I’m a Traveler on a Budget — Not a Budget Traveler
Here’s a list of things I’m not willing to do to save money when I travel: carry my own bedding, eat out of a can, share a room with strangers, sleep in an airport, and/or take long, uncomfortable bus rides when there’s a faster, more convenient option.
Here are some things I always try to do: limit my packing to a carry-on, stay in a semi-residential or non-central neighborhood, avoid taxis, take public transport to and from the airport, and have access to a kitchen.
The first list includes things one might associate with budget travel; the second with someone on a budget. Contrary to popular belief, there’s a big difference.
After two years of living a “one bag life” as a digital nomad, I’ve learned a thing or two about saving money on the road. These days, though I’m less peripatetic in my movements, I still take advantage of the freelancer’s ability work while traveling, allowing me to travel more frequently and for longer periods. But often, when I tell people I’m going to Japan for three weeks to travel and work, I sense confusion. I see them trying to calculate just how, exactly, a freelance writer affords this. Do I have a rich benefactor? Am I going into major credit card debt? Am I a sponsored luxury lifestyle blogger getting paid to hawk products on Instagram? (Ha! I wish.)
The answer is none of the above, but I understand the confusion. For many people, travel is synonymous with one thing: lots of money. And to be fair, as the plight of those desperately crossing the Mediterranean reminds us, moving freely around the world does indeed denote immense privilege. Moving freely for purposes of leisure, even more so. But it doesn’t necessarily denote luxury. Thanks to the internet and the failure of the conventional travel industry to thwart the inevitable, it is my belief we currently live in the golden age of traveling on a budget without being a budget traveler.
Ask someone what they’re looking for when they travel and it’s likely they’ll utter that fairly meaningless word: authenticity. While it’s hard to define exactly what that is, I’m quite certain that spending a lot of money is the least effective way to have a trip that resembles it. You can hardly judge the friendliness of a place by the attitude of your four-star hotel concierge; he is, after all, paid to like you.
The nomad lifestyle — romanticized as it may now be by tech bro bloggers in Bali — is really about traveling better, for longer. Here are some ways to do that without going into debt.
Flights: A nomad’s greatest asset is booking flexibility and fare alerts. When you don’t have a strict time frame within which you must depart and return, you can spend a lot of time figuring out if a Wednesday at the end of May or a Monday at the beginning of June is going to give you the best fare. Start planning your trip early and set up fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog, Hipmunk, Skyscanner, or Kayak to see how the price fluctuates over a seven- to ten-day period. And remember, booking super far in advance doesn’t always mean it’ll be cheaper. Kayak’s Travel Hacker global page will give you data-based guess of what is the best window to book within. Furthermore, if your credit is good, you can also leverage credit card signups for mileage bonuses.
Packing light helps here. Not only do you save on baggage fees, it’s a hell of a lot easier to opt for the metro rather than a taxi after a long flight when you’re not lugging a heavy suitcase. Laundry exists everywhere, so there’s really no need to pack more than one week’s worth of clothes.
Choose your location wisely: There are people in every city you could name living on a budget — by extension, you too can budget travel anywhere on earth. However, vast global income inequality means it’s far easier to do that in certain countries. In Vietnam, you might eat the best meal of your life for the price of a bodega coffee back home. Though travel in a developing country takes more energy and involves more uncertainty, the bang for your buck is often tremendous. Being a bit more adventurous in your travel destinations will often mean you have a lot more money to spend. Just make sure you’re not spending money like a well-salaried expat in said places, because then you’ll really go broke.
Accommodation: The single biggest expense of travel is often accommodation. Once you’ve aged past making small talk in hostels with people in hemp bracelets and convertible trousers, choosing Airbnb over a hotel is a no brainer. However, many people don’t realize that there is a huge amount of variability in the quality and price of offerings on Airbnb. So while a $200 dollar a night, two bedroom, light-filled loft in Le Marais is certainly a bargain compared to a Parisian hotel, it’s not exactly realistic for a longer trip. Searching the “private room” option is a best bet and will result in a something like an adult hostel (cost varies widely, but can very often be in the range of $30-$40 dollars a night in Europe and $20-$30 in Asia). You’ll have privacy, but also the benefit of a local host, which is the quickest and most efficient way to get insider knowledge without going anywhere near a guidebook.
Staying in residential neighborhoods is not only a way to spend less money (bars that overcharge for beer or serve $12 mojitos are nowhere to be found), it’s also a much better way to get a feel for a new place (pro-tip: get up early). Just make sure the listing is public transport-adjacent and provides linens, internet, and access to a kitchen. Good reviews are a plus, especially if you’re picky about cleanliness, but if you want to drive a hard bargain, ask the host for a discount if you’re booking a listing without any reviews. Many hosts also offer deals if you book for a full seven days, so be sure to ask that too.
Food: Eating well is always my priority on the road, but eating out three times a day is the quickest way to go flat broke. So first, make sure you have access to a kitchen. Stock up on breakfast basics like coffee, fruit, and bread from a local grocery store. Aim to eat one meal out per day so you can eat all the things without spending all your money.
Pay attention to what (and where) locals are eating. In Japan, a bowl of ramen might cost you 600 yen ($6), while your normal Starbucks latte order at the chain’s world-famous Shibuya outlet will cost you about the same. In Paris you might spend 12 euro on a limp salad, or you can spend 2 euro on the best ham and cheese baguette you’ve ever encountered. Why? Because people don’t really eat salad in France, and Starbucks in Japan is a luxury item. Indeed, being rigid with your dietary habits is the quickest way to overspend when traveling. Don’t eat like you eat at home. Same goes for boozing, too; if you’re drinking wine in Asia, you’re doing it wrong.
Don’t pay not to think: Tours and guided offerings are a big expense of travel, and often what you’re paying for on tours is the chance not to think for yourself. Research what the tour actually offers and ask yourself: Is access to this thing proprietary or can I just do this by myself? For example, if a winery tour in Santorini costs $75 per head but the actual wine tastings are free, why not just book a cab? If all you need to get into the temples at Angkor Wat is a ticket and a tuk tuk driver, why are you paying your hotel an additional $30 to take you there? Often times a little common sense coupled with a simple internet searches will save you lots.
In all fairness, there’s a vital component that makes this style of travel possible: time. If you only have two weeks off a year, it’s completely reasonable to spend more to minimize the friction and admin of daily life. That’s not a better or worse way to travel, it’s just one with a different goal.
But traveling on a budget is, in many ways, similar to spending money as you would at home. Being more conscious of what’s a good deal and finding out what locals expect to pay for things is a good mindset. And if you are willing to put in a little more time and effort, the rewards can be endless.
Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist loosely based in London. Her writing appears in the Guardian, Lucky Peach, Fusion, WSJ Expat, Sierra, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @rojospinks.