Several people have asked me how much money I have saved or how much I plan to spend while traveling long term. It catches me off guard every time I am asked. It’s a very personal question and there are very few occasions where I find it necessary to offer up a number flat out. It is important to me, however, to help people understand how possible what I’m doing actually is. So if knowing exact dollars will get that point across, I’ll share. But what I find more important to share is the art of travel hacking! Travel hacking is finding creative ways to support a travel lifestyle without being independently wealthy (as I am not).
I have heard stories about people setting off to travel long term with as little as $800 and as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars (after selling a house). More often than not, it’s the people swimming in dough who never feel like they have enough. I am sitting much closer to the lower end of that spectrum and feel comfortable with my financial state. Obviously not because I’m swimming in dough but because I trust myself to make what I have last and know I am capable of making more on the road.
It took a lot of research and travel experience to understand how to travel hack successfully. I wrote the following article to help people better understand how I’m doing what I’m doing, financially, and to help other travelers travel hack! Oh, and so I’m more prepared the next time someone straight up asks me “how much money do you have?”
Credit card airline miles and points are life. I recommend the Chase Sapphire Visa for every traveler. It has the most global flight options and no blackout dates! Plus no foreign transaction fees on purchases made in a foreign currency! I have booked several flights and hotel rooms using Chase Rewards from this card!
In addition to the Chase Sapphire, I have had two Citi Bank American Airlines cards (business and personal) and two Chase Southwest Airlines cards (business and personal). (For anyone new to the blog, I owned a boutique hair salon in Las Vegas before I left to travel long term– hence the business cards!)
Each card, offered somewhere between 40-60 thousand points when I spent x amount of dollars in the first few months. (The exact amounts varied slightly but it was something like spending $2000 in three months). The points I received from one introductory offer were enough for several domestic flights or one international flight. Multiply that by five- think about all those free flights!!
In most cases, once the requirement was met, and I got my intro points, I stopped using the card. To meet the intro requirement I used the cards to pay for things I would have had to pay for anyway- medical bills, rent, salon rent, products for the salon, groceries etc. Towards the end of planning my trip, after closing the salon, my expenses weren’t as high. With one more minimum requirement to reach, I paid a bill for my mom and she gave me the cash. I got the points without having to buy something unnecessary! (Thanks Ma!)
I never bought anything for the sake of meeting the requirement. (That’s where this plan can get dangerous. If you don’t trust yourself with credit cards, take this advice at your own risk).
Continuing to Make Purchases
Points do continue to build when you use the cards after the introductory period ends, but more slowly. I pay for nearly everything with a credit card so I never miss a point. But there is no reason to continue to use five cards- it’s not great for your credit, some cards have fees and there’s a better pay off when you build points with one carrier. The credit card I continued to use fluctuated, depending on my goals at the time.
In my early days of travel hacking, I used my Southwest cards for everything. Most traveling I did back then was domestic, so Southwest, a domestic airline carrier, made the most sense. I used my Southwest points for my, oh so frequent, flights between Chicago and Las Vegas, as well as several others!
Over the past 4 years, I have flown back and forth between Chicago and Las Vegas AT LEAST every 2 to 3 month and have taken several other flights from Las Vegas to LA, San Fran, Portland and Cancun on Southwest. I can only remember paying for, maybe, 2 or 3 of them. Maybe. The rest were FREE! (Well, actually $11.50 per round trip flight with taxes and fees).
When international travel became more of my focus, I started using my American Airline cards. Thanks to the American Airline Miles I earned, my one way ticket from Chicago to Bangkok cost me $26 with taxes and fees! I also used American Airlines miles to fly back to Las Vegas from Amsterdam in 2016 and from Las Vegas to London in 2015.
The only card I use now is Chase Sapphire, like I said before, it has the most international options and no foreign transaction fees! I used my Chase Rewards Points to book three flights within Asia, a hotel room in Chicago, and I still have thousands of points!
If you plan to be out of the country for any length of time, or if you often find yourself using ATMs not affiliated with your bank, you must get a Charles Schwab bank account! At the end of the month they REFUND ALL ATM FEES! This means the $12 USD I got charged for withdrawing pesos in Mexico was refunded! And the ฿220 ($7 USD) charged to withdraw baht in Thailand, refunded! Thank you Charles Schwab!
Note: Withdrawing local currency from an ATM offers a better exchange rate than currency exchanges! It doesn’t make sense not to have an account at this bank!
People often assume that traveling long term costs more money. In fact, the opposite is true! Traveling slow allows me to eliminate a lot of costly conveniences and bad decisions. This really came to light while traveling with my friend in Singapore and Thailand. Because we were short on time, we took flights instead of trains, cabs instead of buses, paid for an express laundry service, and settled on nearby pricey restaurants when street food or markets weren’t readily available.
With more time I can opt for local transportation at a fraction of the cost of the tourist track. Public transport is often much slower, but even if money wasn’t a factor, I would still take it. There is something special about navigating a foreign city or country by public transit that adds to the overall experience.
Because I often stay in the same place for several days, I can either do my own laundry or pay less for a slower service.
When I am on my own, I always opt for the less expensive street food or local restaurants- even if I have to chase them down. This is another thing I would continue to choose even if money wasn’t a factor.
We also packed in a lot of tours to make sure she did and saw everything she wanted to before she left. Not only do organized tours increase expenses, an over packed schedule leads to costly impulse decision making- like eating snack food and drinking sugary drinks. This turns into an endless cycle of moving, wanting and spending.
Short term travel has a YOLO factor. Every overpriced this or that or junk food item is justified with “Oh well, I’m on vacation!” because there isn’t time to search for other options. As a long term traveler every cost cutting angle I find makes me think about how much longer I’ll be able to travel for! I actually get annoyed when I take the more expensive shortcut. Which is good because YOLO decisions are not sustainable in the long term!
Volunteering or working on the road can get a good chuck of time covered financially. I went to a Yoga Retreat in Chiang Mai for 4 nights and wound up staying there as a volunteer for an additional 10 days. In exchange for doing the dishes, helping with the compost and assisting with social media marketing, I received free accommodation, 3 meals per day and 4 hours of guided yoga and meditation per day! (A blog post dedicated to my experience at Suan Sati Yoga Retreat is coming soon!)
Workaway, a website facilitating volunteer, work, and cultural exchange opportunities, is a great way to cut costs on the road! I haven’t used the website yet but am signed up and keeping my eyes out for opportunities in Southeast Asia!
Cutting Expenses, Bills & Debt at Home
Another HUGE factor that people often don’t think about is expsenses, bills and debt from home. They try to apply my lifestyle to their current financial position. It doesn’t work.
I have zero debt. Part of why it took me two years to leave is because I paid off all of my school loans and credit card debt. Currently, I have two bills- my cell phone, which is about $50 a month, and a life insurance policy that cost $98 a month. That’s it! (As I write this I’m tempted to find a way to eliminate those expenses as well!)
Note: I am American so the advice on credit cards and banking may not be applicable in other countries.