I have two facets to travelling cheap – “Saving while Working” and “Saving while Travelling”, but both revolve around similar core-concepts. Depending on your income level and/or the way in which you like to travel, each may apply to you in a different way.
SAVING WHILE WORKING
Everyone is always asking how I travel so much. Sadly I have no big secret – I didn’t win the lottery, I’m not a trust-fund kid, I don’t have anybody paying for me. I simply follow one rule – earn high, spend low. Seems like an obvious statement, but very few people follow the second step. I spend as little as possible on rent by sharing rooms, staying in super cheap student housing or crashing on friends sofas. Of course, this would not suit everybody but hey – if you wanna travel the world and you’re not a millionaire you’re going to have to make some sacrifices!
I also eat a lot of rice, frozen veg, spaghetti, tin tomatoes etc, always buy reduced price food, almost never drink out at bars or pubs and never eat at restaurants. I cycle EVERYWHERE. This is probably my biggest saving – I save over £2000 a year simply by refusing to ever pay for public transport or taxis, even if it’s 3 am and it’s raining. Like I said – sacrifices. There are various other ways, like taking a packed lunch to work and drinking the free work coffee instead of the exorbitantly over-priced coffee shops (I mean seriously, £3 for a coffee? Are you crazy?). I also almost never buy clothes unless it’s an absolute necessity, and even then we’re talking £3 t-shirts or £10 jeans, usually at second-hand stores. In fact, almost everything I buy is second-hand – shpock and facebook marketplace are my saviours. I never sign up to anything – I’ve never had a phone contract, I don’t have Spotify, Netflix, Sky, a gym membership – I’ve never even had a single direct-debit on my bank account. In short, when working and saving I live like someone on minimum wage or less, but that’s fine because the other 6 months of the year I can travel the world which makes it all worthwhile. Which takes us to step two…
SAVING WHILE TRAVELLING
Hostels and Hotels
Do you like fancy hotels, private rooms, hot water, air-con? This might not be the blog for you. Once again, travelling cheap means sacrifices – you know that little option at the top of hotel search apps that says “Sort by Price – Low to High”? Yeah, I use that a lot. Hostels are your best friend if you’re travelling alone, but in many places, it’s also possible to find private rooms for almost the same price. For example, I recently found a really nice private room in Sri Lanka for £5 a night! Okay sure, the bathroom was shared but this is hardly a big problem. If you’re travelling as a couple you can often get a private room for the same price as two hostel beds. My favourite apps are Hostel World and Trivago. (Booking.com is very popular but they sometimes have hidden costs not included in the quoted price and their customer service is terrible so I would avoid them.)
Staying with Locals
Sites like Couchsurfing and WarmShowers are also great for meeting and staying with local residents, and getting the chance to experience a country like locals do. The Couchsurfing app tries to convince you to pay and verify your account but you can use it fine without being verified.
Depending on how brave you are and what country you are in, you can often find places to sleep for free if you really want to save money! These can be anything from hammocks or sunbeds on the beach, to abandoned buildings or construction sites. But again, this depends massively on the safety of where you are – I had no problems doing this in most of South East Asia (especially Cambodia), but it’s probably less recommended in most African and South American countries (although according to my favourite blog “hitchtheworld.com” it would seem South America is fine too).
In most of Europe or the US you’ll likely be asked to move by law enforcement, although a friend and I managed to sleep quite comfortably on the beach in Cannes, and behind a few shops and truck stops in parts of Italy. The smaller the town the better luck you will have. I generally try to avoid cities in all circumstances because they are noisy, polluted and over-priced – and visit them only for work or the airports.
FOOD AND DRINK
Everyone has heard of tourist traps, but what most people don’t realise is that practically anywhere you go is a tourist trap – if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have heard of it! Restaurants and bars around the town centre of your new destination might seem cheap at first, but if you venture off the main strip into the local areas you’ll be surprised to find amazing authentic places for half the price, and get the rare opportunity to meet some local people in their own environment – not just trying to sell you sunglasses on the beach! Street food is generally the cheapest way to eat anywhere – in Sri Lanka, you can get great little snacks like roti’s and samosa’s for between 10 – 25p. In Vietnam, Bahn Mi (baguette sandwich) is available everywhere from between 70-90p, and even sit down restaurants serve huge bowls of Pho for only £1. Thailand is synonymous with street food – for less than £1 you can get a huge array of food including spring rolls, fried chicken, fish, fruit – you name it!
European and American towns have less street food options, so when in expensive places like Paris, I buy bread, cheese and fruit at shops or markets to save money. Many hostels will have communal kitchens so if you are with friends you could save even more by buying ingredients and cooking together. Always buy products local to the country you are in, so don’t try to make pasta in Thailand – rice and a curry with seasonal vegetables will be much cheaper!
Alcohol is usually a big expense for most people, especially when travelling – present company not excluded! I won’t lie – I really like my beer, and if I’m honest sometimes alcohol makes up 50% of my travel costs! That seems crazy when I see it in writing, but there is no point travelling so cheap that you don’t even enjoy yourself, and of course when money is really tight then it’s the first thing I cut out. Fortunately, in a lot of countries, I have found they will let you bring some store bought alcohol into cheap restaurants, or even bars, as they assume once you are done with that you will buy more.Just don’t be a dick and bring a few bottles of whiskey in!
The average price of a can of supermarket beer is approximately £1 in almost every country I’ve ever been, with a few exceptions like Vietnam where it can be as low as 30p, and of course, Islamic countries where it is usually illegal or if not, exceptionally expensive.
Drinking before going out and avoiding rip-off touristy bars are the most obvious ways to keep this expense low.
Transport is a big one when travelling, and usually, it all starts with flights. Most people are quick to use flight aggregation sites like Skyscanner, Cheapflights and Google Flights, which are great – but just for the info! In most cases, it’s best to use these sites to find the cheapest routes, but then often cheaper to book through the airline independently. Also, these sites will quote you the cheapest fare covering your route in the fastest time with the shortest layover, but often you can save money by purchasing two separate flights on the same path and also spend some time in a new country. For example, I recently searched for a flight from London to Dubai, and the cheapest route was on Pegasus airlines via Istanbul. So I searched on the Pegasus website for individual flights from London to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Dubai a few days later and managed to get a cheaper overall price – plus I got myself an unexpected short holiday in Turkey! Of course, this only works if you’re not on a tight schedule, but I highly recommend always not being on a tight schedule.
Once in your country of choice, you’ll likely want to be moving around frequently. Almost every country in the world has a vast spectrum of transport choices, and my favourite is always trains! Train travel is usually the most affordable, fastest and comfortable way to travel (except in the UK). However, western ideals of comfort have created in most countries ridiculous price differences in travel classes, with many railway services offering “1st class” tickets at ten times the price of normal tickets, but offering very little value for money. Seriously, air-con is not that important – even 3rd class carriages have fans, which are more than enough. I’ve travelled 12-hour journeys in 3rd class in humid 40-degree Celsius countries and I’ve survived! Honestly, you’ll be fine. (And if not, most 3rd world countries sell Xanax without prescription for next to nothing.)
Buses are the next best thing for cheap public transport, and usually cover all the routes that trains don’t. In some countries, I’ve found long-distance overnight bus travel to be very cheap, especially around South East Asia. There is a safety aspect and it’s recommended not to leave any valuables in the luggage hold, not to mention the occasional road accident, so take due care in certain countries when choosing to travel by bus. Personally, I’ve never had a problem, but I’ve heard enough stories of people who have.
Most Asian countries have tuk-tuks which are like small motor-bike taxis with seating for up to 3 people. These are great ways to go small distances but usually cost more than buses and are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting foreigners, so find out first what it should cost for where you are going and ensure to agree on a price before getting in! They also make walking on the streets a highly annoying task as they continuously stop to offer you a lift!
Which brings us to hitch-hiking. Now hitch-hiking is a very sensitive topic with a lot of people, and no doubt for good reason. The biggest issue being gender-related – obviously, for women, there is a massively inherent danger when getting into a car with a stranger. That said, I have met and spoken to a large number of female solo hitch-hikers who have never had any issues in certain areas, mostly south-east Asia. Hitchwiki is a great website run by a worldwide community of hitch-hikers, giving a huge amount of detailed information on where to avoid, where to stand, places to crash, busy routes, quiet routes etc. I haven’t hitch-hiked a huge amount but I’ve had great success in Thailand and Laos – poorer countries are generally better and I’ve found those less well-off are often the quickest to stop and offer a lift.
ALSO – walking and cycling are free and I highly suggest you do them as often as possible. Even 5km is not really that far (if you aren’t on a tight schedule) and you may see and experience things you would have missed out on if you were in a bus.
No matter how much money you save, if you don’t have access to your money it’s of no use! I encounter an endless stream of people who lose their wallet or bag with their only debit card in it in a foreign country and have no idea how to get a replacement card while abroad – something that is generally very difficult! Before going on a long trip always ask your bank for a second card that you can keep safely back in your hotel or hostel when you go out. If you have a credit card keep it for emergencies only and don’t carry it out with you. In fact, it’s best to only ever take out the cash you need for that day or night and leave everything else back at your accommodation.
In a lot of countries drawing cash from ATM’s incur a big charge (like in Thailand it’s £5, plus whatever percentage your bank charges) so you’ll want to draw a lot of cash at once and keep this in a safe place at your accommodation. Always check that you can draw cash in the country you are visiting and if not bring enough foreign currency for your entire trip. If possible it’s good to have a mix of cards, ie Visa and Mastercard, as some ATM’s only take one or the other.
There is always an inherent danger of money getting stolen from your account if your debit card is lost or stolen, so I always keep the majority of my cash in my separate savings account and then move money using my Barclays app on my phone when I need to draw cash. This way if somebody does get my card they will only have access to about £30. A potential problem with this is losing or breaking your phone and not having access to the app, so it’s also good to carry the pin-sentry console with you if your bank has one.
Travel light! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how long your trip, you never need more than a week’s worth of clothes. I only ever travel with one backpack that fits into carry-on luggage and weighs between 10-12kg, and this is advantageous for many reasons – no excess baggage charges, the airline can’t lose it, you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel and it’s small and light enough to walk long distances with when hitch-hiking or even just trying to find a hotel or hostel. With a small bag, there is also much more chance a bar will be happy to stash it for you overnight while you crash on a hammock or sunbed. Furthermore, you will be able to take it onto buses with you so no worries of theft from the luggage compartment or forgetting something in your bag that you may need on-board. Basically, you’ll be lighter, happier and always have whatever you need at hand. The only exception to this is when travelling in very cold countries where excessive warm clothing is required and so a big bag is unavoidable.
My essential luggage items are:
Basic clothing (4 shirts, 3 shorts, some socks, trainers, flip flops and maybe a warm hoodie or jersey)
Phone charger and power bank
Basic toiletries (toothpaste, brush, deodorant) and basic medical (some plasters and antiseptic cream)
Glasses and sunglasses
(I realise girls with hair might need luxury items like shampoo and stuff so I can accept they may not be able to travel as light as me, but most hostels and hotels have soap and sometimes even shampoo. Or just make friends with somebody who does!)
Beyond the essentials, I also carry a tiny laptop (to write this), a hammock, a unicorn mask, a GoPro, an electric razor, nail-clippers, a portable speaker and some other non-essential items because just like everybody I also tend to pack way more than I actually need.