6 Quick and Dirty Budget Travel Tips

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In light of my recent collaborative post about the many excuses not to travel that people peddle out, I thought I’d focus on one that I hear the most: travel is expensive.

Yes, it’s true that travel can be expensive.

Yes, it’s also true that my own travels are at least partially funded by working with tourism boards and brands.

But a big part of why I am able to travel so much is that I have learned a few budget travel tips over the years that work for me. I first shared a post about this back in 2012, and I like to think I’ve learned a few extra things over the years.

I won’t bore you with a mathematical breakdown of my spending or every step of my process, so here are five quick (and not-so-dirty) tips that have helped me to save a bit of money. I’m not a budget travel expert by any stretch, but even a broken clock is right twice a day, right?

#6 – Eat Local

I get it: sometimes you’ve been on the road so long that you’d murder for a Big Mac or a greasy pizza. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence.

You’d be surprised just how much you save by avoiding the western restaurants and crowded tourist areas, and by dining where the locals dine, you’re likely to save a pretty penny, eat some delicious local cuisine, and have a more immersive dining experience.

panang curry
While in Koh Lanta, I managed to get a delicious Panang Curry for just $2 by walking an extra couple of blocks. The price by the beach? $7

Really, if you’re only going to listen to one piece of advice from this list, I would urge you to make it this one. The food as locals eat it is just about the best window into a culture you can get, and you’ll save a small fortune while also supporting local businesses who actually need your money.

#5 – Shop around for flights

This one really is budget travel 101. Don’t just go to an airline website, key in your dates, and hope for a fair price. The smart thing to do is check as many sites as possible. Nomadic Matt wrote a fantastic article on travel hacking, but my basics are as follows:

  • Go to a site that compares airlines such as Skyscanner or Momondo.
  • Find the lowest fare that meets your needs. Check out the airline’s site and see if they have it any cheaper.
  • Check for alternate ports of entry.
  • Check for flights on different days.
  • Look at breaking up your flight(s). If you need to get to Arusha in Tanzania, it might be easier to fly to Nairobi or Dar Es Salam.
plane kilimanjaro
Flying over Kilimanjaro en route to Entebbe in Uganda.

Matt’s own article covers this in much better detail, but even doing the above steps saved me a few hundred dollars. On my recent trip to Thailand, it was actually cheaper for me to fly from Shanghai to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Bangkok, and Bangkok to Phuket than it was to get a single, direct ticket.

#4 – Have a money withdrawal and management strategy

Managing your money when you’re on the road can be a real headache.

Do you pull cash out at the local ATMs and cop a transaction fee every time? Do you convert a huge amount to local currency and pray it doesn’t get stolen? Do you pre-load a visa debit card and bring it with you?

What if you’ve got income coming in while you’re abroad? How do you access it without losing big chunks of it to international transfer fees and currency conversion charges?

travelsumo infographic

I’ve found that prepaid visa cards are a great way of not only dodging huge withdrawal fees while abroad, but have the added benefit of giving you a strict budget to follow and being able to be pre-loaded with the local currency.

When it comes to transferring money abroad, businesses like Transumo are a great way to avoid the usual bank fees. Even PayPal, which I use myself, takes a substantial slice of the pie when you’re moving money about too often.

Short of tucking all you’ve earned abroad into your underpants and converting it when you get home, international money transfer businesses might be your best bet.

#3 – Look beyond hotels

There was a time when staying in a hotel was pretty much a traveller’s only option if they didn’t feel up to camping. But these days your options are a little more diverse than ‘hotel’ or ‘cheap hotel’. Not exactly conducive to budget travel.

But with sites like Couchsurfing you’re able to secure free accommodation and meet fellow travellers in the process. I’ve hosted multiple surfers in my life, and have even had the pleasure of some fun couchsurfing experiences in Shanghai a time or two.

Don’t feel like stretching out on a potentially uncomfortable sofa and dealing with foot traffic? That’s where the likes of AirBnB come in. Using AirBnB, it’s possible to secure everything from a room to a full apartment to an entire home, and the rates are often lower than what local hotels are going to charge you. I recently used AirBnB to secure a spacious apartment in the heart of Bangkok for roughly half of what local hotels were offering, and I’ve used it extensively in Australia, the US, and China as well.

Then there’s the humble hostel. Sites like Hostel Bookers have made it even easier to search the hostels in a town to find reviews and rates quickly and painlessly. Hostels are a fun alternative if you’re on a budget and don’t mind sharing space, but many hostels also offer relatively comfortable private rooms. Capsule hostels, like The Drum in Beijing, offer dorm style sleeping arrangements with the added privacy of your own space.

And I wouldn’t go so far as to say rule out the humble hotel altogether. Sides like Wotif and Agoda are a great way to scour the internet for the very best rates you can find. I scored two weeks of beach accommodation in southern Thailand for around $250 just by comparing prices and booking early.

#2 – Go off the beaten track

The urge to dine with princesses at California Adventure or spend a 24 hours in New York City is always going to be there, but sometimes the budget just doesn’t quite live up to the daydream. Rather than let the discrepancy between reality and daydream get in the way of a good holiday, it’s time to bend a little bit.

Oh sure, you could put it on credit card and let Future Chris worry about it – or you could think outside the box, save your money, and still have a great time. Sometimes, budget travel has to be about making a compromise or two.

koh lanta beach
Getting away from Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, I followed a friend’s advise and had Koh Lanta virtually to myself.

Chances are, unless you’ve won the lottery or have a sugar daddy, you won’t be able to afford every single attraction you’d ideally like to hit. So think outside the box! It could be as simple as opting for off-Broadway instead of Broadway, or it could be as drastic as skipping the expense of a long stay in Miami in favor of exploring lesser known spots like Sarasota and Sanibel Island.

My 2009 trip around Portland, Idaho, Phoenix, and Las Vegas wasn’t jam-packed with iconic US experiences but it was no less memorable. I did things like biking the Route of the Hiawatha, visiting Indian cave dwellings in Walnut Creek Canyon, and designing my own Portland brewery tour. It was a little extra work, but it made the trip all the more personal. Don’t be afraid to skip the shiny tourist attraction and forge your own path.

#1 – Ask a local

The internet is a fantastic source of information, no doubt, but there’s only so much Google can do before you need a more personal touch. Websites like Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum, reddit, or Ask a Nomad on World Nomads give you access to locals willing to answer any queries you might have. Yes, it’s still technically the Internet, but in a much more personalised way.

Thanks to posting on my Facebook page, I discovered Sanibel Island. It was a friend who lives in Portland who told me to check out Tillamook. A blog reader put me on to the beauty of China’s Xinjiang province, and it was through Instagram that I found out about cheap drinks in Singapore.

The big sites are only going to cover so much and, let’s be honest, they’re probably recommending the locations they’re told to. Ask a local and they’ll point you in the direction of the places they love. They may not be a glitzy tourist trap or a five star restaurant, but you can guarantee they’ll be cheaper and probably not so far off in terms of your enjoyment.

Your Budget Tips

What are your tips for saving money when you travel? I’ve touched on just the most obvious here because, well, I’m not too good at working to a budget. Help me to help my readers and share your best tips.

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