Exploring your options

6 tips for traveling abroad on a budget

Ways to fit the adventure of a lifetime into your financial security plan

If you were put in a situation where money was tight, what expenses would you cut and what would you keep? Many people start their budget with the essentials: rent, groceries, utilities, car payments, insurance, investments. Beyond that, someone on a tight budget might limit their entertainment expenses, like going out for movies and dinner or buying DVDs or video games.

Travel: too often, the first expense to go

One item that often gets cut out of a tight budget is travel. That’s a serious shame, for several reasons:

  • Travel may be able to help lower the risk of heart attack and depression and may even promote brain health.1
  • Travel may reduce stress by giving us a break from taxing situations (like work).2
  • Travel can foster creativity, making it an effective professional development experience for writers, artists, musicians and other innovative personalities.3

Nevertheless, at a glance travel seems very expensive, particularly if it involves flying overseas. In many cases, the cost of a transatlantic flight alone can be well over $1,000, a hefty sum for anyone dealing with onerous expenses like mortgage payments or childcare costs. Then there are accommodation costs, along with expenses associated with buying food, renting a car and more.

But should people on a budget dismiss all the benefits of traveling just because of the cost?

Traveling on a budget

The answer depends on your specific financial situation. That said, there are a number of ways to effectively manage the costs of traveling, even when it feels like money is tight.

1. Travel off-season

If you’re traveling to Europe, then the most expensive time to go will likely be the summer, when temperatures are high and the chance of rain or snow is relatively low. Generally speaking, the period from June to August is known as “peak” season, with the “off” season running from November to March. The remaining months, April, May, September and October, comprise “shoulder” season and the cost of traveling during this time falls somewhere in between the peak and off seasons.4

In short, if you’re willing to sight-see wearing a few more layers of clothing and carrying a spare umbrella, you can save a lot of money. You may also be able to avoid a lot of the long lines that can make summertime travel a bit of a hassle.

There are a number of ways to effectively manage the costs of traveling, even when it feels like money is tight.

2. Plan in advance

One of the biggest mistakes people make is failing to plan well in advance. Doing so can give you the freedom to shop around for the best deals on flights and accommodations. It might sound cliché, but being patient can pay off because many airlines, hotels and travel services offer surprise sales that can dramatically alter the overall cost of going on an exciting trip. To increase your chances of finding a deal, consider signing up for mailing lists with airlines or hotels.

On the flip side, if you’re willing to drop everything and head out at any time, some travel services offer extremely short-notice specials based on cancelations. Keeping an eye on these services could help you save a lot of money – you just need to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

3. Make the most of the sharing economy

Accommodations and renting a car: they’re two of the greatest expenses for the typical long-distance vacation. But they don’t have to be so pricey if you’re willing to try the increasingly prevalent sharing economy, which allows people to share their living spaces and vehicles with folks from out of town.

If you’ve never tried services like AirBnB, BlaBlaCar or Zipcar, you’re in for a big surprise: these sharing programs can make for far more affordable vacations.

4. Work overseas

This may not be possible for people who have obligations like a job or children back home, but if you’re relatively untethered, you can pay for your traveling abroad by finding a job in your destination country. In fact, there are even programs designed to help Canadians find temporary work in other countries, such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Some positions that are typically available to travelers include bartender, server, tour guide, cruise ship worker, ski instructor and farm hand. If you enjoy working with people, there are also many opportunities to teach English overseas, particularly in Asian centres like Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Bangkok. Of course, it’s a good idea to review the rules governing foreign employment in your destination country before heading out.

5. Use your points

These days, many services offer reward points that can help offset the cost of traveling. For example, many credit cards specifically target prospective travelers by offering them major discounts on hotels, airlines or car rentals.

To maximize the benefits of these discounts, it’s recommended you use these cards – rather than, say, cash, cheque or a debit card – for your purchases. Depending on the incentives offered, this can significantly offset the overall cost of traveling.

6. Make the most of student or senior discounts

If you’re a student or a senior, look for airlines, hotels, transportation services or restaurants that offer special discounts for people in your situation. Some companies make concerted efforts to appeal to these two groups through special price reductions, particularly during the off and shoulder seasons. Again, the trick is to exercise patience and plan well ahead of your expected travel time.

Following a few of these tips can transform an initially unaffordable trip into something far more manageable. Of course, there are still other options, the most obvious of which may be staying closer to home. Traveling within Canada is hardly a compromise given the incredible size of this country and its diversity of sights, sounds and people.

In any case, it’s a good idea to speak with a financial security advisor about how your vacation will impact your financial situation.

1Chris Erskine, "Travel is the best medicine, study finds," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 17, 2013.

2"Stress in America: Missing the Health Care Connection,” American Psychological Association, Feb. 7, 2013.

3Brent Crane, "For a More Creative Brain, Travel," The Atlantic, March 31, 2015.

4Rick Steves, "When to Go to Europe: Timing Your Trip," Rick Steves' Europe.

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The information provided is based on current laws, regulations and other rules applicable to Canadian residents. It is accurate to the best of our knowledge as of the date of publication. Rules and their interpretation may change, affecting the accuracy of the information. The information provided is general in nature, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for advice in any specific situation. For specific situations, advice should be obtained from the appropriate legal, accounting, tax or other professional advisors.