The [Not -so] Secret Tips to Traveling

So, I get asked a lot how I’m able to travel like I do. It seems that people think I make a lot of money or have unlimited time off, but that’s not the case. Some of it is just fortunate circumstances, but it also has to do with a lot of budgeting, strategy, and finding deals.

For me, it all started after college (and after I got my first “real” job). My friends started moving away to other states, and my older brother has lived in a few different cities, domestic and internationally, so I had a lot of people to visit.

It started with a trip to Denver, then Philadelphia, then Chicago, and then Baton Rouge, Baltimore, and places I could drive to like, Nashville and other cities around the South. And then things changed when my brother moved to Doha, Qatar. You can read about this little adventure in my very first blog post.

The travel bug bit me hard, so I had to figure out how to make it a regular thing. I also set goals for myself — Visit at least one new state and one new country every year.

In four years, I’ve been to 15 countries all over the world! That puts me at 16 total countries, and I’m up to 27 States, but that’s over the span of 30-ish years…

I think there’s a big misconception that traveling means you’re spending a lot of money. Which, you are, but it’s probably not as much as you would think. This is how I make it work:

Budgeting & Saving:

This is a huge part of how I afford to travel. It’s amazing how much you can save by not eating lunch out every day, or cutting out shopping for only things you need or just spending less in general. I’ve also found ways to lower my car insurance, my cable bill, and even how to save money on my rent.

A lot of times, it’s little things like eating lunch out every day. Let’s say that’s about $8/meal which means that’s $40/week on lunch alone. And you multiply that by 4 weeks, and that’s $160/month! If you cut that down to eating out only 1 day per week, that’s saving almost $130. That’s almost, or could be, the cost of a flight.

I also immediately move money to my savings account after every paycheck so it is “out of sight and out of mind”. It works!

Credit Cards

For a long time, I didn’t want to ever have a credit card, but then I realized that I was actually wasting money by not having one. There are too many perks by gaining points to where it is actually a waste of money to not gain a free night at a hotel room here and there or gain miles for flights that end up only costing $11 USD because you have enough miles to cover the entire flight.

This varies person to person, but I started out with the Wells Fargo Rewards Card. It was a great beginner card because there is no annual fee. And once a certain amount of money is spent within the first two months, a chunk of points are given to the card owner to use as they please.

Pros: This is a Visa card so it can be used anywhere, and you can use this on any airline as well as using as many points as you want to get a discounted price on a flight instead of only being able to book a flight based on if you have the points that they are worth. So, if a flight is 20k points, but you only have 10k to use, you can use the discount and the price of the flight drops by 50 percent.

Cons: After a certain point, card owners only receive 1 point per dollar so this is when I started to look at other options since I wasn’t getting much benefit anymore.

There’s the other option of getting a card based on an airline that has a large presence in your closest airport because most likely, you will end up flying with them over any other airline. I ended up getting the Delta Airlines American Express Gold card, because I’m a loyal Delta customer and it just made sense for me since I’m always flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson.

Pros: There are just so many. Delta, hands down, has the best milage program of any airline. Miles never expire! And there’s now a “Pay With Miles” option when booking flights. Similar to what I mentioned above with the Wells Fargo points. I also always get Zone 1 (which does make a difference as I don’t have to worry about not having a space to put my carry on bag), a free checked bag, and discounts on in-flight purchases. The first two parts of that also include anyone who I’ve booked a flight for and is traveling with me.

Cons: There’s a $95 annual fee, and AMEX is not very international friendly even though there are no international fees charged when you use this card.

Also, my travel savvy friends, and any travel expert, would say that the Chase Sapphire Reserved card is the best travel card out there. There is a high annual fee, but you get $300 of travel credits (flights, hotels, ride shares), and it can be used on any airline. A huge perk to this card too is that they waive fees for your Global Entry application which is worth $100 on it’s own!

Vacation Time/PTO:

The average American only receives about 10 days of paid vacation every year. That’s only a measly two weeks of time to try to relax or visit family and friends. Thankfully, I get a little more time off than this, on top of some paid holidays, but I’ve also learned to be strategic about when I plan vacations.

If you want to take a week off, try to plan it where a holiday falls during that time so you only have to use 4 days instead of 5, or 5 instead of 6.

I’ve also learned there’s a lot you can do during a long weekend. I try to take off two full weeks every year (one week at separate times), and then split up the extra days I have by tacking on a day to a weekend. If you want to get out there and do things, this is the best way to do it. And it’s always nice having a short work week!

Flights:

This is my favorite part. I’m such a nerd when it comes to this, but I LOVE looking at flights.

Again, it’s about having a strategy. The best way to go into it is to have flexible dates, even if you have a certain time frame in mind. Honestly, a lot of times I can’t do this since I’m coordinating trips with other people, but that’s when the second part of my strategy kicks in – flight watching.

Sure, there are flight trackers and websites will do this for you, but again, I love it so I spend [probably too much] time on Google Flights looking at the calendars and watching the flight prices fluctuate. If I know the dates and location of where I’m going, I immediately start looking in case there’s actually a good deal out there. My rules for this are:

  1. For Domestic flights, I try to book 4-6 weeks in advance. Sometimes more if I’m traveling over a holiday weekend. So, what exactly is a good price? I usually book something around $200 give or take. If it’s less than $200 – book it. Keep in mind too that some airlines will refund the difference of the exact same flight if you find it at a cheaper price later.
  2. For International flights, I try to book these between 2-3 months in advance. I did once book a flight 11 months in advance, but it was $700 round trip flying from Atlanta to Brussels, and then returning from Munich to Atlanta. There are also a lot of better flight deals out there, especially out of airports in New York, D.C., Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Houston, and L.A.. These cities usually have a lot of competing airlines so flights to Europe and other parts of the world can be as low as $300!

Hotels:

The hotel part of this isn’t as flexible, but my strategy is always to book something in the city center, or close to a rail line so it’s easy to get around. These are the websites I tend to use:

  1. Booking.com – Easy to navigate, and once you’ve booked with them for 5 nights, you get 10% discounts on a lot of hotels.
  2. Hotels.com – Another good website that offers a “free” night once you’ve used their website to book 10 nights. This is really just a heavy discount, not entirely free.
  3. Hotwire.com – I don’t use this one as much, but they do have some really good deals. The only catch is that you don’t know where exactly you are staying until you book because this is based off of different tiering in what you would want to pay.
  4. Airbnb – Okay, so not a hotel, but a really great option because it’s usually cheaper than hotels. If you’re going to be staying somewhere for more than a weekend, it’s also a good option because you’ll most likely have a kitchen and living room which is such a nice touch! A good way to save some money too when you can cook there.

Your credit card can also come into play with booking a night (or a few) with points.

Another option would be to stay in a hostel which Booking.com offers on their website. Personally, this is not my choice, but when you’re staying in a hostel that is steps away from La Grande Place in Brussels at only $25/night, it’s hard to complain.

Destinations:

Yes, this is also a strategy of how I travel because there are a lot of places in the world that are very affordable, especially Americans.

Southeast Asia is one of the best places to go for this reason. Yes, the flight is long, but it’s SO worth it! It’s beautiful, full of adventurous things to do, and lots of culture. We stayed in a few different hotels which averaged out to cost about $45/night.

Eastern Europe is really reasonable, and another great place to visit, not just because it’s cheap, but because it’s covered with mountains and so much more history and culture than you can imagine. I took out around $150 USD in Bulgarian Leva and that covered some shopping, souvenirs, bus tickets from Sofia to Plovdiv, and food for the entire week for TWO people.

Basically anywhere in Africa. Our riads in Morocco were a little more expensive, but there were also 3 of us traveling together. We spend between $90-$120 per night at our riads. In South Africa, my family (of 4) stayed in a 2 bedroom Airbnb located in the heart of the city for $70/night.

These are just some examples, but there are so many parts of the world that are really reasonable once you get there. That’s half the battle!

Traveling can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be — but you most definitely don’t have to spend your life savings! When you think about it too, you’re having to pay for your flights earlier and then there’s more time to save for the trip itself later.

We now live in a time where the world is more accessible than ever. So, take advantage of it! And if you don’t want to plan it, I’m available 🙂

5 thoughts on “The [Not -so] Secret Tips to Traveling

  1. Great article Erika! There is only one part I will pose a counter thought knowing the struggles the average American has with budgeting. Yes, you might miss out on Credit Card reward points, but for most people, even if you pay off your credit card each month you are still spending more money than if you were to pay in cash. When you pull out cash for a given category, your mindset shifts and you tend to come in under budget. With a card, it’s easy to just spend the extra money because it’s an easy swipe and “Hey, I get rewards points.”

    If you are extremely disciplined, that item can be helpful and like free money, but most people would make their money go further by avoiding credit cards entirely.

    100% agree with every other item though and one of these days maybe we’ll make one of those trips together since we have the same goals 🙂

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    1. That is a good point, and I agree that it can be a slippery slope, but if you decide (like myself) to only spend money on things like gas, groceries, and some larger purchases that you would already have to spend the money on, then you’re not spending any more money than you normally would. You have to go into the right mindset when getting a credit card to be responsible with it.

      The point I was making is that we all spend money, so you might as well earn something out of it — in a responsible way, of course!

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  2. I am so proud of you! This took a lot of time to write and you have done a wonderful job. And you get it about how to get the most out of life with the money that you make. Are you contributing the maximum to a Roth account?  Please plan a trip to visit us soon. We are ending our 7 week trip in South America. We are in Santiago now and will be home on Monday, March 19. We have lots of catching up to do. I miss our dinners and visits in Johns Cfeek. Lots of love, Brenda

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