The reality is that travel costs money, but it doesn’t have to cost as much as you might think.
There are many ways in which you can make your travels cheaper and see the world on a budget. I traveled on a limited budget for many years, and I think the following are some of the best ways to keep your costs under control.
1. Don’t book holiday tours
If you want to travel cheaply, do it independently!
If you’re a novice traveler, it’s easy to be attracted to the perceived ‘safety’ of tours. For my first ever trip to Thailand back in 2012, I thought I’d hedge my bets: I’d do a 10-day organized tour, then travel by myself. Luckily, someone 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. And it also gave me a much better experience.
A tour can be more convenient, particularly for short trips. But for the cheapest travel, you should always do it yourself. There are often ways of DIY-ing it that may cost a little bit more time (in transport or planning) but also cost less money.
2. Avoid high season
Travelling outside of high season means fewer crowds, and often lower accommodation prices and cheaper flights as well.
Earlier this year I was in Croatia outside of the main tourist season, and my hostel in Dubrovnik cost €15 a night. The owner told me that during the August high season, they charge €60 for just a bunk bed. Whoa!
It’s great to travel in the shoulder season when the crowds have thinned out. As I write this post it’s early November in Portugal, and a few days ago it still hit a balmy 29 degrees Celsius. Return flights between London and Lisbon are around €125 now, but they were €300 in the high season of late July.
Traveling at the right time can make a huge difference.
3. 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.
4. Go to cheap countries
Sounds obvious, right? And yet so many travelers are still often drawn to the most promoted (and most expensive) destinations only.
Take Costa Rica. It’s a country that is heavily advertised as a tourist destination. It’s beautiful for sure, but if you want to travel for cheap it’s all about neighboring Nicaragua. It may not have any TV ads featuring beautifully computer-generated singing sloths and toucans, but Nicaragua offers many similar experiences as Costa Rica 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! I put together a list of amazingly cheap destinations, just to give you a few ideas.
5. Travel with carry-on luggage
If you travel with a carry-on size travel backpack you’ll avoid paying additional airline fees for checking in your luggage. You’ll also save time at the airport.
6. Stay in hostels
Flower petals on your bed? A TV with 400 channels? A true adventurer doesn’t need any of that!
If you’re out exploring all day anyway, then surely the minimum your basecamp needs to have is a decent bed and some basic facilities.
So 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 do with less.
For more, read my tips for staying in hostels.
7. Don’t party or drink too often
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 in Asia will haggle for 20 minutes over the tiniest discount on a short tuk-tuk ride, 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 awful shots (of whatever vile substance they want to get rid of), and a tour of some of the worst bars in town. Instead, you could just as easily get a group together yourself and head into Barrio Alto, an entire district filled with bars where a pint might cost as little as €1. This does take 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. I’m shaking my cane here. Still, I think there’s many ways you can party that aren’t as wasteful.
8. 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.
9. 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.
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.
10. 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. Take a look at Trusted Housesitters.
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