You might have read our blog a couple years back that outlined how to travel the world on a budget – well, at least how we did it. We have traveled extensively for years and have made a concerted effort to do so as cheap as possible. Yes, we love having luxury experiences, but we are also quite proficient with traveling on a budget and curating trips that don’t do too much damage to our bank account. The impetus for this blog was a post I (Michael) made on Instagram a few weeks ago after completely booking the details of our upcoming trip in May. Alex and I will be returning to Europe to visit some of our favorite places and about 4 or 5 new countries over a period of 3 weeks. Through a number of different avenues, I was able to book flights, accommodation, and much of our transportation in between our various destinations (for both of us) for about $1300. In the post, I noted that I booked a 3 week trip for 2 to Europe for about $1300 and asked if you guys would like to know how. Most people said yes, so I decided to put a blog together to show you how to travel for (almost) free.
So, when I think about travel, I tend to think of 2 major costs and a few minor costs:
There is no better way to receive free flights and to lower the cost of travel than to adequately leverage credit card and airline miles. The Points Guy has the best credit card and airline mile tips on the internet. Many of the tricks we use come from blogs Brian and his team have put out and many of the credit cards we use came by recommendation of his 10 best travel credit cards blog that he puts out monthly. If you aren’t using loyalty programs and leveraging travel credit cards, you are simply saying no to free money. Why not earn miles and points for money that you’re already spending? It’s a no-brainer.
American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve
Our favorite travel credit cards (the cards that Alex and I use on both a daily basis and to book travel) are the American Express Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Amex Platinum benefits: Some of the benefits of the Amex Plat include a 60,000 sign-up bonus when you hit your spend threshold (usually about $4-5K in 3 months), $200 Uber credit per year, $200 airline credit per year, Luxury Hotel Collection resort benefits, SPG Gold Status, Hilton Gold Status, rental car agency status, Priority Pass lounge membership, access to Delta Skyclub when flying with Delta, 5x points for every dollar spent on hotels and airfare (directly booked in AMEX portal or with airlines) etc.
Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) benefits: 50,000 sign-up bonus (although it was 100,000 when I got the card), 3x points for every dollar spent on dining and travel, $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass lounge membership and so on.
We use the CSR are our everyday card because most of the things we spend money on are food and travel. The Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) portal makes booking points with Chase miles SUPER easy. If you have other Chase cards, you can also easily consolidate your points. To put the point accumulation into perspective, we literally get a free night at a good hotel every single month – just from our daily spend on food, travel, and miscellaneous items.
We often use AMEX membership rewards (MR) and Chase UR points to book free flights. They both also work for hotels and other gifts/benefits.
The best way to get free flights is to sign up for credit cards with great sign-up bonuses, hit your required spend, and use the miles for a flight. The 3x points on dining and travel from the CSR and the 5x points on hotels and airfare we earn from the AMEX plat enable us to get free flights and hotel stays every year, just from points we earn on normal life expenditures.
Airline Loyalty Programs
I sign up for every single loyalty program possible. They’re free to sign up for and they allow you to accumulate points from flights. Even if I’m flying a small airline I’ve never heard of in southeast Asia, I’m sure to create an account so I can accrue miles.
We are Delta Gold Medallion members, so we have great benefits like no-cost changes, unlimited upgrades, Sky priority boarding, multiple free checked bags, etc. As gold members, we also earn something like 8 miles for every dollar we spend on Delta flights. This allows us to accrue miles at an even faster rate. Obviously, attaining status requires flying a lot, which means spending money. But be sure to create a loyalty account with every single airline, every time you fly. Miles generally never expire. We have random bits of miles sitting in dozens of accounts. Right now they mean nothing, but when we fly each airline 5 or 10 more times, we will likely have enough for a free flight.
Skyscanner and Travel Pirates
If, for some reason you don’t want to use airline miles, there are still tools at your disposal. Travel Pirates has cheap airfare and travel package offers regularly, and you can use tools like Skyscanner explore to search for any destination. Obviously this might mean you have less decision making power in where you travel, but it certainly affords you the ability to travel at a significantly lower cost. For Skyscanner, simply put in your local airport and then click the destination box and click “Can’t decide where? Click here to search Everywhere.”
If you sign up for an Airbnb and book a stay, we will both get travel credit. This usually ranges from $25 to 40 depending on the current offer from Airbnb. I keep this link on our travel resources page so that when anyone signs up and stays with Airbnb, not only do they benefit from the credit, but I also do. Receiving travel credit from readers allows Alex and I to subsidize our Airbnb cost or make it completely free (depending on how much credit we have). Considering we travel a lot, it generally only subsidizes it.
Local Friends + Couch Surfing
One of my favorite things about traveling is making friends while traveling. I love getting to know people from around the world and learning about their culture through my friends as individuals. I make an effort to make friends with almost everyone I encounter on a regular basis while traveling and even some people I meet on a one-off. If I frequent a caffe or restaurant while I’m in a destination for a few days, I usually add the servers/owners on Facebook, exchange phone numbers, etc. I love feeling like a local in foreign places and I love building relationships with people all over the world.
One major benefit to this is that when you return to these destinations you have friends to visit; making the entire trip a different experience. And guess what? You might have a free place to stay! I have hosted many friends in my home that I have met while traveling. When they come to LA, they know they have an air mattress with their name on it. Similarly, when I travel to their home country, they have all essentially extended an offer for me to stay. This has saved me thousands of dollars in the past and has made my experience more rewarding as I’m enjoying it with friends.
If you don’t have friends in a city you’re traveling to and you can’t afford a hotel, check out Couch Surfing. This site allows you to match up with locals and stay at their place for free.
Booking.com and Hotels.com
Booking.com is an awesome tool that let’s you book with ease. The ability to book now and pay at the hotel affords travelers the ability to book a trip and cancel it without incurring costs. It also allows Alex and I to be spontaneous and change our travel plans as we please. When you reach a certain threshold, you become a Booking.com Genius. This gives me 10% off on stays and other benefits like late check-out and free airport transfers (again, a big money saver).
Hotels.com is one of my favorite travel sites for 2 reasons: 1) It is a super user-friendly hotel booking tool and 2) Because you get 1 free night for every 10 nights you stay. The free night is the average cost of the 10 previous nights, less taxes. This can be applied as a credit to a booking that exceeds the value, or to cover a whole night/trip if the credit it exceeds the hotel cost.
Travel blogger benefits
Yes, it is true that travel blogging has its benefits. Hotels do often provide free accommodation in return for press coverage and advertising. This is very common. Any time you see a hotel being tagged in a travel blogger’s photos, you can assume that something was provided for free. It might be a meal, a massage, the accommodation, or all of the above. We aren’t promoting hotels for free unless we absolutely LOVE them. There are instances where we include hotels that we pay to stay in when we write our travel guides, but only if we have an exceptional experience. Obviously, when hotels put us up for free, this saves us a lot of money on travel.
Slow travel = cheap travel. There is absolutely no better way to travel on a budget than to travel slowly. If you’re truly invested, you can hitchhike like our friend Matt from Expert Vagabond. If not, buses and trains suffice.
When you’re in Europe, you have loads of options for cheap travel. Economy airfare providers like Ryan Air and Easy Jet sell flights as cheap as $10, making it easy to traverse Europe on a budget. If a flight is out of the question, the European train and bus systems are great. Considering how small most European countries are, buses can get you to your destination quickly without breaking the ban.
On a recent trip to eastern Europe, Alex and I took buses between Prague > Budapest > Bratislava > Vienna. The average rate was €6! €6 for an international bus ride!