How to Travel on a Budget

Okay. You say.  I get it. Travel is important. It’s fun. I should do it already.

Great! I return. You already understand that seeing the world is one of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. Now that we have that established... what’s keeping you? 

It’s expensive, you counter.

Okay, let’s talk about that. 

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In our almost-three years of marriage, Caleb and I have gone on 14 road trips. For half of our marriage, we were also living entirely on his teacher’s salary. We’re talking >35k a year.

Here’s another thing: around a year ago, I veered off the “conventional path” to success, abandoned my studies to become a teacher before they started accruing debt, and have been working odd jobs in conjunction with doing freelance work on the side. At this point, I’m making about what Caleb makes. For us, that’s actually a decent amount of money. For typical travel expenditures… not so much.

Oh, and another—we’ve never gone into debt to travel. Ever.

But... how? You ask, not certain you want an answer (you’re probably about 75% sure I’m about to pitch you a MLM pyramid scam or a timeshare or something, huh? It’s okay, I forgive you.) 

Enter: minimalism. 

And peanut butter. 

Follow? Yeah, of course you do! Here’s how it all plays out: 

In the year/months leading up to our trip, we cut spending by a lot. No takeout. No drive-through coffee. No superfluous spending at all. Instead, we spend intentionally. 

Which means two things. One, I already explained—we cut out unnecessary spending. However, when I see canned beans, granola, and yes, peanut butter,  go on sale… I pick up some. I’m a shameless grocery store shelf-sweeper. If I find a good sale, it’s all coming home with me. All the consumables we use while traveling are purchased this way.

Resist.

Resist.

This protocol doesn’t end when we hit the road. When we travel, we very rarely eat out, if at all. No souvenirs are bought (aside from bumper stickers.) As for lodging, we don’t sleep in hotels: instead opting to reserve campsites and the occasional Airbnb (usually around the time we have to do laundry.)

Travel is one part of our life where minimalism has stuck (just... don’t look in my closets, mkay?) Because without it, we wouldn’t be able to do this. We’ve gotten to the point where we can distinguish our needs from our wants and decide accordingly. (With practice—we have definitely had weak, “I’m-tired-of-cooking-over-a-fire” moments where we opted to stay in an Econolodge for the night or buy a $20 bison burger from a tourist trap.)

Here’s our process.


Envision.   Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Even if you only have one destination in mind, grab a road atlas and chart a course. Chances are, you’ll see that your journey will take you through or near gorgeous locations that you hadn’t even thought about visiting. Take, for example: Garretson, SD. We stayed in a campsite in this town because it was a good place to rest on our way to Glacier National Park. While we were there, we happened upon Palisades State Park:

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And to this day, it remains one of our favorite state parks in the entire country.

Note Expenses.  Calculate the mileage between stops, the time you can take off, and total round-trip distance. We’ve found that it’s important to do this even before budgeting cash—we almost always have to whittle down our envisioned trip by, um, a LOT during this step.  (That quick jaunt up through California to the very tip of Alaska will take how long, you say?)

Budget.  Now to the fun part. What are the entry fees for the campsites/Airbnb’s/hostels you booked? How many miles per gallon does your car get, and how much does gas cost where you’re headed? Are there any excursions or tours you’re planning on taking? If you don’t have gear already, what do you need, and how much does that cost? Add it all up and then double it to be safe. There’s your travel budget. Now squirrel it away in a savings account and don’t. Touch. It.

Prioritize. At this point, you may find that you need to cut some destinations from your trip. It happens! Argentina was farther away than you thought. We’ve all been there. For example, on our last trip, our main priorities were Zion NP, the Redwoods, and the Pacific Northwest (Olympia, Seattle, etc.) We’re skipping a ton of other gorgeous locations like Yosemite, the Sequoias, and Capitol Reef, to name a few. One day, we’ll plan a trip (or trips) that bring us to those places. Part of the minimalist lifestyle (the central part, I’d argue) is about learning to let go. 

Make Space.  Don’t forget to give yourself time to take in the beauty around you. You may also find that, instead of staying near the Grand Canyon for three days, you’ll stay for one and then flee to Vegas because someone (me, it was me) got a nasty sinus infection and desperately needed a doctor and a whooooole lot o’ drugs. Give your itinerary some flexibility. 

You don’t have to see it all. And here’s the best part: 

You can’t! So let it go, have fun, and drive safe.

And take selfies.

And take selfies.