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 elsewhere). Similarly, at home: do you really need the $50,000 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 the same things might cost more than they did back in the late twentieth century when I started exploring the world, inexpensive travel is 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, several years ago, myself and two others spent three weeks in Europe (two weeks driving around Eastern Europe, one week in Paris). Total cost: just over US$5000 for everything and for all three of us – 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 roundtrip airfare from our home city for ~$700/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/student discounts for museum/site entrances. Staying in an apartment for our Paris week allowed us to (sometimes) cook our own food – usually 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, while living in Amman, Jordan, we found US$200 round trip airfare to Bucharest, which included a 10-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.
While not always doable, utilizing points/miles can also offer a great way to travel the world. My wife and I recently spent about eight weeks abroad. Total cost out of pocket: ~$3000 for transportation (airline redemption fees, train travel, car rentals, and a few taxis) and ~$2000 for food – for both of us. Granted, the first week was for work, so we expanded on it. In all, we spent two weeks in Jordan (one of which was for work), three weeks in Japan (Hokkaido-Honshu-Kyushu), several days in Helsinki, a week in London, and then several days in Iceland before returning home. Our airfare to Jordan and back was covered by the work, and we took advantage of Jordan's unique positioning for reward flight redemption. Even the occasional traveler can do something like that if they are willing to learn the game and take the time.
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 (and time), but the rewards can be significant.
Generally, the longer you stay in a place, the less expensive it is per day, but the overall cost increases.
Inexpensive travel can take a lot of time to research and find a bargain or good value. If you dislike hard work (and an occasional hardship), traveling (especially inexpensively) can be difficult. But the rewards can be more than worth all the hassles and time it takes to accomplish!
Traveling off season is usually cheaper all around, although some major sites may be closed, weather might be more unpredictable, 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.
In short, 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...