90+ Tips for Traveling on a Budget and Saving Money

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affordable travel guide

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.

You might be sitting there thinking, “Hey lady, you don’t know my financial situation!” And you’re absolutely right, I don’t. I do know travel, though, and how to make it much, much more affordable than most people think.

I’ve been traveling regularly to exotic destinations like Myanmar and Uganda and Sri Lanka and Indonesia for the last decade, and I’m not a millionaire. I didn’t come from money- I was raised dirt poor and I was homeless for a while when I was a teenager. So when I say travel doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think, I’m not speaking from the position of a pampered trust fund baby. I know struggle.

I decided to write this post based on a Facebook conversation I had with an acquaintance recently. It was in a travel group geared toward working professionals, so I assumed most people had some degree of knowledge about finding flight deals and keeping costs down. A discussion was happening about why some people don’t travel or don’t travel more often, and the woman in question said, “Well you can’t expect everyone to travel when a flight to anywhere in the world is going to cost $5,000.”

I’m sorry, what did you say?

I started probing and realized that this woman honestly thought it would cost $5,000 to fly from the US to Europe or Asia or… anywhere. In basic economy.

Y’all. No.

When I showed the lady a screenshot of the flight I had just booked from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia for $525, I thought she was going to have a heart attack.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
PS, Australia is amazing. You should go, especially for $525.

I never did figure out where she got the idea that travel had to be so expensive, but it occurred to me that if a well educated professional in her 40s who was actively seeking out travel information online could hold that belief, then probably a lot more people had the same wrong idea. And those people were probably sitting at home, daydreaming about travel, instead of taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa.

This makes me sad.

I dreamed about traveling the world since I was the tiniest tiny baby and I can’t imagine my life without travel. If you also dream about traveling the world, I want to make sure you get the chance. So I’m going to write out in detail the exact steps and resources I use to plan my travels and make sure I’m getting the best deal possible and never spending money on something I could be getting for free. I’ve spent 10+ years figuring this stuff out, so this is going to be a lot of information. You’ll probably want to go fix yourself a cocktail and get comfortable.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
By the time we’re done here, I have a feeling you’re going to want to make one for me, too, because I’m going to be your new best friend.

Okay, here we go. When it comes to planning travel on a budget, there are three key ways to make sure you can afford the trip of your dreams, and I’m going to show you how to maximize each one.

  1. Spend less money on the trip.
  2. Make more money to spend on the trip.
  3. Never pay for anything that you can get for free.

1. Spend Less Money

I know that sounds almost insultingly simplistic, but thinking back to Ms. Flights Cost $5000, I decided to start there. No matter what your dream trip is, there is a way to make it cost less than you think!


Step One- Know How Low Prices Go

How do you know when you see a good deal if you don’t know how low prices can go? I’m primarily talking about flights here, since that is usually the biggest expense on a trip. When I’m trying to figure out what I should be aiming for, price-wise, I head over to SecretFlying.com and search for my destination to see what deals they’ve posted in the past. I’m currently planning a trip to France, so I put Paris in the search box to see what deals have been trending lately.

Tip: I leave the “From” city blank and just search for my chosen destination at first. Sometimes it’s cheaper to drive or fly to another city to take advantage of a rock-bottom deal, especially if you don’t live near a major flight hub. Most of the time there will be a cheap bus or train you can take from your town to the nearest city- check out Megabus.com for bus fares between 100 different cities starting at $1. Rome2Rio.com will show you all of your options for getting from Point A to Point B as well as what each one costs, so add this to your travel planning bookmarks.

Jackpot! There are literally dozens of flight deals to Paris posted at the moment, starting at $268 round trip from the US. That’s a pretty far cry from $5,000, right? None of the departure airports are in my city, but that’s okay. I’m not booking today, just doing research. Now when I get alerts from my chosen flight deal newsletters (more on those in a minute) I’ll know whether or not a price is worth jumping on or not.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
With prices like these, prepare yourself to see this on my Instagram feed in a minute. 

(FYI, I’m based in the US, but SecretFlying shows deals from all over the world. My search also showed great deals to Paris from Ghana, Toronto, South Korea, and India, just to name a few.)

Step Two- Monitor Prices

Now that you know what price you should be looking for, it’s time to watch for deals with your piggy bank in your hot little hands, waiting to pounce. 

-Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights. I’ve tried all the free and paid newsletters and Scott’s is consistently the winner when it comes to finding rock bottom flight deals.

–Momondo is my favorite flight search engine because it’s easy to see how much prices can fluctuate if you change up your travel by a day or two. My upcoming flight home from Cuba was actually 50% less if I came home on Monday instead of Sunday. And an extra day of drinking rum in paradise? No brainer. You can set an alert for the route you want to fly and they’ll email you if the price drops.

– Always search for flights in an incognito window! If you allow the flight search engine to use cookies, you will see the price of your flight go up every time.

Step Three- Book!

Pat yourself on the back because you scored a super great deal.

Step Four- Insure Your Trip with Travel Insurance. 

No excuses, y’all. If something happens and you have to cancel your trip without being able to get your money back, you will ugly cry. Trust me on this. Once upon a time, I scored a sweet deal to Brazil and had to cancel at the last minute because of a stupid hurricane. World Nomads had my back so I wasn’t out $900 for the things I had already booked. The silver lining: the less you pay for your trip, the less your insurance will cost.


If you’re accustomed to staying in major chain hotels when you travel, you might think that accommodation costs are going to be a barrier to your trip.

Not so, young grasshopper. Not so.

Are most of you guys even old enough to get that reference? Anyway, let’s move on.

First of all, where you’re traveling matters. Luxury hotels are dead cheap in Thailand; you have to look a lot harder for deals in New York City (but they exist!) But no matter where you’re going, there are ways to score awesome accommodation deals.

Travelzoo emails– I love this newsletter because they don’t bombard you- they’ll send you one newsletter a week unless there’s a super incredible deal for a place you’ve expressed an interest in. It’s a great source for super deals on hotels and vacation packages. If you’re wanting to do something like a guided tour of China, this is where you’ll find the rock bottom deals.

Hotels.com– I almost always book my hotels through Hotels.com because of their loyalty program, which earns you free nights. This is good for longer or frequent trips as you get the equivalent of one night free when you pay for 10. If you have to book your own travel for work and you want to book through Hotels.com and save your free nights for your own trips, I won’t tell your boss. PS, if you do book a major chain hotel, make sure you go to their website and sign up for whatever loyalty program they have. It usually gets you some kind of little perk like free wi-fi or something. You won’t be able to add your loyalty # to your Hotels.com reservation, but I’ve always asked the hotel to add it to my booking when I check in, and they’ve always obliged.

Booking.com– Before booking with Hotels.com, I always check at least one more reservation site, usually Booking.com, just to make sure there are no huge price differences.

Agoda– If you’re booking a hotel in Asia, always check Agoda first. They typically have more hotels and better hotel deals than other companies in that area.

Airbnb  Never book a hotel without checking out the local Airbnb scene first! Especially if you’re going to stay in a place longer than a week, because most hosts offer discounts for long term stays. If you’re traveling with a pet, Airbnb will be a godsend as there are so many dog friendly rentals, and you can sometimes rent entire homes for what a basic hotel room would cost in the same area. 

Trusted Housesitters You have to pay to sign up, so this is more of an option for people who plan to travel for longer periods of time or multiple times per year, but once you join, you can house sit for people (and their cute animals) all over the world. Lots of full time travelers I know use Trusted Housesitters to book long term stays and end up spending 6+ months at a time living free of charge on Caribbean islands and similarly swanky destinations. So if you’re a student and trying to figure out where to spend your summer break without breaking the bank, give this a try.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
All I’m saying is, there are worse ways to live.

Hostels Despite the reputation for being exclusively for party-loving young backpackers, nowadays there’s a hostel for everyone. Personally, I haven’t stayed in a hostel since I was a 16 year old, wandering around Paris by myself after a mildly disastrous foreign exchange experience, so I can’t give you a personal recommendation. But HostelWorld can, because all of their listings have tons of personal reviews so you can make sure you’re finding the right hostel for you.

I haven’t started looking at Paris hotels yet, but apparently there’s a hostel a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower and it’s only $45 a night. That seems high by hostel standards, but I guarantee I won’t be finding hotels in that location for anywhere near the same price. As always, location matters. If you want to go bum around Thailand in some fancy elephant pants for a while, you can stay at a gorgeous hostel for about $11 a night.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
No judgment here. I totally wore my fancy elephant pants all over India.

WWOOF– WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Basically, you sign up and find an organic farm somewhere in the world that needs some workers, and you go and help them out in exchange for room and board. If you’re interested in really getting to know how people in other countries live on a long-term basis, this is a great opportunity. Who doesn’t want to go back to school in the fall and tell their classmates they spent the summer volunteering on a potato farm in Bosnia?

Workaway– Similar to WWOOF but not limited to farms. Families and small businesses all over the world are looking for help with something- herding sheep, teaching their children English, lending a hand in a cat sanctuary, helping set up a yoga retreat, etc., and will provide volunteers with room and board in exchange for a few hours a day helping out. If that $45 a night Eiffel Tower hostel is still too expensive, there are over 100 people in and around Paris looking for volunteers to do everything from website development to setting up a permaculture farm. Most hosts ask for 5 hours of volunteering a day, 5 days a week. That leaves a lot of extra time for exploring with all the money you save from not paying for a hotel.

Couchsurfing– The original site for finding a free place to crash. Search for where you want to go, find a host who doesn’t appear to be a serial killer, and go stay in their house for free. Full disclosure: I’ve never couchsurfed because the idea is frankly terrifying to me. However, I have several friends who do it regularly and they’ve all had great experiences and none of them have been murdered at this point.

Timeshare Presentations- These get a really bad rap for being pushy, but if you’re like me and you’re basically immune to peer pressure, they’re a great way to get free stuff. I spent a lovely three-day weekend at a Florida beach resort, complete with many free umbrella cocktails, in exchange for watching an hour-long sales pitch for the place. Would I rather have been lounging on the beach for that hour? Sure. Sales pitches are boring. But the going rate for that resort was $150 a night, and once the hour was over and I said I wasn’t interested in buying a timeshare, I was free to go about my day and continue lounging by the pool.

The best way to find timeshare presentations is to Google the destination where you want to travel + “timeshare.” Request some information about the places that come up and they’ll fall all over you to offer you free stuff. 


Groupon– you can use your accumulated MyPoints and Swagbucks points (keep reading for more info on those) to buy activities on Groupon and save tons on things you want to do when you get to your destination. Yay, free stuff! I just checked out what’s available in Paris and I’m definitely going to scoop up a dinner cruise on the Seine for €85, which is almost 40% off the normal price. 

Don’t forget about Groupon Getaways, too. I just saw a 12 night escorted tour of China, including airfare from the US, for $649. Are you kidding me?? Check out the hotel deals in the Groupon Getaways section as well.

Free walking tours- I’ve always found the best way to get to know a new city is on foot. Luckily, most large cities are starting to offer free walking tours. Just Google the city name + “free tour.”

Uber– Use promo code HITTHEROAD for $15 off your first ride (or sign up to drive with them to earn extra cash and make an instant $90 in Swagbucks rewards. That’s almost half a round trip flight to Paris!)

Lyft– Use one of multiple promo codes available for free or discounted rides (or sign up to drive with them and make $205 in Swagbucks rewards. Sign up to drive for Uber and Lyft and your flight from the US to Europe is paid for even before you start making tips. How cool is that??) MyPoints and Swagbucks will both email you opportunities like that all the time.

Make More Money To Spend on Your Trip

Because I’m a mind reader, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re probably thinking something along the lines of: “But I already work my tail off 40+ hours a week and all of my income goes toward paying the bills! If I could make more money to travel, I’d already be doing that!”

Sound about right?

I totally get it.

However, there are other (totally legit and non-sketchy) ways to make money for travel. This is something I could probably write about for a week and not run out of ideas, because I’m always on the lookout for painless new ways to bring in extra adventuring cash.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.

Mystery Shopping (More about this in the next section, keep reading!)

Focus Groups- I recently made $100 cash for sitting in a nice hotel conference room for an hour and giving my opinion on the label of a new dog food brand. How? I scanned my local Craigslist gigs section like I do a few times a week and saw an ad. Not a bad way to spend an hour in the middle of a weekday! You can also Google your city + “focus group” and see if you have any local companies that will put you on their list.

I get a lot of focus group opportunities through Respondent, too. They’re tailored to you via the profile you fill out when you sign up, so you don’t have to wade through a ton of stuff that doesn’t apply to you. When they have a study that they think I’m a fit for, they email me with a brief description of the opportunity. Some of them pay hundreds of dollars, so this is a great way to make fast vacation money.

Test Drives- Although they don’t usually pay you in cash, stockpiling Visa gift cards is also a legit way to pay for travel. And car dealerships love to offer incentives to get you to come in and test drive a new car. These are easy to find- look at the local car dealership websites in your area and see if an offer pops up. I just quickly clicked through my local dealership sites and got a pop up from the local Hyundai dealership offering a $25 Amazon gift card if I came in for a test drive. So go check out your local dealerships and see what goodies they might be offering that you can add to your travel piggy bank.

Points Programs- MyPoints, Swagbucks, and YouGov are my top three. Sign up for them all, watch your email for points earning activities, and redeem your points for cash or gift cards. I’ve been a member of MyPoints forever, and I’ve earned enough points with almost zero effort that I could cash out and fly round trip to Paris four times. Install the Google Chrome extensions for MyPoints and Swagbucks in your browser and it’ll pop up an alert when you’re on a page that they give you an offer for. Just click it and you’ll get points for every purchase you make, for printing coupons, for taking surveys- all kinds of super painless things that will add up to lots of extra travel for you.

Cash Back apps- This won’t net you a ton of money, but every little bit helps, right? I’ve had the Ibotta app on my phone for a few weeks now and I scan my receipts as soon as I leave a store. So far I’ve gotten about $20 back. It’s not a ton, but would you walk past a $20 bill on the ground? Me, neither. I’ll enjoy having that $20 while I’m sipping cappuccinos in Paris.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
I feel all fancy and Parisian already.

Micro Investing– Apps like Acorns are another great way to painlessly save money in such small increments that you’ll never miss it. I set up my Acorns account with their free $5 initial investment and set it to invest $5 a month automatically. A few months later I saw the account had grown to over $160, which was neat. You can cash out at any time and go spend your earnings taking selfies in front of the Sydney Opera House.

Clinical Trials & Studies- Have you always wanted to be a lab rat? No? What if they paid you for it? Clinical trials and studies are an interesting way to make extra money, especially if you have any kind of illness that makes you a good candidate for study. You don’t have to, though- many studies look for healthy volunteers as well so they can test the effects of a treatment on someone without the disease. I have fibromyalgia, which currently has no cure, so I’m just as interested in clinical trials for the research as I am for the cash payment, but most of the studies I’ve participated in have paid anywhere from $400-$600 and all I had to do was take a pill once a day, visit the doctor’s office every other week for a few months, and keep track of my symptoms. One of the medications I tested actually did work to alleviate my symptoms for a while, so it was well worth the effort. Plus I got a plane ticket out of the deal.

If you have more free time on your hands and are able to spend the night at the research facility, you can be involved in much more lucrative studies. I’ve seen studies offering over $5,000 for participants who can sleep at the study center for a few weeks for overnight observation. If you have small children or awful roommates at home you’d like to escape, that can be your ticket to getting away from them even longer.

Never Pay For Anything That You Can Get For Free

When I’m planning a trip somewhere and looking at all the things I want to whip out my credit card and pay for, I always stop and ask myself first: Before I buy this, is there a way I can get this for free (or at least, really cheap?)

Most of the time, the answer is yes.

Going back to my Paris flight- if I just go to Google and type, “Portland to Paris flight” in the search box and look at the first flights that pop up, they’re all over $2000.

But we’ve already done our homework and we know flights are trending at under $300 right now, so obviously we’re not going to book a $2000 flight. Maybe this is how people like my travel group acquaintance got the idea that all flights are $5000?

In any case, this perfectly illustrates my point- never book any kind of travel without doing your research or you could literally be paying thousands of dollars more than you need to. Or deciding you can’t afford the trip and sitting home on your couch, watching Netflix instead of taking selfies in front of the Great Wall of China.

And that makes me sad.

So, repeat after me, awesome soon-to-be-adventurer: I will never pay for anything I can get for free (or at least really cheap.)

Okay, good.

Now let’s get down to how that actually works.

We’ve already talked about finding cheap flights, but there are other ways to get cheap or free airfare. Credit card points are one- if you use credit cards, make sure you have one that gives you points that you can redeem for travel.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.

MyPoints and Swagbucks points can be redeemed for airline gift certificates or Visa gift cards that you could use to pay for your flight when you score a cheap airfare. If you save up enough points, you could completely cover your ticket. Boom, free flight!

And finally, probably the most fun way to get a free or heavily discounted flight that I never see any other travel writers talk about: Mystery Shopping.

For the uninitiated, mystery shopping (AKA secret shopping) is when a business pays an evaluator to pose as a regular customer and then fill out a detailed report on the service they received. Just about every business you can think of, from fast food restaurants to funeral homes, uses mystery shoppers in some capacity. And that means travel businesses, too. Airlines, hotels, high end restaurants, and even swanky resorts in Fiji all use mystery shoppers to make sure they’re providing top notch service to their guests.

And they will pay you to tell them all about it.

I have personally been mystery shopping for almost 20 years- I put myself through college by mystery shopping Cinnabon and apartment complexes after class every day- and I like to think I have the art of being a traveling mystery shopper down to a T.

The unfortunate side of that is that no mystery shopping company is going to give you a free trip to Fiji right off the bat as a brand new shopper. You’re going to have to do quite a few smaller shops and impress them with your skills before they start giving you the really sweet gigs. But that’s okay- you eat out and go to the mall and get your oil changed and go to the movies all the time, right? So start getting paid to do those things instead of paying to do them.

Note: Mystery shopping is not strictly an American thing, although I think it’s more common in the US than in many parts of the world. If your trip is in or near a major city in the US, it’s possible to get almost every part of it for free by mystery shopping- restaurants, gas, bars, movies, theme parks, etc. And the money you’ll get paid for doing those things will cover the parts that you couldn’t find a mystery shop for. All it takes is a little bit of planning.

Also, mystery shopping companies are always desperate for shoppers who are flying! Only badged airport employees or ticketed passengers can get to their shops and restaurants that are past security, so those shops are much harder to fill. You can get your parking paid for at the airport, a drink at the bar, and a few magazines at the newsstand for free to pass the time. It’s almost enough to make you not hate the crushing mass of humanity at the security checkpoint.

I’ll give you a list of mystery shopping companies that I have personally used in the past, along with what types of businesses they usually shop. Then, I’ll show you how I would plan an actual trip using currently available mystery shops to get my entire day free or nearly free.

Mystery Shopping Companies:

  • True Guest– Nice hotels, upscale restaurants, valet parking, professional sporting events
  • Coyle– This is the company you want to join if you’re looking for high end hotels and restaurants around the world.
  • Amusement Advantage– Exactly what it sounds like- amusement parks! Also zoos, water parks, museums, bowling alleys, any type of entertainment venue. Really nice, easy-going people to work with, and almost all of their assignments require that you take another person with you. Kids are almost always welcome, so if you’re looking for a way to take your offspring on a road trip, this should be right up your alley.
  • Best Mark– Retail, hotels, restaurants, salons- a little bit of everything. Nice easy reports, too.
  • Bare– Lots of retail shops, athletic facilities, car washes, and other shops that are easy to add onto your schedule on a trip. This is one of my favorite mystery shopping companies and they’re really easy to work with.
  • Intelli-Shop– Lots of retail and car dealerships. Car dealership shops are some of my favorites because they’re really easy, and you can get paid very good money to test drive some cool new cars.
  • See Level– Lots of car dealerships and service-oriented businesses. Some retail.
  • Confero– Retail, athletic clubs, airport shops. If you fly, this is one you need to sign up for.
  • iSecretShop– Restaurants, entertainment, high end retail. Lots of airport location shops, so this is one travelers should definitely sign up for.
  • Market Force- This is one of my favorite companies to shop for, because they have the easiest reports in the business. You almost never have to write out long answers for anything; most of the reports are yes/no or short answer. They don’t usually pay as well as some other companies, but you spend a lot less time reporting. Where you can make really good money with Market Force is looking for shops with a bonus attached- this means they’re getting close to their deadline with a client and they’re willing to pay a premium to make sure the job gets done. Lots of fast food restaurants and gas stations, so check them out even if you’re just eating out for lunch every day at work- never pay for anything you can get for free!
  • Customer Service Experts– Lots of airport shops. Definitely sign up here if you fly.

There are literally hundreds of mystery shopping companies out there in every possible niche, but this post is already over 4000 words, so I’m leaving you with this list of my tried and true companies to get you started.

Also, you probably noticed that I didn’t list any actual business names, just general categories. Mystery shopping companies are protective of their clients and don’t allow shoppers to tell anyone the names of the places they’re shopping. That’s where the mystery comes in, y’all. But as soon as you’re signed up with a company, you’ll be able to see the actual business name on the job board.

A few companies take the privacy thing a step further and don’t tell you the actual business name until after you’re assigned to the shop. In those cases you’ll almost always be shown the address, and I would Google it before accepting the shop if I were you- if it’s a business you’re not comfortable shopping for whatever reason, you want to know ahead of time so you don’t have to email your scheduler and cancel the shop. That’s a big no-no except in a dire emergency.

Planning a Mystery Shopping Vacation

Planning a trip that revolves around mystery shopping is as easy as visiting the job boards of every company you’ve signed up with and signing up for shops in the area you plan to visit. If you see a shop that would be perfect but the deadline is the day before you arrive, never hesitate to reach out to the scheduler via email and ask if they can work with you. Most of the time they will, as long as they have the flexibility with their client.

So here’s how it works in practice. Keep in mind that if you’re visiting a major metropolitan area, you’re going to have a lot more to choose from than if you’re visiting Enfield, New Hampshire. (But if you are visiting Enfield, New Hampshire, take a ride down Main Street. That’s where I grew up! Also, there’s nothing else to do there, so you might as well.)

Just like I did with the Paris flight example, I’m going to plan an imaginary trip somewhere and fill it in with mystery shops so you can see how much stuff I would get for free and how much I would get paid for submitting my reports.

For my example, I’m going to plan a trip to one of my favorite places on earth, my former home of Scottsdale, Arizona. Partly because I just want to daydream about being back there instead of in cold, rainy Oregon, but also because I know the area well enough to design a trip in my head easily. If you’re planning a trip to a destination you don’t know well, you’ll want to start a Google map to plot out where everything is to make sure you’re not driving 50 miles out of your way for a free cheeseburger.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
Blogging makes me hungry, y’all.

I always check Coyle first because they’re the king of high end hotels and restaurants. Score- there’s a two night stay at a luxury Scottsdale hotel. (Actually several resorts at the moment- I can take my pick.) I’ll be reimbursed for my stay, given a $100 resort credit to spend on dining or spa treatments at the hotel, and paid $30 for my report. I also spot an airport restaurant offering a $125 reimbursement and $15 payment that would be perfect for me to relax and unwind after my flight, so I would request that one as well. Here’s how the rest of my imaginary trip would look:

When was the last time you went on vacation, stayed at luxury resorts and ate in upscale restaurants and came home $229 richer??

Now obviously all of those dinners and hotels require you to pay out of pocket up front, and the company will reimburse you the following month, usually by PayPal. That can be a problem if you’re really strapped for cash, so I recommend looking for shops near your home that don’t require any up front purchases to get experience and building up your stockpile of travel money for this kind of trip.

Also, there were literally hundreds of other shops in the area that I could have chosen for this sample, but I was looking for the more fun/high end shops for my imaginary trip.You could definitely stay in an Airbnb with your discount and hit up the fast food shops to make it even more affordable as far as out of pocket expenses.

PS- If you hate writing and remembering details, this might seem tedious to you. I’m a writer with a nearly photographic memory, so this kind of gig is right up my alley.

If it turns out you find this as much fun as I do, and there are plenty of opportunities in your area, you can extend this throughout your life to really make some quick cash for traveling. Need an oil change? Get one as a mystery shop instead of paying out of pocket. Boom, you’ve just paid for a week in a beachfront hostel in Thailand. Drop that savings right into your piggy bank and start watching flights.

Best practice: Use one dedicated PayPal account for mystery shops, and don’t touch it until it’s time to book some travel!

Other Free Travel Resources:

Winning free travel giveaways- Bookmark Online-Sweepstakes and start entering every contest in the travel category that interests you. You’re already wasting hours of your day online every day, you may as well try to win something for your trouble. I love entering contests and I have won so many awesome prizes. Probably the coolest thing I’ve ever won was a $1000 Amazon.com gift card. I was in a hotel in Uganda when I got the email that I had won, so naturally I immediately got on Amazon and bought some airline gift cards and booked more travel. (You did know you could do that, right? Amazon has *everything*!)

Find the visitors bureau website for the area you want to visit and sign up for their e-newsletter as they usually have local contests to win free hotel nights and activities. They frequently have free travel guides that they’ll mail you as well, but take the suggestions in these with a grain of salt- I’ve written several visitors guides to different destinations, and they always told me which businesses to include based on who paid them for advertising. So they’re not generally unbiased sources, but they can give you some good info.

Stop paying for guidebooks!  I never buy them anymore, just read them on my Kindle and return them when I’m done. With Kindle Unlimited, you can read 10 at a time for no additional charge. As a bonus, you won’t be lugging an extra book around in your carry-on. Plus, walking around a strange city with your face buried in a paper guidebook is like having a giant neon MUG ME I’M A TOURIST sign flashing over your head. Put the Kindle app on your phone and just pull up pages of your Lonely Planet guide as you need them during the day.

Normally, I hate to tell people when they’re dead wrong about something. This time, though? I’m more than happy to make an exception. I’m here to tell you- if you think you’re too broke to travel, you are probably wrong.
This is about to be you, you soon-to-be globetrotter, you!

So there you go. Raise your hand if you now realize that you are not, in fact, too broke to travel and you now have a game plan for getting to your dream destination ASAP.


I really hope this was helpful to you and you’ve figured out some good ways to start planning your next trip. If that’s the case, please let me know in the comments where you’re going! If I have any destination-specific tips for you, I’ll be happy to follow up and help get you on the road.

Have any questions about any of my suggestions? Let me know those in the comments, too. Happy travels! I can’t wait to hear about all the things you’re checking off your bucket list.

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