How to travel on a small budget: 10 tips & tricks
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Are you dreaming of a faraway, life-changing trip abroad but your current financials are holding you back? Traveling abroad is often seen as too expensive and daunting. However, it doesn't always have to be. With the rapid growth of the internet and the introduction of low-cost carriers, planning a holiday has become much easier and cheaper than it used to be. We have been traveling the world on a small budget for years. In this article, we share 10 of our secrets to traveling on a budget, which will help you plan your budget trip and save money while traveling.
1. Be flexible with the destination
The single most important tip for traveling on a budget is to be flexible with your destination. Being flexible means that you have to keep an open mind as not all destinations are on your bucket list. The world is full of amazing places that aren't on your radar yet but are completely worth the trip. Here are a few tips and tricks to finding your next travel destination:
Tip 1: choose a budget-friendly destination
Choose a country with a weaker currency than yours. Generally, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and a few countries in Africa are considered affordable. Even though the flights are often pricier, once you arrive at the destination everything else isn't. Think about how much money you can save on food, accommodation, and activities when traveling. No matter what continent you choose, there are always places you can visit on a budget.
However, if you are on a really tight budget, it may wise to choose a country within Asia. Southeast Asia, and particularly Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are some of the cheapest travel destinations around the world. So are India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
Our favorite budget-friendly destinations include India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Spain, and South Africa.
Tip 2: Go where you know people
Another useful tip is to travel to a city or country where you know people that are willing to host you. Not only will you save money on accommodation, but you will also get the local insights on where to go, where to eat, and what to do! This can drastically lower the price of your trip. Above all, it also gives you time to reconnect and form even stronger bonds than before!
Trick: Search flight deals via Skyscanner
Finally, if both your time and choice of destination are flexible, it would be useful to search flight deals on Skyscanner. By comparing prices for over 1,200 travel companies and airlines, Skyscanner will offer you the best price guaranteed. We have found some great deals in the past, including a last-minute flight from Mexico to Belgium for 180€!
What we love about Skyscanner is that it has the option to search ‘Everywhere’ instead of a specific destination. In addition, you can select flexible timing such as a whole month or the cheapest month. In this way, you can compare various destinations at a great price. And if you have made up your mind about a specific destination, the ‘Price Alerts’ feature will keep you up to date when prices change.
Once you've booked your destination, it's time to figure out your itinerary. Take this notebook with you to help plan your trip.
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2. Be flexible with time
In addition to being flexible with your destination choice, it is also key to being flexible with your timing. Travel destinations are usually influenced by seasonality. It is important to do your research about the tourist seasons when choosing your destination. The "off-season" in one country might not be in another. High and low season prices may vary significantly in regards to flights, accommodation, and even things to do. So aim to travel during the off-season of a destination to save money!
However, if you want to travel to a year-round popular destination, these off-season prices might not exist. In this case, we'd suggest looking into last-minute or early bird deals. There are numerous hotel-booking apps and flight-booking websites that offer extremely cheap last-minute deals. Check them out here.
3. Browse cheap (or free!) accommodation alternatives
Cheapest option for adventurers: camping
If you love the great outdoors and you don't need the comfort of a real bed, camping may be the solution! Camping is very cost-effective, especially if you have the right gear and equipment. It allows you to connect with nature and experience a country's true wilderness. We camp often when we explore the outdoors or go on road trips. Especially in North America or Europe, camping will keep you on your budget. And some countries even allow FREE camping, such as Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Scotland!
Cheapest option for solo travelers and groups of 2-3 friends: Hostels
Rather than staying in a hotel, why not stay in a hostel? Hostels are extremely cheap compared to hotels and resorts, especially if you stay in dorms. In Asia and South America, you'll find many hostels between 5 to 10 USD a night. Besides, staying in hostels is a great way to meet fellow backpackers, whether you are just chilling in the common area or engaging in activities organized by the staff. We usually check out Hostelworld (a free App with numerous hostel options!) or HostelBookers to compare budget accommodation.
Best value for money for larger groups or couples: Airbnb
Another cheap alternative to a hotel is accommodation driven by the sharing economy, like Airbnb or Homestay. It is more private and therefore ideal for couples or larger groups of friends or families who are not looking to socialize. Airbnb options are endless and prices vary significantly. From cheaper private rooms in a house to luxurious properties all to yourself. Whatever suits your budget and needs!
Free accommodation options
If you are adventurous and don't want to spend any money on accommodation, there are a few options to do so! The most popular one is called Couchsurfing, a website that connects travelers to locals' couches (or guest room if you're lucky!). The site is all about community so whether or not you’re available to host or travel, you can still meet travelers visiting your city. It's a great way to meet locals and experience the authentic culture! Just be very careful and always check legitimacy before committing to stay at a stranger’s house. I have stayed on couches in more expensive cities like New York City, Singapore, and Paris. However, I have also had one negative experience in the latter city. Alternatively, it would be worth checking out BeWelcome and TrustRoots.
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4. Consider unconventional ways of traveling
A great way to travel longer and cheaper is to help out in a specific destination. There are various programs and ways that allow you to exchange your skills or support for room and board. Here are a few interesting options below.
The working holiday visa (WHV) is an easy-to-obtain 1-year visa for travelers who want to travel around a country and work at the same time to cover expenses. They are especially useful (and popular!) when traveling to more expensive countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It's a great way to indulge yourself in the culture and meet tons of locals.
However, the Working Holiday Visa isn't accessible to everyone. They are usually only available to young citizens (usually up to 30 years old!) and in certain countries. The number of countries you can apply for may be limited, depending on whether there's an agreement in place between your country and the other one. I applied for a Working Holiday Visa when I first moved to Canada, allowing me to work and live here for a year. In some cases, you are even able to extend it to two years, but this wasn't the case for Belgian citizens.
Volunteering abroad is a fun, unique way of traveling. Not only do you make a real difference, but you also have the opportunity to see the world, experience a new culture, and meet new people. And there are endless volunteering programs out there. From teaching programs to medical volunteer programs and wildlife conservation projects. From short programs that last a week to some that are a year long. The choice is up to you!
Though, it isn't always easy to find a volunteer program that is both impactful and affordable. With the rise of interest and demand, volunteering abroad has become a booming travel sector. And along with such rapid growth, there are many programs that are doing more harm than good, involving unsustainable and unethical practices. Hence, finding a volunteer program that is trusted, impactful and at the same time suits your budget and travel needs, requires proper research.
In 2013, I participated in a volunteering program in Sri Lanka via AIESEC, a student organization at my university. They offer opportunities worldwide at an extremely affordable price, largely because they are run by student volunteers.
WWOOFING is a popular international program that allows you to live on a farm (often for free) while assisting in organic farming. This means you live alongside your host helping them with daily tasks on the farm. It's a great way to travel abroad while helping build a sustainable, global community. Besides, it also provides the opportunity to indulge yourself in the local culture by connecting with locals and learning about their customs. There is generally no minimum of weeks required to work. It is something you work out between the farmer you choose and you!
Work in a hostel (usually possible with just your tourist visa!)
Finally, it is possible to volunteer or swap your skills for room and board in a hostel or a small, independently-owned guesthouse or hotel. Volunteering typically involves work at the front desk, cleaning, or organizing tours. They only require a few hours of your day or week and in return, you get to stay (and sometimes eat) for free! If you are a skilled photographer, videographer, graphic designer, translator, or writer, you might also be able to offer a few hours of work for the ho(s)tel in exchange for lodging!
5. Use money-saving apps & websites
Traveling on a budget doesn't have to be complicated! It can be as simple as downloading the right travel apps or browsing websites that will help you save time and money while making your trips more comfortable. The internet makes it so easy these days to find deals and compare prices. We suggest the following money-saving apps and websites:
BlaBlaCar & Kangaride
If you don’t want to rent a car, but want to get to a destination cheap, then carpooling apps will do the trick! BlaBlaCar is mostly used in Europe and connects drivers with empty seats to people traveling in the same direction. The driver sets a price for the ride. I’ve used this App a lot in Spain and the Netherlands for long-distance travel (from one major city to another one). In this way, I saved a lot of money compared to taking a train or even a bus! Kangaride is the North American equivalent.
Groupon & LivingSocial
Groupon and LivingSocial are online marketplaces that offer deals on all sorts of things; activities, travel, restaurants, salons, spas, gyms, events, and more. You can find these deals from any location you search for. And, with some deals of up to 70%, they are the ideal money-saving tools. Of course, travel deals are limited, only featuring certain tours, accommodations, and activities. Hence, it is only useful if you find things you're interested in. We have found Groupon especially useful for restaurant deals when traveling, as we are not that picky when it comes to food. We also recommend checking out Groupon's getaway deals, offering savings on travel expenses when you book through Groupon.
GasBuddy is an app that helps you save money on gas. By comparing various gas stations and prices, you are guaranteed the best gas deal around. The app includes over 150,000 gas stations throughout North America, so it's only useful if you're planning a road trip across the US or Canada. What we love about the app is the Trip Cost Calculator feature. Just fill out your road trip destinations and GasBuddy will calculate how much your gas cost will be. As such, this app assists you to budget and plan your trip!
6. Don't eat out in restaurants
Another straightforward tip for traveling on a small budget is to not eat out in restaurants all the time. There are many other options that also allow you to try the local cuisine and are at least as tasty!
Try street food
Our #1 recommendation is to look into street food options or small, local eateries. These are by far the cheapest ways to feed yourself on a budget and indulge in the local culture. Many travelers are not comfortable with street food because they fear getting sick. However, we found that street food is often actually the safer option as you can watch the food being prepared and cooked instead of being hidden away in the kitchen. Just opt for food stands that attract many locals and freshly prepare the foods on spot! We absolutely loved the street food of India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Mexico!
Shop at the local grocery store
An alternative to dining out is to go to the local grocery store. They often have pre-made and easy-to-prepare meals as well as local fruits and snacks. If you are staying in an Airbnb or hostel with a fully-equipped kitchen, you can even cook full meals. We always shop at the local grocery store when we are in countries that don't offer cheap eateries and street food, like in Europe and North America. Cooking has saved us a lot of money!
Go to the local market
Most destinations around the world have a local market where you can shop! Some are open every day of the week, others only once or on certain days of the week. Local markets are great as they offer seasonal, local, and fresh products. You can sometimes even haggle down a price. Especially if you are looking for items that are available all around the market!
7. Ask locals or fellow budget travelers for recommendations
Instead of searching for deals on the internet for hours, why not just look for recommendations around you? Some of the best deals on accommodation, activities, and food can only be discovered by talking with locals and fellow travelers!
Besides, connecting with locals and fellow travelers might make your adventure more memorable and exciting! You'll learn and hear new things about the country and destination that you didn't know of. And who knows, you might end up doing things you never thought of before. We always try to connect with fellow travelers and locals while we go abroad. It helped us find hidden gems and immerse ourselves in the local culture much more!
8. Walk as much as possible
Another one of our favorite tips to travel on a budget is to walk as much as possible! Instead of taking public transportation or a taxi, why not walk? If you are only a half-hour walk away from the town center our tourist attraction, there is really no point in spending money on transportation. In addition to saving money, you will also get to know the destination better. It gives you the opportunity to explore new neighborhoods or the countryside. And the best of all (in my opinion) is that you will burn off those pesky calories you gained while exploring the local cuisine!
9. Go local!
In addition to connecting to locals, you should also try to 'behave' like a local. Look at how the locals travel... Which restaurants do they go to? What type of transportation do they use? Where do they shop? What places do they go to or recommend?
If safe, always try to use public transport over taxis when traveling. The local metro or bus will be much cheaper and is the perfect introduction to a new city or destination. And if you're tired of the bus, then try local fishing boats, tuk tuks, trams, scooters, rickshaws, etc.
We love exploring new places like a local. From taking a tuk tuk in India to a rickshaw in Indonesia. Trying different types of transportation makes for unforgettable memories!
10. Find free things to do
The ultimate money-saving tip while traveling is to find free things to do! While this is easier in places with lots of nature, it is harder in the cities. Think about Canada where you can explore many of the local parks and nature for a small fee or for free. There are always free options if you do a little research. Here are some great free things to do:
Free walking tours
Free walking tours are a great way to explore a new city. Not only will you learn the history of the city, but you also will be introduced to the major sights. Free walking tours are offered in the majority of tourist cities around the world. Just ask the local tourist office, your accommodation staff, or search "free walking tours in (city name)" on Google. The tours are led by experienced locals and only require a little tip at the end of the tour.
A handful of cities around the world offer free access to museums. From numerous art collections to local history, there are all kinds of free options. London and Berlin are a great example of such cities. When I was living in London, I explored the majority of the museums (the Tate Modern and British Museum were my absolute favorites!). If the city you are visiting does not offer free entrance, search online for (student) discounts or other deals. Many museums have introduced "free days".
>>> Check out our article filled with 50 travel tips! We've compiled these after visiting 50+ countries.
Have you used any of these tips and tricks? Are there any other tips you suggest for budget travel? Comment below!
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