I’ve traveled a LOT. I’ve filled two passports in my lifetime so far (I’m 38), and one even had extra pages, which I’m really proud of;) In fact, the first passport I filled was when I was making less than $14,000 a year. It might have even been less than $11,000 a year but I’d hate to exaggerate. Learning how to travel on a budget doesn’t have to break the bank.
I started my independent travels when in college, on scholarship, working for the Outdoor Recreation Department at UC Santa Cruz to make a bit of extra cash. I was also a New York Times campus paper girl. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t rolling in the dough.
And I didn’t just travel. I danced naked at drum circles on the beach and howled at the moon. I somehow still ate sushi and drank nice wine. I went on full-moon mountain bike rides. I went to hot springs on ocean cliffs as the waves sprayed me under the stars. I climbed mountains and kayaked with dolphins. I surfed, and fell in love on rooftops in Kathmandu.
My life was pretty Badass – and stayed Badass even after I graduated and entered “the real world.”
I want you to know you don’t have to work your ass off for only a few weeks of adventure a year. You can live a super FUN life, every day, even on a budget.
Here are some tips I’ve learned after years of preferring time over money of how to travel on a budget:
Freedom Junkie Tip #1 Expand Your Comfort Zone
Many friends said to me, “I wish I could travel like you. I just can’t afford to!” I’d think, “What??? You make $60,000 a year! Or even $90,000 a year! (Or more!) How could you not afford to when I pulled it off making less than $14,000 a year?”
It wasn’t lost on me that I lived out of my Volvo stationwagon with prayer flags, and that my only utility bill was my cell phone.
True: Lifestyle and comfort zone count. When you don’t require your outside temperature to be in homeostasis 100% of the time, it’s much more affordable. It’s really expensive to do otherwise (e.g. “The Venetian” in Vegas)
What do YOU need to feel comfortable and have a good time? Do you REALLY have to have air conditioning all the time when its a wee bit hot out? Do you REALLY need to have Starbucks coffee wherever you go? Do you REALLY need to have feather pillows and hot water (even if it is 90F out)?
If so, plan on working a LOT to pay for short vacations, because it is pretty tough to meet those standards in most awesome vacation spots, so it will cost you a pretty penny. (Although I have to admit that my friend Chris Guillebeau has managed to do the 4-star thing on a budget too. That’s advanced, but learnable!).
When you expand your comfort zone, you have a whole lot of options that open up – and a lot of great adventures to be had as well!
Freedom Junkie Tip #2 Go for the experience, and not the things
A lot of people come back from vacations talking about how awesome their vacation was because their hotel had an infinity pool and they had a kick-ass flat screen TV and the weather was awesome. Those things ARE all awesome. However, if you can’t afford the TV or the infinity pool, know that meeting a local because you were friendly and social, then getting invited to a party by them, then eating new and strange food they cooked over a fire, and partaking in a neighborhood illegal lobster hunt (before you knew it was illegal), makes for a way better “No shit, there I was!” story. By the way, this doesn’t just happen while traveling. I had the best time in San Francisco – the city I was BORN in – when I ran into some people, socialized, and got invited to the $5 Party Bus for a raucous evening of live, mobile, performing art.
Be present, and stop wanting to be doing something or being with someone or being somewhere other than what is happening right now. There is so much juicy life to be had in the here and now, so many opportunities for mini-adventures if we’d just stop looking past the present.
Freedom Junkie Tip #3 What to eat, drink, and buy
Don’t drink too much alcohol unless you budget for it. Alcohol is the most expensive thing in restaurants at home or when you travel. You can get an entire dinner in Thailand for $3 but then spend the same for a glass of wine.
Cook a lot and eat out less while at home AND while traveling. People who cook really well, making yummy simple meals, are badass – and people will think it is really cool that you can do it too.
Learn to LOVE – absolutely LOVE – beans and rice.
This is obvious but I wanted to remind you because people used to make fun of me for doing it as a kid: get your clothes used. In fact, get lots of things used. Don’t buy crappy used. Buy quality used. Shabby chic but the for-realz shabby chic. The pic of our yurt in Alaska – everything recycled – is to the left.
Don’t be afraid to eat street food when traveling unless you ALWAYS get really sick. Some people are constitutionally weaker in the GI tract. Go to the busy people. Street food is under scrutiny by locals as well, and locals know who has nasty street food or who doesn’t take care of or clean their equipment well.
Having said that, be willing to get a little diarrhea and not be pissed about it. Traveling to cool places means new cool bugs. If you practice general sanitation guidelines like washing your hands, carrying hand disinfectant (and using it), and drinking clean water, you’ll be fine enough. A tablet of ciprofloxacin 500mg will take care of most stomach bugs anyway. And Pepto Bismol is the shit. Ha Ha.
Beer is cheaper than wine. Stick to beer or the local moonshine, or go to the wine specials section and buy by the case.
Freedom Junkie Tip #4 Independent Budget Travel
I still employ a lot of the tactics I used back when I was less financially abundant when I travel now. I call it “Dirtbag By Choice.” Budget travel is more exciting to me, even though I don’t “have” to travel that way. And these days, I find it is also safer, as independent travelers are less of a target for mean people (like terrorists) than if you’re hanging out in a 4-star hotel (we were sleeping on a cargo boat in Timbuktu when terrorists came to a hotel in the city).
The most expensive thing about traveling to the places I go to is the plane ticket. After that, if border crossings are involved, it’s visa fees. After that, it’s beer.
Having said that, here are a few tips on budget travel:
- Be willing to spend more on a ticket to travel someplace with a super low cost of living. I would save up and fly to Nepal for $1800, and spend $600 the whole month I was there. Conversely many of my friends blow $400-600 per DAY in Vegas or Hawaii. Or freakin’ Disneyland with kids. It’s even better if you can stay longer after traveling so far. I’d stay in Nepal for 3 months at a time. However, if $1800 freaks you out, or you can’t stay for longer periods of time, or both: you can get to Mexico on Alaska Airlines for around $300-400 fairly regularly. And two fresh fish tacos with yummy guacamole and a cold Tecate or Dos Equis will cost you about $5-6. Beach camping is free in many spots.
- Celebrate that you can still eat, drink, and sleep well on a budget if you go to the right places. I could spend $400 a month in India while eating and drinking VERY well. Yes, I had to go face to face with cockroaches twice, and a rat once. But that is CHEAP! And know that in most countries, those things are in fancy places too. They’re just better hidden;) In Thailand I could stay in bungalows on the beach – ON THE BEACH with a wonderful fan, which I much prefer over A/C – for $15-20.
- What if you don’t like to travel to developing countries but want to fly somewhere? Hawaii. You can camp. And cook over a fire. And rent your own kayaks instead of going on a tour. I went to Hawaii and spent: $300 plane ticket (Hawaiian Airlines) from SFO, free camping (or tops it would be $10/night), a bowl of tasty poke with rice $7-9, cook breakfast (actually not that cheap to buy groceries there, ironically!) $6. Car rental was $180 for the week (90), and gas was $120 for two, total. One week in Hawaii, all inclusive per person: around $640. I brought my own snorkeling gear.
- Don’t travel at peak times. Avoid spring break, Holidays, etc. Look into the Holidays of where you are going too. I once went to Istanbul during Ramadan, which was followed by their Spring break. Domestic flights were booked for two weeks straight over my Holiday. And no one drank…with me.
- Be flexible with your dates when buying plane tickets. A day can make a huge difference in airfare. I was going to fly to New York once and saved $350 by leaving a day earlier.
- Get a frequent flyer rewards credit card and use it to buy EVERYTHING. And pay it off in full every month. Some people even get several rewards credit cards. That scares me. But I admit to having two, which I pay off in full. I earn at least 2-3 round trip tickets a year (to fly to the equivalent of Europe for each one, miles-wise), because one comes with a companion fare of $99 a year as well. I once bought a car on my credit card and paid it off the next week (I’d saved for it)…but I got the points!
- Use airline consolidators. These are different than companies like Travelocity or Kayak. I saw a ticket on Travelocity to Dakar for $3200. When I called the consolidator, it was $1600. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!
- Travel WITH someone. Splitting things like cabs/rickshaws/meals/a bottle of wine is way cheaper. However, make sure they are trained. My boyfriend used to debate whether $3 more is worth it for an attached bathroom. It is if he wants to have sex. He now knows to not ask if I think it will be “worth it.”
- Don’t go with a tour. Maybe a package deal can be worth it if they get good airfare plus hotel…but I tend to move a lot from city to city, so I never come out ahead with the hotel deals. However, I once bought a plane ticket/hotel combo to Baja and never used the hotel portion. The airfare was just cheaper that way. I know. Weird.
- Plan ahead– tickets are always more expensive when you buy within 2 weeks…unless you’re like me and call last-minute and say, “Hey, I have 3- days off. Where can I go for super cheap right now?” Sometimes there are crazy-good last-minute deals, but you’ll have less choice about where to go. Vegas seems to pop up a lot…which is cool because I don’t gamble, but I do like climbing in Red Rocks.
- Use independent travel guides like Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide to help you do things your own way. Get on their forums and discover killer sample itineraries for wherever you want to go. People can even give you updated ferry schedules etc for cities you want to visit!
- I sometimes get the itineraries from cool travel companies like Mountain Travel Sobek (who kicks ass, by the way – I used them for Bhutan because you HAVE to go with a guide in Bhutan and it was epic). Once you get their well-researched itin, you can then figure out how to do their itinerary on your own. Sahweet! I did a four-day itin in Cambodia en route to Bhutan from Bangkok. I planned a four-day layover in Bangkok before flying out to Bhutan. Their cost for the Angkor Wat “additional leg” of the trip? $650 per person for two or more, $985 for a solo traveler. Mine? $450-500 (with plane ticket). BTW I just want to point out – if you can afford Sobek, go on at least one trip with them. They are crazy good. And thanks for the itin tips, Sobek;)
- Carry a mosquito net (if applicable) so you don’t have to stay in a fancy hotel just to avoid getting malaria. Plus, if you ever want to sleep on an open-air cargo boat like I did on the River Niger in Mali, you can do so comfortably.
- Take second class trains and busses. You don’t need first class. It is usually freezing from out-of-control A/C in first class, and you won’t get to meet the locals. The exception is some buses, on which first class is the only way to guarantee your bus MIGHT have brakes (“guarantee” and “might”…oxymoron?). But in those countries, even first class is cheap. Third class is usually nasty – even to locals. I don’t do it unless I absolutely have to.
- Be a woman. Once I met my boyfriend, my travel budget got cut (except maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought because we split things). I used to get so much free stuff. Flights. Food. Drink. Sailing trips. And no, I didn’t even have to have sex for it. In India, there are freakin’ LINES just for women. You can bypass 30 men to get in the lady’s line and get the last two tickets to Shangrila. Sahweet!
Freedom Junkie Tip #5 Camp
Sleeping outside is one of the coolest things to like to do. You can do SO MUCH for so cheap, be in stunningly beautiful places, and usually meet hilarious characters – especially if you’re willing to go a bit out of your way.
Learn to like sleeping on the ground. You will get to do much cooler shit for hardly any money if you don’t need a fancy bed. You can get a comfy sleeping mat, or better yet, backs tend to like firm surfaces, so you can try to learn to like something as simple as a carpet then more power to you! Most would enjoy investing in a really comfy sleeping pad if you need to. The super luxurious ones can cost up to $200+, but you’ll sleep like a baby, and you’ll save that in hotel room rates immediately.
Go to national parks: I buy a national park pass every year. $80 Unlimited admission to National Parks and Monuments (those can be $20 a pop!). Camp in the walk-in campgrounds so you don’t have to spend $20/night on camping. Or spend $20 a night on camping. It’s still cheap.
Check out alternative sleeping structures – some parks and tourist outdoorsy spots have SUPER nice things to rent out like yurts (that some with wood and kitchen supplies) which are really popular on the Oregon Coast, treehouses, fancy canvas wall tents…there are lots of new creative things to stay in! And most are quite romantic…at least for me!
If you have to choose, go for more time than money. There’s a saying:
On either side of the socioeconomic spectrum exists a leisure class
The luxury of time exists with the very rich or the un/underemployed. I fell in the latter for a long time (by choice). Not a lot of money, but a hell of a lot of time.
In my experience, having made anywhere from $11,000 a year to a super awesome 6-figure income, I had a LOT more time to have fun when I made less money. I have spent years learning how to make money AND have more time, but barring you taking the time to do the same, don’t sweat it if you are in a time vs money situation. If you have time, USE IT. Once you make a lot of money in the traditional sense, time costs more;)
(Note: If you don’t have a hell of a lot of money AND not a whole lot of time, we need to chat.)
Freedom Junkie Tip #6 What to Do
Do yoga. You will deal with all discomforts – mental and physical – much more skillfully and with more grace. Also, BONUS! : You’ll be much more comfortable sleeping on cargo ships and enduring long bus rides…and sleeping on the ground (which, as we’ve established, is uber fun).
Learn a little bit of the language and cultural customs wherever you go, even if that’s only a different part of town – and even it’s only basic phrases and simple niceties. When you travel – especially budget travel – you have much more interaction with locals, because pretty much the whole world is on a budget. Knowing their language will make interactions much more pleasant and interesting. Pictionary skills are awesome. And hand gestures. Get proficient at these.
Smile. Not only do people open their hearts and homes to pleasant people, you can get lots of free shit and at least avoid a lot of hassles by being pleasant, both here and abroad. As one Jersey cop told me, “You’ll catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar” Why he said that is another story;)
I’d love to hear more ideas about how to live a Badass Life on a budget. Please leave a comment below and share your ideas with us! I’ll definitely reply. Promise;)
PS: for more Über useful tips and beta on adventure travel on a budget and lifestyle-based businesses, check out Chris Guillebeau’s stuff like “Frequent Flyer Master” and his other programs. He’s all about freedom (like us!) and we speaka da same language. This is my affiliate link, BTW, because he and I help each other out. So I may get to buy a coffee on you if you use it, and it doesn’t cost you any more either. Sahweet 😉
Note: Ana Verzone (Neff) is a personal life coach, mentor and FreedomJunkie® She helps individuals awaken their lives of freedom and personal success with confidence, clarity, self-love, and passion. Her monthly Ziji Up! ™ eZine goes out to hundreds of subscribers. If you are ready to take your life and your world to the next level, you can learn more about her coaching programs and download her FREE Getting Clear Guide by visiting FreedomJunkie.com.