I’m often asked how I travel affordably for extended periods on a small budget in high school, university, and as a working professional. I bring down the cost of my travel primarily in accommodation, which can add up quickly since I prefer a private room, air conditioning, and clean bathrooms.
Volunteer. Some organizations cover food and accommodation while you work for them. Taking breaks of a few days or weeks before, during or after your volunteer experience provides time to travel near the location you are volunteering.
Peace Corps. If you’re American and want to volunteer for 2 years in a developing country, your expenses are paid. You might not have a flush toilet in your home, but you can keep it as clean as you like. Keep in mind that Peace Corps‘ tag line is ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love’, since it’s not always easy being out of sight of most of your friends and family for 2 years.
Earthquake Relief Volunteer, Haiti. Soon after the 2010 earthquake I decided to help if I could. With a lot of research and networking I found a small organization to work with. They did amazing work, and were efficient, used their money well and were all around fantastic people! Unfortunately they no longer operate. We had support from All Hands Volunteers, a group with projects worldwide. Find out more about volunteering at Tip #3.
Couchsurfing. Free. I’ve written all my Couchsurfing tips here, including how to set up a great profile. When not traveling, I use the website to expand my network by attending local events and find travelers I’d love hosting. When traveling, couchsurfing is my absolute favorite way to meet people, as it allows me to meet up for coffee, a hike, or stay as a guest in the home of a local. My hosts give the best advice of local places to visit (and best times for good light for photography). Sometimes they’re busy, so we just chat, but other hosts have driven me places, lent me their car, helped me find amazing nature day trips, joined me for a week of touring, and invited me out with their friends. This really saves on entertainment costs, and I get the real local vibe. Affordable travel is worthless if you’re not safe or feel nervous. Definitely read my tips on couchsurfing safely. These tips apply to anyone you meet or are staying with, whether it’s Airbnb, at a local hostel or at a hotel.
Safety should not be taken lightly. It impacts you whether you’re male or female, because anyone can have items stolen or be attacked. I’ve met both men and women who had both violent and non-violent crimes committed against them, even when they were using common sense and taking typical precautions (but usually not). Even at home we aren’t 100% safe, but we can all take those precautions to reduce risk.
Eating – Affordable & Safe Food
Watch and ask how locals are buying their everyday food. In Cambodia, folks often purchase food at produce markets where each vendor has space, rather than expensive supermarkets. In Europe and the United States, some supermarkets are more expensive than others– just ask for advice. In Guatemala, people tend to purchase vegetables at the outdoor markets and dry goods at the supermarket. This is based upon cost and perceived or real food safety issues. Affordable travel is pointless if you get sick from the food, because it’s no fun being ill. In all countries I’ve visited, locals prefer prepared foods served on disposable dishes (corns on a stick in Guatemala) versus soup in a bowl that may have been washed with dirty water. And, they buy from vendors they trust. Don’t stand in the short line when buying food– there may be a reason that the line is short!
Select a destination that both is in your price range and has the activities you want. For example, if you want to learn how to SCUBA dive, prices will be lower in Central America and Thailand than in the United States or Australia. How do I know this?
Apart from simply searching the web for activities in the location and looking at prices, I find the country’s exchange rate as compared to my home currency. Next, I find out how much a cup of coffee or a main dish in a mid-range restaurant costs and compare it to the price at home. Using resources online, like this, and asking friends helps. I rarely know the exact costs before I’m on the ground, but having an estimate for budgeting is very useful.
Some destinations are known as a ‘backpacker paradise’, because the costs are affordable for budget travelers. These tend to be countries that are ‘developing’, ‘3rd world’, ‘2nd world’, or ‘backpacker friendly’. If you see plenty of hostels located in an area, it’s likely attracting a lot of budget travelers. However, as an off-the-beaten-path traveler, I avoid those exact places. Often, a town or village less than an hour bus ride away is nearly tourist free.
Regions that tend to be budget friendly are eastern Europe (former communist bloc), southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam), Africa as a whole, and certain parts of some countries. Also, more rural areas of any country will be less expensive, but there may be fewer resources. I once arrived in a small town in Laos, and stopped in the bank since I learned early on that the banks require their employees to speak at least a little English. It turned out there was only 1 hotel in town and it had lumpy beds. No wonder I didn’t see any other tourists there!
Meanwhile, more expensive countries are Japan, Iceland, Australia (my friend moved to Sydney and was so shocked by the food costs that she ate only ramen noodles for the first month), New Zealand, Switzerland. And some cities can be very expensive, such as San Francisco, Vienna, Moscow, Sydney. You can still visit these cities affordably, and this is much easier if you are willing to stay in a nearby town and travel 20 or 30 minutes into the city.