The Ultimate Guide to Traveling When You Have No Money

October 25, 2012 / By NomadicMatt

I recently asked subscribers of my newsletter about the number one thing that holds them back from traveling. The near universal answer?

Money

This is something I hear from everyone I talk to.

“Matt, I simply don’t have enough money to travel.”

This problem and how to overcome it probably my most asked question.

I answer this question in a plethora of posts, e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts. Long-term readers might even be getting sick of me discussing this subject because it is one I talk about so much. One of the questions on my recent Q&A was about how someone who doesn’t work in travel can actually afford to travel. “What can they do?” they asked me.

Since this question comes up so often, I like to constantly remind people of this fact:

You do not need to be rich to travel.

Let’s repeat that.

You do not need to be rich to travel.

I sure wasn’t. I had an average paying administrative job the year before I left for my first trip. It wasn’t a lot after taxes and the cost of living (I had less than $15k to live on for the year after taxes and loans were paid off.)

Yet I managed to save enough to travel the world. How? I made it a priority. If travel is not a priority for you, you will always find some other things to spend money on and you’ll never have “enough” money to travel. I never have enough money to go shopping or buy a new electronic gadget because I spend my money on travel, so there isn’t much left over for non-priority expenses. Everything I do is focused on having more money for travel (and other things I love like sushi, movies, and nice dinners)!

What is your savings priority? Is it travel? If it is travel, what is keeping you from saving money? What are you spending it on?

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of writing out your expenses and then cutting them to save money for your trip. I offered 20 tips on how to do so – the same tips I used before I went away. At the time, I was still paying college debt and yet using those tips managed to save over $20,000 dollars for my initial trip around the world.

“But Matt, I work a minimum wage job/am a student/live on social security/am homeless/underemployed/live with my parents/spend a lot/have kids/insert other excuse here and no matter what I can do, I’ll never be able to do it. I can’t even pay back my student loans. What do I do?”

Ultimate Guide to Cheap Travel

What do you do when you are in that boat? What do you do when prioritizing your budget and using my 20 tips to grow your bank balance won’t even work?

Many things.

So the focus of today’s “you don’t need to be rich to travel” reminder is to discuss all the ways you can travel for virtually free. You don’t need a lot of money to begin. Even if you don’t earn a lot or have debt, there are ways to go overseas still. If you feel that no matter what you do you will never get ahead by saving money, follow this guide to ultimate travel frugality and see the world on the ultra cheap:

Work Overseas – Not making enough money at your job? Why not get a job overseas? There are plenty of opportunities in the world as long as you aren’t picky — and after all, this isn’t a career you are starting, it’s just a way to earn money for travel. Here are some jobs you can get to pay the bills and fund your travels:

(Click the highlighted links to read stories of individuals who have done those exact jobs!)

Working overseas often gets discounted as an option because it seems hard to do. It’s not. Just be open. These jobs don’t require advanced degrees or a lot of work experience either. Are you going to get some high-paying office job? No. Will you get a shitty, low-wage job that will pay all your travel bills? Yes! I’ve met people from all walks of life, both from Western and non-Western countries, funding their travels this way.

Teach English Overseas – One of the best ways to make money for travel is to teach English overseas. You can make a lot of money teaching – I replenished my travel funds while working in Thailand, and I have had friends leave South Korea with tens of thousands of dollars in the bank.  All you need is the ability to speak English fluently and maybe a TEFL degree, depending on the country you work in. The world is yearning for teachers and this is a job in high demand- – many companies in Asia will even pay for your flight over.

Get Free Flights – There are so many ways to earn free flights I hate when people tell me they can’t afford to fly. Sign up for a few travel credit cards. collect miles, and then fly for free.  Most cards offer sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points — and if you sign up for both an airline card (think a United airlines card) and a general rewards card like the Chase Sapphire or AMEX card, you can combine the two point balances and get a cheap flight faster.

Credit card sign ups are the best way to collect miles as most sign-ups will at least get you two flights. I’ve used these sign up bonuses to collect close to a million extra miles.

Can’t sign up for credit cards? There are many ways to increase your mileage balance without credit cards. Three impact ways are:

  • Watch out for deals – I sign up for all the airline mailing lists. I always watch out for special 2 for 1 miles deal. Or when they have special card offers to get extra miles. United Airlines just gave me 1,000 miles for watching a demo on their new shopping toolbar. I once got triple miles by buying some clothes from Gap just by seeing it in their mailing list. That doesn’t even utilize all the special bonus offers airlines have on cars, restaurants, and hotels.
  • Shop at their member stores – All airlines have special offers with all the big stores- Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Target, etc. Shopping at those preferred stores will earn you 2 to 4 miles per dollar spent- sometimes even more. If you spend 1,000 dollars a month, you can earn up to 3,000 miles just by going through their websites. The products don’t cost extra. I do all my shopping through the airline malls simply for the extra miles.
  • Put everything on the card – I pay nothing in cash. I put everything on my card- from Starbucks to phone bills. My total monthly spending is about $2,500 per month. That’s more miles for me. Everything I do is to benefit my mileage account.

Couchsurf – This service connects travelers with locals who are willing to let them stay with them for FREE. Using this site you will never have to pay for accommodation. Years ago I read about a guy who has been traveling for years while only Couchsurfing and I’ve used this service about 10 times and always meet amazing people. Sometimes you get a room, sometimes a couch, sometimes an air mattress, but it’s always free. There are also local Couchsurfing group meetups that can help you make friends in your new city. Similar sites include Servas and Hospitality Club but I like Couchsurfing the best. It’s a more active community.

Hitchhike – A free way to get around destinations that is relatively safe and quite common in many parts of the world including Central America, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.  I’ve hitchhiked in over a handful of countries in the world.

Free Walking Tours – Want to learn about the city, get your bearings, and see the major sights? Take a free walking tour. You can find them in 90% of the major cities in Europe, and there are also a few in large Asian cities, New York, Australia, and New Zealand.

Some good free tour companies include:

Housesit – Can’t afford your vacation? Watch someone’s house while they go on theirs.  You can sign up for one of the sites below and watch people’s homes for free, allowing you to stay in one destination for a while and get to know it well without having to pay for accommodation. Added bonus: you get a kitchen to cook your food! Here are some resources:

Cook Your Meals – The best way to save money on the road is to cook all your own meals. I recently spent $60 USD for a week’s worth of groceries in Stockholm instead of an average of $15 USD per meal eating out! That’s a saving of $150 USD! If you are Couchsurfing, your host will probably have a kitchen and many hostels, campsites, and guesthouses also have kitchens. No kitchen? Pack your own container and silverware and make some sandwiches and salads on the go. Not every meal requires a stove right?

Just because you are traveling, it doesn’t mean you need to eat out every meal. You won’t ruin your trip to Paris if you decide not to eat out one day! There’s simply no reason to be spending lots of money on food on your trip!

WWOOFing – Working on a farm will get you free room and board, while allowing you to commune with the great outdoors. You have to pay to get to the farm but once you are there, everything else is covered!

And four ways to save money that cost a little but are still very cheap:

Get rail passes – Booking ahead of time can usually save you about 50% of the cost of a train ticket, but if you don’t want to be tied into a fixed schedule, rail passes can save you a lot of money. I’ve saved hundreds in Europe and, in Australia, a train pass saves a whopping 70%.

Sleep in large dorms – Large hostel dorm rooms are the cheapest paid accommodation out there. If Couchsurfing isn’t your thing, this is your next best way to save money on a place to sleep.

Use student and other discount cards – Are you a student, teacher, or under 26? Welcome to the world of 50% off attractions and a plethora of discounts. Get a student/teacher/youth card and save big!

Get city tourist cards – If you plan on seeing a lot of sights in a city, you should get a city tourism card which offers you discounted and free access to the major attractions and museums, as well as free public transportation. I saved over $100 dollars with the London pass, $80 with Paris Museum card, $50 with a Helsinki card, and tons more with other city tourism card. They are an amazing way to save money on attractions that not enough people use.

Between all of these tips, you’ll be able to travel for relatively little money. After all, I recently spent 5 days in Stockholm on $100 and once spent 10 days in London on $700. If I can do it, you can do it too.

A Real World Example

Let’s create an example using the tips above. Say you want to go to Australia for two weeks. It’s a long way and Australia is an expensive country. How do you do it without busting your budget?

Flights – It takes about 70,000 miles for a round-trip flight to Australia from United States. You can earn that many miles by signing up for these two cards:

United Airlines card (30,000 miles)

Chase Sapphire card (40,000 miles)

Or sign up for two American Airlines card (40,000 miles per card)

Or you can simply pay the $1,500 USD for the flight!

Cost: about $100 USD in taxes and fees for your flight using miles.

To find out more about using credit cards and miles for free flights, read this article .

And while I used the US an example and we have the most deals, there are a number of reward cards for Canadians, UK citizens, and Europeans.

Accommodation – Couchsurfing while you are in Australia will allow you to stay with locals for free, plus you’ll have access to a kitchen where you can cook your meals and save money for traveling.  There are a lot of people on Couchsurfing in Australia and it’s very easy to find someone to stay with. Additionally, Global Freedloaders also has a lot of users in the country.

Food – A friend of mine once told me they simply get screwed with the price of food in Australia and it is true! However, if you cook your meals, expect to pay $70–80 USD per week. For that price, your groceries will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and some other basic foodstuffs. Because food costs so much, campsites, hostels, apartments, and even some budget hotels have kitchen facilities for you to use. An average restaurant meal in Australia will run you around $15 USD for no-frills eating. This includes pub food, fish-and-chip shops, Chinese restaurants, and quick lunch shops.

Cost:   $100 – 300 USD (Assuming you alternate cooking your own food and eating out a few times.)

Transportation – The easiest way to see Australia is via Greyhound, and they offer good value bus passes. On the popular Sydney to Cairns bus route, a normal bus ticket is about $400 USD for a direct one-way trip. However, the pass for the same route is typically $350 and lets you hop off and on as much as you would like. Not only is the pass cheaper, but it allows you to see other destinations along the way.

Another popular and cheap way to travel around Australia is to rent a van and drive yourself. Campervan and car rentals do two things: they lower your transportation costs because van rentals are really cheap and driving yourself is cheaper than taking the bus or flying. They also double as a bedroom, so you can save on accommodation by sleeping at a campsite instead of a hostel. You can rent these for about $35 USD per day.

Using web classifieds like Gumtree or hostel message boards can allow you to find travelers looking for rides or those wanting to get rid of their car. Taking on a few travelers to share the cost of the van and gas can cut your transportation/accommodation expenses to less than $20 USD per day! (Or use them to hop rides with other people and only pay for gas!)

Cost. $100 – $400 depending on which method you use.

Activities – Activities are really expensive in Australia, generally costing $150–400 USD. For example, a one-day trip to the Great Barrier Reef can cost $170 USD, while two nights sailing the Whitsunday Islands can cost upward of $400. A three-day trip to Uluru from Alice Springs is around $355. A day trip to Kakadu National Park is around $100. There’s really little ways to get around these costs if you go with a tour company. If you organize a trip on your own, you can cut the costs by about 50% depending on the activity.

Assuming you pick

the two big activities with a tour company, you’re looking at about $600 USD.

$1,400 USD (or less)

Looking at the itinerary above, I didn’t compromise a lot. True, you’ll be staying with other people and cooking your own food, but that’s not the end of the world. (These tip work even if you are traveling as a pair since sites like Couchsurfing do accept pairs.)

While this particular journey works out to be $100 per day, but my aim here is to highlight that while in this example you aren’t able to stretch your costs out over a long period of time (which is how you lower expenses), a two-week vacation doesn’t need to cost a huge sum of money. If I can go to London for $700 and design a two-week trip to Australia that costs $1,400, then the argument that you must be rich to travel holds absolutely no water. You don’t need thousands to travel. In fact, while $1,400 is a lot of money, that is the maximum amount of money you would need as there are still ways mentioned in the example to lower your costs even more.

The key is to get out of the mindset that you must travel using the flight/hotel combination.  While my real world example doesn’t utilize all the bare bones tips I included in the beginning of this post, it does highlight one thing – using out-of-the-box, non-traditional ways to travel can lead to big savings.

And that turns travel from a dream into a reality.

NEXT STEPS

To turn the above advice into actionable steps by reading the following articles:

Laurence

Wow, that is one awesomely comprehensive post. It does bug me when people say they “wish” they could travel lots. Wishing is no good. If you want something to happen – you have to make it happen. And as you’ve demonstrated ably in this post – it’s more than possible to make a wish a reality, even without a pile of cash!

Totio Filipov

Yes, I think that is the problem with most of the people. They all want to travel but they are too busy with their everyday stuff and work that they always postpone it. Traveling is crucial for such people and I would recommend anyone to start doing it more often.

Mateo

Well… Some people want to set up a business and actually make money to save up for a family. Making money by working lousy overseas jobs won’t cut it. This is for single people who don’t want to set up a life for themselves and a family.

Andrea

Yeah, it’s easy to say when you’re not a 15 year old. who has three brothers and parents, and wants to travel the world…that’s why I can’t travel, WE don’t have enough money to travel as a FAMILY. We NEED to spend it on everyday food, on living comfortably and in education. That’s why it’s not easy.

Mateo

IM IN THE SAME BOAT! Trust me, I know how u feel

Stephanie

Thank you so much for this post! I’m a university student so money and time are both factors working against my travelling but your site has helped me plan sooo much! I bought your guide to TEFL and this past summer took i-to-i’s online TEFL course so that as soon as I graduate I am going to go travel and pay my way by teaching.

Ashley from Ashley Abroad

Great post! I just had one question – I’m leaving to move to France soon and I just got the Chase Sapphire card. Can I earn points if I’m buying things in Europe? Or does that only work with American dollars?

NomadicMatt

You earn points whenever you spend money anywhere in the world!

Gigi

Do check if your card charges fees for overseas spending, though. Those can really add up! Capitol One cards don’t charge fees for overseas spending, but most other cards do.

Ron | Active Planet Travels

Nice article Matt. I’ve used Couchsurfing on numerous occasions to help stay in certain locations for free as well as meet some locals who live in the area to show you around. I definitely agree with you though when people don’t “prioritize” themselves and complain about not having money to travel. You don’t need money, just use your resources. Reminds me of an old quote: “It’s not who you are, it’s who you know.”

Rick Wolff

To all you kids reading this post and getting ideas: go for them now, because by the time you get to be my age (about twice Nomadic Matt’s), this all becomes very impractical.

NomadicMatt

It’s only impractical if you believe it to be. I’ve seen many people more than twice my age, doing these things. Don’t limit yourself!

Colin

That Wolff guy must be kidding. At age 61 (3 years ago) my wife and I backpacked around the world (which included a 4 month trip around Oz). We stayed with friends and relatives where we could and used Hostelbookers for other accommodation. UK and Europe was expensive as was Oz. We started off with $9,000 and had pensions totaling $700/month. We were away 11 months so had to stretch our budget of about $1500/month FOR BOTH OF US. It was tight some days but we’d do it again, in fact we are making plans now for another RTW in 2015.

Some companies we used: Hostelbookers, Skyscanners, Kayak,Man in seat 61, Onetravel, Homeaway Vacation Rentals.

Amy

Such good points.

I think most of the time people just procrastinate too much – too much ‘what if’s and too much ‘but’s.

If you want something bad enough, you’ll make a way to do it.

Becky

FAB post, Matt, thanks so much. As one of your regular readers, I do hear you talk about traveling on the cheap a lot. However, this is a fantastic resource for someone (even a regular reader like me) to have all your basic tips together in one place. I particularly like the real world example in Australia, as that is the launching pad for my RTW next year. And new readers get a plethora of information out of this. Muchas gracias!

Janet

Great resource. I’m somewhat interested in the teaching english thing and I’ve heard it pays well too. I’m an expat and currently on job 3 when it comes to working abroad (and cheap local wage) but I’m also growing my business. I’ve traveled for free by monastery hopping and living in monasteries. It doesn’t cost anything! I registered for my first Amex frequent flyer mile credit card but haven’t really done travel hacking before. Do you literally just register for a bunch of cards just for the free points and then not use the credit card itself?

NomadicMatt

I just use them for the free points then never use them again. There are 2 I use for everyday purchases but that is it.

Nancy Nurse

Matt,

This is an amazing amount of fantastic information! You’re brilliant!

You mentioned about it taking 70,000 miles I believe it was for a trip to Australia. You said that by using two TOTALLY DIFFERENT AIRLINE cards, (one with 30,000 mile bonus and one with 40,000 mile bonus), you could attain that ticket. I guess I don’t understand Travel Cards at all. Does that mean that you can use different airline cards and total the air miles to get a ticket? That doesn’t make sense to me (unless I suppose they were affiliates)?

Thanks again for this amazing blog!

NomadicMatt

You get one branded card and one general credit card (Amex, Chase) and transfer the points from the general credit card into your miles account for the airline i.e. 50,000 Chase reward points transfered to my United account.

Bianca

Great Post Matt. I use frequent flyer points to pay for my overseas flights. This year I got a free flight from Melbourne to Thailand and next year I’ll be flying on points to Germany, both times with a top airline. I don’t do anything special. I just use my card for all of my day to day expenses.

I also ‘travel’ a lot close to home. I only live 30 minutes from the Great Ocean Road, an attraction on lots of traveller’s must do list for Australia. I’m a firm believer in appreciating what you have close to home.

I can definitely vouch for your pricing of an Australia trip. Food is expensive but fresh produce is reasonable so if you cook yourself you can save a lot.

I’m not sure I’d catch a bus from Sydney to Cairns again though. I think I’d just try to pick up cheap flights especially in and out of secondary airports (e.g. Avalon instead of Melbourne).

But I would defiantly recommend renting or buying a car and camping. It’s a great way to meet locals.

Aabhash

Great Post! The ‘Free Walking Tours’ was an addition to my knowledge in this area. Seems a fascinating way to know the place you visit.

Steve McPhilemy

Theres no such thing as a ‘Free Tour’… Whilst I think they are refreshing and excellent, lets be accurate and also add in that they are NOT free. The guides work for tips, its a tip based system.

Great marketing gimmick though…

I’ve only heard rave reviews about them. nothing negative, but also not ‘free’..

NomadicMatt

It’s free in the sense there is no obligation to pay.

A traveler

I traveled to Bath (England) a few years ago and took a really excellent, and completely free to the traveler, walking tour. It was subsidized by the city. I can’t say that this would be common, but there are probably other places that offer these kinds of tours. Ask the locals since they’ll usually know.

Raymond waruhari

great post for sure, now i know i don’t have to be rich to travel!

Ava Apollo

Excellent list. I tell my friends who want to travel the exact same thing. Teach English or work at a hostel. Just get out there. Don’t make excuses if you want to do it.

Kerry @ Frugal City Girl

This is a great post. I’m definitely using the excuse of not having enough money – although I have a financial goal I’m trying to accomplish first, so I’m not dithering indefinitely. Er, I hope! Either way, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s not like a magic number where it suddenly becomes possible to travel perfectly. You either do it or you don’t.

Megan

Great advice Matt – I can vouch for almost every tip here as that’s how I travel. Gotta love reward points!

Just a note for those how intrigued by Couchsurfing – yes it is free but consider thanking your host with a gift from your country, taking them out for a meal or drink or cooking them dinner. If you’re staying with a lot of hosts, you might need to factor this into your budget. You are under no obligation to do or give your host anything, but it’s a nice gesture.

Kay Rodriguez

This is excellent advice, and perfect for students. I’m definitely going to have to refer back to this post when planning my spring break adventures for next year.

Also, I just tried CouchSurfing for the first time and I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the perfect way to get to know locals, have great conversations, and make lifelong friends and contacts while traveling. Just make sure to read the reviews thoroughly before choosing to stay with someone!

Kan

I would say I agree to everything bar food. For people like myself who are indulgers into food, sometimes you have to make that bit of cash leg room for a good meal unique to that specific country and I think it’s a big motivating factor as to why people travel too. Do your research and you can significantly cut down on your food expenditure but sometimes cooking your own meal at home may not suffice for some people

Jessica

A very thorough post! I find that just getting out there traveling is also a great first step to traveling cheaper because you meet people and pick up tips along the way. I starting out doing volunteer exchanges (similar to WWOOFing), but as I traveled I met people who were working abroad, people who were couchsurfing, people who knew the most budget-friendly places to stay and ways to get around etc. The more I travel, the more I learn, and the easier it becomes to save money.

NomadicMatt

“The more I travel, the more I learn, and the easier it becomes to save money.”

Sums everything up right there!

Bobbi Lee Hitchon

You covered absolutely everything I think! Awesome post. I’ve used a lot of these tips myself to travel. It’s allowed me to stay on the road for three years. There’s always a way.

Jeremy

Wow, epicly detailed post, good work!

One tip I like to share is to start paying things with cash, and then put all the loose change you have at the end of the day into a jar for your, “Travel Fund”. You’d be surprised how quickly things add up! It also lets you be more careful about how much you’re spending as handing over a tangible bill will remind you more than a quick swipe of a credit card!

NomadicMatt

Great point. I do that all the time. It adds up pretty fast too!

Shaun

I have three separate travel funds. Budgeting and watching your pennies is one of the best travel tips.

mboy

i ll sum the biggest problem in just 2 words: ‘fcking visa’ thats about it with cheap traveling

Romsdeals

I definitely recommend travel hacking. I was able to go to Europe business class for $100. Check out my blog or ask me and I can help. Great article!

Dipti

The message is clear, however as someone from an asian country, i can assure you its atleast 3-4 times more difficult to do whatever you have mentioned. I lucked out by teaching english in france and got to see western europe, but i fall into a small % of indians who manage to do that.

However, that said, it is important that one travels with whatever resources one can manage with even if it means just going to the neighbouring state/country for 3 days. And like you mentioned, it all depends on how you prioritize travel.

Great post!

NomadicMatt

Which things couldn’t you do?

NomadicMatt

Japan doesn’t need to be a budget buster. I found some ways to keep costs down there too.

Marc

I hope you’re right Matt. I’m from New Zealand, travelled to Europe, now in Paris, France, will perhaps call in to London to catch you at the meet-up there, my money is running out fast, I may well have to put some of your tips to the test soon

Source: www.nomadicmatt.com

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