The Truth About Affording Travel: Six Crucial Steps

Some people tell stories about moving to New York with $20 in their pocket. Not me. When I moved to New York, I had $7,000 saved up. I figured I could last six months on it, if I was careful. Three months and over a hundred cover letters later, I got a part-time job. It paid about $300, every two weeks - not even enough to cover rent.

The thing no one tells you about being poor is how time-consuming it is.

You have to plan out every minute detail of your day, because if something goes wrong, you can't afford to fix it. You design every menu carefully, balancing what's on sale with what will last, and making sure no food is wasted. You lay out a week's wardrobe in advance because it's supposed to rain on Wednesday and you don't have enough money to do an extra load of laundry. You check your bag twice before heading out the door, making sure you grabbed your work shoes, because you can only afford to take the bus one way and the office dress code doesn't allow sneakers. These things sound minor, maybe even ordinary - the difference, when you're poor, is the constant threat of what will happen when you do, inevitably, mess up.

This is your reality. And one afternoon, you sit down for a few precious minutes and check your favorite blogs (reminder: in 21st century America, the internet is not a luxury) and you read that you can save for travel by "cutting down on Starbucks". Three-dollar cups of coffee? Three dollars was your entire food budget for the day, between ramen at lunch and Mickey Ds for dinner. Suddenly, that blog feels farther removed from your personal experience than pictures posted from Bhutan the previous week.

My precious 7K, along with my tiny paycheck and a few crucial freelance jobs, stretched out to cover 21 months. In October of 2012, just as I was scraping the bottom of my savings account, I found a "real" job. It was still part-time, with no benefits, but it was better paying and gave me more hours than the last. 2013 was huge for me - for the first time in my life, I came close to making 18K. I was able to live comfortably and even afford a trip to Egypt, but I also forwent health insurance and wasn't all that far removed from the poverty line.

So how, on this budget, did I manage to take a month-long trip to Brazil and Argentina ? Let me say what few bloggers ever will - while it was true I'd been saving every penny I could for the past four years, my being able to go to South America was completely down to my parents. Along with the 7K I'd saved to move to New York, I'd put away 3K more by living with my parents and not paying rent. I also put any cash gifts I received from family during that time in my savings account. Knowing my goal and being supportive of it, Mom and Dad contributed frequently. To top it all off, when they sold "my" car - really their old car that they'd given to me - they gave me the profits.

By American standards (and admittedly, this post is very USA-centric) my parents are not rich. They are middle-class, frugal, and hard-working. There are things I could change about myself to become more like them and less of a moocher (a stronger work ethic and a more practical degree, for starters), but in all my guilty honesty, here are six incredibly vital things I've discovered you need in order to afford travel:

6) Have a safety net
Whether it's having a supportive family who will let you move in with them when you fall on your face, or a financial buffer you've built for yourself, having something to cushion the blow when the unexpected happens is important.

5) Don't have kids
In fact, don't have anyone who depends on you for their well-being - it's a great way to save both time and money! Truthfully, there are plenty of people who travel with kids, but I bet most of them have the other points on this list squared away.

4) Have little to no debt
Several of the other things on this list can directly affect your ability to achieve this one. Sometimes, going into debt is a choice (or a bad choice, hey-o), but other times, it's close to unavoidable. Try to make good choices and be lucky at the same time.

3) Be healthy and fully-abled
Health crises or disabilities limit your ability to travel, both physically and financially. Unfortunately, this point is largely determined by luck - a few renegade cells or the cost/availability of health care in your home country can make a world of difference.

2) Have a sense of entitlement
I'm looking at this point in the most cynical way possible - I could also phrase this as "having a positive mindset". Believing that you deserve to travel makes it more likely that you will ignore any of the other obstacles on this list and just go for it. That said - setting goals and prioritizing = good, getting a credit card and maxing it out = not so good.

1) Make money

The vast majority of people writing articles on how to afford travel have one thing in common - they worked very hard to get where they are. They are smart - either smart enough to qualify for a well-paying job that allows them to save, or savvy enough to create other streams of revenue. Sure, some of them have more help than others (and some are better at acknowledging it than others), but the most successful bloggers hustle like nobody's business, regardless of where they started.

In conclusion... if we're being completely honest, affording travel is a mix of factors you can control, and ones you can't. Much like anything in life, being able to travel is down to a combination of hard work, smart choices, and luck. Some people will require more work, or better choices, or more luck, than others. (Privilege, yay.) :/

And finally, for some people, affording travel is basically impossible - I feel like this gets dismissed or left out of the conversation a lot. If you're in this boat and your current situation is one that can be changed, try your hardest to change it. Italy, or Thailand, or Australia will still be here in a few years. Do your best to adhere to the six things above. Hopefully life will throw you a bone - and $165 for a passport.

Or to put it in other terms, "only 58 Tall Caffe Lattes!"


  1. I appreciate the honesty in your post about how you've been able to afford to travel - it's refreshing to read. I'm amazed by how much time you managed to make that money last in New York.That must have been incredibly difficult.

    If one person recommends cutting down on buying little things like coffee though, that might be one of the things that's worked for them (we don't often notice how much the small things add up). I think our lifestyles and priorities dictate what it is we have to sacrifice to do other things for love. For me, that meant not doing very much last year so I could save up and travel more this year. I think it's good to read ideas from different people to see how they do it.

  2. Hi Gemma - thank you so much! I completely agree that getting many different perspectives helps. I don't mean to disparage or disregard people who do have disposable income (I'm at a place where I can buy the occasional coffee now myself). I just feel that most posts of this nature are aimed at people in that category - I see Starbucks and gym memberships listed on almost every list - and wanted to offer something a little different. :)


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