I was raised to believe travel was easy and accessible to anyone who wanted to go. That has always been a grounding principle in my life. My parents showed me it was possible, traveling with three kids on middle class salaries, and difficult schedules. My first job out of school, I made $30,000 a year, lived in the New York City metro area, and had over $70,000 of student loans. And yet, I still found a way to travel. I didn’t go on every trip I wanted to, I didn’t do everything I wanted to, but I still went. You should too. Here’s my advice for how to do that.
Quick note, I am a U.S. citizen and native English speaker so a lot of the information here is geared towards fellow Americans including info on passports and travel requirements.
Step 1: Figure Out How to Pay for It
You can’t go if you can’t pay for it, but what I’ve found is with a little bit of planning and some sacrifices, if you want to travel, in most cases, you can find a ways. Over the years I’ve made some questionable decisions in paying for trips including throwing airfare to Australia on a credit card with shaky plans for how to pay that back and borrowing additional student loans so I could travel while studying abroad. However in both of those cases, I made the decision with a full understanding that I would pay interest and felt the cost was worth it. I paid the money back and made priceless memories. Nowadays I’ve gotten a lot better at financial management and budgeting for travel.
While you do need disposable income to travel, you would be amazed how much you can do with what you have. Make travel a line Item in your budget. For years I had a separate savings account named “Travel” and put a small amount from each paycheck into the account. That way, if an opportunity came up, I had some money set aside to go. I also hesitated to spend that money for non-travel items, knowing how I wanted to spend. With my online bank there was no cost to have a separate account.
I used to set aside $3,000 a year for travel, which was a huge scary number given my modest income. But when breaking it down to a paycheck-by-paycheck amount, $115 every other week was a lot more manageable. I would ask myself if I’d rather travel or go out an extra night that week? I also picked up waitressing shifts so I could put the extra money I earned towards my travel plans. It wasn’t easy, but it was important enough to me to make it work.
Over the years, here are some ways I nipped and tucked on my budget to save a little extra so I could travel:
- Packing my lunch versus going out (leftovers are my saving grace)
- Breaking my iced coffee habit and bringing my own (I can’t manage to make my own iced coffee)
- Staying in and hosting friends, instead of going out
- Doing rotating dinner parties with friends
- Taking advantage of free activities in the city instead of paying for sports and museums
I also found ways to dig up some extra cash to put towards travel, including:
- Selling things on eBay
- Sending clothing and other items off to ThreadUp
- Picking up a side gig babysitting or waiting tables
I also managed credit to travel, but I advise this with a lot of caution. It’s easy to fall into credit card debt with no end in sight. I’ve always had good credit in part because my mom preached solid advice of “whatever you do, don’t miss a payment.” Over the years, I took advantage of 0% introductory rates and balance transfers to jump on extreme deals where the savings were good enough that even after paying interest, I still saved. For example, when airfare to Australia dropped to about $800, I jumped on it. The whole trip cost me under $3,000 for a two week trip, which I knew could pay over the course of the year based on my budgeting plans. While strategically managing credit is a great way to take advantage of deals, DO NOT rack up debt to travel without a solid plan in place to pay it back.
You can also put some or all of any “windfall” money towards traveling. This may be money from tax returns, gifts from family members, or bonuses. I generally put 1/3 of such money towards non-necessity spending, which is often travel (the rest goes towards debt repayment and savings if you are curious). Using this money for travel requires trade offs. Our family and friends poked fun at us for years because I kept using the money we could have put towards buying blinds for our house towards traveling. The paper shades were fine as far as I was concerned, I wanted to explore Thailand, Cambodia, and Peru! It all comes down to where your priorities lie. For me, experiences surpass material possessions always.
I’d love to know what questions people have about budgeting for travel! Please reach out to me in the comments or contact me directly.
Step 2: Know Thyself
While part of the fun of travel is leaving your comfort zone, you aren’t going to enjoy yourself if you are terrified or starving for your entire trip! Take steps to ensure you will be comfortable on your trip. Hate hiking? Don’t go somewhere that requires long hikes on primitive trails to access the sites. Scared of going somewhere that you don’t speak the language? Start traveling to English speaking countries then venture to larger European cities where most folks will speak at least some English. Once you’ve gotten comfortable traveling where you don’t speak the language, branch out. Hate museums? Don’t feel like you have to go just because that is an attraction in the area. I love museums but my husband isn’t a huge fan. So I usually limit how many we go to on a trip so that it’s fun for both of us!
Don’t feel pressured to do something you aren’t comfortable with. Maybe you don’t want to go to Africa or South America. That’s fine! Travel where and how you want to.
On the flip side, don’t let other people dictate how or where you travel. I hear so many negative things about places I go from people who have never been. I’m not the kind of person who will be put off by other people’s judgement. I know what I’m comfortable with and what I’m willing to do and plan accordingly. You should too!
Step 3: Get a Passport / Make Sure Your Passport is Valid
If you plan to leave the country you need a valid passport! The state department’s website is your friend here: travel.state.gov. It has detailed instructions on how to apply for or renew a passport. You can also look up where you want to go to see if you need a visa or other documentation to enter the country. U.S. citizens are lucky because most countries do not require visas for entry. But always check! The other thing to look out for is countries that require 6 months validity on your passport from entry date, meaning your passport can’t expire within 6 months of entry. I always renew my passport about 7 months out from its expiration date to make sure I don’t miss a chance to go somewhere! It takes 4-6 weeks to process an application. You can pay extra to expedite to 2-4 weeks. I always renew well in advance of any planned trips because I’ve seen the State Department get backlogged and take longer.
To apply for a U.S. passport the first time you need to get proof of eligibility (generally your birth certificate), passport photos (most pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens offer passport photo services), and your documents as laid out on the State Department’s website. You can also find your local passport acceptance facility there. Generally these are post offices or other government facilities. I’ve also found the local acceptance facility helpful at answer questions like “where can I get passport photos around here?” Or “How do I get a certified copy of my birth certificate?” They get those questions a lot and are a great source of local knowledge.
Step 4: Do Some Research
If you don’t know where you are going it’s hard to plan a trip! I’m constantly research various destinations and reading about places I want to visit. I follow various travel accounts on Instagram and look for places on Pinterest that seem interesting. I’ll create travel plan boards and keep track of ideas or locations. I had a board going for Croatia for about five years before I finally made it! I am a huge fan of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks. I will often buy them for places I’m thinking about going and read up. I also love the New York Times’s travel section, in particular their annual list of 52 places to go and their 36 hours in a city guides.
Once I know where I’m going, I start to hone in on plans. I will search the internet for various travel blogs covering the destination I’m heading to for advice and tips. I loved Hellojetlag’s posts when planning Croatia, and found BigBoyTravel’s Thailand posts helpful when working on my Thailand itinerary. Facebook and Instagram are a great source of advice, allowing you to ask friends for advice and thoughts on where to go and what to do. The best meal we had in Croatia was a recommendation from friend on a Facebook post! I also have a few friends that travel as much if not more than me. We share itineraries back and forth, and pick each other’s brains for where to go next.
Make sure you also keep in mind what you can afford based on what you’ve figured out in step one. When planning our honeymoon, I had to cross off two options I really wanted to do because we couldn’t swing the finances. Sometimes you won’t realize the full costs until the planning process, but you can get a general idea by checking out airfare and average hotel costs to get started.
Once I have a destination, I’ll start planning. Since this is an involved process, I plan to do a separate post on how I put trips together. Let me know what questions you have!
Step 5: Go
The most important thing for me is to just go! Get out there are start exploring! Don’t wait your entire life to save up for the perfect once in a lifetime trip. Visit a nearby national park. I spent years going on affordable road trips across the U.S. visiting national parks with my family making some of the best memories of my life. Go with friends to a place you’ve never heard of before. I went to Belgium with my friends never having heard of Brugge, which turned out to be one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited!
Travel doesn’t have to be fancy or exotic. You just need to get out there! I live in New Jersey these days and will often spend a weekend at a state or county park. People are always amazed when they see photos that waterfalls, small mountains, and coastal views are literally in their backyard. The world is an awesome place. I’ve never been somewhere that I didn’t learn something or take back incredible memories.
I hope you will get out there and start exploring. Happy travels!