12 Money-Saving Tips for the Shoestring Backpacker

Travelling on a tight budget? There are many ways to keep costs down

If you are on a tight budget, you should first consider where you are going. There are many destinations around the world where you can travel very cheaply. For some ideas, see my Top cheapest travel destinations.

But even in countries where the cost of travel is low, you might still find yourself on a tight budget. Or you may want to travel cheaply in countries that are more expensive. Here are some essential techniques for keeping your spending in check:

1. Stay in backpacker hostels or couch-surf

Accommodation is probably going to be your biggest expense, so you can make the most savings here. Avoid hotels and stay in dorm rooms or cheap private rooms in backpacker hostels.

Consider couchsurfing if travelling in developed countries (where you are more likely to find couchsurfing hosts).

2. Bring a tent or hammock

If you thought hostel beds were the ultimate cheapest accommodation, think again. If you sleep in your own tent (at campsites or in hostel gardens) you will be paying even less.

Using campsites is a great tactic for low-budget travellers in developed countries in particular (for instance in Europe) since safe and convenient camp grounds are easier to find.

In the developing world you are sometimes able to find places where you can hang up a hammock or use one provided. This is most common in Latin America.

Neither of these are widespread enough to rely on fully, so you will probably have to pay for regular accommodation as well. But it’s a good way to shave off some dollars when the option is there.

Got enough room in your budget for hostels? Then leave tents/hammocks/etc. at home and travel light!

3. Cook your own food

Hostels often have kitchen facilities that you can use to cook your own meals. Better yet: offer to cook for a few other travellers and get them to chip in for the groceries.

The more developed or expensive a country is, the more likely hostels are to have kitchens. It’s rare to find kitchens in South-East Asia for instance as street food is so affordable there, but kitchens are more common in Europe and Latin America.

4. Do your own laundry

In developing countries laundry will typically cost only a few dollars, so here it may not be worth bothering with washing it yourself. But in more expensive countries, laundry costs can quickly add up. (Recently in Costa Rica I was billed $9 USD for just 1 kilo!)

Bring a universal plug stopper, some travel-size washing powder and a clothes line to wash your own clothes.

5. Avoid tours and travel independently

Tours are convenient. Often you are picked up and dropped off at the exact right spot, you will be guided along the sights, and you save yourself a ton of research. But it comes at a price.

Going to sights independently takes a bit more time but can save a lot of money. Find out if you can take local buses to your destination, whether hiking trails are marked (not requiring a guide), or if you can book tickets at the source rather than through an agency.

6. Repair anything that is broken

Clothes are typically very inexpensive, particularly in developing countries, but the low-budget traveller may want to bring a sewing kit (or at least needle and thread) to make repairs.

Usually flip flops break at the point where the peg connects to the sole; you can extend the life of a flop flop by using superglue or a paper clip.

And there are many other things you can repair instead of replace immediately. If you are on a shoestring budget, consider bringing the following items with you:

  • Duct tape
  • Plastic straps
  • Sewing kit
  • Superglue

7. Refill water bottles

Tap water isn’t safe in many countries, which means you will often be buying bottled water every day. Some hostels offer free refills from a water cooler. This is not always clearly advertised so look around. Every refill is a dollar or two saved.

8. Buy groceries from the source

Get bread straight from the bakery and buy your fruit at the market: you will be able to piece together a breakfast or lunch for far less money than buying a prepared meal.

Someone I recently met in Nicaragua saved a lot of money by asking around where fruit trucks passed by in the mornings; he was able to buy fruit at wholesale price from the local farmers.

9. Save up food for later

A while ago I was eating at a communal hostel buffet in Guatemala where one guy–having already eaten a plate fully stacked with food–went in for seconds with another giant pile. I was puzzled as to how this skinny man was possibly going to eat that much, but then came out the plastic Tupperware box… turns out he was merely storing some food for later.

Use the good old doggy-bag technique to cut down on your food expenses.

10. Take it easy on the alcohol

It’s easy to spend a lot of money on alcohol while travelling. Counter-intuitively, it’s actually the places where alcohol is cheap that you may end up spending the most. When beers cost only a dollar, it’s tempting to go overboard with the partying! Ration your alcohol and you will be able to travel longer on a tight budget.

11. Use local transportation

Tourist minivans and buses are much more expensive than local transportation options. It may be more difficult to figure out the local system, but it’ll be far less expensive.

For instance, in Latin American countries, look for collectivos (small vans) or chicken buses (converted US school buses). These can cost as little as 10% of what agencies and hostels charge for tourist minivans.

12. Speak the language

Knowing how to speak the local language will often get you better prices, and will aid you enormously when haggling with salespeople. I wrote about language learning here.

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4 comments

  1. Agness Reply March 18, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Great tips! I can totally relate to it. In Vietnam, we cooked our own food when visiting various budget hostels and we packed the leftovers in small bags and food containers. As it turned out, we saved up to $50 a month this way! (a person). As for the couchsurfing, it’s not that cheap as we all think. If you are kind and polite as us,you buy a small gift for your host and treat him/her with a nice dinner and at the end of the day you might spend more than you would when booking a hostel room.

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply March 18, 2014 at 2:30 am

      That’s a great point about Couchsurfing. I haven’t surfed yet, but I hosted a few times — I did not get anything like a dinner but maybe my guests were not as polite (or they thought I wasn’t deserving enough ;). CouchSurfing seems most useful in developed countries–for instance in places where a hostel dorm bed might cost $15-20.

      • Lee Yingho Reply February 4, 2015 at 9:19 am

        Its typically the asian travellers that have the habbit to bring some small gifts along. But either way, the couchsurfing philosophy is passing some kindness forward. You may receive the same hospitality you rendered when surfing next time!

  2. Charlie Reply March 11, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Gems of practical advice! I always stick to all of these because it makes travelling so affordable, and means you can travel for much longer.

    Also, it’s great staying with locals and eating food from the source so you know where it’s come from! I personally just enjoy living that way.

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