Today I am leaving Thailand after living here for over a year. At 2 pm, I’ll take a bus that will deliver me to a small town called Chiang Khong, at the Thai border with Laos. Tomorrow morning, I’ll pay my $30 (I haven’t seen American money for a very long time, and it looks strange) for my Laos visa and board a slow boat that will take me down the Mekong River towards Luang Prabang.
I’ve been more or less travelling for 18 months. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home. There have been some tight times, financially, as well as times where I had everything I could need and then some. Needless to say, I’ve picked up some saving tips along the way. I also did some additional research to see what other thrifty travelers had to say.
Here are the 5 main principles of saving money when you travel:
- Do your homework and research locales and deals ahead of time.
- Choose cheap transport to, from and around your destination.
- Eat cheap most of the time.
- Stay for cheap, but stay comfortably.
- Make an overall trip budget and a per diem budget.
Doing Your Homework Before Travelling
I began my journey on October 14th 2010. I had sketched out a rough plan for the first 30 days before I was due to fly to Australia on the 17th of November. I spent countless hours online, looking up itineraries, booking bus tickets, studying Amtrak train routes and emailing friends in various destinations.
Here we see the very first principle of cheap travel in action. You will need to do some research ahead of time to find the best prices. Chances are you’ll be doing this anyway, in order to plan out fun excursions and activities. Make this step even more frugal, and do your research at the free local library. They offer free internet most of the time, and usually they sport an impressive travel section if you’re into those antiquated “books.”
Though the research portion of a vacation can be time consuming, it can also be fun. Now that I’ve been in South East Asia for a year, I tend to only plan ahead as far as the next destination. I know when I’m flying back to New York (June 28th!!) so I have however many weeks until then to get back to Bangkok. Prices here are relatively cheap, so my daily budget doesn’t change.
But back in 2010 when I was just starting out, I planned every step of my journey in great detail, to the point of obsession. I started from November 17th in Los Angeles and worked backwards to October 14th in New York City. I even had an Excel spreadsheet with all of my train and bus stops and the length of time in each place. I would probably not do that again, but I recommend it if you’re feeling overwhelmed with travel planning.
Select The Cheapest Method of Transport
The first leg of the trip was NY to Baltimore by bus. Cheap travel principle number 2: select the cheapest method of transport. This works especially well if you don’t have strict time constraints. From New York City I took Bolt Bus, who, similar to Mega Bus and other companies, offers fares as low as $1 between cities in the North East. I think mine was $8, not bad. Flying would have been at least $70, and the train at least $100. Another popular option is the good old Chinatown bus that runs between NYC and DC, Boston and Philly.
From Baltimore I went to D.C., on another cheapie bus. From D.C. however, I got the train. Another very good transport bargain: booking package deals on trains. Amtrak offered a 30 day pass including 12 segments (city to city journeys) for less than $600. They also offer 14 day and 45 day packages. This saved me the hassle of individual booking for each city I wanted to visit (you do still have to reserve, but that takes about 30 seconds at the train station, so I just reserved my next stop before I boarded or after I got off the train.) Amtrak also provides bus service in areas where the train does not operate.
I had an incredible time on the train. It’s one of the best ways to see the United States. I witnessed the most beautiful sunrise of my life in North Dakota, coasted through Glacier National Park, the Bayous of Louisiana, the Great Plains, the rainforests of Oregon, and the mountains of Washington State. I have found this to be true in Europe and Asia as well; the scenery on a train journey is some of the best there is to see. If you are travelling in South East Asia, the train can be dirt cheap. There are also numerous rail packages in Europe.
Another great thing about buses and trains is the fact that their fares do not really change throughout the year. The prices tend to be the same whether you book 2 months in advance or 2 hours. Unless they are running a promotion, in which case the prices will be lower, and then who’s complaining?
There are times however, when you need to cross an ocean, or get somewhere quickly, and then you will have to fly. Finding cheap flights is entirely possible with a little advanced preparation and time devoted to research.
Two of my favorite sites for cheap flights are: CheapTickets and SkyScanner. SkyScanner lets you view a whole month or whole year of flights, with the option of seeing the price of flights to literally every airport on earth from your chosen departure point. I booked my flight from LAX to Sydney nearly 8 months in advance, and it only cost about $700. Normally this trip would be well over $1000.
Cheap transport isn’t only for getting to a place. It can also be used to get around. From the 100% free (walking) to the dirt cheap (local bus, bicycle) to the relatively inexpensive (subway, rent a car or scooter), if you take the time to seek out local methods of transport instead of automatically hailing a taxi, you will save a ton of cash. And probably have an adventure -or at least a mildly fascinating cultural encounter- as well.
Eat Cheap (Most of the Time)
Food is the one of the best things about travelling in my opinion. I don’t understand people who travel to another country and go to McDonalds. This brings us to travel savings principle # 3: eat cheap whenever possible. For most Americans, this might bring to mind fast food or a constant stream of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but this simply isn’t the case when travelling. Particularly if you enjoy trying new foods, eating can be one of the highlights of any journey, and still one of the smallest expenses.
In some countries (similar to the U.S.), buying groceries and cooking at home/ packing a picnic is the cheapest (and healthiest) way to eat. This is still generally true in many European countries too. However, in much of Asia and Central and South America, eating on the street or in local restaurants (not foreign chains) is infinitely less expensive.
This of course goes back to doing some research before you leave home to determine whether it’s cheaper to eat out or cook in, or maybe you’d like a combination of both. I’m going to have to go with my hero Anthony Bourdain here and say that no matter where you go stay away from the Hard Rock cafes and McDonalds. Even if it’s cheaper to buy food at the market and prepare it at home, buy some local fruits, veggies, breads, cheeses, whatever they have and try them.
In some places, like South East Asia, you will be amazed how much awesome food you can get for less than $5 a day. My friends in Phuket had the 100 baht a day food challenge, $3 to eat for the whole day. Totally doable and totally delicious.
If you budget well for food, you will most likely still be able to splurge a few times at a really nice restaurant with a high end version of local cuisine, or that steak you’ve been craving since you’ve been away from home.
Stay Cheap But Comfortably
For some of us, travel is about seeing, eating, and trying new and fascinating things. For others, travel is a chance to get away from the grind and be pampered. And sometimes this can change depending upon the time of year, who you’re traveling with, or which phase of life you’re in. This will obviously impact the type of accommodation you select.
To stay the cheapest way, go with a hostel (sometimes known as a guest house or a home stay, depending on the country or region.) These are generally independently or family owned, and not only do they offer beds and baths at lower rates, they tend to be more personable as well.
Though some places I’ve stayed have been a bit rough….okay, downright dirty and suspect, not all independently owned accommodations are like this. In fact, most of them are incredibly charming, secure and spic and span. They also have far more character than corporate chain hotels. Hostels also provide you with the opportunity to meet other travelers and get some good tips on where to go and what to do.
If you plan to stay somewhere long term, consider renting an apartment or house. This will lower your overall rooming cost over time. For example, in Phuket I rented a hostel room for 150 baht per night. Over 30 days this came to 4,500 baht. I eventually decided to rent an apartment instead, for only 3,000 baht per month.
If you have any connections where you’re going, even just acquaintances or friends of friends, take advantage of their expertise (and stay with them for free if they offer.) Locals will let you in on all the savings secrets. And in general ex pats are more than enthusiastic to share their cumulative knowledge of culture, food, cheap shopping and hidden sightseeing gems.
The thing about many ex pats is they understand why people would want to leave their home country and see more of the world. I’ve found that people who have travelled a fair bit and even settled in another country are generally quite happy to show you around, serve you a meal (or take you out to their favorite local restaurant) , or possibly even give you a place to stay in some circumstances. Especially if they are a friend of a friend. In some ways they are probably returning favor done for them sometime in the past.
If you do choose to stay in a conventional hotel, or even if you really want to stay in a swank place and have your every need met, a little pre-vacation research can help you find some discounts and deals on even the best hotels. Booking your trip during the off or low season can save you a ton. Hotels in Thailand (good, new, fancy and beautiful hotels) are one half to one third of the peak season cost in low season.
One note: in some areas of the states, smaller and independently owned hotels or hostels might be more expensive, and the good old Super 8 might be the best bet.
Make an Overall Trip Budget and a Per Diem Budget
The 5th principle of travel savings is to create a budget for the whole trip, with a breakdown for each day, and stick to it. Many experts recommend that your overall budget have an “emergency cushion” of at least 20% as well, and I couldn’t agree more. If your budget reflects the barest spending imaginable with no room for unplanned expenditures, you’ll either end up using your credit card (if you have one) and racking up debt, or worse, stranded and penniless, reduced to performing unspeakable acts in exchange for cash.
I’ve observed that there are at least two types of travel extremes, with many variations in between. You’ve got your summer or winter vacationer, who’s saved all year for a dream vacation during which money is not so much an object on the one end, and on the other, the raggedy clothed flip flopped tramps with frayed backpacks and tired souls, whose one prize possession (a laptop) is the only even remotely new thing they own, otherwise known as me. Of course, most people fall somewhere between those two extremes, as is the case with most things in life.
Determine where you fall on this continuum, and you will have a good idea of how much you are willing and able to spend when you travel. However, none of these money saving tips will really work for you if you aren’t willing to step out of your comfort zone at least a little bit. You’ll be glad that you did.