Here’s How to See the World for Cheap — And Maximize Your Travel Rewards

International travel is costly, but that doesn’t mean you have to forego seeing the world. Here’s how to make memories without spending an arm and a leg.
10/10/19 | By Lindsay Frankel
Female traveler in Santorini

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Whether you’ve always wanted to go scuba diving in Australia, hiking in Machu Picchu, or beachcombing in Fiji, getting to the bottom of your bucket list will likely require some budgeting and saving. International travelers spent an average of $3,273 on a foreign vacation in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But international travel doesn’t have to be out of reach just because you’re low on cash. There are several strategies you can use to make seeing the world more affordable.

Life is short; you could take a vacation every single year for the rest of your life and still not see all the awe-inspiring places out there. That’s why it’s important for avid travelers to spend as little as possible on their adventures. If you can manage to curb your expenses, you’ll be able to experience more of what the world has to offer.

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What are the benefits of travel?

Travel can have a significant impact on your physical and mental health. According a report from the Global Coalition on Aging, those who travel less frequently have a higher risk of heart attack and death.

Traveling also had an immediate impact on stress levels, according to the study. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents reported a drop in their stress levels within just a day or two. And those effects stick around for at least 45 days, according to another study.

People even derive satisfaction from planning a trip, more so than they would when planning to purchase a possession, according to a 2014 study. The experience of traveling is fulfilling from beginning to end.

How to keep costs low while you travel

If those benefits sound pretty sweet to you but you’re not exactly swimming in $100 bills, consider some of these cost-cutting strategies.

Comparison shop for cheap deals

Start looking well in advance and set alerts to remind you of changing prices. Consult multiple flight and hotel booking sites (Orbitz and CheapOAir are two of our favorites) to compare costs. Use the map and price calendar tools on Google to determine the best time to fly and the cheapest places to go.

For accommodations, check out Airbnb, which frequently offers lower prices than major hotel brands. There are also countless hostels abroad that offer cheap accommodations if you don’t mind sharing a room. Or if you want to meet locals and stay for free, consider Couchsurfing.

Travel off-season

Prices vary greatly depending on when you travel. Plane tickets and hotel rooms can cost double or even triple in busy seasons, so avoid trips during major holidays and stay away from Europe in the summer if you want to save.

Use your points and miles wisely

If you’re strategic with using your points and miles, you may be able to fly for next to nothing. It all starts with choosing the right credit card — one that offers you the maximum return on your overall spending. If you travel frequently, that means picking a card with extra points for dining and travel purchases. Once you’ve racked up enough points, you can book your trip through your credit card issuer’s travel portal or transfer your points to airline or hotel loyalty programs. If you have a premium credit card, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your points could stretch even further when you put them toward travel.

Make money while traveling

Traveling is somewhat of a double whammy on your finances, especially if you don’t get paid time off. To avoid losing out on income during your trip, consider a side hustle that you can do remotely while you travel, rent out your home or apartment on Airbnb while you’re away, or find a job in your destination city.

Limit food and transportation costs abroad

Eating out for three meals a day can be as expensive as your hotel. So buy food at local markets and grocery stores, and cook in your apart-hotel, Airbnb, or kitchen in your hotel or hostel (it will be important to select accommodations with kitchens if you plan to go this route). And rather than renting a car or taking taxis, consider ridesharing services or public transportation, where available.

Plan ahead and budget

Getting ready for your trip can be half the fun of traveling, so use the months ahead of time to seek out inexpensive (yet incredible) local restaurants, plan an itinerary to avoid paying for tours, estimate your total costs, and set a budget for each day. You’ll enjoy anticipating your trip, and you may be able to curb expenses just by setting some spending limits.

How to fund traveling the world

Let’s assume you’re totally broke. You still shouldn’t miss out on the joys of traveling, since there are several ways you may be able to fund your trip. Whether you earn money during your travels, work in exchange for your stay, join a volunteer trip, or raise the money before you go, it’s possible to completely offset the cost of your vacation.

As an added bonus, many of these opportunities allow you to meet locals and have an authentic experience at your destination. Here are a few ways to pay for your trip abroad:

  • Work remotely while traveling
  • Start (and grow) a travel blog
  • Teach English abroad
  • Work as an au pair
  • Work for an airline or cruise line
  • Work on an organic farm in exchange for housing and food
  • Become a tour guide or travel photographer
  • House-sit or pet-sit abroad in exchange for your stay
  • Teach scuba diving, yoga, or fitness classes abroad
  • Travel with a volunteer group
  • Crowdfund your trip
  • Use your welcome bonus from a rewards card

What jobs allow you to travel the world?

There are some jobs you can complete while traveling in exchange for all or part of your trip’s expenses, as well as others that pay you enough to offset the cost of your trip. With some opportunities, you might actually get a salary on top of paid travel expenses. There are enough options that you should be able to find something that meets your needs and interests. Workaway is a great site to check for all kinds of international jobs, from working with a family on a farm to helping out at a local school. Here are some good options:

Teach English

There are plenty of teaching jobs available in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and salaries can range anywhere from $600 to $4,000 per month, depending on your qualifications and where you teach. Some employers may even provide free housing as part of your contract. Many jobs don’t require a teaching certificate or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification, but you’ll usually need a college degree.

Work on a cruise ship

When you work as a crew member on a cruise ship, traveling is part of your job. The compensation varies greatly depending on your position and the cruise line you work for, but entry-level workers can expect to make around $1,200 to $1,500 per month. If that seems low to you, keep in mind that your room and board will usually be covered. So if you can avoid shopping too much when you get off the boat, you’ll likely be able to save most of your earnings. There are a number of positions for different skill sets on cruise ships as well, from youth instructors to hosts to disc jockeys.

Become a flight attendant

If you don’t mind spending a lot of your time on an airplane and want to travel the world for free, consider becoming a flight attendant. Flight attendants in the U.S. earn an average of $75,450 annually, but salaries can vary a lot between jobs.

Work for an international nonprofit organization

If changing the world while traveling sounds awesome to you, apply for a position at an international nonprofit organization. Nonprofits need people with all kinds of skills, from accountants to creatives to managers. Check out Idealist to begin your search.

Work as an au pair

If you love kids, you could become an au pair (or nanny) for a child abroad. Many parents prefer au pairs who speak English because they hope their child will become fluent. Check out AuPairWorld to start your search for a family.

Become a tour guide

For most tour guide positions, you’ll need some knowledge of the local area or a background in history. You won’t be able to show up in a city and become a tour guide your first day. But if you’ve been to a location before and enjoy leading large groups, you could provide tours to fellow travelers in exchange for pay.

Teach yoga, fitness, or scuba diving

There are some teaching jobs you can do anywhere. If you like the idea of practicing yoga all over the world, teaching an aerobics class in a foreign country, or spending your days deep in the ocean, there are plenty of opportunities available. Just know that you’ll need some sort of certification for all of these, but you don’t necessarily need a degree.

Get an international house-sitting or pet-sitting job

If you can find a cheap flight to your destination, you may be able to get your accommodations free of charge by looking after someone’s house while they’re away or taking care of their pets. Nomador is a great resource for finding places to stay in exchange for this type of work.

What are the best cards for travel rewards?

If you’re going to be traveling frequently, you’ll want to choose a card with the best return for how much you typically spend on your trips. Keep in mind that premium travel rewards cards with annual fees won’t net any cost to you if you spend enough to offset that expense with rewards points. And if you travel at least once a year, that’s pretty easy to do with most of these cards. Plus, many cards come with premium travel perks that will lead to an even more enjoyable and stress-free vacation. Here are our favorites:

Card name Annual fee Welcome offer Foreign transaction fee
Chase Sapphire Reserve $450 Earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months None
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Card $95 (waived first year) Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months None
Citi Prestige Card $495 Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within 3 months of account opening None
Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card $0 Earn 30,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months None

Chase Sapphire Reserve

While the annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Reserve may seem high, it’s actually a better value when compared to the Chase Sapphire Preferred. That’s because you’ll get a $300 annual travel credit, which drops the net cost of the annual fee to $150. And since you get triple points on travel and dining and 50% more value when you redeem them for travel in the Chase portal, you’re essentially getting 4.5 points per dollar. This means you’d need to spend about $3,333 on travel and dining per year to offset the fee. If you applied for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has a $95 annual fee, you’d need to spend about $3,800 to cover that cost.

You also get many more travel perks with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, from airport lounge access to a credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. And it comes with robust protections like primary rental car insurance as well as trip cancellation and interruption insurance.

Capital One Venture Rewards Card

We love this card because the rewards points are totally straightforward. You earn 10X miles on bookings with Hotels.com through January 2020 and 2X miles on every purchase, every day, not just travel expenses. And there’s a generous 50,000 point early spend bonus as well. You’ll also earn 10X the points on bookings with Hotels.com.

You’ll get a credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck with this card as well, plus secondary rental car coverage and travel accident insurance. The best part? The annual fee is waived the first year.

Citi Prestige Card

While this card has a $495 annual fee, the highest of any card on our list, it also comes with some really unique perks. You get 5X points on airline purchases, travel agencies, and restaurants; 3X points on hotels and cruise lines; and 1X points on all other purchases. You’ll also get a $250 annual travel credit, access to airport lounges through Priority Pass, and your fourth night free for up to two hotel stays a year through ThankYou.com.

There are also a number of protections available with this card, from secondary rental car insurance to lost luggage reimbursement to emergency evacuation insurance.

Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card

For people just starting out with travel rewards, a no-annual-fee card might be the way to go — and this one has some pretty serious travel perks. You’ll get 3X points on eligible dining, transportation, travel, and streaming service purchases; 1X points on other purchases. Plus, you earn 30,000 points when you open a card, which is very compelling for a fee-free card.

The catch? There aren’t many additional travel perks, and while there are no foreign transaction fees to worry about, businesses in some countries are less likely to accept American Express. So you’ll need to have a backup Visa or Mastercard in your wallet when you travel abroad.

How to get maximum travel benefits from your rewards card

While credit cards are a great way to earn extra money just for completing your everyday purchases, you can earn even more rewards if you use them strategically. Here’s how:

Choose the right credit card (and use it)

You’ll want to pick a credit card based on how much you spend and what you spend money on the most. So if you’re a frequent traveler, that’s going to be a card that has a significant return on travel and dining purchases. From there, make sure you use your card for all your travel and dining purchases to get the most rewards points possible.

Research travel partners and loyalty programs

If you’ve earned elite status in a loyalty program from flying frequently on a particular airline or staying at a hotel chain, your points could go further when you transfer them to your credit card’s travel partners. So when choosing a card, be sure to check which travel partners are eligible for transfer. Also pay attention to the transfer ratio and make sure you’re not losing money in the transfer. To calculate the total value of your points once transferred, divide the cash price by the number of total points needed.

For example, if you’d need 100,000 points to purchase a $1,200 ticket, the value of each point would be worth $0.012 (1,200 / 100,000 = 0.012).

Use your credit cards strategically

The travel rewards card you choose may not be the best one for your everyday purchases. For example, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve only offers 1X points per dollar spent in non-bonus categories, the Chase Freedom Unlimited gets you 1.5% cash back on every purchase. If you use this card for your everyday spending, you can transfer the points to your Chase Sapphire Reserve and stretch them further toward travel. That’s just one example of how you can earn more points by paying attention to which credit card you use for each purchase.

Keep up with the payments

Your rewards points will add up to a whole lot of nothing if you end up paying interest on your purchases. To ensure you get the most value from your card, set a budget and make sure to pay off your balance in full every month. This will also protect your credit score from declining, so you’ll have the opportunity to apply for other rewards cards in the future.

Use your rewards points to book travel

If you use your rewards points for shopping on Amazon, you’re losing money. But if you use them for travel, you’re getting the most bang for your buck, especially if you have a premium rewards card from Chase.

The bottom line

You don’t need to be sitting on stacks of cash to travel the world. There are a number of jobs, volunteer positions, and other opportunities that let you travel for free. And if none of these sound appealing to you, you could still snag a free flight just by taking advantage of a rewards card welcome offer.

Ultimately, it’s up to you when it comes to how much you spend traveling abroad. Cut costs where you can, and you’ll be able to travel more frequently. And the more time you spend planning your vacation, the more you’ll make travel a part of your everyday life. So get out there, start planning your trip, and use the right tools to get the best price you possibly can. Here’s to filling up your passport!

#1 Premium Travel Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Benefits

  • 50,000 point sign-up bonus
  • 3X on travel after earning your $300 travel credit
  • 3X points at restaurants
  • Access to Priority Pass airport lounges
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