People often ask me how I can possibly afford to travel as much as I do. It’s not as hard as you might think. Not by a long shot. I am not independently wealthy (or any kind of wealthy…) nor excessively motivated. Yet, I can travel for less than I could live a normal life in one place. How is that possible, you ask? I’m going to let you in on all my tricks, tips, and secrets.
What Is Normal?
First of all, what do I mean when I say I “travel cheaper than you live”? Everyone’s lifestyle is different and everyone spends different amounts of money on different things. I’m talking about an average, normal expenditure. What are the things everyone needs? Well, there’s the big 3: food, water, shelter.
Of course, those are basic survival needs. In this modern world, we need a few more things. I’m sure many of us understand this monthly expenditure chart, which includes a separate category for “Coffee, Beer & Wine”:
Or this one, which separates out the essentials of “cell phone” and “internet”.
That last chart actually gives a nice range for the monthly cost of living, on average, for 3 different standards. If you’re trawling the internet for great travel packages, you could easily spend more than the highest end of the “total luxury” range on a “basic/simple” vacation that lasts less than half a month. So how can I travel the whole month for less than this chart’s “basic/simple” cost of living? Read on, my friend.
Don’t Tie Me Down
The first way I minimize expenses is by not having any regular bills. I do not have any of the trappings of a so-called “normal life”. I don’t maintain a house or apartment. I have occasionally owned a car (including in foreign countries), but never for very long. Full disclosure, I do permanently own a scooter, but that is a lot cheaper to buy, maintain, and insure than a car. Plus, it’s small enough to store in my wonderful parents’ barn when I’m traveling and totally worth it for the freedom of 2 wheels!
Anyway, back to the point… I do have a bachelor’s degree but made the very conscious decision to attend the state school where my mother worked so that I could get my higher education tuition-free. Thus, I have no student loans hanging over my head, like so many people do. I have several credit cards (one of my favorite travel hacks!), but never spend more than I already have in the bank and always pay them off in full each month. This means I carry no credit card debt or any other debt, for that matter. I have no pets or kids. Basically, I have no permanent responsibilities.
The Most For The Money
So what do I spend money on? When traveling, there are 4 basic categories of expenses: transportation, accommodation, food, and sightseeing/entertainment. Let’s take a look at each of these.
My most common mode of transportation is also the cheapest. In fact, it’s free. And always available. It’s my own two feet. I walk a lot. Not only is this great exercise and no-cost transport, but it allows you to see and experience things about your travel destination that you wouldn’t see whizzing by on a bus. I walk as much as possible.
Of course, you can’t walk everywhere. That would take far too long, be far too tiring, and there are sometimes pesky obstacles like oceans in your way. The big-ticket item (literally) for most travels is the airplane ticket. I always search around multiple sites and airlines for the best deal. I use airline and credit card points to get reduced fares and free flights. I check multiple airports and cities. Since I’m generally not rushed when I travel, I’m happy to shift my plans a couple of days for a better deal or buy a cheap flight between major cities and then get a local bus or train to my final destination instead of flying directly in. This can cut down costs a lot! Check out my post 5 Tricks for Getting the Cheapest Flight for more detail.
Trains are my favorite mode of transportation. When I hit the rails, I travel at off-peak times, avoid overpriced “1st class” upgrades, and choose the “milk run” local train with many stops over the high-speed bullet train. Long-haul buses are an increasingly available and inexpensive option to cut your cost of traveling from one country to another from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars. And buses are a lot more comfortable and traveler savvy than they used to be. Many now have free wifi and a personal outlet or USB port at each seat to charge your electronics. And I’ve never been charged extra for my luggage on a bus (I’m looking at you, airline industry…).
For free local transport options, try looking for a rideshare opportunity, or even hitch-hiking in certain parts of the world. Be careful when riding with random strangers, though. I’ve had really good luck with it, but I would only try it in certain circumstances. I outline specifics in my post Hitchhiking: Is It Safe? Is It Legal?
Again, there are plenty of cheap or free accommodation options out there if you are willing to give up some luxuries or put in a little elbow grease. I stay in a lot of youth hostels for their budget-friendly pricing, cooking facilities, free food bins, and take-one-leave-one book libraries. A lot of hostels have private rooms in addition to the standard dorm room, so I can still have privacy if I want. These are more expensive, but often still a good deal cheaper than a typical hotel room. Many hostels also have barter programs. I’ve done everything from making beds to laundry, to manning the check-in desk for an hour or two in exchange for a free bed for the night.
Many times I can get a private home or room rental on sites like Airbnb and Home Away for the same or not much more than a hostel room, especially if I stay for longer periods or during the offseason. Check out my guide to peer-to-peer renting for more on how these sites work. (PS. You can get $40 off your first stay if you’re new to Airbnb by clicking my link!) I’m pretty outdoorsy, so I’m no stranger to camping, a great inexpensive option. You can even rent or buy cheap gear after flying somewhere if you don’t want to bring it with you.
Couchsurfing is a cool free option where people open up their homes to fellow travelers to crash on a couch or sometimes the spare room. Of course, this is not the best option for an introvert looking to avoid social interaction, but it is a great way to get real cultural experiences.
I’ve also recently started house sitting. This has some responsibility attached since a lot of these opportunities are actually pet sitting. In most cases, no money is exchanged. You get a free place to stay, and the homeowner gets someone to feed their animals and water their plants while they travel themselves. It’s a great free option for an introvert and animal lover like me! For more detailed information, check out my posts on 5 Ways to Sleep for Free or 5 Benefits of House Sitting.
It’s part of the experience to try the local cuisine when you travel. I always try to treat myself to a typical meal of the region. This doesn’t need to be an expensive dinner out at a restaurant, however. Street food is just as authentic and a lot friendlier on the wallet.
I will spend a couple of dollars on a yogurt or sandwich, piece of fruit and chocolate (I always sample the chocolate…) in a grocery store or gas station rather than at a cafe or restaurant. I always carry a good supply of protein bars on my travels. These are great to tuck into your bag to eat whenever you are feeling peckish. They are satisfying and give you great energy. My personal faves are Nature Valley protein bars in peanut butter dark chocolate 🙂
I cook a lot when traveling, too. Even if you have minimal facilities, you can cook some pretty nice meals with just boiling water! Hostels are tailor-made for cheap and free eating. Most have a kitchen for your use with all the pots and pans you might need and many supply free oil and spices. They are a great place to score free food, too (learn more in my post on Free Food Bins). When people leave, they don’t want to take leftover food with them, so they leave it for another hungry traveler. I once ate very well completely free for a solid week this way. If breakfast is included in your accommodation, make the most of it!
Sightseeing & Entertainment:
There are so many great free sightseeing options you could easily experience your destination without spending any money. I always look for walking tour maps online or a narrated podcast walking tour so I can create my own route. Many museums are free or have free days. One of my favorite things to do is climb church towers and take in the view. This is not always free but is usually cheap.
Don’t feel like you have to go to all the touristy spots. I like to do a quick search online for things to do in my destination (or even better “free things to do”). Then I pick a few that interest me the most and only spend money on those. Often times you’ll find great tips from locals of things that are not in the tourist guidebooks.
Do the Math
Getting back to my original claim here, let’s add it up. Transportation. Conceivably, this could be free. I could use credit card points for my flight, then ride shares, hitch-hiking, and walking to get around. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. I tend to buy one big airline ticket to get me to a different continent, then use cheaper local transport to get around from there. I also travel long-term, so I only buy an airline ticket once every three months, say. So a $600 flight averages out to $200 per month. Plus another $100 for local buses and trains.
Accommodation. Again, playing it right, I could sleep for free all the time. I like my privacy, however, and won’t always be able to find a house sitting opportunity. Let’s say I pay for a bed half the time. I get a range of hostel rooms and maybe splurge on a private apartment on Airbnb on the weekend to avoid drunken roommates. This probably averages about $30 per night. 15 nights of the month at $30 per night.
Food. Between free food at hostels, street food, protein bars, and cooking for myself, I’d say I average about $5 per day on food.
Sights and entertainment. This could range quite a bit. Once again, easy to see a lot and spend no money. But I’d say between paying for things I really want to see and checking out sights with small fees, I spend up to $100 a month exploring the areas I travel to.
Sights & Entertainment: $0-$100
So all together, my basic traveling adds up to $150 on the unrealistic low end. Now that is doable, but would be very hard and probably inconvenient a lot of the time. But by blending a little bit of calculated luxury with the frugal tricks I’ve learned over the years, my high-end range for monthly expenses is only $1000
Total Monthly Expenses: $150-$1000
So looking back at our chart from earlier, even the high end of my range is comparable to the cost of living at a basic/simple level, and my low end is way under!
Traveling this way is not for everyone. It takes some legwork, some compromise, some economizing, but it can be done. I can get a fabulous travel experience spending less than I would to live a normal lifestyle at home. That’s how I do it, folks, and you can too!
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