Long-term travel is not a holiday, it is a way of life.
How much travel costs really depends on where you go, what standards you are used to, where you stay, how you get around, what you eat/drink, what you buy/see and current exchange rate factors. You can probably greatly reduce these figures if you don’t drink, travel long distances or do tours/expensive activities. Those travelling alone and not able/willing to take advantage of shared accommodation (hostel dorm beds) and some transport will spend roughly 25% more than quoted costs unless making other sacrifices to compensate.
1. TRAVEL TO CHEAP PLACES
India, Nepal, SE Asia and Latin America are all famously cheap places.
It is a sorry fact, but most countries after an economic or similar crisis will become cheaper: Ukraine in 2014-15, Russia in 2015, Iran with sanctions. Countries with out-of-control inflation are cheaper: Venezuela, Argentina, Ukraine, Iran. 10 of the cheapest countries according to the Cost of Living Index: India, Moldova, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Nepal (trekking guide start at 15USD per day), Ukraine, Georgia, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Colombia.
If you must travel very cheaply, forget about Australia, Japan, Western Europe, North America or any other developed country – equally it’s advisable to steer clear of capitals/big cities and keep more in the wild away from major urban centres. 10 of the most expensive travel destinations. 1. Bermuda 2. Switzerland 3. Bahamas 4. Norway 5. Iceland 6. Denmark 7. Singapore 8. Luxembourg 9. Kuwait 10. Hong Kong.
Be wary of budgets quoted on blogs that are not current. And movements in currencies can make a big difference. For example, the Canadian dollar has devalued significantly versus the US$ (now 1.35-1.40 per US$) and the 2015=16 travel year was much more expensive than anticipated.
Refer to travelindependent.info in the country summary section where suggested basic daily budgets for 85 countries are listed.
a. Keep Track of Every Dollar Spent. Use the app Trail Wallet. When you know where your money goes, it keeps you focused on your goals and shows ways to stick to your travel budget. It keeps tabs on every single cent you spend while traveling. You can also break it down into categories so you can see where your biggest expenses are, and if you need to cut down.
b. Daily Travel Budget. Stick to your travel budget by actually having a travel budget to start with. Work out how long you plan to be away. Even out expensive days by having quiet days. Clearly a per/day idea of how much money you might spend is important in planning a trip, particularly a long one, but ultimately it is a difficult (read pointless) exercise. It may be better to state how much you can get by on per month anywhere (say US$1500-2000) but how much you have left will depend on how you apply the best money-saving tips out there.
Remember the per day costs are on top of all the other considerations such as vaccinations, visas, flights and insurance that make a big dent in your funds before you even leave.
c. Always Withdraw Money, Never Exchange. Your bank card will carry the best currency exchange rates, so withdraw local currency from the ATM as needed. Work out a credit and debit card strategy, so you won’t be charged any foreign transaction fees when you’re abroad. And, if American, travel with a Charles Schwab debit card. Not only does Charles Schwab not charge you foreign ATM withdrawal fees, it refunds you any money that foreign ATMs charge you by depositing a lump sum into your bank account at the end of the month.
d. Also bring a minimum of two credit cards and 2 debit cards. Check out the Credit Card post on the Travel page.
e. Set up an automatic travel savings account at your bank. Keep your savings account invisible/inaccessible from your internet banking so that you never have the temptation to transfer money over and spend it. Accessing the money would mean physically going to a bank to make the transaction,
f. Gift Cards. Ask for cash or gift cards related to travel for your birthday, graduation, and each and every other holiday. People are going to be gifting something to you anyway, and everything adds up!
g. E-Wallet. Especially if American and still using magnetic strip cards (not chip-and-pin cards like the rest of the world), for security reasons, try some of the e-wallet apps. They provide needed security. And if traveling where e-wallet is available, avoid ATM fees.
3. AVOID BOOKING IN ADVANCE as much as possible. The more flexible your plans, the more fun you’ll have – and the more money you’ll save. Rather than being forced to stick around spending money somewhere you don’t like, or forfeiting bus/train/hotel bookings to stay longer somewhere you love, avoid advance booking. Plans always change. If staying in hotels, avoid the fees charged by booking websites. You can almost always get a better deal at the hotel especially if staying for more than one night.
4. TRAVEL SLOWLY
The biggest costs in traveling are transportation and accommodation. If staying in one place for a while, you can find the cheapest places to eat and drink, barter for cheaper accommodation with weekly rates, use less transportation and have rest days with no museums or expensive tours. Don’t try to go everywhere on your list in one trip.
a. Walk more. And see more of where you are.
b. Hitchhike. One of the best ways to meet locals. And they often ask to stay with them – for free. Much safer than you realize in much of the world.
c. Use Public Transportation. Do as the locals do, and catch public transportation everywhere you go. Buses, minivans, crappy trains, 17 people in a tuk-tuk … whatever it takes to get around. Local buses and trains are cheaper than taxis or tourist buses. Not only is it a great way to save money, but it’s the best way to see a country and get up close and personal with its people. Remember: No epic cultural interactions ever happened getting chaperoned in a private taxi.
A recent day in Jordan illustrated this well: I went completely local: I traveled from my hotel in Irbid to Umm Qais (about 30kms) and back, saw the ruins, had lunch and took the bus all the way to Amman for less than the price of quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and large drink at McDonalds (4.5JD): I walked to and from my hotel to the bus depot 3 times, about 8 blocks total, took 2 service buses between bus stations in Irbid – .2JDx2, a bus return to Umm Qais – .7JDx2, lunch (a chicken shwerma – 1.25JD) and the bus to Amman – 1.25JD = 4.3JD total. The service taxi (.4JD) from the north bus station to Shapsogh service taxi station in downtown Amman put me over the top. The entrance to the ruins (5JD) was free with my Jordan Pass. In Jordan, transportation is some of the cheapest in the world – that standard is about 1US$ per hour of transport.
It helps to speak some of the local language to get the most out of public transport.
d. Rent Scooters. Explore foreign countries cheaply with complete freedom. You need a license to validate your travel insurance. Don’t drink and drive. Get a bike based on your ability. Don’t rent on price as the quality is often less too. Carefully inspect the bike before and take photographs to record all damage and make sure the tires, lights, instruments and brakes are in good repair. If not happy with the condition, get another one or go elsewhere. Wear a helmet.
Drive carefully by constantly scanning for traffic, pedestrians, animals and the road surface (oil, potholes, ice and water). Drop a gear when riding in traffic. Own your lane so other drivers won’t squeeze you out. Make yourself seen with light-coloured clothing and by having your headlight on at all times. When changing lanes – MILO: Mirrors, Indicators. Look, Over. On exit ramps, move over to avoid cars that change lanes at the last-minute. At intersections and roundabouts, use other vehicles as protection.
e. Cheap Flights. Refer to my post on the travel page. Basically be flexible with your dates or destination, use air miles, check google.com/flights to see prices over a two month period, and check multiple search engines (skyscanner.com may be the best), then check the airline.
Fly midweek for cheaper flights. Request your time off from work starting in the middle of the week. That way, you can take advantage of cheaper airfares. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the cheapest days to fly, so you can save hundreds round trip just by hacking your vacation schedule.
Travel during “shoulder periods.” These are times in the travel industry that are basically off-peak times – when kids go back to school (September), after New Year’s (early January), and just after Spring Break (April). Airlines and hotels often give big discounts on airplane seats and hotel rooms during this time, since it’s not a popular period to go. Shoulder periods change in different parts of the world, so choose your destination by watching for online deals, and following hotels and airlines on Twitter, where they also release last-minute deals.
Subscribe to email alerts from Skyscanner, Secretflying.com and theflightdeal.com You can narrow down your preferences to flights departing from certain countries, and they’ll send you an email when a deal pops up.
Use free extended stopover. If you like to get creative when booking your flights, research multi-leg flights to see where you can go without having to pay extra. For example, a round-trip flight from L.A. to Cancun might have a one-hour layover in Miami as part of the trip. Try searching for a multi-leg flight, flying from L.A. into Miami, then a few days later flying from Miami to Cancun. Then, instead of returning directly to L.A., you can try adding a leg from Cancun to Mexico City, then Mexico City to L.A. This strategy works all over the world, and often, you won’t have to pay any difference in fare since those stops are considered layovers.
Before booking a round-trip flight, look at the cost of two one-way flights. Sometimes it turns out to be cheaper!
Hidden City Ticketing. Based on the idea that airline fares are priced based on market demand, not distance traveled, so booking longer routes can save you money over booking direct. For example, if I wanted to fly NYC to Denver, I might book NYC -> Denver -> Calgary and just skip the last leg. If you don’t want to do the research yourself, there’s an app called Skiplagged that does the work for you. Keep in mind that, to be safe, you should book two one-way tickets instead of a round-trip ticket, as most airlines will cancel your return trip if you don’t complete the first.
Bring your own food to the airport (see post on Travel Snacks).
f. Overnight Trains and Buses when you can. You’ll get where you need to go, and save money on a night’s worth of accommodation.
g. Ride-share. Use apps BlaBlaCar, or message boards like Gumtree to find rides with locals and other travellers to save big money.
h. Invest in a Priority Pass for the airport. The pass gets you into 850-plus airport lounges around the world, with the base tier being $99 for the year and $27 per lounge visit, and the top-tier being $399 for the year all-inclusive. Bringing a guest for all tiers is always $27 per person. When you think about how much food, booze, and Wi-Fi cost at airports anyway, you’re paying a very similar price but getting luxe amenities and comfortable spaces on top of it.
h. Buy European Train Tickets Online directly from the official national railway sites, not from third-party agencies who add a commission. You can buy most European high-speed train tickets up to three months in advance, and the earlier you book, the more likely you are to find great deals. You get access to the same sales and upgrades offered to locals.
i. if you really want to travel cheaply, limit traveling long distances and traveling in comfort is out with sometimes uncomfortable, long, bumpy journeys.
j. Be Flexible with your plans. If you want to travel to a certain place, be flexible about the timing. If you want to travel at a certain time, be flexible about the location. Choose one — not both.
k. Getting from Airports. Often the most expensive part of any transportation, first look for any public transportation, often much slower and less convenient, but always quite cheap. If you have to take a taxi, go up to departures – cabs there have just dropped off passengers and are returning to the city, usually for a much cheaper fare. Bargain hard. Try to find out how much the taxi really costs.
The best way to get to know a city is to go for a ride. On a bike, it only takes a few minutes to get out of the tourist centre and be amongst people who are extremely excited to see foreigners in their neighbourhood. Do this every time you leave a town, but backpackers rarely get to see real life on the outskirts. You don’t need to go on a long ride, just rent a bike in any city you happen to be visiting and head towards the outskirts. Don’t ride the tourist trail, just pick a road and follow it, and don’t be afraid of mysterious side streets.
m. Cheap Cruises. Cruise ships change locations twice a year to spend the winter in the Caribbean and the summer in the Mediterranean. If you travel times coincide with these March/April and September/October and you need to cross the Atlantic, these are quite inexpensive for great service and food, a chance to relax (especially after a long travel season) and a way to see some out-of-the-way places especially islands.
n. How to Snag a Discount by Buying Two Tickets at Once. It’s a common problem when traveling as a couple: you’re looking for a plane, train, or bus ticket and you think you’ve found the perfect one. Then you go to buy it and find the price shoots up. What the?! What happened there’s different classes of tickets with limited numbers available and if there’s only one cheap ticket left, when you try to buy it for two people you’re getting one cheap ticket and one expensive. Happily, there’s a way around this problem: two computers, simultaneously purchasing the low-priced ticket.
o Always search for the best fare for only 1 passenger
o Once you’ve found the best fare, add a second passenger.
o If the fare per person stays the same, great!
o If not, use a second computer and purchase the same ticket twice, making sure to go through each step of the process at exactly the same time on both computers
a. Eat Where the Locals Eat. Rather than eating at expensive international restaurants in non-Western countries, street food and small single-dish restaurants have tastier, much cheaper food – and where there is a line of locals out the door is usually safer with less chance of getting sick than when you are the only person in an empty hotel restaurant. You see the food being prepared.
b. Shop at the Markets. With lower overhead than stores, fresh fruit, vegetables, souvenirs and clothes are all cheaper and healthier. Cheap snacks and meals are also available.
c. Cook in Your Accommodation. Most hostels have kitchens. Travel with a portable stove.
d. Breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. For cycle tourists, being hungry is like a car running out of gas. For backpackers, it can lead to a miserable, wasted day.
Often it is difficult to find breakfast in the town you are visiting. Carrying breakfast with you will save you time, money and headaches early in the morning. Having a small bowl (MSR plate/bowls), cutlery (bamboo cutlery sets) and cup means you can eat in the hostel, on the train, at the bus station, whenever, wherever.
Use a simple plastic bag to carry muesli or other cereal. Buy it pre-made, or buy oats, dried fruit, and nuts, and mix it up yourself. Have soy milk or milk to go with it, but peanut butter and water mixed into the cereal makes a tasty alternative. Instant coffee is a passable alternative if you are coffee addicted. Always carry peanut butter as well.
Other alternatives are bread and jam, cheese, sausage, croissants and pastries.
e. Six Block Rule. Never eat within six blocks of a major tourist sight. The food is double the price and half as good. Sites like Yelp!, Openrice,and Foursquare can help you find restaurants.
f. Don’t Over Order when you eat out – ‘It comes with bread’ is a good reminder.
g. Have a picnic in the park. Pick up a variety of fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses or other local specialties from a market: cheaper, more fun, delicious and traditional.
h. Water: Use a filtered refillable water bottle or fill your water bottle at your hostel and skip buying plastic bottled beverages.
i. In non-English-speaking countries, offer your language services at local restaurants. If at a restaurant with poor translations and loads of misspellings on the menu, offer to help. You may get a free meal in exchange.
j. Don’t Wait Until You’re Hungry to start scouting for food. If you do, you’ll probably just choose the most convenient option regardless of price, Instead, give yourself some time to shop around before your stomach starts rumbling.
7. ALCOHOL. If you have 5 beers per night even where the beer is cheap, it will add up to many thousands of dollars per year. And travel is much more fun without a hangover. Buy alcohol from stores, not in the bar and drink in your hostel.
8. ACCOMMODATION. What more do you need than a bed, running water and a door? Refer to my accommodation post on my Travel page.
Independent travellers traveling alone can expect to spend 25% more.
Free: hospitality exchanges (couch surfing, warmshowers.org and others), Facebook friends or friends of Facebook friends, volunteer or work exchange (WWOOF, workexchange.info), house sit, home exchanges, camping, overnight transportation, public places (airports, train stations, squatting).
Cheap: Guesthouses, homestays and hostels are more interesting than hotels. Short term rentals, farm stays, and camping. AirBnB and Priceline are good sources for cheaper accommodation in places with no hostels and where you might be staying a while.
Expensive: Hotels should be your last resort. Meet fewer travellers. You can always deal on the price of a room especially if staying for a few nights.
9. DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN NEEDS AND WANTS
Evaluate all impromptu purchases – souvenirs and knickknacks often don’t have much meaning years down the road and you have to carry them for the rest of your trip. For souvenirs, collect small denominations of money from every country you travel to – it takes up little room and is often cheap. The presents you buy for people at home may not be what they really want.
With quick dry fabrics, do your own laundry every few nights and have it dry by the morning or hang off your pack with safety pins. Check the laundry section in the “What To Bring” post for many more tips.
Often much more expensive than finding your own local transportation, I avoid them as much as possible. Plus it’s way more fun figuring things out on your own. The guides often speak poor English and the quality of information low. Much of that information is available at the destination and you can always read up on places online.
Of course tours are the only way to go in some places – North Korea and Bhutan are two places I’ve been where a tour is the only option. And sometimes, figuring out the logistics to getting somewhere is just too complicated, and tours can be a good option.
If you’re a big reader, buy a Kindle. No books to lug around, access to any book you want to read (some free and all cheaper than paper books), magazines and newspapers. The Paperwhite is the cheapest model. Make sure to buy a cover as they are fragile (I am now on Kindle #7, I have damaged so many) but getting replacements is remarkably easy anywhere in the world in less than a week.
Refer to my post “What to Bring” on my Travel page to read more about Kindles.
13. MUSEUM PRICING
Many museums around the world — especially in Europe — not only offer free or discounted student pricing, but also cheaper tickets for young adults (usually up to 25 years old) as a way to encourage interest in the arts. In France, you can even get cheaper movie tickets since it’s a ‘cultural’ experience! Other cultural institutions have a policy of ‘suggested donations,’ although it can be misinterpreted as the ticket price. Many museums also offer a free night once a month.
14. PHONE and TEXTS
a. Use Apps to Call and Text. Rather than your carrier’s service, use Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and others to talk and video call anyone else who uses the app, and you can call any phone number in the world at a much-reduced rate. Hangouts even lets you dial most US and Canadian numbers for free.
To send text messages, get your friends on WhatsApp or Viber and message back and forth using WiFi or cell data instead of paying per message.
b. Get an unlocked phone and purchase local SIM cards along with calling cards for the cheapest way to call home or hotels. This gives you local rates that are typically a fraction of what your provider wants to charge you.
Recent Verizon iPhones have a SIM slot unlocked for international use. If that’s not for you, call your cell provider and ask about getting your phone unlocked — you may be able to do it for free or a small fee, especially if you’re off contract or close to it. Failing that, cheap but decent Android smartphones can be purchased unlocked for under $200 — which could easily be less than your roaming bill.
c. T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan offers its subscribers text and data in 140-plus countries at no extra charge, but if you’re not a customer, there’s still a way to avoid those sky-high roaming fees.
15. ASK the LOCALS what something should cost, and try not to pay over that for anything from transport to food to activities. The staff at hostels and guesthouses are often great sources of information.
16. BIG ATTRACTIONS.
Main tourist sites are usually quite expensive. Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, Inca Trail, Forbidden City and the like you’ll need to admire from a distance or skip if you really want to travel cheap. Unesco World Heritage Sites and National Parks in many places, especially in China and Sri Lanka are very expensive, about US$35 each. But I find many young travellers skip these anyway.
17. STUDENT CARDS. Students get significant breaks at many attractions. Even if not a student, get a fake student card or a card that looks real. In China (where attractions and National Parks are very expensive) any picture ID will often work for half-price entry.
18. Join a local Facebook group that alerts you to sweet travel deals. And have it pinned so that these crowd sourced alerts always show up on your feed.
19. WORK on the ROAD – Working on the road is sometimes possible.
a. Teach English – You can teach English if you are a native speaker in almost any foreign country. If you need money anywhere, go to the schools, and they will hire you even for very short periods.
b. Australia. Many travellers under 30 work for long periods here in order to finance further travel. But I hear many stories of abuse by Australian employers: working under the table for low wages and long hours with no days off, withholding the verification that allows you to spend a second year and on and on. Certainly Australia is on everyone’s bucket list, but these kids don’t really see much of it – and because of the high travel costs, couldn’t see a lot of it in a meaningful way anyway.
It is not about skimping constantly. Sticking to a travel budget can be hard work and sometimes just too much hassle to find that cheapest place to stay. Just don’t make expensive rooms, food and nights out in bars a regular occurrence. Spend that money on once-in-a-lifetime activity in stead. Treat yourself once in a while.