I’ve written a lot about our personal experiences of full-time travel, but when thinking about what my strategy would be today, I realized that, of all the “guides” I’ve written, I’ve never written one for full-time travel specifically.
For years we traveled full-time and publicly published our expenses, adding monthly and yearly recaps as well.
We averaged $556.55 a month and were normally in 4 and 5 star hotels. This is largely because we really worked hotel promotions to get enough points that we redeemed 184 free nights that calendar year!
In this post, I want to discuss:
- Philosophy on full-time travel
- Strategies for saving on long term hotels
- Strategies for flights
- What new things I would try, moving forward
- Practical tips for long-term travel lifestyle
My Philosophy On Full-Time Travel
From doing the full-time travel thing for so long, I’ve met lots of other full-time travelers, and I’ve gotten to see who burns out, and who keeps loving the travel . lifestyle.
This section is mostly my thoughts on burn out. Because I think there are obvious correlations and reasons people burn out. Most commonly: a lack of real social life, traveling too fast, and lack of sustainable balance (remote work).
The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the very high correlation between fast-paced travel and burn out.
I don’t mean Rapid Travel Chai kind of travel. Stefan admits that he comes home burned out. My point is that you shouldn’t travel like him all the time, if you’re planning to do this sustainably.
I know a lot of digital nomads end up staying in hostels purely because there’s a social element. And there also seems to be a culture around being a “digital nomad”. These people congregate in places like Ubud, Chiang Mai, Medellin, etc…
I know almost nothing about this stuff, so I won’t comment on it other than to say, if you’re single, it’s worth thinking about. Maybe look into the digital nomad community. Hostels tend to be a younger, fast-paced, backpacker crowd, and my assumption is that it’s harder to make real friends.
If you want to tap into these groups, I recommend searching for co-working spaces in your desired destination. And it may be worth searching for best co-working cities in the country or continent you’re interested in.
Full-time work, as well.
I should quickly mention that my priority is to get lots of work done while traveling and this means I prefer nice hotels and spacious work environments.
Personally, I think working a lot contributes to the long term viability and stress. Working helps keep your sanity, purely because spending more money than you make isn’t a great feeling. But I have problems disconnecting.
Because for me, it’s not a vacation, I’m just living out of hotels and we can both work remotely.
I spend the majority of my time holed up in a hotel, lounge, or cafe, on a computer. Then, I plan a day or multiple days where we adventure out and jump in waterfalls, and don’t care about checking in online.
The key to my sanity is not moving from place to place every day.
I think I get most stressed when we’re moving around a lot. Trust me, you just can not get work done when you arrive at a place Monday and you leave Wednesday. Monday and Wednesday are transit days, which is a time-suck, and Tuesday you obviously want to see the place you’re visiting…
And that’s how work never gets done, and it’s very stressful for me personally.
Long stays are key.
Even going from one hotel to another, even when they can hold your bags, for some reason it’s a time-suck.
Luckily, since there are two of us, we can alternate checkins, so we can stay in the same hotel but still complete a promotion.
For me, slow travel is the key to long term travel.
Honestly, people who take gap years, live in dive-y places, and travel to a new places everyday, I don’t know how they do it. Most people who even simply take a week vacation go home and notice a recharging. I feel the same way, but when I checkin to a nice hotel for a week and plan on getting tons of work done.
For example, I’d really like to do a trip in Sumatra. My plan is to buy a local sim card and use a spare phone as a hot spot the entire time, as well as having my Google Fi and Carrie’s Tmobile, and as well as choosing hotels that hopefully have decent internet.
Then my plan would be to hole up at the JW Marriott Medan, which often goes for $50 a night!
Chase Deals To Saved Places
As you may know, I’m evangelical about my system of using Google Maps To Save Travel Destinations.
After doing this for years, you see areas where stars (now green flags) start to gather.
I mention this because I wouldn’t want to chase a deal just anywhere. Fortunately, I’m curious about most everywhere, so if it’s a new place a deal would tempt me, but I’ve gotten pickier.
There are eventually great deals everywhere, and I don’t want to use my time to go some random place, when there are tons of places I really want to go.
I guess I’m saying, 1) Chase deals, for sure. If there is an overwater bungalow available in Bora Bora for $10 a night, you should book tickets asap.
But 2) Be honest with yourself about how great the location or destination is.
Stay Places You Love
This may be the craziest piece of advice, but I think points people really struggle with staying somewhere for the deal.
I want to go to Krakow, not Bratislava, and I want to stay right in the old town, not near the airport.
If you’re on a vacation, I actually think location matters less. The problem is that if I’m trying to get work done, I have a limited amount of time to enjoy the town. I don’t want to waste an hour of it on the bus getting to my lunch spot.
Also, I think one of the things that makes travel sustainable is falling in love with a place. I know people get stuck in beautiful places, like northern Bali, Colombia, etc… They plan to travel around and end up staying months in one spot. In my opinion, you want that to happen.
Personally, I’m not big on planning too far ahead. I’m totally fine booking hotels and flights the day before. However, it’s hard to really chase deals this way, so I often book a week out. The truth is, I just don’t want to be tied into a commitment.
First of all, many deals are last minute. If I had non-refundable flights back to the US, I might not have booked 8 nights at the InterContinental Fiji on PointBreaks.
Second, I want to be able to stay somewhere for a long time if I like it. Or at least I want the option to stay longer.
Part of slow travel to me is also limiting long flights. I tend to book flights so they are all as short as possible. We’ll start in Hong Hong Kong and then creep slowly across Asia. It saves time, money, miles, stress, and most importantly, maximizes the amount of time I’m not on a plane.
How To Get Cheap Hotels During Full-Time Travel
This entire thing began for us years ago because I realized we spent more money living in the US than we did living out of hotels. So that became a rough goal for our travel budget: spend less money traveling than we did in “normal” life.
In Austin, the cheapest 2 bedroom rent downtown is roughly $1,600 a month.
Trying to do that in nice hotels sounds like it would be tough, because that’s $50 a night! But as mentioned, we consistently did way way better than that…
The Key: Scalable Deals
In my mind, you have to change your points earning and redeeming strategies.
I’ve long believed that you should blow your points for long stays at low category points hotels that are deals. I don’t mean a points hotel out by the Bratislava airport (being in Bratislava or an airport hotel is bad enough).
What kinds of deals are scalable? For example:
- Promotions you can do multiple times.
- Buying miles/points deals.
- MS for hotel points.
IHG has been the single most used strategy for us, even after PointBreaks started to decline, the numbers were amazing.
See the following recent posts:
Those posts, especially the post on earning via promotions, lay out what I’ve done for years to earn IHG points.
Changing hotels sucks, but it’s great for promotions. IHG often requires different brands, in which case, we might try to use the same hotel to complete promotions for both Carrie and I before switching hotels.
Low Cash Rates
The reason I also linked to the post on the Cheapest IHG Hotels, is because points go quickly, and if you can find a cheap, nice hotel in a place you enjoy, you should milk it.
For example, if there’s a promotion whenever I get to Medan, I’ll camp out in the JW Marriott for a while if I like the town. You can’t beat $50 a night.
If my goal is a $50/night average, then earning points while staying near that average is huge. Luckily I enjoy lots of cheap places. Bangkok, Bulgaria, Budapest, Mexico City, etc.
Yes, $50 a night for JW Marriott is very very rare, at least outside of China and Indonesia. But if the rate and promotion makes sense, and most importantly, if you enjoy the place, milk it.
Low Hanging Fruit
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve completed many one time promos by switching hotels. But my preference is long stays and scalable deals.
For example, I don’t think signing up for credit card sign up bonuses is a scalable deal, but it certainly can have a big savings, which is why I tend to prefer miles over hotel points. It also means I’ve gotten good use out of annual free nights from credit cards.
Hotel “Deals” In Big Cities
Basically, everything in my 9 Ideas For Getting Hotel Deals are deals I have used. Hotwire, Roomer, coupon codes, etc…
These are things I like to have in my back pocket, especially for expensive places.
As mentioned, I think it’s proven that mathematically you get more value redeeming your points at the lowest category hotels you’ll be staying in, instead of the conventional wisdom of paying for redeeming points for hotels in expensive cities like Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, etc…
My point has been that a hotel in Hong Kong could be the maximum number of points, and yet only $200 a night.
Think about it. A Candlewood Suites at the Dallas Airport might be $130 a night or 10,000 points… Or a hotel in Hong Kong might be $200 a night or 60,000 points. You get 4x more value redeeming points for the cheaper hotel.
In a place like Hong Kong, well, I have to admit that I have redeemed points for InterContinental Hong Kong on multiple occasions. But my ideal use is using an Ambassador BOGO cert (buy one get one free certificate).
Otherwise, I try to save free night certificates.
And I used to score lots of free nights from Best Rate Guarantees.
I use my own Complete Maps to look for the best deals and plan it out accordingly.
If there is a deal with a great location, then I will try to save/acquire some points for that location.
I also have the luxury of booking in increments that make sense for the deal. I can book 4 nights if there is a 4th night free.
Here is a copy of the chart of free night benefits, originally in my post Chart of Hotel Loyalty Program Benefits.
|IHG Ambassador||$200||BOGO cert|
|Kempinski||10 nights||3rd night voucher|
|Hilton||Silver||5th night free (on reward nights)|
|Marriott||any member||5th night free|
|IHG||with IHG Premier credit card||4th night free (reward night)|
Airbnb Is Great
This is the biggest thing that has changed over the years: my trust of Airbnb.
It’s always been good for finding hotels in less traveled places. But I had some weird experiences, like not being able to find my Airbnb in both Montenegro and Wroclaw, Poland. In one case the address was wrong, and in Montenegro they basically didn’t have a real address (like we do in the US).
However, my opinion has changed, for a few reasons.
First, nothing beats Airbnb’s prices for long stays. Most hotels don’t even give discounts for long stays anymore.
Here is a screenshot of 1 month in my favorite area of Bali, Indonesia:
Dozens of places under $600. And even if you did pay more than $600, you’re saving your points for the more expensive places.
Also, I find I work better when I have different sitting options, and hotel rooms can be so tiny. In contrast, here’s our Airbnb in Mexico City that was $40 a night:
(And that’s just the living area for our 1 bedroom).
It’s hard to beat the price and value of Airbnb.
I have 3 main concerns when booking an Airbnb:
- Flexibility/inflexibility for extending a stay.
- I need a soft bed.
The biggest problem I see is that it’s hard to be flexible. If you love a place and want to stay there longer, someone could have booked that same place starting on your last day.
The soft bed and wifi will often be mentioned in the ratings. If you’re not familiar, in most countries, the average bed is hard. They often put softer beds in hotels for the tourists, and people furnishing an Airbnb might not think about it.
Reviews are key to solving this.
Benefits of Airbnb:
- Size of the place (as well as amenities for those who like kitchens/laundry).
- Can ask for last-minute and long-term discounts.
- They often automatically give long-term discounts, and hotels do not.
- Locations. The fact is, there are no chain hotels in the hip area of La Condesa in Mexico City, just as an example. But there are Airbnbs everywhere. Being in the exact spot I want to be in is a huge benefit to me.
Not only location optionality within a city, but even booking in Farflung places, Airbnb can be a great option.
I have not used Airbnb a ton, but it meets all my requirements for value (like size of the place for the price compared to a hotel room), location optionality, price and more importantly, price for long stays.
For this reason, I foresee Airbnb.
Booking Flights & Transit
Arranging The Order Of Flights
I recently talked about which search engines I use, and one of the things I like best about a booking site, is the availability to be flexible and see the cheapest prices.
I don’t just mean dates, but also airports.
I don’t know how many people consider all the options when doing a Europe vacation, for instance, but the cheapest flights aren’t always as they seem. In other words, it may not be geographically obvious. Maybe you start in Austria and fly to Italy, and then Germany.
You can piece things together by using Skyscanner, typing in your starting city and then “everywhere” in “June” (or any month). Then I can see, “okay from Budapest, there are super cheap flights to Kiev.” And then I’ll search Kiev, and realize that the flights are cheaper there to Bulgaria anyhow, and thus booking it in the order of Budapest, Kiev, Bulgaria, would therefore be the cheapest.
I Use Miles For Big Flights
I almost always use miles when flying overseas.
The most I ever spent on a cash ticket was $440, and it was a roundtrip business class ticket to China (mistake fare, obviously). However, that’s my only cash ticket to Asia (not counting the Middle East).
Practical Living Tips
There are 3 strategies for doing laundry cheaply in my mind:
- Hotels with laundry facilities
- Airbnb where you can filter to have laundry (not all places will have a dryer though…)
- Laundry by the pound
You do not want a 5 star hotel doing your laundry. I made that mistake once at a nice InterContinental, as we were desperate and I misunderstood the pricing sheet… Yeah, it was expensive.
But if you’re in Asia, there are laundry by the pound places everywhere, and they are very cheap.
If you’re not in an area with cheap laundry by the pound, I try to work in a laundry-accommodating hotel periodically. In the US it’s easy, as hotels like Candlewood Suites all have them, but in other places you might have to search a little harder.
Healthcare is cheaper abroad
Ironically, the US has some of the most expensive healthcare in the world. Even in countries with socialized health care, the costs for non-citizens are significantly cheaper. Carrie’s contacts in the Netherlands were $8, instead of her normal $30 + required subscription (therefore another $90 or so for an eye exam).
If you’re in health care hot spots, like Bangkok, where the healthcare is super cheap and high quality, take advantage of that benefit.
(FYI, I know nothing about health insurance or travel insurance, so I’m not the person to ask).
I use Google Fi.
Carrie still uses, (and I used to use), TMobile. Although, I believe my nomad friend Trevor got kicked off of Tmobile for spending too much time out of the country.
You can always buy local sim cards, which have a different phone number, but you can use messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook messenger.
Having a US phone and a VPN is very important.
Logging into your bank account or PayPal from Egypt will get your account flagged. But I find hot-spotting from my phone works successfully, even in China.
Mail is tricky but there are paid solutions, (most of them kind of pricey but potentially worth it if you have no US relatives willing to serve as your surrogate address.) Expect base rates anywhere from $10- $100 per month with added costs per piece of mail depending on the action you take, or the features you need. (Typical actions/features include scan, trash, save, forward, or even check cashing in some cases).
If you’re not truly nomadic and are just a frequent slow-traveler, you can always set up a hold-mail request. Just give the post office a start date and end date and they’ll hold your mail for that time. You can elect to have it delivered at the end, or you can arrange a pick-up. (Keep in mind, the pick-up location is not always intuitive).
This has worked…fine…for us but almost never perfectly. One time they delivered our mail when we’d asked for pick up. Another time we went to pick the mail up and they couldn’t find it. Then when I called to inquire about locating it, they magically had it right in front of them.
Two additional tips from Carrie:
- She says women shouldn’t get their hair cut abroad. Really, I guess it just depends if you see people with the hair you want. Otherwise, they might have zero experience doing it or there may be language challenges communicating what you want. Even with a photo, expect the unexpected.
- She also says to do your visa planning in fancy hotels with printers (ones with business centers).
First, I don’t actually believe there’s a right or wrong way of doing travel.
If you like fast travel, do it. If you like hostels, do it. These are just my thoughts on our travel sustainability.
Second, full-time travel has been a wonderful experience for us both. Truly an amazing globetrotting experience.
I’ve heard other couples say they have different travel styles, but for us, it was amazing.
I think a lot of full-time travel has to do with having remote work. For whatever reason, feeling like you’re a productive human contributing to the world is important for the human psyche (regardless of whether or not we’re actually contributing positively to the planet).