3 Steps To Make Travel A Reality

Mesa Arch Sunrise | Canyonlands National Part

Let’s start off with a quote that has been seared into my soul ever since I heard it for the first time..

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

That quote really says it all. The problem with traveling for most people is that it takes so much dedication. You’ve got to save up, you’ve got to commit to purchasing a plane ticket, there are hotels to book, rental cars to reserver, tons of research to do and the list goes on. For these reasons, that trip you’ve been wanting to go on…that place you’ve been dying to mark off your bucket list…is always tucked away in the “some day” section of your dreams and aspirations.

Today, I want to challenge you to take that trip out of it’s holding pattern and make it a reality. Here are three steps to help you along the way.

Step 1: Set A Date

This is the most important step, because it takes the trip from abstract and makes it concrete. It’s no longer something that will happen some day, it’s something that will happen on Month-Day-Year. My challenge to you here is to make the date something far enough in advance to give you time to plan it, but close enough to make you just a bit uneasy. In other words, if you make it five years down the road, it really won’t be any more real than it was before. Aim for something in the next 6-12 months. That will make this trip real.

June Lake Sunset

June Lake Sunset

Step 2: Make Payments In Reverse

I think one of the dumbest things people do when they travel is putting their trip on a credit card and paying it off over time. This isn’t sustainable. A domestic trip will usually cost upwards of $1,000 and can go up quite a bit from there based on your budget. International trips are almost certainly going to cost several thousand dollars. Minimum payments on that kind of expense can take upwards of 20 years to payoff. 55% of credit card users make payments rather than keeping their card paid off and 11% of those make minimum payments only. With my background in banking, I actually believe those numbers to be much higher, but those are the statistics that I could find. The point is, you will be regretting your trip if you are still paying it off years from the time it ends.

The method that I have always used is to pay the trip off in advance. Here’s a typical domestic trip for me; a trip out to California to photograph places like Big Sur, the Bay Area, Yosemite, etc…

  • Flight to California – $460
  • Rental Car for 7 days – $160
  • Hotel – $420
  • Food – $200
  • Gas – $200
  • Misc – $200
  • Total cost – $1,640

Now that I have my (estimated) total for the trip, I just take the cost of the trip and divide it by the number of months I have before the trip. I typically try and plan my trips between 6 to 12 months in advance so we’ll go with 9 for an average. At 9 months in advance, that means I need to be sure and put away around $183 each month. Once the trip is planned, that $1,640 figure becomes my enemy. I hate it. I want to destroy it and make it go away. That means doing everything I can to pay it off as quickly as possible. If I have the funds in my travel savings account (I highly suggest one of these) then I can have it paid off immediately and be super happy. If not, it’s time to get creative. Some people can simply save that $183 each month by budgeting it out of their paychecks. Others will need to figure out ways to make more money. Whether it’s working overtime, working extra hard to earn bonuses, making a push to bring in extra work or even selling some items that you don’t use anymore or don’t need.

The obvious challenge here is that you can’t just save up the money, get all in an account right before the trip and be good to go. Some of the items on that list need to be paid ahead of time. So what you do here is decide which ones are most important and plan accordingly. I’ll just help you out here, the flight is the item that needs to be bought and paid for first. So at $460 that means you’ll need to save for about 3 months before you can buy your plane ticket. That still leaves you with 6 months before the trip which is plenty of time to still find the cheapest flight available. What you do not want to do is wait until the last minute to buy your plane ticket. That will double or even triple the cost of your fare. After that, you will need to book a hotel and rental car. Most rental cars just require reserving the car in advance and then paying for it when it’s picked up. Most hotels operate the same way, but some require a deposit. Everything else can be paid for during the trip!

Trust me, when you land back home and step foot on the ground with zero debt from the trip…you will thank me.

Mono Lake tufas with rim fire coming over the Sierras

Mono Lake tufas with rim fire coming over the Sierras

Step 2(a) – But What About Credit Card Points!?

This is a bit of a hot topic. Most people (something crazy like 70-80%) never use their points. When they do use them, it’s pretty disappointing what you get for them. The problem goes back to the fact that most people just don’t pay their credit cards off. It takes a great amount of discipline to pay your card off every month. So is there a solution or something I’d recommend? Well, I suppose.

If you have the discipline to do this (and I do this from time to time) you can make the purchase on your credit card and then immediately go and pay it off. The purchase doesn’t even have to have shown up yet. You can make a payment to a card even if it has a zero balance. So if that’s the case, just make the purchase, go to your card, and make a payment for the same amount. Boom. Done. Points earned. Zero Balance. Win.

Near Mirror Lake | Yosemite NP

Near Mirror Lake | Yosemite NP

Step 3: Research, Research, Research!

Now that you’ve responsibly planned for you trip financially, it’s time to make sure you will be able to make the most of it. Doing your due diligence for your upcoming is a vital component of enjoying that trip and feeling like you did it well. I really do not suggest just “winging it” on a trip that you have saved up for and planned out months in advance. You will miss so many things that you will learn about after the tip. Ask me how I know 😉

For photographers, the main thing here is finding good locations to photograph and good times to do so. I created a site called Top Photo Spots (still in BETA) to help photographers find the absolute best spots to photograph at some of the more incredible destinations out there. Go check it out and see if your destination is there (it’s always growing). If that doesn’t help, there are a few other things I suggest as well.

My friend Trey Ratcliff has an awesome app for iPads, Androids and even Mac called Stuck On Earth. It pulls geotagged images from Flickr for locations all around the world. You can find the “clusters” of photos at your destination and get a good idea for where to start planning. You can then look at the images and see if there’s a good description of how to get there, what to bring, when to go, etc. The problem with Stuck on Earth is that it’s labor intensive. You get out of it what you put into it. Top Photo Spots is going to make it very easy by doing that work for you, but it will take time to properly cover the globe of course :-).

Another great thing to do is hop on Google and see if there are any ebooks out there for your destination written by photographers. Most places will have these, you just have to find them and be willing to pay.

Big Island Hawaii Incoming Tide


It really is that easy! It starts with a decision. Stop thinking of that trip as something you will do one of these days and give it a date. Work toward that date and make it happen by having it paid for ahead of time and being prepared when you land.

If you’ve read this article and decided to give your trip a date, I want to know! Leave a comment below with where you’re going and the date you set! Also, let me know your thoughts. Do you have additional tips you’d like to include? Things to expand upon? Have at it!


I’ll end the post with some more travel quotes to get your juices flowing and your passion burning!

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.  ~St. Augustine

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.  ~Anatole France

To get away from one’s working environment is, in a sense, to get away from one’s self; and this is often the chief advantage of travel and change. ~Charles Horton Cooley

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. ~Mark Twain

Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled. ~Mohammed

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” – John A. Shedd

  • Leslee

    I don’t believe in “points” either… but I DO believe in dollars. My Discover card has paid me hundreds of dollars over the years. Even vendors like Amazon are starting to allow you to use Discover dollars to make purchases. I have purchased several things on Amazon and gotten them free or at a reduced rate. Makes me feel all warm inside! 🙂

    My most immediate trip is to Sonoma, California. My daughter is getting married there in September. Guess I better get on that “research” point you made… I am not good about that! Trip has been paid for (with Discover, of course, but paid off).

  • I am returning to Cambodia and Laos in mid January, 2015….. now… clients!!

    Nice writing!


  • Lee Willis

    Hi James,

    Last week I booked my accommodation for a trip, albeit a small one as I am a pensioner and have limited funds. I read your tips on travel and as usual find your tips truly
    Yesterday, I was a little bit daunted by the 81/2 hour drive south and staying in a small pub by myself in a tiny village, the closest to the Venue. Today, having read your article I am full of
    enthusiasm and have the map out, ready to mark out detours on the way to enhance the trip
    and feel more familiar with my destination. Its not until October 3rd.
    Barellan Working Horse Show in Barellan, New South Wales, is my destination, I have always
    wanted to go but work commitments have squashed the idea ……………
    this year, my casual employment will have to lump it ….. as I’m going!
    There is a team of 20 draught horses which is a site to see, plus many draught horses,
    Clydesdales and a few Shires.
    Thank you for your inspiration.
    Lee (Lynda) Willis
    New South Wales,

    • That is incredible Lee, brought a big smile to my face :-). Cheers and have a great trip!

  • I have been receiving your Newsletter for some time now and have to admit (I’m sorry) that I haven’t really read much of it before today. Not sure what happened today but I just ‘felt’ like getting into reading it and I did. What can I say, I am not disappointed, in fact, I am totally overwhelmed at not ony the fantastic images you have shared on your blog but at the brilliant info and advice you give too. Just reading this about travel has gotten me fired up and ready to organize a trip – probably to California which seems to have so many beautiful places to photograph. James, thank you, really THANK YOU! I can see you must have quite a following now but I am sure at the beginning you didn’t and you have worked really hard and consistently to get to where you are. Complimenti. Lovely website and great blog – am loving the presets and eBooks you have too. Am thinking of joining your Photography Club – can I pay monthly?

    Thanks once again, changed my morning into an inspirational one. Jayne, Rome, Italy http://www.hellosidneysweetheart.com

    • Jayne, this comment made my morning. Thank you! I hate 90% of the newsletters I’ve signed up for in the past, so I make sure to keep that in mind when I send mine out. I want it to be something worth looking forward to. As far as the photo club goes, yes you can pay monthly! Just head over to the photo club page and sign up there if you’d like.

      I’ll be back in Italy this November, not sure if I’ll be able to make it down to Rome though. Have you lived there all your life or did you move there?