Basic Reminders for Inexpensive Traveling
Keeping it real
People often ask how we can travel so much. I tell them, “Travel is a matter of priorities: priorities when you’re traveling and priorities at home”. If you want to travel, make the adjustments and do it. For example, obviously, a 5-star hotel is more expensive than a 3-star – so why spend extra money when you only need a safe place to sleep and clean-up? (Unless luxury is your priority...then adjust somewhere else). Similarly, at home: do you REALLY need the $40,000 new car, or would the $10,000 solid used car work just as well? If you chose the latter – even with a loan payment – the difference would allow for some great travel experiences!
Priorities. If travel is your priority, then make the adjustment.
While Arthur Frommer’s (in)famous 1950s-1970s “Europe on $5 a Day” is no longer possible, inexpensive travel is still doable. For instance, I can get by in Europe on $100/day (including airfare) – if I don’t mind staying at more humble lodging and eating frugally. Like, in August 2013, myself and two gals spent three weeks in Europe (two weeks driving around Eastern Europe, one week in Paris). Total cost: just over US$5000 for everything – including roundtrip airfare, food, museum/sites, and staying in decent and safe lodging (Ibis hotels, a few quaint B&Bs, and an apartment in Paris). That’s about $80/day each FOR THREE PEOPLE! How? We found DEN-CDG airfare for ~$1000/pp, took a roundtrip train from Paris to Frankfurt, rented a car from Frankfurt for the Eastern Europe swing (cheaper to rent/return from there), shared a hotel room (sometimes one of us slept on the floor), walked a lot, stayed at places with free breakfasts (and packed away some buffet items for picnic lunches), shared dinners, and used teacher and student discounts for museum/site entrances. Staying in an apartment for our Paris week allowed us to (sometimes) cook our own food – much cheaper than eating out.
Another idea for frugal travel is to visit where it’s cheap to get to, and already inexpensive on the ground. For example, in May 2016, while living in Amman, Jordan, my wife and I found US$200 round trip airfare to Bucharest, which included a 6-hour layover in Athens (bonus!) Since we knew Romania remains a very cost-friendly country, we bought the tickets. Our rental car was US$100 for the week and petrol was cheap (we drove more than 1000km). We stayed at a couple Ibis hotels as well as local, non-branded hotels, even scoring a mountain spa balcony room (breakfast included) for US$15/nt in the countryside. Our dinners were very hearty/filling meat & potato dishes, and rarely over US$4/pp for a three-course meal. We also spent a lovely morning and afternoon in Athens, exploring the sites and having a local lunch at a small café.
We did something similar in 2019, visiting the then-newly-named Republic of North Macedonia (“Macedonia”) for a week. We were in London already for a conference, so the flight to Skopje was fairly cheap using Austria Airlines. Our car was US$50 for the week, and lodging varied from free at a colleague’s place to US$20/nt for a very nice 4 star hotel (in gorgeous May weather!) Food was also yummy and amazingly inexpensive – think three-course meal with adult drink for US$5.
Some things to keep in mind:
Do not overlook co-branded travel credit card benefits. Learn to leverage them for points and miles. Do not overdo it, of course. Be smart, pay off the balance in full each month, and keep a good credit history. Using points and miles can take brainpower, but the rewards can be significant.
Experience shows that generally, the longer you stay, the less expensive it is per day because you can stay in one place longer for cheaper. But then the overall cost increases.
Traveling inexpensively is difficult, and you usually have to work hard to find a bargain. If you dislike hard work (and an occasional hardship), traveling inexpensively can be difficult (and dangerous).
Traveling off season is usually cheaper all around, although sites may be closed, and you might have fewer daylight hours to explore. Still, to visit a place without tourists is something special!
You can often save money by flying “Open Jaw”. The ticket might be a bit more expensive, but if you want to see a lot of a country or region, the time saved by not having to return back to your starting point usually makes up for the cost.
If traveling with more than one person, you can save money by sharing a rental car (sometimes leasing for longer trips) and sharing a bed, room, or apartment.
Be flexible. Getting lost is not necessarily a bad thing and can lead to some interesting sites and experiences! Just use caution and be smart.
Purchasing souvenirs can add-up quickly. Look for small, indiscrete, original items if you want a remembrance of the experience. If you do buy something large – say a Turkish rug – consider mailing it home from the place where you purchase it.
Follow the cheap airfare, don’t be extravagant in country, and be selective on the not-free experiences you choose. Sharing with one or two or three other travelers also reduces costs. And be highly selective about souvenirs and adult (aka alcoholic) beverages, as these can be VERY expensive in some foreign countries and also lead to trouble...