Hello, friends. It’s been a while. The last few months have been very emotionally difficult, and the non-stop news cycle has, admittedly, gotten the best of me. Six billion in NIH cuts? That’s a sleepless night. Drastic cuts to the DOE Office of Science? Pass the Tylenol PM. The persistent drumbeat of war and unrelenting global human catastrophes? Pass the kleenex, too, because I’m probably crying. It’s easy to feel powerless right now, and I feel it keenly.
It seems trite to say “despite all that, life has been pretty great,” when truthfully, it has been difficult to rise above my dark cloud of anxiety. However, laying awake and reading Twitter and fretting about potential catastrophic budget cuts and potential global thermonuclear war – well, it doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than to make me feel worse. Everything seems absurd right now. So, I am trying my best to actually live my life and enjoy the blessings and opportunities I have been lucky enough to receive, while focusing on concrete actions I can take to improve my community and country.
Onto the positive stuff. In the past few months, I’ve had some great opportunities to increase my local civic engagement in meaningful ways, which is the best way I’ve found to battle the unshakeable paralysis caused by endless political drama. I’ve also had some incredible travel opportunities since I last wrote, and I’ve seen new parts of the country and re-visited some places and friends I hadn’t seen in several years. I thought a lot about money as I bounced around the country, especially since I visited a few very wealthy locales, and it was hard not to think about my financial priorities as I was surrounded by yachts, fancy cars, and literal castles. I tried to be mindful of my finances while traveling and also approach travel a little differently than I have in the past. I realized that if I want to travel more often, I need to work towards making myself a more nimble, efficient, and frugal traveler – and my travels this spring were an opportunity to try out some new strategies.
Frugality Out the Window?
My clothes-buying ban was short-lived, I’ll admit. While I did make it through January, a trip to a warm weather locale at the end of February left me scrambling for some capris. (UNFORTUNATELY, my UFM weight loss was not enough to counter the gain from the holidays and post-election depression.) I bought a few other things that were not entirely necessary but made traveling much easier – like a big ol’ portable battery pack and some (inexpensive) bluetooth headphones.
Expenditures on our warm weather trip in February were not the most cost-conscious, but overall they were not bad. Our hotels were not the cheapest, but they all included breakfast. We were able to gain admission to some National Monuments with our National Parks Pass that had yet to expire. We spent too much on eating out (always), but planned ahead for airport snacks and had sandwiches for lunch on a few days. This trip was a vast departure from our weeklong camping trip last spring that took us to areas so remote that our only food options were whatever we had in our cooler. For my work conference trip, most expenditures were reimbursed, although I tried keep things healthy (and within my per diem) by getting breakfast and snack items at a local grocery store. After my conference, I flew to another city to see friends. That trip included one very fancy and expensive meal, and a few medium-expensive meals. However, we also stayed in a few nights and invited other friends over for beers, which brought down the overall cost of the trip.
Even with significant travel expenditures, I was still able to save about 45% of my take-home pay in February and March and pay off my credit cards immediately upon returning home. It’s not my UFM goal of 60% savings, to be sure, but it made me feel like traveling more while saving aggressively is a real possibility, especially if I can be more proactive about rewards programs and more frugal with eating.
Travel Hacking Baby Steps
I have a bit of a fraught history with credit cards (having accrued a chunk of CC debt during graduate school), and it’s taken me several years of being credit card debt-free to be able to trust myself to use them responsibly. Consequently, I’ve been wary of signing up for any rewards cards and having to immediately rack up large charges in order to meet the bonus points threshold. Faced with a hotel-heavy itinerary for our February trip, I finally took advantage of a hotel rewards credit card (after making sure I had a plan to pay it off immediately and that I would be able to meet the bonus points threshold with vacation-related purchases). I’m not sure we’ll ever be Double Platinum Elite Superstar Guests, but we scored a room upgrade on the trip, and I’m well on my way to having enough points for free (or discounted) hotel rooms.
Why a hotel points card over a flight points card? We don’t fly all that often, and since we aren’t near a major airline hub, we don’t have a ton of loyalty towards any one carrier. (I’ve had four round trip flights in the past four years, including the two trips I just returned from. It me, international jet-setter.) Our vacations tend to be road trips, whether it’s cross-country visits to National Parks, or just around the Midwest to see friends and family. We aren’t opposed to Air BnB (and have used this option in the past), but sometimes being on the road requires the flexibility to make a last-minute hotel reservations.
My Attempt at Minimalist Travel
These trips were also an opportunity to try traveling without a rolling suitcase and in a more minimalist fashion. The second trip, in particular, was quite long and required bulkier cool weather clothes + nicer clothes + a laundry opportunity. As I mentioned above, I’ve only flown about every other year in recent years, and the last time I flew with a roller bag was 2013. I’m still hauling around a duffle bag (with a shoulder strap), but I’m in search of a travel backpack (or duffle/backpack hybrid) that will be a little easier to transition from airport to train to walking around a city. Some thoughts:
- Even though I was at a professional conference for a week, the dress code among people in my field is extremely scientist-casual. This eliminates the need for suits, dresses, garment bags, etc. I mostly wore what I wear to work, which is a sweater + jeans. There are other conferences that I know to be MUCH more professional in terms of their dress code expectations, but not this conference. That made packing easier.
- After the conference I flew to another city to meet up with some friends. We had dinner at a very fancy restaurant planned for one night, and that did require at least one nice outfit. I actually felt a little under-dressed, but I survived.
- These trips marked the first time I used packing cubes in a duffle bag. In the past, I’ve used them pretty religiously in a roller bag, but for a weekend trip to see my family they always seemed somewhat superfluous. However, they were GREAT for lengthier travel (especially my second trip where I did a load of laundry mid-trip). I love packing cubes. Don’t @ me.
- I’m not quite at the “one bag” level of minimalist packing. On these trips, I had my duffle bag for clothes+toiletries plus a small shoulder bag with my big camera, tablet, and Kindle (no laptop). YMMV depending on your computing needs – I was answering some work emails while at the conference, but I don’t mind doing this from my smartphone. If I was a more profesh blogger or needed to do more involved work from the road, I think I’d get a keyboard for my tablet or replace my older MacBook with the smallest MacBook Air. Those are not high-priority purchases right now, however.
- In the past, I’ve traveled with roller bag + a larger messenger bag. On the way home I’d check the roller bag and carry on my large messenger bag + a fold out tote bag filled with conference goodies and/or souvenirs. This time, I still traveled with the fold out tote bag, but on the way home it was only about half full with conference goodies, and I was able to put my small shoulder bag inside the tote and stay within the two bag carry on limit. My duffle was a little over-stuffed and I had to gate check it on two regional jets with tiny overhead bins.
My takeaways: care less about what you wear (I wore comfortable yet obnoxiously bright sneakers to most of the conference because I was walking a lot), pack less and pack things that are extremely interchangeable, plan to do laundry if your trip is longer than 5-6 days, buy less stuff on your trip, travel without a laptop if possible.
What am I practicing for if I’m only traveling by air once every two years? Although my ideas for early retirement still remain fairly nebulous, they almost undoubtedly include more travel, whether that be in the form of RVing across North America or getting a Eurail pass and vagabonding across Western Europe. Although FI/RE seems pretty far off right now, frugality has enabled me to prioritize travel expenditures more frequently than I had been able to in the past. I’ve had a few friends move to Europe in the past few years, and I’d love to plan a multi-city European trip to visit them, unencumbered by bulky luggage.
Resources and inspiration for minimalist packing:
- Ms. OurNextLife’s post on minimalist work travel
- Reddit OneBag Community
- Adventures with Sarah blog, specifically her packing posts and bag posts
- Tom Bihn forums and blog
- I have a mix of older and newer Eagle Creek packing cubes. I particularly love the Clean/Dirty Half Cube for socks and underwear. I’ve had the older cubes for several years, and I more recently purchased a Specter Starter Set to give the garment folder and ultralight cubes a try.
So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. My anxiety fog seems to be lifting a bit, and I’ve had some more ideas for posts, so I’m hoping to be more regular with writing in the coming months.
Hang in there, friends!
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