At the risk of showing my cards at the outset of this post, the two most crucial components of traveling are strategic budget prioritization and travel rewards hacking.
I included a third powerful travel hack for getting extremely cheap international airfare ("$400 to Melbourne in the summer" cheap) in my Money, Honey newsletter. Be part of the #FrugalFriendshipClub and subscribe if you're interested!
This sounds simultaneously underwhelming and obvious, but these two things can—many times--make the difference between a young person bleeding their bank account dry to travel once or twice a year, OR traveling frequently with relative financial ease. Sounds great, right?
If you follow these steps, your next trip will happen within three months or less.
A lot of young people say they can’t afford to travel, but then (and I mean this with NO judgment, please trust that) they eat out for lunch during the week and go to bars every Friday and Saturday night.
It’s not that they can’t afford to—they’re just prioritizing their expenses inefficiently.
The second category I see and hear about most often are those with substantial loan debt. Whether it’s credit card or student loan debt, these people are being responsible in the sense that they’re prioritizing paying their loans over (or, perhaps, feel their loans somehow disqualify them from) traveling.
The only type of person that I’ll go out on a limb and say this article doesn’t apply to (or shouldn’t, for the time being) are those with immense credit card debt. If you know credit cards pose a self-control issue for you, I’m going to ask that you opt out of the second half.
However, the first part—the prioritization—applies to everyone.
Prioritization of spending (again) sounds incredibly obvious. OBVIOUSLY, you should spend your money on the things you care about. Duh. (And if you're tempted to scroll past this part, I ask you: why did you click on this article in the first place? If you're not saving enough to travel right now, give this part a chance. It's half the math equation.)
The choice between a $12 açai bowl for breakfast on a rough Monday morning and going to Seattle for a long weekend doesn’t feel like a direct comparison—that’s not a “one or the other” cost/benefit analysis, in most of our minds. Nobody buys breakfast being like, "UGH, I'm sacrificing a weekend trip for this smoothie."
But if a trip to Seattle is $500 for the weekend (it is) and you’re spending $150 per week on restaurant food (not a hard task, since that’s only $20 per day), that trip to Seattle could be paid for in a little more than three weeks of forgoing your Chipotle burrito bowl and bringing your lunch to work.
I would challenge you, if you don’t budget, to look at your credit or debit card statements for last month and add up how many charges went into the “Restaurants & Dining” or “Alcohol & Bars” categories. I guarantee 9 out of 10 of you will be utterly blown away by how much you spend without realizing it. I know I was before my #FinancialAwakening.
(For the record, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with restaurants and bars—it’s just a virtually painless way to get hundreds of dollars more per month out of your budget, since it’s entirely discretionary.)
In other words, it’s a lot easier to stop spending $200 at the bar every month than it is to stop paying $200 on your student loans.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re like, KG, that sounds literally horrible and I don’t want to deprive myself, bear with me. You have two options.
If you want to squeeze more experiential value out of your money without actually earning more, that money has to come from somewhere. Sacrifices may be involved, but it doesn’t have to feel like deprivation. I get it: But KG, I want to live like an Instagram model both ON the private jet and off! In which case, your options are:
I don't make the rules! I just write this blog!
I used to spend between $500 and $600 a month on restaurants and bars without batting an eye. I didn’t even feel like I was spending that much.
I was doing what (I thought) were totally normal and not-at-all-unreasonable things for a young person who was making good money. Eating a lunch or two out during the week. Starbucks every morning. Dinner out on Friday and Saturday night. Brunch on Sunday.
Not surprisingly, each $5 or $15 or sometimes $30 charge quickly accumulated, and before I knew it, I had sunk $500 into my Restaurants & Bars budget with little or nothing to show for it save for a few Instagram Stories of my food that nobody cared about.
But last month, I spent $140 total on restaurants and bars. I only eat at restaurants on the weekends now (it's a treat!), I don't go to Starbucks, and I tend to pick cheaper meals out than I used to when I DO eat out, like grabbing $6 Chick-Fil-A on a Friday evening instead of an $18-$25 restaurant experience.
Here’s the crazy part: I didn’t feel at all deprived. If anything, my life felt simpler. There was no decision fatigue clouding my judgment. I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything. I still ate food I loved—it was just food from Trader Joe’s.
Instead, I went to Mexico last month and spent that saved $350 on my nonstop American flights. $350 on flights to Mexico vs. $350 on food. Prioritization. Your decision.
I think you probably get the point, so that brings me to my second point: travel rewards hacking.
The travel rewards hacking game is helpful for and applicable to everyone, but especially those with student loans—because it doesn’t involve saving money (maybe you don’t even have an income to save in the first place yet).
If you haven’t read my post yet on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, open it in another tab and do so after this.
Essentially, you can stack the acquisition bonuses from different travel credit cards to pay for part or all of your travel.
A lot of these cards have very low annual fees, relatively speaking (Sapphire Preferred is $0 the first year and $95 after that). If you’re a travel hacking newbie, I’d recommend getting the Sapphire Preferred card, then three months later getting the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card ($69 annual fee).
Why three months? Three months is the time you’ll need to hit the spend threshold on the Sapphire card—you have to spend $4,000 within the first three statement closings to earn 50,000 points, valued at between $685 and $1,000 depending on how you hack it, and there are tricks involved with maximizing your return on points (I definitely lucked out in my point redemption for Cancun).
The Southwest card only requires you to spend $1,000 in three months to get 40,000 points, so if you think you can work toward both thresholds simultaneously ($5,000 in three months), go for it.
Apply for the Sapphire Card here to start working toward your 50,000 point bonus (I've linked my referral code in the hope that you've found value in this article and are willing to give me a small kickback for writing it—hey, transparency, right?).
Use the card to pay your rent for two months and call it a day!
[It's worth noting that these are considered premium credit cards and therefore favor applicants with already established credit, so if you have bad credit or no credit, it's unlikely your application will be accepted—in that case, I'd suggest reading my starter post about credit cards and begin building credit now.]
The Southwest card is the best airline card (not that I’m biased) because Southwest points are so valuable. For example, my roundtrip to Hawaii cost about 6,000 points when it was on sale, and the point bonus on the card right now is 40,000. It buoys between 40,000 and 60,000, so sign up when it’s at least 50,000 (that's what I'd do if I were you).
So you can use the Southwest points for the flights, the Chase points for the hotels, and bada-bing, bada-boom—you’re traveling for free. It sounds easy, because it is. (We'll get into annual fees and credit cards more broadly in a future post.)
And for those ambitious jetsetters out there like, but KG, I want to travel ~abroad~, do what my friend Abby does—use your Southwest points to fly to the major U.S. international airport hubs (JFK, LAX, DFW) and book an extremely cheap international flight from that airport instead.
You’re going to pay WAYYY less for a flight to Thailand out of LAX than out of, say, Nashville (in this hypothetical, you live in Nashville—yeehaw), but you can fly Nashville to L.A. on Southwest for a few thousand points.
Observe Nashville to Bangkok on American:
Yikes. Nearly $2,000. Now, let's look at LAX to Bangkok on the same dates:
$1,000 less. So how are you getting to L.A.? On Southwest, for 6,000 of your 40,000 points (look at the yellow Wanna Get Away column):
And for those of you who are scared of credit cards… your credit score is based on several factors, including length of credit, credit utilization, payment history, and recently opened accounts, among other things.
So while your “recently opened accounts” score may go down slightly by opening two new cards in six months, your credit utilization score will go up because you’re now utilizing a smaller amount of your credit line. Consider this hypothetical:
You have one card with a $10,000 credit line. You typically spend $3,000 per month. You’re utilizing about 30% of that total credit line.
Now let’s say you open a Sapphire card with a $12,000 limit and a Southwest card with a $10,000 limit.
Your total credit line now is $32,000, which means if you continue to utilize $3,000 a month (i.e., your spending stays the same), your new utilization is about 10%, compared to your former 30% utilization. (The lower, the better.)
Sometimes I think we get so overwhelmed and intimidated by personal finance and money management in general that we just throw our hands up and stop paying attention--that doesn't have to be you.
Tips like these are the ones I feel most passionately about sharing because they are so. damn. easy. and fairly obvious, and yet... it feels like most people my age aren't aware of these strategies and perks or don't believe they're impactful enough to commit to them.
Your best bet is combining them. Reprioritize your spending so you can reallocate $800 of bullshit money over the course of a few months, then use Southwest points to get yourself to a major hub (if you don't already live there) and book a cheap international roundtrip ticket with those savings.
Again—it's all about prioritization of spending and hacking the travel rewards game to work for you. Do both effectively, and you could be out there in no time.
Let me know if you end up moving forward with re-budgeting or signing up for the cards. Combining the two strategies is absolutely your most potent option.
Thanks for reading!
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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