Travel can be crazy expensive—airline tickets, travel insurance, baggage fees, hotels, rental cars—and that doesn’t even include the food and activities. And let’s be real, food is certainly one of the main events when I’m on vacation.
For our first big trip of 2015, Dan and I are headed to Seattle for a long weekend at the end of April. We already have all our travel and accommodations booked, and so far, we’ve spent exactly $0. With just a little bit of flexibility and creativity, we’re able to do this trip practically for free. Here’s a breakdown of how we saved at each step.
Airfare = $0 (kind of)
Dan and I use our Chase Freedom credit cards for pretty much every purchase we make. I know it’s not very Dave Ramsey of us, but it works for our budgeting style. We have our budgets set up in Mint and we make sure we stick to those so we never overspend on our cards. We treat them as finite and limited, just like cash. And we always, always, always pay them off each month. Chase Freedom offers 1% cash back on every purchase and 5% cash back on select categories, which rotate throughout the year. We’ve been banking these points for about a year now, and combined we had about $700 in rewards.
We watched a few travel websites (Kayak, Orbitz, and Expedia) and waited for airfare to hit a low point. Typical airfare to Seattle is in the $300–$400 range, so when we saw it dip to $296 roundtrip, we pounced. We ended up choosing a less-than-ideal time to fly back home on Sunday (11:00 am opposed to 3:00 pm, which would have given us some extra time to do one more thing that morning), but this saved us $30 per ticket.
We actually did book with our credit cards and not by cashing in the points directly, because when you book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards website, you get 2% cash back (as opposed to getting 0% back by booking with our points). After booking with our credit cards, we traded 592 points for $592 cash deposited into our bank account and paid off the balance. And we still had more than 100 points left over for future adventures!
We’re also planning to carry on our luggage, so that’s another $0 in baggage fees!
Accommodations = $0
My dear friend Jess and her fiancé, José, recently moved from Spain to Seattle. I’m still disappointed that I never made it over to Spain while she was there, but I’m thrilled to have them a much closer and cheaper flight away! They live in a little studio apartment near downtown Seattle, and we certainly didn’t expect them to host us. We were planning to do Airbnb or something similar, but Jess and José graciously offered to have us in their home on an air mattress or the couch. Perfect!
I know it’s not always possible to crash on someone’s couch when you’re traveling. (Well, actually, it is—if you’re into couchsurfing. I’ve never done it but I totally would.) But if you’re willing to be flexible and choose a couch over the comforts of a hotel, you can save a ton of money. And if you’re willing to be flexible and creative with where you’re going to travel, you can choose to visit places with you have friends or twice-removed cousins who would love to show you around.
Honestly, I wouldn’t choose a luxurious hotel room over staying with friends, especially a friend like Jess. I can’t wait to see her new hometown through her eyes, stay up late talking and giggling like we did in college, and soak up every silly moment.
Rental Car = $0
Much like accomodations, sometimes the rental car is unavoidable. But by flying to a destination like Seattle, we can easily do without it. The public transportation system is excellent and you don’t need a cab or car to get from the airport to the city center or to get around to the various sites. It’s a little more intimidating to navigate a public transportation system, especially one you’re not familiar with, but I think this is part of the grand adventure of travel. Living like a local. Figuring it out as you go. Seeing the sites along the way instead of shuttling yourself around, enclosed in a car. If you need to save some money on your next trip, consider choosing an urban destination that’s well-connected by trains and buses or that’s easily walkable.
Staying True to the Heart of Travel
Because we’re spending nothing on the commute and accommodations, we’re freeing up our entire budget for this trip to do the actual adventuring. I won’t feel guilty dropping a few extra dollars on daily specialty coffees (a huge part of the Seattle experience!), local food, and a whale-watching expedition. The things that are really worth splurging on. (And of course, we’ll treat our hosts to something special because we’re so grateful for their hospitality.)
Travel is all about experiencing new things and seeing the world from a new perspective, not about dropping a ton of money. I’d much rather go to more places and see more cities and experience more adventure by forgoing some of the luxuries usually associated with travel. Amazing trips can be done for so little if you’re willing to be flexible with destinations, give up some comforts, and do more planning on the front end.