It’s no secret to anyone we know that travelling is extremely important to my husband and I. I traveled internationally for the first time when I was 16. In the ten years since, I’ve been to 10 different countries on 5 different continents. My husband traveled internationally as well before we got married, and together we’ve been to 5 countries. We have a scratch off world map hanging in our house and each time we visit a new country together, we scratch it off to reveal a watercolor painting below.
Last year we made the decision to quit our full time jobs in banking and move across our state so my husband could enroll in college full time. I now work full time and my husband works part-time when his school schedule allows it. Our income is now just a little more than half what it was before we moved, which was a big change for our budget.
One of my biggest fears when we considered drastically reducing our income was that we wouldn’t be able to travel for the two years it would take my husband to finish his degree. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to afford it and travelling would be one of the biggest sacrifices of this season of our lives.
Since making the jump and dramatically reducing our income a year ago, we have been to Guatemala, Philadelphia, Colombia, and California. I’ve learned that it is absolutely possible to travel, even when you are on a tight budget. The rest of this article will show you how to travel the world on a budget.
Don’t be afraid of budget airlines
One of our first clues that we would be able to afford to keep travelling during this stage of our lives came the day I got an email from a budget airline offering 80% off flights booked that day. We’d flown this budget airline to Guatemala using money we’d saved before moving specifically to take a trip during my husband’s winter break from college, and were now on their email list.
We could hardly believe it was true, but explored some different destination options and landed on a trip to Colombia after school got out in May. For less than the price of an average domestic plane ticket, we were headed to a new country we’d dreamed about for quite some time.
My husband was previously a travel agent and had always tried to steer his clients away from this sort of budget airline. You know the ones – they charge you for beverages on the plane, bags, and to choose your seat ahead of time. Budget airlines don’t always have the best reputation with some travellers for these reasons, but we have been thrilled with our experiences and have no complaints.
I’m not going to pretend that flying budget airlines is the best option for everyone (especially if you’re travelling as a family with young children), but for my husband and I it’s worth a smaller seat, packing lighter, and bringing our own water bottle on the plane to be able to afford travelling.
Fly from a hub city
We live in the midwest and the closest airport to us isn’t large enough to be a hub. We’ve started looking into the costs of what it would take to fly from our airport to a larger hub city, then booking a separate flight to our international destination from there.
On our last trip, to Colombia, we used airline points to fly for free to Chicago, hotel points to cover the cost of a hotel night, then flew out early the next morning for Bogota. This saved us a couple hundred dollars, which was worth it to add an extra night onto our trip. We booked a night in between our international flight and our flight between Chicago and home each way just for peace of mind if a flight was delayed.
This takes a little creativity, but it’s saved us money. It might not always be a savings, especially if you’re adding the cost of an overnight stay, so do your research before assuming this will save you money.
Sign up for a rewards credit card
We’ve had two travel rewards cards for the past few years, and they’ve been extremely valuable to us. One is for an airline, the other for a hotel company. We’ve flown free and stayed many free nights on our travels thanks to these two cards. We actually spent the first night of our honeymoon in a luxury hotel in Vienna completely for free, thanks to rewards points.
If you have good credit, and feel like a credit card is a wise choice for you financially, I’d absolutely recommend a travel rewards credit card. You’re often able to get some great sign up bonuses when you open an account and spend a certain amount within a certain period of time. These bonuses are often enough for at least one free round trip flight.
If you’re considering opening a travel rewards card, do some research about what airlines service the airport nearest you, as well as what airlines fly to destinations you’re interested in visiting. Consider posting on social media or reaching out to friends to see if any of them have referral links from their travel rewards cards – often, they can get bonus points if you sign up with a link they send you!
Location, location, location
It’s possible to travel on a budget almost anywhere in the world, but quite frankly, some places make it much easier to keep a low budget than others. If you want to travel somewhere you don’t have to actively make careful choices to stick to your budget, Venice or Dubai probably shouldn’t be at the top of your list.
Consider branching out a little and booking a trip somewhere off the beaten path. It will likely be cheaper, and you’ll have a great adventure fewer people have experienced. If experiencing a new culture authentically is important to you, heading somewhere less popular with tourists is a great way to do that while also keeping a lower budget.
The distance from your starting point to your destination will also contribute to how expensive it is to get there. Choosing a destination a little closer to your geographical “point A” can also help you out budget-wise. We know that Europe or Asia probably isn’t attainable for us in this season of extreme budget travel, but we’re loving experiencing Central and South America simply because they’re closer and generally more affordable.
Finding a cheap place to spend the night
I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties by saying that no matter what your travel budget is, lodging will always be one of your biggest expenses. I’ve seriously considered going into the lodging business myself, because it blows my mind how much people are willing to pay for a bed to sleep in.
When travelling on a tight budget, the good news is there are many options for finding a place to sleep without spending a fortune if you’re willing to give up some privacy. Hostels and guesthouses are great, especially if you’re travelling alone or with friends. Hostels offer dorm style accommodations, usually for extremely cheap prices, and give you the opportunity to meet other travellers. Guesthouses are usually more focused on private rooms, but also often provide accomodations at a lower rate.
Airbnb is another fantastic option when travelling. One of the nicest places my husband and I have ever stayed was an apartment we found on Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta, minutes from the beach, with amenities galore, an amazing smell lingering through the whole sparkling clean apartment, and a rooftop terrace with indescribable views. And we paid less than $60 USD a night.
We usually choose the “entire place” option when we book an Airbnb, but if you’re interested in staying with a local and getting to know the culture even better, you can book a private room in a family’s house on Airbnb as well. While you’ll have to share the space, it’s a great way to get a good night’s sleep for less.
If you’re travelling between cities, or even between countries by ground transport, look into the option of travelling overnight. Sleeping on an overnight bus may not exactly qualify for a “good night’s sleep” but if you’re going to be travelling the distance anyway you can kill two birds with one stone by getting to your next destination and skipping a night of lodging charges.
Volunteer in exchange for room and board
If travelling is about more than just being a tourist and seeing the landmarks, a work exchange program might be a great fit for you. Sites such as WWOOF, Workaway, and Helpx offer travellers the opportunity to look for a volunteer opportunity at their destination. You’ll do volunteer work in exchange for free room and board, and will still probably have plenty of time to explore your destination as well.
Eat like a local
My best advice for eating on a budget is to eat where the locals eat, and eat what they’re eating. You’ll find flashy restaurants that appeal specifically to tourists almost anywhere you go, but the prices are going to reflect the tourist appeal.
Getting away from the main tourist areas at meal time will be one of the best moves you can make for your budget while travelling. The closer to where tourists congregate, the more expensive things will be.
Do some research before you travel to find out what the best traditional foods in that culture are. Don’t be afraid of trying street food, but be smart with what you eat. Look for a clean, organized street food station where food is cooked to order.
If you’re looking for a cheap meal, that will almost always taste better anyways, look for where the locals are eating. Order whatever is most popular, and enjoy a local meal – even if you have no idea what you’re eating. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Exploring on a budget
A quick Google search for “free activities in —” will almost always produce a long list of free, or cheap, ways to keep busy in your destination. Nature is almost always free, and exploring a new part of Earth’s beauty can be one of the best parts of a trip.
If there’s room in your budget to take a tour or two, don’t be afraid to keep digging for the best tour. Don’t automatically book the first tour that pops up on your internet search, as these are often the most popular with tourists and the price and authenticity will reflect that. Researching a little longer can often yield great results in that you may find a cheaper, more authentic tour.
When we visited Guatemala, high on our to do list was a coffee farm tour. We found a couple of tours very quickly, but they were a little more than we were comfortable spending. We researched a little farther and ended up finding a cheaper tour that focused on supporting local communities and farmers. This ended up being the best thing we did on that whole trip, and we were so glad we researched a little longer to find a more authentic tour. The cost savings was just an added bonus!
Understanding foreign currency
Foreign currency conversion rates can be tricky. My husband accidentally paid a Colombian taxi driver the equivalent of $30 USD instead of the actual $3 fare. Our only hope is that he really needed the money, and that you can learn from our mistake by being sure you understand your destination’s currency.
I try to find out how much local currency is equal to $1 USD and keep that figure in my mind. Then, when I try to figure out how much something costs, I round down a little to be sure I’m overestimating the cost instead of underestimating it. If 2600 in the local currency is equal to $1 USD, I try to mentally think of $1 USD as being equal to 2500 local currency. This makes mental math easier, and you’re spending less than you think this way too.
Exchanging money at the airport will often get you a lower exchange rate. I’d recommend waiting and withdrawing currency from an ATM. Think carefully about how much money you’ll need, so you aren’t paying ATM fees several times but you also don’t end up with a ton of extra foreign currency at the end of your trip.
Check with your bank or credit card company to see if your card has a foreign transaction fee. If you have multiple cards, plan to use whichever card has the cheapest fees. Also, some banks and credit unions will reimburse ATM fees. Many places around the world will accept credit cards, but if you have to pay a foreign transaction fee every time you swipe you should definitely plan to use paper currency instead.
It’s definitely possible to have an incredible trip without spending a fortune. We’ve found that some of our favorite trips have been the ones that cost the least. We are so privileged to live in an incredible world, and there’s so much of it for us to explore. Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can totally still travel the world if that’s a priority for you.