Skip to content

Why Traveling is Cheaper and Easier Than You Think

2012 March 27
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

You don’t need to be a retired 30 year old millionaire to experience this.

One of the things people always ask me is how I can afford to take the trips that I do. To some, it is mind boggling that I manage to get out of the country a couple times per year. In reality, it’s not only possible, it’s relatively easy.

There are essentially three barriers to traveling: 1) money 2) time and 3) health. When you have all three, the world is your oyster. However, if you lack even one, making a trip happen becomes considerably harder.

Consider three cases: a 20 year old college student, a 28 year old white collar office worker, and a 65 year old retiree. The college student has plenty of time and is probably in or close to the best shape of her life. But unfortunately for her, she has no money. In many cases, the plane ticket alone costs a grand, a sum of money that is hard to come up with when you’re barely making enough to purchase Natty Light. The office worker, on the other hand, has built up a sizable nest egg. He’s also a fitness freak so health isn’t an issue. But guess what? His TPS reports are due every Monday morning and although company policy states that he gets 2 weeks off a year, no one actually takes it for fear of falling behind in the rat race. The retiree looks at the two and laughs because he’s got plenty of cash and lots of time. Except he’s laughing from a wheelchair. Try doing this in a Hoveround.

But let’s dig a little deeper into these three aspects:

– – –

Health, in my opinion, is the most inflexible obstacle if you’re trying to go backpacking. If we’re talking about a five star hotel kind of trip, then yes, even a broken femur probably won’t stop you. But if you’re planning on taking bone-jarring overnight bus rides and sleep in shitty mattresses with bulging coils, then not being 100% healthy will really make your trip quite miserable. And if it’s anything serious, you probably shouldn’t be leaving the country anyways.

– – –

Time is more malleable. Barring you work in a bend-over-and-take-it-in-the-ass kind of job, you should have your two weeks per year. And even if you do work in a job like that, there is hope: I worked in finance and still managed to finagle my way to a few 7-14 day vacations. But just because you get two weeks off doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough time to go on a foreign adventure. A lot of people like taking random days off here and there. Before they know it, they’ve used half their vacation days. I don’t do this. I go the lump sum approach: take a lot of vacations days and pair them up with off-days/weekends to make at least a 10 day trip. This way, those 14+ hour flights each way are actually worth it and you aren’t spending 1/5 of your time in transit. And if you’re in-between jobs or have some other sort of gap, it’s a no-brainer time to go traveling.

– – –

Cost, believe it or not, is probably the easiest issue to deal with. Let’s break this down into two parts: the flight and living expenses.

By far, one of the largest expenses is the flight. But fear not, there’s a way to make it nearly free. If you have a decent credit score, you can almost always qualify for one of many credit card sign up bonuses. Many airlines will give you 25-100K miles after signing up and meeting spend requirements (if any) on their card. I started collecting points about 1.5 years ago and I’ve managed to take three flights to Central America, one flight to Colombia, and a flight to China on miles, paying only taxes and fees. In all, I’ve probably saved around $4,000.

So can you do it? Of course you can! Figuring it out at first can be a bit daunting but one of the best resources is the MilesBuzz FlyerTalk forum. Bookmark it, read it often, soak up the knowledge, and soon you’ll be jet setting around the world for free.

Living expenses (food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, booze, etc.) is the other cost variable. This post covers a lot of common sense money saving tips. Read through it and you’ll be counting bills in no time.

One way to look at it is comparing traveling expenses with living expenses. Assume you’re in your mid 20s, single, living in a shared apartment in a major metropolitan area. A rough estimate of typical monthly expenses: rent $1,000, food $400, entertainment $400, misc. $200. That adds up to $2,000 which is around $67 a day. With a little bit of diligence, most people can save $2,000 fairly easily. Now you may be asking, “…and how does this compare to costs while on the road?”


The length of each of my last four trips.

Pretty much every single dollar I spent on these trips is captured here.

Average cost per day, with an overall average.

A bit of context:

  • Colombia is one of the more expensive places in South America; only Brazil and Chile cost more (excluding Guineas)
  • Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama are the three most expensive countries in Central America
  • On shorter trips, I have more of a “screw it” attitude when it comes to spending money (eating nice meals, buying lots of drinks)
  • Honduras includes ~$275 of diving
  • Colombia includes $300 on Ciudad Perdida and an expensive journey to Punta Gallinas
  • CR/Panama includes a $140 plane flight

Remember our estimated monthly expense of $67? Not too far from it.

My three short trips were significantly more expensive because I’m usually more carefree with my money. Colombia, at five weeks, is much more representative of typical backpacking costs. I would actually wager that I spend more than most people because I’ll eat out and party a lot of the days.

And remember, this is all Latin America, in some of the most expensive countries. Southeast Asia? You could easily get by on $30/day.

– – –

While a lack of health, time, or money can slow us down in our global conquests, a little bit of planning and foresight can alleviate many of those issues. I suspect for many, the mental hurdle is bigger than any of those three. Nagging thoughts of “I can’t afford it” or “I can’t get time off work” kill all hope for foreign adventures. But your subconscious is wrong and you need to tell it to shut up.

Travel ain’t rocket science. It’s quite simple when you break it down into an equation.

And when the numbers look right, it’s time to pack your bags.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012

    Great info – hopefully a lot of fence sitters will come across this post and start realizing they have more options for travel than they think.

    Great tip on the freq flyer miles too…

    • Paul permalink*
      April 4, 2012

      Thanks! Yes, my hope is that people who read this realize that making a trip out of the states isn’t so hard after all.

  2. Romi permalink
    October 4, 2012

    Travelling can be even cheaper. I´m 19 years old, atm I don´t have any money but I know its still possible for me to travel Europe. Do week jobs from, go Couchsurfing, camping, hitchhiking, walking. I travelled for 4 month around Australia and Africa and I had to pay for a hostel 4 times, I ate corn, carrots and fish, showerd in rivers and campsites and had the best time of my life. I just moved to Gran Canaria, work as an Aupair, go surfing, learn another language and I know: Everything is possible and money always comes back! 🙂 Keep on writing, i like your blog. Freedom!

    • Paul permalink*
      November 13, 2012

      That’s pretty impressive. Can’t say I’ve ever roughed it up to that degree!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Who Are You Waiting For? Travel Solo |

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

CommentLuv badge