I’m a budget traveler. I’m an expert at finding the best deals – super cheap and completely free options for everything from flights to accommodation to sightseeing. I’ve dedicated quite a few of the posts on this blog to different aspects of how I do just that. It’s allowed me to travel half the year, every year. It’s why my country count is nearing 70 and I accomplished my life goal of visiting all seven continents by the young age of 25.
But budget travel isn’t all sunshine and roses, adventure and thrills, exploring exotic places. To keep my budget low, I skimp on things beyond the pennies I pay. While budget travel can be amazing, it’s usually NOT luxurious, glamorous, easy, or even very comfortable! I’m definitely still a huge advocate for traveling on the cheap, but it’s important to share the pitfalls as well as the pleasures.
Lean on Luxuries
Keeping to a budget means no 5-star hotels for me! You won’t see me in first class (unless I get a free upgrade!). I cook for myself or eat out on street food and cheap local restaurants, not haute cuisine. I don’t take taxis, generally speaking, and only rent cars when it’s the cheapest (or only!) option. While there are exceptions, budget travel is, as a rule, not glamorous…
And on Creature Comforts
Even leaving out pricey extras, normal everyday comforts can go out the window for budget travelers. Cheap plane tickets don’t come with included meals anymore, or a checked bag most of the time. Crowded public transportation means you might have to stand for the whole journey. A private hotel room costs a lot more than a bunk in a shared dorm in a hostel. But even that is more comfortable than sleeping in your car, or in a seat on a plane, bus, or train, which I’ve done many a time to save some money!
When I traveled around Australia by train, I opted for the cheapest rail pass option. This covered a basic seat, not a sleeper cabin. I rode the rails clear across the country, from Perth to Sydney to drop my big bag in storage, then immediately got on another train halfway back to Alice Springs. I spent two and a half days sitting and sleeping in that train seat, all to save a few bucks. Well… also for the experience of chugging across the Nullarbor and physically feeling the vast nothingness in the heart of that sunburnt country. But mostly because I’m cheap ?
On a road trip across the US, I saved money on hotels by camping. And I saved money on campgrounds by sleeping in my car in the nearest Walmart parking lot… One wintry April night in Glacier National Park, I skimped on a bed (and heating…) and slept in my ski clothes in my car. I woke up with the world hidden under four inches of snow! Not the warmest or most comfortable night’s sleep of my life, but it was free ?
With Some Exceptions…
Of course, not everything frugal and free is somehow less. You can get the same airline seat for free as the guy next to you who paid hundreds by doing a little travel hacking with credit card points. Or use those points to upgrade to a better seat! Some of the best tours I’ve ever taken have been free. Some of the best food I’ve ever tried has cost me a pittance from a cart on the street or was left for free at a hostel. And, of course, my favorite free accommodation option, house sitting, gets me an entire house or apartment to myself (often quite nice!) for the low, low price of caring for an animal or two!
Hoofing It With a Heavy Bag
Walking is a budget traveler’s best friend. It’s free and provides exercise and a chance to explore more of the city. I generally walk to any destination within 2-3 miles. When you have your suitcase with you, however, manageable walks can seem interminable and infinitely more difficult.
When I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few years ago, I thought the +/- 1.5 mile walk from the bus stop to my accommodation would be no problem. I didn’t contend with dragging a bag with wheels on the fritz over the bumpy cobblestone streets of Old Town Tallinn! I was just about in tears and exhausted when I finally arrived. And don’t get me started on hauling my bag up the steep and seemingly unending hill to the cool castle hostel I just had to stay at in Bacharach, Germany… (worth it, though!)
Their Schedule, Not Yours
Hitchhiking is a great, free way to get around in a lot of the world and save a ton of money. Check out my post on that for more info, safety tips, and dos and don’ts. But it does mean you might have to wait for long periods to hitch a ride or modify your route or destination based on where your driver is headed. It involves a lot of standing around and walking to find the best spots to get picked up. You can throw your schedule out the window!
The Convenience Factor
Public transport is infinitely cheaper than taxis, private cars, even rental cars a lot of the time. But it lacks convenience and comfort. You have to get yourself to the nearest bus/tram/train/subway/metro stop in the first place. You might have to change multiple times to get to where you want to go. You have to follow the schedule and make sure you don’t miss the last bus of the day, for example. My friend and I accidentally did that in a small fishing village in Sweden once and were very lucky the one passing vehicle at 10:30pm offered to drive us to the train station in the nearby town even though they weren’t really going that way….
Plus, there’s the crowd factor. You might be squashed in with the masses, who may or may not have bathed recently… In peak times, you might be lucky to get a seat at all (one reason I love this gadget…)! I was fascinated by the sheer number of people who packed the aisles and doorways on the trains I took in India.
The cheapest flights, bus and train tickets are usually the cheapest for a reason. They are the least popular times. They might be late at night or super early in the morning. They may have 4 layovers, one of which is 9 hours… What you save on money, you often pay in time and hassle. If you take it in your stride, this doesn’t have to be terrible. But it’s certainly not slick and seamless.
Hard Work and Time
True budget travel doesn’t come easy. And not just the travel but the planning. You’re not going to get the best deal if you search one route on one airline on one date. Of course, that will probably take you five minutes and you can spend your time preparing and dreaming about your upcoming trip – or working to earn the extra money you could have saved if you’d shopped around.
But shopping around takes time and patience. Keeping with the example of buying an airline ticket, to get a really good deal you might have to search multiple routes, airports, airlines, days, flight patterns, websites, even alternative transportation options. This can take hours and get frustrating! Sometimes I get so sick of it, I just suck it up and buy the best thing I’ve found at the moment so I don’t have to deal with it anymore, even though I know I could have found a better deal if I waited.
Being Too Frugal and Missing Out
Sometimes, waiting for the best deal can backfire. I’ve held off on buying plane tickets thinking that the price would go down, only to have to opposite happen. Because I was holding out hoping to pay less, I ended up paying more. This can happen even in the short term. I’ve found a decent fare and spent half an hour checking other websites to confirm this was the lowest option available at that time only to go back and find that price was no longer available. This is rare, so I definitely still recommend taking the time to check multiple websites, but it can happen!
Another way my frugality has caused me to miss out is being too cheap to pay hefty entrance fees for museums and attractions. If it’s a choice between seeing/doing multiple things that are free or only a few bucks and blowing all my sightseeing budget on one big attraction, I’ll choose the former 90% of the time. Mostly, I’m cool with this choice and it has led me to see some amazing things I may not have otherwise. But it has also caused me to skip seeing other things I wish, in retrospect, I had just sucked it up and paid for.
It’s All About Balance
Basically, it boils down to personal preference. If you have the time and patience and are willing to forgo luxuries and sometimes basics, comforts, and conveniences, you can basically travel for free or close to it! But this takes a lot of work. Make sure you take into account pain and suffering. Decide which things matter enough to you to pay a little more for. In the end, you’ll have a much more enjoyable, and still affordable, trip.
*This post includes one or more affiliate links. I earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!) if you purchase a product or service through one of these links. Find out more here.*
- How I Travel Cheaper Than You Live
- Train Travel: The Romance & The Reality
- Why I Hate Cruises (and the Exceptions!)
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