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How to Travel on a Budget: Top Tips to Make and Save Money

Women on the Road
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Do you need to travel on a budget?

budget travel camping under the northern lightsCamping certainly is one way to keep travel costs down but don't worry - there are many many others

Many of us have, at one time or another, voiced one of the following sentiments:

"I can't afford to travel."

"I have no money to see the world."

"I just wish I could take off around the world but that'll never happen."

True, travel does cost money - but it may be less than you think with these four basic ways to stretch your funds and travel the world on a budget.

  • You can save money by cutting expenses
  • You can travel as cheaply as possible
  • You can earn more money before you go
  • You can make money while you travel

What follows are some savvy tips on saving money for a trip and traveling cheap. They're particularly helpful if you're a first-time traveler or if you're planning a long-term trip for the first time.

If you've already experienced what it’s like to save up for a trip, chances are you've tested one or more of these but if you still want to travel and aren't making ends meet, you might be in need of a refresher!

save money on travel

strategy #1: plan cheap ways to travel and save during your trip

I've written extensively about how to travel cheaply, even if you're almost broke.  These tips on budget solo travel are based on my own experience and those of fellow travelers.

First things first: make a plan. 

Next, do your research: How much does it cost to travel Europe? Or Asia? Or the UK? There are a lot of travel chat groups you can find where you can ask questions about your destination - although you’ll likely find your question already asked, and lots of helpful responses. 

Alternatively, I recommend checking out this helpful cost of living index to get a general idea of what you’re looking at. You can even check the traffic and crime rates of the cities here.

When budgeting, it’s always a good idea to over-estimate: expect the unexpected and have cash in your pocket to pay for it.

18 tips on how to travel cheap

  1. Before you leave, check if travel passes exist where you're going (rail, air, boat). You usually have to buy these before you leave, and they can save a lot of money on transport. For example, if you plan to travel extensively in Europe, a train pass might be a good idea.

  2. See what discounts you can get. In the US, joining AARP can get you discounts, and other countries may offer discount cards as well. Get them before you leave home.

  3. Check your credit or debit card charges - make sure your card company doesn't overcharge for withdrawals abroad. Look into prepaid credit cards and avoid the hefty charges.

  4. Develop a budget for the week - and try to live within its means. Be sure to write down what you spend. If you’re headed for long-term travel, divide the total amount in your travel budget by the number of weeks you’ll be gone (I used to separate my week's cash into small envelopes and when that day's or week's was empty, I stopped spending but if I was careful, I had something to carry over to the following week.)

  5. Stay longer. You can often negotiate a cheaper room rate if you're staying more than a couple of nights. I’ve seen so many “stay 6 nights get the 7th free” deals. Or you can housesit, which won't cost you anything at all.

  6. Consider accommodation with a kitchen - and use it! Not only will you save money but if it happens to be a communal kitchen in a hostel, you'll learn some interesting new recipes from your hostelmates and save more by cooking collectively.

  7. Shop at a local supermarket or, better yet, at a local market. Don't go to restaurants unless they're cheaper than your homemade fare or you're having a splurge. In a lot of countries, for example Thailand, street food is also a brilliant option - a great way to try the local cuisine, and at a much cheaper price.

  8. Don't drink or smoke - easier said than done perhaps but you can travel for days in many countries for the cost of a two-pack-a-day habit and a few drinks in a bar.

  9. Take a local bus rather than a 'tourist' bus or a taxi. It’s a great way to come into contact with the authentic local culture. Maybe even better, if distances aren't too huge, stay in shape and walk!

  10. Travel at night. Sleeping on a train or bus will save you a night's accommodation. It’ll also give you more time to spend in your destination. Any grogginess fades away when you’re faced with a new day in an exciting new place.

  11. In some super expensive countries - Scandinavia, anyone? - consider camping. It's often free, and in the summer you could balance your stays in cheap accommodation and couchsurfing with a bit of camping. It does mean you have to carry more than you would when you're staying in more formal accommodations but (once you've settled that safety is not a concern) this could be a viable solution if your trip is a long one.

  12. Share a room with a fellow traveler when you can. In most countries, the cost of the room doesn't change if there are two of you. Even if it does, your share will still be cheaper than a single room. Just wait at the reception and when another solo woman checks in, ask if you can share to save travel money. You'll often get a 'yes'! Of course, dorm rooms allow you to share with a number of people, and they’re as cheap as paid accommodation gets. This is not ideal (and really only works in bottom-end accommodation) but if you're trying to stretch out your trip by saving, doing this a few times could add a week or two to your travels.

  13. Look for shared rides on your hostel's bulletin board or online. These are becoming increasingly popular, especially in Europe, and plenty of groups or platforms are springing up that match travelers with rides.

  14. Buy used goods - if you're heading into the mountains for a few days, a cheap sweater will do the trick. I ended up buying a $5 winter coat in Kyrgyzstan when temperatures fell unexpectedly.

  15. Sign up for airline specials (they send out newsletters with their sales - you can sign up for free on most airline websites) and consider cheap accommodation alternatives, starting with couchsurfing-type stays.

  16. Sell your own goods once you're done with them. There's always a market for camping gear, used tools, etc. This will allow you to keep traveling light as you move through different conditions (like, from winter to summer), and will put some extra cash in your pocket. I once sold the shoulder strap for a big bag - I didn't need it because I carried it on my back rather than my shoulder. You never know!

  17. Don't buy new books - trade them with other travelers. Many hostels have shelves for book exchanges. Otherwise, sell your book to a second-hand bookshop - and buy your next read.

  18. And finally - stay legal. Fines cost money, not to mention possible prison sentences and other unpleasant things.
budget travel - campingA second-hand bookshop can save you money, but capture your imagination as well

Traveling cheaply is not only a way to go further on less. It’s an opportunity to experience local cultures and to challenge yourself, to meet people and go places you would never go if you had loads of money. Traveling on a tight budget is one of the best ways to travel - even for people who do have the money to do it differently.

strategy #2: Make money while you travel

This has been one of my preferred ways of staying on the road: the cost to travel for a year reduces significantly if you can offset it by making money as you travel. I've done all sorts of things, from translations to teaching English to selling toilet seats. All with one goal in mind: to stay on the road for as long as I could.

The world is a bit more sophisticated now and we have the internet, which is a gold mine for those of us who want to work without having to go to the office (see earlier point #2). All those online jobs are a great idea for funding your travels, and you’ll never be “unemployed.”

Even if online work isn’t your thing, you can make money on the road, in more ways than you can imagine! If you're drawing a blank, here are a few ideas of the kinds of jobs you can find as you travel, depending on your skill level.

strategy #3: save money for travel before you leave

Wondering how to save money for a trip? When I started preparing my own round-the-world trip, the first thing I did was to look at my expenses and decide what I could cut. My criteria were simple: if I desperately NEEDED something - electricity, heating, food - it stayed on the list. If it was merely a pleasure, an addition, a desire - it got chopped off. I was brutal.

how to travel the world with no money - what i did to save

  • I moved from a bright and airy apartment to a tiny studio beneath 24-hr church bells. I didn't get much sleep but I paid a third of my previous rent. I could also have moved into a smaller place and sublet the larger one, or gotten a roommate.
  • I sold my car and started taking the train to work. For me, that was a huge save. If you must keep your car, at least try to cut costs by getting cheaper insurance, using it only when it's urgent or sharing.

  • I pretty much stopped going out in the evenings. I entertained at home (casseroles, not caviar!) and just begged off any occasion that would cost me money.

  • I brought my lunch to work, and - the key to it all - I stopped drinking coffee at the office; with a ten-coffee a day habit, I'm sure this added an entire month to my travels.

  • I cut up my credit cards - literally. That helped me pay off debt, but more to the point, it prevented me from accumulating more (this was pre-Internet, when I couldn't compensate by spending it all online)

  • I got rid of my TV, my magazine subscriptions - anything that wasn't essential to survival. I spent a wonderful year hanging out in parks with friends, reading the stacks of books I hadn’t had time to before, and writing. Amazing what can take the place of spending when you're not looking!

strategy #4: Earn more money before your travels

It's not a painless process but if you need money to travel, the best place to get it is in your own pocket. If you have the opportunity to find a side hustle, grab it.

One way to do this is by getting a second, or a third job doing anything you can do. If you have a skill you haven’t used in a while, brush up on it. It can be in photography, massage therapy, knitting, cooking, or graphic design, anything that might help you find a few clients in your spare time. 

If you have no skills to brush up, there’s probably something out there you can do - landscaping help, dog-walking, coffee barista-ing, Ubering. It may be low-skill and low-paying, but in addition to your normal 9-5 and your extra savings, it can bring those travel dates a lot closer.

Remote work - the best way to travel continuously

Another approach - more lucrative but it takes longer to get off the ground - is to start an online career. It won’t just help you save money for your trip, it’ll help you make money while you travel (which is point #4 on this list). If you become location-independent now, it means you won’t have to go back home to save up for your next trip. You can just keep traveling.

If you’re a working professional, think about how you can apply your skills to remote work. Consider becoming a virtual assistant (remote administrative staff) and provide business support for companies across the globe. Do you write? Take Nomadic Matt’s travel writing course and start freelancing for magazines and newspapers.

Just browse through available jobs on Freelancer.com and see what’s out there: you might be surprised how many agencies are looking for ad hoc work that you are more than qualified to offer.

travel moneyWhy not me, right?

budgeting your trip for the cheapest way to travel

Before you book your flight, you need to know how much your trip will cost. I've put together a comprehensive resource page on how to plan your travel budget so read that first if you haven't yet got a $$ figure in mind for your trip.

You can also use this Budget My Trip printable planner to create a plan and answer the  elusive question, “How much money do you need to travel?”

It’s always easier to budget when you know where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. You don’t have to stick to an itinerary, but total spontaneity can hurt your wallet.

a few final tips on traveling on a budget

  • However you take your money with you, use multiple methods: some cash, some cards, and spread out through your money belt, your pocket (just a little cash for incidentals) and your bag (a small amount for emergencies only) - if one thing gets lost, you'll still have the rest.

  • Let your bank know you're traveling. In Europe, this isn't a big deal but I've had my US card flagged because the bank was wondering why it was being used in Dubai.

  • In many rural areas, especially in the developing world, you'll need cash. You can walk many miles before finding an ATM so be forewarned.

While preparing to travel long-term, I also did something that motivated me tremendously: I created a travel vision board, a huge wall of cardboard where I stuck pictures of places I wanted to see and scribbled sayings related to travel. I wrote up quotes on index cards that I pasted all over my walls. 

So whenever I was tempted to throw my hands up in despair and head off on a shopping spree (or ice cream binge), I saw my cards. The ones that reminded me that the reason I was suffering was that I wanted to TRAVEL. And that soon, I wouldn't have to worry about any work AT ALL!

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