Many people are justifiably concerned about the cost of travel. With airlines piling fees upon travelers and the world economy in a questionable state, it is only logical that everyone is looking at their wallets and wondering if there is really enough in there for traveling. But there are ways to travel on a budget!
Aaron and I are not rich; we do not have a huge nest egg that we dip into every time we get the itch to travel; we certainly did not make millions off of the stock market; we do not skip on paying bills at home in order to travel.
Our latest trip was a week spent snorkeling, swimming, and soaking up sun in the Dominican Republic. It cost us $88 a day….and that was one of our more expensive daily budgets!
So how do we do it? Well, one way we do it is we live cheap while in country. Here are our favorite tips for traveling on a budget. All of the following can be applied to individuals, couples, or people traveling with children.
1. Travel to a place with a lower cost of living than where you currently live. A couple of years ago my landlord asked me if I could vacate my apartment over the summer so that they could do some renovations. I agreed and once I crunched some numbers I realized that a 3 month trip to India would end up being FAR cheaper than staying in NYC and subletting a place for the same amount of time! I packed my bags, took an unpaid internship with UNICEF, booked a side trip to Nepal, and spent the summer learning what “monsoon” really means. I spent less than half of what I would have spent in NYC, including airfare, and had a far more enriching experience than I would have if I had stayed home. If you travel somewhere with a lower cost of living than you are used to you will reap the financial benefits. You have to pay some amount of money for food, transportation, and entertainment no matter where you are so if you can choose a destination that charges less for these things, you will feel a whole lot better about the cost of your trip.
2. Pack less. Besides just being a good idea in general, packing less just might save you money in fees charged by airlines for checked or overweight bags. Packing less also affords you more transportation options. For example, when you arrive at your destination you may have the option of public (bus) or private (taxi) transportation to your hotel. Having less baggage allows you the option of choosing between a variety options rather than being forced into the more expensive option by your baggage. Besides, do you really think you are going to need 5 pairs of shoes on your 2 week trip? Pack less.
3. Redefine Luxury. We have spent many a day feasting on fresh mango and many a night falling asleep to the rhythmic sound of the ocean. The stars in Costa Rica are incredible and the feasts to be had in India are amazing. Snorkeling with sea turtles in Mexico is an experience worth having. We have experienced all of these things and more without breaking our bank. Luxury does not have one single definition; luxury is customizable! You do not have to stay in a resort to come up with your own definition of luxury. Does falling asleep in a hammock on a sunny afternoon while you listen to the waves crash sound luxurious to you? You can do that for free on most beaches in Costa Rica. Does sipping a mixed drink on the beach after a day snorkeling with wild sea turtles sound perfect? You can do this for the cost of the drink (about $3) in Mexico. How about hour long massages and facials for two? $20 total cost in Varanasi, India. Stop chasing the idea of what luxury is “supposed” to be and decide what it looks like to you…. for less
4. Re-educate yourself on “needs” and “wants”. Remember when your mom explained the difference between a “need” and a “want” in an effort to get you to stop asking for lots of crap every time she took you to the grocery store? Go back to that lesson. It’s important for traveling on the cheap. “Needs” are those things that are truly necessary for your survival, safety, sanity, exploration of a new culture, and basic happiness while traveling. “Wants” are money suckers and should be kept to a minimum. You do not necessarily need to deprive yourself of all comfort, but you also do not “need” half of the stuff you think you do. If you are visiting Mumbai in July, do you really need to pay $10 extra per night for a room with a hot water shower? Probably not. Everyone has different “needs” and “wants” but almost everyone can cut their list of “needs” by at least half.
5. Eat like the locals do. This is a good idea anyway since eating the way locals do is far more likely to enhance your cultural experience than seeking out the nearest cheeseburger. With the exception of the occasional bout of Delhi Belly, we have not had any real problems eating local food. By taking some basic food precautions, you can safely enjoy samosas in India, tostadas in Mexico, and momos in Nepal. Remind yourself that you (and your kids) do not actually need McDonald’s, imported cheese, wine, macaroni and cheese, “real” bread, American candy bars, or ice cream. Food you are familiar with is usually imported and if you are traveling on a tight budget, imported things are likely to be outside of that budget. The longer you travel, the more acceptable it is to indulge every now and then (budget wise and sanity wise). But for shorter trips? The mac and cheese will be waiting when you get back. Eat local.
6. Travel overland. Flying is never cheaper than taking the bus or the train. There are instances where flying makes sense but for budget purposes you really should travel overland as much as possible. As an added bonus you will see even more of the country you are visiting. One of my favorite ways to travel in India is by train. It is fast, efficient, and I get to see places in the countryside that would otherwise be very difficult to get to.
7. Travel for longer. Believe it or not, traveling for longer can actually lower the average daily budget of your trip. Not everyone has this luxury but if you do you can expect to find better deals on most things- lodging in particular. Rather than spend $25 a night on an inexpensive hotel room in Costa Rica ($750/month), you could rent a room, apartment, or house for a few hundred dollars a month. That’s a big difference. Taking your time while traveling also allows you to become familiar with your surroundings and figure out exactly what things should cost. Everyone knows that tourists pay more. By slowing down and learning about the area you are traveling in you can reduce how often you pay more for various things.
8. Be honest about your budget restrictions. If shop keepers, hotel managers, and travel agents think you have money to burn, they will work to get you to burn it! Do not use your budget as a crutch but do be honest about your limitations. Likewise, do not ever feel pressured to spend money you do not have. Remember, you “need” very little. In some instances, we have been gifted free accommodation, gear, jewelry, meals, and information because we were honest about what we could or could not spend. You should not expect this but you should have a little faith that the universe provides in mysterious ways when you fess up to you are honest with yourself and others about what you budget limitations are.
9. Stop buying so many souvenirs. I know that it is tempting and I know that the store keepers are really, REALLY good at making you feel like you need a third statue of Ganesha, but you don’t. Additionally, your niece absolutely does not need that t-shirt that exclaims “someone who loves me very much went to Switzerland!” Your experience will not be made up of things and you do not need to bring things home to remember your trip. It is a proven fact that most souvenirs bought for others end up in the bottom of toy chests, closets, and junk drawers. The cost of all that stuff adds up. Stop buying it. At the very least, limit yourself to ONE THING and spend the rest of your time taking pictures of the moments you want to remember.
10. Give yourself a “wiggle day” on each end of your trip. Why? Because sometimes airlines overbook their flights and need a few people to give up their seats. I have volunteered several times and have been rewarded with meals, a free night in a hotel, and (most importantly) travel vouchers for future travel. Having a “wiggle day” where you are not obligated to go to work or school means you are more likely to be the volunteer the airline needs. Most recently, Aaron and I used vouchers given to us for volunteering our seats in Costa Rica to fly to take that trip to the Dominican Republic. Since we used vouchers for the flight, our entire trip to the DR cost us a total of $616.