Affording Travel on a Modest Salary

First, let me preface this by saying that I have the modest salary of an educator and am a single parent with two kids. By most people’s accounts, traveling shouldn’t be part of my family’s narrative, but it is because I prioritize it. I make significant concessions in my daily life and travel pretty cheaply so that I can afford to go off every summer. In sharing what has worked for me, I realize that many people may read this and think, well, I could never do that, and that’s okay. I’m just sharing what has worked for me. I definitely am under the mindset that life is short and so you have to go after the things about which you are passionate. For me, that’s traveling.


Here are the ways I have structured my daily life so I can afford to travel:

  • I don’t shop. I no longer buy things because I like them; I buy things when I need them. When I do shop, I pay close attention to prices. We are definitely not a name brand family; I can’t imagine caring about the label on my shirts.
  • Apart from student loans, I don’t have debt.
  • I don’t spend a lot of money on my kids’ activities. They both are involved but not at the expense of doing other things. I honestly think they gain as much, if not more, from being exposed to other cultures in the summer months than from a busy life full of activities.
  • I sell anything we don’t need or use on Craigslist (you’d be surprised at how much money you can make selling things you no longer want). I’m very much a minimalist, so as soon as I don’t need something, I sell it. Just this week I made $190.00 (which is an abnormally high amount because I sold an old iPhone).
  • I’m not much of a drinker, so I don’t spend a lot on alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good glass of wine, but it’s more of a treat in my life, not a regular activity.
  • We recently moved to a smaller, less expensive two-family home (where I no longer have to take care of the yard!!). I’ve never had the urge to have a big house with a sprawling yard. In fact, the opposite appeals to me.
  • I still rent. This is for two reasons: 1. I am a restless person and the thought of staying in one house for any length of time makes me feel claustrophobic, and 2. I don’t want to all of my extra money to go towards house repairs. I realize this won’t make sense to a lot of people, but I’m just not a house person. My sister jokes that I’m going to join the tiny house movement after the kids graduate, and she might be right.
  • I constantly look for ways to cut costs. Recently, I have switched cell phone providers ($120 monthly savings), canceled my parking pass at work ($55 monthly savings), and canceled my gym membership for the summer months ($40 monthly savings).
  • We shop at Aldi’s – why spend more on groceries? I don’t understand it.
  • We limit how much we go out to eat, and I try to limit how much I spend on coffee (as I write this from a coffee shop…).
  • In the same light, I don’t get pedicures or massages.

Here are the things I do when traveling to cut costs:

  • I pick destinations and/or travel dates based on cheap airfare.
  • I typically use O’Hare as my home airport even though it’s five hours away. The savings is sometimes as much as $500.00 per ticket. I have more time than money, so I’ll always opt for the cheaper flight. I typically drive to my parents’ house in Illinois and leave my car (and sometimes my kids) with them and then take the train up to Chicago. The three hour train ride costs around $30.00, so the savings is significant.
  • I travel to places, such as Southeast Asia, India, Central America, that are generally pretty inexpensive for Americans.
  • I book multidestinational flights so that I can see a couple different places for the same price of a roundtrip ticket. If I fly to Asia, I’ll book Chicago – Bangkok, Bangkok – Paris (or some European city), Paris – Chicago. Most of the time I have been able to do that for the same price as a roundtrip ticket. I have found that adding more than one extra stop, makes the price jumps, so I stick with one city. Once I’m in Europe, I’ll use budget airlines or the train or bus.
  • When I’m in places that are more expensive, I use airbnb for accommodations. I never pay money for expensive hotels. I’m never in my room, so that money just seems like a waste to me. I have met amazing people through airbnb and paid a fraction of what hotels are asking. I even stayed in a hostel this summer in Europe. I stayed in a room for four females for $10 in Budapest. In most places outside the US, I can keep hotel (or airbnb) costs below $50.00 a night. In Southeast Asia, I’ll sometimes pay $45.00 for an entire week, and they’re nice rooms for that price.
  • I travel with a stash of granola bars which make for an inexpensive and easy breakfast. I’ve heard of others bringing oatmeal packets and tea bags to cut costs, but I’ve never done these things.
  • Food can be really expensive when traveling. Sometimes, I eat a late lunch instead of eating lunch and dinner. I love street food, and it’s always inexpensive. I also love markets for fresh fruit. I have found that you can spend a lot or very little on food – just depends on your budget. I do both, depending on the location and how long I’m traveling.
  • I only travel with carry-ons. I refuse to pay luggage fees on a plane. Long gone are the days of struggling with suitcases that I cannot carry over the train platforms in India. I did that and was miserable. It doesn’t matter if I’m gone one week or six, I only bring a carry-on. I do laundry on the road and bring clothes that coordinate.
  • I limit visiting museums and monuments – mainly because I don’t travel to cities to check off every tourist must-see. I find that I can only handle about one tourist sight a day – plus, admission fees add up quick. I’d much rather wander the streets, watch people from a cafe, or stroll through a park.
  • I’ll buy a few souvenirs on my trips, but I don’t travel to shop – even in places like New York and Paris.


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