How to Travel Cheap: 6-minute read.

Travel is oxygen. How to travel cheap is a whole other high.


During my debt free journey, I knew I didn’t want to give up my love of adventure. There’s something about the anticipation of getting on a plane to a new destination. I always seem to find myself in a new situation, too. Sometimes you get drunk and agree to hop into a small fishing boat with your girlfriends and a few Puerto Rican men in the middle of the night. Sometimes you unknowingly get in line to jump off a cliff into a 50-degree river with your sister.

Leaping into the South Fork American River in El Dorado County, California. Holyyy frigid.

That’s the beauty of travel. Ya just never know what new memories you’ll make.

According to a Nielsen report, millennials travel more than any other generation and we’ll continue the trend as our incomes and financial standings grow. When I was paying off debt, I learned how to travel cheap. I simultaneously traveled to Colorado Springs, St. Louis, Pensacola, Daytona Beach, Lake Tahoe, and Puerto Rico. All of my trips were paid for in cash, and I was making an average of $1,200 monthly payments towards my debt! Here’s how I travel cheap (and how you can do it, too):

Prioritize your vacation wishlist

Write out all of the trips you want to take within the year and estimate how much your trip expenses will be. I usually break this down into the following categories:


Now, ask yourself, which vacation is the most realistic for you to save up for? Which vacation gets you the most excited? When you focus on just a few trips, you’re more likely to take the steps to make those vacay days a reality.

This is my trip wishlist for 2018 so I could travel cheap. I list all the places I want to visit and estimate costs associated. Noticed I used airline points for the Omaha trip (not exactly an exotic destination–friend’s wedding!).

Allocate a portion of your monthly budget towards a vacation fund

Open up a separate savings account for your cross-country adventures. Look at your monthly budget and figure out where you can cut expenses so you can start contributing monthly to a vacation fund. When you keep the money in a separate fund, you’re more likely to be motivated by how much is in the account.

Travel cheap with friends

The bulk of my travels were either to visit friends or traveling with friends, which helped cut costs tremendously. Instead of spending money on a hotel, stay with friends who live in cities you would like to visit. My best friend lived in Florida at the time, so I was able to crash on her couch which easily saved me $120/night in hotel expenses.

“Stay with friends who live in cities you would like to visit.”

Split accommodations whenever possible. My trip to Puerto Rico was so affordable because we split the cost of the room between four friends. We also opted for cheap AirBnBs as opposed to swanky 4-star hotels. Who wants luxury when you’re spending most of your time on the beach anyways?

The best way to learn how to travel cheap is to combine forces with friends. The AirBnB my friends and I stayed in during our stay in Guanica, Puerto Rico.

Reward yourself when you reach a debt payoff milestone

If you’re anything like me, you likely have multiple student loans. When you pay off one of those smaller debts, reward yourself with a trip. Using a vacation as a reward is going to motivate you to pay off debt that much quicker. I was able to get creative with my budget so I could throw extra money at my loans, and reward myself with a whitewater rafting adventure in Northern California with my family.
Sliding through the rapids on my way to debt freedom! Circa 2012.

Challenges with traveling while you’re in debt

It took a few attempts to get this system down correctly, so do what works best for you. It was challenging at first to try to come up with the cash if I saw a really good deal on a flight. You have to act on those quickly. A good way to prepare yourself for those deals is to take a portion of any tax refund or work bonus you might receive in the year and set aside in a vacation fund. For example, you could put 70% of your tax refund towards debt and 30% towards travel. I also had difficulty figuring out what trips I really wanted to go on, and the ones I had to say no to. By prioritizing my trip wish list, I could decline trips that didn’t benefit my travel bug. And a good day to you, sir!
Make traveling a part of your debt free journey with a budget spreadsheet.  It’s all in the Budget Toolkit.

Two things I would have done differently

Looking back, I would have tried to be more brand loyal to a particular airline to increase my frequent flyer points. I’m pretty brand loyal to Southwest Airlines now, which is actively working on direct flights from California to Hawaii this year (score!). Back in college though, I simply went with the cheapest airline. If you can fit a few days worth of clothes into a backpack, I highly suggest looking into Spirit Airlines. I once flew nonstop from San Diego to Baltimore for $72 one-way. That price doesn’t include bags or seat upgrades, but damn, what a deal! I would have also allocated more money towards entertainment and food. Booze, food and fun add up throughout the trip, so I would have researched local pricing a bit more prior to my travel dates. A great tool that I use now is Yelp. When you’re traveling cross-country, filter restaurants by hitting the filters icon > Sort by most reviewed. You can also choose the dollar amount you want to spend. Look for restaurants that have more than 1,000 reviews. That’s a sure bet that you’ll get a great restaurant experience.
Use these settings in Yelp when you want to find really good and affordable restaurants and bars.
Ready to travel AND pay off debt? If you haven’t checked out the Budget Toolkit yet, take a look here. It’s a great way for you to start budgeting towards that dream vacation this year! Have you traveled on the cheap while paying off debt? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from the community on whether it’s possible to have sand and sun in your debt free journey.