Updated: Jun 26, 2019
I think traveling/adventuring/seeing the world is often mistakenly associated with the "high-income" community only. Oftentimes I'll get strange looks when I mention how I'm able to travel and also how I am a student not making lots of money. I decided to write up a post to talk about how I manage to travel without spending any more money than I do in a typical month living at home in Utah.
First, let's talk about the costs you'll need to consider when traveling:
- Travel expenses (this includes plane tickets to and from your home, country-to-country transportation, and local transportation in the city you stay in.)
- Accommodation expenses (this is the cost for where you're going to sleep at night.)
- Food expenses (obviously, this is what you eat and drink!)
- Tourism costs (once you're traveling, you will often need to pay entrance tickets, or pay for the various activities you want to do in the country.)
- Unforeseen costs (like anything in life, you'll have random fees come up. This may include taxes, international data, a ticket for breaking some rule you didn't know about, or over-sized luggage fees.)
I used to think that plane tickets were the most expensive part of traveling. But, I got smarter and spent more time doing this so it is actually one of the cheaper parts of traveling for me. The thing is, you really can't be dogmatic on where you go, or when you go, when trying to find cheap tickets. As a student, I do understand that when you can travel is limited to specific weeks so you need to be flexible on where you want to go. I have a massive list of places I'm interested in and I am willing to go to any of those places based on which is cheapest when I can go. Here is an exact layout of how I find good plane tickets:
- I use a few different apps, mostly Skiplagged.com, and Student Universe. Skiplagged has better tickets most of the time but it is nice to check a few different places. Skiplagged works by finding the absolute WORST connections, layovers, and ways to cheat the airline systems to get amazing deals for you. I usually find my tickets on Skiplagged, and then go to the actual airlines to buy the tickets (because Skiplagged does charge a small fee.) If you go between like 3 airlines then I just pay the small Skiplagged fee because I don't want to go through all the websites.
- I stalk the Skiplagged sight over several weeks. During this time, I check MANY locations (all the ones on my list of places to go.) Also, I check the difference between round-trip and one-way. (One will always be cheaper than the other and it's totally random so check both.) Finally, check surrounding airports or major hubs that are easy to get to. (For example, if you want to go to Paris, it's oftentimes hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into London and spend the $50 to take a train from London to Paris.) The more you mess around with locations, dates, one-way vs roundtrip, and surrounding airports, the more money you'll save.
- Finally, make sure you also decide where you want to fly into. If you're not from a hub city, then it's sometimes better to buy tickets in and out of an airport you can drive to, or one that you can buy a cheap-o flight in and out of. My closest airport is SLC, but it's usually cheaper to fly out of LAX or San Fransisco and then buy a cheap-o flight there.
Here a few really good deals I've found:
SLC to Kona, Hawaii ($125 dollars there) -- One way
Kona, Hawaii to San Fransisco ($75 there) -- One way
SLC to Bali ($400) -- Round Trip
San Fransisco to London ($325) -- Round Trip
London to Germany ($50) -- Round Trip
Bali to Lombok ($28) -- Round Trip
SLC to Iceland ($275) -- Round Trip
This will include how you're going to get to various countries from your destination. This doesn't apply to every place you're going if you're going to stay in one country, but if you're traveling around Asia or Europe then this is good to know. The very best thing to do is look up each of these options in the country you're traveling in and determine which is cheapest. It will vary based on where you're traveling between so check all the options, and even make plans based around which option is cheapest. Be flexible!
- Planes. Many countries have intra-country flights that are SUPER cheap. In Asia, Europe, and South America there are several low-budget flights that save you more more than trains lots of times. In Europe, Ryan Air is extremely budget friendly and worth the cost. I would double check a few things before booking these: the baggage limit, the safety record, and their refund policy if THEY cancel.
- Trains. This is a great method to get around Europe, Asia, and Africa actually. They're usually pretty cheap, even upgrading to first class for a few bucks will get you a meal or a nicer seat. It's really a great way to get between countries or major cities and can save you money.
- Busses. Overnight busses especially. These are usually the CHEAPEST ways to get between major cities or countries. I went from Saigon to Ka Noi Vietnam (12 hours) overnight for $13. Sure it might not be super comfy, but you can lay down and sleep and you'll get a night's accommodation plus transportation for a great deal. I love these so much.
- Taxi. I've never done this, too much money. But I guess it is an option if you're desperate.
This is how you get to your hotel, to your tourist destinations, and around town. Make sure you research many options again to find what works best in the location you're touring, and which is cheapest!
- WALK. Obviously, this is free, and great for your health. If I can walk anywhere I do. Even if it takes a little longer it is so worth it. The very best part about walking though is that you'll stumble upon awesome treasures (like a turtle sanctuary, a thrift store, or a fresh coconut milk shop.)
- Pedal bike. Second best option for sure. I highly recommend this for both big cities like Paris, London, Vienna, Amsterdam and small cities also. Most cities actually have cheap bikes for charter, just google where stations are. If you can't find these, ask your Airbnb or Hotel to rent one. You can do the same as above (find cute little treasures along the way to your destinations.) They do cost money, but they're usually very cheap and you can get to where you're going a little faster. Also, at the end of your trip you'll be tired so this is great if you're not feeling another walk.
- Electric bike/scooter. I'm finding these in more and more cities (Singapore, Lima, even Salt Lake City!) Usually you download an app and hop on. They're also way cheap and easy to get around. Check them out!
- Motor scooter. These are more expensive in the US, but most countries have these for a decent price. In Bali we rented these for around $3-4 each day! It's nice to get around with this method, largely depending on the safety for the driver (some places your life is just more valuable) and the price (like in Hawaii it was $60 per day, not worth it for me.)
- Taxi/Uber/Lyft. CHECK each of these in each country. I was so attached to Uber but then I started using taxis instead in Myanmar, Cusco Peru, and India and they were way cheaper. WAY cheaper. Ask your driver to use a meter and refuse to set a price unless it is low. I cannot even tell you how many drivers will rack their prices up SO much because you're a tourist. By negotiating just a few minutes you can usually get them to drop their prices ~60% at least. If you're a solo female traveler, I honestly would spend a little more on Lyft or Uber just because the drivers are tracked, you can share your location, and they have a background check. *ALSO* Just never have your drivers drop you off in front of where you're staying. Just have them drop you a few doors/hotels down and walk. Its safer if nobody knows where you're staying (I've seen Taken, just don't be stupid.)
- Make friends. This may sound weird, but I can't tell you how many times I've gotten rides from friends I met at my tourist locations. In Hawaii I've always just made friends with people on my adventures (dolphin tour, diving excursion) and they give me a ride back to town! Do the same as above, don't tell people exactly where you're staying. Have them drop you off ~5 walk to where you're staying to be safe.
- Rent a car. I haven't done this, because I'm not 25. If you're 25+ this can be a cheap and wonderful option, but don't just go right to this because everyone does it. They're often much more expensive than just taking local buses/metros.
- The metros. If you're in a bigger city, use the Metro/Rail/Tube/Subway. This was awesome for us in Singapore, Japan, European Cities. Super cheap also. Make sure you ask if they have a tourist pass because they're often cheaper than paying for a full local pass.
- Busses. These are usually around even in small cities. I used these in Cusco, Kona HI, Beijing, etc. Local busses can be hard to figure out, but they're a super cheap option, and a fun way to still see the city. I'm super dyslexic and take the bus the wrong direction all the time so just double check you're heading the right way.
Overall, my spending for travel costs is usually less than I budget for. Be smart and flexible, make friends, walk a lot, but also be safe. If you ever feel unsafe, get your butt in a better position and don't be afraid to be rude or spend money. If I don't feel unsafe, I go to pretty funny lengths to save some money thought!
This is obviously the costs you'll spend on where you stay. This is usually the most expensive part of my trip, but I'll give you a few tips on how to budget for this.
- Travel when your lease is up. This may sound so funny, but I always plan trips when I'm not also paying rent at home. Usually I spent ~$875 per month on rent at home, and if I'm not paying that then I have a nice budget for places to stay!
- If you can't travel when your lease is up, considering renting your apartment out via Airbnb. Sounds a little weird, I know, but I've done is several times and it's super nice to have the extra cash. Make sure your place is priced for normal people (weirdos will only stay in really low budget places) to stay so you don't end up regretting this. But, I've done it, and it was worth it almost every time!
Where to stay:
- I use Airbnb.com 90% of my traveling. It is user-friendly, easy to get discount coupons, cheap, and also fun to stay local. I have traveled to over 90 homes using Airbnb and never once felt uneasy about my host. I can't obviously guarantee everything, but I personally love this platform and feel super comfortable with it. You basically use this platform by staying in the homes/apartments of people like us! Sometimes hotels put their rooms on Airbnb also. You may end up staying in a place with other people, other times its private. The nice part about this platform is that you can filter places based on price. I usually end up staying everywhere for around $20-$30 each night. Sometimes I'll splurge on a nicer home if it looks worth it or will help me not spend money elsewhere (like if the home has a pool or includes a transportation pass). I also find it important to note that sometimes you'll fine homes that are out of the way from where you're spending your time, but they're cheaper. Sometimes it's cheap enough to be worth it, but consider the fact that you'll need to pay for a taxi or bus to get to your location and that's not always worth the offset. But, in Singapore we stayed for ~$25/ night in a wonderful home that was 45 minutes away from the city but the metro went from our home to the city for like $1.33 so it was worth staying further away! Just do your research is what I'm saying.
- You can also browse hotels.com, booking.com, or just google. These are less convenient and usually more expensive, but they're worth checking out.
- Overnight busses/trains. We already talked about this above but look into these, they're great to get you from place to place and they include overnight accommodation.
- Hostels. This is not my favorite option honestly, but sometimes it's worth it. I've stayed in 3. 1 in Iceland (okay, but I was with my boyfriend so I didn't feel unsafe), 1 in Germany (disgusting, worst place I've ever stayed), and 1 in Rome (amazeballs!!!!). The one in Rome was females only (called Hostella) and it was seriously SO FUN. I met amazing girls who I'm still friends with and it was so chic--I loved it! I just am not a drinker or partier at all, and I highly dislike being hit on by strange men hahaha, so I don't like the scene in most hostels. They're too close to strangers that aren't my type of people, and I don't find them worth it. If you're into that scene and you're chill being more co-ed, then go for it!
- BnB's. Depending on the country you travel to, you can often just drive around and find cute BnB's. Ireland is the best place I've been to like this! It was so easy to find cute little homes that were just set up to book on-sight and they were cheap, adorable, and cosy. Do research ahead of time though because I tried this in Iceland and ended up sleeping in my car, which was terrible.
- If you are a seriously low-budget traveler, you can sleep in the car you rent. I did this once and hated it. I like having space and a shower and I'm willing to spend money to enhance my traveling by having a room.
- Hotels. I rarely book these, but if you can find a hotel in the area that is the same price as an Airbnb, book it!!! They are nice and usually have yummy breakfast!
- Friends. This one is obvious. But I'm lucky to have friends and family around the world, also my church is global and tight-knit so I can often find people will to let me stay with them for free or cheap. I think it's so valuable to make friends when you travel also, and get their FaceBook, because they'll oftentimes refer you to cheap or free places if you go back! This helps a lot with cost. If you're ever coming to Salt Lake City, UT (to interview for med school or just to ski), reach out to me and I'll try and hook you up with a place!
Keep in mind this will be expensive. But it is super easy to budget for, and you won't really find that this costs is higher or lower than you expected because you'll mostly know ahead of time what you'll be spending. Also, if you play it smart, it won't cost you any more than just living at home does.
Yes, food can get expensive. But your body needs to eat whether you're at home or you're traveling. I'm personally into grocery shopping and eating PB&J's for most meals and splurging a few times on various meals. Here are a few tips and tricks:
- PACK AN AIRPORT LUNCH. I'm serious. You'll spend SO much money on airport food and it is never worth it. Pack a delicious sandwich, some fruit, chips, and a cookie and put it in a lunchbox. You can bring it through security and you'll save $50 at least.
- Bring snacks from home on your trip. I usually keep a few cliff bars in my bag so I don't end up dropping a ton of money on a random snack just because I'm starving.
- Bring a water bottle (for countries with safe tap water).
- Grocery shop. Obviously. It's so worth it to stock up on a few things like bread, whatever topping you like, apples, chips, etc. Eat most of your meals made in the kitchen because it's much cheaper.
- Street food/famers markets. These are great options to "eat out" but not spend a lot of money. Ask your hotel/airbnb where the best local markets and street foods are, and what days they're open. These are usually low-cost and delicious.
- Restaurants. Yep, it's worth it on occasion to go to one! If the country you are in is famous for it's food, then you just need to spend the money and get a yummy bite to eat. I highly recommend not just stopping at the first one you see. I have found that, in an area with many restaurants, the prices vary significantly based on how close you are to a tourist attraction. For example, the restaurants near the Notre Dame are 50% more expensive than those just a 10 minute walk away.
- Free breakfast. Many Airbnb's/Bnb's/Hotels offer breakfast! EAT IT. Even if you don't do breakfast, get some free food in your tummy. (Also, take some fruit or breakfast bars for the day if they have them.)
- I don't drink alcohol, which is a personal choice. But this saves me a lot of money and honestly, if drinking is not a major hobby of yours, you can save so much money in many countries by choosing Coke instead. Many countries (Morocco, Indonesia, Myanmar, India.) have heavy alcohol taxed (up to 400% in some areas)! If you're into trying, local beers then it may be worth it to you, but consider that if you are budget traveling drinking water or soda will save lots of money! (Also, please be safe and drink responsibly. I have had several friends assaulted or injured while traveling, many countries are just not like the United States and it's easy to forget that! Make sure you have a designated sober friend that you trust and stay away from strange people if you're going out!)
Again, food is just an unavoidable cost because you're a human. But, if you're smart, it won't cost you any more than it does to eat at home!
This is a really hard balance to find honestly. If you're spending the money and time to travel to a new country, you NEED to do the fun things you came to do! But, if you're budget traveling then you need to pick and choose what you do. Here are some of my best tips:
- Choose what you want to do in advance. Make sure you have a list of "Must Do's", a list of "Maybe I'll do this", and have a "Free To Do's" list as well. You can budget better if you know exactly what you're going to do.
- I usually will splurge on 1-2 big activities per country (like scuba diving in Bali, wild Dolphin encounters in Hawaii, bungee jumping/skydiving in South Africa, hiking Machu Picchu, Night Safari in Singapore, Camel Trek in Morocco, etc.) I only pick something I haven't done before (like I never pay just to do another reef dive, I've done this a lot. But I've splurged to do a shipwreck, or a Manta Ray dive.) Budget this well, do something that can only be done in that country, and make sure you research a few different companies to get the best price.
- I also splurge on a few lower cost activities (museum fees, beach fees, church entrance fees, etc.) if they are worth it. Make sure you research cheaper (or FREE) days to go. Yes, even the Louvre is free on a few random days! Go then! If you can't go on a free day, make sure you at least ask for a student discount. Most places will give you a discount for having your student ID on you.
- This is a huge thing: DO NOT go to a random museum or tourist attraction "just because you have nothing else to do." You will end up spending money that you won't really be satisfied with. Honestly don't do it!! Make sure you've done enough research to know what you really want to do. Remember, it is OKAY to just enjoy a picnic by the Eiffel tower for free, it is perfectly fine to just want to people watch at the Westminster Abbey, and it is great to just enjoy walking around a city! You'll feel (self) pressure to go into every church you see, but you shouldn't. Only do the things you really really want to do, and that you'll be sad not to see. Seriously, random museums or tourist attractions are not worth spending money on.
- Have some fun activities to do that are free. Bring a puzzle, a book, and cards! These are great ways to spend a vacation. Also, find free things to do in the city. These can include walking through markets, libraries, some museums, hiking, swimming in local areas (favorite place ever was the lake near the Neuschwanstein Castle in Munich, Germany), walking around famous buildings/structures (i.e. I wouldn't pay to go up the Arch de Triumph but definitely go look at it!)
- Airbnb Experiences and Tripadvisor.com are great place to just find fun things to do! I always recommend doing a cooking class and a city bike tour in every country you go. They're both way cool ways to connect with the culture and the city, spend the day, and they're usually not very expensive! Some of the best things memories I have are from taking bike tours of Bangkok and Lima, and cooking classes in Bali and India.
Just push the pressure to fill every second of every day with an activity out of your head. This is YOUR vacation and you can enjoy just walking around, people watching, enjoying a beverage, and meeting new people. Traveling is much more than seeing sights. Immerse yourself in the culture, learn some of the language, enjoy yourself! I justify the majority of my travel expenses with the money I would normally spend on going to movies with friends, going skiing, going to football/basketball games, or activities that I spend money on at home anyways. The 1-2 splurges may be more expensive than you're used to, so you can omit them or just work a few extra shifts to cover them.
These will come up. Just plan them into your budget. I got fined $65 in Germany for not "validating" a metro ticket, I had to pay $60 in Singapore for an overweight bag which wasn't overweight on any other airline that trip, and Brandon lost $50 in cash. ATM Fees are a real thing too! These things happen, it's not the end of the world. Just be smart, follow the rules, and do your research. Here are a few random trips for these situations:
- Make sure anyone demanding money from you is legit. There are always scam artists that will try and screw you. Demand to see their license and read them. Don't give money to them if you did nothing wrong.
- Overweight bags will get you every time. Check the airline requirements (lots of budget airlines are 7kg max) and travel light! If they try and charge you, take out all the clothes you can and wear them through security. I know it sounds crazy, but I saved $100 in Amsterdam by wearing 4 pairs of pants, 6 shirts, and a jacket... haha!!!
- Keep cash in a safe place, on your body. Don't take out a large sum of money in front of anyone, just be smart.
- Avoid ATM fees by remembering your budget, take out money from your bank in the US, bringing US dollars with you to the country you're traveling at, and exchanging it at a LEGIT place in the country (not the airport.) This will help you avoid fees (charged by the ATM and by your bank and the foreign transaction fee). If you have a credit card that does't charge foreign transaction fees that's awesome, but keep in mind that a lot of countries are cash economies and you won't be able to do things without cash.
- International data is just worth it. Seriously I cannot explain how many times Google Maps has saved my life (literally). Work with your phone company ahead of time, if it isn't worth it, they get a SIM Card from the country you're in and just get a little bit of Data and only use it for Google Maps and emergency calls!
Again, these will either need to be a wash with a few of your activities that you had planned on doing, and you will just need to enjoy the free beach one day, or see the outside of the La Sagrada Familia basilica instead of going in. Think of these as similar unforeseen costs you have at home too (tire changes, parking tickets, etc.)
Other random tips:
- Travel with a friend (or friends) so you can split the cost of Uber's/Airbnb's! This makes traveling SO much cheaper! Even if you're in a relationship you can travel with other couples or family to lower your costs.
- Always take your hotel shampoos/conditioners/soaps/sewing kits and even ask for extra to stock up. (Do hotels Ross Geller style #friendsfan)
- Do as the locals do. Ask them for restaurant tips, activity tips, and other advice!
- Research a TON. The more unprepared you are, the more you'll end up spending.
- Free WiFi/bathroom/water = Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC. Yea I know they're American restaurants but they'll save your bacon in many places when you need a cup of water or need to pee. (Because in most countries these are not a right like you're used to haha!)
- Don't buy dumb touristy books... Google is free and it has literally everything you could ever want.
- It is cheaper to buy some things at home even if you're going to another country that is cheaper. For example, Sunscreen isn't used in a lot of countries except by tourists so they jack up the prices a ton. In the Bahamas sunscreen was $25 per bottle... just buy it at home and bring it in your bag.
- A fun way to enjoy local treats is small grocery/gas station stores. You can spend a ton of time just looking at local candies and treats because that's what people actually eat (sorry to break it to you, most French people don't eat Nutella Crepes like you'd expect.)
Hope you enjoyed reading this! Please send me an email if you have any other questions. I've been to 43 countries, some with my family, some on a study abroad, some with my cousin, some with friends, some with my partner Brandon, and some alone! I'm not an expert, but budget traveling sure is a major hobby of mine and cheapness, safety, and ADVENTURE are my top priority!