How to Finance World Travel

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At the train station in Rome. 

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, with a wistful sigh, that they wished they could afford to travel, I’d probably have enough money to buy a plane ticket somewhere really awesome. Usually, I keep my mouth shut when I hear this because without knowing the details of a person’s financial situation, it seems rude and cruel to insist that they can, in fact, afford to travel. Some of them can’t. Many of them, however, can. They just don’t know it.

When I first started gallivanting around the world I was a journalist in my mid-20s living in one of the most unaffordable cities in California. (For reference, journalists make teachers look incredibly well paid.) My family didn’t pay for me to travel. I didn’t have a secret stash of trust fund money.

Traveling the world had been a dream since I was in preschool and always seemed so very far away financially until one day I decided I wouldn’t let it be. I was going to Morocco. And I did. And the following year I went to Barcelona, followed by Ireland and Scotland, Norway and Italy, Peru, and Turkey. In September I’m going to India for three weeks.

Money doesn’t grow on trees and you can’t will yourself wealthy with the power of positive thinking. These things I know are sadly true. I also know that not everyone can afford to travel, that not everyone has expenses they can afford to spare. But many of us do. It’s just a question of priorities. I’m not an expert on economics, but my boyfriend and I discovered two daily costs that add up to well over the cost of a trip each year.

Coffee.

According to an article in USA Today, the average American worker spends $1,092 per year buying coffee before or during work. What seems like a minor purchase, just $3 or $4, over the course of five days each week and four and a half weeks each month, adds up to more than enough money for a two or three-week vacation, and I’m not talking about a road trip to Vegas.

Obviously, I’m not proposing eliminating coffee from your diet or budget. Coffee fuels the American worker and the murder rate would likely skyrocket without it. However, I’ve known a lot of people who purchase coffee from a local cafe despite the fact that their employer makes coffee available for free. It’s not a venti creamsicle latte, but it’s caffeine and not taking advantage of it adds up.

For anyone not working in an office that offers free coffee, buying coffee from the grocery store and making it each morning will still save hundreds of dollars each year, if not more. Is it as satisfying as the ritual of stopping at your favorite cafe, perusing the baked goods, and making small talk with your favorite barista? No. But this is what I was talking about when I mentioned priorities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying coffee every day. But buying coffee every day while yearning to see Machu Pichu and believing you’ll never have the opportunity is silly.

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Breathtaking Machu Pichu with my dorky boyfriend.

Lunch.

Lunch is a lot like coffee. The odds are, you buy it every day (or many days each week) without really thinking about. It’s part of your routine, a reward for getting up each morning and doing whatever you do to earn the money you need to pay your bills. Sometimes we need rewards. A lot of times, however, these small rewards accumulate into something much more expensive and much less exciting than that trip to Morocco or India.

According to an article on Practical Money Skills, American workers spend an average of $53 per week on lunch, totaling nearly $3,000 per year. I don’t mean to brag, but I could probably spend two months in Peru including the cost of the flight there and home with the amount of money people typically spend on lunches each year. And the likelihood is that you could too if you felt so inclined.

I’m not denying that people need to eat, but I also know that it’s possible to put together a lunch for far less than $10.60 per day. The key is bringing your lunch to work, which I know isn’t very exciting. In fact, some days it’s just plain depressing. But then I get to go to India and that pretty much makes up for my frozen meals and sandwiches and leftovers. And it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. If eliminating just one meal out per week saves $10, over the course of a year that $10 adds up to more than $500, which is a good chunk of a round trip plane ticket somewhere really exciting.

Setting aside money from each paycheck.

My boyfriend pulls $80 out of every paycheck and sets it aside for the next trip. He argues that so long as it never makes its way into his checking account, he’s never tempted to spend it. I’ve never tried it, but I have to admit that I am a little jealous when the time comes to buy a plane ticket and his checking account shows the same balance after we’ve purchased our tickets as it did before.

How much does travel actually cost?

It’s worth noting that I don’t have kids so when I talk about traveling, I’m covering the costs of a single ticket which likely helps a lot. Also, I’ve never flown first class and I don’t stay at four-star hotels because doing so would likely more than double my costs. I also don’t purchase a package through a travel agent because those packages usually include a lot of costs and services that I don’t need or want. Instead, I buy a copy of Lonely Planet Wherever and start planning.

Where to go will be the biggest factor influencing the cost of the trip. A hostel in Europe doesn’t cost the same as a hostel in Morocco, Peru, India, or Thailand. In fact, you can get a bed in a hostel for less than you pay for lunch each day in some of these countries. Of course, location also impacts the cost of the plane ticket. After flying overseas for all our previous trips, we were stunned by how cheap it was to fly to South America, costing about half of what it did to go to Turkey or Thailand. And given that Peru was one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had at $800 round trip, I’d highly recommend it to anyone living on the west coast. It might cost more to travel to Peru from the east coast, but at least it will cost less to travel pretty much anywhere else.

There’s no need to factor in the price of food unless you’re planning on spending more than you spend on food at home, which is unlikely if you’re traveling somewhere like Peru, India, Thailand, or Morocco. When I was in Morocco seven years ago it was plausible to eat on $2 a day without going hungry, and to eat well.

Hotel costs range significantly but if you do your homework you can get a private room in a safe hostel or cheap hotel for $10-$20 per-night, per-person. On a two-week trip that adds up to $140 per person, or even $280 if you want to splurge and go for a midrange option (obviously this does not hold true in Europe, although there are cheap hostels pretty much everywhere). Throw in the $600 airfare and an extra $200 for buses, taxis, rickshaws, etc. (which is a generous estimate) and your total is about $1,000.

There are countless variables within that budget. Splurging on a nice meal, tickets to Machu Pichu, a flight over the Nazca lines are all options you might want to consider. But with a copy of Lonely Planet and a little research you can get an exact idea of what your trip will cost and vary your itinerary to meet your budget. All for the cost of a cup of coffee each day.

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