They taught me how to work, but they can't teach me how to shirk correctly.
November 29, 2010 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Is foreign travel out of my budget, or am I just not budgeting right?

I haven't traveled for pleasure since childhood. I've always dismissed trips abroad as being far out of my budget, but I keep seeing travel described as a vital and lifechanging activity. I would probably enjoy it. I would probably enjoy many other luxuries, too. Do other people just budget their money very differently? Would you still travel for pleasure given my financial situation?

Givens: I'm single, in my twenties, make about $40K, and live in a major US city. All told, adding up rent, basic utilities, groceries, health insurance, car insurance, gasoline, and student loan payments, I have about $1300 of non-negotiable expenses each month.

This leaves about $900 each month for discretionary expenses like take-out lunch with coworkers, cell phone payments (I'm on a per-minute plan, can't justify the expense of a regular plan), car repairs, new clothes, or books.

And, of course, saving for the future. I've seen a variety of budgeting strategies advocated: most would have me saving all of my rather meager leftover income (about $500 per month).

Now, I'm going to assume that a typical week-long trip might cost about $2,000–$3,000. That means that I would need to be very frugal and non-out-going indeed for 4–6 months to be able to take it. I find that degree of delayed gratification intimidating. There are many far cheaper things that I don't have that I would also enjoy owning: an iPod, a PS3, a smartphone, and so on.

I do get plenty of paid leave at work, and so far it's just piling up. There's got to be an affordable and satisfying way to use it.

  • people who will correct my assumptions about the expense of foreign travel for pleasure
  • fabulous tales of people who don't make much money and live on soda crackers and whey six months each year to finance their travel during the remaining time
  • other possible ways to use up my accumulating paid leave
  • people telling me not to give into social pressure and to make peace with staying put
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (46 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that I don't know anybody in your sort of income range who goes on these sorts of trips every 4-6 months. I think the only people I know who go on foreign trips with that frequency, even of those making markedly more than $40k, are doing so mostly for work and probably would not call it vital and lifechanging so much as seriously annoying and jetlag-inducing.

Given that airfare is such a big chunk of it, most of the people I know who do this kind of travel save up and go... maybe once every five years? In that sort of range, anyway. Usually for a couple weeks, not just one. You can use part of your paid leave for simple local trips or just staying home and catching up on the use of your PS3, for example, and then every couple years take the time off to go to Europe or wherever.

I would definitely still travel on that income--intend to myself when I get there--but it just does sadly have to be a delayed gratification thing. However, when you're delaying to that degree, you've got a lot more flexibility to buy smaller fun things like video games and books and nights out in the meantime.
posted by gracedissolved at 6:45 PM on November 29, 2010

If the delayed gratification doesn't work for you, try saving half of it and putting the rest on a credit card, paying it off over 2-3 months after you return. Sure you'll spend a bit more by the end of it, but it might make things easier.

Also, I think saving for the future is great, I do it whenever possible, but it's also important to live your life as well. What if you saved half of your trip and dipped into your savings for the other half? You probably won't regret it.
posted by milarepa at 6:46 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might want to start with nearby weekend trips or maybe take a trip to Vegas or Chicago or some other place in the US that interests you. These trips will be much cheaper than $2000 and you will still get the experience of travel. Then maybe expand your travel to other countries (Canada, Caribbean, Mexico) which are a bit faurther away and will cost a bit more, then head overseas to Europe or Asia or Central/South America. There are many travelers who could make the $2,000 last them for two months instead of two weeks...just depends on how you travel. I have dozens of favorite budget travel blogs that I read but this list should get you started.
posted by MsKim at 6:46 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

If, by chance, you're in DC, MeMail me -- I just spent a fabulous week in Istanbul for under $1250. That includes the flight.

And if you're not in DC, here's how I did it: by finding insanely cheap ticket sales, by staying in hostels, by not buying a million souvenirs, by touring (free) monuments, etc. You could do it even more cheaply if you did simple stuff like bringing a loaf of bread and some peanut butter instead of eating meals out.
posted by harperpitt at 6:48 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I travel a lot and always have for someone at my income level. At some point you're correct there's definitely a priorities thing going on here as far as what you want NOW versus what you might want in the future. My feeling is that foreign travel is totally within your range i fyou decide it's something you want to do. Here are some things to think about

1. Okay you act like you were hatched out of an egg today. Do you have no savings at this point?

2. Do you know anyone in another country [hey it's MetaFilter so of course you do] that you might want to stay with? I know this can be tough for introverts (and I don't know if you are one) but staying with a person instead of in a hotel can free up a lot of cash. Consider looking into the MeFi group at and seeing if there are any places you might like to go.

3. Do you have friends who might also like to travel? Having a plan with a buddy can really be a great motivator. You could take a regular deduction from your paycheck into a Christmas fund sort of thing and without even really noticing it you could have maybe $1500. Keep an eye on plane tickets to places you might like to go [ can do farewatching stuff and their explore feature is awesome] and strike while the prices are low. Consider traveling at off-times and you can get great savings on flights. It's also cheaper if you can share rooms and other expenses.

4. Consider staying closer to home and taking a trip somewhere in the US. Travel will be cheaper and you'll still have your eyes opened going to a place like coastal Alabama or Alaska or even somewhere in Canada. It's a lot cheaper to travel to places that aren't thought of as tourist destinations and depending on your tastes you may find them equally interesting. Think about the sorts of things you like doing on your vacations and where you might like to go. Start looking at books or reading websites and keep a bookmarks folder or a tag for "vacation" and start tossing things in there. Think of the places you've been dreaming about, what are they like?

Vacations can be all sorts of different things. I'll often go stay with people in other places, shop at the local grocery or go out once in a while but otherwise not, spend time on experiences [museums, transportation, photography] and sending postcards. Right now I could fly to Anchorage AK for $600 and stay there a week for $120/night more or less. $550 would get me to Costa Rica where I could easily stay for $90 night and feel like I was living large. For $690 I could fly to Prague and stay in a boat hotel for $50-ish a night. A Boat Hotel!

Additionally, I don't know what you do for work, but you should see if there are professional development opportunities [conferences, educational stuff] that might be applicable to you that you could maybe get work to pay for or obtain a grant for. It's a bit of a long shot, but worth looking into. Best of luck, with the sort of finances you have, this is something that you can do if you decide you'd like to do it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:50 PM on November 29, 2010 [10 favorites]

Obviously, the cost is going to depend on where you want to go. Get a Lonely Planet (or similar) guidebook that gives specific costs for rooms, hostels, transit fares, etc. Work out a figure from that and add 20% or so. Now get yourself a day planner and set your departure date, keep a running total of your bank balance, and cross off the expenses. When you've got the airfare saved, reserve your ticket. Cross off hotel costs and other expenses as you cover their cost. I just find that things get DONE when I break them down in a day planner.

If you plan on traveling to Europe or some other place far away, I'd really recommend going for 2 weeks at least. A week is just too short when you're recovering from jet lag and you're not used to orienting yourself in new environments.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:53 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why the focus on foreign travel? If you have a car, you could do a road trip every six months, sleep in the car or a tent, and live off clif bars and string cheese. And see amazing shit. I've been on something like 25 road trips out west, solo and with company, and I'm still not even remotely bored - always finding new stuff.
posted by notsnot at 6:55 PM on November 29, 2010

My sister and I spent a month backpacking around Eastern Europe and we spent maybe 1200 - 1500 each. Definitely no more than 2k for the entire month. This was staying in decent hostels, taking train rides, and a couple of commuter flights. We also ate at a restaurant for at least one meal per day. It depends where you go, but you should definitely be able to take a week long trip for $1000 and in my opinion it is well worth it.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 7:00 PM on November 29, 2010

I'm single, in my twenties

So you're young and not tied down for relationship or family reasons. This will not always be the case. Take advantage of it while you can.

This leaves about $900 each month for discretionary expenses like take-out lunch with coworkers

Whether or not it's with your coworkers, stop eating out. You'll be surprised how quickly you will save up if you stick to brown-bagging it and ramen dinners for a while.

I do get plenty of paid leave at work, and so far it's just piling up.

Holy shit, you're in your twenties and you managed to land a job where you get paid leave in THIS market? Stop wasting time online and start traveling!
posted by joedan at 7:00 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shop the travel companies, and you'll find deals, like a trip to Paris, with airfare and hotel, for 899(and up) for a week. You get breakfast at the hotel. You'll spend on some day trips, subway fares, and meals, but it's still not bad. You travel in the off season, which means days are shorter and it's cold, but it's also less crowded. Plan 1 trip and see how it feels. I saw someone I know working retail, in addition to her day job, and she said it was to pay for a trip to Italy. Travel is really fun and does change the way you see the world, probably especially so if you travel on the cheap.
posted by theora55 at 7:01 PM on November 29, 2010

You could "go abroad" in the sense of Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Central America for a week for cheaper than that-- much cheaper depending on where in the US you live.

That said, I think that unless you're earning lots of miles on a credit card rewards program, your $2000- $3000 figure is about right as a minimum for Europe. Once you're there you can definitely do it on the cheap (buy food at grocery stores rather than restaurants, stay at hostels, WWOOF, use public transportation, etc.) but I think flights are going to eat up half of a budget like that right away. Looking at a random date in February, for example, a round trip flight from NYC to Paris is about $1100.

That said, why not explore this part of the world (meaning the western hemisphere) until you're at a point in your life when you're making more money? $2000 can go pretty far in Costa Rica, Mexico, or Belize. The New York Times has a series of articles ( about a guy travelling from Brazil to NYC on $500 a week. It's definitely not luxury travel, but it goes to show how much your money is worth in that part of the world.

(I am a travel agent, I am not your travel agent...)

Oh, and other ways to use up your paid leave? Volunteer, go on a road trip, do home improvement/ craft type projects, take a bunch of three day weekends, go camping...)
posted by jschu at 7:01 PM on November 29, 2010

I was in your shoes from 2007 until this year (now I'm an even broker grad student), and managed to go on a couple of trips like the ones you're considering. The trick for me was this: Sign up to receive the special deal emails from all the travel websites (expedia, orbitz, kayak, etc.). Be flexible with your timing and your destinations. When you get an email about a great deal on airfare, jump on it. (I flew from NYC to Honolulu in January for about $300 round trip, because I booked the flight in July, immediately after receiving an email about the fare sale.)

Ideally, you have a couple of friends who you can do this with. If you can share an apartment on VRBO, in many European cities you can pay hostel prices and have a much nicer home base, with a kitchen to boot, where you can cook many of your meals, saving even more money!
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:08 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Now, I'm going to assume that a typical week-long trip might cost about $2,000–$3,000.

It really varies depending on where you go and how you travel. It's not unheard of to get a flight to Europe or to South America for $500-$600. It's also not unheard of to spend closer to $1,000, but in any event, airfare can be the most expensive part of the trip.

If you want to stay at a hotel, traveling with a friend can be a good way to cut that expense in half. Hostels are also an inexpensive option.

If I had your budget, I would shoot for one trip a year. Keep in mind it doesn't have to be a full week -- four days in Panama or Colombia? Five in Greece or Iceland? I really think you can do this for substantially less than a $2000-$3000 trip. I would try to find a cheap flight and then book everything around that.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:16 PM on November 29, 2010

Personally, I think "life changing" travel has to be much longer than a week -- at least three weeks, and preferably months. Anything a week long is just a "vacation." And no, a $2000 vacation is not really prudent for someone in your income bracket -- unless, as you note, you manage to deprive yourself for many months. And geez, don't put a vacation your credit card either!

Here's the way people in your bracket really travel for a lengthy period: by quitting their job, getting laid off, or taking a leave. That way, the money you would otherwise pay for rent goes for travel. Then you go travel for months in places you can live more cheaply than at homee Obviously you have to be comfortable with some financial instability when you get back, but people who travel this way think it's worth it. (And are often the types to be able to go crash with friends and land on their feet finding new work.)

The other way to travel is to work abroad teaching English. You won't be able to save up much, but you'll get out of the US.
posted by mrs. sock at 7:27 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The flight is a big chunk of the cost, but it depends also a lot on where you fly to. Flights to London and Paris are obviously always more. But if you don't care what medium-to-large European city you fly into, you can obviously do really well. And you find hostels and relatively cheap accomodations everywhere. The hostel in London I stayed at was, admittedly about 20 pounds per person in a four person room (which was high when we were looking) but lots of things you do in London are free (museums, etc).
posted by R343L at 7:28 PM on November 29, 2010

Subscribe to Budget Travel. I love this magazine so much. It costs like $11/year and it is chock full of deals and great ideas, including how and where to get the best bang for your travel buck. In addition to their excellent articles, they also publish "deals" sections for packages all around the world, sometimes at quite astonishing rates. A few years ago I got my honeymoon -- RT tickets to Bali with five nights at a 5 star resort - for $900 apiece.

Exchange rates have made Europe terrible for the last several years, as far as value goes. I would look at places in this hemisphere. Take a look at the Riviera Maya south of Cancun. Cancun gets lots of cheap international flights - at the airport just rent a car and you are conveniently located to some fantastic, cheap spots, including the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum; diving and snorkeling at Cozumel; cenote snorkeling (through underground freshwater streams with stalactites); chill beaches; etc. Lodging of every category abounds, from beachy palapa huts to giant resorts which can be quite affordable since the rates often include food.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:31 PM on November 29, 2010

If I can travel internationally on a graduate student budget, you can travel on your budget! It all just depends on how creative you can be. Also, you have an advantage: because you actually have paid leave, you can travel on off-peak times. February, October: Relatively inexpensive compared to other months.

Let's pretend you live in Chicago, want to visit Copenhagen. Here's a plan for you with a budget of $1000:

Flight: A search on hipmunk shows that you can buy a ticket for a week-long trip for $657. That's the equivalent of one month of 1. packing a lunch every day instead of going out with co-workers 2. not buying books or clothes and 3. not chatting on the phone too much. You're still left with $243 discretionary income for that month to lunch/phone/car/whatever.

Hotel: Don't get a hotel. Use to find a person to stay with. You'll save money, meet people, and have a much richer experience because you'll feel more fully immersed in the culture. So, lodging expenses = $0. (If that's too adventurous for you, use AirBnb. Here is a place in Copenhagen which would cost you $254 for a week)

So, your non-negotiable expenses are $657 (or $911 if you do AirBnb, but ignore that aside for now). That means that you have $343 left over for fun during the week. That's around $50/day.

To keep within that budget: Rent a bike to explore the city, which is a fairly low-cost activity and usually less expensive than public transit. Look at buildings! Go see quirky "attractions" (in Copenhagen this and this are free). Buy cheap food at local supermarkets/corner stores (this is fun! local brands! local beer! local culinary oddities!). Go to local bars with your couchsurfing host and meet and talk to people. Don't go shopping. Don't focus on bringing back souvenirs. Google or ask metafilter for "budget" fun in Copenhagen/whatever city. Go on a photo scavenger hunt.

All of this and more, for the cost of saving for two months. And in those two months, don't think of it as "delayed gratification" per se. Some of the gratification comes from planning the actual trip, researching places to visit, etc. Other budgeting idea if you want to be semi-risk taking: Open a credit card that has 0% APR for 6 months or so. Pay for airfare with that and then gradually pay it off.

At the end of the day, it all really depends on what your standards and priorities are for life/travel. Honestly, in your non-negotiable expenses, you could probably spend less on groceries (note: I don't know your situation, but the cheapest diet ever is rice, dried beans, and in-season vegetables with a rotating cast of spices. It's super healthy, and you can do this for less than $100/month), and if the city you're in has decent public transit, get rid of your car. That would eliminate a few major expenses.
posted by three bear minimum at 7:32 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

My discretionary incomes is significantly less than yours, and I've traveled to Europe twice in the last 4 years and plan to again summer 2012 for 2+ weeks. I also don't particularly aim to save for travel, it just kinda happens. Anyways, There are a few keys where you can drastically lower your 2-3k expectation:

a) Travel time of the year. I've gone overseas during periods where both my flights costs $600 or less, sometime between Thanksgiving and New Years. Consider that depending on when you travel, airfare can easy be $100s more.

b) Lodging. Staying in Rome, I had the advantage of staying in a convent for free. In the UK, I stayed in hostels. When you consider lodging a necessary expense, that's a good and easy place to save money. While you may not have a choice to stay someplace for free, you certainly have a choice in staying in a hostel less than $50 versus a hotel for greater than $100. While it may not sound like much for a singular night, it surely adds up over a week!

c) Food. In UK, I was all about eating off the street vendors and cooking in at the hostel. "Real" restaurants are not cheap! If you drink, also consider where & how you spend the money. Our idea of fun was drinking a 2 liter of Strongbow for a few Euros (damn, I miss being able to get that at the store!) at the hostel instead of going to the bar and laying down quite a bit more. This is probably more apt if you're staying in a hostel- I was more than able to get my fair share of local & international mingling when I stayed in at the hostel and hung out. I can much easier going to bars and clubs staying in a hotel where the atmosphere isn't social.

d) How much "see the sites" money were you considering in your budget? When I traveled, I didn't spend much time at the tours and indoorsy things since they tend to cost money (ie, museums depending, tours, etc). Rather, I was outdoors most of the time, where gallivanting around time and taking all the pictures you want is free! The nice thing about Europe is a lot of cities are convenient for tourists to just walk around and soak in the sights.

Point is, I think your budget is on the higher end- it considers flying during prime time, eating out, staying in hotels instead of hostels, paid site-seeing, etc. You don't necessarily need to lower your budget everywhere, but a few spots certainly help.
posted by jmd82 at 7:33 PM on November 29, 2010

First of all, anything is possible if you just want it badly enough!

For me, $2000-3000 would probably last a month rather a week, since I would choose to go to cheap places. It's all depending on what level of convenience you are looking for. First of all, use to get a feeling about how much air-travel costs. The decide what you see yourself do. Backpacking or nice hotels? Maybe stay with people you know?

If backpacking and adventure what you want to do, then I would suggest Central America. You can fly to Mexico or Guatemala for about $500, and then just take buses to get around. Don't know Spanish? Take immersion classes in Antigua! It's an amazing experience and only cost about $200/week including housing with a family. The area is beautiful, people are friendly and you will have a life-changing experience. Just be smart about what you are doing and remember you are in a third-world country.
posted by brorfred at 7:33 PM on November 29, 2010

Oh, also -- my friends who love to travel are happily thrifty. They would not be spending money on takeout lunch, new clothes, or PS2s, but would still have plenty of fun having barbecues and going hiking. So it's not like they're living miserably while saving up: They enjoy focusing on experiences rather than things. This correlates to their enjoyment of traveling on the cheap, staying in hostels, etc.
posted by mrs. sock at 7:35 PM on November 29, 2010

It really depends where you want to go, and for how long. When you go and how you travel are also factors.

If you want to spend a week or two in a major European city during the summer, and you want to stay in a 4-star hotel right in the heart of said city? Yes, you will pay thousands of dollars. And it gets much more expensive if you want to cover a lot of ground in that time.

But I spent a lot less than that to spend a month in Peru last spring - and that was in the high season, and while I definitely roughed it, I was also able to spend the ~$200 it costs just to go to Macchu Picchu.

It is cheaper to travel in developing countries than affluent ones. It is cheaper to travel slowly than to hop from major city to major city. It is cheaper to stay in hostels, and even cheaper than that to live a little closer to the local lifestyle. I stayed in a palm hut with minimal electricity and no indoor plumbing on a beach in rural India for like $10 a night.

Doing as the locals do is also a big money saver. A friend came home from a week in Paris bummed at the astronomical price of whiskey - the first few days, he'd blown his budget drinking, and then he spent the rest of the trip abstaining. He could have had house wine cheaper than a soda, but he didn't know enough about French culture to know that it's a wine drinking culture and whiskey is an exotic luxury.

At the end of the day, though, if gadgets and toys are more important to you than travel, c'est la vie. There's nothing wrong with not being into travel, or with waiting until you're retired to see the places that interest you.
posted by Sara C. at 7:44 PM on November 29, 2010

You may want to look into package travel too (the flight + hotel + some tours) - they buy in bulk and generally have decent prices. You should also look into student travel, some allow discounts for age up to the late 20s. Here's one I've used in the past STA , I haven't used them for quite some time though.
posted by cestmoi15 at 7:53 PM on November 29, 2010

I'll also add that, yep, a lot of the savings is via budgeting. I have roommates. I don't have cable. Until recently I didn't use a smartphone. I don't go out much, don't shop often, don't have a weakness for new toys.

Another important distinction - I love to travel, but so far I've averaged a major international trip every couple years. This year might be a little different, as I have a good friend living in Rome and am facing a big milestone birthday; so it's possible that I could swing a short trip in the low season. The operative words being "short trip" and "off season" - and that's without the expense of lodgings.
posted by Sara C. at 7:53 PM on November 29, 2010

I travel internationally, but I don't do it twice a year - closer to once every two years. Of course, I make travel of all kinds (both international and domestic) a spending priority. I pack a brown bag 4 days a week (usually left-overs) and I don't go out with coworkers.

If you save 100 a month for 2 years, that's $2400 - my international trips rarely cost that much.
posted by muddgirl at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2010

Looking at a random date in February, for example, a round trip flight from NYC to Paris is about $1100.

I just did the same on kayak and got around $600. So YMMV.
posted by Sara C. at 8:08 PM on November 29, 2010

In addition to the cheap tickets mentioned above, I've seen some hostels / backpackers accomodation allow travellers to do work (cleaning and washing mostly) in exchange for free accomodation (and maybe food). This was in new zealand.
posted by xdvesper at 8:19 PM on November 29, 2010

Your financial situation sounds very similar to mine. Here is what I have found helpful: I use a percentage-based budget system. There are several around; I like the one by Gail Vaz-Oxlade, who has a TV show, because she has you budget using only 85% of your income. The rest goes into a slush fund for debt repayment, and once your debt is paid off, for longer-term goals. So, to give you an example of my own situation, I am spending 45% on housing and transportation combined (she recommends 35% housing and 15% transportation, but I have no car so I can do this a little more cheaply) and 15% on savings/retirement. 25% goes to 'life' which includes cell phone, food, netflix membership, going out with friends etc. That's about $600 right there, and it's easy to skim $100 off it into a trip fund. Then borrow another $150 from the 15% goal fund, and that's $500 every two months, and I still have over $500 a month left for 'life' and $300 left per month in the goals fund.
posted by JoannaC at 8:27 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something to look at would be traveling less often, for longer. So you're getting two weeks a year and thinking "one week abroad every six months" but it could just as easily be (in fact for many people seems to be) "three weeks abroad every two years, with an extra week for a road trip to my friend's wedding" or "a month every two years". I much prefer a longer trip (and not only because jet lag steals a day), since spending a week seeing the tourist sights is both more expensive and less deeply affecting than spending a month getting a favorite local hangout, making friends, getting a haircut locally, celebrating local holidays, etc.

I'm also a fan of Travelzoo - they send out big sale alerts and do a pretty good job finding great prices on things. You just have to be able to jump on the alert right away when it comes out - which 'single and young' makes a lot easier than it could be.
posted by Lady Li at 8:32 PM on November 29, 2010

When I was single in my 20s, making $27-40k, living in a major US city I went on a 3 week foreign international trip every year while saving money for and going on two around-the-world trips before I turned 30.

How did I do it? Well, first off I had no student debt. I went to a state school, had scholarships and my parents picked up the small amount left. I realize this puts me ahead in the game. I'm also a saver and did not spend money on eating out, coffee, etc. I drove a 20 year-old car with a leaky roof. I did not have a cell phone. Finally, here's a major key—I lived with my parents for 5 years after finishing college.

I know, I know, no one wants to live at home for that long or drive a beater or skip lunches out with friends. But that's how I saved and how I've made it to 50 countries by 33. Its about priorities.

And, of course, saving for the future.
Compound interest is important. I was able to put in the maximum into a Roth IRA during my savings.

Now, I'm going to assume that a typical week-long trip might cost about $2,000–$3,000.
You would assume wrong. The major cost of any foreign trip is the airfare. After that you can exist very cheaply. I remember as a college student studying abroad I would stay in a hostel and take a roll and slice of meat from the hostel's free breakfast and eat that for lunch. Traveling in much of the world, especially Asia, is really affordable. I have published all of my expenses online—I don't like to self-link so if you're interested memail me and I'll send the address.

I do get plenty of paid leave at work, and so far it's just piling up. There's got to be an affordable and satisfying way to use it.
Its my firm belief that you need at least 3 weeks to get out of your old life and enjoy yourself. The first week you're still stressed and your head is back home. The second week you start to get used to traveling, the language etc. and start to slow down. The third week you are finally relaxed enough to enjoy yourself. Ideally, I find 3 months a great length for travel—you have plenty of time to explore but its not so long that you start to burn out. I've traveled for up to 14 months in one go, alone.

The other key to international travel is taking more time, not less. If you're spending $1k+ on a flight to Bangkok and you only stay in Asia for 2 weeks your daily cost is very high. If, however, you stay for 4 weeks that flight starts to spread itself out and you realize that while you might have spent $1,400 for 2 weeks in Thailand you can spend $1,850 for 4 weeks in Thailand because once you get there a cheap room and street food is cheap. Those numbers aren't accurate, but you get my point.

People hear my story and they say things like "it must be nice to be rich." I'm not rich, I am just very, very cheap. I'm good at saving money by denying myself a lot of things that other people take for granted. Can you enroll in a higher deductible healthcare plan? Sell your car and take public transport? Not eat out at all? Get a roommate? Sell possessions that you really don't need? Shop for all of your clothes at thrift stores?
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:52 PM on November 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

Isn't travel part of what that $500 of savings a month is for? "Savings" is not necessarily money you put in a bank account and don't see again until you're buying a house, or writing checks to your kid's university, or whatever. Savings is just money that you're setting aside to use later instead of right now. Of course, you should have an emergency fund, you should be contributing to retirement every year, etc. - but if you've got a few months of emergency funds stashed away, and you're saving $6000 a year, well, heck, put a few thousand away in a retirement account, keep some on hand, and use the rest for travel. If you want to.

As others have covered, an international trip can also be much less than $3000 if you play your cards right: hunt for cheap airfares, aim for cheap countries and/or the off-season, don't do luxury hotels and meals, etc. Frugal travel is totally a thing and it can actually be kind of an addicting game to hunt down the best deal. A week of France for $1500 might be kinda bare bones, but a week of Vietnam on $1500 will get you a lot.

Other than that, there are a lot of ways to trim your budget without depriving yourself. Just buy something small, like an appetizer, when you go out with friends; fortify yourself with cheap packed meals or meal at home. Skip the soda or beer. Get more books from the library instead of the bookstore. Don't buy a lot of new clothes.

I mean, it's true - you have to pick and choose what's important to you, financially. I probably spend about $100 on new clothes per year at the most, and I don't have a smart phone or an XBox, but I have mad savings (and also a very full, happy social life). I try not to buy a lot of stuff because travel is more important to me. What I'm saying is, prioritize, whatever your priorities are. Why not use some of your savings, take a sweet trip, and then decide if it was sweet enough to cut back your spending to do again? If you decide the answer is no, it's not like there's a shortage of great domestic travel opportunities.
posted by mandanza at 9:03 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, I make about 43,000 a year. I have student debt and bills and all that jazz. In 2008 I traveled to Paris, and then to Amsterdam. In 2009 I traveled to Prague and to the Scottish highlands.

The most expensive part is the airfare. In 2008 I couchsurfed, and in 2009 I shared a hotel room with a friend.

I would say each of the trips, when all was said and done, cost less than 2,000. Each trip was about 9 days.
posted by Windigo at 9:11 PM on November 29, 2010

Remember that if you have paid leave, you will be getting paid while you travel! I just took My First Paid Leave Holiday, and didn't bite into my savings nearly as much as I had expected.

For the two weeks you spend away, you will be free from the food (both grocery and eating out), transportation (ie. gas), phone, and other miscellaneous expenses that are part of your usual budget. So if you travel for two weeks, you can immediately add at least $450 (half of your month's discretionary expenses) to your travel savings! As you can see above, that could cover over half a flight, or you could stay for two whole weeks at $30/night hostels. Paid leave is GREAT.
posted by equivocator at 9:34 PM on November 29, 2010

You could do it even more cheaply if you did simple stuff like bringing a loaf of bread and some peanut butter instead of eating meals out.

In my opinion, unless you are in an area where the food is largely unremarkable or expensive, it is always worth it to splurge on food when traveling. Food is one of those unique parts of the travel experience.

That said, definitely skip one sit-down lunch in favor of going to a local supermarket (or market, if they don't have supermarkets) to experience what it is like to purchase local grocery items. Also, if you can buy "safe" produce (fruit with a skin) or can wash the fruit with safe water, definitely get produce at the supermarket.

In my experience, even mid-range locations can be enjoyed for much less than $2-3k/week. Most locations in the Middle East and Asia (apart from Japan) will cost that much or less. And in many of these locations, the hostels will actually offer accommodations which are as nice or better than business hotels.

Also, sometimes travel is even worth going into a tiny amount of debt (BRIEFLY!). I've traveled a lot and it will put a balance on my credit card which I'm later able to pay off. I've never regretted it.

For your first trip you'll want to go somewhere fairly remarkable and memorable, but also "easy". Don't hurl yourself directly into the most difficult destinations. Turkey isn't a bad choice, actually. The people are incredibly friendly, many many people speak English, and the tourist infrastructure is there.

Conversely, I'd strongly recommend against, say, Siberia. I traveled there after having gone to a number of countries, and I found it really difficult. It's difficult to get around unless you speak Russian, the food options are kinda lousy, and Russia is crazy in terms of visas, etc. In fact, I'd definitely recommend choosing a country that does not require a visa prior to travel. Most don't; China and Russia both do, and the Russian visa is a pain (unless they've seriously revamped their visa process).
posted by Deathalicious at 11:07 PM on November 29, 2010

A lot of this advice has been around how to do things with your current work situation. I'm not sure how extreme you are willing to take things and how much you like your job, but my girlfriend has a friend who travels extensively around the globe to some pretty remote places (India, the Amazon, etc.) and GETS PAID TO DO IT.

How? She got a job volunteering for one of those 3rd world aid groups and after doing it enough got hired to lead the trips. Of course she got paid pennies and now has limited career options now that she's settled back home, but hey, its all about priorities--you need to figure out what yours are.
posted by Elminster24 at 11:19 PM on November 29, 2010

I recommend digging through the forums over at The site itself is a bit dead these days but the archives are a treasure of travel knowledge that I mined while planning my one year trip. There are lots of threads on saving money in the context of jobs that don't pay very well, how much things cost while traveling, sample budgets, etc.

Budget wise, I mean, I spent $1k a month in India and $2k a month in SE Asia, and I wasn't trying particularly hard to be frugal.

Bunglegirl's post is spot on. Try to do at least a three to six month trip at some point in your 20s. When I took off on my trip the first two months felt like a regular vacation, then things took a turn for the amazing, and my life was significantly altered for the better as a result.
posted by MillMan at 12:50 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

While making less than $30K a year during my 20s, I took a big trip (from the USA abroad) every 18 months or so: Nicaragua, England/France, Colombia, Australia, and Austria/Germany. It is possible, and you don't need to quit your job for 2 or 3 months if that isn't feasible (but I do think that would be fun if you can swing it).

Some tips:
1. Put away $100-$200 in your vacation fund.
2. If possible, go somewhere you have a free place to stay, perhaps with a friend working or studying abroad? If not, stay in hostels.
3. Don't rent a car and eat cheaply (a lot of bread, peanut butter, and bananas).
4. Only go when you can get a great deal on a flight- buy your flight several months in advance and the money you save up after that will go towards your in-country expenses. Europe is much more expensive than Central or South America.

Sure, I lived in a crappy apartment, didn't own any nice electronics, and didn't do much (cough...any) saving for the future. But I really enjoyed those trips I took and would do it all again in a heartbeat.
There's no reason for you not to travel abroad. Go for it!
posted by emd3737 at 2:34 AM on November 30, 2010

oops, I meant put away $100-$200 per month!
posted by emd3737 at 2:34 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

People hear my story and they say things like "it must be nice to be rich." I'm not rich, I am just very, very cheap.

Yes and no. When I had a lower salary, I still managed to travel at least twice a year, spending about a month in total. No car was obvious. Living in an apartment that cost far lower than the rent I could actually afford was another. But I have never skimped on eating out, not that I eat at fancy places, but I do enjoy dinner and drinks out at least once a week. To do this I brown bag at lunch. I also travel with a partner, which can be either cheaper or more expensive - on my solo travels I often eat in with findings from the local supermarket, I don't do this with my partner but on the flip side the hotel bill is cheaper.

I don't have a set budget for travel, but instead pull out of my main savings. After a few trips, the miles will add up - I've had free flights to China and Singapore.

I don't have a nest egg, or a down payment for a mortgage, but I have enjoyed my travels a lot, and am now in the lucky/unfortunate position of being paid to travel 12+ times a year and truly get my fill of new destinations now. Conferences were my gateway to this.
posted by wingless_angel at 4:11 AM on November 30, 2010

You can find plenty of foreign travel deals that are as cheap as flying within the US. I once flew on an extended weekend trip to Amsterdam for about $400 which included a room and expenses. I recommend getting on the email lists from airlines to find last minute flight deals. You can fly very reasonably and just stay at a cheap hotel/hostel.
posted by JJ86 at 6:15 AM on November 30, 2010

I've always travelled, and I've always been broke. The way I do it is to travel rather than go on holiday - not in the pretentious competitive way (I hope), but going to live and work in another country for a year or so, then come back home and work for another year or so and save up to go off again. It's about the only way it's affordable unless you're earning loads, I think. At the minute I'm on a nine month contract in a fairly well paid job and am planning to go to Thailand for six months after that finishes at the end of March. I won't have loads of money so I'm getting an open-dated return fllight though just in case I run out.

Another option is getting a job overseas and saving up at the same time - eg, I'm thinking of teaching for a year in Taiwan or Indonesia after six months' holiday in Thailand, saving up, then taking another six months or longer off in Thailand again or Cambodia.

But this might not be your thing. If you do want to holiday - and that's cool, it can get quite tedious living out of a backpack - the advice above to cut down on your everyday spending is good. A lot of my friends are envious when I take off again and say they'd love to do it - but they have the nice house and the nice things, widescreen TV, car etc. I'd love all that too but it's either/or for me, and a nice house and big TV just wouldn't make me happy if that's where all my money was going. Downsize and save, then go to cheaper countries, and it's possible.
posted by mudkicker at 8:39 AM on November 30, 2010

I HIGHLY recommend reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. It answers your question exactly, gives advice, and inspires.
posted by la_rousse at 9:47 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

if you like cycling, and dont mind getting stinky for a few days, just hop on a bike and go with a tent strapped to the back. I did this for a few months around europe, I'd been unemployed for a while so couldnt afford hostels even, but there's always a secluded spot to pitch a tent, even in cities. Combine this with a guitar/tin whistle, and you have an inome of around $1-10 per hour which will feed you every day. If you dont get killed by traffic or robbed, you'll have a positive lifechanging experience and meet some wonderful wonderful people.
posted by jcwilliams at 12:10 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

jcwilliams' tips, plus an arrangement with a hostel that will allow you to stay for free by working in the hostel, could make for an extremely cheap but incredibly cool adventure.

Re the hostel working arrangement - if you want to travel around a lot, try to hook up with a mini-chain that has hostels in various cities around a particular country or region. You can then hop from hostel to hostel all over the country, working your way around without having to make a separate deal with each place.
posted by Sara C. at 12:24 PM on November 30, 2010

The thing is, travel abroad (especially interesting travel) abroad often involves quite an expensive flight. Meaning that the best economies are obtained by travelling less frequently for longer trips. For $2K you can easily have a couple of weeks in amazing (and exotic locations) - think Bolivia, India, Cambodia, etc. It would be simple to make those two weeks turn into a month if you want to be a little thrifty or drop another $500. A trip like that should be plenty exciting to look forward to for 6 months. Once you've spent $1000K+ on an international flight, you'll be amazed how far the rest of your dollars will go.
posted by turkeyphant at 1:10 PM on November 30, 2010

If the cost of flights is the source of your sticker shock, travel in Central or South America. You're anonymous for some reason, so I can't assume which major US city you live in. But my flight from New York to Lima last spring was under $500. Prices are similar (using Kayak Explore), if not even cheaper, from LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas to anywhere in Central America and the northerly parts of South America.

Example trip: if you happen to live in Dallas, you could fly round trip to Costa Rica for $300. A quick search on for various places in Costa Rica comes up with about $20 for a dorm bed in a hostel, on average. You could have a flight and ten nights in a hostel for $500, without even really shopping around. Another $500 would probably have you sorted for food and drinks, snorkeling, jet ski rental, and the like. That's a 10 day international trip for the price of a new laptop. And since you have paid vacation days, you'd be getting paid to drink cervezas on the beach. If you tried to be thrifty at all, you could probably save money.
posted by Sara C. at 2:03 PM on November 30, 2010

You've gotten a lot of good info on travel deals and strategies. I would also look at that 400(!) extra dollars and track it more closely for 2 or 3 months. Even if you only cut that by half you'd have enough for the trip in a year- and you'd still have more discretionary income during that "frugal" time than many, many people. You might find that a lot of the money is going out the window in small ways that you can cut with minimal pain and inconvenience.
posted by ninekinds at 5:00 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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