If you’re looking for a piece on travel hacking, this isn’t it. I’ve compiled a post before on great beginner travel hacking resources and that should be right up your alley. There are bloggers killing the game in terms of “hacking” credit card rewards for free travel and, admittedly, I am not one of them. But I’m dipping the toe in there. I just signed up for my first airline miles credit card at the end of last year. However, I like to think I’m an avid traveler, or at least (to me) it seems I'm always on the go. And while the bug bit me – hard – when I made my first Europe trip to Italy, I’ve always been conscious of how to include this new passion into my budget. Thanks to my money management app (where I categorize all of my expenses) I can see historical data on exactly how much I’ve spent on travel in my 20s.
Here’s How Much I Spent on Travel in the Last Four Years
- 2014 – $ 3,365.95
- Annual Income $64,469.00
- Percentage of Income (5.21%)
- Traveled to: Montreal (Bachelorette), San Francisco, The Finger Lakes (Wedding), New Orleans, Washington D.C., Portland, Seattle
- 2015 – $ 2,889.00
- Annual Income $46,794.00
- Percentage of Income (6.17%)
- Traveled to: Austin, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Charlotte, San Antonio, New York City (for two weeks!)
- 2016 – $ 2,039.00
- Annual Income $60,621.83
- Percentage of Income (3.3%)
- Traveled To: Rome and Florence, Boston, New York City, New Orleans (Bachelorette, again)
- 2017 – $4,386
- Annual Income $101,388.00
- Percentage of Income (4.32%)
- Traveled To: Cancun, Mexico, Miami, Florida, Savannah, Sedona, Dallas, Florida, Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia, and Montserrat
You can see that as my income increases, so does my travel spending, but each year I aim to spend no more than 5% of my take-home income on travel. But you’ll notice I make a fair number of smaller, weekend trips within this budget and I wanted to detail how I make it work and manage to travel on a budget. 5% is an arbitrary number, but it works well with my spending and savings goals.
Also, as a note: My 5% number is higher than the national average, but I am an unmarried, childless person with a stable income and a side hustle, and I also have a house and zero monthly debt payments.
How to Travel on a Budget (Without Feeling Poor)
Pay Attention to Flight Deals
It's so simple….only buy flights when there is a deal. I use Unroll.Me to filter “promotional” emails out of my Inbox, but I marked it so the ones for flights always land in my actual inbox. Now since I'm trying to do a bit more “travel hacking” and stack my miles I book everything through Delta or Southwest, but in the past, I've used Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity to find dirt cheap flights.
Even when shopping the discount sites, I try to consolidate with two airlines: Delta & Southwest. I do this for a number of reasons – because they’re cheap, the rewards program for each is decent and consistent, and I like the companies in general and their business model. (Plus Delta is based here in #ATL!)
Because I travel so much in the U.S., even before I got super aggressive with stacking miles I was able to get one flight, maybe two for free each year based on these rewards. Granted, it wasn't to an exotic or European locale, but when all your friends live in different major cities, it's nice to be able to grab a free flight to visit when the mood strikes.
This is how I was able to make our annual friend group trip to Miami in 2017 even though I hadn't really “planned” (or budgeted) to go.
Always (Over) Share a Room
The older I get, the less sexy this option becomes, but in order to save money I always squish in with a roommate (or in the case of the Austin trip of 2015….six.) Seriously, whenever my friends and I travel we cram into rooms like we’re college Freshman on Spring Break. (We're over 30 now, btw) Sure, we could afford to get our own rooms, but we prefer to spend that money on what we really value and enjoy, like fancy dinners or shows.
Now that I’m older and (for whatever reason) I’m a lighter sleeper than I’ve ever been – sometimes I think it would be “worth it” to splurge on a room of my own. But then I compare “separate room” vs. checking another city off my list and I think better of it. We also do a lot of research on best prices for places to stay, whether it's an Airbnb or splitting a hotel room we find on Expedia.
Book At the Last Second
I’m a planner. I love to plan. I love to have my ducks in a row, and it feels great to do this…. especially when you’re traveling. BUT if you can afford to feel irritatingly footloose and fancy-free for a day, you can score great last minute deals on nice hotels via apps. I adore the Hotels Tonight app (use code LABOWLING for $25 off!) and (again) Expedia for the last minute deals.. Especially when I do my annual pilgrimage to New York City (it's one of my favorite places to travel and since I used to live there, I always find excuses to go and catch up with old friends) last minute hotel stays are discounted enough to make staying in the city wallet friendly.
Even when booking flights, it can pay to wait until (almost) the last minute. There's lots of research out there that suggests the ideal time to buy a flight is three weeks before your departure (although this piece stacks up data and finds the 50-75 day window is best.)
Airline Rewards Cards
This escalates into the more advanced ‘travel hacking' strategy category, but I did score a FREE flight to Italy in 2016 by signing up for the Chase Ink Rewards Card, spending enough to get the reward points and then using those points for a flight. Some of the sign-up bonuses can be pretty sweet, so only (AND IF ONLY) you're looking for a new card, consider one that offers miles or travel incentives instead of cash back.
Leverage a Savings App
If you struggle with consistently saving money each month and want to “find' the money to travel, I highly recommend a savings app. There are many different ones out there, but Qapital is my favorite and the one I recommend throughout the site. First of all, it's free, and it sneaks small amounts from your checking account away. Whenever I get a last minute opportunity to travel, it's nice to log in and see a “stash” hidden away so I can make the trip a reality. I've relied on Qapital to make last minute trips happen without debt, most recently on our trip to Barcelona as food and pocket money while we were abroad.
Get Creative: Influencing, Bartering and “Piggybacking” Trips
I must’ve picked this tendency up from my Dad, because most of the trips in my childhood coincided with his optometry conference schedule. We've all “piggybacked” personal leisure on top of work trips and it makes financial sense, but by making vacations as part of another business-related event my dad (and now, me) are able to a) write off the expense on my taxes and b) get a great vacation at a lower price become some (or all) of the work-related travel is covered.
I'm also an influencer, so many times I'm lucky enough to travel as part of a campaign (like the ultra-luxurious stay in Los Angeles as part of the Uber Visa campaign,) or when I know I'm headed someplace for work, I'll try to score a free hotel stay in exchange for a review or posts on social media. Even if you're not a blogger, if you have a sizeable following on social it could be worth a shot to reach out to the brand via email or social. My metrics are not big and I've still been surprised by the responses I've gotten about free travel! (Like an entire stay with Palace Resorts for my 30th. It was an amazing experience!)
When I'm out of influencer options (I also get turned down a fair amount), I barter. For our upcoming family trip to Hawaii, I offered to help my Dad with his website and promotion of his first novel in exchange for airfare and a stay. I've also done chores/dinners in exchange for extended stays for friends (or when I wanted a plane ticket to move to New York City, I cleaned and organized my parent's entire garage in exchange for the ticket from my Mom.)
In short: If there's a will, there's a way…. so get creative with finding ways to travel on the cheap.
Really, when it comes to budget travel and trying to make my dollars go further, I try to abide by just one incredibly simple rule – “Never pay full price” – for any of it.