When you’re known as “The Ultimate Cheapskate,” people usually think you must lead a miserable, stay-at-home life, spending every waking hour clipping coupons and pinching pennies. But that’s not the kind of life my wife and I lead, nor is it the lifestyle of the very special “cheapskates” I’ve surveyed and written about in my books. In fact, the black belts of smart spending say that they think and worry less about money than most of their peers and that they are happier because of it. And when it comes to their leisure time, they love to travel and are nearly twice as likely as the average American to have traveled abroad. How can they afford it?
Here are some of my secrets and those of my fellow cheapskates…
Start planning your trip at Kayak.com/explore. Because airfare often is the single largest travel expense, check out the “Explore” tool on the Kayak website (Kayak.com/explore) before you even decide where to go. Enter the month or season when you want to travel, the airport you want to use and the amount your budget will allow for airline tickets. The Kayak Explore tool will show you everywhere in the world you can fly during the specified period for the dollar amount you’ve indicated or less. Date restrictions and other conditions may apply, and you’ll need to act quickly if you see a deal that interests you because airfares change constantly. Kayak Explore can be a real eye-opener if your bucket list is filled with lots of places you’d like to visit. Case in point: My wife and I ended up spending three wonderful weeks in Russia last year when Kayak Explore revealed that for just $550 per person, we could fly round-trip from Washington, DC, to St. Petersburg during the time we had available to travel. We had always wanted to visit Russia, but it shot to the top of our list when we saw that bargain-basement airfare.
There also is a tool for learning average travel costs per day in nearly 150 countries at BudgetYourTrip.com. This tool lets you specify whether you’ll be traveling on a tight, midrange or luxury budget and then breaks down expenses for accommodations, food, local transportation, entertainment, etc.
Maximize your credit card travel rewards points. There are many good rewards credit cards for travelers, and finding the right card for you will depend on your spending habits and financial eligibility. For starters, compare cards using the annual lists of the top cards for travel rewards at NerdWallet.com and CreditCards.com. Based on our particular circumstances, my wife and I almost exclusively use the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card, which is consistently ranked as one of the top travel rewards cards, even though it carries a hefty $95 annual fee (waived the first year). We use it for just about everything that can be charged—including groceries and direct bill pays—accruing rewards points quickly but, of course, paying off the full balance every month to avoid interest. Perks of that particular card include a large sign-up bonus (currently 50,000 bonus points if you charge a total of $4,000 in the first three months, which are redeemable for $625 in travel)… no foreign transaction fees when using it abroad (which easily can save you more than the $95 annual fee on even a short foreign trip)…and the flexibility to redeem points for any type of travel service, not just services on certain airlines or from certain hotels. When you book travel using points from this card on the Chase Ultimate Rewards website, you get 25% more value with your points than if you redeemed them directly with the airline or other travel providers. Another tip: If you sign up for a credit card that requires you to charge a minimum amount within a certain period in order to receive sign-up bonus points, consider reaching that amount by simply buying gift cards for stores where you know you’ll eventually shop anyway.
Make it a working vacation (sort of). Particularly if you have a long block of time for travel, doing a little part-time work along the way can be an interesting diversion and help stretch your travel budget. Websites such as WorkAway.info and BackDoorJobs.com list a wide range of part-time job opportunities for travelers ranging from helping young business professionals in Spain practice their English skills to tending livestock on a working farm in Australia to helping out at a hostel in Thailand. Some come with a paycheck, while others (like most of the gigs available through WorkAway.info) provide only complimentary room and board. Before signing up for one of these work gigs, speak with other travelers who have worked for the same outfit to make sure that you know what you’re getting into. Some of the websites are like Facebook and allow you to connect with fellow travelers/workers directly, and in other cases, you can ask the potential employer to provide references from previous workers.
And check out TrustedHouseSitters.com, a clearinghouse for temporary pet-sitting and house-sitting opportunities around the world. In exchange for looking after someone’s house and possibly their pet, you get a place to stay.
Forget hotels. If you haven’t used Airbnb or one of its competitor sites, it’s time! Savvy budget-conscious travelers are increasingly opting to stay in private rooms, apartments or entire homes rented directly from the owners via websites such as Airbnb.com, Booking.com and Wimdu.com. In our travels, we’ve found that staying in privately owned accommodations offers a lot of advantages, including access to cooking facilities (in most instances), more space to stretch out than in a typical hotel room and a chance to truly feel like you’re “living” someplace rather than just visiting. Using the robust map feature on most of these websites, you can scroll over available properties to find rentals in your price range in the areas where you would like to stay—and the savings can be considerable. A few years ago, my wife and I rented a gorgeously appointed three-room, luxury apartment in Budapest on Booking.com—directly across the street from one of the city’s finest hotels—for almost 80% less than the least expensive room would have cost at that hotel.
Save money at home while you travel. How much will a trip really cost you? The answer to that question involves not just the direct costs of the trip but also how much money you’d probably spend anyhow if you stayed home and how much you might be able to save while you’re away. For example, since we prepare most of our own meals when we travel (lots of picnics in pretty places!), we find that our food costs increase very little, compared with when we’re at home, so that’s pretty much a wash. We also tend to travel during the times of year when our home heating or cooling costs are the highest so that we can set our programmable thermostats for maximum savings while we’re away. Of course, we’re not filling up the cars with gas every week as we do when we’re at home, which typically saves us about $200 a month when we’re traveling. For longer trips of a month or more, we usually have the water service shut off while we’re away (a net savings of $120 off the minimum monthly water bill after factoring in the shut-off/turn-on fees), as well as cancel the cable service, since we have a contract with no cancellation fees. Using all of these measures, we can easily save $500 to $800 per month while we’re traveling, and that savings comes right off the bottom line of what the trip actually costs. Who said it costs a fortune to travel the world?