What should you do if you want to travel but have no money? Some blogs suggest you can ‘hack’ your way into traveling for free… but these are not magical solutions.
This typical article recommends becoming a tour guide to travel—so instead of seeing the world, you’ll just be doing the same experience over and over, and often in the place you already live. Other blogs say, for example, that you should become a scuba guide instructor, but totally gloss over the grueling work schedules and terrible pay that come with this job. Becoming a flight attendant? Only a good idea if you like airport hotels, constant jetlag, and routine layovers in the same places.
Becoming a digital nomad is a far more realistic approach (check out Workfrom and the amazing Nomadlist community), though this still involves spending most of your time abroad in co-working spaces and coffee shops.
So what about travelling without working? Unless you only went hitchhiking, slept on people’s couches, and used your wizard powers to conjure food, the reality is that travel is going to cost you at least something.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a lot of things to make it much cheaper. So setting aside the too-good-to-be-true ‘travel for free’ hacks, here are some practical suggestions for making regular travel as affordable as possible.
Ways to actually reduce travel costs
Traveling cheaply starts with having the right mentality. While there are plenty of little tricks to learn, nothing will make more of a difference than having the right mindset. For example…
If you want to travel cheaply, don’t go on a tour. This is less obvious than it may sound, as many people do go on expensive tours only because they think they can’t do it on their own.
For my first ever trip to Thailand several years ago, I thought I’d hedge my bets: I would do a 10-day tour, then do a bit of travelling on my own. Because I was less experienced and travelling solo, this seemed like a smart move. Then some people on Reddit’s /r/backpacking talked me out of it, and I’m glad they did. For the same cost as that 10-day tour I travelled independently in Thailand for a whole month. I had an amazing time, didn’t have to rush at any point, and met countless amazing people along the way.
A tour can be more convenient, particularly for short trips. But for the cheapest travel, you should always go independently. Not only do tour operators add a lot of margin, but they often use more expensive accommodation and travel methods than you can get on your own.
Avoid high season
Travelling outside of high season means fewer crowds, and often lower prices and cheaper flights as well. Case in point: earlier this year I was in Croatia outside of the main tourist season, and my hostel in Dubrovnik cost 15 EUR a night. The owner told me that during the August high season, they charge €60 for just a bunk bed. (Whoa!)
I love travelling in Europe in the late season of September to October, particularly in Europe’s sunny south. As I’m writing this post it’s early November and I’m in Portugal, and a few days ago it still hit a balmy 29 degrees C. Return flights between London and Lisbon are around €125 now, but they were €300 in late July.
Not only is it cheaper to travel in the shoulder season, it’s also a much more relaxed time to travel, as there are fewer queues and popular sights are much less crowded.
Fly at the cheapest times
If you have some flexibility on your departure date, then always be sure to play around with your flight dates. You can often find the best deals with a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday departure. Keep an eye out for seasonal changes in fares and sign up for price alerts. You can read more about finding cheap flights.
Go to cheap countries
The destinations that are most heavily branded and promoted are often also the most expensive.
Take Costa Rica, a country that is heavily advertised in particular to North Americans. It’s a beautiful country for sure, but if you want to travel for cheap it’s all about neighboring Nicaragua. It may not have any TV ads featuring singing sloths and toucans, but Nicaragua offers many similar experiences at just around a third of the price.
It’s the same with many other up-and-coming destinations around the world. So be a trailblazer and go to alternative destinations. You can do your own research on Price of Travel or Budget Your Trip, both excellent resources for finding cheap destinations. I also put together a list of 9 amazingly cheap destinations, just to give you a few ideas.
Stay in hostels
Flower petals on your bed? A TV with 400 channels? A true adventurer doesn’t need that! If you’re out exploring all day anyway, then surely the minimum your basecamp needs is a decent bed and some basic facilities.
Consider staying in hostels. They are fun, cheap, and comfortable enough. They range from the most basic all the way to trendy boutique hostels with private bunks, AC, and designer décor (yet still at reasonable prices). Don’t like shared sleeping spaces? Then get a cheap private room in a hostel, or search on Agoda (for Asia) or Booking.com (for everywhere else) for cheap hotels and guesthouses.
If you’re less picky, you can stay in even cheaper accommodation (and have some fun adventures while you’re at it). I’ve slept on many couches, in jungle huts, on a floor mat in a hostel that hadn’t yet opened, in a village with no electricity in Myanmar (where I had to wash myself with rainwater), and some other improvised places. With the right mindset, you can make due with less.
Avoid expensive partying
This one is especially for the younger backpacker crowd: consider not spending all your money on expensive partying! I’m not saying you should not party at all, just that going out and drinking doesn’t have to totally drain your travel funds.
It’s amusing to see how some backpackers will haggle for 20 minutes over the tiniest discount during the day, but will happily rack up a $40 bill at the bar later that night…
I’m currently in Lisbon where many backpackers will spend around €20 to go on a bar crawl. This gets you a small free beer, some terrible shots (of whatever vile substance they want to get rid of), and a tour of some of the worst bars in town. You could just as easily get a group together yourself and head into Barrio Alto, entire district filled with bars where a pint might cost as little as €1. Of course, this takes a bit more initiative than just blindly following a bar crawl guide like a raft of drunk little ducklings…
Okay, yeah, I’m a bit older now and think bar crawls are usually pretty dumb. (Get off my lawn! Etc.) Still, I think there are more imaginative and cheaper ways to party.
Focus on free activities
Go to a beach, visit a national park, go to a (free) museum, stroll through some markets or neighborhoods, or sit down somewhere for some people-watching; there are of course tons of free travel experiences everywhere.
Do keep in mind that the free walking tours available in many cities (and mentioned by other blogs) are not actually free. They are donation-based, so it wouldn’t be very nice if you didn’t pay anything for them. Alternatively, download some self-guided walking tour apps for your phone, such as Field Trip, Pocket Guide App, Triposo, or Tripadvisor Offline City Guides.
Skip overpriced touristy sights
Every country has its own trophy experiences. Some of these are legitimately good, but others are overpriced or underwhelming (or both). Separating the hype from the genuinely worthwhile (at least, for you!) is a skill that can seriously help keep your costs down. I previously shared some thoughts on skipping overhyped places.
This may feel like a compromise, but by not being totally married to seeing every iconic sight, you can cut costs while having more of a chance to see the real country.
Get free accommodation
Free accommodation does actually exist—sort of.
CouchSurfing lets you sleep on people’s couches and meet people for fun and cultural exchange. However, early users of CouchSurfing will tell you the community has changed, often complaining that not everyone embraces the original spirit, or that it’s far more difficult to find a host than it once was. Still, it’s an interesting way to travel cheaply, so long as you’re genuine and don’t mind sending many personalized requests. Keep in mind it’s not strictly speaking ‘free’’, as this post on another blog explains well.
Alternatively, try house-sitting. This involves looking after someone’s house for a while and maybe looking after their cat or their chickens while they’re away. One catch is that you’ll usually have to commit for at least a few weeks or months, but it can be a great way to have a base somewhere while you go on day-trips in the region. See Trusted Housesitters or Nomador.
Other ways to travel cheaply
These are of course just some basic suggestions, but there are countless other ways to make further savings. If you’re interested in learning more about travelling on a budget, how to get the most out of your trip, and how to stay close to the ground and improvise during your journey, be sure to check out my in-depth guide to budget travel.