There is a widespread (and erroneous) belief that traveling has to cost a fortune.
Let me let you in on a little secret- it doesn’t.
I have traveled to 35 countries and besides family vacations as a kid, all on a tight budget. With a bit of finagling, you can save money both by saving hard before your trip as well as watching every euro, lira and rupiah you spend on the road.
Here are some of my tricks that keep me traveling enjoyably and inexpensively.
Before your trip:
Buy the ticket far in advance, using points if possible.
I’m definitely no points ninja (see The Points Guy on how to rack up frequent flier points) but I am vigilant about looking for flights far in advance.
Remember when I scored a $430 one-way flight from LA to Hong Kong with Skyscanner? I booked that flight in April for the end of August.
I find flights using a few methods: first I do preliminary research using the Kayak Explore tool, which estimates how much it will cost to fly to various destinations from the airport of your choice.
How much it would cost to fly to various airports in Europe from Detroit.
To date I have found my cheapest international flights with Skyscanner and cheapest domestic flights with Orbitz.
I also subscribe to lots of airline newsletters to get the cheapest deals. I highly recommend Nomadic Matt’s newsletter– he finds so many great bargains, from on-sale airfare to discounted tours.
Book local budget flights in advance too.
One way I save money on flights is by finding the cheapest possible flight to get to the continent where I will be traveling (i.e. Europe or Asia) and then buying another local budget flight to get to my primary destination.
For example, a few summers back I booked a cheap flight from Chicago to Ireland with AerLingus, spent a weekend enjoying Dublin and then took an inexpensive EasyJet flight to Paris. Doing it that way about $400 cheaper than flying directly to Paris and plus- I got to add a few days in Ireland to my itinerary.
Keep in mind when flying budget airlines there are few perks. There is no free checked bag, no free water or food and you usually have to print out your boarding ticket in advance.
And with European budget carriers like Ryanair or Easyjet some flights are seasonal– certain routes are only available in summer.
Also some airports are extremely far from the actual destination– Paris Beauvais is two hours from Paris and Frankfurt Hahn is two hours from Frankfurt.
Favor inexpensive countries.
You’re much better off paying in Turkish lira than in British pounds!
Your dollar will go further in some countries than others.
For example, if I were backpacking Western Europe, I would budget about €50 ($70) a day (less if I found accommodation through Couchsurfing, of course). And this would be a bare-bones budget: Hostels, picnics in the park, few adventure activities.
By comparison, I lived comfortably on $20 a day in Cambodia. And by comfortably I mean comfortably: Eating out every meal, daily massages, hostels with a pool.
So when planning a long backpacking trip, favor cheaper countries. Why live like a pauper when you can live like a king?
Nomadic Matt has great country guides that can help you set a budget for the countries where you will be traveling.
Consider working abroad.
There are so many ways to work on the road: Picking fruit in Australia, au pairing in Europe, teaching English in Asia… though some opportunities are much better paid than others.
The most lucrative job abroad at the moment is teaching in Korea. My friend Audrey saved up more than $17,000 teaching for a year in Korea. In comparison, I left France with $1,200. (For more info on teaching in Korea check out Curiosity Travels and Atlas Sliced.)
Alex in Wanderland has a great series called Earning Abroad in which she interviews travelers who work abroad, from co-owning a bar in Thailand to crewing a sailboat in the Caribbean. I would highly recommend checking this series out if you’re considering working on the road!
Use Mint.com to keep track of your money.
I LOVE Mint.com. Mint.com is a free web-based financial management system that monitors your bank accounts among other things. My favorite Mint.com feature is the weekly email telling me how much I spent, where I spent it and my total net worth and credit card debt.
Mint is perfect for travelers– it will notify you if you are unnecessarily paying any foreign transaction fees and alert you if there is a sketchy drop in any of your bank accounts.
I would highly recommend Mint.com both for saving up before traveling as well as budgeting on the road. I only wish I had started using it sooner!
Apply for a Charles Schwab debit card so you won’t pay any foreign ATM fees.
The Charles Schwab debit card has changed my life as a traveler- never again will I suffer a $5.00 foreign ATM withdrawal fee! (cough, Chase).
And not only does Charles Schwab not charge you a foreign ATM withdrawal fee, it refunds you any money that foreign ATMs charge you by depositing a lump sum into your bank account at the end of the month. Wow.
When traveling abroad I always carry at least two debit cards and two credit cards in case of theft or loss. (I also make sure to keep my backups in separate places.)
Here’s more info on which credit and debit cards are best for backpackers.
Sell things you don’t need before you leave.
If you’re looking for quick cash look into selling some things you don’t need. While many swear by eBay I’ve had great luck selling with Amazon. I’ve already made a couple hundred dollars in the last few weeks while home!
Buy travel insurance.
It may seem strange to recommend buying travel insurance in a post that is supposed to save you money. But travel insurance can save you thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars.
I always get travel insurance on trips. This is for two reasons; to pay for hospital care in case of injury or illness, and two, to protect my gear on trips.
Travel insurance can be expensive but it’s so worth it in case of something going awry. I’ve used World Nomads for years and highly recommend them.
Learn more about World Nomads here.
If traveling to Europe, consider getting a card with chip and pin technology.
In Europe, the credit and debit card system is completely different. In Europe there are many automated machines that only accept cards with chip and pin technology, and not having a chip and pin card can be a huge hassle.
My Chase Sapphire Preferred thankfully has this technology (see that little silver chip on the left) and will come in handy in Europe from purchasing a ticket on the Paris metro to buying a coffee at McDonalds.
For more information on maximizing smart chip credit cards in Europe, check out The Point Guy’s helpful post.
Other credit cards with chip-in technology: British Airways Visa Signature, Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard, Hyatt Credit Card, among others
Once you’re there:
Stay at hostels.
I regularly use Hostelworld to find hostels when traveling Europe or South America. I’m very careful about checking reviews and rarely stay at a place that is rated less than 85%.
And while it is a great idea to book hostels in advance in Europe or South America, it’s not necessary in Southeast Asia- most hostels are less than $7 anyway! Just show up in town and ask other backpackers where they’re staying (and preferably check the hostel’s ratings on Hostelworld)- it’s that simple.
That being said, I would book in advance when traveling to expensive Asian cities like Hong Kong or Singapore. I also always, always book a hostel for the night after a flight- the last thing I want to do when arriving to a foreign city is worry about where I’ll be sleeping.
Not only is Couchsurfing is an incredible way to save cash, it’s a great way to meet locals. All you have to do is create a profile, add lots of info and photos and reach out to potential hosts. Personalized messages always go further so read their profile!
Track on the ground expenses with Trail Wallet.
When I’m traveling I use Trail Wallet to track my spending- it really helps me stick to a budget. Because I pay mostly in cash when backpacking, it’s easy to lose track of where your money is going.
I love Trail Wallet’s pie chart feature because it shows you what percentage of your money you spend on various amenities, including accommodation, transportation and food. (You can add and remove categories too which is a very cool feature.)
Find cheap transportation.
I use Megabus frequently when traveling in the U.S. (and plan on using it in the U.K.)
The last time I was in Europe I discovered car-sharing and it is definitely a service I will use again. Essentially you pay a stranger for a ride in their car- and while it sounds sketchy I have friends who use it all the time.
They have carsharing in many European countries: BlaBlaCar (France) is the one I’ve tried.
My money set-up:
Charles Schwab- My go-to debit card.
Chase- My back-up debit card. Has a high foreign transaction fee and foreign ATM withdrawal fee so I only use it in case of emergencies.
Paypal- How I am paid for most of my online jobs. (Just an account, not a card.)
American Express Starwood Rewards- My main credit card.
Chase Sapphire Preferred- My backup credit card. I also plan on using this in Europe because it has a smart chip.
More of my money-saving trick posts:
Your turn! What to you do to cut costs abroad?
I was not perked or paid by any of these companies for the mention. I honestly use them all when I travel and wanted to share them with you.
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