Debt – The Case Against Charging Your Trip

How do you pay for your trips? Do you hoard vast sums of money? Stow away pennies? Put it on your card? Here, I want to make a strong case for funding your travels with cash. 


There are as many ways to fund your trip as there are destinations to visit. Some people:

  • automatically transfer money into their savings account,
  • religiously hoard a maximum percentage of their income for multi-year traveling extravaganzas,
  • put money aside here and there for the occasional weekend getaway,
  • watch their spending when a trip is on the horizon,
  • use their credit cards to fund the adventure,
  • something else,
  • or a combination of these.

I want to clearly state my opinion right from the beginning: if you want to travel, you should always be saving for it. Period. Cash is king. The only difference is the amount that you're putting away. 

saving money mattersUnlike a surprise plumbing disaster that has found its way through your ceiling, travel is something most people do on a somewhat regular schedule. Do you take an annual vacation every summer? Or remember that you usually visit friends in other cities twice a year? Or know that you like to go skiing in the winter?  Or that you prefer spending 6 months on the road every year?

Unlike the leak, you know that your trip is coming--even if you don't know the travel dates yet. 

No matter when or how long you're traveling, the answer is the same: save for it! 

Don't believe my boring, preachy scoldings? Let me share a recent story to help convince you. 

March 2017 - Unexpected Adventure

Snowy view - travel in ColoradoSlinking down into the heated comfort of my bed in snowy Colorado, my eyes remained transfixed on the glowing screen ahead. With the unlimited content of the Internet at my fingertips, anything could've been holding my attention hostage. But to anyone who knows me, innumerable guesses can quickly wither to a mere handful: Facebook, Alibaba, cute puppy videos, or a travel site. It's this last one that had pulled me in. 

I had originally planned to fly from Colorado directly back to St. Louis. The Internet, however, is always conspiring to make sure that sane and reasonable ideas stay out of my grasp. See, this is what happens. The more I travel, the more it becomes not just present, but interwoven into the fabric of my daily life. I'm subscribed to cheap airfare lists, receive emailed blog updates, and have my most visited sites stored conveniently in Chrome's bookmarks bar. Travel is never more than a saccade away. 

Sitting there in bed, I happened across one of my lists. "REDUCED PRICES FOR RT TICKETS TO ISTANBUL," the banner blared at me with unrelenting intrigue. A normal person thinks, "ISTANBUL!? Dangerous, far, expensive, no time, no money, no interest, where is that again?" But I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from normal. My first thought is, "[DESTINATION]?! That's exactly the place I've been wanting to go!" A click here, a swipe there, and before you know it an airfare calendar is maximized on my screen.

$375 for a round trip ticket to Turkey? I said I'm not normal, but to leave that on the table is simply unreasonable! Within an hour my trip was booked.  

But how did I do it? Why can I pull the travel trigger so quickly? The airfare might be cheap, but what about everything else?!

My last post talked about travel as a skill. Like playing piano, the better you become, the more efficiently your brain can handle the task. When first starting piano, it takes every ounce of mental and physical control to get it right: your eyes are scouring the keyboard's black and white bars, your ears are straining to stay attuned to the variations in tones, and your arms are raised and tense to strike the right notes. Your brain (and body) are working in overdrive to overcome this new challenge. As time goes on, however, a pianist can relax their shoulders, fluidly control their fingers and wrists, and play a song while using much less brain power. 

Travel, like other skills, is no different. When you first start traveling, your mind is all over the place. "Wait, where goes my flight get in? Where did I write that down? How do I find things to do there? What time do I fly back? Did I get a confirmation email from my hotel? Do I have a way from the airport to the hotel? Wait, what airport again? Did my reservation say that a shuttle was offered? Should I book attractions in advance? How much was all this again?!" With a bit of practice, you can cut through this static and see the components that are essential NOW

Sitting in bed, I only needed 20 minutes to answers all of my questions. 

  1. How much are the tickets? 
    • Airline website 
      • Is it a good price? 
        • Yes
  2. What travel dates offer the discounts? 
    • Calendar
      • What's my schedule like?
        • Good
  3. What can I do in Istanbul?
    • TripAdvisor - Istanbul - Top Attractions 
      • Is this enough time to see what I want?
        • Yes

Open 4 flight websites to compare prices, enter dates, double-check there are no mistakes, choose the cheapest one, click-click-click...done. Ticket booked.

Open up 6 hotel sites, limiting search by dates, price, room type, number of stars, location from center, WITH FREE CANCELLATION, click-click-click...done. Hotel booked.

Note: the key here is that you CAN CANCEL THE HOTEL. My trip might be a month or 6 months away. I haven't figured everything out yet. Maybe I'll only spend 7 out of 10 days in Istanbul. Maybe just 5. Maybe I'll Couchsurf with someone for free, or switch to a slightly more expensive room closer to the city center, or not even stay in Istanbul at all. Either way, before I decide on the details, I want to ensure I have a place to stay at a reasonable price. At least I've got something!

Travel to see Hagia Sophia in Istanbul Turkey30 minutes later and the barebones of my trip are booked. Another 30 minutes of curiously browsing sites about Turkey brings me to 1 full hour. From there, I usually ignore the trip for the rest of the day. This gives me time to start thinking about what I want to do there, if I know anyone there, and what kind of trip I want it to be. 

Although you might not be open to such a spontaneous trip, the principle behind my ability to do this is still the same for you.


That's not because I make a lot of money--in fact, it's quite the opposite. Because I can't spend money frivolously, I'm ALWAYS saving. It's the only way I could travel so frequently! 

Compare these two scenarios.

  1. Debt-funded trip 
    1. You have a trip to Spain coming up in 3 months
    2. You bought your ticket, but you haven't booked your hotel
    3. You estimate that you'll need $2,000 for the 10-day trip
    4. You haven't started putting money aside, but you think that'll be easier to start next month.
    5. You do this, but now you have to save $1,000 in 2 months. You have to cut back on dinner with friends, carefully consider plans before accepting, stress about whether you'll be able to pull it off, wonder if you should even be going in the first place, and repeatedly check your bank and card balances to see how you can pull this off.
  2. Cash-funded trip
    1. You have a trip to Spain coming up in 3 months
    2. You bought your ticket, but you haven't booked your hotel
    3. You estimate that you'll need $2,000 for the 10-day trip
    4. You have $5,000 in your travel account. In 3 months, you'll have $6,000. You don't think about how to finance it because you already have 3x your budget. 

Tip: NEVER LET THE BALANCE DIP TOO LOW! Always save. Always replenish. 

Now, what would happen if you didn't save up the $2,000 in time? You could put it on a credit card. 

  • Let's say you have a $5,000 limit
  • You've already used $1,200
  • You think you'll need $2,000 for this trip
  • In this sick world of ours, you have 17.95% APR and this is considered "great."
  • You think you can pay off your entire balance in 10 months.

Paying Interest

How much does this cost you in the end? Paying $347 a month for 10 months, you would end up spending $269 on interest. INTEREST! It seems small, but that adds up. In just 3 trips, you will have spent $1,000 on interest, or the price it costs to take another trip! 

Fleeced by bankersImagine this conversation with a travel agent: "I think you'll be very happy with this trip package. Southern Spain is GORGEOUS in the summer! Now we just have a few things to wrap up. How would you like to pay? We have two options. If you use cash, you will need to pay $2,000. However, if you use your card, there will be a $300 transaction fee." For someone who cringes at the thought of paying $3 to use another bank's ATM, the thought of forking over $300 makes me want to bawl my eyes out! 

But perhaps more importantly for your love of your travel, ignore whether it makes financial sense and ask, "how does it feel to travel on debt?"

You're worried about interest and late fees. You are constantly checking to make sure you don't overspend and eat into that needed line of credit. Sadly, instead of coming back to a paid-off trip, you might be suffering through repayments for the next 6, 10, 16, or however many months. What better way to kill your enthusiasm for travel?! Who wants to go on another trip when they're still trying to pay off the last one?

Note: using credit cards to gain travel points and rewards is extremely worthwhile, but I ALWAYS pay it off. No interest for this guy! 

So, while debt traveling might seem like a quick and easy solution to your wanderlust woes, I would strongly caution against it. Instead of giving the money to VISA or MASTERCARD, why not give it back to yourself? That $300 in interest could be used for an amazing day of shopping in Sri Lanka, a ultra-luxurious spa treatment in Hong Kong, or a night in an overwater bungalow on a paradisiacal tropical island.

Don't carelessly give away your dollars to bankers; use them on yourself!

Turkish food
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