How many times have you promised yourself you’d take that vacation as soon as you have enough money in the bank? You scroll past your friends’ social media travel logs with longing and wish it could be you. Setting aside the time and money to see the world, or even explore your home country, can sometimes seem unattainable. But I’m here to let you know that it’s easier than you think to satisfy your wanderlust on a shoestring budget with some advanced planning and careful research. Dust off your sense of adventure and make a plan to take a trip without stressing your finances.
Traveling in the off-season is a well known way to cut travel costs.
Off-season travel can save you on room, airfare, entertainment, and dining costs. Most vacation spots offer generous deals during their low season. Plus, you don’t have to fight the crowds that flock to popular destinations during peak seasons. Many savvy travelers actually prefer to avoid peak season journeys because of the crowds and difficulty making reservations, so you may have a more pleasant, as well as cheaper, trip during the off season.
Stay in hostels instead of hotels.
Do you hear the word “hostel” and think of a bare room with 16 metal framed bunk beds and no place to store your valuables? If so, you might be missing out on one of the most affordable ways to travel—and fear not, many hostels these days offer private rooms with either shared or private bathrooms. Hostels are very popular in Europe, but you can find them in almost every country across the globe. If you’re traveling on a budget, you might find hostels much more affordable than hotels, especially if you’re with a group of friends.
There are pros and cons to going this route, so you’ll want to do your research and look for well reviewed spots. Some hostels can be loud, and sometimes the shared facilities aren’t well maintained. Do your homework and seek out hostels that are described by fellow travelers as clean, well-maintained, and in safe locations. You can find hostels rated by other travelers, like you can with hotels, on websites such as this one.
If you’re traveling solo (or even with a friend) and feel adventurous, check out the newest craze called “couchsurfing.” Basically, you connect with hosts who agree to have you in their home as a guest. You are provided a place to sleep, a bathroom, and a place to prepare meals. In the process, you can see the world and return your host’s generosity by cooking a meal, walking their dog, or tidying up the place while you’re there. It’s free to sign up, and you can meet some incredibly interesting people in the process. And, as you may have guessed, they have an app for that.
If you live in an area that attracts visitors, consider exchanging your home with someone who lives in a place you’d like to visit—those living in Miami, for instance, may easily find Parisians or Londoners looking to spend a week or two in a warmer, culturally vibrant locale. According to Rick Steves, a leading travel expert, “People who’ve tried house swapping rave about the range of places they’ve enjoyed for free, and about the graciousness and generosity of their swap-mates.”
Take the train.
Amtrak is offering some jaw-dropping fares to see the United States from coast-to-coast. In other countries, traveling by rail is also popular and inexpensive. Generally, taking the train is far less of a hassle than flying by airplane. Plus, there’s something charming about taking an old-fashioned trip on the railroad. Aside from being more relaxing, it’s also more eco-friendly than flying.
Look into cell phone charges, and plan accordingly.
Many people are surprised by charges they receive from their cell phone provider when they travel abroad. Just ask a friend who’s had this happen to them. Recently, some of my own family members traveled to Italy and returned to a cell phone bill that topped $2500! Avoid these exorbitant fees by planning ahead. A quick phone call to your service provider will let you know if you can swap your SIM card with one you can purchase in the country you visit. Outrageous roaming charges can take the fun out of any trip.
If it turns out that your carrier does charge high roaming fees, you might consider two other options:
- Remove the SIM from your phone and just use your smartphone as an ipod/computer while traveling. You can still send and receive emails and, if you have an iphone, communicate via text with other iphone users. You can also use Facetime and Skype on your phone to video chat with loved ones back home, as long as you can find a strong wifi connection.
- Purchase a cheap, pay-as-you-go phone when you arrive in your destination. These can be as affordable as 20 euros, and you can add 10 or 20 euros worth of minutes to it at a time.
Getting sick is expensive, especially in a foreign country. Not to mention the time you can lose enjoying your vacation if you’re in bed with a nasty bug. For instance, more than 250,000 people travel through America’s busiest airport in Atlanta, in one day. Chances are high that many of those travelers are sick with colds, influenza, and other contagious diseases. Plus, traveling puts stress on your body and weakens your immune system. Remembering a few basics can help reduce the possibility of getting sick. Practice good hygiene, like washing your hands with soap and water as much as possible (for 20 seconds each time), or take along a small bottle of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Drink lots of fluids. Pack your own water bottle and drink up. Get plenty of rest along the way to help maintain your body’s normal sleep cycle. In a 2015 study, folks who got less than six hours of sleep in a week were four times more likely to get a cold than those who slept even an hour longer. The less sleep you get the higher the probably you’ll catch someone else’s illness. Or, consider getting “single trip” or “short term” medical insurance. It might seem like a needless expense when you add it to your other travel costs, but if you’re not insured in a foreign country and require medical help, it could cost you more than you bargained for.
Restaurants generally mark-up their prices by 300%. Buy your meals in grocery stores and cook them at the hostel kitchen or at your couchsurfing host’s house. Get creative and have picnics in a beautiful spot in nature. If you want to try some local fare, visit a street vendor who can prepare affordable and yummy meals at bargain prices.
When flying on airplanes these days, you’re often charged for every bag you check. Pack light and carry on what you need. There are many creative tricks to pack like a pro. Follow the rule of three: I found this gem from Loren Bell, a writer at Lonely Planet, “Three pairs of socks. Three pairs of underwear. Three shirts. Wear one, wash one, dry one.” If you want to add one or two nicer outfits for evening excursions, choose lightweight, wrinkle-resistant fabrics.
Keep your money in your wallet.
Avoid buying useless items at a gift shop. Do you really need another t-shirt or trinket that will only gather dust? Most of these impulse purchases end up in a closet somewhere and take up precious space in your luggage. Blend in with the locals instead. Wherever you may roam, you can find farmers markets, street fairs, and free festivals to get the true flavor of the place you’re visiting.
Get in touch with nature.
Explore the natural beauty without spending a dime, and stay away from tourist traps. There’s plenty to do in a new place that puts you in touch with nature. Take a hike. Walk on the beach. Explore the busy streets of a historic downtown on foot. All you need are some comfortable walking shoes and a solid, reusable water bottle.
Seeing the world is one of the most rewarding ways to spend your time and money. There are many books and articles offering ideas and resources on how to do it right. Your best bet is to join a travel forum and find out how others do it.