My International Travel Journey
Keeping costs low while traveling internationally is a primary concern for me right now, since I’m only working a small portion of each year and spending the rest traveling. The money I earn during 3-6 months of travel physical therapy contracts, combined with income from this blog and investment returns, will have to last for the entire year. Since we’re planning to be out of the country for a large chunk of each year for the foreseeable future, keeping costs low during that time is vital in keeping me financially solvent. Everyone I’ve talked to over the past year assumes that traveling internationally has to be very expensive, so I want to make this the first post of a series on how I manage to keep expenses as low as possible.
On our current trip around the world, I’ve been keeping track of all of my expenses in each area we visit. If you’re interested in how I’ve minimized costs in each individual city, then check out the posts here. In our first month of traveling through Europe and Morocco, I managed to spend less than $2,000 total. I was very happy with this, considering I still did everything I wanted to in those cities, stayed in some great places, and ate a lot of delicious food.
If you’ve read any of my prior posts, it should be no surprise to you that utilizing credit card rewards is a primary tenant when it comes to minimizing costs while traveling. We got eight free hotel nights during our time in Europe from various credit card sign-up bonuses.
That was a major factor in decreasing total costs, but a key to optimizing here, in making the most of the free stays and hotel points, is to utilize the nights strategically, and then fill in the gaps with low cost accommodation where available. Read on to learn how I was able to optimize our travel to make the most of free hotel nights and lower cost accommodations.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Optimizing Low-Cost Accommodations while Abroad
- Book the fewest number of nights needed to see and do everything you desire in the most expensive places you will be visiting, with a buffer built in.
- It’s necessary to accept that minimizing expenses when traveling is going to mean more time needed in advance to plan the trip. This is a worthy compromise, because the $2,000 I spent for the entire first month of the trip could have easily been $5,000+ without spending as much time planning as we did. A major part of that planning was deciding how long to spend in each city we were visiting, and there were two primary factors in that decision: what all did we want to do while in the area, and how expensive per night was it to stay in the area.
- Since this may be the only time in our lives we visit some of these cities, we weren’t willing to compromise on seeing and doing everything we wanted just for the sake of cost, no matter how much I want to maintain my net worth. That meant that we started the process by listing everything we wanted to see and do in the area, adding in a buffer of a day or so for the unexpected (getting sick, missing flights, delays, etc.), and then considering the cost of staying additional days.
- For most cities in Europe, we determined that 4-5 days was enough to do/see everything we wanted with an adequate buffer, but staying longer didn’t make sense due to the high cost in the cities.
- In Southeast Asia, costs are so low that it made sense to stay longer than we really needed to in each place and enjoy a more slow-paced, relaxing stay. Of course this will depend on how much time you have off of work to be able to take your trip.
- Key Point: Minimize the amount of time spent in the most expensive cities on your trip, while ensuring you allow enough time to see and do everything that you desire.
2. Strategically use free nights and hotel rewards points.
- As I mentioned above, the first month of the trip included 8 nights of free hotel stays. We will be traveling internationally an additional four months, but we will only be utilizing six more free nights during that time. We still have plenty of points to use, so why not use them all on the remainder of the trip to keep costs as low as possible? The reason is that for the rest of the trip we will be traveling to lower cost areas, meaning that we can get decent AirBnB places for $10-$15/night or less. I strategically used the free nights and points in Europe where accommodations are much more expensive. Our remaining points we will save for next year’s trip when traveling to more expensive areas, instead of wasting them on hotels in Southeast Asia where we can easily find cheap places to stay.
- Many people in the travel hacking community will brag about how many cents per points/mile they get on their redemptions. The way this is calculated is by taking the total price of the flight or hotel, and then dividing by the points needed for the redemption. For example, if a hotel would normally cost $150/night, but it can be booked for 5,000 Hyatt points, that would mean that you got 3 cents/point for those Hyatt points. In general this is a great redemption, but I believe that this calculation is short-sighted. I think it is much more appropriate to look at comparable accommodations near the hotel, and then divide that by the number of points you would use to book that hotel.
- Using the example above, if the $150/night hotel is in Southeast Asia, and there is a comparable efficiency apartment you could rent less than a mile away on AirBnB for $10/night, then now this redemption doesn’t seem so good. If that $150/night hotel that you’re thinking about booking was in Dublin, Ireland, where the cheapest comparable AirBnB is $60/night, then using the points starts to make more sense.
- Key Point: Compare the number of points needed to book a hotel to how much the cheapest comparable accommodation would cost in that area, not to the cost per night of the hotel, to ensure that you’re using your reward points strategically to save a much as possible.
3. When possible, plan your stays around discounts, both for time of year and length of stay.
- The price of staying in many areas depends on the time of year you decide to visit. It’s not always possible to have control over this due to work and school schedules, but when it is possible, big discounts are up for grabs. Most people assume that the times when accommodations in an area are cheaper that this must mean it is a less desirable time to be there. That is the case sometimes, but not always. Places are often cheaper in the “shoulder seasons” when weather is still great, but it just isn’t during prime vacation time. I first found this with trips to the beach on the east coast of the United States. Late spring and early fall are two of the best times to be at the beach with more moderate temperatures, but the prices during those times are discounted due to less reservations during the school year. When you have flexibility with your dates of travel, do your best to pick the times of year when accommodations are discounted, just because most people are working or in school during that time and not because it’s an undesirable time to be there. Just be sure that there isn’t a reason you’re missing for why it’s cheap (rainy season, hurricane season, etc.).
- Staying a week or more in one place often means discounts on your accommodation in that area. For example, our AirBnB in Chiang Mai was 40% off the nightly rate due to us staying for four weeks. Obviously four weeks is more than most people will be staying in one area, but you can also get weekly discounts on Airbnb. It can be surprising to find that the cost of staying six nights or seven nights at an AirBnB could be about the same or maybe even less due to a weekly discount. Because of these discounts, we planned much of our time in different locations in Southeast Asia around staying for a week instead of the 4-6 days that we would normally stay to see the area. This is a win-win for us since it means we get a couple of days to relax in each place and not feel bad about not having every day booked, while also getting a discounted rate on the stay.
- Key Point: Plan the dates of your trip and the length of time in each place around the biggest discounts on accommodations when it’s reasonable and makes sense.
4. Don’t pay full price for your AirBnB stays.
- AirBnB has revolutionized travel both domestically and internationally. Prior to AirBnB, our accommodation prices on this trip would have been multiples higher than what they will be now. We have stayed at dozens of different AirBnBs in many different states and countries, and our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. This includes both stays where we have the entire place to ourselves as well as stays where we have just a room in someone’s home. I’ve talked to other travelers who are afraid to take the discounted rates generally offered by staying in a room in someone’s home, but this fear is often exaggerated. We only stay at places that have many reviews and that are primarily 4-5 stars, and if you do the same then your chances of a bad experience are greatly reduced. In addition to the lower prices of AirBnB stays, we enjoy having a host that we can get some “insider” information from about the area we’re visiting. This has led to many sights and restaurants off the beaten path that we would have never found otherwise.
- Another great thing about AirBnB is that further discounts are available, even on the already generally extremely affordable prices compared to nearby hotels. If you’ve never stayed at an AirBnB before, you can get a $40 discount on your first stay of $75 or more by using my referral link. Besides the discount on your first stay from using a referral link, I always get a discount on my AirBnB bookings of 10% or more by buying AirBnB gift cards when they are discounted. I usually find them for a discount of between 10-20% on either Ebay or Amazon, a few times throughout the year. When I do find the discounts, I take advantage of it and stock up for future trips! Because of this, I almost always have a significant balance on my AirBnB account, and when I go to book a stay I can rest assured that the list price is coming with a built in discount.
- Key Point: Use a referral link for your first AirBnB stay to get $40 off, then after that watch for discounted AirBnB gift cards periodically throughout the year on Ebay and Amazon and stock up when they are available!
When using the four tips above, it’s possible to slash the cost of your accommodations on your upcoming international trip to a fraction of what they would be otherwise! All it takes is a little bit of planning ahead and flexibility. Even if taking advantage of all four of these tips don’t work for you, utilize as many as possible and hopefully it will mean significant savings in the future!