Not many people can afford to pack their bags and immediately head off on a round the world trip, but with a little time and effort, most people can afford to travel somewhere. Here is how I managed to save for a 5 week trip across 9 US states in just under a year.
I was at both an advantage and a disadvantage by being an au pair: I had very few outgoings because my accommodation was paid for by the family I lived with, but because of this I was paid an allowance rather than a salary. This meant that I was well-off and very, very lucky in terms of my standard of living but fairly cash poor (accounting for my end of year tax, I took home around $195 a week, or just less than $5 per hour). It would also have been impossible for me to take a second job because of the terms of my visa, so I had to be a little bit creative with the money I had. Here is how I saved money before I set off on my trip (and part 2 will focus on how I saved money during my trip).
Open a savings account (and actually use it)
In America I got paid weekly ($200), so the day that I was paid I would immediately move a set amount of money ($100) to my travel savings account and I wouldn’t touch it for anything except my trip. It’s a good idea to play around with a few different amounts to see how much you can save without genuinely struggling, then stick with that amount. DO NOT touch this money unless it’s a real emergency, no matter how tempting it is. With my savings account (through PNC bank) I could only make a certain number of free transactions every month, so this was a real incentive to leave that money alone.
The fact is that if you want to save, you may have to change the way you spend. I had to make travel a priority, which meant less spending on clothes and shoes and (sadly) food. For a few weeks I kept a really detailed spending diary – and I was shocked at the amount I spent on stuff that I really didn’t need. Did I genuinely have to take a $14 Uber through New York traffic for a journey that I could have walked in 20 minutes? Absolutely not! Will it kill me if I don’t stop for a Starbucks iced chai latte on the way home from grocery shopping? Possibly, but it’s very unlikely. Look hard at where your money goes: it really helped me to think of things in terms of hours and wages. I would regularly ask myself, is this $30 coat worth 6 hours of work, or is this ice cream worth an hour of my time? It really helped me to realise the value of my money, and if something wasn’t worth the time it would cost to earn it then I would always walk away.
Look at the way you socialise
If you are living like a total hermit just to save a little bit of extra money then you may have gone too far, but it is very possible to have a social life and be frugal! Again, I was pretty lucky in this respect in America: most of my friends there were also paid an allowance/stipend rather a salary which meant that we were all financially in the same boat. Instead of meals out and expensive cocktails, we would choose pizza and beers in someone’s flat. Instead of going to see a $15 movie at the local cinema we would travel a little further and get half-price matinee tickets at the student movie theatre. There are so many things you can do that don’t cost a lot of money: hiking, beach trips, games nights, karaoke, quizzes are all cheap options and even things like paintball can be very cost effective if you are going with a group.
This didn’t really work for me – because I had a pretty solid idea of where I wanted to go – but if you just want to travel and you don’t care where, you can get some really good deals on flights and hotels. For example if you go to Skyscanner, enter your dates and select ‘everywhere’ as your destination you can get return flights to places like France, Italy and Denmark for less than £50 per person. It also helps to be flexible about the dates you want to travel – obviously term times are cheaper than school holidays but did you also know that Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly?
Plan ahead and shop around
No one wants to make a minute-by-minute itinerary of their trip, but it is a good idea to do some planning and research before you start booking anything. Before I made any firm decisions about my trip I created a spreadsheet (thrilling I know) showing all of the different flights and hostels I would need to book. That way I could estimate how much each one would cost, create an overall budget and have a really clear idea of where I needed to be and when. I would compare flights first on Skyscanner, then directly through the airline’s websites and I probably looked at around 10 different accommodation options for every stop on my trip. I would also check prices a few times before I booked as things can fluctuate depending on so many different variables. Make sure to clear your cookies after browsing though: if you look at the same flight too many times the prices can actually go up.
Book in bits and pieces
Booking a whole multi-destination trip at once is going to do a hell of a lot of damage to your bank account, and suddenly your trip feels ridiculously expensive as you watch your account balance plummet. It takes a lot of the pressure off to book things a little bit at a time: sure the total amount will be the same, but $50 here and $60 there has less of a financial (and emotional) impact than trying to do everything at once. I used my spreadsheet to keep track of what I had booked and what I had paid for and that way I could pay for things as and when I decided. This method also reduced a lot of the stress that I am sure I would have felt trying to book everything in the last few weeks before I set off.
This is how I saved some money before I started my trip – come back in a few days for part 2 to see how I stayed under budget while I travelled.