Travel Cheap, Travel Often

By Neely Lawson

“How, how can you afford to travel so often?”

This is, hands down, the number one most asked question I have heard this summer. By my family, friends, strangers on a plane. Before anyone asks about the details of the trip I am on, they ask this question—laced with genuine curiosity and a hint of frustration. What is often misunderstood is the kind of life I live building up to these annual excursions. I am not rich, I have not happened across a generous inheritance, and I have yet to win the lottery (next year). More accurately, I am a full time college student, only work a part time (if that) job, and usually live month-to-month. Even though I’m only 21 my parents have never funded my traveling( though they would bail me out if I ever had any issues) so when the travel bug bit me at a young age, I had to learn the tricks of the trade. So, before I delve into the meaty details know this: if I can travel on a poor college kid budget, so can you.

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“Live like a college student now, and you won’t have to live like a college students later” This is a quote that I heard early in my college years, and is something I wish I had actually put into practice much sooner. Between ongoing parental support, the lack of practice making a budget, and the fat refund checks that frequently become available, it’s difficult to truly live modestly in college—or outside of college. Our society screams to spend the extra dollar: to buy the extra shoes, larger meal, shiny new electronics, or whatever it is that threatens to suck the life from your bank account. These money traps are the enemy of travel and of life outside of the Now. One of the best financial decisions I have ever made was to create—and stay true to—a budget. To tell my money where to go, and to live off of less than I make. The less money spent, the more money saved—and this pays off. By saving only 15 dollars a week for one year (that’s the price of one Starbucks run), you can afford a plane ticket to Hawaii. Imagine the possibilities. And as difficult as it seems at first, living by a budget becomes easy with practice. Additionally, there are modern resources1 that can help you learn to budget if you don’t have family to walk you through the process; it’s easier than ever! And this is the goal: to create financial life change that spills into other aspects of your life, creating more potential to see and experience the world. And once you’ve mastered living off of less in “real life”, the more natural it became to spend less while traveling. (Shameless plug: since you’re already making financial life change, build a place into your budget to be generous. Be generous in tithing, to others around you, and to family. Generosity in your finances is healthy, as counter-productive as it may seem.)

Once I mastered (a loose term which more accurately means: got better at) budgeting my money in the moment, I was able to start planning how I could spend it in the future. I am the first to admit that planning is not my strong suit, but traveling outside of your city takes planning—especially if you are traveling solo. Sometimes travel opportunities come to you fully mapped out—in which case, you should grab those opportunities with both hands—but most often, you have to do your homework to find the most affordable locations. As daunting as it may seem, I’ve found that planning your own travel is an incredible way to both save money and to learn more about yourself. Travel planning can take many different forms; for me, I bought a small notebook and began to create lists—manageable, measureable, attainable lists of places I dreamed of going. To eliminate the cost of housing, I started with visiting people I knew: family, friends, and coworkers. Start here, and once you’ve visited the uncle in California, friend in Colorado, classmate in Spain—begin to think and dream outside of the box. I know from experience that sometimes these dreams and plans take years to happen—one, two, three years of waiting, failed plans, and closed doors. But another thing I have experienced is how rewarding it is once these plans finally become a reality. It is worth every moment. So my advice is to relish in this step of planning your travels and to be patient.

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This summer I also experienced what it truly meant to work for travel2, and discovered another affordable way to see the world on a budget. I had a friend moving across the country to places I had never seen before, and she needed help. So there we were, packing her life away and hauling it across the nation. We worked hard—so hard. But we played hard, as well. Once it was all said and done, after seven days, multiple mountain hikes, site-seeing, food adventuring, and six states I had spent a whopping two hundred dollars (ninety of which was spent on a one-way ticket home—thank you Jesus and Southwest Airlines!3) Seeking out opportunities to intertwine your work and other passions with travel are excellent ways to save money, and anyone can do it. Additionally, if you are seeking out travel for a lifetime, plan ahead to pursue a career4 that can take you where you want to go—even if that means everywhere.

Traveling alone there are a lot of opportunities to connect with not only the world around you but with the people around you, as well. This first became apparent to me when I was roped into having lunch at a Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco with a group of local college students I had only just met—a situation I never would have imagined myself in (I’m from small-town Tennessee, afterall). A simple conversation about the weather and the city evolved into life talk, lunch, and new friendships that will more than likely lead me back to the windy city (if that Peruvian food doesn’t call me back first). So as important as it is to exercise caution (see earlier post about stranger danger), there is also a beauty in befriending the locals. And if you want to befriend a local—be a local. Avoid expensive tourist traps, refer to sites like TripAdvisor, and ask locals for the more affordable—an often more delicatessen—hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. If it works out, eat with them. You’ll save money in the moment, and—if the stars align—you may make connections to return to in the future. Because what harm can come from having another excuse to travel?

These are just four simple tips for affordable travel: live modestly and actually live on a budget, plan ahead, work for travel, and live like a local. But the truth is there are thousands of other ways to save money and to see the world—we just have to seek out the opportunities. With all of this being said I also want to point out that travel (unless it is literally your career) should not be the #1 priority of your life—as important as it might seem. What a lame plug, huh? But it’s true, and it’s worth stating. Work hard, go to college, love your family, pursue some other passions; if travel can fit into your life after all of these things, that’s when you can pursue it unapologetically.

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1. Budgeting Apps: https://www.dailyworth.com/posts/2815-7-of-the-best-money-management-apps
2. Short-term Work for Travel: https://www.interexchange.org/working-abroad/work-travel-program/work-travel-abroad
3. Affordable Flights: https://www.southwest.com/rapidrewards/overview?f=zSRCGOGLWN1505000zz&src=SRCH_16_AD_c_141_24825_e_southwest
4. Career of Travel: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2389-jobs-travel-lovers.html

Neely_LawsonABOUT NEELY: Photographer, student, Jesus lover, used-to-be-writer, and wanna-be explorer. I’m a lover of all things outdoors, and though I don’t have talents I do have passions. Follow me as I pursue them! 🙂 insta: Neelyjo94