Balancing Travel and a Full-Time Job

key west sunset

After speaking with a group of friends and throwing ideas around, one of the hot topics was balancing travel and a full-time job. I’ve read about this topic on multiple travel blogs, but any advice is helpful.

As I’ve already mentioned in earlier posts and in my introduction, I work as a physical therapist in a large hospital in South Florida. Currently, I only have one job as a per diem physical therapist. This means that I receive an hourly rate without benefits. My employer offered me a full-time position, but I opted for per diem status for several reasons. Mainly, my husbands health insurance covers me. However, per diem jobs also offer a slightly higher hourly rate as well as schedule flexibility.

Not everyone has this privilege, including people in my field. I know plenty of people who work 40 hours a week at one job, while also juggling a second job on their days off. (Yep, 50-60 hours a week, which is what I was doing earlier this year. I’m currently taking a breather.) Some other people work four 10-hour days, and others work a modified full-time job (72 hours in one pay period). People are juggling kids, bills, daily expenses, and student loans. It all never seems to end, right?

After painting that pretty picture for you all, I’m here to tell you that balancing travel and a full-time job is possible. Here’s how I do it, along with a few of my favorite resources.

ben & jerry after a hike
Munching on some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream after a five-mile hike in Vermont.

Maximizing Your PTO/Unavailability

According to statistics at Project: Time Off Coalition, the average American gets 20.3 days of vacation every year. Remember, this statistic only applies to people who are actually given PTO. It doesn’t include people (like me) who aren’t given any paid leave and risk losing valuable income. For those people, requested days off are technically defined as “unavailability.”

I give myself 3 weeks off per year to travel. Some of you may only have 10-14 days and that’s still feasible. My husband, Leon, only had ten days off until a couple of years ago. What matters is how you maximize your PTO and unavailability. Here are a few ways:

  • Spread out your PTO and unavailability. This is especially wise if you want to visit multiple destinations throughout the year. Sometimes, Leon and I work weekends. To compensate for those days, we group our time off so that we have at least one 3-day weekend per month. For example, if Leon manages an event on a Saturday, he’ll request time off on a Friday. I can schedule my unavailability ahead of time when choosing my weekend days each month.
  • Use PTO during down-time. If you plan on taking a major trip during busy season or when everyone else is traveling, you’re less likely to get the time off you want. Instead of getting upset, make it work in your favor. Everyone finds themselves traveling during high season (holidays and summer). If you travel during down-time or low/shoulder seasons, you’ll not only get better rates but your managers will appreciate your flexibility.
austin weekend trip
We booked a last minute trip to Austin this past New Year’s Eve when I found out I had a three-day weekend.
  • Plan ahead with your colleagues. Give your team a head’s up and make sure they’re aware of your upcoming travel plans. If everyone works together, you can make sure that no one else’s travels overlap with your own. This way, there’s enough coverage available during busy times of the year. (We have an email chain at my job trying to schedule everyone’s summer trips.)
  • Work extra hours during the week to make up for the time you’ll miss. Working four 10-hour days is becoming a popular trend. If you schedule your weeks correctly, you could end up with a 4-day weekend and enough time to visit someplace new!
  • Longer trips are tricky when you’re working full-time, but they’re possible. I took a 3-week trip to Australia last year, and it wasn’t easy to get approved. When you give your team time to plan for your absence and work around everyone’s schedule, it’s entirely possible to take that dream trip (I let everyone know about my plans 6 months in advance). It also helps to pick up extra shifts or cover for other people if you know you’ll be taking time off in the future.
view of sydney from taronga
A view of Sydney’s skyline from Taronga zoo.

Being Financially Responsible

The U.S. is an expensive country. Mortgages, insurance, bills, daily expenses, car loans, and student loans…the list is never-ending. Is there a money tree somewhere? Everyone’s situation is different and I would never expect everyone to use my tactics. However, here’s a few tips for setting aside the funds you need for travel:

  • Minimizing daily expenses. I’m sure you’ve all heard this one before. Don’t eat out often; don’t shop ‘till you drop; “pre-game” before you go out. These tips are tried and true, but I also understand that it’s difficult to keep them up all the time. Most of us don’t travel year-round and we like to indulge in local activities. However, if you remind yourself of that dream vacation it’ll be easier to cut back on other expenses.
  • Changing venues. Instead of shopping at supermarkets that vacuum your wallet, research other healthy options. I’ve recently switched to Trader Joe’s and Winn Dixie, which has helped me save on groceries. Rather than buying toiletries in local grocery stores, Amazon Prime offers family memberships that include discounted monthly deliveries of toiletries.
  • Coupons! In addition to websites like Honey which give you a tracker to use on websites and find coupons specific to their products, I love using Groupon and LivingSocial. If you’re living in South Florida, HomeTown Magazine also delivers coupons right to your door for local businesses. (Check them out on Instagram @hometownmag.)
  • Putting away a percentage every month. Leon and I are penny savers. No joke, we have a jar of coins on our desk. (It adds up after a while!) We keep a close eye on our expenses. If we have too much to handle one month, we put away less. If expenses are low and we can save more, we optimize our funds and split them between several accounts, including a travel account. Anything extra also goes into a travel account. I recommend writing out a monthly budget to organize yourself.
  • Don’t spend more than you have. I can’t stress this enough. There’s a reason why people file for bankruptcy. Don’t spend money that doesn’t exist.

You might think most of this is common sense, but a lot of people forget these lessons. My financial advisor put it best: it’s not how much you have, it’s how you use the funds you already own.

visiting friends in europe
I managed to save enough to visit friends in Europe a few years ago when I was a student. It was worth every penny.

Learning How to Use Travel Websites and Points

On to the good stuff. I won’t go into everything in-depth because this section requires a post on its own. For now, here’s a list of my favorite travel websites and apps that I use when planning my trips.

Airfare

  • Skyscanner: I LOVE Skyscanner. I’m always checking it on my phone and on my laptop. I love it for the same reason everyone else loves it: it’s flexible and budget friendly. If you’re flexible with travel time and destinations, the Skyscanner map will be your best friend. It lets you search entire weeks and months to compare prices on an easy to read graph. The website also shows itineraries for international budget airlines.
  • Hopper: This is an app for your phone that I’ve really come to love. Hopper keeps an eye out for flights months in advance. This is great if you’re flexible with your travels, but also really helpful if you’re eyeing a specific destination or time. In addition to notifying you about price drops and raises, Hopper also offers deals to those who book through their app.
  • Kayak: I have to include Kayak because even if I prefer other websites, I still find the occasional deal through their platform. As mentioned, it’s all about how you use these websites. If you type in kayak.com/explore, you’ll be directed to a map with different prices and destinations based on the travel month.
  • Book directly with an airline: I recently saved $80 by booking directly with Southwest Airlines vs a third-party website. It doesn’t always happen, but you have to cross reference everything if you want to find the best deal.

Artist Point
My parents have been maximizing their miles with American Airlines for years, and were able to take me on this unbelievable trip to Yellowstone.

Accommodation

  • AirBnB: A lot of people are skeptical of AirBnB because they’re not comfortable with staying in another person’s home. Think of it this way: it’s the same as staying in a Bed & Breakfast. Leon and I used AirBnB during our honeymoon and we didn’t have any issues (okay, one plumbing issue, but I swear it was Leon’s fault). To be honest, I love AirBnB. We’ve made friends with our hosts in Vermont, Barcelona, and Sydney. Again, it’s all about how you use AirBnB. I have pretty high safety standards, so I always do my homework before I book anything. If you use this link, you can get $35 off when you book your first stay with AirBnB. (Full disclosure: I can get $35 off when you book your first stay valued at $75 or more. You can get this same perk when you invite friends after booking your first stay.)
  • Hotels.com: Easy to use, great deals, and flexible choices. We found an amazing hotel room in central Perth for $75/night. Again, do your homework about locations and prices before agreeing to anything.
  • Call the hotel directly: Call and ask the hotel if they’re offering any secret deals. What’s the worst they can do? Business is business. Some hotels will offer a 5-10% discount to registered travel agents or if you have an AAA membership.
  • Find friends in the area: This is the #1 way to save money when you travel: find people who are willing to host you for a couple of nights. As a show of gratitude, I’ll usually bring a gift or take my hosts out for dinner.
staying with sister in nyc
I always stay with my sister in Hoboken when visiting NYC.

The Points Game

Learning how to maximize your points is a must when you’re traveling. Again, this subject requires a post on its own, but I’m still learning as I go and don’t want to mislead anyone. There are various websites out there offering research on various deals and points.

My advice is to maximize the Bonus Points when opening up a credit card. One more time: it’s how you use these cards. I stick to the rule of 5 cards per person. The cards we each own are:

  • American Express
  • American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Card

I’m planning on signing up for the JetBlue MasterCard which comes without an annual fee. I’ve also heard amazing things about Chase Sapphire Visa Card, which is a traveler’s dream card. I recommend using credit cards that don’t carry international fees.

Using these cards wisely is very important. Leon puts his work expenses on our AAdvantage MasterCard and his American Express card. I put our daily expenses on our Capital One Venture Rewards Card. Since we signed up as a family, we both earn points. I never use a bank card for security reasons, and so I accumulate points. Never spend money that you don’t have and make sure you pay those bills on time to avoid high interest rates.

swimming in WA
We managed to pay for all our flights to and within Australia with points.

Negotiating Vacation Days with Employers

I mentioned earlier that I opted for per diem status because I’m already covered by my husband’s insurance and preferred the schedule flexibility. Not everyone has this luxury but you can still negotiate vacation days with your employer.

There are various stages to the hiring process. The initial offer is just the first step. There’s plenty of time to negotiate terms and conditions for salary and benefits. Inquire about extra vacation days. If this option gets denied, ask about unpaid vacation days. Yes, you would be sacrificing money for time off, but it might be worth it if travel is a top priority.

Prioritizing Travel

If you don’t prioritize travel, it will be much harder for you to apply all of this advice. Although I’ve never had to opportunity to travel full-time, I’ve made it a point to visit at least one new place every year. I take multiple weekend trips throughout the year, and save up time for longer vacations. Research is important to do before visiting a specific destination. Rather than buying something new and expensive,I think about the potential experiences I could enjoy.

I make travel a priority.

I’m very much aware that not everyone has the ability to travel as easily as others. Please, don’t feel alienated. Travel is not about checking places off a list. I’m not writing about every place I’ve visited on this blog because quantity is not important. If you can only afford to travel every few years, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t feel bad about it. There are more important things in this world and they come first. However, if you can make it happen, then treat travel as a priority. The other important fact to remember is that there is excitement in exploring your surroundings. Be a tourist for a day and explore your neighborhood.

belly dancer renaissance fair
Watching belly dancers at the Renaissance Faire in Hollywood, FL around the corner from my apartment.

Put a Stop to the Vacation Stigma

Remember that study I mentioned earlier? Well, it also mentions that people are not using their PTO. As of 2015, 55% of Americans used only 16 out of those 20 days. That’s almost a full week of unused vacation! We have to start leveling out the work-life balance.

We have to stop being afraid to take those vacation days. I always hear about people who have regretted working too much or not taking the opportunity to spend more time with family. People who regret not traveling more. There’s a whole world out there. Don’t let the fear of missing a few days of work stop you from exploring this beautiful planet.

Phew! That was a lot of information. I hope you all enjoy my tips and use it when balancing travel and a full-time job.

snorkeling in WA
Snorkeling along Ningaloo Reef in Turquoise Bay, WA.
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