Last year, we picked a country off our wishlist and booked a flight. We weren’t a part of an exchange student program or a research project. We didn’t have a work visa or a job offer. We were just randomly going on vacation…for three months.
If this sounds like the epitome of financial irresponsibility to you, hear me out: By the end of our 15,000 km (9,300 mi) driving tour of every state in Australia (plus a few bonus days in Hawaii), we actually came home $26,267 richer than the day we started.
Part 1: Making Our Adventure Cheaper
The first step to turning any long vacation into a financial success is to spend less money while you’re out there having fun.
One of our biggest hacks for cheap travel is to simply avoid its two most expensive components altogether: flights and hotels. Normally, we drive our camper van (no matter how far the destination) and sleep in free campsites along the way — bringing these big costs down to almost nothing. But there are some places where roads can’t take the van from our home state of Florida, and Australia is obviously one of them.
As you can see, failing to take our own advice cost us quite a bit of money in those two largest categories:
This was our absolute most expensive trip to date, clocking in at $100 per day, per person. That’s nearly three times more expensive than our typical vanlife road trip, which can be done for as little as $36 per day, per person.
But let’s put this into broader perspective: According to TripNumbers, a one-week vacation to Australia costs the average American couple $376 per day, per person — or $223 if they’re “budget travelers” (data pulled in April 2023). Although we spent a truckload of money by Trip Of A Lifestyle standards, apparently we spent 73% less than what’s considered “normal.”
So, I guess we must have done some things right. 😉
Ground Transportation: How We Got a Free Rental Car
While we couldn’t drive to Australia, we did a whole lot of driving in Australia.
When we first arrived, we snagged a rental car on Turo for about $58/day, knowing this wouldn’t be a good option for the entire trip at a projected cost of over $5,000 for 3 months. Out of curiosity, we tried explaining our situation to the guy whose car we’d rented, and he made us a pretty generous “bulk pricing” offer of 3 months for $2,000, plus maintenance costs.
With that backup plan in our pocket, we decided to try something else. Sifting through cheap, used cars for sale on Facebook Marketplace turned up a 2002 Toyota Corolla Ascent wagon with only 141k km (87k miles) for $3,300. We snapped it up immediately and ditched the rental.
Starting in Sydney, we drove that car all the way across the continent to Perth and back again — totaling over 15,000 km (9,300 mi). After paying for the car itself, an oil change, new spark plugs, taxes, registration, and basic liability insurance, the total cost of ownership was…NEGATIVE $63. We sold the car for more than we paid and actually made a small profit!
The car purchase and sale were the only two transactions we had to use physical cash for on this trip (the rest went on a credit card). Rather than converting currency at the airport or a bank (which is a total ripoff, by the way), we figured out a method to exchange money efficiently using an app called Wise.
As for the $2,030 in ground transportation costs shown in the chart above, the vast majority was just fuel. Our car consumed something like 7.5 – 8 L / 100 km (30ish MPG), and average gas prices seemed to hover around $1.80 AUD / L ($4.50 USD / gal). We were able to use receipts from grocery stores like Woolworth’s and Coles to save a few cents per liter at some service stations.
The next-biggest expense in this category was a $355(!) speeding ticket. Australian police are really strict about this stuff. We were warned of that ahead of time by plenty of locals, and we truly made every effort to obey local traffic laws, but unfortunately, Australian traffic cops are just as predatory as American ones. They caught me going 79 km/hr just a few meters before the “80 km/hr” speed limit sign I was accelerating into. Very uncool, in my opinion.
Other expenses included little things like parking meters, a self-serve car wash, and a couple of Uber rides in Hawaii on our way back home.
Flights & Ferries: A Bonus Trip to Hawaii
An average one-way ticket from Florida to Australia generally falls in the $1,000 – $2,000 range. Since we needed two tickets there and two tickets back, we might have expected to pay $4,000 – $8,000 total.
Fortunately, “average” ticket prices are meaningless when you’re not on any set schedule. Since we were taking a completely spontaneous vacation with no regard for employers or obligations, we could simply book the absolute cheapest flights available, regardless of dates.
Aside from that, Lauren came up with a hack to find cheap airline tickets on long routes: First, browse your options using Google Flights, and take note of the most common connection points. From Florida to Australia, the most common stop on the cheapest route (to Sydney) seemed to be Hawaii.
Next, try splitting your flight into two legs: one from your starting point to the common connection, and the other from that connecting city to your destination. Searching for each leg of your route separately often reveals options that can result in a cheaper fare in total.
If you’re not in a hurry, you can deliberately spend some time at the connection point, too! We were able to spend 5 nights in Hawaii on this trip to Australia (including two different Hawaiian islands), while only spending a grand total of $3,000 on all airfare.
When using this hack, it’s doubly important to pack light, because any checked bag fees will apply separately on each leg of the trip. We did this trip with one checked bag, and if we really tried, we certainly could have gotten away with carry-ons only. You really don’t need as much stuff as you think.
Aside from flights, the other expenditures in this category included round-trip ferries from Perth to Rottnest Island (home of rare marsupials called quokkas), and from mainland Australia to Tasmania (which wound up being our favorite Australian state after visiting them all).
Hotels & Lodging: Cheaper with Hacks, but Still Expensive
On this 88-night journey, we stayed a whopping 75 nights in hotels, which are the most expensive accommodations possible. If you’re trying to travel cheaply, this is the one part of our trip you might not want to copy. You’d be much better off signing a multi-month lease on an apartment somewhere, like we did for our honeymoon in 2015 — or taking a camper van adventure.
With that said, there are a few tricks you can use to reduce the cost of hotels a little bit, if you decide to go that route.
First of all, if you’re ever planning to be in one place for a while, make sure you negotiate an extended stay discount. We spent the first two weeks of this trip at a single hotel in Sydney, and they gave us a rate about 15% cheaper than if we’d only stayed a night or two. If we were willing to stay a month, it would have been a discount of about 35% instead!
If you can find a room with in-unit laundry once in a while, it might save you a few bucks at the laundromat. And more importantly, a room with a full kitchen can save you big money on dining out. Whenever we could get these types of amenities without paying extra, we always chose them.
Of our 75 nights in hotels, we only actually paid money for 65 of them. One easy trick we used was just to earn free loyalty nights by booking our paid stays through the most efficient hotel rewards program.
We also got to cash in on credit card rewards points (specifically IHG Rewards) that we’d previously earned through churning — though we could have done a lot better with that if we’d really planned it out ahead of time. You can find our top-recommended rewards cards on our Recommendations page.
This isn’t exactly a hack, but I’ll also mention that hotels are just a bit cheaper in Australia than we’re used to in the US. Of the ones we actually paid full price for, our average hotel cost was around $110 per night including taxes, fees, and parking — and we got to stay in some really nice places with ocean views, too!
Apart from hotels, we were able to stay with personal friends for 8 free nights and camp in a tent for 2 more cheap ones. The remaining 3 nights were spent (miserably) in airplane seats.
After combining all these hacks together, our average lodging cost was under $85 per night across the entire trip.
Groceries: Cook and Save Money
The best way to spend less money on food is to prepare it yourself, which isn’t always easy when traveling. While we had pretty good luck finding hotels with kitchens, they weren’t always cost-effective, so we came up with a few alternatives.
In Australia, free public BBQ grills are commonplace in parks and outdoor spaces, which let us cook without a proper kitchen — often with a nice view or some company from a kangaroo or water dragon.
We also bought plenty of microwaveable meals, since microwaves were present in almost every hotel. And if that failed us, we always had PB&J supplies in the car.
On day 1 of the trip, we bought basic cooking supplies like oil, seasonings, condiments, and non-perishables to keep handy at all times, but we had to go shopping for fresh, frozen, and refrigerated foods every time we traveled a long distance (which was pretty frequent since we were covering a lot of ground).
In the US, our biggest grocery shopping advice is to avoid most grocery stores. Superstores like Walmart and Target have dramatically cheaper food, along with wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s. In Australia, there aren’t as many alternatives to traditional grocery stores, so food costs are noticeably higher. ALDI probably has the best prices overall, but they’re not as easy to find since they’re mostly concentrated in larger towns.
Dining Out: Make Your Indulgences Cheaper
Now, I know what you’re thinking: When you’re on vacation, you probably don’t want to cook every single meal you eat. Neither did we. We spent nearly $2,000 on dining out, but we had a few tricks up our sleeve to save money there, too.
First of all, we found some Australian chains that we liked and quickly became repeat customers, which made it worthwhile to sign up for a few restaurant loyalty programs. We actually ran into a little trouble with this at first, because our Android phones were stuck in the American Google Play Store, preventing us from downloading Australian apps — but Lauren eventually figured out a clever fix for that problem, and we scored a ton of free food over the course of the 3 months.
We also learned that finding menu hacks is just as easy in Australia as it is in the US. For example, at Hungry Jack’s (Australian Burger King), you can get a Rebel Whopper for 44% less money by ordering every single ingredient a la carte, instead of the actual menu item…for some reason.
@tripofalifestyle It’s surprising how many places this works at. — #menuhack #secretmenu #hungryjacks #burgerking #australia #fastfood ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle
Oh — and this may sound weird — but free water isn’t as easy to come by in Australia. It’s pretty standard for restaurants to try to sell you bottled water, and some don’t let you drink free tap water at all. To solve this problem, we collected every free water bottle given to us by hotels in the back seat of our car and just refilled them each night, so we always had a supply on hand.
Entertainment & Other Stuff: The World is Your Playground
The amount we spent on “entertainment” was pretty small on this vacation, just like most of our other trips, because there’s just so much amazing stuff to do that costs almost nothing.
Our go-to entertainment hack is just to find fun in nature. Anything labeled a National Park is usually pretty cool, and either cheap or free to visit. And in Australia, basically every single beach is breathtaking.
In the big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Brisbane, we found a ton of free museums and art galleries to explore, and public events happening all the time. We did fork over a couple hundred bucks to see one of our favorite bands play at the Perth Concert Hall, though.
When it came to passing time on the road, our cheap car had no aux or Bluetooth inputs, and that actually turned out to be a huge win. Out of desperation, we flipped on our FM radio and discovered a nationwide, ad-free station called Triple J, which introduced us to a ton of awesome music we’d never heard before.
Outside of entertainment, the “Other” category on this trip included our visa applications, an unlimited international cell phone plan for me (which I shared with Lauren via my phone’s mobile hotspot feature), plenty of sunscreen, a bit of makeup, some clothes, and gifts for other people.
Another cost you might be worried about on a trip as long as this one is health insurance. We read the terms of our high-deductible ACA plan in the US, and it actually covers emergencies when traveling internationally, as long as the trip doesn’t exceed 90 days — lucky for us! We didn’t have to buy anything extra*.
Part 2: Making Money on the Road
Keeping our expenses under control was only part of this trip’s financial feat. Remember, we came home with more money than when we started, which means we were actually making money faster than we were spending it — while on vacation.
Here’s the math: We spent nearly $18,000 on our trip. On top of that, we still had bills to pay back home, which totaled around $3,000, for a grand total of ~$21,000 in expenses. The fact that we came home with a net worth ~$26,000 higher than when we started implies that we brought in about $47,000 while we were traveling for 3 months.
Freelance Income (~$19,000)
I quit my full-time job recording physics tutoring videos about 3 years ago at age 29, when we figured out that we’d saved nearly enough money to retire for the rest of our lives.
But rather than severing that income stream completely and leaving my employer without a replacement, I negotiated a part-time freelance agreement that could be fulfilled mostly remotely, which I’ve maintained to this day. And because I only do the absolute most critical parts of my old job, the hourly rate is pretty attractive.
Lauren also quit her job as a web marketer at age 29. She has no business connection to her old employer, but she does still have a social media marketing client, which brings in a small stream of easy money.
Since high school, we’ve both done professional photography as a side hustle, and although we mostly just shoot photos for fun when traveling, we did book one paid gig in Hawaii during this trip.
Last — and definitely least — this blog brings in a very small amount of income for us as well.
The grand total of all this side hustle money was around $19,000 during our 3 months in Australia, with a workload small enough that it still completely felt like a vacation.
Investment Gains (~$28,000)
The funny thing about this trip is that we actually made more money doing nothing than by working while we were gone.
The biggest part of our early retirement strategy is passive investing. A huge portion of our portfolio is in stock market index funds, which swing wildly in value, but as a general rule, they appreciate strongly over time while consistently paying dividends along the way.
We also own bonds and keep a bit of cash in a high-yield savings account. These things pay us interest on a regular basis.
None of these investments require any maintenance or time input from us. They’re all set-it-and-forget-it, passive investments, which is what makes them so great.
Another part of our early retirement plan is real estate. By living frugally in our 20s, we actually saved up enough money at five-figure jobs to buy two condos in cash — no mortgage.
One of those condos is our old home in Gainesville, Florida, which is now a full-time rental property. It’s currently on its third one-year lease with the same tenant, and it’s brought in a steady income with very little work from us during that time. We didn’t even have to think about it while we were overseas this year.
The other condo is our beach residence, also in Florida. Before leaving on this trip, we cleared out all our stuff and stored it between a spare closet, the attic, and an empty room at my mom’s house (thanks, mom!). This allowed us to rent out our home while we were gone.
Rather than renting it short-term like an Airbnb, which might have required a lot of supervision, we advertised it as a 2-3 month lease on Facebook Marketplace. Some snowbirds from Canada moved in for 2 months and luckily took good care of our place, so this ended up being easy money, too.
On top of that, both of our condos experienced appreciation in value while we were gone, which we track loosely by looking at Zillow (and discounting its estimate a bit to be conservative with our numbers). One of our neighbors actually sold his unit at an all-time-high price while we were gone, which was great to see.
Altogether, these investment gains totaled about $28,000 over the course of the 3 months we were gone, after accounting for expenses**.
You Can Do This Too
A lot of people might read this article and think, “well, that’s great for you, but I don’t have a cushy freelance gig, or a big stock portfolio, or a paid-off rental property.”
Well, here’s the thing: Neither did we, when we started. We built all of this with average, middle-class, five-figure jobs, by living frugally and consistently investing the majority of our paychecks.
And you don’t have to build all of the income streams we did before you start taking extended vacations like this one. Just look at the numbers: We could have paid for the expenses of this trip ($17,655) with either our freelance income (~$19,000) or our investment gains (~$28,000)***. We didn’t need both!
In fact, when we took our first 6-month vacation in 2015, our full-time salaries were only about $40k/yr per person, we didn’t own a home, and our investment portfolio was tiny compared to where it is today — and we still made it work.
I’m not gonna lie though: The more money you save, the easier all of this becomes. So get started today! And if you want a bit of daily motivation, go follow us on Instagram, YouTube, or your favorite social media platform. See you there!
* The $17,655 cost of our trip was calculated using “vacation-related” expenses only, so it doesn’t include “back home” expenses like our existing health insurance plan, condo association dues, homeowner’s insurance, etc. However, the +$26,267 change in our net worth over the course of this trip does include all of those things, plus any other expenses you can imagine.
** One interesting “expense” that’s not accounted for in any of these calculations is the cost of inflation on our real wealth over the period. While we did come home with $26k more than when we started, those dollars (and the rest of our net worth) are worth a little less now than before the trip. Fortunately, that effect is mitigated strongly by keeping the majority of our net worth invested at all times, and even in inflation-adjusted terms, we still came out WAY ahead.
*** To be clear, we are absolutely not counting on $28,000 of investment gains every 3 months for the rest of our lives. Some components of this number — especially the appreciation in value of stocks and real estate — could easily be negative over another random 3-month period. But, it’s reasonable to assume that these things will continue to be positive in the long run, which is what really matters.