How to Travel for Free (Or at a Very Low Cost)
A lot of readers ask me how I afford to travel so often? “Prioritizing, sacrificing, and hustling” is the simple explanation.
I do not come from money. I am a Bronx-Dominican daughter of immigrant parents. My travel privilege is that I was born in the most powerful first world country, that I am healthy and physically able, and that my passport is accepted in most countries. But this alone is not always enough. Travel can cost money, time, and energy.
So if I hail from a very humble background, I have always either worked a full-time job or studied full-time, then how have I been able to explore hundreds of cities and over 35 countries within my twenties?
*UPDATED August 2017*
1) Sign Up for Free Airline Frequent Flyer Rewards Programs
Accruing airline miles is one of the best ways to literally get free flights (with the exception of flight taxes $5-50). Airlines form partnerships with each other so that if you fly on AirChina (Star Alliance) but you are a member of United (Star Alliance), you still collect miles from your flight on AirChina to your United Airlines account. There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and Skyteam.
Below are links to sign up with each of the big three airline alliances:
- American Airlines (You get access to all of their Oneworld partners)
- United Airlines (Access to all of their Star Alliance partners)
- Delta Airlines (Access to all of their SkyTeam partners)
2) Sign Up for a Mileage Credit Card
In addition to getting miles for flights, you can also accrue more miles through everyday credit card expenditures. For every dollar you spend, you can get at least a mile. Moreover, most mileage credit cards have sign-on bonus miles. Do not settle for one with a sign-on bonus less than 50,000 miles. And every time you fly with the specific card’s carrier you can get bonus-bonus miles for that travel.
Each bank has its sign-up own perks, so do your research and consider some of the following questions:
- Which airline do you prefer to fly on?
- Which airlines go to your preferred destinations?
- Which airline flies the most out of your nearest airports?
- Which has bank offers the best interest rates?
- Which charges the least annual fee?
- Which card and airline combination will cumulatively afford you the best benefits?
Make sure your credit card will not charge you foreign transaction fees (big money saver) and make sure it offers travel insurance, insurance for your car rentals (another huge money saver if you love road trips) and lost baggage.
BONUS: Some cards will multiply your mileage accrual if you shop at certain places or eat in restaurants with credit card mileage specials.
My personal favorite? Chase Sapphire Reserve
3) Open a Charles Schwab Account
It’s free to open up an account with Charles Schwab, there are no service fees, no account minimum, and you can easily apply for it online. The best part? You will never pay for ATM withdrawals. Not in the U.S., not internationally. This is a major money saver for travel and everyday spending.
If you don’t have access to Charles Schwab, look into what’s available for you in your country.
Create a couchsurfing.org account. This website allows you to meet travelers from around the world and connect with hosts who offer you free accommodation. This is not to be taken as a free hotel.
Couchsurfing should be about a cultural exchange. Most surfers and hosts expect interaction, not just a place to crash. Some may actually be too busy and prefer the latter. Check it out. It’s an amazing way to do a free homestay and get a local experience wherever you travel.
Remember to be safe in your choices. With its growing popularity, Couchsurfing has attracted both amazingly benevolent souls and creepy people who just want to have sex. Ninety-nice (99%) of my CS experiences were life-changing.
My worst experience was in 2011 when my Argentine host came back drunk from the bars and decided he wanted to leave to Patagonia to go skiing at 5 AM in the morning. So he promptly asked my friend and me to wake up and leave at 4 AM… with a 10-minute notice.
- References – Everyone leaves everyone a review, check the accounts of the reviewers to see if they have good reviews, too. Also, check for accounts where male hosts only host hot women, and no couples or men, this can be a big indicator of their intentions
- Verifications – CS allows users to pay with a Credit Card and confirm their mailing address with a code sent to them via postcard
- Vouching – To get vouched for on Couchsurfing.com, you must be vouched by a person who was vouched for 3 times. These vouchers link back up to the creators of Couchsurfing.com
If you can, do something nice for your host such as: bringing them a gift special to your hometown, cooking them something, taking them out for a drink or dinner, etc.
5) Be an Airbnb Host/Guest
An excellent way to get paid while you travel is to sublet or rent out your couch, air mattress, spare bedroom, or actual bedroom to a traveler who’s going to be in your city while you’re away. Airbnb is generally safe because it offers insurance protection (up to $1 million in damages) and both hosts and travelers must go through a verification process to use the platform (similar to what I described above for Couchsurfing.com).
I have never had an experience that made me feel unsafe through Airbnb. If you’re like me and enjoy having peace of mind through being extra cautious, you can get a security camera and lock all your valuables away while you’re gone. Since I like to engage in minimalism (see my previous post on minimalism), it’s pretty easy and becomes an automated habitual pattern for me to clear the place for a guest. I have mattress covers which I throw away after I get back, and I drop all laundry at the cleaners right after.
I’ve never had a bad experience doing this. I am also very selective as to who I allow in my place (I even interview them on Skype). NONE of this is at all necessary, but I do it anyway for peace of mind and to further fund my travel expenses.
This is by far, one of the greatest ways to make up for travel expenses. In fact, there have been times where I traveled and came back with extra money left over (after travel expenses) thanks to the combo of using Airbnb and everything else mentioned here.
6) Buy food at markets and cook it in at your Airbnb/CS place
Depending on your destination, budget, time constraints, and where you are staying (hostels, hotels, Airbnb homes) you may be able to cook your meals at home for a fraction of the price. If you are going somewhere expensive like Paris, you can buy cheap groceries and cook meals for the day and skip on pricey restaurant meals. Of course, this can depend on where you go. If you’re going to somewhere like Vietnam, don’t bother. The meals in Vietnam generally range from $.50 USD to $3 USD a plate. And if you’re going to somewhere like Cuba, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to shop for food.
While in college, I loved going to local markets to buy local fruits, nuts, and veggies at a nominal price and then making my meals (often sandwiches) and snacks for the day. I call them my Traveling Sammiches (see the top photo). Some places offer free breakfast, this is where I would pack bread, cheese, tomatoes, veggies and whatever else in a napkin and save it as a snack for later.
Local fruits and veggies can boost your immune system and save your money, all while giving you the opportunity to taste the unique local harvest of the region you are exploring. Win, win, win.
7) Find Cheap Flights (Flight deals)
This to me is the most fun part of my travel scavenging. I subscribe to blogs and forums that announce all sorts of flight deals and “errors”. In February 2014, I flew from NYC to Italy for $130 RT on United, none-stop. In May of 2016, I flew from NYC to Vietnam for $399 RT. These are just two instances where I’ve chosen to buy, of several other flash deals. I’ve seen these kinds of discounted rates for destinations around the world. Even better is when I came back from my super cheap flight to Vietnam and saw my AA mileage account had accrued an additional ~20,000 miles from that trip! That’s enough for a round-trip domestic flight or a free one-way flight to Latin America!
Beware: When prices are this low, you have to pounce on buying it immediately. Within minutes of the announcement. Most airlines (with the exception of a few) and online travel agencies have a 24-hour cancellation policy. So I always buy first, ask myself questions later.
The only time I’ve ever paid for a flight that I felt to be overpriced, was to Cuba (check out my first trip here) because it was during the holidays and the embargo limits the number of available flights leaving to Cuba out of the US. But I got it all “reimbursed” since I rented out my room to a lovely Puerto Rican student (who I am still friends with) during high-demand holidays.
Here are my favorite websites to follow flights deals:
TheFlightDeal – One of my favorite blogs. They announce mega-cheap deals based on redeemable mileage per dollar cost.
SecretFlying – In addition to flight deals, this website also provides blog updates on hotel stays. They once published an Expedia promo code that discounted $250 off a hotel stay. I ended up stayed at a 5-star hotel in Jarabacoa for 2 nights for $35 total. Incredible!
Skyscanner – You put your location and select the destination as “flexible” or “everywhere” and choose the date or “cheapest month” option, and see where you can go in the world at any certain time for the least amount of money. You’d be amazed how many cheap flights there are!
Kayak (Explore) – This is similar to the above but you can not alter it as much. It will show you the cheapest destinations you can fly to from your origin in an interactive map.
Flyertalk – This forum provides an open space for travelers to post flight deal finds.
If flying is not an option, consider overland travel.
8) Don’t check in your luggage; travel light
For the love of God, unless you’re traveling abroad for a long time, please don’t check in luggage. It can cause you several delays and you run the high (IMO) risk of losing it, especially in developing countries.
In addition, low-cost carriers usually charge passengers extra to check in luggage. Spirit Airline charges $100 at the gate for you to check in your luggage.
Also, don’t fly Spirit Airlines, ever, please.
9) Find legal work or Volunteer abroad
This is how you can travel at a lower cost especially in countries with a stronger currency.
Volunteering – This and this are just two of many examples websites that offer several opportunities to meet folks who seek volunteers. In exchange for services, they offer free accommodation and food!
Example from my friend, Mariel: You can live and eat for free with a family in the south of France, while volunteering two days a week on their vineyard.
Great Aupair – I lived 3 months in the most expensive district of Paris, on the same street as the French President and Johnny Depp, for free. I was hired as an Au Pair, where I taught French girls English and looked after them for 20-40 hours a week. It was not a glamorous experience, but it saved me several thousands of dollars while studying at La Sorbonne during a time where $1 USD was worth a little more than half a euro.
Teaching English Abroad – There are several, several, opportunities that allow people to live abroad to teach English throughout the entire world. It can be an incredibly lucrative industry. I couldn’t begin to list all the options. From Thailand to Korea to Spain. It would be an incredible way to travel, work, and meet locals, all while having extra income on the side to help with expenses.
Work in Australia – Travel and get to know Australia, and work a few days on the side! Or full time, up to you. The working holiday visa agreement between Australia and the USA is for Australian/American adults under 31-year-olds. This visa allows young adults to supplement their travel with temporary employment for up to 12 months. Australia’s minimum hourly wage is $17.85. Enough said.
Work in New Zealand – I applied in 10 minutes and within two weeks the government of New Zealand had e-mailed me a free working visa. Amazing!
10) Don’t Waste Your Vacation Days
Some readers have asked, “Do you even work? How do you travel throughout the year so much with a full-time job?”
In my years of working, I have NEVER, EVER used a vacation or sick day just because. I meticulously, and religiously hoard my vacation days thinking about my next adventure abroad.
If you want to travel while working, then do not waste your vacation days. Even if you woke up after just two hours of sleep and are feeling half conscious. Get up, grab a cup of coffee, go for some walks, call a friend, stand in the sun, eat energizing fruits, stay hydrated. You can do this. Go to work. Don’t waste your vacation day. If you need to do a task that can be done before/after work, during your lunch hour, or on the weekend, do it then. DO NOT waste your precious travel days unless there is a serious reason!
If your job frowns upon taking vacation time, then try to take time off around major holidays (like New Years). This may be more expensive, but it’s less frowned upon, much more understandable, and there is generally less demand for your presence at work during this time.
Disclaimer: Everyone’s situation is different. Please take discretionary initiatives for your own specific circumstance. For instance, if you have credit card problems, then taking out a mileage credit card might not be good for you.
Disclaimer 2: If you don’t like the idea of sacrificing some luxury or comfort to be able to travel, then please know you COULD afford to travel but you choose not to because it is not your priority. And that’s OK. It’s not for everyone.
Related: About Me