How To Travel On The Cheap

Want to travel on the cheap? Who doesn't? These budget travel tips helped me travel through 7 countries, over 11 months, for just $5,000 dollars. Read on for affordable travel tips you haven't heard before! #budgeting #buildingabudget #saving #budgetingandsaving #moneymanagement #personalfinance #money
Here are some things that I know about:
How to eat epic amounts of cheese in one sitting
How to dress like Dolly Parton
How to travel the world on $2

Okay. Maybe not $2. Maybe $4. But that’s still traveling on a really small budget, for pete’s sake!

In 2010, I did a six-country, 10-month trip to the tune of $5,000. Quite a deal, right? I know better than most travelers how to travel cheaply and still travel well.

Want to travel on the cheap? Here are my secrets for affordable travel:

Travel to somewhere cheap

We all grow up fantasizing about seeing Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, but Western Europe’s expensive, yo! And there’s a lot more excitement to be found outside of the EU.

There are heaps of lovely, amazing, culturally significant, safe countries just aching to be included in your itinerary. The Czech Republic, Mongolia, Tunisia all get high marks. You can find other suggestions here and here. Plan your trip to an affordable travel location and you’ll save big!

Stay in cheap travel destinations for awhile

The biggest expense of most trips is the transportation to and from your destination. So get the most out of that $1,600 ticket to Saigon and hang out for a bit! The key to traveling cheap is focusing on being in cheap places, rather than hopping from destination to destination on expensive tickets.

The feeling of really staying in a city, getting to know all its nooks and crannies, having that little cafe you always get coffee at … well, it’s a lot better than changing hostels every night and spending every day standing in lines for various Important Landmarks. You’ll have a much deeper relationship with your host country and save money while you’re at it!

Get cheap or free travel lodging by volunteering

Seriously, if you’re looking to travel for cheap is the way to go. Not only will it significantly cut the cost of your trip, you’ll meet heaps of people and contribute something to your host country. The trick here is to find a volunteer program that is free and will cover your housing.
Many volunteer programs require that you cover your own costs and, thus, are actually really expensive. But free volunteer programs do exist. I had an amazing time volunteering on a tiny island in Greece with The Aegean Wildlife Hospital. In exchange for two hours of water-bowl filling and corn scattering I got my own bedroom in a sweet little Greek farmhouse and the rest of the day was free for sunbathing, ouzo-drinking and cliff diving.
A sure bet for a volunteer/lodging exchange is WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOFers volunteer on organic farms in exchange for room and board, often living as a member of their host’s family.
There are WWOOF farms on every continent except Antarctica. You just choose a country and farm that you’re interested in, email them and go! Amazing, right? It’s my best secret for cheap travel!

Cheap travelers are best friends with public transportation

Traveling for cheap often means traveling like a local! Sure, taking the bus through downtown Bangkok can be pretty intimidating. So if you’re in a non-English speaking country and you’re only in cities for a few days at a time, I’ll give you a pass on this.

But if you’re planning on kicking it in Berlin all summer, you have no excuse for avoiding that subway. Even in places where the taxis are cheap (compared to what you’re used to paying) all those rides add up.

The added bonuses of taking public transport are a) meeting locals b) seeing parts of the city you’d miss on that air-conditioned tour c) feeling quite chuffed that you’ve figured it out on your own! One of my favorite memories of our three weeks in Fiji are the 70-cent, open-air buses full of babies and families and clanking hip hop music.

Work while you travel to offset costs

If you have expensive travel destinations in your plans, making them cheaper by working while you’re there can really help to offset the costs. Most hostels/backpackers hire guests to clean the building in exchange for their board.

If you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, fruit picking jobs are huge in New Zealand and Australia and hospitality jobs are usually easy to come by in most tourist ports. Proper employment calls for a working holiday visa, but it’s often easy to find cash-in-hand casual work, too.

If you’re a Virgo like me and have to plan everything out ahead of time, please allow me to sing the praises of Italy’s ACLE program. You teach English to Italian kiddos for six hours a day, for 250 Euros a week. And! You stay with an Italian family so you get all the gnocchi and gelato you could ever want without spending a cent. Nice, eh?

Get cheap travel during the ‘shoulder’ season

Traveling on the cheap means you’re going to plan trips during non-peak shoulder seasons. Sure, I’d like to be in St. Tropez for Valentine’s Day, but so would every other girl and her sister. All those eager travelers equate to packed hotels and high prices. Cheap travel during shoulder season has great benefits beyond affordable travel costs too!

‘Shoulder season’ is the month before the ‘real’ tourist season kicks. You’ll still see good weather, but you’ll be privy to open beaches, short lines and even discounted rates on your lodging. Here’s an awesome list of shoulder-seasons for popular destinations the world over.

Want to travel on the cheap? Who doesn't? These budget travel tips helped me travel through 7 countries, over 11 months, for just $5,000 dollars. Click through for affordable travel tips you haven't heard before!

Sniff out the travel deals

There are travel deals to be had everywhere, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Kayak and Mobissimo both search heaps of travel sites for you so you don’t have to shuttle around from one site to the next. I’m also a huge fan of Travelocity’s ‘Last Minute Packages‘ tab for cheap travel deals.

If you’ve got a three-day weekend coming up and your only requirement is ‘somewhere warm’ you can get amazing deals. Right now, I could get a round trip flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, plus three nights in a hotel for $247!

And don’t discount non-air travel when looking for cheap travel destinations. Though America isn’t known for its public transportation system, Megabus is making some pretty significant inroads. Routes are limited to the Midwest and east coasts of the US and Canada. But! You can get tickets for $1! $1! Of course, a lot of the tickets are a bit more, but they are always reasonable.

Stay with friends or Couch-surf

I encountered some dumb luck while planning my world ticket and happened to have friends living in four amazing cities that I wanted to visit. If you have friends abroad at the moment, seize the moment and go sleep on their couch!

You’ll get free lodging, your own tour guide, and insight into the city. Just be sure to clean up after yourself, cook them dinner and send a thank-you gift. But you already knew that, right?

If you’re headed to someplace obscure or friend-free, give couch surfing a try. Here’s how it works: After you select a country you’re traveling to, you sift through profiles of various intrepid souls who have opened up their homes to travelers. You email hosts that interest you, introducing yourself and sharing the details of your trip.

If both parties are keen, you stay with them on your way through their city, make a new friend and return the favor to other travelers when you get home. So lovely, right?

If you’re more of an Airbnb person, here’s a $65 credit towards your first booking!

Save money on transportation costs with rental relocations

These are so, so awesome. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have huge tourist industries with heaps of tourists driving all over, very often in one direction.

Many travelers land in Auckland, rent a car and then spend a few weeks driving down to Christchurch where they fly home. And lucky you – the car rental companies are happy to rent you that car for $1 if you drive it back up to Auckland for them!

A friend and I spent a three-week vacation on the southern island of New Zealand driving wherever the rental relocations were going . We even drove a $300-a-night camper van for a few days. This website will tell you everything you need to know about the rental relocation process.

Want to travel on the cheap? Who doesn't? These budget travel tips helped me travel through 7 countries, over 11 months, for just $5,000 dollars. Click through for affordable travel tips you haven't heard before!

Eat like a local and get cheap travel eats

One of the best ways of experiencing a new culture is through the food, right? What would Bangkok be without mango sticky rice or Edinburgh without haggis? Not nearly as awesome, that’s what. But eating out all the time gets spendy!

If you’re going to eat out, nosh during the lunch hour when prices are a lot more reasonable and take your leftovers back to the hostel for dinner. Or make a picnic out of nibblings from the grocery store or the fruit and veggie market.

I’m also a huge fan of eating from street vendor carts – authentic, adventurous eats for a pittance. But stay away from those grey cubes rolled in black sesame seeds. They’re not tofu. They’re congealed duck blood.

Haggle for cheaper prices

I nearly turned inside out with embarrassment the first time I haggled a price down in South East Asia. “But it’s already cheap! And it’s so damn awkward!” It doesn’t have to be – just like most things, if you approach haggling with charm and confidence you’ll be fine.

Often prices are not posted and the price you are quoted is a) intended as a starting point b) inflated because you’re a foreigner.

So smile sweetly, reduce the price by a third and have a go! Here’s a good how-to.

Are you an experienced budget traveler? Share your best tips in the comments so we can learn from you!

P.S. All my best budget travel tips in one place + 7 travel tools I will not shut up about till you buy them.

photos by annie spratt // cc

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  1. sparkleandglitter

    There’s some amazing tips here, looking forward to part 2! I’ve never really travelled on a budget unless it’s to one destination staying wtih friends or relatives, so I don’t really have much to add, but this post will be very useful to me in the future I’m sure!

  2. Cara

    In in a lot of countries (especially the UK) there are GREAT museums that are free…spending a whole day learning about a country’s history and culture is cheap, but also a great way to get to know the place you’re in!

  3. Edith

    I’ve got about 90 Euros for three days in Paris. I’ll let you know my “traveling on the cheap” tips on Tuesday! 😀

  4. Sal

    SO glad you’re writing about this stuff, lady. As a bona-fide chickenshit and cheap-travel-know-nothing, these tips are eye-opening and invaluable. Could I use more hyphens?

  5. I am Dane.

    Come to the philippines! Its one of the few english speaking asian countries, and we have awesome beaches the world has yet to discover. Best kept asian travel secret ever!

  6. Always In Style

    Great tips and blog – thanks for stopping by…I’ll be back 🙂

  7. Dollface

    Really great post. My tips include:

    – stay at youth hostels rather than hotels
    – look for hostels that have a kitchen or kitchenette and make your own meals instead of eating out every day
    – invest in a used travel guide book rather than hiring a tour guide/going on an expensive tour
    – you already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: use public transportation!!!

    I think your advice about working while you’re on vacation (or volunteering at the place you stay) is a great idea.

  8. Sarah Von Bargen

    Dollface! great ideas!

    Dane! I’ve actually been there! I spent two weeks there while I was living in Taiwan. I found Manilla a bit intimidating, but I *loved* Mindoro. It was really, really lovely.

  9. Young Werther

    Fab ideas!

    Don’t forget one can always couch surf (in the more expensive countries)…

  10. Vain and Vapid

    These are all really great travel ideas. My travel tip would be, don’t by cookies from strangers on the street in Amsterdam unless you want to spend many days “out of service”.

  11. Sarah Von Bargen

    Young Werther: You’re beating me to the punch! That’s for Part 2!

    Vain and Vapid: Awesome.

  12. DaisyChain

    Thank you so much for the sweet comment.
    I’ll drop by again when I have more to say (i.e. not before 8am in the morning!)

    Take care

  13. thepomegranateblog

    That was awesome Sarah… Great tips! Agree with u on the bus vs cab theory… Now on to read Part 2…

  14. Lyra

    and if you can’t deal with public transport (for safety/hygiene reasons, or if the distance you regularly need to go isn’t that long), sometimes it’s worth it to rent a bike. non-polluting exercise, and good worth, if you use it a lot. you can even split it with a friend and just sit on the bag-holder on the back.. maybe it just works for me cause i’m a teen but yeah. just don’t go bikin’ it it while intoxicated! AND if it breaks down, your tire goes wonky, or anything like that, it’s always nice to meet cute guys who want to help you.

    also, instead of going to cafés all the time, bring snacks in a bagpack. and make friends with locals to get to eat with their families!!!

  15. Amy!

    If you are a little bold try CouchSurfing. You can create a profile and scope out couches all over the world. Everyone offers their couch freely. You'll also meet locals and many of them are willing to show you around – a great way to find the good spots instead of the overrated tourist attractions.

    Great blog- thanks for the fab tips!

  16. Painted Lady

    Great information. When we went to Europe we did use the buses, trains, & subway to get around in Italy, France, and Spain. Thanks to our travel agent and my daughter for figuring it all out.

    I love to travel. Thanks for sharing this great tips.

    In gratitude,

  17. Anonymous

    Just wanted to point out that the Czech Republic has been in the EU since 2004.

  18. Jamie

    this is so great and helpful! i'm planning on hopefully doing some euro traveling in 2013 when i study abroad, but seeing all the possibilities, i might try to travel before then with all the money i can save volunteering on an organic farm! what an amazing experience that would be! great tips

  19. Kate - Crazy Lovely Me

    Just to let you know this is appearing in my link round up on Saturday 1/12 at! I've had wanderlust for ages but no money to travel with – it definitely inspired me!

  20. Shirley

    I have traveled to Paris and Italy in February. The weather is fabulous (I HATE the heat) and the crowds are MUCH less, although, admittedly, there were still PLENTY of tourists. I couldn’t imagine going to either place in June…. I’ll be traveling to Germany in March next year. I’d MUCH rather see places on a budget than save for 5 years to get that luxury room in Paris. In June. Not worth the extra money to me…..

  21. Anwar

    Free trips while volunteering seems to be the way to go. Something I’ve been meaning to try Myself.


  22. sandrine

    Thank you for this information. I think I can really save money thanks to these tips! Gracias por esta información. ¡Creo que realmente puedo ahorrar dinero gracias a estos consejos! Autoclick Barcelona

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