So you backpacked through Europe, sunned yourself on Kuta Beach in Bali, and did a Contiki tour though Mexico, all while in your twenties. Or perhaps, like me, you didn’t travel then at all. You settled down, got a job, perhaps now have children and a mortgage. But the travel bug is still eating away at you. The daily grind is exhausting, and you need a break. The only problem is your bank balance suggests yet another road trip to visit your elderly Great Aunt by the beach – just for the free accommodation.
It doesn’t have to be that way though! Sure, go visit your Great Aunt, she would love to see you, but then make for the nearest airport. You really can have an affordable an enjoyable holiday a lot cheaper than you think.
I didn’t really start travelling until my mid thirties, and I had to learn to do it on a budget thanks to kids and a mortgage. Here are the tips I have come up with from my own travels that prove it is possible to balance budget travel with a little more comfort.
Hostels are for Everyone
Anyone can stay in hostels. Okay, I just saw you cringe at that statement, but I am sure you are remembering those boozy party hostels you stayed in when you were younger. Or perhaps you didn’t stay there, you’ve just heard the stories and are staying right away!
Let me promise you, they are not all like that! Hostels do not have to mean dorms. I have stayed in dozens of hostels but never in a dorm. Many hostels have private rooms which are perfect, particularly if you are travelling with your partner or children. Yes, children too. I have stayed in a few hostels with my kids. Some even have ensuite bathrooms.
Some of the facilities hostels have are also equal to hotels. In warmer areas hostels are likely to have a pool, look, for example, at Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn in Alice Springs or Wassup Youth Hostel in Penang, just two I have stayed at this year. They could have an onsite bar for those evening drinks, and usually will provide at least a basic breakfast as part of the rate. Many hostels will some nights provide cheap evening meals too – $5 Sunday roast anyone?
While they may be similarly priced, hostels have many benefits over budget hotels. There are usually cooking facilities, the staff are willing to help you out with all sorts of advice, and the common rooms will give you more space to relax and socialise. Perhaps you will even meet others who you can share tours or taxi’s with, or will provide you with a lesser known gem that becomes the best thing you did on holiday.
Read more about hostels in What Staying in a Hostel is Really Like for a Gen Xer
Supermarkets have Local Food Too
There is always one search I do as soon as I settle in to a new town, and it’s for the nearest supermarket. I love to try all the local foods, and being on a budget doesn’t have to mean I miss out. Consider eating out for one meal a day, but shopping for local ingredients and snacks for the others to save a few dollars. If you have access to a kitchen this is a lot easier, but if not, be inventive and think of ways to create meals.
One of the essential items I always carry is a cutlery set. You could carry a collapsible bowl or plate as well. This makes preparing meals yourself much easier, even if it is as simple as some crusty bread and local cheese.
Supermarkets are full of snacks and ingredients you may not get to try in restaurants too. Pick up some of that strange local fruit, or those snacks in a packet with no English on them – you may find your new favourite, even if you don’t know what it is.
Check the supermarkets for alcohol too. You might be able to taste a range of local beers much cheaper than heading to the nearest bar. There always seems to be something quirky lurking in the drinks fridge.
Honestly, you do not need ten pairs of shoes or four jackets, no matter how long you are travelling for. Consider travelling carry-on only and both your wallet and your back will be better off. No more hauling big suitcases around, and you can now travel on cheap budget airlines without the exorbitant luggage charges.
I would go one step further and say consider a backpack. You don’t have to be on a backpacking trip to take a backpack. I am truely a recent convert. I happily took my suitcase with me and dealt with the struggles, but now I tend to take a backpack on both long and short trips. I don’t have to worry about uneven footpaths or cobbled streets. No more lugging things up and down stairs either. My pack is secure and comfortable on my back and getting around is so much easier. It also means other budget options like public transport (see below) are much more viable too.
Don’t think you could ever carry a backpack? A properly fitted backpack (I love my Osprey) will be more comfortable than dragging a suitcase behind you with one arm. I have had lots of back issues over the years, including a ruptured disc, and twisting slightly as I walk is worse than a properly balanced load. I am a relatively small person, and I carried about 12kg in my main pack and about 7kg in my carryon pack during our gap year. If I can do it, so can you.
Book Tours Once you Arrive
I know, you want everything organised before you leave, but resist the temptation! This is one I struggle with, because I am so used to having everything at home running to a schedule and I love to have everything planned in advance. Yes, there are plenty of good tours on Viator or Get Your Guide, but if you are really thinking about your budget, ask your accommodation on arrival for recommendations for day tours. I have never come across a situation where I couldn’t jump on a tour the next day to see what I wanted.
The only exception to this may be if you want to visit a very popular attraction. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam comes to mind, or climbing Mount Kinabalu that only has a limited number of permits per day, but I am sure there are other attractions too that can be sold out months in advance. This is where a small amount of research and flexibility comes into play. Also consider the time of year or if it is a local holiday and therefore could be busy.
Do Free Walking Tours
Talking about tours, rather than just blindly booking tours in a new city, research free walking tours. The concept of these tours is that they will give you an overview of the history of the city, and point out many of the major attractions and landmarks. You will generally not go inside any of the attractions, but will get a brief overview, and sometimes the guide will tell you which attractions are better or give you details that can help with your decisions. It’s a good idea to do one as soon as you can after arriving in a new place. They are a great way to get your bearings and decide what you would like to see and do over the next few days.
Contrary to their name, free walking tours are not absolutely free. They are tips-based tours. If you like the tour, you tip at the end. Generally they are run by young people, perhaps university students local to the city, or perhaps someone who runs paid tours as well as uses this to mention those. Having done dozens of free walking tours, I have never been disappointed. Since these people are working for tips, they have universally been enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They are a great source of restaurant and bar recommendations too, and can answer almost any questions you may have about the city.
Make the Most of Public Transport
You know what I find scary? Taxis! The last thing I want to do when I land in a new country is deal with whether or not I am going to get ripped off by the taxi driver before I have even reached my accommodation. Public transport is not only a much cheaper option, in my opinion it is less stressful too. Trains, for example, can only run on the train track, so I know exactly where they are going to go. If I miss my stop or get on the wrong one, it’s as simple as getting off and heading in the other direction (and I’ve done that a few times!).
There’s also safety in numbers on public transport. Often people think the other way, that a taxi is safer, but think – you’ve arrived in an unfamiliar city, you don’t know the language or the laws, and you have just jumped into a taxi with a stranger, probably male. You are pretty much at his mercy. No one knows exactly where you are, and no one is expecting your imminent arrival. I prefer to stick with the crowd on the local bus or train.
I use Google Maps to give me directions on public transport to my accommodation. If I do not have data I screen shot the route. Google Maps will still show you where you are even without data if you download the map beforehand, so there is no fear of getting lost.
Planning and Research are Key
If you are on a budget don’t just walk into your local travel agent and ask for the cheapest deal. The best they can probably do is to only give you THEIR cheapest deal. The way to save money is to do the leg work yourself. Sure, you can then ask the travel agent to book if you prefer, but you need to do some research to find out if you really are getting a good deal.
This will also mean that if something goes wrong (like my Taj Mahal disaster), thanks to your research you will be aware of the prices and alternatives to be able to sort it out without having to pay exorbitantly to do so. In times of stress we will often agree to whatever option and price is thrown at us, especially if we don’t know what the actual price should be.
Another way I research is by asking locals once I arrive how much I should expect to pay for certain things. The people at your accommodation are a great source of this information, but also be aware of them trying to get you to go to their cousin’s friend’s next-door neighbour’s shop, restaurant or tour – there could be a kickback.
Learn Travel Hacking
This one is my favourite. This is how I am able to fly in business class or stay in five star hotels. Use your everyday spending and habits while at home to earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points to add a bit of luxury to your trip. I find it much easier to spend days staying in less than perfect accommodation if I know I have a night at a five star place coming up next. Even more so if it has been paid by points.
Travel hacking is not something that can be learnt overnight. It’s an intricate and personal game, that needs lots of effort to get the rewards. But oh, what rewards they are! Flying first class makes such a difference to the travel experience.
Using all these tips I am able to happily travel on a budget. Of course, with everything, moderation is the key and I always like to have some sort of splurge to look forward to, whether it’s a business class flight, a luxury hotel or an absolute must do activity like seeing the northern lights or hot air ballooning. If I can compromise on some of the basics, I can still afford these amazing experiences – and isn’t that what travel is all about??
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.