When I turned 19 years old, I had never left the United States—in fact, I had hardly even traveled within it. But that winter I took a step that has completely changed the course of my life: I went to Europe for a month. On $2,000.
I was accompanied, of course, by my life partner and trusty travel companion, Nathan.
When Nathan suggested it over the summer, it seemed like a pipe dream. How could I, a broke-ass college student with zero travel experience, afford to spend my winter vacation in Europe? It seemed impossible, but I love impossible. So I started saving every paycheck I made (minus enough money to pay for gas and a modest and strictly-limited amount of pot), and I started planning this trip. Guess what? I went, I had an amazing time, and I have traveled or lived internationally every year since!
Saving Tip: It’s easier to save for something if you take steps to make that thing real. If you’re always saving for that theoretical trip-you-want-to-take-one-day-but-haven’t-planned, you’re much less likely to meet your savings goals than if you’re planning for that Very Real Trip that you’re taking to Phuket in December.
Unless you’re truly in the grinding depths of poverty (in which case, I’m sorry), anyone can save $2,000. Anyone can spend a month in Europe. Or, if you want to live a little higher on the horse than I did, you can just go for a week! Either way, international travel can be a reality for you, too, and I’ve got some tips to help.
- Learn to save
This is honestly the most important tip you can get. I know so many people who believe traveling is out of reach for them—and it is, as long as they keep throwing away their money on Starbucks, the latest gaming systems, or take-out pizza every night. But the truth is that most people can afford a good trip if they prioritize it.
Take an honest look at your day-to-day life. What do you spend your money on? If your answer is rent or bills and nothing else, now might not be a good time to travel. But if your answer includes a lot of take-out, alcohol, games, weed, the new iPhone, or anything else that could possibly be called frivolous, I have good news for you! You have a trip in your future, if you’re willing to take the next step! It’s a step that sounds hard, but it’s not: stop buying those things. That’s it.
Figure out what you can cut out of your life. Identify the absolute bare bones of your existence. Then slowly add things back in, but only those that are really crucial to your happiness. This isn’t about depriving yourself, so don’t think of it that way. Think of it as refocusing to provide yourself with the experience of a lifetime. You can smoke fewer cigarettes per week if it means a day in Barcelona. You can skip that latte if it means you get to bask on a beach in Bali. When you find yourself tempted towards these in-the-moment pleasures, put down your wallet and think about your dream destination. (I find that always using cash instead of charging everything to my card helps me spend with purpose, too.)
Set up a separate savings account for your travel fund, and funnel all the money you’re saving by living simply into that account. You’ll be amazed at how fast it can add up.
- Know your budget
This is critical when it comes to the day-to-day part of travel, but it factors in throughout the planning process, too. We’ll split this into two parts: planning for your budget, and living with your budget.
Planning for your budget:
I think the most important advice you can receive here is BE REALISTIC. Take stock of how much money you have or can save, and then decide how long your trip should be. Look at your budget, then decide how much of that you can reasonably spend on a plane ticket. You should strive for this to be as small a portion as possible, but it’s also going to be your biggest expense by far. When I went to Europe, the flights (there were five) came out to half of my total expenses. Once you’ve bought your flight, look at your budget and decide how you can spend it most effectively. If your budget is small, don’t book that five-star hotel. If it’s really small, don’t book a hotel at all (we’ll get there in a second). Spend smart.
Living with your budget:
Hey, you bought a flight, you booked accommodation, and now you’re in Paris! Or maybe Beijing! Or maybe Lima! Wherever you are, it’s time to spend the rest of that money you saved. But you don’t want to run out. Figure out how much money you have left over after all of your large expenses are paid, and divide that number by the number of days you’ll be traveling. That’s your daily budget—stick to it. Figure out what you absolutely need to spend money on every day (i.e. food) and how much that will cost. Whatever is left over, you can spend however you want. If there’s not much money left, don’t despair! You can still have a great time for virtually free in pretty much every city in the world.
- Stay out of hotels
Hotels are the accommodation of the past, let’s be honest. They’re for people who have money, need a lot of privacy, and want to see a place without really living in the place. They’re for the sanitized travel experience. The true adventure (not to mention the true money saving) happens a little lower down the sleep chain, so to speak.
Airbnb: I think everyone knows about Airbnb by now. In terms of comfort and privacy, this is probably the next step down from a hotel. You pay to stay in somebody’s house. Depending on your price point, you can shell it out for a full five-star experience by renting a whole house, or you can go basic in a room in someone’s basement, or any number of things in between. Airbnb gives you the opportunity to meet people and be hosted, with more amenities and more of an air of legitimacy than a service like Couchsurfing. Airbnb also has some really unique housing opportunities—my husband and I stayed for several days in a cave home in the Chinese countryside in the summer of ’15! (See above.)
Hostels: Hostels are a great, somewhat more traditional choice for the budget traveler, and you can really tailor your costs to your needs this way. If you have a bit more cash to throw around, most hostels offer some basic private rooms (often with shared bathrooms). But if you’re really running low on funds or don’t mind a more social experience, you can stay in a dorm-style room with anywhere from three to nine other people!
Couchsurfing: I’m a huge fan of Couchsurfing. It sounds a little more daring—you stay at a stranger’s house for free. It’s really the ultimate experience in terms of getting to know the people and the true flavor of a place. We couchsurfed our way through our month in Europe (except for in Venice, where we couldn’t find a host for the days we’d be there, which were right around Christmas and the new year), and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We’re planning another trip through Europe this coming summer, and we’ll be hitting those couches again! Couchsurfing saves the most money on your accommodation, plus it gives you the chance to make a friend and share your travel experience!
Other options: These are just the most common accommodations. Depending on what type of trip you’re trying to take, there are other options as well, like TalkTalkBnB (similar to Couchsurfing, but you’re being “hired” for your native language), Workaway, housesitting, and more. If you know people in the area, don’t be shy about asking them if they have any leads on places you can stay—my husband and I stayed free in Mexico a couple years ago at the empty seasonal house of an acquaintance of his aunt’s.
- Be smart about your plane tickets.
There are so many tips about flying cheap that I’ll probably expand this into a full post another time, but for now, here’s what you absolutely must know:
Look in the right places. Services like Kayak or Skyscanner are great for comparing prices and finding you the lowest one (something you should ALWAYS do, because no airline can guarantee the cheapest prices every time), as well as finding out what dates are best for flying. Unless you have a very strict timetable, search for flights over a few weeks or a month and plan your vacation whenever it’s cheapest to fly. I recommend flying on holidays if you can—not the days around holidays, but on the holidays themselves. If you don’t mind flying on Christmas Day, for example, you’ll get a mostly-empty flight for a much lower price! If your plans are looser, you can check airfarewatchdog to see what the cheapest flights are at any given time, too.
Look at the right times. It’s all about taking the road less traveled—or the flight less booked, as the case may be. Flights are cheaper on certain days, so you could get a better deal on the same flight by booking at the right time, or by flying on a different day. It’ll be cheaper to fly on a Monday or Tuesday than on a Friday or Sunday, and cheaper to take that red-eye or early-morning flight than that nice 2pm one. As for booking at the cheapest time, aim to buy your tickets Tuesday afternoon or early on Wednesday. There’s also a sweet spot in larger terms—you don’t want to buy your tickets too early, but you don’t want to wait until the last minute, either. Most of the time, tickets will hit that cheap spot sometime between 1 and 3 months before takeoff, but there’s no surefire way of knowing exactly when. That’s why you should always sign up for price alerts with Kayak or a similar site as far ahead of time as you can. I’ve saved as much as $120 per ticket by jumping on that price dip when it hit my inbox!
Look for error fares. You can’t count on an error fare for every trip, but if you have loose travel plans and you keep an eye out, you could end up flying from London to China for $30! With these deals, you have to check frequently and jump on them when the opportunity arises. Be aware that sometimes airlines don’t honor these deals and will cancel and refund your reservations. But sometimes they won’t, and you’ll be on the other side of the world for the price of dinner at a restaurant! To find error fares, I recommend regularly checking secretflying and fly4free. I’ve signed up for email notifications on both of these websites!
Book a flight past your final destination. Again, you can’t count on this working for every trip, but sometimes you can get a much cheaper flight by buying a ticket to a different and perhaps less-desirable city with a layover at your destination. Skiplagged is the best resource for finding these tickets.
- Save restaurant meals for special occasions
The first time I took a major trip, I did this because I couldn’t afford restaurant food. When Nathan and I spent our month in Europe, we ate out of supermarkets every day, save for two multi-course meals that his father kindly let us charge to a credit card as a Christmas present. Otherwise, we bought rolls of fresh bread for a euro or so each, blocks of cheese, salamis, and beer, and that’s what we ate. It’s not the healthiest cuisine, and having since gone vegan, I wouldn’t repeat that exact pattern, but it was cheap as hell, and we were full and satisfied all of the time. And, frankly, it was fun to sit on the sidewalk in Rome tearing hunks of bread and cheese while we watched Italians and tourists stream by.
I did it then because I had to, but now I try to do it because I prefer to. Let’s be honest: after a handful of restaurant meals, you’re not going to get that much joy out of them. So why waste your money? Only eat at the restaurants you really want to experience. Otherwise, eat out of the supermarket. (Another benefit to staying at an Airbnb, couchsurfing, or staying at a hostel: access to a kitchen!)
- Travel light – only take a carry-on bag
Traveling light will only save you a little bit of money, but it will save you a lot of other troubles. Obviously, if you travel with carry-on only, you don’t need to pay to check a bag (which you would if you’re flying with a budget airline). If you travel with carry-on only, you won’t mind walking instead of taking that taxi or that Uber. (I’ll write a post about why you should travel walking sometime soon!) If you travel with carry-on only, you won’t feel tied down by the weight of your belongings—you’ll feel free to explore, free to experience! It’s also wise to leave your valuables at home, so you have nothing to worry about if you leave your bag at that hostel for a day.
A lot of traveling cheap is really about managing your attitude towards traveling. Leaving your things at home really helps you focus on what’s important about this experience, and getting the most out of it.
You came to see this–you can buy shoes in any country.
- Don’t view traveling as an opportunity to shop
I live in China right now, and tourism is nearly synonymous with shopping here. I understand the desire to commemorate your once-in-a-lifetime experience with a physical souvenir, but I like to limit myself—physical belongings can only bring so much pleasure. I allow myself either a decorative trinket or a single piece of clothing for each trip I take. It’s fun to fill your space with things from your travels, but it’s a lot more fun to have a selection of items from all over the world than to have twenty things from Berlin!
Shopping is the fastest way to burn through your money, but don’t give in to the temptation. Stick to window-shopping until you find that one thing, that thing that speaks to your soul, that one thing you cannot leave the country without. Then you’ll know you’re spending smart.
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So there you have it: my tips for traveling cheap! I hope you enjoyed them, and I hope you’ll check out my other blog posts about food and health, lifestyle, fashion, and more! Don’t forget to follow my blog to hear more about my travels, too!