I don’t know if there’s a need for this, truthfully. Anyone with an interest can find dozens if not hundreds or thousands of really informative articles about how to travel on a budget. But it is such a big part of who I am, and how I travel, that I kind of just feel the need to write about it. That being said, these tricks and tips may not work for you. The beauty of travel is that it is different for everyone. Four people can go on a trip together, and all four of them are going to have slightly different experiences.
Most of these ‘tips’ will be European focused, because that is where I have done the majority of my traveling. But the ideas, I think, are applicable to anywhere in the world, even if the specifics might be focused on Europe.
Before you travel
1. Do you want to travel on a budget?
I know this doesn’t sound like a real issue. But before setting off on a budget trip, make sure it’s something you want to do, not something you have to do because money is tight. If you only have money to stay in hostels, but aren’t really into the idea of sharing a space with strangers, you aren’t going to enjoy it. Budget travel isn’t right for everyone. If it’s not for you, it’s better to wait until you have the money saved to go on the trip you want to go on. Patience, grasshopper.
2. You can save money to travel, if you make it a priority.
Most people don’t have a ton of surplus cash hanging out, waiting for the opportunity to buy plane tickets to some far off exotic destination. Living paycheck to paycheck makes the idea of travel seem like a far off possibility. But for most people, there are ways to cut back. If you make saving money for your trip a priority you can do it. There really isn’t one piece of advice to save money. Everyone has their own budget. What works for me is thinking about hostels. A dorm bed in a hostel can be about $10. So every time I am about to buy something, I ask myself, “is this worth ____ days in a hostel in Portugal?” Some things are. Most things aren’t.
Anyone that knows me might be a bit surprised that this is on my list… I’m not the best “planner.” But, there is a difference between being prepared and being locked into an inflexible schedule. A bit of planning beforehand can be wonderfully helpful when you’re travelling. I would say, buy a travel guide… but with the wealth of information available free on the internet, it isn’t as important as it once was. Have a general idea of the things you want to do in different cities, but keep your mind open to new opportunities. Before you head to the next city or country, take some time to see what’s up. Local festivals, events, and holidays are a great way to experience the local culture. Know before you go.
As you travel- transport
4. Explore all your travel options.
Sometimes the cheapest way to travel isn’t the most obvious. Being flexible with your dates and destinations makes it much easier to get great travel deals. One of my best travel deals I ever got was a 4£ bus from London to Amsterdam. I had spent a lot of time trying to decide between flying or taking the Eurostar to Paris. And then I opened my search up to buses and found an amazing deal. The lure of budget flights is strong. But you have to add in the additional fees that flights are going to cost. And not just checking your bag or picking your seat. How far away is the airport? Can you get there on public transport? A $20 flight is great… but if it’s a $30 cab ride to and from the airport… you’re already looking at $80.
4a. Overnight buses and trains.
It’s not the greatest sleep. But if you’re really trying to save money, overnight travel cuts the cost of a night’s accommodation. Just be ready to arrive in your new city at 5am, delirious, and 9 hours away from check-in. Most hostels will store your bag for you, so you can drop it off if they have 24 hour reception. If you know you’re going to arrive early, look for things like farmers markets and flea markets. They usually start early and you can get a great kick start to your day.
4b. Loyalty programs.
There are many many articles about the use of credit miles, and other such programs. I don’t have a credit card, so I’m not going to spout off about that. But sometimes there are great loyalty programs that you can sign up for. In the US, I have a Southwest account, and have gotten a few free flights from them. In Europe, Wizz Air has a great frequent flyer plan. It costs 30 euros to sign up for one year, but you and a buddy save 10 euros on each flight over 20 euros. Add the savings on checking a bag, and you can make your 30 euros back in just one round trip flight. Eurolines bus company offers a pass for unlimited travel or a discount card that will save you 25% on your bus trips. The deals are out there, if you look for them.
I have friends that swear by hitchhiking as their primary means of travel. As a solo traveler, I am not usually comfortable with the idea. But if you find a hitchhiking buddy in a hostel and you’re going in the same direction, it’s an option. I have had such fun hitchhiking trips, (and a few boring point A to point B trips.) Another great idea, if you’re staying in a hostel, keep an eye out for people that are driving, and maybe you can catch a ride. There are also many country specific ride share websites that you may be able to use. Just use your best judgement. Safety first!
As you travel- sustenance
I know this isn’t rocket science, but if you’re trying to save money, eating in restaurants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner might not be the way to go. (There are places where it’s cheaper to go to a local restaurant than buy all the ingredients and cook yourself. Just be aware.) That being said, food is a big part of a place’s culture. And while you may save a lot of money by eating pasta for dinner every night in the kitchen of your hostel, you’ll be missing out on some delicious cultural experience. Take advantage of lunch specials, local diners/restaurants that are inexpensive,and if it’s okay where you are, eat half and take half ‘home’ with you. I do this often in the US, where the portion sizes are large enough to feed me for two days. Stretchhhhhhhh the money. And I love pancakes and breakfast food in general almost more than anyone I’ve ever met. But buying breakfast out is a huge waste of money. Fry yourself an egg.
6. Don’t get drunk.
Well. Don’t get drunk all the time. Unless the drinks are cheap. Really really cheap, (I’m looking at you- $1 shots.) Pub crawls are a great way to get to know the people you’re staying with at your hostel (both staff and guests) and they’re fun and exciting. Pub crawling every night, however, is expensive. You don’t want to budget so much you don’t have fun, but you don’t always make the best budget decisions when you’re drunk.
As you travel- work
7. Get a ‘job.’
There are so many ways to extend your traveling by volunteering or working wherever you’re going. Though working without a visa is illegal, and this blog would never condone illegal behavior, volunteer opportunities are almost endless.
Many hostels are looking for staff. You can try to secure a position ahead of time using sites like hosteljobs.net. Or you can just get to know the staff at a hostel you particularly like in a city that you want to stay in for awhile. Maybe they won’t need help, maybe they will. You probably won’t get paid, but you’ll get to stay for free. Maybe some free food/drink specials as well. All you have to do is ask.
Sites like workaway are great for matching volunteers with families/small businesses that need help. You want to spend a month in France, but don’t know how to afford it? Take a look at places looking for volunteers to help with farming/housework/tourism/education… you have skills. Uuuuuuuuuse them.
As you travel- misc.
On prior trips I have been a huge proponent of using the couchsurfing website. It seems as though, as the site has gotten more popular, the experiences I’ve been hearing from it have gotten more negative. I have never had any issues while couchsurfing, and have had some of my most interesting/wonderful experiences because of it. But as with all interactions with strangers (especially if you’re staying with them) use your head and check their references. And be a good guest. And make sure the place you’re staying is near enough to where you want to be in the city that you aren’t paying more than the cost of a hostel in public transportation/taxi fees. Couchsurfing is a great way to meet a local person. Just be safe. And it can be awkward to ask your sister’s friend’s cousin for a place to stay. But if you have a network, USE IT. You can tell embarrassing stories about your sister and her friend. Just be a good guest.
9. Take pictures as souvenirs.
When you’re traveling, it’s easy to want to buy something to remind you of every place and experience you have. But it isn’t always the best for a budget traveler. Photos photos photos. They’re free. And you don’t have to buy something for everyone you’ve ever met. Key chains are great, but your friend probably already has one. Postcards are fun, because who doesn’t like getting mail?! And, if you find a place that will develop your digital photos you can make your own postcards.
10. Know what you want to splurge on, and don’t be afraid to.
Yes, you’re on a budget. But that doesn’t mean everything expensive is off limits. Maybe you can’t do expensive things every day, but pick a few and make them trip highlights. It will make your entire trip more enjoyable.