Can You Save Money … By Traveling?

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Most people focus on saving money to travel. But can you save money by traveling?

It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But a hidden truth of travel is that – depending on where you go and what you do – your expenses while traveling can be lower than your expenses at home.

Pocket the difference, and you’ve saved more by traveling than you did by sitting on your couch watching reruns of Friends.
save money by traveling
Let’s examine a hypothetical scenario to see how this plays out.

Adam and Alice, a couple in their early 30’s with no children, decide to spend one month camping in forests across Washington, Oregon and California.

At home in Seattle, their joint expenses are:

Rent: $800/mo
Utilities: $220/mo (gas, electric, cable, internet)
Cell Phones: $80/mo
Gym Membership: $80/mo
Gasoline: $100/mo
Insurance on Two Cars: $100/mo
Groceries: $175/mo
Dining Out and Entertainment: $80/mo
Student Loan repayment: $100/mo

Total: $1,735/mo

Adam and Alice realize they can slash a lot of these costs while they’re on the road.

Here’s their travel cost-of-living:

Rent: $0, after finding a renter to sublet for one month.
Utilities: $0; the sublet renter signs an agreement to pay the utility bills
Cell Phone: $40/mo; they put Alice’s phone plan on hold, since they can rely on just one person’s phone. Long calls to loved ones take place with unlimited night and weekend minutes.
Gym Membership: $0; on hold
Insurance: $50/mo, as they now only need to insure one car. The other car stays parked in a friend’s garage.
Dining Out and Entertainment: $0, as they’ll get all the entertainment they need from the adventure itself
Student Loan Repayment: $100/mo

Of course, they have to take on new expenses too. Gasoline during the road trip will run them $400. They’re planning on camping in national parks and forests, which means they’ll need a tent and camping mat ($100). They can camp for free on grounds managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which are abundant in the Western U.S.

They buy a mini-fridge for their car ($40) which is powered through an inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter ($30). They also buy a camping stove ($40). These investments mean their grocery bill stays at its normal $175/mo, since they don’t have to dine out while they travel.

Monthly expenses: $765
Equipment cost (tent, stove, etc): $210
Total cost of living for the month: $975

Savings: Their cost-of-living while traveling is $760 less than their cost of living at home.

Is That “Real” Savings?

Are they actually saving? It depends.

If they’re using paid vacation or working remotely from their laptop, then yes, they are saving $760. (Paid vacation is a myth, but that’s a different story.)

If they have passive income that pays their home cost-of-living ($1,735/mo), then yes, they’re saving $760. (Heck, if their passive income pays even $1 more than their travel costs, they’re saving.)

If their income drops to $0 as they travel, then no, they’re not saving … but they’re spending roughly half as much as they do when they’re at home in Seattle.

In other words — the trip isn’t as expensive as people might assume. They’re taking a road trip for one month for less than $1,000.

Which means that when people ask “How could you afford to travel for a month?,” they’re asking the wrong question.


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27 Responses to “Can You Save Money … By Traveling?”

  1. Kevin
    26. Dec, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Great post! Thanks, you can indeed save money from traveling. Now I realize. Cheers!

  2. jim syyap
    26. Dec, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    That’s a great idea. I have four kids, ages 13 to 6. Soon as they are old enough to move out and be on their own, me and the wife are going to travel. A lot.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • AffordAnything.org
      26. Dec, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

      @Jim – That sounds like a great plan. Don’t forget, also, that you can travel with your kids, too! My mom and I spent many, many summers outside of the U.S. when I was as young as 3 and as old as 14. With a family of six, you could do a homeswap in another state or another country for 1-2 months.

  3. Jeffrey Trull
    26. Dec, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    I never really thought of it this way, but I like this, especially that it makes sense whether you’re in the US or outside the country. Depending on your income situation, you may be able to even save more money the longer you travel, too, given how inexpensive it is to live in many countries outside the US.

  4. World of Finance
    27. Dec, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    It’s definitely possible, but goes to show that planning is key to make it happen! :)

  5. femmefrugality
    27. Dec, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Love this. I think when a lot of people think of vacation they think of hotel rooms that run a minimum of $100/night, eating out for every meal, etc. Those vacations can be fun, but there is a cheaper way to travel, and it’s equally as enjoyable.

  6. Matt, Tao of Unfear
    27. Dec, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Even without camping, I saved a lot of money when I took my vacation. Yes, my income did drop to $0, but I lost my job, so that was going to happen either way. But, I did save a ton on groceries and transportation. I doubt I could have rented out my room for a week on such short notice, but other than paying for a weeks worth of rent while I wasn’t there, most of my expenses went down while travelling.

    How’ve you been, Paula? I’ve been super sick, so haven’t really had a chance to drop by the blog in a while.

  7. Greg McFarlane
    28. Dec, 2011 at 1:56 am #

    Amen. One of the things I love about this site is that Paula looks at these scenarios as challenges, not obstacles. The winner’s mentality, if you will. Adam and Alice, even if they are fictional, aren’t making excuses and waiting until they turn 65 to camp on the West Coast.

    (But $80 a month for a gym membership? Do the showers have hot and cold running Dom Perignon?)

    • AffordAnything.org
      28. Dec, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

      @Greg — $80 per month for the two of them … $40 per month per person :-)

  8. Grace Pamer
    28. Dec, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    I have to admit that being a stay-at-home mom makes the scenario in our house mind-numbing. I wake up every day seeing the same walls and same everything. This post awakens the adventurous spirit that has been hiding for years. I really hope I can have a road adventure with my husband and kids but my youngest is barely two months old. I guess I still have to wait for this to come true.

    • AffordAnything.org
      30. Dec, 2011 at 3:22 am #

      @Grace — Try brainstorming what adventures you and your family can have together. I once met a family that pulled all their kids (ages 5-12) out of school for a semester and ‘homeschooled’ the kids as they drove end-to-end across Australia. They also used that time to teach their kids about geography, culture, history, etc. — it was like the ultimate field trip.

      Two months old is a little young … but he’ll be 2 years old before you know it. And — actually — I was 2 months old when I moved to the U.S. (with my parents, of course). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my mom to carry 2-month-old me through a solid 24 hours of airplane rides!

  9. Wayne @ Young Family Finance
    03. Jan, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    It’s interesting how many “regular” expenses tie us down and limit us from doing things that many people long to do like travel. Great job at breaking it down and breaking the myth that people can’t afford to travel.

  10. Wendy
    05. Jan, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I discovered this more than 30 years ago :-) For about 17 years I lived in an underground house and had an organic CSA farm in the summer. Winters I traveled and camped in a van or pick-up camper for about 6 months. Unschooled my daughter. It was way cheaper and easier to flee Vermont winters and to camp all over in warm places in the US and Mexico :-) In the 1980′s, I could do it on $300/month for 2 people, a dog and a vehicle. I’m about to leave for full time on the road with $1000/month to spend for 2 of us old folks. Wish us well! :-)

    • AffordAnything.org
      05. Jan, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      @Wendy — that’s fantastic! Check back in and let me know how your full-time, on-the-road life is going! I’m sure you’ll have some wonderful adventures.

  11. Kylie Ofiu
    11. Jan, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    I was recently going over our figures for going to Tonga for 3 months and when I looked at renting our house out, accommodation over there etc… We would be ahead by thousands if we travelled. I have all the figures there, but my husband still cannot believe it. Considering how much we can rent our house for and how little we would have to pay elsewhere, not to mention the other reduced expenses, if planned right travelling can definitely be cheaper.

  12. bhenry
    19. Jan, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Loved this post! I also liked your response in the comments “Don’t forget, also, that you can travel with your kids, too! My mom and I spent many, many summers outside of the U.S. when I was as young as 3 and as old as 14. With a family of six, you could do a homeswap in another state or another country for 1-2 months.” Great ideas!

    • AffordAnything.org
      19. Jan, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

      @Bhenry — Thanks! I think a lot of people assume they can’t travel because they have kids — but I traveled overseas a lot as a child, and I’ve also met a lot of other families with children who are traveling together.

  13. DC
    21. Jan, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    I’m late to the party reading this post. To play the curmudgeon, some of your ideas don’t sound to me like they would play out as well as you suggest.

    * Standard apartment leases (at least in Georgia) explicitly forbid subletting, so any arrangement would have to be under the table. In reality, the landlord probably won’t care if you, the tenant, write a check in advance, and your renter reimburses you. Just don’t ask/don’t tell what you are doing.

    Can you really find someone who would want to live only one month in your place filled with your stuff? I suppose that can happen for people in their 20′s. Seems less likely the older you get. You are also risking your one-month renter ripping off some of your stuff. It happens.

    * Cell phone. If you are on a family plan with a 2-phone minimum, no savings there. Then again, your family plan might be $60/month vs. $80/month for individual plans. I’m unfamiliar with putting a cell phone on “hold”, but for a vacation house you can certainly put utilities, including the land line, on hold. BUT you still have to pay a minimum charge to maintain the accounts. It’s not zero.

    * How do you drop insurance on one car for one month? Cancel the policy, then renew? If both cars are insured on the same policy, you would lose your multi-car discount, so the savings is not half. If you have a loan on the car, the bank requires your car to be insured, so no dropping insurance. Plus you would have to trust that your friend would not be tempted to use your uninsured car while you’re gone. (Example: Borrow your car while his is in the shop.)

    Yes, you can save some money while on an extended vacation, but I have to question if one can really turn it into a “paid” vacation in the savings sense.

    • AffordAnything.org
      22. Jan, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      Hi DC –
      1) I’m a landlord in Georgia and my lease expressly permits subletting. I’ve also — as a renter — subletted my place in Colorado many times.
      2) I subletted my apartment for one month, with my place filled with stuff. I simply cleared the closet (by putting my clothes in the trunk of my car) and cleared a few drawers (again, by putting my clothes in the trunk of my car.) I subletted to a person who was brand-new to town and wanted to live somewhere for a month so that he could get to know the area before signing a long-term lease.
      3) You can easily put a cell phone on hold. I’ve done it at least a dozen times. I did NOT have to pay a minimum (with T-Mobile). The month(s) when my policy was on hold simply didn’t count towards my 2-year contract (they ‘paused’ the contract, then resumed it when I activated my phone again). This is a common practice among travelers.
      4) You can easily put a car insurance policy on hold. Again, I’ve done it several times. Call your agent to discuss your company’s policy. I was insured through a subsidiary of Progressive, and they were more than happy to accommodate.

      • DC
        22. Jan, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

        Hi Paula,

        1. Short answer: My bad. Long answer: I was already aware you are an Atlanta resident, and as a landlord you have the flexibility to allow or disallow subletting. I’d been thinking in terms of a standard out-of-the-box unmodified lease, the kind you might buy from a business supply store or print off the web. As I dug deeper into it, I realized that, do’h! standard leases for Georgia do allow for subletting with permission from the landlord. Years ago I was involved in the management of an apartment complex off Peachtree Battle in Buckhead, and the lease used by that complex explicitly forbade subletting. That was what I was recalling when writing earlier, thinking it was a standard-issue lease.

        Lesson learned: Your mileage may vary. Renters should review their lease terms, because the terms can vary from one landlord to the next. Even if the lease has stock verbiage allowing subletting with permission, some landlords simply will not allow it. Better still, if you plan to take long trips, ask the landlord if they allow subletting before you sign the lease.

        2. Okay, someone new to the area makes sense, and I’m glad that worked out for you. I’m older and too paranoid to consider renting my house for only one month. I still recall some of the weird stuff renters did to trash their units at that apartment complex, like finding a rotted turkey complete with maggots in the turned off refrigerator.

        3. Super! Sounds like you have a better deal. I’m with AT&T, did a little digging on “voluntary suspensions” and found this. “Monthly recurring fees accrue while the phone number is in a voluntary suspended status.” I think that refers to e911 service fees, etc., so it’s not a zero cost with AT&T. If you suspend service longer than 59 days, you lose ALL of your rollover minutes. That can be a big deal for some people. Older rollover minutes continue to expire while suspended.

        4. Cool, I did not know that. Since the State of Georgia requires auto insurance (not to mention bank car loans), how does that work out? Do you have to somehow prove/sign an affidavit the car will not be driven during the suspension?

        5. Another item on the cost side: pets. You have to make arrangements for your furry loved ones while you are out. That costs money if you have to board them. Ideally, a friend or maybe your one-month renter can care for your pets.

        • AffordAnything.org
          24. Jan, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

          Hi DC –

          You make a good point that a person should specifically look for a lease that permits subletting. Traveler communities (people who travel a lot) almost take that as a given — it’s as critical as the price and location.

          When I was searching for a roommate, I could guess who was a frequent traveler and who wasn’t, based on how quickly they asked about sublet polities. One girl asked about it right away — she asked about subletting policy even before she asked other basic questions like “What utilities are included?.” (Before she signed the lease, she clarified the policy from both the landlord’s point of view as well as how the other roommates feel about it.) She turned out to be a schoolteacher who goes somewhere tropical every summer. :-)

          Regarding the car insurance — I was in the state of Colorado when I put mine on hold, and my agent was happy to do it. (I think I annoyed him by asking him to do it so frequently!) No, he did not require an affidavit saying that the car won’t be driven. The responsibility to make sure that I had insurance before I drove the car was on me … which makes sense, since I’d bear the consequence/penalty of being caught driving without insurance.

          I’ve never had a car loan, but I suppose that people with car loans could not remove insurance from their vehicles. Just another reason to pay cash! :-)

          I’ve also never had rollover minutes, but that’s something to consider.

          One thing that’s important to remember is that — if you’re dedicated to traveling — you’ll most likely set up your life in a way that’s conducive to travel. It’s like there’s a “scanner” in your brain that looks for things that will tie you down or that will make travel more difficult. Once you develop that “scanner,” you naturally start to avoid things that will become obstacles.

          Or — if you do choose to have those things (like a dog or a garden), you only get it after you consider what will happen to it when you travel (e.g. a sibling can watch the dog, or you can set up an automatic sprinkler system for the garden.) In other words — you figure out the solution first, before you take on the responsibility/obligation.

          Novice travelers may not be in the habit of doing this … but it’ll start to happen naturally. You just need to catch the ‘travel bug’ first. :-)

      • Diane C
        20. Feb, 2014 at 12:14 am #

        Oh, I just can’t stand it! I’m going to be the grammar meanie.

        The past tense of sublet is…wait for it…drumroll, please… sublet! There is no such word as “subletted”. “Subletting” works, but “subletted”? Never.

        Other than that bit of fingernails on the chalkboard, the article was good food for thought.

        • Afford Anything
          20. Feb, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

          @Diane — Thank you! I genuinely love grammar lessons. I subscribe to the free Grammar Girl weekly newsletter, in order to strengthen my spelling and grammar. (She writes about topics like “imply vs. infer” and “kneeled vs. knelt.”)

  14. Susannah
    23. Sep, 2014 at 6:56 am #

    Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear
    and screamed. There was a hermit crab insixe and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely offf topic
    but I had too tell someone!

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