This morning I got my bajillionth email asking me how I manage to take all the trips that I do. My best answer is usually "Find a job that requires a lot of travel." But most people are asking about leisure travel, which is something entirely different. And though I can't speak for everybody, I can say what works for me. With that in mind, a special All Travel Edition of Bullet Sunday starts... now...
• SET MY PRIORITIES! I drive a crappy car. I will continue to drive the piece of shit until the wheels fall off because it's paid for. It's not that I wouldn't like to have a nice car, it's that I'd rather spend the money traveling. For some people, their priorities would be exactly opposite, and that's fine. I take two vacations every year because that's where I choose to spend my money. You don't have to be obscenely wealthy to travel the world, you just have to make it a priority in your life.
• SAVE MY MONEY! I save up the money needed for a trip before I take it. Sometimes this can take years, and I'll take smaller vacations while I'm saving for the bigger ones. When it comes time to buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, if I don't have enough money saved then I do not go on vacation! It's un-American I know, but the stress of having credit card interest build up on debt I have to pay back would completely negate any fun I might otherwise have. When it became apparent that I wasn't going to have enough money during my Australia holiday once the plane tickets had been purchased and the hotels had been reserved, I was in a near-panic. I couldn't cancel my non-refundable fees for a later date to save up more money. I certainly wasn't going to fly all the way there and do nothing because I couldn't afford it. My only option was to run up $1300 on my credit card. I chose not to worry about it while I was on vacation, but it bothered me badly when I got back. Some people don't have any problem paying for their trip after they take it... I've found it makes for a better vacation if I do the opposite.
• CREATE MY BUDGET! My first real trip "on my own" was to New Orleans when I was in high school. I had won a DECA competition at Washington State Finals and went on to compete in Louisiana for Nationals. My mom and dad paid for airfare and hotel, so the only budget I had to worry about was food. To pay for my meals I was given money by my parents, and also had some meager funds I had saved up... it was more than adequate, but hardly extravagant. My "system" for maintaining a budget was to split my money into the number of days I had. After paying for my meals of the day, I took whatever money was left over and saved it for souvenirs and crap. This gave me a big incentive to eat cheaply so I had pocket money to spend. And since the drinking age of 18 was rarely enforced on my 17 years of age, most of that pocket money went towards alcohol... the best souvenir money can buy! And even though I now have credit cards, ATMs, and whatnot, the money lessons I learned in New Orleans back in 1983 set the pattern for every trip I've taken since.
• INCREASE MY FLEXIBILITY Believe it or not, most of my vacations are based not on where I most want to go... but instead on what's on sale. I subscribe to dozens of email newsletters (Airfare Watchdog is my favorite) that have all kinds of travel deals (and most airlines, cruise lines, hotel chains, and travel sites have newsletters too). When I see something that's affordable and appealing, I grab it. I've taken ridiculously cheap vacations this way. By being flexible I can easily halve my travel costs (or more!). I once flew to Copenhagen for one day to attend a birthday party. It was finding an airfare deal for $298 roundtrip that made it possible. I once took a four-day vacation to New York because I got an airfare/hotel package deal for $400. I flew to San Francisco once because of a $89 roundtrip airfare introductory special. I once got a last-minute roundtrip Hawaii ticket for $199. My airfare for the trip to Venice I took last year was FREE (+ $120 in fees) when I signed up for a credit card (which I immediately turned around and canceled before I had to pay the annual fee). If you have an open mind and can be a little flexible on dates, you can get deals that are almost too good to be true.
• DO MY RESEARCH! Back in the 80's and early 90's travel was very different than it is now. The way you saved money was to find the cheapest alternatives for stuff you needed. For me this meant sleeping on trains or finding hostels instead of staying in hotels. It meant buying food at the market instead of going out to restaurants. It meant a lot of research and a lot of planning. It meant a lot of calls to a travel agent. All this changed when travel sites like Orbitz came along. Easily being able to find and compare cheap airfare and hotels meant my travel dollar went further. I could stay longer and do more than ever before. Everything change again when bidding sites like Priceline came along. Now I could stay at fantastic hotels cheaply. Kayak arrived and suddenly finding the best price on airfare was a snap. Today I am traveling in sheer luxury compared to how I used to travel... and yet paying budget prices. Thank you, internet!
• MAXIMIZE MY REWARDS! I purchase absolutely everything on my rewards credit card. Everything. $35 in gas? Credit card. Cable TV bill? Credit card. Phone bill? Credit card. $3.50 bagel? Credit card. Whenever humanly possible I buy everything on credit card because each dollar translates into reward points. Points that I can then spend to get free airline tickets. The only thing you have to do to make this work in your favor is to pay off your credit card balance every month (I pay mine every week). How can I afford to attend Bitchsterdam in the Netherlands each year? Free airline ticket. And it doesn't stop there. I have frequent flier cards for every airline I fly. I have hotel stay reward cards for every hotel I stay at (even though you don't get points for discounted Priceline stays, you still get perks for visits). I enroll in every loyalty program that's free even if I don't think I'll ever use it again... you just never know.
• PLAN MY VISIT! Once I decide where I'm going and what I'm doing, I plan for the trip. Not necessarily down to the last detail, because I don't like having to be on a schedule... but enough to know what I want to do and what I'll be spending to do it. I research how much meals cost. I research what activities there are and how much they cost. I ask questions of people who have already been there. I pour over travel websites. I do everything I can to anticipate every dollar I'll have to spend so I can save for it. Most of the time I'm very good at this because I'm well-informed before I even get there. On rare occasions, shit happens and you go into debt to pay for it, but imagine how much worse it would have been if you had gone in with no planning at all?
• FOLLOW MY BUDGET! I use the same strategy now that I did for my first trip when it comes to a budget. I divide the money I have available for expenses into the number of days I'm away. Anything I have left over at the end of the day is then used for souvenirs and crap (but mostly alcohol... some things never change!).
And that's pretty much it. Other people have their own way of traveling, and that's great, but this is what works for me. Happy travels!