How to Backpack on the Cheap
There are two limiting factors to traveling: time and money. We often find ourselves with one but not the other. Back in college, I had entire summers that I could’ve taken off except I didn’t have the cash (and perhaps ambition). Now that I’m working, I do have the money but lack the time.
Luckily, one of these obstacles is easier to overcome than the other. As you grow older, you realize that time is harder to find than money. For people who are on a career path (myself included), big chunks of it only come around once every couple of years (changing jobs, going back to school, etc.)
So those of you who do have time, consider yourselves lucky. Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive and if you do it right, a little money can go a long way.
Here’s several ways to lower the hit on your wallet and make that dough last longer:
Choose your destination wisely – This is by far the biggest determinant of how much your trip will cost. For example, you can live off of $10/day in South America and Southeast Asia and get three meals and housing. More realistically, you can get around with $500-$1,000 a month in many countries. Whereas in Europe, you can easily spend $2,500 in a month and still feel budget constrained.
Avoid the peak season – This is a simple lesson in supply and demand. The supply of accommodation, flights, restaurants, etc. is essentially fixed. Come peak season, demand increases thus driving prices higher. By going in the off-season, you’ll find discounted flights and accommodation and it’s less crowded to boot. But of course, this often means that the weather is not as desirable so there is a trade off. I got screwed in the peak season when I found myself in Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Prices of hotels were 2x-3x as expensive and everywhere was insanely crowded. Not a pleasant experience.
Sleep on the cheap – Everyone knows about hostels so I won’t go into depth there (Hostelworld and Hostelbookers are good sites). A little less known option is CouchSurfing. Basically, it’s an online community where people offer you their couches for a night or two for free. You go on, make a profile and you’ll be able to browse through lists of hosts and sort by location, age, gender and verification level. People have pictures, there are reviews left by other surfers and many people have “verifications” that confirm their name and address (through credit card and post card reply). I couch surfed in Bern, Switzerland and several of my friends have done it in Europe; all with very positive experiences. It’s a great chance to get a free nights stay and see the town through a local’s point of view.
Another way to save cash is by sharing rooms. This might be tough for some people but if you can get over sharing a room (even a bed) with a fellow backpacker, you can get superior rooms for less than what it would cost of a dorm bed. In Thailand, Vietnam and Honduras, we were able to get large air-conditioned rooms for significantly less than what we would each pay for a shitty bunk bed in a tiny fan room. This often meant I had to sleep in a bed with another dude but with a big room comes big beds so no problems there. Teamwork baby.
2 other ways to save cash are overnight buses and crashing at airports. I sleep like a rock in pretty much any location so both of these work out for me pretty well. Overnight buses are amazing because you save a night of lodging and you get to your destination in the morning, 2 birds with 1 stone! Crashing at airports usually comes hand in hand with early morning flights. Not ideal, but they can save you a night of accommodation and it’s likely you took the early flight to save money.
Embrace the street food – Ahh yes, there’s nothing better than walking down an alley and smelling the sweet, sweet smells of deliciousness wafting from a food lady. I love it. Not only is street food delicious, it’s many times cheaper than food in the restaurants. I was in Bangkok for about 10 days and 95% of my meals were eaten from street carts. You also get to see exactly what you’re getting and I swear it’s cleaner: never have I gotten sick from street food, only stuff from restaurants.
There’s also cooking and you’ll see the usual dishes of pasta and chicken in many hostel kitchens. I usually didn’t do it because of laziness and when you boil it down, cooking for one person isn’t that much cheaper. The times I did do it were in Argentina and Brazil where steak was cheaper than eggs. What self-respecting meat eater can resist that?
Get tickets at the terminal – In most places, it is possible to buy bus tickets from your hostel or local travel agent. While convenient, this results in a higher price for consumer. Even accounting for the expense of getting to the bus terminal, buying tickets from there will almost always be cheaper. Not only that, you get a wider selection of companies and can take a first hand look at the buses.
Haggle like a mad man – The price of nearly everything that you buy on the road can be haggled. I’ve personally haggled down accommodation, food, drinks, transportation and souvenirs. Sure, sometimes you might get shoo’d away, but more often than not, you’ll be able to bring down the listed price. Small savings, but savings that start to add up over the long run.
Taking it easy – Whether it’s flights, trains or buses, moving from A to B will make up a large part of overall expenses. If you’re moving from city to city every couple of days, these costs will really add up. By traveling slowly, not only will you get a better feel for each place, but you’ll save money overall.
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If you’ve got the time, the hard part is done. Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. With a bit of disciplined savings and some travel savvy, you can turn that wad of cash into a lifetime of memories.