The last time you jumped on Instagram, you probably saw more than a few photos of people traveling the world, having unforgettable experiences and learning about new cultures. However, you don’t need to be a trust-fund baby or make millions in a tech start-up to enjoy some of traveling time! With a bit of research, some thriftiness and a whole lot of patience, seeing the world can be done on a very realistic budget. While you won’t be dining on herb-crusted steaks and drinking fine wines, you’ll still be able to experience a new culture, a new way of life and meet life-long friends. After all, isn’t that what traveling is all about?
Choose your countries wisely
To begin planning your trip, you’re going to have to first choose which countries you want to visit. As we’re all about keeping costs down, try to choose countries that are cheaper to travel in than others. For example, many countries in Westen Europe, such as France, Germany and Italy will be significantly more expensive than countries in South America (Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina) or South East Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia). Remember, you can always come back to see these more expensive countries when you are more financially stable.
At the same time, if you’re just dying to see the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican, these countries can still be visited during the off-season for a reasonable price. Not only are airline prices much cheaper, but many hostels, museums and other attractions will have a reduced price and shorter lines. And the best part about the off-season is no tourists!
Before I begin with this next piece of advice, I should start by saying that it may require a bit of patience to pull off. Not that I’m trying to bash budget airlines, but if you’re ok with a bit of an extra wait for layovers, processing delays and some strange food, then you may be able to save a ton of money. As this can be the most expensive part of the trip, finding ways to cut down on airline costs can make or break a trip.
Compared to more established airlines like American Airlines or Air France, companies like Norwegian Airlines and WOW Air offer much more affordable ticket prices. For example, just May of last year, I snagged a $380 round trip ticket from Norwegian Airlines from LA to Paris. While I had a long layover in Iceland, it gave me a chance to explore a city for a few hours that I never thought I’d see in my life (it turns out Reykjavik has some pretty cool Viking history).
Hostels and Couchsurfing
Unless you’re planning on camping in the forest, which is totally doable if you have the right gear, you’re going to need a place to stay in the country of your choosing. While Airbnb has become a popular option for travelers in the past decade, there are a couple of ways to find cheaper housing, possibly even free.
Almost any city that has even a small tourist population will likely have a hostel or two. If you’re unfamiliar with what a hostel is, it’s basically a hotel for budget travelers like yourself! You’ll often find them filled with students and young adventurers looking to meet new people. Hostels usually consist of a few dormitory-style rooms that fit 4-12 people, a few private rooms, a community hall for socializing and a kitchen or dining hall. Because of your close proximity to other travelers, it can be a great way to meet new people that are also looking to socialize.
Another way to find housing on a budget is through a wonderful platform called Couchsurfing. Essentially, Couchsurfing is an online community of travelers and hosts looking to connect and arrange for a mutually beneficial stay. Often times, the host is looking to experience different cultures but is stuck in a job or other responsibilities. Therefore, by hosting other travelers, they can still enjoy the experience of meeting new people and learning new things without having to take an extended trip.
On that note, while you won’t have to pay your host for the stay, you should make some effort to include them on an adventure or two or show your appreciation by cooking them a traditional dish from your home country. I’ve personally had many great experiences using Couchsurfing, and with the right care and planning, I would highly suggest others to use it as well. At the same time, whether you’re staying at a hostel or with a Couchsurfing host, make sure to buy a combination lock for your suitcase to secure your valuables.
Avoid sit down restaurants
While this may seem like common sense, do your best to avoid any sit-down restaurants. Just like at home, these will be much more expensive and usually cater to the tourist crowd. Instead, opt for street food in the local marketplace! Not only is this always a more affordable option, but it’s most likely what the locals will be eating as well. I’ve found that much of a country’s traditional cuisine can actually be found on the street!
As delicious as these foods can be, they also present the danger of food poisoning and foreign diseases. Outdoor food stalls are relatively unregulated and can be rather uncleanly at times. As a rule of thumb, only eat foods that are fully cooked right in front of you, always carry around your own sealed water bottle, and never eat fruit or salad if you are suspicious about the water quality. Keep in mind that many countries will serve iced smoothies and coffees during the warmer months, which can contain water-borne bacteria. When in doubt, follow the local crowd around and find street food stalls with the longest lines. Making the effort to boost your digestive system with probiotics before your trip can also be a smart move!
Budget buses and hitchhiking
Another major cost to consider while traveling is transportation. After staying a couple of days in the big city, you’ll likely want to visit new areas, regions and potentially different countries while on your voyage and these costs can quickly add up. Instead of paying an Uber or booking another plane ticket, you should definitely first look into long-distance buses. Most countries have a budget bus system like Flixbus or Megabus, which can be much more affordable than the train or plane. Many of these bus companies will even take you between countries for a fraction of the normal price. Keep in mind, it may be a bit crowded on the bus, WiFi may not work and it will take a lot longer to reach your destination. But if you’re fine with all that, budget buses may be for you.
However, if you’re looking for a real Jack Kerouac style adventure, you can always consider hitchhiking. To help secure a ride, make a sign with your intended destination, walk to a wide and clearly marked pull-out zone for cars to stop and stick out your thumb. Make sure you are wearing your cleanest clothing and look relatively harmless and friendly. Smiling at approaching drivers can go a long way!
While I acknowledge the risks hitchhiking can bring, there are also a few ways you can keep yourself safe while hitchhiking. First, always remember that you don’t have to take the ride. If the person offering you a ride seems a bit sketchy, simply inform them you will pass on the ride and wish them a pleasant day. Also, make sure that your hitching spot is well lit and is clearly visible by others. For more advice on how to successfully hitchhike, click here.
Avoid gift shops
During your travels, it will be tempting to buy some souvenirs for your friends and family back home. However, this is where many tourists are horribly ripped off and end up paying much more for a simple gift than they could have. My advice: seek out your local street market and purchase all your souvenirs here! Not only will they be cheaper, but in my experience, it’s actually much easier to haggle in a street market than it is in a gift shop near the city center. You’ll find that some items are being charged 3-4 times their normal price in these gift shops, compared to a local street vendor.
Free community classes
While you might have to pass on some of the more expensive museums, churches and touristic excursions, that doesn’t mean you have to spend your whole day sitting in a cafe sipping on the same 1 euro espresso. Many hostels and local organizations host free community events and classes like yoga, cooking and other traditional arts and activities. This can be a great way to meet locals, practice conversing in their language and learn a new skill without paying a single cent!
You’ll also find that interacting with people in this way can open new doors to experiences you never thought you would have. For example, the last time I took a free yoga class in Istanbul, Turkey, I was invited back to the instructor’s home to have an unforgettable and delicious dinner with his family! While seeking out these free classes may involve some research (try Craigslist if it exists in the country in question), it will be well worth the experiences you will have.
So what happens when you’re running low on money and you need to find a way to feed yourself for a couple of days? Look to your skills! One of the best ways to earn a small bit of cash as a traveler is by busking. Busking is the traveler’s term for playing music on the street for money. Although you’re going to have to learn a couple of songs first, all you need is an instrument and a nice public location with plenty of tourists. The best spots are near monuments, museums and near shopping malls. Try to choose songs that are well-known and people can sing to, as this will help catch their ears, and if you’re lucky, their wallets. While busking won’t earn you enough to sustain yourself long-term, it can be a great way to scrounge up some food and drink money.
Traveling while you’re young can be one of the best decisions you can make in life. As you grow older, your tolerance for long bus rides, inconvenient layovers and suspicious street food may decrease, so take advantage of your flexibility and youthful carelessness while you can. However, if there is one investment you should make before embarking on an international voyage, it’s buying travel insurance, which will protect you should you lose your passport, have a medical emergency and other unforeseen circumstances. If you have any other travel tips to share, please feel free to let us know in the comment section below. Bon voyage!