How to Travel on a Budget

Assuming you have completed all the steps in Save Money and Travel the World you are probably pretty pleased with yourself, and rightly so. You’ve streamlined your lifestyle, built up enough assets to quit your regular job and have enough money saved to fund some serious long-term budget travel. In short, you’ve got the world by the tail. The question, then, becomes how to make this wonderful scenario last as long as possible? Well, the main trick is to travel efficiently. Obviously, the less you spend on your travels the longer your money will last. But that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to the world’s cheapest countries (we’re looking at you, India and Indonesia) and scour every destination for a $0.50 noodle stand or taco cart. You absolutely should, of course, but you shouldn’t have to.

Every trip is different and it is important to do some research into the costs you’re going to face. This way you’ll know how much accessible cash you need at any given time, plus it may help you decide on your route and destinations. Cost has often been the deciding factor for us when we’re choosing between two places that we want to see more or less equally. But wherever you end up going, there are plenty of different ways you can spend as little as possible.

Budget traveler resting on sand dune in Mongolia

Spending Less

First off, just because you quit your job and are taking travel seriously now doesn’t mean you have to be on the move the whole time. Personally, we return home for a few months every summer (Saskatchewan summers are great, the winters, well….) and a few weeks at Christmas. This serves multiple purposes:

  • Reconnect with family and friends
  • Enjoy that settled feeling of actually having a home
  • Make a little money occasionally
  • Get organized and outfitted for the next leg of our journey
  • Revel in the luxury of reliable, unlimited internet

Of course, there is no reason you have to follow the same pattern as us. But we do find that travelling so much means we appreciate home much more than we used to, and a lot of the things we previously took for granted (guaranteed hot water, knowing exactly where the nearest Dairy Queen is) now seem like wonderful, magical events. Plus, getting off the road for awhile helps you avoid travel fatigue – that general exhaustion that comes with moving all the time, combined with a deep-seated expectation that you will see or do something amazing every single day. When you find yourself wandering around the Red Fort in Delhi muttering about crowds and shaking your head about how much it pales in comparison to the island palace in Udaipur, well, maybe it’s time for a break.

Family farm in cheap travel destination Malawi

While you are on the road, however, there are many different strategies for making your cash stretch a bit further.

1. Book your rooms ahead

Yes, I know, we all want to be spontaneous, fly by the seat of our pants, let the day take us where it will, etc., etc. Except, do we really? There are definitely some free spirits out there who aren’t truly happy unless it’s 7 pm, they just started their first Vodka / Red Bull and still have absolutely no clue which dingy leftover hotel will be hosting them later that night. But usually travelling is way better when you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Sure, there have been lots of times when we thought it might be nice to change plans – stay a day or two longer or get the hell out immediately – but were hemmed in by pre-booked hotels or a train reservation or something like that. But those few tiny regrets are nothing compared to the prospect of disembarking from an 8-hour bus ride at 10 pm (the earlier bus was already booked up by the time we showed up unexpected, of course) and looking forward to an hour of wandering around trying to find a hotel that still has a few lights still on and hope that a) they have a room available, and b) that room isn’t infested with either bed bugs or dried semen.

The fact is, it’s just so easy to book rooms online these days, often with free cancellation, that everyone is doing it. So even if there are enough rooms to go around, as there usually are, if you don’t book something before you arrive you are usually going to get stuck with the worst one. The most expensive, the worst reviewed, the least conveniently located, the one with the most bathroom peepholes. Not worth it, in my opinion. And while hotel prices sometimes drop nearer to your stay, if you book with free cancellation you can always check back later and trade in for a better price. Or, some hotels offer better prices if you reserve non-refundable. Which one is better depends on the situation.

There are several excellent hotel booking sites out there, but these are the ones we primarily use:

Booking.com

AirBnB

HostelWorld

AirBnB used to be very specific and restrictive but options have increased exponentially and their process is much better now. We usually use a combination of Booking and AirBnB, occasionally checking the others when we aren’t with the options we’ve found on those.

2. Book your transportation ahead

Some of the same things apply here, at least as far as reservable seats and getting stuck next to the bathroom, or on the hump next to the mini-van driver, but mostly it’s just a cost thing. In Europe, especially, the earlier you book train, bus or plane tickets the cheaper they are. Each country has its own train system but we’ve found that FlixBus is a cheap and reliable way to get around by bus in Europe.

3. Stay in an apartment

Over the last few years we have become practically addicted to renting apartments whenever possible. Sometimes you can even find luxurious villas for a reasonable price like the one we booked in Penestanan. We love having our own kitchen because it means we don’t have to venture out in search of breakfast every morning and we have a fridge to save leftovers or stock up on snacks and lunches. We still eat out at least once or twice a day and, believe me, that is plenty of time spent staring at each other across a table waiting for our meal to show up with absolutely nothing to tell each other that the other person wasn’t there to see with their own eyes. Plus, in some places (i.e. North America, Western Europe) you can save a lot of money by eating in. We also like having a separate bedroom when we can so that I can stay up later without keeping Laynni up and she can get up to do her morning yoga without disturbing my minimally effective beauty sleep.

4. Stay longer

One undeniable travel fact is that the more you move, the more you spend. Besides the obvious transportation costs involved with getting from point A to points B, C and L, you often get better accommodation prices when you stay for a week or month. Also, the longer you stay in one place the more you learn about it, which can help you save money as well. Figuring out where the best grocery stores are, the best value restaurants, and piecing together the city metro system instead of taking taxis can all help keep your wallet from slimming down quite so quickly.

Rice paddies in budget travel location Bali

5. Use several different flight search sites

I used to foolishly think that all the major flight sites would track down the same options. Not the case. I don’t know if it has to do with varying algorithms or the fact that not every airline has agreements with all the different sites, but I have been surprised more than once to see something pop up on Skyscanner that didn’t show up on Google Flights, Kayak or Expedia, and vice versa. Flights are bound to be one of your largest expenditures, so it makes sense to take a little extra time and cover all your bases. Hopper is also a pretty interesting app that analyzes historical flight prices to make recommendations regarding when to buy. In practice, I think it works best on very popular routes as on some of the more obscure flights I’ve had it track it never found the best choice to start with. Once again, though, worth having a look.

6. Consider house-sitting

Housesitting, couch-surfing, home swaps and the like can all be excellent ways to minimize your travel spending. If you’re quite social and don’t feel weird about crashing in a stranger’s place for free then couch-surfing could be just what the bank account ordered. Home swaps require you to have a vacant and desirable property to offer on your end. Saskatoon is a beautiful city, just not from November to March, which is (not coincidentally) exactly when we like to be gone each year, so this has never worked for us. To be a house-sitter you need to sign up on one of the dedicated sites and establish some legitimacy before you manage to score any of the best gigs. Also, most of them involve looking after the pets left behind, so you may have to learn how to clean burrs out of a horse’s tail or take an Angora rabbit for a walk.

Affordable mountain hiking in Argentina

Practical Advice

Spend enough time on the road and eventually you learn all sorts of tricks and travel hacks that make life easier, save you money and help you make the most of your time in any given location. Most are best saved for discussions regarding more specific circumstances, but there are a few general ideas to consider that apply to almost every global nomad.

  • Research credit cards in your country that offer good exchange rates, low withdrawal fees, are widely accepted and, as an added bonus, also provide good travel benefits and reward programs.
  • Go paperless. From credit card statements to train tickets to the latest David Mitchell novel, the less paper you have to carry around, protect and hopelessly lose somewhere at the bottom of your backpack, the simpler your trip will feel. And e-readers are simply amazing. Save the trees and have a thousand books available at any given time, what’s not to like? And don’t say “that book smell” because you know that most books don’t really smell like anything, and the ones that do actually smell pretty bad.

  • Scan your passport, credit and bank cards, and any other important documents and email them to yourself (or however you prefer to keep them, as long as they are available via internet and aren’t only saved on your phone). While you still have to carry the originals in this case, it is both practical and reassuring knowing you have digital backups of all your most important stuff.

Evernote Scannable

  • Prepare your phone to be lost. If all goes well, this will be a complete waste of time. If all does not go well, however, you’ll be happy you locked it with a password, turned on “Find My Phone”, cleared all cookies and saved passwords and moved that video of you and your ex re-enacting the sex scene from Clan of the Cave Bear to your hard drive at home.

Cheap beach destination of Varkala in southern India

Insurance

Insurance is one of those things that everyone hates to buy. We want to think we’ll never need it, whether it’s car, home, health, or blackjack. But, let’s face it, insurance wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a decent chance of your car getting head-butted in the Walmart parking lot, or your house getting broken into, or your ankle getting literally caught between a rock and a hard place, or the dealer pulling 21 (say goodbye to your tip, Raymond). And, yes, the insurance companies know the probabilities far better than you ever could and whatever number they decide to charge you is carefully chosen to ensure they make money in the long run. But that’s just how business works, and you’ll be happy you’re insured if you’re unlucky enough to be on the next Mexican bus that zigs when it should have zagged, or when that coconut curry you loved so much in downtown Kathmandu leads to a gastrointestinal hospital stay.

The basic cornerstone of any travel insurance policy is Emergency Medical coverage. Most policies cover from 1 to 10 million and this is the part that kicks in when things go sideways on your trip and you need some serious medical attention, stat. Normally that is all we buy, although there are usually several other options to consider if they fit your situation.

Trip Cancellation covers you in case something comes up before you even make it out the door and might get you some deposits back and flights reimbursed if events beyond your control cause you to abort the journey. Trip Interruption serves the same purpose while you are in the midst. I have heard of people using these in situations where they may have to stay or return because of ill family members, or if they have plans to travel to volatile areas where the situation could dictate a change but, in most cases, they are probably unnecessary. Likewise, any Accidental Death and Dismemberment add-ons. Sure, rather than just covering expenses the policy will pay out a lump-sum if you die or are horribly maimed, but if leaving money behind is a priority there are much better life insurance options out there which should be discussed in detail with your financial advisor.

Hiker jumping over canyon in budget destination Morocco

Sometimes insurance can be useful…

Every country has its own variety of options that you can research but one of the most comprehensive and universal for international travellers is World Nomads, affiliated with Lonely Planet guidebooks. As far as I have been able to find, it is also the only one that will offer coverage once you are already abroad. More than once we’ve had a change of plans (or completely forgot to buy insurance) while outside Canada and it is the only one that didn’t require us to be physically in our home province at the time of issue.

Whichever company you choose, make sure you read the through at least the key points of the policy wording to ensure the following:

  • It covers every activity you expect to try on your trip
  • It doesn’t exclude you based on medical history or pre-existing conditions
  • The deductible isn’t overly high (I’m fine with $300 or less, since I probably wouldn’t bother with a claim for anything that small, anyway).

One final note on insurance, it is crucial to study up on your home coverage so you understand exactly what is covered by your provincial, state, national, employer or private health plan. That will help you choose the travel plan that best complements your existing coverage.

So, there you have it, everything I can think of to make your next trip as affordable and stress-free as possible. Wherever you decide to go, though, make sure you do some reading ahead of time to familiarize yourself with your upcoming destinations.

Further Reading

You should read some of our other “useful” posts such as 23 Ways the Coronavirus Will Change Travel, Save Money and Travel the World, Universal Packing List and Settling in for the Long Haul, then check out some of these excellent books on affordable travel and saving money: