Traveling Tips!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

As you may have noticed, traveling is a big priority for me and B. I grew up traveling internationally a lot (and am so, so thankful to my parents for that), and from the early days of our relationship, getaways have been B and my favorite things. We love every bit of the process — scrounging the Internet for cheap travel, finding the perfect lodging (not always our specialty), putting together an itinerary, gathering recommendations, spending our days inspired and refreshed in a new place, meeting new people, seeing new sites, perspectives and cultures, getting completely lost ;) There's nothing better.

This photo is from our first vacation together after a year of dating. I was so nervous the whole weekend! 

We're often asked how we can afford to travel so much, and the truth is that while we don't both have unlimited time off (B does, but that's a new policy at his job) or unlimited piles of cash at our disposal (womp womp), we still truly believe that travel (and lots of it!) is still totally doable. It just takes a little more prep and planning before booking.

We're not experts on this at all, but we've learned a few tips over the past few years we thought we'd share. We'd LOVE to hear where's on your travel list, your favorite places to go and any tips you have to make the most of it all ;)

Make it a priority. If you want to, that is. Both Brian and I are as Type A as they come, so there's a budget for everything (I can tell you the exact month we're set to retire thanks to the dozens of spreadsheets Brian updates on our finances each month...). For us, paying our monthly bills is the most important, followed by meeting our goals for our various retirement accounts. To anxious me, a traditional savings account for when our furnace gives in and our car simultaneously breaks down is next on the list, but after that, travel is key. In January we decide how much we're willing to spend on travel for the year and prioritize places and opportunities from there, taking into account family vacations and travel for things like weddings.

To make it a priority, we sacrifice elsewhere. For example, our eating out expenses have declined considerably over the years. To see friends, we mostly hang out at each others' homes and host potlucks. Also, both B and I take our lunches to work every day and try to eat out only for leisure, not out of laziness (in my experience, it works best with dedicated meal planning, a grocery budget and a few staples always on hand). We also don't go to bars, coffee shops, to the movies, or take cabs, really. These are little expenses, but they add up. And to us, if it all adds up to an extra trip, we'd rather do that. Again, it totally depends on what's important to you. For me, I enjoy the cup of coffee B makes at home that I can enjoy in bed in my pajamas a lot more than I would for $3 for the same cup at Starbucks.

Let's do disclaimers in italics, yes? ;) I want to point out that over our short time as adults and together we've had to pay off loans (student and car) and medical bills have come up. Those have always come first (alongside regular bills) at those times. I realize that everybody's situation is different, that we're very lucky to be in the place that we're in with two incomes, but my point is that with some extra planning, I think dollars can go further than they do (Brian's no doubt rolling his eyes that I'm giving financial advice, ha!). 

Budget days off: Brian's work recently changed his paid time off policy to being unlimited, and I have a really generous plan, so we're very lucky in this regard. Still, I take the time to plan out what I think my calendar year will look like at the beginning of the year (I try to roll over five days each year and save five in case I get sick or for unexpected time off) and plan things from there.

Because we do tend to take a decent amount of time off, I think it's nice to tell our employers in advance, especially for long trips. For example, when we went on our honeymoon in September, I got it approved in January. But even for short trips, I think it's nice to have it on everyone's calendars in advance. Besides, I swear trips are cheaper the sooner you book them. You can take the risk of hoping the flight doesn't sell out and prices dip, but more often than not we find that prices only go up.

If you don't have many days off, a short trip is often the best type of trip. Most of our domestic trips start with a Thursday night flight and a late Sunday night or red-eye Monday morning flight home (three full days of exploring but only 1 PTO day!). For some reason, in our favor, those flights are always the cheapest, too.

But a trip doesn't have to include airfare or be far. One of my favorite getaways was camping in Wisconsin together, eating takeout pizza and drinking canned wine under the stars. Prioritizing the time off is key.

It's important to note that both of our families live in the Chicago suburbs, a big bonus for us. We never have to use PTO days to see them or pay to travel (and we get to see them often ;) We'd have to spend a lot more time and vacation days on that otherwise. 

Do your research: There are so many travel sites out there that promise the best deals, but we're loyal to Google Flights for airfare and Airbnb for lodging. We have friends that swear by travel agents or sites like Scott's Cheap Flights or Momondo, but in our limited experience, we've always found better deals on our own. And when booking hotels, we start with discounted sites but always call the hotel directly (you get the best rate that way).

A quick note on Google Flights: It's basically a search engine for flights that pulls in pricing from numerous airlines into one place, so you easily browse prices by destination and date. It's great for when you know exactly where you need to go and when because you can set price alerts to track flight prices so you're able to book when prices drop. But it's even better when you don't quite have a destination in mind because you can really easily browse flights from your home airport.

I give up on trying to find out what day and time is the best time to book flights (I think flight prices just go up after a certain number of seats book), but I do think weekends are the worst time to buy. 

Consider off season travel: A lot of my friends are teachers and unfortunately have to take their trips during the summer months. We try to avoid this as much as possible for a few reasons. First, it's so much more costly to travel during peak holiday times. Our trip to Croatia was double the price it would have been if it wasn't over the Fourth of July and in the summer, but we had to take 10 peoples' schedules into account. On the other hand, our trip to Japan was half the cost of what it would have been during cherry blossom season, when we originally wanted to go. Second, high-season times (Christmas, spring break, summer) are the best times in Chicago, so we're not itching to leave. Every other time, though? Sign us up ;)

Get crafty with credit card programs: This is Brian's domain. Thanks to him, for the last two years, we've had a Southwest Companion Pass (buy one ticket, get the other free), access to airport lounges (Free food! Drinks! WiFi!) at all international airports and a few reimbursed travel expenses thanks to various credit cards. Because of the Southwest credit card points he's accrued, we haven't paid for a domestic flight out of pocket the past two years, and we were able to pay for a couple of flights to Europe with Chase points. The whole thing makes me kind of anxious (I hold on to things like our credit scores really tightly, forgetting who I married and that he holds them tighter), but Brian's gotten us some great benefits out of it. Here's his advice:

There are tons of resources out there to help find the best credit card rewards for your particular situation. Some popular sites include The Points Guy or Nerd Wallet. When I started looking into the most valuable credit card programs, I relied mostly on the "churning" subreddit. With those sites at your disposal I have no doubt anyone can find some value should they so choose. Certainly people have a wide range of sensitivity to the use of credit cards and how they impact your credit score, so you have to find the right balance. I've seen people discuss applying for 20+ cards in one year, and know others who have never had a credit card in their life. I personally land in the middle of those extremes, carefully chasing a few select rewards when the timing is right. These are the rules I felt were important for us to follow when doing so:

1. Do your research. Even after you've identified a card you might want, it might be offered with 25,000 points at one time and then be offered with 30,000-50,000 points a month or two later. Try to time your applications when the maximum bonuses associated with the card are available. It's also important to understand the terms of the bonus. Most bonuses are only awarded after spending $X in the first few months. If you miss the sign-up bonus you likely have missed the biggest perk associated with the card. Many of the more lucrative rewards come from cards with annual fees, so be sure you understand the amount of fee and when it will be charged. Once you've gotten the bonus, consider downgrading the card to a no-annual fee card if possible through the bank. Keeping the card open will help your credit score, but you don't want to pay an annual fee if you can avoid it. 

2. Don't carry a balance. Credit card debt is the devil. Pay your statement balance off each month. You don't want to be paying 15-25% interest on something you bought in exchange for some rewards points.

3.  Understand your credit score and you future credit needs before you start applying for new cards. If you already have a good credit score, you probably don't need to be too worried about the impact of new card applications on your score. Your payment history (35%) and your credit utilization (30%) make up 2/3 of your credit score. So, pay your bill on time and in full each month and your score is going to be in good shape. In fact, applying for a new card (and thus, new available credit) will decrease your utilization if you aren't carrying a big balance on it, which helps your score to an extent. Other factors to your score like length of history (15%) and new credit (10%) will experience a bit of a hit if you are consistently applying for new cards, but I never noticed a dramatic shift in my score. Many people who churn cards retain credit scores in the 780-850 bracket which is usually good enough to qualify for the best rates on any new credit you apply for. However, if you are applying for car or home loans in the near future, you might want to tone down the credit card application process before doing that. 

4. Maximize your rewards. When we had the companion pass (which sadly expires in about 6 weeks), I could earn points on my non-Southwest Chase card, and then transfer those points to Southwest to book myself a free flight at a better rate than I could redeem them through the Chase travel site on another airline. Then, I could add Ladan as my companion due to the benefits earned using my Southwest card. By stacking the rewards programs we did a lot of traveling at minimal cost over the last two years. 

Keep it cheap while you're there: For me, just being in a new place feels so magical. I love walking the streets, window shopping, taking in the new air, snapping photos, eating little snacks. While we're willing to splurge for tickets for things in some places (the Vatican Museum in Vatican City, for example), we try to keep our expenses down while away and take advantage of free or nearly-free activities (and try not to get souvenirs, the memories are enough ;) That said, if you have activities you want to spend on in mind, I'd recommend looking them up before you go or checking online before booking anything onsite. We were able to get discounted Robot Restaurant tickets through a U.S. site before going in Tokyo, saving us $50.

We're also known for picking far from fancy accommodations. While we don't stay in hostels, we do mostly pick cheap studio apartments in central, safe locations. We try to keep them at $100 or less a night (this place will forever be our number one recommendation, a steal) because we know we just need a place to lay our heads at night (and I can fall sleep anywhere). In the end it's all about what's most important to you. An extra night or two away means more to me than a concierge desk and my bed being made for me, but I know I'll never be able to convince some of our friends and family ;)

We almost always treat ourselves to one fancy meal while away. We love to eat, and that evening is always a highlight (getting dressed up for it is so fun, too!). Not indulging in a pricey meal every night makes that one feel extra special.  

We realize that we're very privileged to have the opportunity to travel as often as we do but hope these tips can help you explore more, too! We love this planet and exploring it together and can't wait to see more of it in all the years to come. xoxo

Some more photos because I cut as much as I could! Really!


Stole this from Brian's collection because I have no shame ... we've taken 28 road trips together and every single one has looked like this. Oops. 


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