Both in my experience and from what I’ve heard from others, the two most common reasons preventing people from traveling are time and money, and not having enough of them. As far as time goes, I don’t have too much more to offer other than saying that there is never a perfect time to plan or book a trip. You can always find a reason not to go or to put it off, but truly, there is no time like the present, where there’s a will there’s a way, and all the other cheesy cliches that encourage you to make time for the things you love, and figure out a way to get out there and see the world.
As for the money, though, that’s something that can be dealt with with a bit of planning and expert-level budgeting tips. As a someone who has worked extensively in the travel industry, the mantra I never tire of hearing is that, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”! While that is yet another wonderful cliche it really is true. There is no amount of money that could buy up the experience of traveling. That said, for most of us, being strapped for cash is a reality and we have to take that into account when deciding whether to pay rent this month or buy a flight to some across-the-world destination! Though my heart sometimes pulls at me to get out there and travel, my bank account doesn’t always agree. As a result, I’ve developed some tricks and tips for how to travel on a budget, making seeing the world manageable regardless of how much you think you can’t afford it!
Here are six great tips for wanderlusters facing the same dilemma:
1. Stay In Hostels
My number one tip for travelers trying to keep costs down is to stay in a youth hostel instead of a hotel or Airbnb. If your parents ever made you watch the movie Hostel like mine did, you might be a bit turned off to the idea of staying in one, imagining hostels to be sketchy or unsafe. However, in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most hostels these days are centrally located, clean, well-kept, social hubs for young people traveling on a budget. Some hostels are truly unique and can have you staying in a treehouse in the Amazon or in a pod in Amsterdam. Depending on where in the world you’re traveling to, hostels range from just a few dollars a night (in places like Southeast Asia or South America) to around $20-40 per night in more expensive regions, like Europe or the United States. Typically breakfast, and sometimes another meal too, are included with your stay as well. If you’re freaked out by bunking with 4-24 other strangers, there are typically all-female or all-male dorm options or you can pay a little more to get your own private room, which is nice if you’re looking for some privacy but still want to travel cheaply and use the social advantages of staying in a hostel. There are always security measures in place to keep travelers safe and there are almost always lockers for you to stow your valuables during your stay (though you typically have to bring your own lock). Your hostel will also likely have free WiFi, a cheap restaurant or bar, free or cheap laundry, 24-hour front desk, and can provide you with a map and directions to local supermarkets and attractions.
Aside from being cheap, hostels are one of the best ways to meet people while traveling. Hostels usually offer bar crawls, free or cheap walking tours, and off-the-beaten-path excursions to nearby attractions. Typically they have a bar which is a great, casual way to meet other travelers or chill out after a busy day of exploring. Personally, I’ve used hostels to see the best of the place I’m in, especially if I haven’t done too much research as far as figuring out what to do in a particular city or place. For example, when I was in Patagonia, in the very south of Chile, the night I arrived I booked a 10-hour hiking excursion through Torres del Paine National Park for the next morning. I knew I wanted to go hiking in Patagonia but I was alone and didn’t know how to go about doing it myself or where to even start. The tour was recommended to me by the person working at the front desk (a local Chilean, close to my own age), and took care of everything, from picking me up and dropping me back off at the hostel to dealing with my entry permit into the park, selecting the hiking route, and providing me with friendly faces of other hikers staying at my or neighboring hostels to hike the trail with. This was a cheap and comprehensive way to see Patagonia, which I planned and booked literally upon arrival. I recommend taking advantage of everything your hostel has to offer, as they are made specifically to cater to backpackers like you!
2. Eat Like A Local
One of my favorite ways to experience the true culture of the place I’m in is to eat like a local and try the regional foods. Ask the locals you meet or the people working at your hostel for their favorite hole-in-the-wall spots, or recommendations of where to go and what to order there. Usually this will be the cheapest and most authentic food you’ll have your whole trip. However, when seeking out these places it’s important to be mindful of the sanitary conditions that may not be up to the standards you’re used to in your home country. For example, in places like India and South America, always take extreme care not to drink the water, eat lukewarm soup, or have drinks that come with ice cubes, which are usually made from the local tap water...I have personally been burned by not taking my own advice on this one several times!
However, if you’re careful of the sanitation differences, you shouldn’t have a problem in most places. A great example of cheap and delicious (and huge) local meal options is ordering the “menu del día” in Ecuador. This is a two or three-course meal which usually includes a soup, a main dish of meat or fish, some rice and vegetables, a small dessert, typically some type of freshly-squeezed juice, and ranges from $2-4 USD. Similarly, in Bali, a popular local concept is to go to a buffet-style restaurant called Nasi Campur, where you can pile on as many traditional Balinese delicacies as you want and pay based on its weight. These types of restaurants are popular amongst locals and savvy travelers alike, and definitely won’t break your bank.
3. Take Advantage of Your Hostel: Cook Instead of Eating Out
While eating at local dives is a great way to keep meal costs low, another cost-effective option for feeding yourself is to take advantage of your hostel amenities and cook instead of eating out. Usually your hostel will include either a free or very cheap breakfast option, but for lunch and dinner cooking is a great way to eat on the cheap. Going to pick up ingredients at the local supermarket then cooking in the hostel kitchen can save you time and money and be a great way to have some healthier options which can be hard to come by when eating out for every meal. Pack a sandwich to eat for lunch and bring it with you while you’re out and about and buy a box of protein bars to keep in your backpack and eat for a snack when you’re hangry and there are no shops nearby. You might also consider cooking a meal together and splitting the cost with other travelers you’ve met at your hostel, which is a great way to get the most bang for your buck and share a meal with new friends from all over the world.
For drinking and going out, the hostel bar is typically where you’ll find the cheapest drinks, as hostels know most backpackers are balling on a budget. Take advantage of the hostel happy hours and pub crawls too, which usually come with free drinks and are a great way to meet people and see some cool spots in the city as well!
4. Take Public Transportation Instead of Taxis, Ubers, or Flights
This one may seem obvious, but taking public transportation is an economical way to see a country, get a feel for the real people living there and have an adventure along the way. Opting for public transit can at times be stressful, but will certainly turn you into a well-seasoned traveler. Taking the local bus or metro, walking, or renting a city bike are all ways that allow you to see a lot of a city and cost a fraction of the price of taking a taxi or Uber around.
If you’re “directionally challenged” like me, make sure to download a map of the city when you have WiFi (I prefer using the Google Maps app on my phone) so that you can continue to track your location offline; this is very helpful when exploring a city on foot. If you’re still worried that you’ll get lost using public transportation, remember that sometimes the best way to experience a place is to get lost in it! Some of my favorite memories are of the kind and interesting strangers I’ve met who’ve helped me through my public transit mishaps (a shy boy on the metro in Berlin, an aggressive Italian bus driver in the Amalfi Coast, a kind and patient woman at the train station ticket counter somewhere in the middle of Poland). These situations work to remind us that goodness and kindness transcend all cultures, no matter how stressed out, overwhelmed, or lost we may feel, and offer us the most authentic (and cheap) ways to experience the places we’re in.
5. Bring a Reusable Water Bottle or Invest in a Portable Water Filter
In countries where the water is safe to drink from the tap, such as in Israel or Spain, it pays to not have to buy bottled water. Especially if you’re traveling during the summer or to a particularly hot destination it’s important to stay hydrated, and bringing along a good-sized reusable water bottle will help you do just that. As someone who drinks a ton of water, bottled water is something I hate to spend a lot of money on when I travel so I love to take advantage of destinations where the tap water is drinkable (and free!) by bringing my own water bottle.
If you plan to travel extensively through a region where the tap water is not drinkable or if you’re doing a lot of hiking or camping, it may also be beneficial to you to invest in a portable water filter. These are small, portable devices that purify any source of fresh water, making it safe for you to drink. Portable water purifiers are usually very easy to use and work quickly, saving you both time and money when your best alternative is buying bottled water.
6. Take Advantage of Free and Public Activities
One of the best and cheapest ways to experience a place as well as immerse yourself in the local culture is to take advantage of the offered free and public activities, many of which offer student discounts with a student ID card, or offer discounts for people under a certain age. Examples of these types of activities could be public beaches, free museums, public events, parades, and fairs, or temples which you can enter for free, or pay a small donation. In each of these instances, it’s important to be respectful of the cultural customs by dressing and acting accordingly, especially when it comes to temples or religious sites. Going on a hike, destination permitting, or checking out free concerts or street performers are great ways to relax and be entertained as well as get a feel for the local culture. Buenos Aires, for example, is one of those great cities that always has tons of free things going on. One of my favorite things to do when I was living there was to walk through the famous Sunday market in the San Telmo neighborhood, which was filled with incredible Argentinian food, art, music, and handicrafts being sold by local vendors. Popular with Porteños and tourists alike, the San Telmo Market is always lively with tango street shows and music. It is completely free and is an ideal way to soak in some traditional Argentinian culture.
Oftentimes the distinguishing landmarks of a city are free or inexpensive to enjoy, such as the Taj Mahal or the Golden Gate Bridge, so make the most of your time in those places. One of my best memories is of being in Paris with a friend of mine who I’d met traveling, sitting out on the Champ de Mars with a cheap bottle of wine, a baguette, a brick of French cheese and a plastic knife, listening to La Vie en Rose playing on her iPhone, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower. Touristy, yes, but also an unforgettable experience that I will cherish for my whole life. For me, that moment really felt like “Paris” and though I’ve been back now several times, it’s that memory that will always stick in my mind as what that city feels like, sounds like, and tastes like to me. Hey, sometimes the best things in life are free!
So there you have it. You now have six tips that can make your travel dreams a little bit more attainable. You don’t need an excess of money to enjoy the world; sometimes it’s the simple moments that can be the most defining. I hope this list helps to optimize your travel funds and encourages you to get out there an explore the world, regardless of what’s in your wallet!
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American wanderluster currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me!