Making Travel More Affordable: How I Pay for Travel

Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens, Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens, Kyoto, Japan

Although I’ve been answering questions about the affordability of travel and how I pay for travel in a variety of posts on this blog for years (like this one and this one), I’ve also written about the fact that I think this is a topic that deserves a post of its own on every travel blog. 

Including this one. 

So let’s talk travel and money.  

(My favorite topics). 

Is Travel Affordable? 

The problem with writing about the general affordability of travel is that the definition of “affordable” is relative. Over the past few years, one of the components of my full-time job in finance has been to review people’s financial situations. I’m fully aware that some people would consider a $10,000 trip affordable, while other individuals and families would not be able to afford an international trip unless the total cost was under $1,000... and even that amount would take significant advance preparation. 

Outside of an individual or family’s financial position, there are other factors that influence the affordability of travel. One of these factors is where you are traveling from. It may seem obvious that it is easier and cheaper to travel to a European country if you are already in Europe than it might be if you are currently in the U.S. But if you are flying from the U.S. to Europe, the airport you are flying from also impacts affordability significantly. If budget airlines offer direct flights from your home airport, you are likely able to fly internationally much cheaper than I am from Nashville at this point (but we did add our first international flight to Europe last year – British Airways to London – so we’re moving on up!) 

Personal decisions and preferences also impact the affordability of international travel. Depending on your preferred style of accommodation, the activities you prefer while traveling, your standards for food and drink, and your preferred methods of transportation, you and I could visit the same country for the same amount of time and end up spending vastly different amounts of money on our trips.  

While the fact that we all have different financial situations, departure airports and personal preferences makes a discussion about the general affordability of travel difficult, there are some tips I’ve picked up over the years to make most trips more affordable – regardless of where you are planning to visit or what level of luxury you enjoy while traveling. 

5 General Tips to Make Travel More Affordable 

1) Travel in the off-season 

Wherever you are traveling, figure out when the high-season for tourism is in that country and try not to visit at that time. It’s also worth searching for the dates you want to travel to make sure there aren’t major events or festivals on those dates (unless, of course, you are traveling for the purpose of attending that special event or festival).  

2) Find a cheaper flight 

If you are flexible about your destination, consider signing up for Scott’s Cheap Flights. This is an email list with free and paid versions that sends out good flight deals all over the world for various dates, so when you see a deal you like, you can book it immediately (the deals don’t tend to last very long). If you have a specific destination you want to visit or specific travel dates in mind, set up a flight alert for the destination you want to visit on those dates. When the price drops, you’ll receive an email. Many flight websites offer alerts, but I’ve personally always used Kayak to set up flight alerts (setting up an alert on their mobile app is dangerously easy).  

3) Book accommodation early 

Generally, booking accommodation as early as possible will save you money, particularly if you are traveling in busy season or at a time when accommodation owners know that their inventory will be booked. That being said, I have noticed that Airbnbs sometimes drop their price within a few weeks of a given date if they haven't been able to fill the accommodation in advance. Obviously, waiting to see if the Airbnb you want to stay in will drop its price while simultaneously hoping someone else doesn’t book it before you is a bit of a gamble, but if you have a backup accommodation with free cancellation that you’ve already booked (like, for example, a hostel), or if you are very flexible about where you end up staying (like, for example, an Airbnb you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise but everything else sold out), this option may be worth some additional research.

4) Use credit card points to travel, if applicable 

Let me start by staying that there are travel bloggers that focus specifically on travel hacking, travel credit cards, and using travel credit card points to their full advantage... but I’m not one of those bloggers. If you want to know more about this topic in general, it may be worth checking out some of the blogs that specialize in this topic (like this one). However, I will say that I have used points from my travel credit card to purchase flights or subsidize the cost of flights over the past few years. If you know that you are a person who can use credit cards responsibly and you qualify for a travel credit card, a travel credit card may be a good fit for you.

5) Consider the return on investment (ROI) for your hassle 

In general, putting up with some hassle will save you money (booking an international flight with 2 stops instead of 1, flying a discount/domestic carrier to a larger airport then changing airlines to another carrier for the international flight, etc.) However, more hassle doesn’t always equal a better deal. I’ve seen this play out in particular with multi-city flights: if you intend to start your trip in one city and end your trip in a different city, buying an international flight to and from ONE of those cities may seem like the cheapest option... but it isn’t always. Often, the added transportation cost (not to mention added time) mean that the added hassle simply doesn’t make sense.  

How I Pay for Travel 

Now that we’ve discussed some practical tips you can use to make your trips more affordable in general (so that this post will hopefully be worth the time it takes you to read it), I’ll talk about how I afford to travel. But first, a disclaimer: the answer to this question isn’t glamorous.  

I save money that I earn working full time to pay for travel.  

Generally, it takes several months to save up the funds I need for a trip (especially now that some of my funds go toward fixing up and furnishing my fifties fixer upper). Currently, I travel internationally once or twice a year for 10 days at a time. Depending on the cost of those trips and the vacation days I’m able to get off work, I also try to travel domestically once or twice a year for a long weekend (generally 4 days at a time).  

In my financial situation, paying for travel generally means giving up spending on something else. The host of one of the personal finance podcasts I listen to regularly – Afford Anything – always says the following in her introduction: “You can afford anything, but not everything.” While I’m aware that not everyone can afford to travel, for many of us currently reading this post affording travel is about prioritization.  

Prioritization isn't always fun, because it means not spending money on some things you want so that you can afford other things you want (like travel). It also may mean cutting back on expenses while you travel so that you are able to afford a trip. I’m still staying primarily in hostels at the age of 29, but at this point in my life travel is still a priority for me… so I’m willing to give up a bit of privacy (and sleep) on my trips if it means that I can continue traveling.

How You Can Afford to Travel 

I won’t make an argument that saving money is glamorous or fast, but if it allows me to continue to travel, it’s something I intend to continue doing. 

I also won’t make an argument that everyone reading this post can afford to travel, because I’m aware that is simply not the case. If you do not earn a living wage currently that allows you to cover your expenses and save money, travel may ultimately add more stress to your financial situation than it is worth. I personally believe that going into debt to travel is never a good decision. Knowing your own situation and what you can afford is important, because no one knows your situation better than you do... and if the smartest financial decision for you during this chapter of your life is not to travel, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for that decision (and I applaud you for it).  

Related reading: If you are in a situation where you can afford some travel but you need to financially prepare, check out this post for tips to save money in a spending category that most of us have (subscriptions) .