Travel On A Dime
A diverse collection of tips for traveling cheaply
One of the questions I get asked the most is how I can afford to travel so often and to so many different places. The key is knowing what’s important to you, and what types of comforts and luxuries you’re willing to let go of for the opportunity to travel. There are trade-offs to these tips, but these are a few strategies I use to keep my budget tight.
Pack light so that you can use budget airlines without paying extra baggage fees. We all know that a 15 or 20 pound ryanair flight comes with the added cost of getting to and from a bunch of airports, as well as baggage. But if you pack right and bring just your backpack, you can save a bunch! The key for females is to bring a few pairs of leggings (the lightest type of pant), a few tshirts, two light decorative scarves and one or two light dresses. Bring solid, printless clothing that can easily be mixed and matched- so no one would know from your photos you’ve been wearing the same stuff but in different combinations all along!
Landing in foreign airports close to midnight and waking up at 5 am to catch a 7 or 8 am flight is no one’s favorite thing in the world, but you gotta give up some convenience to score major deals. Use websites/apps such as greatescape.co, skyscanner, scott’s cheap flights, google flights and Hopper to keep track of when the cheapest flights become available. If you can buy flights or trains as early as possible, they’ll be cheaper. Pick locations based on price, and be flexible with where you are traveling to. Be open to destinations that for whatever reason are cheap at the moment. We had no idea what to expect in Bilbao, but that was the cheapest flight for the weekend, and we fell in love! Also, consider overnight buses as modes of transport. The dual benefit is that you don’t have to pay for a hotel that night, and bus is usually the cheapest, albeit longest, option. If you’re traveling around Europe, use blablacar to connect with others for city to city travel. The convenience in taking a car is enormous, as you can coordinate with drivers on pickup locations and drop-offs, usually within walking distance of where you are staying! Plus, you get to meet others, often locals or people who commute often, who can give you some great tips on what to do at your next destination. Plus, the prices are unbeatable.
The right backpack:
This is the one area where I believe the payback is enormous on the investment. My fjallraven backpack makes me feel like I am Mary Poppins. Every time I think something might not fit, it somehow makes room. The shape makes the backpack appear inconspicuously smaller than it actually is. It doesn’t hurt my shoulders at all, no matter how heavy. It lasts a really long time, I’ve been using it for 2+ years now. And having a separate laptop compartment is key to quickly making it through airport security with easy laptop access.
Renew your university student ID card right before you graduate to maximize on student discounts. Almost every single museum or tourist attraction will have a student discount. I renewed my ID the week before I graduated, so the issue date is still 2017 and it looks brand new. I’ve got at least another 2 years before someone starts calling me out on it.
Stay in airbnbs slightly outside of the city center, but near a metro and that offer breakfast. Also, stay in hostels that offer breakfast and/or dinner. The key is to always pick a spot with breakfast, as that saves you a ton of time in the mornings. Use a site such as trustedhousesitters to find a place to stay for free in exchange for plant watering and dog watching.
I cannot emphasize enough that the best way to acquaint yourself with any new destination is to walk, walk and walk. Pre-plan your walking route using tips from lonelyplanet or nytime36hours guides to cut down on paid transportation and make sure you hit the places you want to hit in an orderly and timely manner. 9 times out of 10, avoid the hop on hop off buses at all costs, as those are sheer tourist traps. There are tons of amazing free walking tours in all city centers to take advantage of, or use Rick Steves free audio-guides, like having a tour guide right along-side you, but free! In my personal opinion, 90% of organized tours are not worth the money (i.e. pay a week for a group tour or adventure tour). For the same price, you could probably extend your vacation for twice the time. DIYing always saves $$$.
Buy snacks and beverages (alcohol included) from convenience and grocery stores for mini picnics and for snacking while walking around. Never eat in the tourist centers, always, at minimum, try to attempt to walk a few streets down. Prices change dramatically once you do. Also, be very attune to when happy hours and lunchtime deals occur in the city that you’re traveling in (snagged 1 pound tacos for taco tuesday below). Eat tons of street food. Often the yummiest food is street food and it’s quick, convenient and cheap! Bring a box of protein bars on long trips, especially to countries where you anticipate running into food problems, and one or two individual bars on short trips. The protein bars come in handy when you’re feeling incredibly peckish but know you won’t reach your food destination for another hour or two. Our usual cadence ends up being: breakfast at the airbnb/hostel, grocery store snacks throughout the day, a street food or picnic lunch, and a splurge dinner (or a splurge lunch and a quick street-food dinner). Always bring and carry a reusable water bottle, to be refilled at airports, train stations and even at bars and restaurants (just kindly ask for someone to fill it up with some tap water).
Stay light on souvenirs by purchasing only small items such as magnets or other small tokens. Make your own souvenirs by saving train tickets, entrance tickets or restaurant cards, and pinning them to a corkboard later at home, or printing your photos (the best mementos and keepsakes) and turning them into a scrapbook later. Shop around and compare prices, and don’t be afraid to haggle in countries where it is normal to do so. In Morocco, I was able to get over a 50% reduction in items right off the bat, just by knowing some basic French and not being afraid to walk away.
Have someone else, your university or your employer, cover the cost either partially or fully. When you study abroad, your university can help subsidize events and the trip altogether. Apply for research grants in foreign countries (Fulbright, Princeton in Asia, PeaceCorps or other university specific grants). If you’re going on a work-trip, try to arrange it for a thurs-friday or mon-wed. and ask to stay the weekend post or prior, but pay your own accommodations. Often if the travel costs remain similar, your employer won’t mind one bit.
Use uber or other apps to gauge prices in regions where it might be hard to know what the going rate is for taxis or tuk tuks. For free bathroom breaks, use luxury hotels 5 star hotels. The hospitality industry simply cannot be rude to you, and you can pretend like you’re there to check out their restaurant menu or otherwise. Be bold and act like you’re staying there and are familiar with the surroundings.
Make sure your debit card/ bank has no international fees when using an atm (TD Ameritrade is a good one, or if you have a card such as Bank of America, make sure to locate the sister branches beforehand [i.e. BNP Paribus]). An atm will always give you the best exchange rate no matter what for when you need cash. Also, whenever you are paying with card and have the option to choose between local currency and USD/ your currency, ALWAYS choose the local currency. Again, your bank’s exchange rate will be the best and most accurate.
Bottom line: A savvy traveler can find multiple ways to travel cheaply.