So throughout my extensive traveling in the past few years (which you can read about here) I’ve always tried to save as much money as possible while maximizing the different experiences and opportunities I have while abroad. Naturally, it’s led to certain cost cuttings here and there, and some of these strategies worked well and some didn’t. I wanted to share with you my experiences to help plan an amazing budget friendly travel experience!
So without further ado, let’s get into it!
1. Budgeting (Or Even Just a Sizing)
Ok come on, you had to see this one coming. I can’t stress how important it is to budget appropriately and I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t budget that well either. The BARE minimum you should aim for is to estimate how much your trip will cost. For example this summer, I traveled for two months going to Rwanda, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. Before I booked this trip I did some basic estimations to see would this trip be feasible. To do this estimation these are the key things I look out for. *Note daily budgets will change depending on what city/country you are traveling in.
For the sake of consistency let’s assume we are planning a 10 day trip to Italy from NY (this is actually a trip I am planning for May).
- Flights: ~$600/700 (Below I’ll give you some tips on finding cheaper flights!)
- Housing: ~$15-$25 per night depending on the city. With my group we are Airbnbing, but for solo travelers/ 1-3 party groups you can find great deals in Hostels (see below)
- Food: $25-$30/day
- Extra Fun Activities: $25/day
- Safety/ Any Miscellaneous Expenses: $200
All in all, I am expecting this trip to cost me ~$1,600. This is a bit pricey but there’s tons of ways you could easily lower this. For example, if your budget is much smaller don’t try to go somewhere far away like NY to Italy go somewhere closeby like NY to Toronto to save significantly on Airfare. Another easy way to stretch a budget is go to an area that has a lower cost of living such as South East Asia. In Thailand you can eat like a king for less than $10-$15 per day if you go to local eateries. There’s also a ton of other things you can do like purchase flights using credit card points like I did, saving me from paying the $600 out of pocket. Not only that I’ve been planning this trip 5 months before I actually go. So every month I’ve been putting away $200 for this trip so that it doesn’t seem like such a crazy expense.
2. Finding Cheap Flights and Cheap Housing
Naturally flights are usually 20%-30% of your entire cost when you go traveling. I always try to find the cheapest flights possible which might mean taking a 1/2 extra stop flight to save a few hundred bucks. My biggest tips is to use aggregator sites like www.skyscanner.com, these sites are amazing at finding you the best deals possible. One important tip for using skyscanner is take advantage of their monthly search option. If you are someone with a flexible traveling schedule (I.E. a student on break or a full time employee) why should you pay $100-$200 more to leave on a Friday than a Wednesday. Or maybe you can go a week later or earlier to save even more money. The monthly search isn’t always updated 100% but it gives you a good indicator of when you should go.
My last advice about flights is that always TRIPLE CHECK before you make any final purchases. Don’t ever book anything in a rush! I’ve done this before and accidentally ended up with a 2am flight instead of a 2PM flight which led to a really tired day and paying extra for housing I didn’t actually need.
For budget travelers like us, chances are we are going to take the cheapest fare possible which means no refunds if anything happens. For example, if you are taking a multi stop flight because it’s cheaper, make sure layovers are at least 2 hours in between. Missing a connecting flight and being stranded is a horrible feeling and can up your overall expenses as you might have to book a different flight and be stranded in an overpriced airport.
Of course mistakes happen, and there are a few ways to mitigate things. If you catch a mistake early immediately contact the airline. Some airlines have a 24hr grace period to let you get refunds or at least change your flight details (budget airlines like AirAsia, Ryan Air, etc are more strict and may make you buy a new ticket). One important thing I do is use a credit card with good travel insurance. I personally use Chase Sapphire Preferred as it has great points for travel and travel insurance. If you want to learn more check out this great review from Nerdwallet here.
Travel insurance doesn’t protect you from everything, but it can be a lifesaver. For example, when I first traveled to Singapore my bags were delayed till the next day which meant I had to buy all new toiletries and clothing if I didn’t want to sleep in my own filth that night. Being my first time traveling, I didn’t know about travel insurance so I had to pay out of pocket over $50. Had I booked the flight with my Chase card, I would’ve been able to file for travel insurance saving me from paying that $50 out of pocket. If this is something you are interested in consider signing up through my referral link here! The card is definitely a great starter travel card and like I mentioned, I booked my Italy flights mainly through the point bonus I got from the card.
In terms of housing, you need to sleep somewhere, BUT THAT’S REALLY IT. If you are on a tight budget go for hostels which you can find here at www.hostelworld.com. Hostels are a great place to meet fellow travelers and learn about new cities from local employees/ travelers who have been there a bit longer than you. It’s also a great resource to help you estimate the cost of housing for the dates you would go. Try to stick to hostels that have a rating of 8+ and you will find that the housing is pretty reasonable in most cities. I’ve usually paid $15-$25/ night at amazing hostels depending on the city I am in. I also try to stick to hostels that are in the city center of where I am going. Of Course you could save a bit by going further out of a city, but then you have to pay extra for transportation and it might make it difficult to go to different attractions. Before booking I will read extensively the reviews of a place to see what other people thought of the cleanliness, location, and amenities.
Below are some of my past bookings, if you look them up yourself I’m sure you’ll find they all had stellar reviews for reasonable prices!
Of course be smart about your time in a hostel. Most hostels have lockers so you can place important/expensive items in there when not in use, but generally try to keep your valuables with you at all times. Also Hostels are one of the few places where you’re surrounded by foreign travelers. Make some friends, or at the bare minimum network with these fellow travelers to learn about great restaurants and local attractions!
3. Research in Advance to Keep Expenses Low
I’m guilty of not following this rule as much as I should, but without a doubt prior research is vital if you want to maximize your budget.
Food (My Favorite):
One of the most important parts of traveling is eating like a local. Don’t be like my parents who go to new countries and stick to eating Korean food, you need to explore and eat like the locals when possible. The local food is often the best that’s offered and incredibly cheap. When I was in Thailand, I would feast on authentic pad thais for a few dollars. Normally you have to pay ~$10 at a thai restaurant in the US to get the same food.
Another great thing to do is try the city specific dishes whenever you can. For example, when we were in Japan every city we went to we tried their local specialties. A great example was Hiroshima Okonomiyaki vs Osaka Okonomiyaki, they were both incredible and it was fascinating seeing two dishes being so different from each other in the same country.
Do your research to ensure you are eating the areas specialties! Also pro tip, many lower quality restaurants will know that you are looking for that specialty. Don’t assume that every restaurant does it well, do your own research (IE Tripadvisor Reviews) to make sure the quality is up to standards. When I was in Valencia (the home of Spanish Paella), I had some AMAZING ones and some very mediocre ones because I didn’t check the reviews first.
In terms of budget, my budget for food always depends on the country I am in. When I travel in Europe I assume at least $25-$35 per day budget, (breakfast is usually free at European Hostels, $10-$15 for lunch, $15-$20 for dinner). For cheaper countries like Thailand, you could easily live off of $10-$20 of food per day. Do some googling and try to estimate how much your food costs will be for the country you are in.
Just a caveat, I like food so I budget more than most people. If you really wanted to, you could survive on much less. For example, when I was in Paris you could get tasty ham and cheese sandwiches for ~$3. Is this healthy for you, no. Is it CHEAP, Yes. If you had those sandwiches for lunch everyday, all of a sudden your food budget in Paris might be $20 per day instead of $35. It all depends on your needs.
Everyday Experience Expenses:
Naturally a big part of traveling is understanding what you are doing there. There’s no point in going to Europe if you just do the same things you could do back home. While there are plenty of free experiences like walking tours of famous cities, many of the unique experiences will require money. For example, famous museums like the louvre, visiting the Colosseum in Rome, or seeing a live flamenco show in Spain these, all require money. I try to budget around $20-$25 per day for experiences like these and I’ll count the transportation to these events into this budget.
My go to resource is trip advisor. If you have no idea what to do, go through the top 10 sites in Trip Advisor and pick the sites/activities that interest you most! Tripadvisor is also an amazing tool as you can download offline guides of a city so you are never lost even without internet. In addition, I’ve found the reviews in Tripadvisor to be so important. They will often contain useful tips on the attraction like when to avoid huge lines.
Over the top expenses:
Every now and then there is an experience that you know YOU HAVE TO GO. These are the type of experiences that you truly can’t experience anywhere else and often come with a large price tag. For example when I was in Rwanda, there is an incredible safari national park you can visit but it costed around $80-$100. In Japan, I tried Kobe Beef in Kobe which is without a doubt the best beef in the world and it costed around $120. In Korea, I got to go into the DMZ and stand in North Korean territory, and this costed around $80-$100.
If you really want to fit these expenses in, budget for it and RESEARCH! If you’re going to spend this big amount of money make sure you’re spending it properly. For example, going into the DMZ in Korea had a variety of different companies offering the same service. I chose our company because it allowed us a package deal to go see North Korean attack tunnels in South Korea, and they had a North Korean defector talk about her life. These extra tidbits made the experience so much better and worth the large price tag.
Of course don’t overdo it with these expenses. I try to cap it at around $100-$200 per country that I am in. Sure it would have been nice to go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda….. but that costs $1,500 which is way above what I could afford so I skipped it. Who knows, once I make a ton of money maybe I’ll come back to it 😉
4. Avoid Common Pitfalls of Budget Travelers
Outside of the big ticket expenses there are a few things you have to keep in mind while planning your next trip.
- Traveling in Peak Seasons: I get it, you really want to go to XYZ country and your only opportunity is during summer break or certain holidays. Guess what, there are thousands of people in the same boat which is why certain months tourists flock en masse to countries. This results in higher airfare prices, housing prices, and just an overall decreased experience. I’m guilty of this too since I was a student most of my traveling and I paid a big price sometimes. For example, I spent New Years in Amsterdam, which was great, except for the fact a bed at a hostel during that time costed $60 per night. Normally that same bed would cost $15-$20. Of Course you can take advantage of certain holidays, especially New Years and Christmas, by getting flights on those days, but that’s a topic for another time. Point being, if you can try to avoid the crowd and travel during the off season like Fall. Your trip will probably benefit from the cooler weather and less crowded tourist experiences.
- Restaurants in Tourist Spots: I can’t stress this one enough. In all my travels the biggest waste of money is usually the restaurants with nice views in a tourist hotspot. For example, beachfront restaurants. Sure its super convenient if you just came off the beach but walking a few more minutes inland will get you much better deals. Think about it, the beachfront property has to pay a crazy rent to keep their land compared to the restaurant a few blocks inland. Who’s going to charge more for the same quality of food? Same logic applies for any restaurant in a crowded area. Chances are you can find a better deal away from crowded spots. If you absolutely must eat at a tourist spot, check reviews before sitting down in any restaurant.
- If It’s Too Good To Be True, RUN: This is another super important life lesson that people underestimate. Tourists are by far one of the easiest people to scam. You’re in a foreign country with money to blow and scammers know that. I could spend hours talking about scams but the easier thing would be for you to just literally google “[Country Name] common scams.” For example the first link when I look up Thailand common scams is this http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-thailand. Looking through that link, I’ve first hand seen every one of the scams and I’ve almost fallen for a couple. For example, the 8th scam on the list Tuk Tuk scam, we were approached by POLICE officers who offered to help us get around by getting us a great deal on Tuk Tuks. Midway through the “free tour” my friends and I realized this was a scam so we bailed on the Tuk Tuk driver before he could drag us to these “special discount stores.”
- Don’t Be Too Frugal: This is going to sound weird given I just wrote a whole article about being frugal, but as sad it is expensive things are USUALLY expensive for a reason. Yes you can save money with a hostel outside the city, but do you really want to spend an extra two hours traveling every day in a country that you are only in for 3 days? Along that line, don’t pick the poorly rated hostel to save money. You could have your stuff robbed, end up in a bad neighborhood, or have cleanliness issues like bedbugs. Same with the food. Like I mentioned, yeah you could go to a country and eat handmade PB&Js all day to maximize savings, but do you really want to do that? In a 3 day trip, you only have 9 meals to try exciting local dishes, don’t waste this chance.
5. ENJOY! You Deserve It
Congratulations, you made it. After months of planning and saving you finally came to a country you had been dreaming about. This opportunity doesn’t come often so do as much as you can! As corny as it sounds, I do truly believe traveling is one of the few things that you spend money on but actually makes you richer. It opens your mind, creates lasting stories to tell, and brings a smile to my face whenever I think fondly about an adventure I had.
So go out and see the world! Sure you might not be able to do EVERYTHING because we are on a budget, but you can always come back. Do as much as you can with your available resources and remember there’s always another adventure waiting for you!