All of our friends and family know it: Carrie and I LOVE to travel. Just in the past 18 months, we have been to Ft. Myers FL (twice), St. Pete FL (twice), Key West FL, two separate trips to Costa Rica (including Arenal, Jaco, and the Nicoya Peninsula), Mexico, Washington DC, Savannah GA, Minneapolis MN, Boyne MI, and two trips to Hocking Hills in our home state of Ohio to go hiking. Given the fact that I’ve been unemployed for a year and Carrie is a teacher, we often get the question: How do you guys afford to travel so much? It’s a reasonable question. A lot of Americans consider travel to be an expense out of their reach. Here’s why and how we do it.
Exact figures are a tad sketchy, but roughly 60% of Americans have never traveled outside the US. The average American adult has only visited 3 countries, meaning they’ve seen roughly only 2% of the world. According to a survey conducted by Glassdoor and reported on by CNN in May, 2017, only 23% of Americans use all of the paid vacation time their employer offers. 23%!!!! Yet, most people admit that they’d like more time off from work, and that they’d like to travel more than they do currently. It seems to me that more people say they would LIKE to travel, but don’t take the time available to actually do it. We definitely DO NOT fall into that category. We love to travel, and we take the time we have available to do so, unapologetically. In fact, our first trip to Costa Rica last year saw me parting ways with my employer of 16 years, over their refusal to allow me to use vacation time that I had already earned.
The big elephant in this blog post is… MONEY. How do we afford to travel so much?? Two answers: 1) travel cheap, 2) don’t waste money on a bunch of other junk that really doesn’t bring you lasting happiness. Whoa. I’ll address #1 in this post, and #2 in Part 2 of this post.
Traveling for cheap
The first thing you usually have to consider when traveling is how are you going to get there in the first place! Driving makes sense sometimes, such as for quick trips or those that are within just a couple hours from home. Alternatively, it can make sense if you’re staying within the US, but you have a fairly long trip planned (maybe 2 weeks or more) and you want to hit various locations along the way. But honestly, we’re not huge fans of driving. For starters, it’s just downright impossible if you’re traveling outside the US, obviously. Also, weigh the amount of time you have for your trip, versus the amount of time you’ll spend driving there, AND back. Are you going to eat up 4 days driving of your week long trip? This brings me to the next point: don’t just assume driving is cheaper. Once you factor in what you’ll spend in gas, tolls, parking charges, road meals and snacks, and any overnight hotel stays if you’ll be driving for more than one day- often you just might as well see if you can’t find a cheap flight! Carrie has a Spirit card, and we often fly with Spirit miles. If you want to get serious about travel, look into getting a card where you can earn miles. Recently, I’ve also discovered the Hopper app. With this fun little app, you can plug in a destination, a date, and see what the current ticket price is. You can also ask it to “watch” a trip for you. It will send you alerts if the price goes down (or up), and it can tell you when the best time to book that trip is. It’s very handy! I may or may not have it “watching” several trips right now! Also, you might want to pay attention to when is the “peak” season for your destination, and when the “shoulder” seasons are. It’s usually the most expensive to visit during the peak season, but can be less expensive during the shoulder season, with potentially smaller crowds and nearly as good expected weather, too. When Carrie and I visited Costa Rica last June, it was at the beginning of the rainy season, making it much cheaper. Flights were about $360 for each of us.
Let me level with you: we don’t like resorts. We don’t like “touristy” areas with tons of people, we don’t like exclusivity, and we don’t generally do “fancy”. The fact that our tastes in travel run more of the cheap motel and public transportation gamut helps a bunch. Besides, when you stay at an exclusive, all-included resort, you really don’t get an opportunity to get a feel for the region and culture of the people and place that you’re visiting. These things are what we appreciate most about travel, so, resorts are generally not our thing.
Instead, we use sites like Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and apps like Hotel Tonight to compare and find great deals. If you stay off the beaten path and away from tourist areas, you can also find some great deals (and a lot of quiet and tranquility, too, if that’s your thing). Carrie and I stayed at a fantastic place during that same Costa Rica trip- on the beach, with a pool, and had an entire apartment to ourselves (bedroom, bathroom, living room AND kitchen, with a big covered porch in front) for $50/night.
You can also rethink how you do transportation once you’re at your destination. Do you REALLY need to rent a car? Renting a car can be a huge expense, and don’t forget you’ll need to also factor in the cost of gas and the extra insurance that may be necessary. Also think about if you have the skills and stomach to drive in another country, where traffic laws might be totally different (or seemingly non-existent!). Here’s something to consider if you’re traveling outside the US: most other countries have better public transit systems than we do. For example, for that same June trip to Costa Rica, Carrie and I decided to eschew the rental car, and instead took a public bus from San Jose all the way to Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula. The cost? $14.50 per person, and that included the fee for the Ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya. The trip is about 5 hours, whether you’re the one driving or not. Why not leave the driving up to the bus driver who knows the roads better than you anyway? The bus will stop and allow everyone to use the restroom or get snacks a couple of times, plus the 90 minute ferry ride. Once at our destination, we rented bicycles from our host for $100 for the week, and had tons of fun exploring the area that way. Not renting a car saved us nearly $1000, and we got to travel the country like a local.
One of the final major travel expenses is food and entertainment. We will often opt to stay somewhere that has a kitchen, or at least breakfast included, in order to keep food expenses under control. If you’re already staying somewhere no where near a tourist trap, then that means you’re also probably very close to some really good (and possibly cheap!) local eateries. You’re traveling!! Don’t go to the chain that you could just visit at home! Try going where the locals go. If you’re not sure, ask some locals! They know all the best restaurants and bars. You can also check out TripAdvisor or Google Maps for restaurants near you and reviews with ratings. During that same trip I’ve been using as an example throughout this post, Carrie and I actually discovered a brand new way to keep food costs down: the produce truck!
In the rural area of Costa Rica where we were staying, twice weekly a produce vendor stops at area restaurants, hotels, and markets, selling an assortment of fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Just like locals, we were able to hop into the back of the truck, pick out what we wanted, have our things weighed and paid for in Colones. After several failed attempts at catching our own fish (much to Carrie’s dismay), we discovered a local fisherman who would sell his catch out of a freezer in his backyard. Granted, I love to cook, so for me, this was a fantastic opportunity to not only explore local ingredients and expand my culinary skills, but also a way to eat like kings very inexpensively. One evening I even prepared a meal that we shared with our host Lori. We ate on the patio and talked for hours, becoming friends and being serenaded by an incredibly loud species of Costa Rican toad.
As for entertainment, I highly recommend checking out area parks, nature preserves, or wildlife areas. Either for free, or for a small charge, you can enjoy a plethora of outdoor activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, or hiking. While in Costa Rica last June, Carrie and I enjoyed time at the beach, as well as exploring the countryside by bicycle, often making stops at new beaches and cafes, or “Sodas” that we found. We swam in the pool at the place we were staying, and lounged in hammocks reading books.
We explored nearby rivers and streams on foot, frequently stopping to watch families of howler monkeys move through the trees overhead. We also explored a nearby island, accessible on foot during low tide, and did some snorkeling, observing many species of tropical fish and even an octopus! We attempted an ill-fated ocean kayaking adventure, that ended with Carrie being tossed into the sea, along with all of her belongings (she is fine, her phone didn’t care for the swim, however). Finally, for a small fee, we visited the nearby Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, and completed a fantastic 6 hour hike through the rainforest, getting to see many unique animals along the way!
It sounds like a great trip, and it was! We left our three darlings behind in the States with family and spent two entire weeks together as a couple, 6,000 miles away from home. Would you be surprised to learn that we spent only approximately $2500 on the entire trip????? I kid you not.
My point is: if you want to travel more, you can, in part by traveling cheaply! Check out Part 2 to learn more…