This guest post from Matt Kepnes is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. You can read more from Matt at Nomadic Matt, where he shows how you can travel the world without being rich.
Many people think travel is expensive, that it’s too costly for the average person to enjoy. To many people, a trip around the world or a long vacation might seem like a good idea, but it simply isn’t affordable. I’m here to tell you that view is wrong.
You can afford it. I know you can. I’ve been traveling across the globe for five years. I don’t have some rich uncle, haven’t won the lottery, and don’t have my parents pay the bills, yet I’ve managed to travel debt-free for five years thanks to a combination of savings and working overseas.
Since I travel on a tight budget, I’ve found creative ways to keep my costs down without sacrificing comfort or quality. After all, what’s the point of going to Italy if you can’t afford the food? Why visit Brazil and not see the Amazon? I learned to dive before going to Australia; I wasn’t going to miss the Great Barrier Reef.
Today I want to share some easy and practical tips that can be used to save money regardless of how long you’re going to travel.
Saving on Accommodation
Couch surfing connects you with locals who are willing to let you stay with them for free. I’ve used this site multiple times. I’ve stayed with college students in England, in a mansion in Australia, and with a family in Denmark, just to give a few examples. I’ve slept on couches, futons, and have had private guest rooms to myself. Using this site, I’ve brought my accommodation budget down to zero. Though often thought of as a site for young people, you can find hosts of all ages, from young couples to seniors. If you’re worried about safety, people leave reviews and profiles are verified by the organization.
WWOOF (Willing Work on Organic Farms) matches travelers looking for work with farms that need labor. In return for working on the farm, you get free room and board. This is a very popular method of saving money in Australia and New Zealand, although you can find WWOOFing farms all over the world. This is a great option for people who want to stay in one place for a while.
You can also work for your accommodation at hostels throughout the world. It’s not glamorous work, but at least you get a free bed in return. In Amsterdam, I worked for my bed by cleaning. I got free accommodation for about three hours of work per day. You’ll find this type of work in places heavy with backpackers and where people tend to ignore visa rules. In Europe, that means in the east; in Lagos, Portugal; or Ios, Greece. In Australia and New Zealand, that means anywhere. In Central America, that also means anywhere.
Priceline and Hotwire are great sites for finding cheap hotels. If you really want to stay at a hotel but don’t want to pay a lot, use these sites to bid on hotels at up to 60% off. Use Better Bidding to see what people have paid for hotels so you don’t overbid. With the help of Better Bidding to research hotel prices in New York City, I got a room in Times Square during the Christmas season for $90 USD per night.
Saving on Food and Beverages
Cooking your food is the best way to cut down on your expenses. A week’s worth of groceries is cheaper than a week’s worth of restaurants. It’s simple and easy, but it goes a long way when it comes to cutting down your budget. I find that I spend about $50-60 USD per week on groceries, as opposed to $20+ per day I normally spend on restaurants. That’s a reduction of 50% (or more depending if I eat out at nice restaurants)!
In many parts of the world, especially in Europe, you can dine on dinner menus at lunch special prices. The plate of the day is usually the best bargain when dining out. For example, while I was in Barcelona, I went to eat at the seafood restaurants near the beach. However, dinner was around 40 Euros, which was more than I wanted to spend. Yet coming back the next day for the lunch special allowed me to get the same meal for only 15 Euros.
Though not as popular in America anymore, many supermarkets around the world still offer free samples of food. I time my food shopping for when I need a snack. It’s a good way to kill two birds with one stone. While I was shopping in Bangkok, I ate tons of free samples and managed to save myself some money. In Norway, I moved from fish vendor to fish vendor sampling enough food to fill me up for breakfast!
One of the biggest expenses I have while traveling is buying water. You need to stay hydrated, and buying water everyday costs money. Get a metal water bottle or reuse your plastic water bottle a few times to save money. I usually use mine for about four days — more if I can find a place to clean it. Now, instead of buying three bottles a day, I usually buy one per week. It’s a little savings that can go a long way.
Saving on Transportation
Forget the private coaches, backpacker buses, or whatever. Do what the locals do and take local buses or trains. It may be easier to get in that tourist bus, but it’s more fun to figure out the local transportation system and save lots of money by doing so. Even in expensive countries like Norway or Sweden, the train is never more than 3 USD!
Vans are good for both having a place to stay and as a way to get around. The overall cost of renting a van or car while you are traveling is a lot cheaper than taking a bunch of buses. You can always find cheap transportation for sale online, along with other travelers willing to help share the cost of gas.
Taxis will eat into any budget. Take the bus instead! Taxis are just a rip off. In Stockholm, a taxi cost me 35 USD while the train was only 5 USD. In New York City, a cab will generally cost 20 USD. However, a 7 day unlimited subway pass is only 29 USD! And the trains run all night! For a little more than the price of one cab ride, you can ride the trains all week.
It has a bad reputation in the United States, but in many parts of the world it’s still safe to hitchhike. It’s a popular thing to do throughout Central America, New Zealand, parts of Australia, and Central Asia. While in Belize, I did like the locals and hitchhiked all the around the country. All the locals did it and one time my friends and I shared the back of a truck with a little old grandmother.
Saving on Activities
Many cities have museum passes that are good for multiple museum entrance fees. If you’re planning to see a lot of museums, the math will always work out in your favor. For example, in Oslo, the VisitOslo card was 60 USD. However, each museum in the city is between $12-15 dollars. I saw 9 museums in the city. I saved 30 dollars with the pass plus got free transportation. By buying the Paris museum pass, I saved $85 off the normal price of the museums.
Most museums have special discount times or free nights. Before you go anywhere, make sure you look on the museum website to find out if they offer free visiting hours. Even famous museums like the Louvre and the Guggenheim offer free entrance. If I don’t have a tourism card, I always look up the museums I want to visit to see if they offer free entrance.
We often watch ads for fancy cruises, expensive resorts, and luxury holidays. These ads give us the impression traveling is expensive but it’s not. People around the world don’t spend lots of money, and you shouldn’t have to either. Using the tips from above, you’ll find that any destination you visit can be done cheaply without sacrificing comfort or fun.