If you plan to travel full time — by van, plane, bus or train — you need to know how to stretch your money as far as possible.
Smart spender, frugal, thrifty. These are labels you should wear proudly! We do.
Unlike people who are cheap, we don’t squirrel away our cash, unwilling to use it as a means of getting what we want. And unlike people who are big spenders, we know that, with some smart thinking and prioritization, we can turn a four-day trip into a four-week trip still doing everything we enjoy. That’s why we’ve been able to travel full time for the past three years.
But even with three years of full-time travel experience, we still make mistakes.
We’re about five weeks into a trip to Europe and realized we’ve spent way more than we anticipated. This isn’t strictly limited to van-dwelling, but we beg your indulgence! In the spirit of helping you avoid these same mistakes, here’s what we did wrong (along with the things we did right).
What We Did Wrong
Mistake #1: We underestimated the cost of camping / brought too much stuff.
The first half of our trip was the Coast to Coast Walk, a long-distance walk going from town to town in the English countryside. B&Bs and pubs are a popular form of accommodation, but they can cost $45 per person, per night. Hostels aren’t much cheaper and don’t always exist. Alternatively, many pubs allow camping in their garden for $15 a night. And we have camping gear! It seemed like a no-brainer, even though due to availability we’d only be able to camp about 1/3 to 1/2 of the nights.
Camping behind the Blue Bell Inn included access to a toilet and shower
Unfortunately, we didn’t fully consider the costs associated with bringing our tent, two sleeping bags and two sleeping pads:
- Checked bag fees from Los Angeles to London and back
- Baggage transfer fees for the walk (Unlike our PCT hike, we used a service that transferred our bags daily so we didn’t have to carry them every day)
- Checked bag fees from Paris to Dublin, then Dublin to London
- Miscellaneous taxis because it’s a lot to lug around, even though we didn’t bring many clothes
In the end, camping cost us just as much money with the added burden of having too much stuff. And don’t let the sunshine fool you: England is cold and damp, and people told us we were “mad” to even consider camping.
Mistake #2: We confused currency.
When purchasing tickets from London to Paris, we carefully compared the full cost of flying with a train ride. Train tickets were slightly more expensive, but had no baggage fees, shorter distances to/from the station than the airport (meaning lower taxi/Uber/metro costs), and the total travel time was the same. After doing the math, it was cheaper to travel by train so we bought the non-refundable tickets.
A couple hours later, we realized the train tickets were priced in British pounds (£1 = $1.30) and the plane tickets were in euros (€1 = $1.10). Our math was wrong and the train tickets were 20% more expensive than we thought. We just weren’t looking closely enough.
Mistake #3: We were moving too fast.
We couldn’t avoid being in a different place every night during our walk — that was the whole point! But afterwards, we toured around England for a week and were someplace new every night. It was a lot of fun because we got to see a lot, but it also had expensive downsides: We couldn’t cook and had less control over the cost of our accommodations. Since food and shelter are usually the costliest parts of travel, this had a big impact. Moving too fast also contributes to the dreaded travel slump.
In hindsight, we should have used Booking.com more often when researching places to stay. Roadside motels are nearly non-existent in the UK. B&Bs or pubs can be a good deal, especially since breakfast is included, but are more difficult to research and compare rates.
The medieval wall encircling York, one of our favorite cities we visited
Chris and his mom looking down on the commoners from York’s castle tower
Mistake #4: We traveled on Fridays.
Due to poor planning when making accommodations bookings, both of our travel days to and from Paris were scheduled for Fridays. Ugh! That’s when plane and train tickets are most expensive. It’s cheaper to travel mid-week.
Mistake #5: We didn’t transfer money between accounts early enough.
When we travel abroad, we transfer money into a Charles Schwab checking account because there are 1) no ATM withdrawal fees from Schwab and 2) they refund any fees you’re charged by others. The big drawback is that it takes four business days for your transferred funds to be available.
We hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the balance in our Schwab account, and a few times we’ve had to withdraw cash from our Chase account — incurring annoying fees — while we wait for the hold on our cash in our Schwab account to lift. Were the fees outrageous? No, but with the same amount of money we could have gotten 10 metro rides or 3-4 bottles of wine. What a waste!
Whew, that was depressing. Perhaps we’re getting sloppy? Most of it just had to do with poor planning and not paying attention. But there were some important things we did right that are worth sharing too.
What We Did Right
Win #1: We purchased tourist passes.
Depending on what you like to do, tourist passes can be an excellent value. In England, since we knew we’d be traveling around a lot and enjoy antiquities, we got an English Heritage Overseas Visitors Pass. It included free admission for nine or 16 days to more than 100 castles, abbeys and other sites — including Stonehenge. The pass paid for itself after visiting three places.
Stonehenge is one of the most famous and expensive heritage sites to visit
In Paris, we got the Paris Museum Pass. The pass is good for two, four or six days and includes free admission to 56 museums and historical places. We purchased the six-day passes and were able to explore the Louvre three times, visit Versailles, see Napoleon’s tomb, and enjoy works of art and science all across the city. We used the pass to visit 13 places that all cost between €10-15 normally. We got in for 1/3 of the price!
With both passes, we also felt free to visit less popular places because of the good value. They were also a helpful centerpiece for planning our days: We’d pick a castle or a museum we wanted to visit, and use it as an opportunity to explore a different town or neighborhood along the way.
A ceiling in the extravagantly beautiful Château de Versailles
Win #2: We found lunches that were a good value.
Even though we couldn’t cook while in England, we found excellent value for our lunches. Many of the pubs and B&Bs where we stayed offered packed lunches for walkers. For $6-8, it included a large, homemade sandwich, a bag of chips, a piece of fruit, juice and candy/cookies. We usually had some left over that we could have as snacks later on. Or, when we were in a big enough town, we’d just pick up some rolls, ham, cheese and fruit from the grocery store.
Tuna salad on a brown roll, cheese and onion crisps, a banana, juice and a KitKat
In Paris, nearly every street has a boulangerie that sells inexpensive sandwiches. And we’re not talking about that nasty Subway crap. We’re talking $4.50 for a fresh baguette with butter, ham and cheese or brie and vegetables. They’re often big enough for us to split and pair with a delicious tart or eclair for another $2. There usually isn’t seating, which gives us an excuse to find a park bench and do some people watching.
Win #3: We stayed in one place for two weeks.
When we worked office jobs, we’d spend two weeks touring all around an entire country. We opted to spend two weeks only in Paris. We were able to get a discounted weekly rate on our Airbnb (which has a kitchen, so we don’t have to eat out for every meal). We’re also able to buy Metro tickets by the booklet at a reduced rate, rather than by individual rides, because we know we’ll be here long enough to use them all.
All of this equates to savings and also a deeper experience. Once our museum pass expired, we were able to just wander around neighborhoods and work through this list of 20 free things to do.
Win #4: We got local SIM cards.
We switched back to Verizon last year because it has better, more usable coverage in the US. Unfortunately, Verizon’s international coverage is very expensive. It costs $10 per day, per device to use your existing plan internationally. Or you can pay $25 for only 100MB of data and high rates for calls/texts.
Instead, we purchase local SIM cards. (Even the guy at the Verizon store said it’s a better deal.) For the equivalent of roughly $25 each, we got 2GB each to do work, research accommodations, translate phrases, look up historical information, and get driving and/or public transit directions. Enough said.
While having a picnic below the Eiffel Tower, we used our mobile data to learn about its history and construction
Win #5: We didn’t pay any foreign transaction fees.
Finally, both of us have Chase Sapphire credit cards. They’re great for international travel because there are no foreign transaction fees, which can really pile up. Plus, we earn double points on restaurants and travel-related expenses like airfare, taxis, Airbnbs and more. We’ve had these cards for three years and they more than pay for themselves.
If you plan on heading abroad, whether it’s with your van, to rent a van or otherwise, we hope you can learn from these failures and wins. If you have any good tips or failure stories, please share in the comments!