This post is by staff writer April Dykman.
I love budget travel. Maybe it’s from watching too many episodes of Europe Through the Backdoor and drinking the Rick Steves Kool-Aid, but I wonder if you’ll believe me when I tell you that I wouldn’t travel any other way.
Last year I was considering taking a trip with friends — an all-inclusive spa vacation at a fancy resort. Ultimately I declined because all of the selling points — meals included, Condé Nast Traveler seal of approval, fancy spa treatments — were actually drawbacks for me. There’s nothing wrong with all-inclusive trips, mind you. They’re easy to plan, and you don’t have to worry about where you’ll eat or how you’ll get from point A to point B. They’re a good option for a lot of people, and even culinary adventurer Anthony Bourdain has sung the praises of staying put and vegging out.
But our vacation dollars are limited, and my husband and I like to explore. The trip would have cost double what we paid for our honeymoon to the same destination (literally right down the beach), and the honeymoon included scuba diving, cooking classes, and renting a car — things we’d have to pay extra for if we took the spa trip. I also thought about how we enjoy checking out local restaurants, but with an all-inclusive meal plan, we’d be paying for meals that were essentially covered in the trip package.
That’s when I realized that even if we could live the five-star travel life, we wouldn’t. We’re budget travelers at heart, and here’s why:
- Budget-friendly accommodations are a great way to make new friends. Even within the “budget” category, there are different levels of frugality. Couch surfing is free, and you’ll likely get to know your hosts very well, since you’re staying in their home. In hostels you might be sharing a room, and you’ll definitely share communal living spaces. In locally owned hotels and bed-and-breakfasts (my preference), there’s the opportunity to get to know the family who owns and runs the joint. I particularly enjoyed speaking Italian with the owner of our hotel in Rome last year, who graciously (very, very graciously) told me I spoke Italian well. Italians are a kind people.
- Travel by train or bus gives you a glimpse into the everyday lives of locals. I really enjoy subways and buses. I mean, taxis have their place, as do airplanes. But I like trains and buses best. The first time we went to Rome, we were on a bus so crowded we were packed like sardines — literally right against our fellow passengers. Just when I thought that surely the bus driver wouldn’t stop to pick up more people, he did. A petite nun stepped onto the bus, and everyone crammed in that much harder. After that, a few members of our group decided to take taxis for the rest of the trip. But I — the gal who gets nervous in large crowds — found the situation hilarious. If I had been in a taxi, I wouldn’t have learned that overcrowded buses still stop for nuns!
- Pounding the pavement often results in the best “magic” moments. The cheapest mode of transportation isn’t train or bus, it’s your own two feet. I’ve happened upon some of the coolest stuff because I was wandering around on foot, most recently Caffe Roma Pastry on Mulberry Street in New York City. My husband and I walked in to what turned out to be a Little Italy institution, established in 1891. The pressed-tin ceiling and long wooden counters gave the place an old New York feel, like we’d stepped back in time, and the giant cannoli brought us right back into the moment. Some of my favorite travel moments are the ones I’ve literally walked into. Walking is also cheap exercise, or in my case, an excuse for a cannoli to go.
- Budgets make you creative. Tourist sights are popular for a reason, and there are usually several on my list of things to do. But I try to balance those with some off-the-beaten path activities, which are usually cheap (or free). For example, one day I went to the Natural History Museum and paid $25 for my ticket, and the next day I tracked down a secret bookstore (free admission, $10 spent on a used book). Make a list of the top attractions that are important to see or do, then use a budget travel book like Frommer’s or Let’s Go to find interesting, inexpensive activities to fill in the rest of your time.
- Street food, mom-and-pop restaurants, and picnics are fun and delicious. On that same trip to New York, we ate lunch at The Grand Sichuan. The orange beef and rice were easily the best I’ve ever had, and we had wonton soup, hot tea, and a huge plate of soup dumplings (a first for me, and a new favorite). The entire meal for two came to $14. On another day, we went to East Village Cheese Shop and bought picnic food, like 16 ounces of top-notch Brie for $3. We took our groceries to Central Park, where we met up with friends for a 3-hour leisurely lunch. Again, I consult a guidebook for ideas about which street carts to try and where to shop for picnic foods.
As Rick Steves writes, “A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people.” In my experience, that’s been true.
We do make the occasional splurge while on vacation, usually picking one restaurant per trip where we’ll have a really nice meal. During our New York trip, it was Il Buco. While it was expensive compared to The Grand Sichuan, it was worth every dollar (and actually not so pricey compared to what I imagine one could spend on a meal in NYC). Plus, the waiter was incredible. We don’t particularly care if waiters are overly friendly or helpful, we’re more interested in the food! But when you’re in the hands of someone who’s great at his job, the entire meal feels a little more special.
This isn’t to say I’ll never go on an all-inclusive trip. I’d never say never. If you have three kids and both parents work full-time, trying to plan a vacation can be another job and source of stress. (There are great all-inclusive deals out there, depending on what you like to eat and do.) And if you’re the most comfortable in a five-star hotel and you can afford it, go for it! By all means, do what works for you.
But no matter how my situation might change, I think I’ll always be a budget traveler at heart, seeking out the cheap, fantastic Chinese food and secret bookstores. Besides the obvious benefit of saving money, most of my favorite travel moments have been cheap or free.
What’s your travel style? Where do you save and where do you happily spend more?
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