How do people afford to travel? Want to go one of those vacations like you see on Instagram but you don’t have thousands stashed in the bank? Never ye fret. With a combination of an easy savings plan and taking advantage of travel rewards cards (and once in a blue moon letting myself get bumped), I can afford to travel far and wide without breaking my budget, and you can, too.

How do people afford to travel?

My first European trip was financed by a settlement from a car accident. Four days after I moved to Massachusetts in 2003, a driver rear ended my car, sending it and me flying into the car in front of me. In addition to totaling my poor car, I also sustained a neck injury. For my pain and suffering, I received a small settlement, and I used part of it to go to the UK and France back in 2004.

I had a fabulous time (almost worth the neck pain), and I found myself trying to figure out how I was going to travel all the time. While I still haven’t figured that out completely, I’m happy to say that I haven’t had to get into another accident to go on holiday. 

How to Afford to Travel

Big Ben
You don't have to be a victim in a car accident to travel. London, UK

How I afford to travel without breaking the bank

My friends have often asked me how I am able to afford to travel so much. While certainly comfortable, I do not make a ton of money, not the kind that would allow me to afford jetting off to South America in early spring and Europe in autumn without some clever tricks.

I employ a variety of tactics to finance my travel habit, and I thought that I’d share them with you. Now’s a great time to put these into practice. When things finally open up again for reals, you’ll be able to book a trip without panicking about your bank balance.

This post focuses on how I save up for travel. In future posts I’ll share tips on how to maximize what we’ve saved in order to make our vacation dreams come true. The principle is that a little adds up.

The goal

My goal for each trip is to cover at a minimum airfare/train and my lodgings with a combination of rewards from my credit card and savings earmarked for travel. Every now and again, allowing myself to get bumped can turn a temporary inconvenience into a memorable trip.

London Eye, Hyde Park
London Eye from Hyde Park. London, UK
Tate Modern
Tate Modern. London, UK

Start small: “Can Money”

I’ve mentioned before that I lost my job in the Great Recession after the 2008 crash. Getting back on my feet financially took a while, but as soon as I could, I started saving up again for trips. I started with what an old friend called “Can Money.” When I broke a bill, I took the change and added it to my “can” (OK, it was a box). It added up.

I also started what’s known as the “52-Week Money Challenge,” what I first knew as the exponential savings plan. In this challenge, you save $1 the first week, and then $2 the next, etc., sticking it in your can (or a savings account) for a year. By the time the year’s up, you’ll have $1,378. With some savvy planning, you can take a lovely holiday with that.

I went to Paris with Can Money

Between the exponential savings and stashing my change the first year I did this, when a business trip to Switzerland came up late August, I was able to take the train to Paris for a few days in September, all paid for with cash in a can. 

I mostly use my savings account for my little travel fund these days (may as well earn that tiny bit of interest), but I still have a small stash on hand. It’s fun to dream about where it will take me next.

Sacré-Cœur
Sacré-Cœur. Paris, France

Airline loyalty programs

Sign up for airline loyalty programs, always, but then find your favorite airline, preferably one participating in a big consortium. Try to fly with that airline or their partners every time you take a trip.

Depending on how much you fly, these can build up, and you can redeem the miles for flights on that airline (there are generally restrictions on when you can do this). Your miles can expire if you go a year without flying with that airline, but getting a credit card from that airline generally solves that issue. I’ve had some great trips courtesy of airline miles!

Barcelona, Spain
Getting bumped from a flight can have its advantages! Barcelona, Catalonia

Consider letting yourself get bumped

Here’s a bit of a wild card. Next time you’re on a trip and your schedule has some flexibility, consider volunteering to “get bumped.” Sometimes airlines offer really nice vouchers for your trouble. I once took advantage of such an offer to wait out a bad case of food poisoning (I think keeping me off my flight helped everyone—ugh). I got to recover in a hotel room paid for by the airline (the flight was seriously overbooked) and then used the voucher to go to Spain.  

Lisbon
My trip to Lisbon was financed entirely with travel reward miles. Lisbon, Portugal

Get yourself some travel rewards (with a credit card)

A travel rewards credit card offers a lot of benefits, not the least of which is an enticing sign-on bonus that gets you traveling in no time flat. These cards tend to offer miles or points for purchases, in addition to waive foreign transaction fees (these can really add up), reimburse you for Global Entry fees (we’ll be getting to this), and provide other benefits.

Some of these cards are associated with specific airlines, and others are just generally associated with travel. I have branded cards with United and American that I got mainly for the sign-on bonuses and other benefits (the free checked bag can come in handy for big trips), but the card that I use the most and like the best is the Venture Card from Capital One.

How I rack up miles

I put most of my monthly expenses on my travel rewards cards, and then pay off the card each month. You’d be amazed at how quickly miles can add up for things you were going to buy anyway.

Go on vacation for free!

My trip to Lisbon was entirely paid for by miles from my Venture Card, as well as my flight to Chile, and most of my trip to Budapest. I’ve also traveled to Mexico City on miles and points, as well as my 3-month adventure in the Balkans!

Valpariso, Chile
Thanks to miles, I was able to marvel at the street art in Valparaíso, Chile

How do you afford to travel?

Do you have any tips for affording travel? Let me know in the comments?

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