College student travels like a millionaire; millionaire travels like a college student.

Literally my campsite during a recent trip to Cape Lookout, NC.

Got travel in your blood?

Early retirement obviously gives you more opportunity to see the world, but here are a couple of ways that starting right now you can travel more while paying less. I just got back from two weeks of beach camping on Cape Lookout, North Carolina, and both of these methods came into play during my trip.

Method One: “Van-dwelling.”

In my twenties I was an avid whitewater kayaker and frequently went for weekend trips with the guys.

Whitewater rivers tend to be way out in the netherwoods, meaning there aren’t any hotels to stay in and very few restaurants to splurge on. You’re left to your own devices, so you’re car-camping. Since space and weight aren’t at a premium like they would be when backpacking, why skimp? Be fat city about it–cozy camp chair, good food, plenty of beer, wood for a campfire, etc.

As a pickup truck owner I quickly fell into “van-dwelling” mode. I didn’t invent the idea, of course, but I built a cushy sleeping/gear storage platform in the bed of my truck under the shelter of the bed cap. It was wonderful–pull up to camp, crack beers for all your friends, throw your chair out, and watch while they set up their tents. Then at night you’re sleeping on an actual mattress while they’re all sleeping on the ground on what amounts to swimming pool floats.

(On the subject of sleeping on actual mattress when camping: click here or on the image at left to see the one I use. Beats backpacking sleeping pads all to hell and it’s not much more expensive than those puncture-prone air mattress you inflate with an electric pump all to hell. Durable, stows away easily, and is at least as comfortable is memory foam. I HIGHLY recommend it for anybody who camps or hosts guests.)

So I love van-dwelling and I still do it. I’ve easily and affordably travelled the country that way.

-A pickup with a bed cap is ideal, but you can build a rig even in a small car. A Prius, for example.

-You don’t have to be a journeyman carpenter to build a rig. At most you need a few 2×4’s, a sheet of finished plywood, a circular saw, a cordless drill, and a box of screws. Come up with an ideal design–YouTube is helpful–measure and cut, and assemble. I salvaged all my materials from construction dumpsters, even.

My sleeping rig. Bed in the middle, gear storage on left and right. Stays deployed; just pull up to your campsite and you’re good to go. A good sleeping platform allows you to leave the majority of your camping gear in your truck. Packing becomes a breeze. Clothes and miscellaneous items into a bag, food and such into a cooler or plastic tote, miscellaneous items wherever you want them. Bam! Done.

-I’ve already described how it is when you get to camp. Since you’re traveling with your bed deployed, setting up takes mere minutes, if that long. The toughest part is finding a level-ish place to park.

-Hotels and restaurants become optional. During a multi-day drive I don’t mind bandit-sleeping at truck stops, behind shut-down gas stations, next to boat ramps, etc. Even Walmart parking lots. By doing so, I imagine I’ve saved enough on hotels to pay for my truck several times over, and it’s definitely an avoided cost that offsets the gasoline bill.

Method Two: Credit Card Churning

Churning, if you haven’t heard of it, is essentially arbitrage. Works like so:

A credit card company offers, say, twenty-five thousand airline miles to new cardholders for opening an account and charging a minimum of five grand within three months. A churner who keeps track of the various incentives on offer decides this one’s worth collecting, so she’ll sign up for the card, get approved (because churners get really good at managing their creditworthiness), spend the $5K within the time limit, pay off the balance, collect the airline miles, and shut the card down. Then she’ll use the miles however she sees fit, usually for a nice trip she wouldn’t otherwise take…and voilà: something for nothing, or at least for a minimum of effort. Arbitrage.

Now: arbitrage is near and dear to my heart, but what I admire most about churners isn’t how they’re able to discover and take advantage of inefficiencies between the credit card and travel markets, but rather how they game the monthly spending requirements.

Credit card companies count on cardholders to carry balances, of course; that’s why they offer the incentives in the first place. But a churner won’t carry a balance because the finance charges would quickly eat up the value of the incentive.

The churner exercises other options. She might spend money on ordinary expenses she’s already got the cash to cover, or possibly–and this is where the game can get fiendishly clever–“manufacture” spending by charging the purchase of an asset that might as well be cash itself, like an Amazon gift card. And since it’s possible to find these pseudo-cash assets that they themselves offer incentives…a $100 gas card for $95, or whatever…the arbitrages stack. Credit card companies are basically paying you to earn money.

Like I said, clever.

After my Cape Lookout trip I stopped on the way home to visit a couple of friends. One of them, Jerry, is a mid-twenties college student with a wife and kid, and he’s a friggety Jedi Master at churning. He told me about his most recent trip, where he and his family traveled through Asia like royalty for–and forgive me, Jerry, if I get the details wrong–more than ten days, visiting Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Singapore, and so on. They flew for free (net of taxes and baggage fees and such), stayed in four-star hotels, ate and drank well, and saw the sights. If I remember correctly, he said the entire trip cost $1,600.

All because he churns credit cards. I gotta tell you, I was impressed as hell.

Jerry asked me why I don’t churn, and I said I simply prefer van-dwelling. My main credit card pays 2% cash back, which I’d rather have because I wouldn’t find points to be particularly useful. I’m buying gas and groceries to get out beyond the beaten track, paying campsite fees to chill out in state and national parks, watching movies when storms blow in and I can’t go trekking, upgrading my camping gear, etc., etc. Sorry, sir…miles not accepted here.

That said, my family hopes to visit Ireland soon and travel points could obviously be useful. My wife has taken a look at churning and may very well soon start.

But since I don’t engage in churning for the moment, I’m fairly ignorant of the day-to-day mechanics of incentive tracking, credit rating management, etc. You can learn more, however, from what I consider to be the best source of churning information out there: the wiki of the Reddit sub on churning, where the motto is “Churn, baby, churn!”

Back to Jerry: when he  finished telling me about his Asia trip he paused, chuckled, and said, “You know, I’m a college student and I travel like a millionaire…and you’re a millionaire and you travel like a college student.”

Money can’t buy a morning view like this.

I grinned. What a great punchline. But I have to tell you: check out the pictures in this article. Those are million-dollar views, yes? However you feel about van-dwelling and churning, and whatever your preference would be, I think you’d have to admit that the goal is the same: joyful, transformative experiences that satisfy your urge to explore–which is human nature, after all–and that bring you closer to the people you love.

And I think churners everywhere would agree: doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire or not…that’s the kind of thing money can’t buy.

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit or email

4 thoughts

  1. Definitely jealous of that van-dwelling boondocking you’re doing 🙂 What a unique way to travel vs our travel hacking ways!

    Right after I bought our minivan (for the explicit purpose of road trips since we don’t drive very far here in the city), I immediately realized we could fit a double size mattress in the back of that sucker and sleep the wife and I somewhat comfortably (with our gear stashed in a rack underneath or in hammocks above). Can’t imagine doing that with all five of us in the minivan but perhaps I’ll get it rigged up for the Mrs. and I one day.

    1. It’s a great way to live, for sure. Taking this November as the anniversary, I’ll have lived that way for two months of the previous year.

      Let’s see…one mini-van plus one couple = three kids. Am I doing the math right?

  2. Nice read. My wife and I do both, dirtbagging and travel hacking… We use hotel credit cards to get free nights at top tier hotels (Park Hyatt Tokyo, Intercontinental Paris Le Grand) then couchsurf for a couple of nights. Honestly, I seem to enjoy the couchsurfing and humble experiences with locals more than staying at a five star resort with a bunch of rich snobs. But it feels good confusing people and breaking stereotypes when we walk up in there with our backpacks. (We’re 29 and 28 respectively)

    1. >But it feels good confusing people and breaking stereotypes when we walk up in there with our backpacks.

      Isn’t that the best? Been there, done that. Extends beyond travel, too. My wife and I once went into a nice jewelry store to buy my father-in-law a special military watch he wouldn’t buy for himself. Me in cargo shorts and a t-shirt, my wife in a halter top and a short skirt. The saleswoman looked at us like somebody was holding a turd under her nose. Barely spoke to us and ditched us at the first opportunity. Well…we’re worth north of two million dollars. We split, and our money went with us. I sincerely hope she worked on commission.

      Hey, I don’t know if you ever go bicycle touring, but if you do and you’re not aware of it, check out

Leave a Reply

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

As seen in…

The Wall Street Journal The New York Times Rockstar Finance Kiplinger Paychecks and Balances Physician on FIRE Fire Drill Podcast Root of Good Get Rich Slowly Go Curry Cracker is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. We also participate in various other affiliate programs. Assume that if you click a product link on any of our pages, you'll be taken to a website with which we have a commercial relationship.