how we travel on the cheap

we’ve made no secret that we plan to travel a lot once we retire early in just a couple of years. and we’ve stressed that we can’t avoid all splurges (which for us are mostly travel) while planning for early retirement without feeling too restricted and going off the rails. though we’ve made the choice to put off more extended travel for now in the interest of soon being able to travel basically forever, we think some travel every year is super important so that we don’t feel like we’re missing out on the present in the interest of the future, and since travel is one of life’s best teachers.

of course, when we travel now, we do just about everything we can to keep expenses low, so that it doesn’t set us back in our early retirement savings, and so that we don’t get used to “travel inflation” (just like lifestyle inflation) that would make it hard to adjust once we’re on our early retirement budget.

related: how we make work travel feel like “real” travel

How we travel on the cheap // Our Next Life -- lifehacking, travel hacking, air travel, hotels, camping, budget, save money

here’s how we travel without setting ourselves back financially:

camping

if you don’t already love camping, we highly recommend learning to love it, because it can be one of the great joys in life, and it’s just about the cheapest way to travel. we camp whenever we can — at music festivals, near cities or in national parks, when backpacking in wilderness areas, and one day in remote areas in a camping van we hope to add to the family. we’ve been dedicated campers for years, and so have enough gear to equip us for just about any set-up or adventure, but in truth you don’t need much, especially if you’re car camping, and most of it you can probably borrow from a friend if you don’t want to commit long-term: a tent (it can be heavy and old if you won’t be backpacking), an air mattress to sleep on, a sleeping bag or just regular sheets and blankets, and a portable stove. for everything else, you can just use what you already own. you really don’t need a lot of special clothes, shoes, or cookware. just wear athletic clothes and shoes, and use your regular kitchenware. you probably already own water bottles and flashlights, so there’s no need to splurge on camelbak bottles or fancy headlamps. (honestly, the people who spent a lot of money to go camping always look ridiculous anyway, with all of their obviously new gear. we can pick ’em out from a mile away. you look more legit when your gear is more worn in.)

traveling on points

having to do a lot of work travel has pros and cons. on the positive side, we earn a lot of points from flying and staying in hotels, and from charging those expenses to our points-earning credit cards. of course the negative is having to travel so much! sometimes we feel like we are missing out on life where we actually live, though we can deal with it because we know the end is in sight. we make the travel a net positive, though, by being smart about points — trying to travel with a single airline as much as possible, and staying with only a few hotel chains (we’re partial to united and marriott). by doing that, we bank lots of points that we can use to travel for close to nothing when it’s travel for fun. if you don’t travel a lot for work, don’t despair. you can still make an effort to consolidate your travel with a limited number of airlines and hotel chains — just watch for how quickly your points expire. some hotel chains are now setting expiration dates as early as one year after the most recent stay, and some airline miles expire within 18 months. often, though, you can keep points active by signing up for that chain’s points credit card.

going with a group

when we can, we love traveling in groups, both to spend time with people we like hanging out with, and to save money. if a group of four couples rent a four-bedroom house, inevitably the house will cost less per couple than trying to rent an apartment for just one couple — and usually far less than the equivalent hotel cost. also, when you travel with a group, it feels more festive to shop for food and dine in, with people rotating on kitchen duties, and there’s less pressure to go out to eat. and often there are cost savings to be had on transportation costs, too, especially if you carpool or take cabs or ubers.

cooking for ourselves

we love sampling local cuisine when we travel, but going out to eat can add up fast. we always plan some meals out when we travel, making sure to avoid chain restaurants like the plague and do our best to eat like locals. but we try to cook most of our meals ourselves, especially breakfasts and dinners. (often you can get the same food for lunch at a much better price than you’d pay for dinner at the same restaurant — so we often plan to do our eating out at lunchtime.) we make sure that we can cook for ourselves by either booking lodging through airbnb or vrbo, or by staying at a hotel with a kitchen or kitchenette (these are actually pretty easy to find in most places). most hostels will also let you use the kitchen.

traveling off-peak

this tip is also good for our sanity. we aren’t big fans of crowds, and we’re willing to miss out on the best weather in a place if we can go there when it’s less crowded. bonus: off-peak is also cheaper, often by a lot. just make sure you do your homework and don’t go when attractions you want to visit are closed, or in the middle of monsoon season. double bonus: we often find that locals are more welcoming and friendlier when you visit off-peak.

taking short trips

as much as we look forward to traveling slowly when we’re retired, we also believe in the benefits of short trips. some destinations are unavoidably expensive, and so taking a shorter trip there lessens the cost. (we’re talking to you, nyc. and you, vegas.) and while we love a good cathedral or museum as much as the next guy, the truth is that you don’t have to see every sight in a place to get to know it. most places that we love we love for the vibe of the place, and the energy of the people, not the tourist attractions. you can soak in that vibe and energy in a relatively short time and carry it back home with you. the other benefit of taking short trips, especially long weekend trips: not having to take much time off from work.

being prepared

sometimes the biggest travel expenses come from not being prepared for what you might face. when you leave the country, buy travel insurance. you have to pay for it, but it could save you huge money if something happens. when you go around town each day, don’t take all of your ID and credit cards with you, because if your wallet gets stolen, you’ll be in tough shape. take one photo ID and card with you, and leave your passport and backup card in the safe in your room or hostel. and be prepared for sketchy accommodation. though we never recommend booking a place that looks sketchy (safety first!), sometimes if you’ve booked a cheap place to save money, you’ll inevitably end up somewhere you’re not thrilled to be sleeping. do yourself a favor and buy an inexpensive travel door alarm, and maybe a small doorstop to wedge the door shut. then you’ll still be able to get a good night of sleep, instead of staying up all night worrying about someone coming into your room. after all, time is money, too, and a day wasted because you’re too tired to enjoy it defeats the whole purpose.

what other tips do you have for saving money while traveling? we’d love to hear!

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14 thoughts on “how we travel on the cheap

  1. We have done all those things and I picked up some new ideas today. When we traveled for work, they gave us a per diem for food regardless if we used it or not. So we would go to a local deli/grocery store and pick up stuff for a cold breakfast or lunch that can stay in those wee little hotel fridges and then we used the per diem to cover fancy restaurants for a treat or other costs of travel. (Plus you can control your portion size and meal quality a lot more easily that way.) Our travel was always associated with scientific meetings so we would also book an extra day or two before the meetings started or after they ended. Those days, we used the per diem to go see a museum or catch the local fun spot. On a few occasions we would add some extra days at our expense to fly to a nearby city since we were already across the ocean. That is a much cheaper way to see Paris if you are already in Vienna for example. One of the best times I ever had was back in the days when, if you stayed over the weekend, you got a huge discount in airfare. The powers that be were willing to negotiate to allow me to stay over the weekend and cover the cost of my hotel for doing as they saved money on the airfare. I used the extra two days to go to Disneyland and I had an absolute blast even though I was by myself. I didn’t have to wait in line because most rides had single rider advance lines. I rode the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom ride about a dozen times. Alas those days are gone but there are always ways.

    1. Wow — you are a pro at milking the work travel. Once upon a time we had a brief per diem gig, and we definitely spent less in order to pocket the difference. But now we get reimbursed for actual expenses. Though it’s not all bad — we often try restaurants we’ve been wanting to eat at while traveling for work (and therefore get reimbursed for the expense, which is pretty great) — the drawback there is that we’re usually not together! :-) We love the idea of the add-on trip, too. We did that once when we had a paid trip to London, and tacked on a weekend in Paris. Though now international travel for work is super rare, so we try to leverage what we can on stateside travel, and bank those miles and points for the international stuff. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I definitely try to keep my flying and consistent for work (Delta and Marriott affiliates). I also try to be flexible for personal travel to get the lowest rates. Great list of ideas!

  3. I love checking out local markets, co-ops, farmers markets for unique local produce. This is a great way to sample local cuisine and culture yet still eat on a budget and healthy. We take our two burner camp stove with us every time we travel by car, and often stop to cook meals in city parks or national forest picnic areas.

    I second the being prepared. Even if we are just going a couple hours away for a night or two, I do extensive research on points of interest and especially directions. I hate wasting time driving around or the frustration of deciding on something to do. I typically research a bunch of different options, so we can pick and choose what to do depending on the mood we are in any given day.

    Great list!

  4. No additional tips to share here! I think you covered them all ;) P.S. Mr. FI and I will probably be those weirdos you see with new camping gear in the next year b/c we have basically nothing but a tent as of right now. We’ll try to get more second-hand stuff so as not to be judged by you pro’s though lol

  5. Two words – hell yes! These are awesome tips, especially the ones about traveling off peak and being as prepared as you possibly can. Things happen, but the more you know about the place that you’re going, the better your chances of avoiding unintended expenses.

    My wife and I are going to learn how to camp so we can ditch the hotel room for a tent – at a fraction of the cost, too. We don’t exactly stay in expensive 5-star hotels either, but renting a camp site for a night instead of a hotel room will leave a bunch of extra cash in our wallets.

    You know…if a “how to” article about camping suddenly popped up on the OurNextLife.com web site, that would be just wonderful. Might get some readers, too…yeah, me! :)

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