Recently I received two emails from readers who told me they couldn’t travel because they were broke – so they were staying home.
“I’m too poor to travel now,” one said.
“I can’t afford to travel like you do, I’m retired now,” said the other.
Both statements hit me hard: I’ve just retired and I’m watching my own bank balance dwindle with eagle eyes.
Yet I have no intention of curtailing my travels. On the contrary, I’m tempting fate by making plans that are, shall we say, a little beyond my means.
But back to you.
A rather large proviso: Saying everyone can travel ‘if only they try’ is a complete myth. There are billions of people around the world who cannot, and that is the stark reality. Those of us who can travel by tightening our belts a little are very privileged and very few – we are those with jobs or some sort of income or the ability to move around, whether physical or political. So yes, I understand that this doesn’t apply to everyone – I so wish it did!
Those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel can do quite a bit, even if money is scarce. We can find ways to travel more for less.
And the place to start is with travel planning.
PLANNING YOUR TRAVELS ON A BUDGET
Of course your first step will be to plan your travel budget.
If that budget looks ridiculously small, don’t fret: there are places in the world that are ridiculously cheap.
Can you afford $20 a day? You could spend 24 hours in these cities for about that: Saigon (Vietnam), Vientiane (Laos) or Chiang Mai (Thailand). Granted, you’ll eat street food and sleep in a hostel dorm. But it can be done!
According to Reader’s Digest, here are the cheapest places to travel in 2019: Fez (Morocco); Tbilisi (Georgia); Antigua (Guatemala); Odessa (Ukraine); Kathmandu (Nepal); Luang Prabang (Laos); Brașov (Romania); Yerevan (Armenia); Bogotá (Colombia).
There’s also my favorite money-saver: destinations closer to home. Recently wanderlust set in but having a strict budget meant I couldn’t just jump on a plane. I looked around me (I live in France, near the Swiss border) and pinpointed one major city I didn’t really know: Milan! I found a cheap train ticket, a low-cost Airbnb (it’s out of season now) and a bunch of inexpensive places to eat on forums. Off I went.
Have you visited every city that’s easily within reach of you for a day? Is there a special spiritual place near you that you’ve never thought of visiting? What about a prehistoric site, a special spring or mountain?
It may not be ideal, but travel is all about discovery, wherever that discovery might be.
Let’s not forget that discovery can also take place within as much as without. If you see travel as a quest, you might find some of what you’re searching for closer to home.
TRAVEL TRANSPORTATION – CHEAPLY
If you can afford to travel at least a little, getting to your destination will be a big part of your spending.
Transportation often means taking a flight.
I’ve learned that if you plan well enough in advance, you can find very cheap flights to almost anywhere in the world.
NOTE: If you happen to be a senior, some countries – and even national airlines – offer discounts. So do railway companies, bus companies and boats. (If you’re the “right” age, this isn’t the time to shave off a few vanity years – it might cost you.)
One way to maximize the cost of that flight is to stay away longer. Counterintuitive perhaps, but the longer you travel the less it will cost you, since your initial investment (flight, luggage, clothes) will only be made once.
FINDING A CHEAP PLACE TO STAY
Free accommodation does exist.
I can think of two excellent options.
The first is to stay with someone. The second is to take care of their house while they’re away.
Cutting travel costs by staying with someone
Look around you.
Do you know anyone who lives abroad? Do you know anyone who knows anyone who lives abroad?
Start networking. In these lively days of social media you could just post a request on your Facebook page.
“Hey friends! I’m headed to Mongolia/Tanzania/Peru in a couple of months and since I’ve retired/lost my job, the paycheck for some reason seems to have disappeared. I haven’t visited every country on earth yet but, with your help, I could. If you have any friends or relatives in Mongolia/Tanzania/Peru, I’d be incredibly grateful for an introduction! I promise to be discreet, not eat all their food, and praise you to the skies.”
Or something to that effect.
This little strategy found me a room in a luxurious winery in South Africa, an apartment on the coast of Tunisia, and a luxury apartment for a month – yes, an entire month – in Brasilia. And that was before social media even existed.
So ask around. At worst, you might end up going somewhere not originally on your list but where you’ll be able to stay for free – and meet wonderful local people at the same time.
Don’t know anyone who knows anyone where you’re going?
You can still stay for free by using some of the free homestay groups like couchsurfing whose members believe – as I do – that travel can change the world and that getting to know one another is the best way to do that.
Then there’s housesitting: the house, minus the people
Becoming a housesitter is an increasingly popular option for travelers.
When people go away for any length of time, they may not want to leave their house (or their pets) alone so they search for a reliable housesitter to come and stay. Independent women travelers, especially mature ones, are in huge demand, by the way. Housesitting is such a popular travel alternative that my friends Dalene and Pete Heck have written a book about it.
There are housesitting opportunities everywhere in the world, and living like a local is a wonderful way to get to know a city or country.
I’m particularly interested in this type of home care because I plan on finding housesitters to stay in my own house when I travel after retirement. In fact a few of you have even contacted me about this!
(Don’t worry, when I’m ready for a housesitter – that won’t be for at least a year – I’ll be sure to notify you all through my newsletter.)
My final suggestion: volunteer
That’s right. If you have a skill to share and you’re looking at long-term travel, you might be able to find a volunteer opportunity that doesn’t cost you anything and that might actually pay you for your skills.
The world of volunteering is complex and huge, but with some diligent searching, you should be able to find what you’re looking for.
IF YOU’RE WILLING OR ABLE TO PAY FOR YOUR STAY
Staying on the cheap in a city usually means finding a cheap hostel bed and that can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re in the mood to meet other travelers.
I tend to stay away from the ones that mention “party hostel” or “nightlife” in the description because we wouldn’t be a great match. I also don’t really like dorms so unless I’m having a complete financial meltdown I choose a private room.
That said, there are plenty of hostels that are a little more upmarket but cheap.
Another paying option that offers you as much or as little privacy as you want at bargain prices is Airbnb. In case you’re not a member yet here’s how it works: you pay to stay in people’s homes, either sharing it with them or taking over their entire residence. (And if you’re not a member, use my link to join and get a discount on your first trip!)
You’ll find the full range of accommodation, from dirt cheap to high end, but even the cheapest lodgings have plenty going for them. I should know – I use Airbnb all the time when I travel, and there are plenty of other similar services dedicated to finding you a place to stay.
4 STEPS TO FINDING ROCK-BOTTOM DESTINATIONS
1. If you’re totally broke, stay close to home.
I mentioned this above.
Mine your region, your neighborhood. Enjoy a staycation. Play tourist. Take advantage of low prices for locals. Go to a nearby city for the day, one you’ve never been to before. Go for a hike in a local park, or for a paddle on a river close by. Visit a local sacred site. Visit a local museum: residents often get in cheaper or for free. Try a change of scenery: it’ll help.
It might take a while before you get bored with your surroundings but at some point, you’ll be yearning for chillies or coriander or escargots (all right, maybe not the snails) or an East End accent or the open plains of Africa.
Once that travel bug kicks in, you’ll have no choice but to go. Far away. But meantime, enjoy your local surroundings!
2. Your dream destination may be a possibility
Give it some serious thought. Where do you really want to go and is it really out of reach?
If your dream is Norway or Paris, you may be out of luck, at least for now. But if it’s Albania or Thailand, you just might be able to squeeze by on your budget. Subscribe to airline newsletters and be the first to find out when there’s a seat sale.
You won’t know until you look.
Check flights, check the cost of living, ask questions in travel forums – just do your good old-fashioned research. Many people are shocked to find out their dream destination is actually within reach if they’re extremely careful with their budgets. (Or you could be flexible and choose a dream destination that is affordable…)
3. Find an alternate destination
Look for something near where you want to go – near enough to visit – but cheaper to fly into.
For example, if you want to go to Barcelona, consider flying into Girona; because costs to airlines are lower in this smaller airport, flights there are cheaper as well and it’s close enough to Barcelona for a day trip. You could try landing in Lyon or Chambery in France as an alternate destination to Geneva – and then take the train or bus. It’s not always cheaper, but it’s worth exploring.
4. Time your travels properly
By timing of course I mean the season, but also the day of the week and the time of day.
Let me give you a few examples.
I searched for flights from Geneva (the airport closest to me) to New York around the April and May shoulder season. Depending on the day of the week, one flight cost $600 and the other cost $1000 – within days of one another. The Saturday flights were the most expensive, the Monday and Tuesday flights cheapest (in this particular case). Move those departures into the July high season and some are as high as $1250, more than double the cheapest flight. I could afford $600, but not $1250 for a flight.
Here’s a regional example within Europe. If I reserve a flight from Geneva to London on EasyJet (a low-cost airline) two months ahead of time, I might pay $25 one way. If I reserve the day of the flight, it could be as high as $400 one way. In this case, it certainly pays to book ahead.
The time of flight can also play a huge role. One 7am flight I found cost $60; the same flight at 7pm on the same day was $170. Under these conditions, I don’t mind setting the alarm clock a bit early.
So yes, planning is crucial and can cut your transport costs by way more than half.
LIVING CHEAPLY ON THE ROAD
Getting there and finding a bed are only half the battle – you still want to do things once you get there.
Sightseeing is often a high-ticket item, with prices for a day tour running off the charts in some cases. Most cities, however, have free walking tours! Just Google “free walking tours [NAME OF CITY]” and you’ll see dozens of listings. Some are truly free, such as those organized by tourist offices, for example. Others are free but a tip is expected. Please remember to tip if the guide is good because she too has to eat and your tip is her salary. That said, there’s a huge difference between a $5 tip and an $80 tour.
Culture and entertainment can also be expensive, with popular shows charging fortunes for the worst seat, you know, the one behind the Roman column on the fourth floor. But what about festivals? Saints days? Parades organized during the rainy or cold seasons? Lunchtime concerts in the park?
Check the tourist office website or the local equivalent of What’s On before you book your ticket and see whether you might be able to coincide your trip with some kind of celebration or street fair or special market.
Museums in most countries have free days. Find out when these are and make sure that’s when you’re there. In Paris, for example, some museums are permanently free, like the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Others, like the Pompidou Center or the Musée d’Orsay are free the first Sunday of every month. Others have free evenings, and so on. All it takes is 30 seconds online looking for “free museums Paris”.
Most major cities also have a plethora of other free things to do. Going to London? Just Google “free things to do London” and you’ll see what I mean: my first hit was an article entitled “101 Free Things to do in London”. I mentioned museums but you could also feed pelicans in St James’s Park, watch a theater rehearsal, go to the Sunday flower market, forage for antiques on Bermondsey Square (you can’t carry them home anyway so don’t fret about not being able to buy any) or visit Foyles, the city’s largest independent bookstore. And there are 90+ other free things to do, in the first article I found. I found freebies just as easily in Budapest, Vienna, Stockholm, Mexico City, Hanoi, Cape Town… And to give you an idea, here’s my own take on free or cheap things to do in Paris.
If you’re not in a walking mood there’s often a way to cut costs on public transportation. Again, the tourist office is a good source of information, as is the Internet. A day bus ticket usually costs less than a single journey, and a week ticket – many cities have them – will be cheaper than a day ticket.
Find out about combos that include bus + train or train + ferry. These are sometimes hidden so don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what tourism officials are there for.
EATING ON THE CHEAP
One worry when I travel is food. I don’t want to miss out on local specialties but if I’m on a tight budget that Michelin-starred restaurant is going to stay firmly beyond my reach. So is that medium-priced popular watering hole. So what to do?
The first is eat street food. In many countries it’s even better than what you might eat in a restaurant, Thailand and Mexico (at least for me) being two solid examples among dozens more. When I lived in Bangkok my daily food budget could easily be kept under a couple of dollars. It may have gone up a bit by now but not by much. Many restaurants only serve glorified street food anyway but frankly I’d rather have the real thing, eating at small rickety tables on the sidewalk, surrounded by everyday citizens.
My second cheap eating suggestion is to buy your own food before it’s prepared. The best place to do this is a food market but if you’ve just missed the daily market, there’s always the good old supermarket.
Not all supermarkets (or specialty food shops) are globalized and boring. You can eat locally. Take the local French supermarket in my village. It carries fruit from Chile and Kenya (bad for the environment and the wallet) but next to that exotic produce you’ll find local strawberries and apples and pears, much more suited to the climate.
The same goes for cheese.
You can pay an extortionate amount for cheddar from the UK but you’ll pay half the price for a local Reblochon or Comté – just as good (or even better?). Wine pricing follows the same reasoning.
You can buy some local cold cuts or a bit of cheese, cherry tomatoes and a punnet of strawberries (in season) at the market for under $5. Hop next door to the boulangerie and get yourself a baguette of French bread. If you drink you could also pick up a cheap can of beer or a half-bottle of wine, and off you go to the park (in most of Europe drinking alcohol outdoors is perfectly legal, unlike in North America).
If you’re staying in a hostel or a home, use the kitchen! If you happen to have culinary skills and can cook up a mean Gratin Dauphinois just ask around. Does anyone want to pitch in with money and you’ll do the cooking? Divide the cost of a supermarket trolley into four and you’ll see how incredibly cheaply you can shop and eat.
AND IF YOU SERIOUSLY RUN OUT OF MONEY…
You could always find a job.
Yes, even if you don’t have a work permit, you’ll usually be able to find a little bit of work ‘under the table’, not that I recommend this, mind you, because you could also get caught.
Still… trading some English lessons for your room cost is borderline legal in most countries and even if it isn’t, there’s no money exchanged so tax officials probably won’t gallop after you.
Teaching English, at least casually, is the low-hanging fruit, if you happen to be staying put for any length of time. I’ve also been paid for writing funding proposals (writing anything, really, but then I’m a writer by profession). I’ve earned money selling toilet seats (yes, my life has been glamorous), being a hostess at a convention (I was younger then) and all sorts of other odd jobs.
You can also work online – there are so many ways to earn money that if you have any of the skills (or are willing to develop them) this might be a way to get you out on the road for much longer than you thought.
ABOUT YOUR HEALTH
Are you considering having something done about your health? An operation? Dental care? Getting this done overseas can save you huge amounts of money and help pay for your trip. I speak from experience because for years I visited my dentist in Thailand rather than nearby in Geneva: including the flight, treatment still cost me less than doing it in Switzerland. Of course this won’t work for a cavity but if you need a crown or two, you’ll find countries where medical care is every bit as good as where you come from, if not better.
So yes, you do need money to travel, some money, but perhaps not as much as you think.
By choosing your destination wisely, planning your time of travel carefully and daring to stay with people, you can cut your travel expenses by more than half.
RESOURCES FOR LOW-COST TRAVEL
- Price of Travel itemizes the daily cost of a bed, meals and transport in 130 world cities for 2015.
- Use Travel Math to calculate the closest airport to your destination. You’ll be surprised at how many there are! And many of them will be cheaper.
- Sandeman’s New Europe is one example of a company organizing free tours in exchange for tips.
- Some interesting information from Nomadic Matt on travel hacking and finding cheap flights.
- Good suggestions on enjoying adventures at home if you can’t travel.
- To find the cheapest hotel rooms, check out the booking.com search engine.
— Originally published on 30 April 2015