How to travel the world with less than $50/day: Part 1 – Flights

I’ve learned that long term travel is not for everyone. Some people like to escape the 9-5 only for a week or two. They like to have a place called “base” and not be afar from family. Others, however, like the freedom that comes with long term travel. One morning you could be watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat and two weeks later you’ll be kayaking the Mekong river searching for river dolphins. Or you can be in Venice thinking your next stop is Florence but then decide on a last minute hunch that Slovenia is probably nice to visit and in a few hours you’re on a train to Ljubljana.

Many of our friends have asked us how and why we’ve taken a 10 month trip. To help you decide if long term travel is for you and if you can afford it, we will write a series of posts that hopefully address this issue.

A few things we like about long term travel:

  • realization that stuff is really just stuff with no meaning (a 12 kg backpack is all you really need)
  • freedom of doing whatever you want whenever you want (learn how to cook Thai food or how to scuba dive, volunteer by teaching English, or the beauty of doing nothing)
  • Learn from different cultures (one week just won’t cut it)
  • taste the amazing culinary wonders of the unknown
  • and many more…

So how can this be done for a 3 month, 6 month, or 12 month trip?

For the first post in the series we will discuss flights!

Flights

There are two versions people tend to use:

  • book all the flights in advance
  • book flights as you go

Both options have their pros and cons and you should select the one that best fits your wishes. Unfortunately and fortunately the bulk of our travels we have booked in advance (for South America in 2005 and for our RTWT 2011/2012). For our current trip, we have a skeleton trip with our Around the World ticket and we buy flights as we go (or go by land).

1. Book in advance

This option should only really be selected if you can get the flights for really cheap or free.

AIRLINE MILES: Sara and I were able to use our AAdvantage miles to book a around the world trip ticket … business class with 16 flights. We ended up paying only $400 each for all flights. Many of my friends I’ve talked to always say: “Yea, I have miles with some airline but I don’t really keep track”. However, this is the WRONG approach. In 2005 Sara and I knew we wanted to take a year around the world and we did not want to save $15,000+ to buy airline tickets.

We started to keep track of who we flew with and what credit cards we were using. We opted for American Airlines AAdvantage program because we already had some miles with them and AA was the only airline that flew the non-stop route between JFK-San Diego. Also, American Airlines (AA) is part of One World partnership which means that if you fly with any airline within the One World family, you can receive miles. Other airlines include Iberia, British Airways, Royal Jordanian, Qantas, and others.

We opened checking accounts and personal credit cards at CitiBank (partners with AAdvantage) and received a total of 80,000 miles for free. Lastly, I opened a business credit card with Citibank which gave me an additional 40,000 miles. We made sure we used only our credit cards for EVERY expense that allowed it (usually utility bills, tuition, and rent must paid with cash or check).

At the end, we were able to save over 400,000 miles. Booking a ticket that has between 25,000 to 35,000 of miles flown, the Round the World One World Explorer costs 160,000 AAdvantage miles for economy and 190,000 for business class with a maximum of 16 flights flown in one direction (west to east or east to west) using any of the One World partners.

If you fly business class, you also get to use the VIP airport lounges.

Sky Alliance probably has a similar program but I’m not too familiar with it. If you have miles in United, go find out! United also has partnerships with some banks to help save miles.

NOTE: We DO NOT recommend for someone with a bad credit record OR a bad spending habit to opt for this option! New credit cards should only be opened if you’re responsible with your finances.

AIRLINE PASSES: Another option is airline passes. In 2005 when we traveled through South America for 3 months, we opted for a LAN South American pass + TAM Airlines Brazilian pass. We learned that many top airlines offer something similar. We’ve heard of Cathay Pacific offering an Asian Air Pass.

Usually the way the air passes work is that you must fly with the airline into the region of interest.  They required that we flew into South American with LAN Airlines to use their pass. We used LAN from Miami to Bogota. Once that was confirmed, we purchased the air pass which gave us flights at 25% the real cost. Sara and I flew from Bogota-Lima-Cusco-Puno-Buenos Aires-Bogota for $900/person + the $300 Miami-Bogota-Miami. Using the TAM Air Pass, we had to fly into Brazil with TAM airlines. We flew the Buenos Aires-Foz Iguazu & Rio de Janeiro-Buenos Aires for $220 each. We then flew Foz Iguazu, Natal, Recife, Salvador, Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro for $500 each person.

So basically for 15 flights we spent $1,920 each, that’s an average of $128/flight!

Unless you opt for miles or an air pass, booking in advance is the WRONG option.

Even though it makes sense financially to book in advance, this option might be the wrong one if you would like ultimate freedom with no set itinerary and set dates. One of the rules we really don’t like with our around the world ticket is that our route is defined and it cannot be changed. We can change our dates (if there is availability) but that’s it!

2. Book flights as you go

If you want ultimate freedom, booking as you go is the ideal choice of travelers we’ve met. Dan, a young American guy we met on a potential 10 month trip, has no idea where he’s off to next, maybe China, maybe Vietnam, or maybe Indonesia. It will depend who he meets on the road, what book he’s reading, or what type of food he wants to eat.  I’ve met a guy that jumps around the world like it’s taking a 1 hour drive. One day he’ll be in Siam Reap and the next he’ll be in Serbia followed by Buenos Aires. How do they do it?

  • Fly between Tuesday and Thursday
  • Book new routes airline companies open up, usually these segments are discounted by more than 50%. I once flew from LAX to Guatemala for $90 when Spirit Airlines opened that market. Another friend of mine went from NYC to Iceland for $99 on Air Lingus
  • Do a simple google search: “cargo travel” or “last minute budget travel” … go through the list of links and get rid of the junk to find the jewels
  • Look for discounted airlines. In the USA you have Southwest, Jetblue, or Virgin America. In Asia you have Air Asia, Tiger Air, and a few others. In Europe you have Easy Jet or Ryan Air with a few new ones opening up. I have yet to find one similar in South America and if you know of one, please share it! I’ve flown with Southwest for $99 from LAX to MIA or with Air Asia from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur for less than $100 or Phuket to Bali for less than $60! Friends have flown within Europe for less than $15 for a 2 hour flight!
  • Go by land instead of flying — sometimes getting from point A to point B costs $20 by land instead of $200 … it might take a bit longer but you get to see the country side and maybe you’ll meet some strangers that become life long friends

Booking flights as you go also means that you get to save miles for that extra trip. We have 100,000 points with British Airways and we were able to use 18,000 of them to fly from Madrid to Ibiza for less than $70 for both of us.

The downside of booking as you go is that sometimes you get stuck buying an expensive ticket because of x, y, z reason. We had to buy a ticket from Ankara to Tehran close to $600 since we were not flexible with the dates. We could have paid $300 if the timing was right. Another downside of booking as you go budget style is that you might spend long hours at an airport, have 3 to 4 stops along the way, and you might pay for extras like luggage or seat assignments.

Regardless of how you do it, booking flights in advance or as you go, flights should not be a limiting factor for long term travel!

Any questions? Comments? Tips of your own? Please leave a comment!

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The next post on this series we’ll visit lodging, where to stay, how to find the right spots, and what you should expect. – Go to Part 2

4 Replies to “How to travel the world with less than $50/day: Part 1 – Flights”

    1. Thanks Andi!!! We’ll put you in the acknowledgement section for inspiring us!! It’s already been a thought! =)

  1. These are some good pieces of advice! I’m really looking forward to the part about lodging since I’m going to do some traveling of my own this year. Any chance you might have some tips about how/where to eat so you don’t spend too much money?
    I’ll be keeping an eye out for part two!

    1. Thanks! Yes, we will for sure include a section of food, lodging, transportation, entertainment, etc. Make sure you’re signed up to our newsletter or RSS feed to get the updates!

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