How to travel thriftily

By | July 18, 2016

I don’t know if I’ve told you this already, but I kind of like to travel. In fact, travel is the budget hole where the vast majority of my expenses wanders into. I think. I don’t actually track my spending, so I don’t know for sure.

I don’t have a really great system on finding deals, but small things make me happy.

Airfare

I wish I could regale you with tales of my elaborate system of calendar reminders and spreadsheets and the magic day of the week and the special time of day when I buy my tickets, but I just can’t get myself to devote too much time to this. Personally, I just sign up for credit card offers that sound like a good deal as I come across them. Wow, that’s a really unhelpful sentence.

Found in Bergen, Norway

Okay, a bit more specifically, if I see an offer for 30,000 or more miles that only requires a reasonable minimum amount spent in three months (e.g. $3,000) and no annual fee, I would seriously consider it. I know there are a million cards out there. I know there are entire blogs dedicated to telling us about these cards. I know you can set it up on your calendar to remind yourself to cancel and acquire new cards. I know the payoff is really something to brag about. Here are a few tickets I’ve purchased in 2016 (all prices are in U.S. dollars):

  1. Miami, Florida –> Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: $5.60
  2. Montevideo, Uruguay –> Miami, Florida: $127.99
  3. Miami, Florida –> Chicago, Illinois: $5.60
  4. Sofia, Bulgaria –> New York, New York $87.66

The infrequency of my booking these deals is still rare enough to thrill me. I pay retail price for most of my flights. I use low-cost carriers when I’m traveling within a continent. I pack lightly to avoid baggage fees. I’m flexible on my travel days. I’m also always looking for flights. I spend more time on Kayak.com than you do.

Accommodations example – English House

Recently, I volunteered for a week in Lubach, Germany with a program called English House/Pubelo Ingles/Diverbo. Adults, usually professionals, who want to practice their English and boost their confidence as a non-native speaker pay (or coax their company to pay) a couple of thousand euros to hang out with me.

Count Lubach. Not to be confused with Count Chocula

Count Lubach. Not to be confused with Count Chocula

Okay, other volunteers were there too. We spoke. We drank. We talked. We ate. We conversed. We played games. We chatted. We danced. We prattled. We held mock conference calls. We gabbed. We took walks. We talked some more. You really get to know some awesome native people in the country you’re hanging out in!

As a stupid American, I only know English, so I thought these Germans possessed excellent second language skills from the get-go. By the end of the week, I think most of them agreed with me, finding their moxie, and voicing their thoughts with ease. You’re right Thriftygal, you are a stupid American who only knows English.

In all seriousness though, the program was mostly a blast, but the days were long and scheduled to the brim. I’m more introverted than extroverted so I found the length of the interaction to be a tad bit draining and when I found myself with an hour of free time one day, I may have cha-chaed to my room in joy to recharge with some solo time. An 8 AM daily breakfast start time also shocked my system that’s used to sleeping in as late as I’d like.

But, hey, it was super affordable. The native speaker volunteers all received complimentary accommodations in the hotel, six days and five nights in a lovely small town surrounded by forests and charm if you ignored the ticks. Free breakfast, lunch and dinner. A free drink at lunch and dinner. During my time there, I spent exactly twelve euros on a pair of earrings, a few euros on tips for the staff and a few euros on a bottle of wine I picked up in town.

I guess what I’m trying to say that if you want to travel, you have options. It doesn’t have to be pricey. Here’s a list I made of ways to get cheap accommodations.

Accommodations examples – A list

  1. Camping
  2. Hostels
  3. Friends
  4. Family
  5. Couchsurfing
  6. Hotel points
  7. Programs like the English house one I mentioned above
  8. Helpx.net/wwoof.net/workaway.info

Accommodations example – Helpx.net

After law school and before I started working as a lawyer, I used helpx.net and lived on an alpaca farmlet on the south island of New Zealand for a couple of weeks. The couple had two young sons that I occasionally minded, terrified with the realization that small boys have no sense of danger. In the morning, I would go out and coo to their chickens, pick up fresh eggs and make breakfast. At night, I would occasionally make dinner and every single ingredient came straight from their garden. I also helped sand and paint a shed. For about four hours of work a day, I received free lodging and meals. Not too shabby of a deal.

I especially liked this adventure because the family had a fine appreciation for frugality. They owned two homes outright based on their smart savings and had plans for early retirement. It was a nice reminder that my dreams were possible.

I haven’t tried wwoof.net or workaway.info, but from what I can gather from their websites, it’s a very similar idea.

Commuting example – Hitchhiking

Okay, I’m not seriously suggesting this, but I know it’s pretty common in parts of Europe and South America. One of my favorite tidbits about the former president of Uruguay is that he regularly picked up hitchhikers while he was driving from his farm to the city for work. Can you imagine?!

I don't think I actually used my thumb.

I don’t think I actually used my thumb.

I hitchhiked exactly once in Ireland from Dublin to Cork as a sort of adventure (sorry, Mom – I don’t plan on doing it again if that makes it better). It ended up being a fun experience, but I shudder now when I think about it. That could have ended badly. But, hey, people do do it and maybe if you know judo, you’d be more comfortable trying it? I don’t know.

18 thoughts on “How to travel thriftily

  1. Zille

    Great ideas of accommodation abroad. I lived in Holland for 3 weeks selected an apartment on rent while the owner was going for a month to another city. He rented it to me for a reasonable small money $50 per week.

    Reply
  2. Lisa

    There are some websites that can make hitchhiking a bit easier, e.g. https://www.blablacar.co.uk – works a bit like airbnb, and people put down if they’re going on a long journey & you can join them. Probably a bit safer since there is a record of who you’ve gone with, but then again I’m from Europe so hitchhiking doesn’t seem that dangerous to me

    Reply
  3. Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions

    Love the English House idea. You definitely have to think more out of the box to have some of these experiences. And as a mom – yea, skip the hitch hiking please 🙂

    Reply
  4. Kay

    Hitchhiking is a no no for me. Exciting for some though. Excellent tips on accommodation.

    Reply
  5. Stan

    Can you elaborate on your helpx experience? Looks like something I would be interested, but I would like to hear both the upside and the downside of the experience. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      @Stan – upside: meet great people, visit great places cheaply. Downside: Maybe you don’t care for the work “assigned” or the people? Plus, it’s still a bit of work.

      Reply
  6. Christina Salomon

    Thriftygal – Thank you for the inspiring post! I’ve often felt stuck as of late with creative ways to travel on a budget. I am so grateful for your the resources you shared!

    Reply
  7. Hernan

    I also love traveling. There is nothing like going to another country and meeting nice people with different customs and values. I am going to Mexico in December because I want to show my son the pyramids outside Mexico City. I know we are going to have a blast. We are also going to spend several days in the cities of Puebla and Guanajuato. Thanks for the blog! It’s very inspiring. Follow your dreams and you can’t go wrong!

    Reply
  8. plam

    You mentioned judo? Yeah, you could say that I know judo; my most recent competition was nationals in May. I don’t really count on real-world applications, though, and inside a car is a tough place to do anything. Still, I’d expect it to be fine the vast majority of the time. The folks at familyonbikes.org had a lot of experiences with people while biking across the Americas and had mostly great experiences.

    Once I picked up a climbing hitchhiker in Joshua Tree. He also happened to be a legit computer science researcher. I looked up his publication record after the fact.

    Sofia is interesting. I’d go there again!

    One problem with camping is that it is at cross purposes with travelling light. Yurts are good for travelling light though. Oregon, for instance, has them in its state parks. Other places too. They’re catching on.

    Reply
  9. Alex

    I’m from Gambia west Africa and so much in love with your blog . Thank you so much for all you do to share your experience with us and help us as well

    Reply
  10. Mark Bustamonte

    Awesome list of idea’s for accommodations. I’ve looked into coach surfing but wasn’t sure about the safety of it. Anyway thanks again and your definitely living the dream. Hope to join you on a similar journey in the NEAR future! Safe travels!

    Reply
  11. Greg

    Hi,
    Found your blog from a Mr Money Mustache post and I just read through several random posts. You have a really cool story and I love your casual writing style.
    My wife and I are mid-50’s and just coming to the end of “kids in college, huge bills, spending every dollar” time. (Full disclosure: we aren’t speedy like some folks but we haven’t been smart…). But, thanks to MMM (just read every single post) and like-minded bloggers we are really trying to turn the ship around. Travel is a huge drew for both of us. We have done very very little over our 35 year marriage but love it. I get excited just reading stuff like this post. Thanks for the info!
    (Helpx, btw, was something I was already looking at. Sounds like such an adventure)

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      Great question! I just go to the Airline’s sites and sign up for cards through that. I’m sure there’s a better method out there. I’m going to look into Avion though. Thanks!

      Reply
  12. John E. Fertig

    H! good stuff!! your entire story is inspiring but traveling the world on $24K/yr is the most amazing part for me. (And maybe the most marketable, if that’s of interest. there have to be more people like me who need that advice. that’s the book i’d buy). please post more on how to do that!! Rick Steves for a new generation? OR…if i’ve just missed it and it’s already been done/said/documented by others please point us! You go girl!

    Reply
    1. Thriftygal Post author

      Awesome! Thanks for the insight. I’ll definitely write more about this topic. 🙂 My latest obsession: housesitting. Article coming!

      Reply

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