From “tours of the continent” in classic British and American novels, to present-day notions of Instagram-worthy vacation decadence, the idea that travel is “too expensive” for most people is an age-old misconception.
To create a comprehensive guide to traveling on a small budget, we looked for people from all walks of life who happen to be good at hacking travel rewards cards and taking more trips than most people on a very frugal budget.
Keep reading to learn about the attitudes and strategies you can adopt in your own life to make the most of traveling on whatever size budget you’re working with.
Travel reward hackers
Here are the four travelers I interviewed for this article, along with their stories and best travel rewards card hacks:
1. Kat Kendon, architecture and travel photographer, Philadelphia, PA
- Travels for: Work as well as pleasure/vacation/cultural experience/language learning
- Favorite destinations: The place I’ve most recently visited. Central America for budget trips.
I spent many years traveling for work with a corporate budget, so I started funneling as much money as possible through travel cards. I was able to move not only my own income through these cards, but also a large part of my company’s budget. Most cards give you a chunk of bonus miles if you spend a certain amount within the first few months, which was a snap with corporate expenses. I primarily fly American and United, so I have a card for each of those airlines.
I currently take one major trip each year (4-12 weeks) as well as shorter traditional trips. My general rule is that if a flight is under or about $300, I pay for it to keep my miles active and accumulating. My most recent big trip was to Japan and Bali, with a total flight cost of about $75. I’m not even sure how much those flights would have cost without miles, but I think it’s safe to guess in the thousands.
Another benefit of travel cards is the lack of foreign transaction fees, which is helpful on the road.
2. Jessica Ardis, Lecturer/Lab instructor, Philadelphia, PA
- Travels for: It’s the highlight of my life and gets me through unpleasant things like winter and piles of exams.
- Favorite destinations: Italy, Costa Rica, Belize, Shenandoah National Park, Colorado, and the Adirondacks.
For years I used a reward card to earn points for flights and car rentals. Then I learned I could maximize my points by switching to a credit cards specifically for travel points. I now use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card because I earn 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining, and 2X points on all other travel purchases. I also like this card because it isn’t specific to one airline.
I’m going to upgrade to the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card, which has a slightly higher annual fee, but a higher ratio of points earned and a better redemption ratio.
For example, when I bought three tickets to Iceland recently, I only spent $400. My points covered $800. I would guess that I save about $500/year from rewards cards. The first year was higher because of the sign-on bonus. I put just about every expense I have on my card–my Comcast bill, phone bill, gym membership—so I can earn more points.
The only bills I ever pay from my checking account are those that can’t be charged, such as the mortgage, utility bills, and health insurance. I also use a utility provider, NRG, that lets me earn American Airlines miles for every dollar I spend on electricity. Basically, I live by the philosophy that if I have to spend a dollar, I want to make that dollar work for me.
3. Leah Althiser, blogger at The Frugal South and The Budget Mouse, Durham, NC
- Travels for: The new perspective it provides, which enriches my life even after I’m back home.
- Favorite destination: Walt Disney World (I’ve been over 30 times in the past 30 years!)
I’ve been using points and miles in earnest for the past seven years. I estimate that I save over $5,000 each year from this approach. As an example, we’re visiting San Francisco this fall and staying four nights at the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf. Out of pocket this hotel stay would cost $1,500. I’m using 45,000 Hyatt points plus $200 cash, saving us $1,300 just on this one hotel stay.
My favorite card and loyalty program is Southwest’s. I’ve flown my family to Orlando for almost-free so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve earned the incredible Southwest Companion Pass and used it to fly my daughter around with me for free for almost two years. The flexibility and ease of using Southwest points for flights is unparalleled.
4. Meredith Gross, Medical Transcriptionist, Bismarck, ND
- Travels for: Mostly to see our grandchildren, but also short trips to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Living in Bismarck, we don’t have the luxury of finding discounted tickets, so we’ve always used rewards cards to earn miles for travel. Over the years, we’ve signed up for new credit cards to get the bonus miles, which has helped with some of our bigger trips.
With the card we have now, we get a companion ticket to use once a year. Between that and the miles we earn, we switch between buying tickets outright, using miles, and using the companion ticket. It depends on our cash flow and the cost of the tickets.
Takeaways for using travel rewards cards to help you travel on a small budget
- Earn points from work travel: If your job requires travel, use your personal credit card to pay for reimbursable expenses as well as your personal charges. This allows you to earn points on your company’s dime for stuff you have to do anyway.
- Don’t be afraid to open new cards: Most of the travelers I interviewed mentioned sign-up bonuses as an easy way to earn free travel. Since these are a one-time deal, the only way to take advantage of them again and again is to open new credit card accounts. If you are responsible about paying off your cards each month, there’s no harm in opening new ones. In fact, having multiple credit accounts and a longer credit history can improve your score.
- Charge everything you can: The more you charge, the more points you’ll earn. Again, this only works out in your favor if you stay disciplined. We mean charge your grocery bill and pay it back at the end of the month, not a shopping spree for new clothes you can’t really afford.
Even after you become a travel rewards card hacking pro, you’ll still need some cash for your trips. You may think that saving up for trips is a no-brainer, but are you really getting all you can out of your savings account?
Chances are the interest rate on savings at your bricks-and-mortar bank is pretty low. Compare high yield online savings accounts, like the Discover Savings account or the Capital One 360 Savings account, where you can get a much higher interest rate.
Here are some other approaches to saving for trips in a budget-minded way:
- Leah says her approach to saving and paying for trips depends on whether she plans in advance or spots a last-minute deal too good to pass up. “When I’m planning ahead of time, such as our trip to Norway next summer, I start by seeing what points and miles would work best for that trip. For example, Choice Hotels in the US aren’t generally places I’d stay, but in Norway they are excellent options—some even offer free breakfast and dinner. I try to collect the points I’ll need for the trip through sales (I got 14,000 Choice points for $80 in the annual Daily Getaways promotion), credit card sign-up bonuses, and point transfers. Then I dip into my travel savings account to make up the difference.”
- Jessica uses advance planning to pay for the majority of her trips before she leaves. “I tend to book flights 6-10 months in advance. Then I’ll book hotels and rental cars about three months before I leave. I pay for some of these reservations when I make them so that, by the time I go on vacation, I mostly just have to pay for food and activities.
- Kat makes travel a financial priority. “I just do it; if I’m stretching a budget, I’ll pay for trip splurges on credit. I can usually get temporary interest-free spending to make sure it’s not putting me in the hole before I can pay off the overage.”
As you can see, traveling on a low income requires advance planning and effort to find deals and make the most of rewards points. Once all the details align and your trip is finally booked, the last thing you want is an expensive medical issue or a non-refundable cancellation to arise.
Travel insurance can give you peace of mind that even the worst-case scenario won’t put a dent in your bank account. Kat says she’s taken out travel insurance a few times. “It was more appealing when I didn’t have health insurance in the US,” Kendon says. Even with American health insurance, call your insurer to make sure your overseas activities will be covered.
Kendon’s trips often involve physical risk, such as a recent week-long horseback ride through hundreds of miles of desert in Chile. “Galloping through rocky canyons and across one of the driest areas on earth, I wanted to be sure I was covered in case of emergency or if I needed a medical evaluation,” she says.
While Kat luckily never needed to file a travel or health insurance claim, she notes that a renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy can also come in handy while traveling: “I did have all my photo gear stolen from a rental car on one trip, which was covered by my renter’s insurance, thankfully.”
Travel insurance can also protect against the “known unknowns” that we all face from time to time. Meredith told me about several instances when unpredictable life circumstances prompted her to purchase travel insurance. “Our brother-in-law was dying and we weren’t sure if we would have to cut our trip short to return home. We also bought insurance on a plane ticket for our daughter to return home when her grandfather was sick. Other times we’ve taken out insurance because of weather forecasts that might have affected our trip.”
On the other hand, Jessica and Leah said they don’t use travel insurance because their reward tickets were free or very cheap, or because their reasons for changing a ticket wouldn’t have been covered anyway.
Credit cards with the best travel insurance
Luckily, there are a handful of credit cards that offer great travel insurance. This can include trip cancellation insurance or insurance that covers lost luggage.
Takeaways for using travel insurance to help you plan trips on a small budget:
- Evaluate the coverage you already have: health insurance, car insurance, renter’s/homeowner’s policies, life insurance, etc. Call the companies to ask what kind of coverage your policy gives you while traveling within the US or abroad. Some credit cards also provide different types of travel insurance.
- Determine any gaps in coverage: Now that you know what you already have, what (if any) coverage do you need to purchase to cover any insurance gaps, such as healthcare?
- Make informed purchases: Don’t buy the first policy you see. Read the fine print and call up the companies to make sure the policy you buy will actually cover what you need it to. For example, international health coverage and trip cancellation insurance may be included within the same policy, or they may be separate. If you’re looking for a cancellation policy for a specific reason like weather or terrorism, make sure those are accepted reasons. Ask around to see if you know anyone who has used travel insurance and would recommend their policy.
General tips for budget travel
At the end of my interviews with these four budget travelers, I asked for their favorite tips on keeping costs down on trips. Here’s what they said:
- Don’t eat three meals a day. Stay somewhere with free breakfast and fill up in the morning. Then you only need a very light lunch, some kind of takeaway or prepared food, and you can have one big restaurant meal for dinner.
- Families can save even more on food by using the grocery store. Whether you’re traveling solo or with kids, if even one restaurant meal a day is too much for your budget, take advantage of the local grocery store for pre-made and easy-to-prepare meals as well as healthy snacks like fruit.
- Travel in the off-season. You’ll find lower prices on flights and hotel rooms, including resorts.
- Share your trip (and its costs) with a friend or family member. This is something my family does, too. We plan long weekend trips with another family whose kids are the same age as ours. So besides the financial benefit of splitting the cost of lodging and food, we get the priceless bonus of having happily occupied kids who don’t need their parents to entertain them.
- Go where you know people. Similar to the previous trip, staying with people you know can drastically lower the price of a trip.
- Avoid gift shops and shopping in general. My one personal exception to this rule is to find an independent bookstore everywhere I go and purchase one book, a local author if possible, as my “souvenir.”
- Look for roadside grills and other “cheap and tasty” food options.
- If possible, give up your seat for an airline credit. Volunteering when an airline needs to bump passengers from an overbooked flight can leave you with a voucher large enough to purchase a ticket for your next trip.
- Swap your skills for room and board. Do you freelance as a photographer, graphic designer, translator, or writer? Offer the use of your skills in exchange for free lodging at small, independently-owned hotels that don’t have the marketing budget of a large chain.
- Ask the locals. Some of the best deals on food, accommodations, and other necessities can only be discovered through word-of-mouth on the ground. Don’t be shy; many people love to share their favorite recommendations.
If you want to travel, don’t let an entry-level salary or a high student loan balance stop you. With the right attitude, information, and strategy, anyone can see the world on even the smallest of budgets.