Travel feels free when you’re broke and platinum…

37

Hopefully you’ve all gotten a chance to read Nick’s excellent post about the joy (and myth) of “free” travel. In the post he does a great job outlining the pit-falls of thinking of award travel as “free”. His points make sense to me and I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion on this, but as the second half of a site called “Travel is Free” which bounced around the internet for a solid decade, I feel somewhat obligated to play devil’s advocate a bit. During our early “Travel is Free” days after all, we used the tagline “how we the broke travel.” Those early travel days felt like an especially good case study for how travel could be thought of as “free”.

Let me explain…

Broke and platinum…

Drew and I used to joke (in half seriousness) about one day writing a book called “Broke and Platinum” which would outline some of our stories as a broke newlywed couple experiencing luxury travel and premium status in an often hilarious juxtaposition. We’d spend one night being embarrassingly cheap, and the next on a business class flight.

Hitch-hiking in Germany
On Easter Island, we opted for camping to avoid what felt like expensive hotels and hostels.

When we got married in 2011, Drew had earned plenty of miles for flights all over the world. But he hadn’t learned all that much about hotel points yet. The blog was not yet making any money so we had no income, definitely no trust funds or anything like that, and despite trying to save up before we left, our entry-level jobs had left us with a savings that was quite meager. This made us feel flight-rich but broke in every other way.

For example that first year of travel had an incredible itinerary that included destinations in Asia, Australia, the South Pacific, and South America. But we were filling in the gaps by essentially dirt-bagging, (to steal a term from my rock-climbing friends). I remember arguing with a hotel owner in Vietnam for instance until he agreed to let us share a tiny twin bed so we could pay just ~$7 instead of ~$14. Then of course we spent a handful of nights sleeping in the airport in Tokyo when the accommodations were more expensive than we’d expected. And we did some couch-surfing as well – some with the actual couch-surfing website and some by just visiting friends, friends-of-friends, and sometimes friendly strangers. We also did our fair share of hitch-hiking, mostly in Europe, but also some in Asia and the South Pacific.

By the end of that first year of travel, we saw ~20 some countries and, if I recall, maintained an average daily budget under $20. (Though it may have even been closer to $10.)  Many of our travel costs had to be “free” because there was no other alternative.

When $0 is the only option, isn’t that free?

You may be rolling your eyes and preparing to type in the comments: “Most people aren’t willing to just hitch hike and sleep on couches.”

While that is obviously true (and I’m in no way trying to sell you on this style of exhausting travel)…you have to admit it’s hard to tell the person who is hitch-hiking and sleeping on couches (and using miles to fly to those couches) that their travel isn’t free. That style of vagabonding costs lots and lots of energy, patience, comfort, etc. But very little money. (And when we use the word “free”, we’re not usually connoting those other, non-money resources.)

With almost no savings, I sometimes picked up Fiver gigs to try to make some money. One of these gigs had me taking photos like this for a language class in as many destinations as I could. This was about 6 months into our trip in Guam. My jeans were a good indicator of our dirtbag status.

If you’d known us at that time and said “how on earth are you paying for all this travel?”, you would have been just as likely to roll your eyes at an answer that started with some sort of explanation about how we’re paying in miles and points but this shouldn’t be misconstrued as “free”.  When people were asking us how we were paying for all this travel, they wanted to know how much money it was costing (and where a pair of unemployed, no-trust-fund kids were getting this money.)

Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with the points Nick made in his post. But I would say that if anything can ever be described as “free”, then sometimes travel can be called free as well. If it’s somehow not depleting your meager savings as you hop around the globe for 10 months, it’s hard to know what else to call it.

Truly “free” travel is its own kind of adventure.

Even if we throw miles and points travel entirely out of the equation, a not-insignificant portion of our first year of travel consisted of truly free tactics such as those I’ve alluded to already. (Again, like hitch-hiking, couch-surfing, visiting friends, etc.) And while I’ve said that I’m definitely not trying to sell anyone on this exhausting travel style, if I’m being honest, some of our most incredible travel experiences came from that year of travel.

There are so many different and equally rewarding ways to travel of course. But for myself, I can say that traveling on a strict budget produced an entirely different (and definitely more adventurous) journey than the more stable and luxurious travel we experienced as our blog started making money.

In the first year of our travels, we found ourselves in Guam unprepared for the US-level prices and unsure of where to stay. With not many hotel points at this time, we deliberated and deliberated about what to do and finally decided to rent a car so we could explore the island and have a place to sleep. We knew of a beach area with public showers and bathrooms so even though it wasn’t ideal, this felt like the best idea we had. But the nights were uncomfortably warm, the local grocery stores were not keen on letting us spend the whole night in their parking lots, and it was getting harder and harder to find places to park for the night. Luckily, we’d visited a flea market when we were scoping out cheap, used snorkel gear and we’d met a talkative and friendly vendor who’d recently retired from the Navy. On the last day of our car rental, we ran into him at the flea market again and much to our relief, he invited us to stay with him. We spent the next week and a half exploring the island in his jeep, snorkeling on base where the coral was incredibly pristine, and having endlessly interesting conversations.

This is one of the spots our new friend and Guam host Malcom took us to in his jeep.
Malcom was an excellent spontaneous host for our time in Guam.

That’s not the only story we have like that – many times when we were just beginning to feel hopeless, a stranger would come through for us and restore our faith in humanity. The struggles were real, but the wins were all the better.

Now in my mid 30’s, I don’t know if I have energy to be that daring. But I don’t think you have to travel like a “dirt bag” to replicate this phenomenon. Even if you have no intention of hitch-hiking or staying with strangers, we’ve also had incredibly rewarding trips visiting friends who live abroad. This gives a local’s-view of a place which is very hard to achieve on your own, and a front-row view of a culture. We’ve visited friends in Cairo, mainland China, Borneo, Germany, Myanmar and all across the States as well. Some of these friends we’ve known very well, and some we got to know more closely once we arrived. But each time it’s worth it and adds a new dimension to the destination we’d not accessed on our own.

While free travel may be mostly a myth, I have a journal full of stories from those early days of travel that really did cost $0 actual dollars, and produced incredible adventures. Truly free travel isn’t for everyone, but us dirtbags know it’s real.

 

 

 

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JOHN VONFANGE

Nice to hear from you again! Really miss the old blog.
It was the best. Original, inspiring, and empowering!

Mack Speso

Free travel to me means no out of pocket expense. It’s possible to do but even on a shoestring or dirtbag budget, your travels weren’t free. The list of expenses on Travel Is Free illustrates exactly that. Miss the blog. It was the best.

Josh

Its more like “heavily discounted travel”.
“Free travel” is fun to say will get you clicks but at the end of the day its a myth. Not free.

Larry K

There’s really no feeling quite like getting some hot water in a very fancy teapot in order to have ramen in one’s adjoining rooms in the Paris Hyatt Vendome.

Mantis

Travel may be free (or close to it), but living isn’t.

Dima

I enjoyed the read, but this is not much of a counter-point to Nick’s article. My takeaway is that travel can be really cheap if you have no obligations or dependents, but even then you still ‘pay’ extra with time and stress.

Cavedweller

Not really I booked my last trip in an hour ATH 9/5/23. ATH>ORD flt was 60K on AA cheap seats my first point increase..Once u been doing this it’s Very Easy to do simple trips..ALOHA

GUWonder

There was a time when I thought it was crazy for people with extremely limited financial means to go around the world as a tourist. I have long since come around to giving tourists who travel around on the cheap a lot of credit for seeing as much as they can on as little as they can because the persistence and passion to not be restricted by conventions and economic constraints are examples of inspiring dedication to the ability of people to think and act outside the box in a way that expands such individuals’ knowledge, experience and appreciation of different people.

David

Very True! What an inspiring comment!

Raghu Narayanan

Great Post Carol — Raghu

JL100

I pay a lot in annual fees for my travel and the way I look at it all in, it’s usually a 60-75% discount when I factor in everything. That makes it a lot easier to do more on each trip and more trips. I had to pay full price recently for a resort hotel stay and I was like wow I would definitely not be doing this as often at these rates!

Usernamechuck

I think this is an important response to Nick. Since a person *could * travel for free(ish), it follows that flying around on points need not be non-free. Sure, most of us choose the fancy IHG life (or more) rather than hostels, but the base travel part is free…supplemented for fancy digs.

Rob

I don’t “dirtbag” travel any more. But I’m also not like my like-aged friends who need expensive, luxury accommodations. I will spend less in 6 months of travel than most of them will in 2-3 weeks and have more fun!

I love to read about experiences like yours!

ArkansasTraveler

I loved reading Travel is Free years ago. My wife and I had wanderlust, and I loved reading your blog for ideas. I could never get my wife to be as carefree, but we did have a few adventures of our own that couldn’t occur with four kids later in life. I agree with many that you will spend what you have to spend, and you will get along with what you have. Just like I know what laundry detergent ‘should’ cost per load when I go grocery shopping, I know what I like to spend for food, accommodations and activities when traveling. I cannot always keep to my budget; however, having a budget – whether in cash or points – does help. Again, I have always enjoyed reading what you and Drew are up to.

Cavedweller

Yours is the third post on this Free Travel stuff 2 more to Go..
Shameless Greed on this Subject Matter.
V Bernie

Cavedweller

More Clicks then Nick lets see if your post can beat Greg’s.
Good job as usual..

Troy

You and Drew gave me early confidence to get outside my comfort zone, and I am so very happy you’ve landed here! I’ve made friends all over the world thanks to points and miles, and have had the luxury to invite some on my travels.
The US credit card game absolutely makes travel free in a way nobody else on earth can access. Explaining to my French friend how our week long Virgin Voyages cruise cost me less than half an Amex Business Gold sign-up bonus put a smile on his face, because he knows the game from my exploits. But his bank gives him nothing for his business; another friend with millions in his bank gets a bottle of wine each year from them.
I’d argue that travel IS free for those in the US, because the rest of the world is not getting 2% everywhere, let alone 100,000 miles to get a card.

whocares

Thanks for posting your experience. I also didn’t know much about hotel points (As I used to stay in hostels, cheap hotel a lot – so didn’t care, and later living in apartments)…I’m still pissed that Hostelworld deleted all my travel stay history!

…but then I started learning about IHG from both of you on the Travel is Free website…and Redbird, etc…and other bloggers/own analysis. Which coincided with a different phase of my life. Came at a good time!

A little bit late to the “travel hacking” game- 2014, though I did use miles on a massive OneWorld Business RTW in 2003-4 🙂

I’ve actually thought I’ve had a quantum entanglement connection with Drew from a past life. I think he was an English sailor at one time – that’s really another story…

If you get tired / want to learn more beyond just hopscotching in the physical realm…look inward. A whole new adventure awaits. ENEMY –> IN ME.

As for me…I’m close to ditching hotels and going all camping.

Have you two camped for extended periods of time in other countries – with your own gear? Or just here and there? I know you’ve slept in cars and what not — which I hate doing..so only once in a blue moon, and ideally – never more.

Cavedweller

Look at Hawaii on the Beach a VW bus lots to do as in ur Right There..ALOHA

Last edited 25 days ago by Cavedweller
whocares

i have 2 months of camping in Japan and Australia rough planned out for next year. already have air ticket booked – just need to change return dates (ANA) rent a car and go. Australia has really good guidebooks for camping.

right now…just pausing here in vegas after camping the last week in california. Average – $10/night! mix of free, $10, and $20/night spots. My Vegas pad is $10/night all-in! thank you caesar diamond.

Aleks

I followed Travel is Free blog for few years, and it gave me many travel and lifehack ideas – thank you Carry and Drew.

Now you have a great baggage of experiences and stories to remember which worth more than any money. And it was perfect timing for you both to do it. Travel is Free-dom. And you had it then.

Personally, I read your Africa posts to figure out my own 2-week safari plan, and it helped. Most people spend large sums on safari, but we were able to have amazing journey with very modest budget.
Nick post is correct but too long, yours is also right on point from a different perspective. Travel grants us some freedoms no mater is any payments involved or not.

Last edited 26 days ago by Aleks
michael

did you acquire the airline points for FREE?

[…] Read more […]

docntx

Thank you for our biggest smile of the day!

Grant

Hi Carrie, thanks for your counterpoint, but I think I like Nick’s version of “free travel” more than your version of “free travel” 🙂

Dr. McFrugal

Great post, Caroline. It’s fun to read about your dirtbag traveling days.

While you indeed demonstrated that a couple can travel on such a minimal budget, it wasn’t completely free. There’s no such thing as a free lunch .

I will say though, when I think about Travel Is Free, I thought of it more as “travel is freedom”. Geographic arbitrage and location freedom. Time freedom. Freedom from possessions. Freedom from needing a lot of money. Etc.

Just like in the site logo with the bird flying free from its cage. Travel is free

Nathan

Nothing I could ever do…. You are brave and adventurous!

Frank

Spot on! So many bloggers already have at least some money, so choosing cash or points for them is a real option. In 2017, my spouse and I spent 190 days traveling to 19 countries, spending a total of $30 a day for basic expenses. When you have less, you find a way. When we’ve had more, we tend to spend more. Now 5 years later, we eek out a little more income and spend $50 a day average on 60 days of travel in a year, luxurious by comparison to 5 years prior.

Al C

Thanks for sharing your experiences – it sounded amazing (although also very frightening). “Free” can certainly mean different things to different people. But from a personal finance standpoint, your year abroad not working was not “free”. It had a large cost on your personal finances. One I’m guessing you’d pay again, but still a large financial cost, just the same. For instance, in terms of opportunity cost, if instead of spending the year abroad spending $5k, you both stayed at home and worked hard and lived frugally- saving another $10k, and then invested the combined $15k in a retirement account. After 40 years at 8% growth with no additional funding, you’d have $326k saved for retirement. Of course, it could still have all been worth it to you – that’s a personal choice but people need to think through the issues to make sure they’re making an informed decision and not being blinded by “free”.

Troy

Exploring the world in your 20s and 30s vs having more money to hopefully be able to explore the world in your 70s is a clear choice for me. At some point you need to embrace life now, regardless of the financials. Never met anyone who regretted seeing too much of the world.

Al C

I think I was clear in my message that I wasn’t prioritizing saving up money for a year to invest over traveling for a year. Of course it’s a personal decision but people need to know the costs – there are always costs. I don’t think I’ve met anyone specifically who regretted seeing too much of the world, but every day I work with elderly patients who never saved money properly and have to make very tough life decisions.

Cavedweller

Good Post u must Always be Thinking..It’s Nice to be Nice but take care for ur retirement IF u can have one lots can’t.

Last edited 25 days ago by Cavedweller
whocares

and then if you think we’re in the “end times” or moment of great transition….all those real estate values and retirment eggs are well…gonna be a lot more irrelevant.

Carpe Diem!

Also…the world isn’t quite what it used to be…massive population increases…many cities are not anything like they were just 1.5 decades ago, 1 decade ago.

Of course…if you care more for natural things…maybe less relevant. ALthough I’ll say even that changes – know much about bark beetle damaged forests in the Canada/US/Europe?

not to mention forest fires…scuba places getting degraded, etc…

Joey

I can relate as I used to travel like you guys when I was in my 20s. I used to couchsurf and stay at hostels all the time and will admit I think at that age I’d much prefer to do that than stay in a 5-star hotel for free and not meet anyone.

king

Different view points are good to read