Dear Nora: How to Travel Like a Boss on a Backpacker Budget

Thursday 20th, April 2017 / 10:00 Written by
Dear Nora: How to Travel Like a Boss on a Backpacker Budget

Just because you have a backpacker budget doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice comfort or style. Nor does it mean you need to choose only destinations with a low cost of living. In this article I’m going to show you how to creatively use your backpacker budget to travel like a boss – as in, first class.

Dear Nora,

I’ve been following you for a while now, and you seem to have some pretty amazing experiences in some pretty expensive places. But I don’t understand, because you’re supposed to be a hobo, right? I even read some of your expense reports, and I have a hard time believing you can travel through 13 countries in a year (including Europe, Australia, New Zealand etc) for less than $20k. And THEN if that wasn’t enough I saw a picture of you flying in business class?! What gives?   – Bryan

In my last 10+ years of travelling the world full-time, I really surprised myself at how little it costs to be a citizen of the world. I started tracking my expenses in 2010, and shocked myself to see that my annual expenses – all in – to travel the world were about $17,000. And it wasn’t a fluke because without trying, the next year cost almost exactly the same. In subsequent years my expenses fluctuated quite a bit with my circumstances (some of which were unpredictable or even tragic); now after tracking my expenses for seven years, I can say that I have found a sweet spot around $24,000. (You can check out my annual expense and income breakdowns here).

For some of you, $24,000 might sound like a lot of money. For others, it may seem paltry. But I will be the first person to say that even in the years I spent $17,000, I travelled like a boss. I travelled through relatively expensive countries. I flew around the world in business class. I drove a blue convertible rental car around Hawaii. I stayed in hotel suites. And I got free accommodation in some of the most beautiful homes in some of the most desirable destinations.

In fact, I like to call myself a traveller with champagne tastes on a beer-drinker’s budget.

If you’ve got a backpacker budget but also like the finer things in life, check out these seven ways to travel like a boss on a backpacker budget.



I covered this topic off in a previous article here: Is Free Travel With Mystery Shopping a Scam? Short answer: no, it’s not a scam. I’ve flown long-haul in business class for the price of economy, and in economy for 50% off. With mystery shopping, you can also stay in fancy hotels for free, travel the rails, take the bus, and other travel opportunities – either for free, or a fraction of the cost.



I stumbled on this little gem of a tip early on in my travels, and tried it out skeptically in Hawaii. Despite my skepticism, I walked out of the rental place with the keys to a luxury blue convertible in my hand for the price of their cheapest compact car. Since then, almost every time I’ve rented a car, I’ve had similar experiences.

How do you get a free car rental upgrade? Just ask. Yes, it’s that simple.

It’s even a bit counter-intuitive, because when you arrive to pick up your car, you’ll likely be offered an upgrade for an extra fee. Simply say “no thanks, but I was wondering if you have any free upgrades available?”. Believe it or not, if you’re nice and if they have a car available (and they often do), you’ll get it. This is because car rental agencies tend to have a surplus of nicer cars on hand in case people want to pay to upgrade, appease an unhappy customer, or reward a frequent customer. If it looks like they have more luxury cars on hand than they’ll need, you just might be the next person to drive off the lot in a convertible.



This has been a specialty of mine since I started travelling full-time. I’ve saved over $100,000 on accommodation expenses in the last 10 years by getting free accommodation – through house-sitting, hospitality exchanges, volunteering, and even living/helping out on boats. And in so doing I’ve stayed in virtual palaces around the world, in very desirable destinations. If you’re interested in learning more about strategies to get free accommodation check out: How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World.



Long pre-dating my full-time travel career, I collected frequent flyer miles, mainly by charging everything to an Aeroplan credit card and collecting a mile for every dollar spent. My aim was to earn enough money for two (economy) tickets to Hawaii, and I eventually got there. Since then I’ve learned a few tricks to using frequent flyer miles that have allowed me to fly long-haul in business class (repeatedly), for less than the price of an equivalent economy ticket.

Teaching you how to do this is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll start you off with the following tips:

  • Choose at least one frequent flyer mile branded credit card that allows you to earn miles that can translate to free flights. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Canadians)
  • Sign up for newsletters for your frequent flyer mile programs and stay tuned in to mileage-earning opportunities.
  • Lurk frequent flyer mile forums such as Flyer Talk.
  • Generally speaking, you get more bang for your frequent flyer mile buck by using your miles for business class (or first class) flights.

I’d also like to introduce our very own Matt Bailey, a fellow columnist at Credit Walk and frequent flyer mile expert. He is the brainchild behind Canadian Free Flyers, and has developed a Free Flyer School to teach people to walk in his shoes – flying around the world in 1st class for $90, staying in 4-star hotels for less than half the price, and booking flights with multi-month stopovers for free. Keep an eye on Matt’s articles here at Credit Walk, as he has lots of frequent flyer mile tips and strategies such as The Best Way to Fly Business Class to Australia, How to Fly to Asia in Cathay Pacific First Class, and Five Ways to Maximize Alaska Mileage Plan Miles.

I asked Matt for some insider tips for using frequent flyer miles to book free flights, and he offered the following:

“If using points to book a business or first class flight, check all the segments of your flight prior to booking it. Sometimes, a business/first class award only has availability on one segment with the rest in economy. Yet, it’ll cost the same amount of points. If getting all segments/legs in first or business is difficult, you’ll want to make sure that at least the longest leg/segment is in the desired class of travel.”



You can also use your frequent flyer miles to buy an upgrade from economy to business class, or from business class to first class. Matt says: “If you don’t have enough points to book the entire flight in business or first class, you could buy your flight in economy and then use a much smaller amount of points to upgrade. Just make sure to check the rules with the airline first. For example, here is the page for Air Canada using Aeroplan.”

His advice to check the airline rules is sound, because each airline operates their upgrade system differently. In many cases you need to purchase the fully refundable economy ticket to qualify for an upgrade, but refundable tickets are often exponentially more expensive and there’s no guarantee that an upgrade will be available. Matt suggests “you could buy the refundable fare, try to get the upgrade and if it doesn’t work, ask for a refund and just buy the cheaper economy fare.”

Matt says it comes down down to cost and value. “For example, I just checked flying to Montreal and the cheapest economy was just $245. But for the refundable one, it’s $1,800! Crazy. Even with an upgrade, I can’t imagine it being worth $1,800 plus points.”

Matt also reminds us that you can only upgrade by segment, so if you have a route with multiple flights, make sure to upgrade the longest segment for the best value.

Lastly, regarding both upgrades as well as using your miles to buy a business class/first class ticket, Matt and I both suggest checking Seat Guru before booking so you can see the layout of the plane for your chosen route. “Some business class seats are just oversized seats with more leg room. Other airlines offer full lie-down beds, big widescreen TVs and so forth. Same amount of points, totally different experience. This is really important to ensure you get the experience you want.”



I was hoping Matt would also have some great frequent flyer mile hacks for hotels, but he reported back that some of the best frequent flyer mile hotel upgrade strategies have just been kiboshed, leaving very little out there to get you into a nicer room on a backpacker’s budget. “In terms of frequent flyer miles, I find you get MUCH more value with airlines,” he says.

But he can attest to using Priceline to book hotels, which gets him accommodation in some swanky spots for half the price.

For hotel upgrades, I’ve used a similar strategy to the car rental upgrade strategy above, which is to simply ask if there are any free upgrades available. The worst they can say is “no”; about 30% of the time I’ve actually received a nicer room – for no extra cost – just by asking.



A huge perk to flying in business class (especially if you have a long layover) is access to airport lounges. But you don’t have to fly in business class to access these lounges. In some cases you can pay as little as $30 for entry (which might be worthwhile if it’s a long layover and you’d like some food, booze, rest, WiFi, and even a shower). If you’re feeling bold, you could also hang around the entrance and ask people going into the lounge if they’d be willing to take you in as their guest – as many card-carrying lounge members are allowed to do.

Some premium credit cards also allow airport lounge access around the world. The annual fee for the credit card might be steep, but if you fly regularly, the benefits may outweigh the cost. For more information check out these 3 Ways To Get Airport Lounge Access Through Credit Card Perks.


Don’t let your backpacker budget keep you from experiencing the finer things in life. Using the creative strategies above, you too can travel like a boss, on a backpacker budget.


Related Articles

How Much Money do I Need to Travel Long Term?

Is Travelling by Mystery Shopping a Scam?



, , , , , , ,
Join our Community

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Best Credit Cards

To top ↑