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See the World on a Budget: Hacks from a Seasoned Backpacker

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Gilad Gamliel
Written by Gilad Gamliel

They say that money makes the world go round, and in the case of travel, it literally does. In the past five years, I’ve traveled to almost 20 countries, and the biggest complaint I get from would-be travelers is always about money. “I’ll travel when I’m retired,” they say, or “I don’t have that kind of money to spend.” And I understand! When I started traveling, everyone told me I couldn’t afford it. I was fresh out of college, jobless, and was just starting to get acquainted with my relationship to wanderlust.

Throughout my years of backpacking, I’ve racked up some cheap ways to travel and keep that big, intimidating budget in check. Does it take a little sacrifice? Sure. Does it mean no five-star resorts? Definitely. However, with these travel hacks, you’ll see that whether you’re a freshly graduated student or a 9-to-5 workaholic, you can probably afford to travel. And, you’ll also see that budget travel can be fun in its own right.

Leverage Your Exchange Rate

Girl Holding Tickets Cheap Ways to Travel

When I was that bright-eyed, broke college graduate, there were very few countries I thought I could afford. However, after years of travel and still not being homeless, I realized that exchange rates play a huge role in how far you can stretch your dollar. Some countries (Europe and North America mostly) are on the expensive side, but others are much more reasonable than you might think. For example, in Indonesia, the exchange rate is roughly 1 US dollar to 13,661 Rupiah, with a typical day costing something like 27,000 Rupiah, or $20. Compare that to a day in New York City and you’ll see that travel definitely does not need to cost you an arm and a leg — if you plan strategically.

I recommend finding cheap plane tickets to Southeast Asia, South America, or Central America for regions with favorable exchange rates. That’s where I spent the bulk of my early twenties, specifically because I could afford traveling in these places. However, because international economies are always shifting, check online to see the exchange rate between your currency and that of your destination. It may change faster than you expect!

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Opt for Hostel Life

Hostel Cheap Ways to Travel

Other than flights, hotels are easily the biggest travel expense you’ll encounter. With prices starting around $75 USD a night and quickly rising with every passing day, accommodation prices can quickly accumulate and make a huge dent in your travel budget. Consider the hostel instead.

The modern-day hostel has been battling its reputation for years. Perhaps back in the day, hostels were dingy, overcrowded makeshift dorms, but in 2020 they’re clean, luxurious spaces that are perfectly suited to millennial travelers. Most have a common area, a bar, and some nice amenities like free WiFi and breakfast. Others have pools, free laundry services, and private rooms. With an uptick in international travel, these boutique and higher-end hostels have adapted to the demand, delivering quality service. And, they cost far less than any competitor hotel. In Southeast Asia, a night at a quality hostel can run you $5 to $10, whereas in South America it can cost $10 to $15. I’ve stayed in hostels, namely in Colombia, that were truly a private room away from being a five-star hotel, all for a wonderfully affordable price tag. Once you stay at just one clean hostel and mingle with some other travelers at the bar, you’ll start to see that staying at a hostel really isn’t much of a sacrifice.

Eat Locally

Men Eating Locally Cheap Ways to Travel

In the travel expense hierarchy, it goes flights, hotels, and then food. Three square meals a day can add up fast. If you’re going to fancy restaurants for all three meals, you’ll find that your budget will be depleted rather quickly. That’s why I always encourage travelers to indulge in the local cuisine. Other than generally being more delicious than Western food, local food is always the cheapest option and the most readily available. Try some street food or check out local restaurants that have special meal deals. These often come with soup, a main course, and a strange jelly-based dessert. They can run you anywhere from $1 to $7, and they’re generally way tastier and more authentic than foreign interpretations of Westernized foods.

When it comes to ambivalence about street food, a travel buddy of mine phrased it best: the food vendors you see at street markets come to work and make one thing every single day. They’ve likely perfected their specialty far better than restaurants that attempt a four-page menu of Westernized food. Trust the locals with your stomach. Will you get sick? Maybe, but you’re not any less likely to get sick eating at a Western restaurant anyway. You might as well save a few bucks while you do it. I got food poisoning from eating at a Western culinary institute in Thailand, so if it happened there, it can happen anywhere, not just at a night market.

Book Things Last Minute

Girl with Suitcase Cheap Ways to Travel

I totally relate to the temptation to book tours and treks in advance. After all of the flights, buses, and hassles, you want to make sure you don’t get shut out of the tour you traveled for by booking last minute. However, in my experience, booking big tours and treks early online can wind up being far more expensive than booking them last-minute onsite. Tour companies capitalize on your fear of being shut out. They’ll cite busy seasons and limited capacities in order to get you to book fast and send them money. However, in many cases, you can just show up to a tour company a day in advance and ask to join the next day’s trek. As they want to fill empty last-minute slots, they’ll likely give you a discount or in the very least, be willing to negotiate a cheaper price. For example, when researching my trek to Machu Picchu, an online tour company said it would cost $650 for a five-day trek. When I got there and booked a day in advance, I got the same exact trek for $200.

There are obvious exceptions to this rule. Some cities and countries have busy seasons and are therefore more prone to getting booked out. Do a little research on the tour you want to join and see what others have to say before making a decision.

Remember Your At-Home Costs

Couple Deciding Cheap Ways to Travel

When drafting a travel budget, it’s natural to think about all the money you’ll spend when you’re on your trip. At the same time, it’s easy to forget about the money you’ll spend at home while you’re away. Automatic pay systems on gym memberships, phone plans, and monthly rent can drain money out of your wallet without you even realizing it. Unfortunately, some of these payments are part of a contract and therefore can’t be paused, but some can. Check your gym and phone plans to see if you can freeze your memberships for the month that you’re away. If you’ll be out of town for over a month, see if you can sublet your apartment while you’re not using it. All of these can help put a little money back in your pocket and offset the money you’ll be spending while you’re abroad. When I went on my three-month trip to South America, I sublet my apartment and froze my gym membership, which put $2,500 back in my pocket. Such a large amount of money is nothing to scoff at for a budget-conscious traveler.

Travel can be expensive. There’s no doubt about it. By its very nature, it requires you to take time off from work and spend money. It’s just built into the experience. However, there are strategies you can implement that can minimize how much of a hit your wallet takes while you’re away. If you do choose to make these small sacrifices, I’m confident you can plan a trip somewhere and not break the bank. And, the experience isn’t diminished. Budget travel can be incredibly enriching. It forces you to meet new people and rough it with them. It helps build connections and friendships across oceans, and it removes you from an otherwise routine lifestyle. It shows you how the other half lives. I’ve spent most of my twenties traveling on a budget and plan to continue well into my thirties.

What do you do to save on travel? Tell us in the comments below!

About the author

Gilad Gamliel

Gilad Gamliel

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