Friday, August 05, 2011

How to Travel for Cheap: 12 Steps to the Gypsy Life

One of the reasons I first started blogging (again) was because I was obsessed with I Keep A Diary's Brian Battjer's travels. But one of the things that baffled me the most, like other readers, was how he managed to maintain his lifestyle and travel all the time.
Hard at work in Guyana, October 2010
Fast forward seven years and I'm getting the same question. There have been endless books written on shoestring travel budgets, so I’m not going to try and steal Rick Steves' thunder. I've written about this before, but based on popular demand, here's how I manage to make all my trips possible:

Get a short-term overseas contract. In the last 12 months not only were my two trips to Guyana and  to the Dominican Republic free, I also received a stipend. Getting paid to travel is obviously the best way to save money and see the world. But, be forewarned that there’s a huge difference between “travelling” and “vacationing.” For both employers, I was worked 14 to 16-hour days that sometimes involved manual labour.

Washing up after a day at the construction site in Vanuatu, July 2006
Volunteer overseas. If you decide to volunteer overseas, make sure the organization you’re volunteering with is a registered charity that can issue tax receipts. You can fundraise for your experience and donors, in turn, will receive a tax-receipt. So basically, you both win.

Points programs! I love points programs. Right now my favourites are Aeroplan, Airmiles and Best Western. I use Aeroplan for booking flights and frequently stay in Best Western hotels. And while I don’t use Airmiles to travel, I spend less on groceries (which is typically what I cash in my points for) and therefore have more money to put towards my next vacation.

A "free" trip to Alberta, July 2011
Put it on plastic. If you’re an avid traveler, signing up for an Aeroplan or Airmiles credit card may be a wise investment. While the annual fees may initially be hard to swallow, they pay off in the long-run. This past year, I signed up for an AMEX Aeroplan credit card. The annual fee of $150 paid for itself—car insurance on the card meant that we saved $210 during our week in Louisiana/Texas. On my most recent trip to Alberta, my flights (taxes excluded) were completely covered. So while the card cost money, it also saved me upwards of $700 that I would have otherwise spent.

Hanging out in Croatia, May 2009
Make new friends but keep the old. To be perfectly honest, my "International Alliance of Friends" is the number one thing that makes my lifestyle possible. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting amazing people and making extraordinary friends around the world in my life. The difference is that unlike most people, I try to maintain these connections without relying exclusively on Facebook. Although my intention is to foster relationships and keep people in my life, it pays off in other ways. For example, on our last trip across the pond, we stayed with Helka in London (free) and with Jay’s co-worker’s aunt (a tenuous connection, but again, it was free) in Croatia. Yesterday, I booked our flights to London (where we’ll likely stay with friends because that city is ridiculously expensive) and then we’ll fly onwards to Geneva, where we’ll stay with Sasha’s family (free). In return, visitors are always welcome on our couch. It’s just good travel karma.

At a plantation in Louisiana, April 2011

Marry into money. (Or just find a partner who is really supportive.) If I’m travelling with Jay, prior to booking a trip we’ll have a thorough discussion about our budget and expectations. I don’t mind sleeping at places that have rats and a minimum of three walls (yes, this happened once) as long as they’re $10 or less, while Jay prefers Egyptian cotton linens and turndown service. We usually meet somewhere in the middle by staying in a hostel one night and a hotel the next. One night in a shady place is a trade-off for one night in a nice place.

Take a trip down the grocery aisle. Dining out takes a huge bite out of your travel budget. All you need is a Swiss Army Knife, a tomato, a loaf of bread and a few slices of cheese and you’ve got yourself a meal for two for $5 or less.

Cuba, 2009
Never, ever, pay more than $1000 (taxes included) for an all-inclusive vacation flying out of Toronto. If you spend any more than this, you’re getting ripped off.

Don’t trust Expedia. Air Canada had a seat sale recently with round-trip airfare to Geneva for about $1020 with taxes in. It was a good price, but too steep for my taste. So instead, I found a flight to London for $720 and round-trip Easyjet flights to Geneva for about $100. All in, it’s going to cost us about $850 to fly to London and Geneva. Two cities for $170 less? Yes, please.

Sightseeing in London, May 2009
Saving for an upcoming vacation? Change money while the exchange rate is good. Once I’ve saved up money for a trip, I’ll watch the exchange rate until it’s prime. Once it’s good, I’ll take out money and exchange it to American dollars. Added bonus: I know there’s no way I’m going to spend it on a frivolous purpose if it’s tucked away in my passport waiting for my next adventure.

Determine what’s more valuable: time or money. In recent months, I’ve been quite forthcoming about my financial situation. Basically, I’m still in about $10,000 post-secondary debt and have next to no savings. So how do I afford to travel? The answer is that I don’t. But I honestly believe that time is more important than money. So if an opportunity presents itself, I weigh the pros and cons and ensure that I’m not spending beyond my means. So while I’m not exactly paying off my debt at a rapid speed, it also never increases. (People spend money on what they love. Some buy clothes, some collect records and others drink Starbucks every day. I travel.)

Relaxing in Peru, June 2011
And finally, never buy souvenirs. If I do buy a souvenir, it’s usually something that I’ll actually use—like coffee or rum—at a lower price than what I could buy it for in Canada.

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