In The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett quotes an elite travel agency saying that the normal traveler spends $10k a year.

I was pretty sure that their idea of a normal traveler is a skewed. I was also certain I spent less than $10k a year on travel, even though I travel full-time and I’ve been in the US and Canada the whole time.

What normal people spend on travel each year

The average amount people spend on vacation each year wouldn’t be very meaningful, since some people spend huge amounts on lavish trips while many more don’t take travel at all. Thus, it’s no surprise that data on what a normal person spends on travel each year varies.

  • AAA says 60% of Americans don’t travel at all
  • Bankrate/Insider says Americans spend $1,979 on summer vacations each year
  • Lendingtree said Americans spent $3,250 on the average 12-day vacation
  • In 2019, AARP predicted Boomers would spend $6,600 a year on travel, Gen Xers would spend $5,400, and Millennials would spend $4,400
  • According to the LearnVest Money Habits and Confessions Survey, the average American spends 10% of their income on travel — with a quarter of Americans spending 15% or more — and 74% of Americans go into debt to go on vacation (which is high enough to make me wonder if they consider using a credit card as going into debt, regardless of whether or not you carry a balance)

If the average domestic trip costs Americans $144 a day and international trips are $271 a day, it’s no wonder people assume you’d have to be absurdly wealthy to travel all the time.

Sure, being on vacation 365 days a year would be very expensive! I’m not on vacation.

What I spend on travel each year

I already knew that I spend less money traveling full-time than I did when I was living in one place without having to calculate it. I lived in Toronto and New York before that, two cities with high housing costs. Eliminate the cost of housing and my expenses plummet. Sure, house sitting isn’t free, so I do pay something for housing, but it’s still a lot less.

The amount I spend on going out, groceries, clothes, getting around town, and other incidentals is roughly the same as it was before, although now it varies significantly from one month to another.

I spent $2,754 on travel in 2018. This includes so many short flights, bus trips, train trips, boat trips, and car trips I feel tired just looking through the list. Mid-way through the year I was ready to slow down the pace of my travel. I paid for memberships to house sitting sites and gifts for hosts. This was before I figured out how to get into museums for free.

I spent $1,685 on travel in 2019. That’s four flights, some short rail trips, and some bus trips. That also includes memberships to house sitting sites like Trusted House Sitters and gifts for my hosts.

I spent $4,007 on travel in 2020. That includes four months of rent during lockdown and three flights I may or may not have taken. I took some short rail and bus trips before the pandemic and then rideshares once transit shut down. It also includes gifts for hosts and membership to THS, WWOOF, and Home Exchange.

To be fair, the normal cost of a vacation includes food and entertainment, which I’m not counting in my travel costs since they’re no different from what I’d typically spend at home throughout the year. The other big difference is most people are paying to leave their home empty while they’re away.

How much did you spend on your last vacation? Would it have been enough to travel for the whole year?

How to save money on travel

Don’t pay for housing. I spend most of my time house sitting. Between house sits I find places to stay through CouchSurfing and WWOOF.

Slow down. I’m not trying to cram a years worth of vacation into 12 days. I can spread the things I want to do over several weeks.

Depending on where I am — how many people I know, what the food scene is, what events are taking place, what museums are nearby — I may spend almost nothing on entertainment or I may spend a lot. It evens out over the course of the year.

Staying in each place for several weeks or months also means spending less getting between places. This might mean a single long-term house sit or it may mean several house sits in the same general area. I’m good at finding cheap flights (and happy to take the train or bus). Still, no flight is always cheaper than even the cheapest flight.

Be a nerd. Many museums, orchestras, theatres, and other institutions offer free admission and various reduced admission programs. Universities are an excellent source of free or inexpensive events. Embassies, cultural centers, and religious organizations also host events and art exhibitions.

Your local library will provide you with free ebooks, audiobooks, and documentaries anywhere in the world. Want to learn a new language? Your library provides access to online courses and probably has conversation circles. Many libraries will allow you to join just for showing up, which is great when I’m going to be in an area for several months.

I jump at the chance to go hiking. While I bought a park pass in Alberta and spent money on gas to reach trails, these activities usually cost me nothing. I prioritize house sits that offer easy trail access, especially ones that come with four-legged hiking buddies.

Remember this is real life. I don’t need to find ways to keep busy. While my job gives me the flexibility to visit museums and go hiking on weekdays to avoid the crowds, I’m still working a lot of the time and volunteering.

After years of having to eat out in New York because I lived so far from my office and my friends, I still appreciate being able to cook for myself. This also makes the ability to walk places feel like a luxury. There are still errands to run and laundry to do. I’m living my normal life, I’m just in different places.

Know what matters to you. I have no problem splurging. I just save it for when it feels worthwhile. Knowing what makes a difference to me and what doesn’t helps me save money without feeling like I’m missing out.