a cheap vacation that might get the kids off their electronics for a while.
12) Extend a Work Trip
Do you sometimes travel on business for sales calls or conventions and then hightail it back home when you’re finished? If so, you just wasted a golden opportunity for a short break vacation. Most companies are glad to let you extend your stay if the flight isn’t going to cost them more and in business cities, hotels actually get cheaper on the weekends. Or you can rent a car and head out to somewhere interesting. Come back on Sunday or take a vacation without hitting your bank of saved-up days too hard.
If you belong to a hotel loyalty program and/or have the right credit card (see #1), you probably even have some free hotel nights you can cash in, making this a vacation that’s just as cheap as staying home.
Get it on Your Calendar
This is not part of the numbered list because it’s just a habit change that will enable you to travel more, not a travel tactic.
Instead of waiting for your travel plans to magically materialize, make them part of your t0-do list and get a week or two of vacation on your calendar. Then treat it as a set event that can’t be changed, the same way you would treat a sister’s wedding.
If you keep putting off a proper vacation because you never get around to actually tackling the planning and logistics, just sign up for an inexpensive group tour and let someone else handle all of that. There are companies like Intrepid and G Adventures that have very reasonable trips all over the world, often for less than you would pay setting the same trip up on your own.
If you write it down and make it public, it’s much more likely to happen. If you just say, “I’ll see what happens later,” travel becomes a lower priority than a dozen other things and you’ll be saying, “Where did my year go?”
Now…where are you going this year? Put it in the comments and make it a commitment!
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