How to travel around the world for cheap

How to travel around the world for cheap

You're jealous of my world travel and you're thinking, Alicia, I can't afford that! Well you're right and you're wrong. Not everyone can afford to travel around the world so let's cut the bull before we begin, travel is a luxury even if the hostel smells of urine and the toilet stopped flushing two days ago. And if you've got an American, Canadian, Eurozone, or Australian passport then that little book is a greater luxury than an American Express Centurion card and accepted at more places around the world than Visa. So, with the reality check don't have to be a millionaire to travel around the world!  

If you read The Points Guy or Nomadic Matt or a million other sites I don't read, then my guess is you often see the same advice on how to travel around the world for cheap:

  1. Open a shit load of credit cards.
  2. Spend the minimum.
  3. Get the points.
  4. Cancel the cards.
  5. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. 

I'm not really game to have so many lines of inquiry on my credit history and more over I'm nervous about have that much credit. I made a friend on my trip, however, who has done that over the years and she now has over 2 million miles (!!) across a variety of airlines. That approach takes discipline, which she has, to ensure you only spend what you need, pay off the bills, and close the cards at the right time. 

Before I left for my trip I focused generally on the "rack up miles" approach to reducing the cost of travel. I opened a Chase Sapphire Reserve back when they were offering 100,000 bonus points. I shopped through the Chase / American / United shopping portals. Of course I also followed a lot of general good budgeting advice too. If you're looking for some actually decent advice on saving $40,000 CAD/year (for a couple) check out the folks over at Goats on the Road.

Here I'll give you my five simple tips to accrue airline (or hotel) points to help you jetset to your dream destinations in no time. Of course, once you're on the road you know you can save by staying in hostels over hotels, couchsurfing over private airbnbs, not eating over eating, etc. etc.. But you already know these. So I have five simple other tips that honestly eluded me for a while into my trip! I'm sharing these so you know now before you go. 

Need some gold? Tibet's Jokhang Temple seems to have more gold than the entire country.

Need some gold? Tibet's Jokhang Temple seems to have more gold than the entire country.


5 tips to accrue points (without opening a ton of credit cards!)

As part of the team that rebranded American Airlines a few years back, I learned a lot about the AAdvantage and other frequent flyer programs. In fact, American Airlines pioneered the rewards club for flying just a little over 30 years ago. What an industry they created! So here are five simple tips for you to rack up miles doing the things you already do.  


1. Enroll in airline's dining programs—now.


Did you know some US airlines have dining programs that give you points for eating at certain restaurants? Literally, you just link your credit card to the program, dine, get points. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. It's so easy to do I don't know why you're not doing it now.

Rewards Network dining: Earn up to 5 points/$1 spent on dining out. This is the company that runs many airlines' dining programs, like the AAdvantage Dining or United MileagePlus Dining. How it works is you enroll in the program of your choice (you can even pick hotels or nonprofits!), sign up to receive emails from said program and earn anywhere from 1 to 5 points per dollar spent at certain restaurants. Honestly, I enrolled and didn't change my habits at all and earned 1,233 points in a one year period. Consider those just bonus points.  

Airlines / hotels offering points: 

  • Alaska Mileage Plan
  • American Airlines AAdvantage 
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • JetBlue True Blue
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • Spirit Free Spirit
  • United Mileage Plus 

2. Shop through online portals.


Looking at buying a new Macbook? Or maybe you need some new kicks before you head off to walk around the world. Before you buy anything, do a quick check to see if you can buy the gear through a shopping portal for a sweet number of bonus points. 

For instance, I bought a new Apple Macbook before I left. I saw Chase Ultimate Rewards was running a special of additional 3 bonus points/dollar spent, bumping up my usual 1 point/$1 to a total of 4 points/$1. That meant I earned 7476 Chase points instead of a measly 1869 points -- for something I was going to purchase anyway. Pretty good, right? 

Of course it also makes sense to make sure you buy the gear with the right kind of credit card too. For instance, if I had a Chase Freedom Unlimited my base earning on all goods would be 1.5 points/$1, so I could have earned 8410.5 points with that card. For more on how to use your Chase cards to maximum benefit check out The Points Guy.

But for just the basics, make sure to shop through airlines/credit card shopping portals. Sign up for the emails and shop in the one that gives you the most for that particular bit of kit you're getting.

But an important note: if you return any gear you purchased through AAdvantage Shopping you lose points for the whole transaction. I learned this the hard way and have thus changed my shopping habits through AAdvantage. So if you are buying two pairs of shoes and you're not sure you're going to like Pair #2, I suggest you just buy Pair #1, then in a new order purchase Pair #2. I know, super huge pain and maybe they've changed the glitch. Basically I use the online ordering for things I know I will need/like/not return. 

Cartera runs the shopping portals for some airlines and banks. The cool thing about having so many airlines with shopping portals is that, oddly, the deals aren't always the same. Sometimes United will be offering 3x points at Nike while AAdvantage will only offer 1x. So be sure to shop around the sites first!

Airlines / hotels offering points through their shopping portal: 


3. Earn miles through partners.

Road to Mt. Rainier

Road to Mt. Rainier

This approach doesn't always yield a lot of points, but it is a good way to consolidate your earning with the airlines/hotels you use most. Basically whenever you rent a car, book a hotel, or fly an airline within an alliance, you can select the rewards program where you want to accrue miles. So, for instance, you can earn AAdvantage miles when you rent a Hertz car, fly on British Airways, or stay at a Starwood property. 

Now, because this can become its own labyrinthine puzzle to maximize rewards based on preferences. I suggest you do a Google search to see which partnerships make the most sense for your needs.


4. Take surveys.

Go on, sell yourself. Tell companies a little bit of information about you, over many, many, many screens, and you'll be rewarded with some miles. Given I work in marketing I can't always take the surveys, but I do know it's a way to earn a bit more to pad out your mileage wallet.

The go to companies are eRewards and eMiles.


5. Keep up with the travel / credit card blogs.

The nerdy travel and credit cards blogs will keep you abreast of promotions. You'll want to keep up with these five sites:

UpgradedPoints: They have a lot of strategies for earning / redeeming points per US airline and I wish I had visited their site more!

The Points Guy: This is one of the nerdier sites that will give you a lot of breakdowns of valuations for different offers, redemptions, etc. Just skim to the "is it worth it?" section of any entry. 

FlyerTalk: Their forums boast perhaps the most knowledge network of flying nerds on this planet. Plus the blog content will actually help you plan travel, save up, get reward, and score your way into a lounge or two for free. 

Million Mile Secrets: It's got similar content to UpgradedPoints and The Points Guy, but with a slightly more unpolished vibe I kind of dig. 

Nerdwallet: If you're considering a new credit card or bank, give this site a once over first. The content isn't travel specific, but it is always good to have a financial opinion over a travel one when it comes to credit. 


5 tips to make travel much cheaper once on the road

Now that you've got the points to fly yourself around the world how can you minimize the costs of actually staying around the world? Yes of course you can stay at any number of cheap accommodations: hostels, Airbnbs, HotelTonight, couches on couchsurfing, etc. That's what I've done for the most part. But! There's more! Here are some ridiculously obvious pieces of advice to make traveling itself cheaper which I completely, 100%, idiotically missed earlier on in my travels. 


1. Volunteer!

WWOOF farm outside Nagasaki. I stayed here with Yuki on Airbnb because it was on the way to the airport, but Yuki runs a real farm and takes longer term volunteers!

WWOOF farm outside Nagasaki. I stayed here with Yuki on Airbnb because it was on the way to the airport, but Yuki runs a real farm and takes longer term volunteers!

In Japan and Nepal I met people who were volunteering at farms, schools, monasteries, and any other kind of land-based nonprofit you could imagine. Often they'd get free room & board and that warm fuzzy feeling in their hearts. 

Try WWOOF if you'd like to learn about organic farming around the world. You trade your labor for a free stay and agricultural training.

I've seen HelpStay which matches people to volunteer opportunities, but I haven't tried it myself. 

Ask around your friend group or Facebook travel groups for advice on each country. More than likely someone knows some organization looking for help. 



2. Stay in a monastery!

Shyalpa Monastery next to Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.

If volunteering for a few weeks or months isn't your thing you can find many monasteries, Buddhist and Christian alike, to stay for free. For. Free. Or next to it. I stayed at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu for $14/night as a single room with an en-suite and three meals a day. If you wanted a dorm and three meals the price dropped to $8/night. And I met a man who had stayed in monasteries throughout South East Asia for free. But be sure to check before arriving. My stay at Taiyoji Temple outside Tokyo was most certainly not free at a whopping $90/night, but I enjoyed the whole program. 




3. Volunteer at a retreat! 

One of the wonderful humans I met at Kopan was traveling around from retreat to retreat in far out awesome places. How'd she do it? By charming people with her blonde hair and green eyes? Probably. But she also volunteered at the retreats and used credit card miles to get her to the places. This is a great way to attend something that would otherwise be expensive, even if transformative. 



4. Choose overnight transportation. 

Overnight ferry from Athens to Naxos

You have to be okay with an uncomfortable night's sleep to follow this bit of advice, but sometimes you can save yourself a night's accommodation cost if you book the slow overnight ferry/train/bus to your next destination. Often this means you'll arrive in the early morning at your next place, sometimes early enough to catch a beautiful sunrise. If you want to splurge, you can spring for a cabin or sleeper car for what you would have spent on the evening hostel. That can also be worth the expense! 

I took the Hellenic Seaways overnight ferry from Athens to Naxos and arrived just in time to watch the sun rise over the Aegean Sea. Pretty magical, eh? 


5. Book extra nights in person + ask for a discount. 

This advice can be a little hit or miss, but I have found it worked occasionally. Sometimes I would arrive someplace with a reservation for a night or two. If I liked the place I asked about deals for staying on for more nights at a low rate. This was great when I was staying close to the weekend or into the more high season dates. As a case in point, I stayed at a pension (like a lodge) in Naxos with a reservation for the first two nights at €20, but online I saw the next few nights would jump to €40 as we entered July. So, I nicely asked if I could extend my reservation at my current price and the owner agreed.

The above story also leads to another bit of advice: just ask for a discount. I don't do this a lot, but I have done it and am surprised by how often it works. Many places will offer 5-20% off when you call or book in person.   



I hope that helps you get on the road sooner than you think! And if you're wondering about how maximize your miles themselves, well, I'll write about that next. It's definitely worth a little more detail! 

Do you have any other great tips to make traveling less expensive? Share them in the comments below!