How to Afford to Travel (Not Just for Photographers)

Maybe I should be calling this article "How I Afford to Travel", since everyone has different circumstances financially and other obligations. I can't really tell you how you can afford to travel this vast and interesting world of ours. I can, however, tell you how I make it work, and hopefully provide some tips for making travel a possibility for you. I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone and see at least one part of the world far from where they live. I think travel experience broadens the mind and provides perspective. If nothing else, you gain some new skills from the experience and a better understanding of how diverse and complex this planet is. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that don't venture out of their comfort zone. Some have no interest to go abroad even for a long weekend, opting to sit in their living rooms watching TV and scrolling through social media feeds on their phones. Others want to travel, but are under the misconception that it is too expensive. For the latter (those of you who have a pulse), and those of you who may have been somewhere once or twice and would like to travel more often, this post is for you. I'll be writing from a photographer's perspective, but the following can apply to anyone. In the last 10 years, I've traveled to France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada (three times), Iceland (two times going on three), Sweden, Boston, NYC (twice), Chicago, Milwaukee (three times - great town), Philadelphia (three times), Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA (twice), Washington, DC, and my home state of North Carolina from the mountains to the Outer Banks. Notice I have not been to Latin America, Asia, or Africa as of now. This saddens me. But at age 31 and averaging two to three trips a year, I'll get to those places eventually.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. One of my first travel images.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. One of my first travel images.

If you are an aspiring travel photographer, I need to let you in on a harsh reality. The days of being paid thousands of dollars plus expenses to shoot exotic locations for major publications is all but over. It's very nearly a fantasy. Travel publications use stock photography from people like me who fund their own trips and eventually profit from licensing images. Commisioned or assignment work is very rare in the 21st century. Don't let this discourage you. You can still make money from travel photos. You just have to foot the bill yourself, taking time to build your skills and an impressive portfolio, before you can expect to see a return. The good news is that travel is never a waste, so even if you can't become a full-time travel photographer, it is worth the effort to experience and photograph the amazing things in this world.

How I (We) Afford Travel:

Let me start by making a few things clear. I am not one of those people that sold all their belongings and took a long adventure throughout the globe (as tempting as that is). I'm not a "nomad." I am not independently wealthy, nor do I come from a filthy rich family. As of now (January 2017), I have outstanding college loans, credit card bills, and a mortgage. So, how on earth can I afford to travel internationally a couple times a year? Frankly, the financial particulars of how much my wife and I make and all that are no one's business, but here is my list of ways we save money and afford to travel.

I Sell Travel Stock Photographs

I've been pursuing photography as a career for several years now. I've had lots of ups and downs, and it took the better part of that time (while working other jobs) before I was comfortable calling myself a "professional photographer" - meaning much (but not quite all) of my income comes from photography. Mainly, I license images through a few professional and well known macro-stock agencies (including Robert Harding and Alamy). I've licensed images for editorial and commercial use to buyers all over the world. I used to do the micro-stock thing, but grew out of it. I got tired of selling several images a week for only a few bucks each, so I ended my accounts with iStock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime and shifted the whole of my expansive portfolio of hard earned images to more serious and professional stock agencies. I make fewer image sales in the macro-stock world, but much more per image. As my portfolio grows, so does the frequency at which my images are licensed. Micro-stock is fine in some ways, but overall I found that it was too much work for too little pay. If you're amassing a large portfolio of images, you might want to consider selling stock in order to make residual income. Over time, you might even be able to make a living at it.

Me photographing a waterfall in Thingvellir National Park Iceland, 2016 (Photo by my wife, Alison)

Me photographing a waterfall in Thingvellir National Park Iceland, 2016 (Photo by my wife, Alison)

We Search for Cheap Flights on Budget Airlines...Hard

My wife, Alison, and I first visited Iceland in 2015 after hearing that a new budget airline called Wow Air offered $99 flights to Reykjavik from DC. It sounded too good to be true and a lot of people passed it up. We didn't. There was no catch, only that the $99 got you to Iceland and not back. The return flights were still some of the cheapest we had seen to any European destination, so we jumped on it. I believe the total cost for round trip tickets for two ended up being $895. Not bad. This started an addiction to the Wow Air website, and after constant searching over the course of several months, we were able to book flights for our second trip to Iceland for only $600 round trip for two. That's a great deal. The flight plus apartment totaled $1,068. When we tell people about the flight deals we find, they almost never believe us. They assume that I am confused and mean to say that the flight only totaled $1,068 each, but I know what I paid for. Wow flies from several North American airports to Reykjavik, but doesn't just stop there. You can also continue your flight from Iceland to Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Alicante, and Amsterdam to name a few. That's how we got to Sweden so cheaply. We flew from Baltimore-Washington to Reykjavik, then from there to Stockholm and back for $964 round trip for two. There are other budget airlines of course, Aerlingus, Jet Blue, and Spirit Air just to name a few. 

The key to finding cheap airfare is constant search. That, and being flexible with your dates. I don't recommend using sites like Orbitz or Travelocity or whatever. They've never given me the prices I want (that's where you'll usually get ridiculously crazy fares like $1,400 per person round trip to London and that's exactly why people think travel is expensive). Instead use Google Flights, which includes budget airlines in their search results, or simply go directly to the airline's website. Other good options are Skyscanner and Momondo. I used STA for my first international trip when I was 20 because, at the time, they had the best fares for students. I believe I paid less than $500 for that round trip flight to Prague. Not too bad. 

Also, keep in mind that your local airport may not be the cheapest place to fly from. Check ones relatively nearby, too. Our nearest international airport is Charlotte-Douglas, but we rarely fly from there because few budget airlines do and their fares are nearly always much heftier than larger airports. When we fly Wow Air, we drive up to Baltimore-Washington. It's a six hour drive, but saves us several hundred dollars. It only costs a tank of gas and half a day to get to BWI, but if we added two round trip flights from Charlotte to D.C., we would be paying $300-400 extra each to get there in the same amount of time (2.5 hours drive to CLT, plus 2 hours for check in and security, plus 2 hour flight). If you live in a major city already, this isn't usually a problem. Boston, NYC, Toronto, and Los Angeles have some of the cheapest fares abroad I've ever seen.

A very cold, wet, and soggy morning on the Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland, 2016

A very cold, wet, and soggy morning on the Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland, 2016

Selfie in Nytorget, Stockholm, Sweden, 2016.

Selfie in Nytorget, Stockholm, Sweden, 2016.

We Choose Apartments and Use Airbnb Instead of Hotels

I do not like hotels. I do not like paying high rates and taxes and shelling out extra for crappy food. A typical hotel in a downtown area costs an arm and a leg. A typical hotel that is more affordable is probably too far out in the boonies. There's no winning. But thanks to Airbnb, hostels, and independently owned apartment rentals, there are alternatives to stuffy, expensive hotels. We search Airbnb first because it's usually where we can find the most affordable options in an area we want to stay. I love Airbnb. They have listings all over the world. I actually help run one owned by my parents here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Occasionally, the rates for an Airbnb listing may be no cheaper than a hotel or apartment (such is often the case with Reykjavik and Savannah, GA for example). Our next option is to search for an apartment rental company through a site like Booking.com. That's how we found Rey Apartments in Reykjavik. They have awesome, fully equipped apartments with full kitchens for lower rates than hotels and they're centrally located. We can typically expect to pay less than $100 per night in Reykjavik, which has a reputation for being an "expensive" place to visit. Hotels are much, much more and are not centrally located in Reykjavik. 

Then there's the hostel option. It's cost effective for sure, but my wife doesn't like to rough it or share a bathroom. The first hostel I stayed in was not your typical sleezy college kid backpacker hole in the wall where 10 people share a bathroom and sleep on cots. It was in Prague, located in the beautiful historic district. It was a large studio apartment on the top floor of a historic building with great views of the city and a fully equipped kitchen with a private full bathroom and exposed wood beams. It was also cheap. I don't remember the exact amount paid, but I'm pretty sure it was around $200 (that may have been in Euros) for the week. I wish I remembered the name of the place because I would definitely stay there again. If you're on a really tight budget, hostels are the way to go. Keep in mind that they don't have to be sleezy tenement-like accommodations, they can, in fact, be quite nice. If you're on an even tighter budget, camp. 

Prague, Czech Republic, My first international trip, 2006 (At this time I was a complete novice. This image was shot using a 4 megapixel Kodak point and shoot.)

Prague, Czech Republic, My first international trip, 2006 (At this time I was a complete novice. This image was shot using a 4 megapixel Kodak point and shoot.)

Alison looking out of the window of our Airbnb rental in Stockholm, 2016

Alison looking out of the window of our Airbnb rental in Stockholm, 2016

We Cook Our Own Meals and Embrace Cheap Eats While Traveling

One simple way to save money while traveling is to make at least one meal a day at your place (provided it has a kitchen). We typically eat out for lunch when we travel and make our own breakfasts and dinners using local products from a farmers market or grocery store. This not only saves some cash, it allows us to experience life a little more like locals than tourists. We try to stick to goods made in or popular in the country we're visiting instead of foods also available in the states. I love to cook, and spent a decade working in various restaurant kitchens from up-scale to casual, so I have experience cooking and am very comfortable with it. It's not a chore for me. In most western European cities, one trip to the grocery store for a week's worth of goods is equivalent to the average dinner out for two. That's how we are able to save money in both Stockholm and Reykjavik, which are misunderstood as a expensive food towns (check out Bonus Grocery Stores in Iceland). If you stay in a hotel, you're going to spend a ton on eating out three times a day (or simply eating their crappy "complementary" breakfast). So, rent a place with a kitchen! We do usually splurge on one dinner out on the town, however, just to make sure we're not missing out.

Alison (embarrassed) about to enjoy one of Iceland's famous (and cheap) hotdogs, 2015. Finding cheap eats is essential for budget travel.

Alison (embarrassed) about to enjoy one of Iceland's famous (and cheap) hotdogs, 2015. Finding cheap eats is essential for budget travel.

Enjoying a simple breakfast of cinnamon buns, cheese, local strawberries, and other quality grocery store goods in Stockholm, 2016.

Enjoying a simple breakfast of cinnamon buns, cheese, local strawberries, and other quality grocery store goods in Stockholm, 2016.

We're Frugal at Home and Abroad

We're not extravagant people. We have one car. We don't have cable (waste of time and money). Our mortgage is cheaper than the average monthly rent in little old Boone (the nearest town to our secluded mountain home). We're not impulse buyers and don't do much shopping. We heat our home with wood that I harvest myself. We only eat out once a week and it's usually for less than $20 total (not many great restaurants in our area anyway). I cook every other night and keep our meals under five bucks each despite using the best organic produce and products I can get (it's all about smart budgeting!). I also grow a small garden, which helps offset food cost greatly. We even make about nine out of every ten loaves of bread we eat and make our own laundry detergent. All those little things add up to big savings. I like to be as self-sufficient as possible. My wife enjoys canning and preserving produce as well. All of these easy-to- learn skills help us keep our bills down so we can more easily save for travel. 

If you're not the homesteading type, there are still was to save in your day-to-day life. I feel like these options are obvious, but also feel the necessity of stating them. Quit smoking. It blows my mind that anyone smokes cigarettes in the 21st century, but lots of people do. In our area, a pack of cigarettes averages $5-7. A pack a day chain smoker, at minimum, pays over $1,800 a year for cigarettes. That's crazy. That's also more than enough money to go to Paris, or Costa Rica, or Thailand, or wherever you want to go! In fact, I'm confident that I could squeeze two awesome trips for me and my wife out of $1,800. So, when a smoker (and this does happen to me) tells me travel is too expensive, I'm thinking, "more expensive than cancer?" Other vices include daily coffee purchases. Cut out Starbucks. Make coffee at home. It's easy. We very rarely go out for coffee. Buy a french press and a pound of quality grounds, doctor it up any way you like, and watch the savings pile up! It never ceases to amaze me that people will spend $3-5 a day on a cup of Tanzanian-mocha-soy-latte-jiminy-crickets-gluten-free-cold-brew-caramel whatever. That's another $1,800 a year! Another biggy is eating out often. That gets expensive fast, even with fast food. Cook at home. Plan out meals and stick to a strict budget. Believe it or not, you don't have to skimp on quality to save money at the grocery store either. Meals consisting of real food (aka "whole foods") are not only better for you than salty-preservative-riddled junk food and pre-prepared crap, they actually cost less in the long run. Say you go to McDonald's (or wherever) 3 times a week for breakfast or lunch, if you order a value meal every time, you're going to spend $5-7. That's $15 a week minimum, or $780 a year. That's a plane ticket at least (plus, your arteries are in bad shape). Trust me, $15 a week goes a lot farther at the grocery store in meat and produce than at any fast food restaurant. 

Ross Island Lighthouse, Grand Manan, Canada, 2011. I shot this image on a small and remote island in the Bay of Fundy during my second trip to Grand Manan. This little side trip was free, no boats or ferries; I simply had to walk to the island at low tide.

Ross Island Lighthouse, Grand Manan, Canada, 2011. I shot this image on a small and remote island in the Bay of Fundy during my second trip to Grand Manan. This little side trip was free, no boats or ferries; I simply had to walk to the island at low tide.

We Don't Have Kids

And here we arrive at the big elephant in the room. Readers with kids are now forming judgments about me and my wife without reading further. We don't have kids. That does, obviously, make it much easier for us to save money and travel and have lots of time and flexibility. Having kids does not have to mean that all of your dreams of world travel are over. Sure, it makes it a bit more pricey and complicated, but it is possible to travel with your kids, and if you employ some of the budget travel tips I'm providing here, you might find that (at least occasional) travel is a possibility for your family. Lots of people do it on a shoestring budget. Just google "how to afford traveling with kids", and I'm confident you'll find some helpful advice from people with experience in international family travel. I've never been on a plane overseas that didn't have at least one family of four on it. It is possible. It's up to you to figure it out. We do have two dogs that require boarding when we're away. If not for that extra cost, we could travel more frequently and cheaply. But as I'm constantly reminded by a cold nose or wet tongue in my face (sometimes mouth...you know how it is), dogs are the purest form of love in physical form. 

We Buy Experiences, Not Things

Our friends and family probably think we're super stingy because we rarely bring souvenirs home from our trips. One reason for that is that extra baggage weight costs money on budget airlines. The lower the cost of travel expenses, the faster I'll see a return from the photos I sell, and those baggage fees can add up fast. It's always tempting to buy things, especially at all those neat Scandinavian design stores in Sweden. Ultimately, we think our funds are best spent on experiences. We're not big on tours, but if they're the best or only way to experience a place, we'll do one or two. We prefer self-guided and free experiences. Things eventually wear out, get lost, or end up at garage sales. The experiences we have together traveling, however, will stick in our minds all our lives. I'll always remember renting a car, driving out to the middle of the Icelandic nowhere, and climbing a random volcanic crater with my wife, but I don't remember what kind of crap I brought back from my college study abroad trip or even where any of it is. 

Climbing an iron spiral staircase to reach the summit of a volcanic crater on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland, 2016. (Photo by Alison)

Climbing an iron spiral staircase to reach the summit of a volcanic crater on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland, 2016. (Photo by Alison)

Me at the Solheim Glacier, Iceland, 2015. (Photo by Alison)

Me at the Solheim Glacier, Iceland, 2015. (Photo by Alison)

We Studied Abroad in College

If you're in college, definitely try to take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. It can be a life-changing experience. My wife and I actually met on a study abroad trip to Europe while we were both studying history at Appalachian State. We had our first conversation under the Eiffel Tower (I was apparently supposed to kiss her then, but I couldn't read her mind...missed a perfect opportunity, though). Two major things changed for me when I traveled through France, Germany, and Austria that summer: First, I met my lifelong travel partner, and second, I decided that I wanted to be a real travel photographer. I bought my first DSLR right before the trip (a Canon Rebel) and had a blast taking pictures even though I barely knew how to work it! I actually left the manual at home. I learned a lot about photography through trial and error and by visiting galleries in Paris. I got few keepers, but I also got a lot of great memories (plus two A's and a GPA boost). The images below, though a bit amateurish, are a few of my favorites from that trip.

German Girl at Fountain, Munich, Germany, 2008. I often wandered away from the group during my study abroad trip. In Munich, I waited at this fountain, people watching, until the moment this little girl stepped to the edge of the water. 

German Girl at Fountain, Munich, Germany, 2008. I often wandered away from the group during my study abroad trip. In Munich, I waited at this fountain, people watching, until the moment this little girl stepped to the edge of the water. 

One of the many ceiling paintings and chandeliers at Versailles Palace, France, 2008. The galleries and museums of France probably had a lot to do with me being inspired to become a photographer. 

One of the many ceiling paintings and chandeliers at Versailles Palace, France, 2008. The galleries and museums of France probably had a lot to do with me being inspired to become a photographer. 

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. This is one of my first travel photos. The exposure's a little wonky and it was mid-day, but it reminds me of some good times. I kept all the images I made that summer, even the terrible ones.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. This is one of my first travel photos. The exposure's a little wonky and it was mid-day, but it reminds me of some good times. I kept all the images I made that summer, even the terrible ones.

Go. Do. See.

Travel does cost money, but you don't have to completely drain your funds. You just have to figure out ways to make it work for you. You don't have to fly far far away, either. Most people in the U.S. live a half day's drive from something or somewhere awesome. Personally, I'd always rather allocate funds to experiences instead of stuff. It takes careful planning, patience, the willingness to jump at good deals, and some careful budgeting, but if I can do it, you probably can too. I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to the places I want to see and images I want to make, and I'll continue chipping away at it. I hope this article was helpful, and you're ready to jump on a plane. Happy travels and thanks for reading!

( Curious about the gear I use for travel photography? Check out my gear list. )

(c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved.