Every trip is a nonstop learning experience, and traveling on a budget can be challenging for someone who has never done it before. My experience is limited to Europe and Israel, but with some judicious research can be applied all over the world. These tips are taken from personal experience and the experiences of a few of my friends. Keep in mind that everyone travels in a different way, so what works for me may not work for you!
Food is one of the easiest places to cut your expenditure. Buy food at grocery stores or street markets. It’ll be cheaper than restaurants, and you can take it outside and have a picnic. Carry a water bottle and fill it with tap water rather than buying drinks, unless you’re in a country where you know the water isn’t safe. Similarly, there are many countries where you should be wary of street food, particularly meat. Do a little research before you go, or decide to eat vegetarian for a while.
Stay in hostels! Hostels are fun, generally safe, clean, and tend to attract other budget travelers. You are far more likely to make new friends in a hostel than a hotel, plus you’ll spend WAY less money. If you can, find a place that includes breakfast in the price so that you get one meal that way. If it’s a buffet you can also take a snack for later. Websites such as Hostelworld and Hostelbookers are good ways to find the best prices. A good hostel should include such things as lockers, free wifi, maps of the city, luggage storage, and a book exchange. The staff at hostels tends to be helpful, multilingual, and full of advice for seeing whatever city you happen to be in.
If you want to spend even less money, try Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a website that allows you to find local hosts all over the world. Couchsurfers tend to be friendly, hospitable, and interesting. Some hosts will show you around the city if they have time, and you might get a delicious, home-cooked meal! Don’t forget to be a considerate guest when Couchsurfing.
If you’re looking to stay in one place for a time, try HelpX or Workaway. These are two services that allow you to connect to hosts who need volunteers. You work for room and board, and have enough time off to explore. The websites have a small registration fee, but it’s worth it. It’s also a good way to meet locals and other travelers, as many hosts have several volunteers working at the same time.
Similar to HelpX is Wwoofing, which specifically connects you with Organic Farms around the world. The site requires a small registration fee and is country-specific, but is worth it if you’re interested in working on a series of farms as you travel. Because it’s country-specific you also need to know where you’re going before you sign up.
Hitchhiking is a good way to get from place to place cheaply, but be aware of local customs regarding hitchhikers. Some countries are used to people thumbing for lifts, but in others it might take ages to get a ride. Some countries will have no idea what a thumb by the side of the road means, because catching a ride there is done by waving, or pointing, or doing headstands on the sidewalk. As always, when hitchhiking be aware of your surroundings. Listen to your instincts. If you are in a country where it’s considered dangerous to hitch lifts, find a different way to travel. If someone stops for you and they look dodgy, don’t risk it. Also, don’t forget to leave plenty of time to get from place to place! Sometimes you may need to transfer cars several times.
If hitchhiking sounds too uncertain for you but you don’t want to shell out for a train, bus, or plane, find out if the country you’re in has a ridesharing website. Many countries in Europe have sites dedicated to carpooling. You generally pay a few euros (or equivalent local currency) as a contribution to gas prices, and you get a ride. You also get company for the ride, which is nice, and could make you a new friend!
If ridesharing isn’t your thing and the country you’re in has a good bus or train network, see if there are any discount cards you can buy. Many countries have huge discounts for students and young travelers. If you anticipate traveling extensively by public transportation, paying a one-time fee for a Youth Card often pays itself off in about three days.
A NOTE ABOUT THE EUROPEAN RAILWAY SYSTEM: You may have heard magical things about Eurail Passes from your esteemed elders back home. I certainly did, and anticipated getting a pass and being allowed on any train at any time either for free or at a huge discount. This is no longer how it works. If you are an EU citizen you can get an Interrail Pass, which is cheap and makes train travel amazingly easy, but Eurail Passes have gotten considerably more expensive and restrictive! Unless you have a hard-and-fast plan that you know isn’t going to change, I recommend avoiding the Eurail Pass entirely. It’s not flexible enough to accommodate many changes, and it’s generally so expensive that it might not adequately pay itself off in savings.
If you are a musician, singer, or have a similar portable talent, consider using street busking to supplement your funds. Depending on where you are, you might make enough to pay for food or transportation for several days. Check beforehand about the city’s busking laws to make sure you aren’t breaking any of them, or get good at dodging the police.
When backpacking in a warm country, it might be worth it to bring a bedroll and sleeping bag so that you can sleep outside. Don’t forget to do a little research on the local fauna, as there are few things less pleasant than waking up to discover you’ve been sharing nap space with a snake or a scorpion.
If you need to buy spare clothes, toiletries, etc. while en route, find out if there is a local flea market or secondhand store nearby. Many cities have great street markets once a week or more, where you can find everything from antique ice-cream makers to new gloves. If you’re staying in a hostel, or somewhere else with other travelers, mention the item you need to them – someone might have an extra, and be willing to give it to you. Budget travelers tend to be a generous lot.
Along the same lines, it’s always a good idea to share your plans with your temporary roommates. Someone might be planning to rent a car for a day and be willing to give you rides in exchange for some gas money, or they might have heard about an upcoming festival that you wouldn’t want to miss. Giving and receiving information and advice from other adventurers is one of the surest ways to find cool stuff.
Look up Geocaching. Geocaches are often hidden in interesting or beautiful places, and are always free. Sometimes they come with quite a bit of information about the area they’re hidden in, which is good for history buffs. Plus, treasure hunting around the world is fun in its own right, and you might find some fascinating out-of-the-way places.
Good things to pack to minimize your expenses and maximize your comfort include:
- hand sanitizer
- toilet paper or tissues
- a pocket knife (get a good Swiss Army knife, it’s worth it)
- a spoon
- a small first aid kit including such things as bandaids, an ace bandage, basic painkillers such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, and something antiseptic for cuts and scrapes (betadine is a good bet)
- a small sewing kit containing at least needles, sturdy thread, and scissors
- a small padlock
- playing cards
- nail clippers.
I will continue to update this page as I learn more, so stay tuned! If you have questions, or want to add your own tips, leave them in the comments.