How To Afford Travel In Your 20’s

The most common question I get when talking about my travels is “How do you afford it?” As a 20-something Millennial who is just getting started in my career, time and money aren’t exactly abundant. Travel is priceless, however. With a little creative prioritizing, you CAN make travel in your 20’s affordable. Here are some tips:

La Jolla Cove in Southern California

1. Cut the crap!

I’ve heard so many people say the words “I wish I had the money to travel like you” then turn right back around to watch their cable TV that costs them $100+ a month. As a young person just starting out, it’s not likely that you have a wealth of disposable income lying around. But look deeper. You probably have a lot of “wealth” tied up in things that are far less valuable than the experience you’ll get from traveling. When I started to get the “travel itch” I knew I had two options. One was to work more and the other was to spend less. As an entry level financial analyst, my day job occupied 10-12 hours of my day. So the decision was easy: spend less. I joined a car pool for a while, cut off my cable for a few months and eventually gave up my expensive big-girl apartment to live in a small house with three other roommates. That alone cut my monthly expenses by about 60%. Having to make these sacrifices is not ideal but it’s also not forever. My desire to travel is greater than my desire to have HBO or my own bathroom. Besides, if you’re traveling you won’t be home to miss those things anyway!

2. Take Advantage of Your Credit Cards

  • Earn Free Travel: I almost exclusively use my credit cards to spend money. If you’re self-disciplined enough and can pay them off IN FULL every month, then don’t be afraid to ditch your cash and debit in favor of your credit cards. In addition to building your credit, they are more likely to earn you free stuff. In 2011 I flew at least once a month and was able to cover most of my airfare expenses with rewards points from my Chase Rapid Rewards Credit Card for Southwest Airlines. (Chase Sapphire Preferred & Capital One Venture are other highly rated travel rewards cards. I don’t have either of these yet but I did get to reap the benefits of my friend’s Chase Sapphire card on my trip to Bali)
  • Let Other People Earn Your Points For You: If you’re renting, ask your landlord or property management company if you can use your credit card to pay rent. I did this for two years in a $1300/mo house (plus another $400-500 in utilities) and had my roommates reimburse me in cash for their portions. In the end, I earned upwards of 40,000 points for expenses that weren’t even my own.  That’s a lot of free flying! (Added bonus? I was able to build superb credit.)
  • Let Other People Do Your Work: Many credit cards offer a 24/7 Concierge Service via a 1-800 number listed on your card. Within a reasonable limit, the service representatives will do just about anything for you. I had a long layover in L.A. on my way out to Sydney and wanted to get a massage. I called my credit card concierge to find a nearby spa. I gave her a list of requirements including free transportation services so I didn’t have to spend extra money on a cab. It took a five minute conversation to save me an hour of research and at least $30 in cab fares.

3. Make More Friends

One of the things that really helps me is having a well-established network of adventurous friends. Most of my trips are planned around the cities where various friends live or have relatives that would be willing to accommodate me. Most of the time I don’t even have to ask. I just have to make it known that I want to travel. The greatest part about this is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I travel to see friends, the more friends I make. Which opens doors for even more travel opportunities.

This money-saving tactic also requires a large degree of open-mindedness. It isn’t always realistic to say “I want to spend three weeks in such and such far away city.” If your goal is simply to travel then you’ll be much more willing to jump at random opportunities that come your way. I’ve ended up loving cities that I had no interest in going to and hating cities that I thought I’d fall in love with. But I’ve never regretted any of those trips. You have your whole life to plan that “dream trip”. Enjoy the spontaneity of your youth and just get out there.

4. Work For It

When I started searching for graduate schools I was shocked to find that many of them were offering to pay my travel costs if I visited the campus. I later found out that this is a fairly common practice among universities. They hold “preview weekends” during which they will pay for a select number of potential applicants to fly out and visit the school. Usually you’re required to sit in on various lectures and attend preview events but if it gets me to a new city for free, I’m all for it. I’m not condoning “milking” the system but I do want to point out that opportunities like these are much more common than you think. And the additional consolation prize for putting in the extra work? I made some really good friends in the process which added to my list of free cities to visit. See how that works?!

5. It Never Hurts To Ask

Since I find myself traveling alone often, I’ve had to learn to ask for help. You’d be surprised by the length people will go to accommodate you if you just ask. On a trip to California, my friend and I turned our hotel shuttle into our free, personal chauffeur simply by asking politely. We started with small favors of course but by the end of the trip we knew each driver by name and had them on speed dial. We never had to pay for a cab fare the entire trip. On a separate trip to California, I was staying at a Hilton (thanks to a family discount) and asked the concierge to lend me his computer so I could reprint lost travel documents. The point is, you miss out on 100% of the favors that you don’t ask for. And for a budget conscious traveler, you take every freebie you can get.

My sister goofing off in the cockpit after a flight. We befriended the pilot and he let us check it out.

6. Invest in good gear

Buying good travel gear doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. In fact, cheap gear usually WILL because you’ll find yourself having to replace it more often. I buy all of my luggage from third party retailers like Ross or TJ Maxx where I’m able to get high-end, dependable luggage at a fraction of the cost. I bought three good pieces in graduating sizes: a backpack, carry-on and full-size suit case.

  • Don’t Be A Pack Rat: Nothing cramps a budget traveler’s wallet like hefty baggage fees. Make sure you’re including these costs in your overall budget when choosing your flights. You can also go one step further and perfect the art of traveling light. Don’t get caught up in “what if” thinking. Your luggage is not a mobile home and traveling inevitably means sacrificing some of the conveniences of being at home. Almost anything you forget can be purchased at your destination IF you need it. Don’t fall into the “outfit for every occasion” trap either. Make sure you’re bringing clothes that are versatile and multi-functional. Since every inch of space counts, I also save room by asking for free sample sizes of my prescriptions when I visit my doctors. I throw them in a bin with the rest of my travel-size collection and they’re ready when I need them.
  • Be unique: Buy your gear (especially suit cases) in unique patterns or colors so you’re not wasting time playing the conveyor belt guessing game. A matter of minutes can mean the difference between catching your next flight or missing it.

Your turn! Do you have any tips for affordable travel in your 20’s?

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11 thoughts on “How To Afford Travel In Your 20’s

  1. Great post Dani! Another way to maximize your credit card rewards with minimum funds is to sign up for a credit card with a lucrative sign-up bonus (30K+ points/miles). If you’re card pays 1 point/mile per dollar spent, that’s $30K you didn’t have to spend to earn those points!

  2. This is a great post that is full of cool tips. I am glad to have found your website. I would add that people can be hosted for free through Couchsurfing.com or through a work-exchange (Helpx.net).

    1. Hi Lillian,
      Thank you for taking the time to check it out. I appreciate it! Those are both great suggestions. I had never heard of the work exchange site before. Checking it out now.

      Thank you for sharing!
      -D

  3. That was clever to use your card to pay your rent and your roommates, can’t believe you earned all of those points, definitely taking all this advice, especially about cutting off cable, I aiming to travel to Thailand next year.

    1. It’s really cool to know that I have inspired someone in some small way. I definitely want to hear about Thailand when you go! WHEN not if 😉

    1. Definitely a good addition to the list. Some of the best life lessons I learned were on backpacking/camping trips – plus they’re an inexpensive accommodation. Thank you!

  4. This is a really good post chock-full of great suggestions. Even though your target audience is 20 somethings many of your suggestions are applicable to anyone with a burning desire to pursue their dreams. Glad you found my blog and that I will now have the opportunity to travel vicariously through your. Be well. ~ Ayanna Nahmias

    1. Hi Ayanna,
      Thank you for the wonderful encouragement. And thank you for reading 🙂 I always love hearing from readers and getting to know their own perspectives. I’m glad it was helpful!
      Best,
      Danielle

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