Sometimes people say to me, “Ugh, I’m so jealous. I wish I had the money and time to travel like you,” as if I’m some expatriate loafer with a trust fund or something (expatriate, yes– loafer and trust fund baby, no). It’s true that traveling, like almost any other pastime, costs money and takes up a lot of time, two things in short supply for most. But you don’t have to cross an ocean, or even the state, to discover a new place. Foregoing small items in your budget will quickly free up enough money for at least a little bit of travel, especially the no-frills and more Earth-friendly variety I’m fond of.
I do currently have more time and flexibility than the average American to traipse about. I’m already in Europe, where it’s quite easy and relatively affordable to travel between countries and where people are allowed real time off*. Plus I have no sticky children to take care of or (crippling) debt to pay down. Still, I’m on a very tight budget, and I have to make minor sacrifices in my daily life to afford my favorite hobby. These kinds of trade-offs are highly individual– things I wouldn’t personally blink at giving up might be difficult for others to forego. For example, I only go out to eat once in a while and I don’t buy fancy cooking ingredients or equipment. I rarely shop, period, especially not for nice clothes. I keep my heat low (which is not only cost-effective but also better for the environment), I don’t have a car or television set, and my apartment is tiny and sparse and basically in the attic of a building without an elevator. The totality of my worldly possessions would fit in a small closet. These choices might not be possible or worth it for some people, but they leave me enough extra money each month to do a little bit of travel. As for my trip budgeting, I have rarely felt deprived, even in the most expensive cities. Here are just a few quick strategies that help me to keep costs low:
- Staying in hostels or at people’s homes (via couchsurfing and Airbnb) usually costs 0-$30/night, while budget hotels tend to start around $40. Some of my friends turn their noses up at hostels, but unless you can afford a 4 or 5-star hotel, your experience at a hostel will often be much cleaner, friendlier, and better-located than at a lesser hotel. I wrote about hostel selection in a previous post. Meeting people while traveling is also easier at a hostel than in a hotel, and can be both fun and practical. For example, I once split a discounted group ticket on a long train ride with a woman I met at a hostel, finding both a travel buddy and a way to save money. If the hostels and the “sharing economy” are just not your thing, many nice hotels must now offer frequent promotions to continue competing in the market… so check sites like booking.com to see if you can snag one.
- Discerning tourist traps from worthwhile attractions. Do your research and use common sense– don’t be that tourist who pays $10 to go to a museum that only takes 10 minutes to see. Unless there’s a really special tour you’ve been looking forward to, create or download your own tour and keep an eye out for free/low-cost ones like Sandemans New Europe, which I’m OBSESSED with (tip the guides though, please)!
- Not buying souvenirs. That’s what pictures and memories and found keepsakes (business cards, free maps, shells and pebbles) are for.
- Eating where locals eat. Don’t look for a restaurant in Times Square or within a half mile of the Eiffel Tower, OK? I also tend to scrape by on grocery store/coffee shop snacks when I travel, treating myself to one or two “real meals,” though I know this is would be too austere for some. Many hostels and hotels provide free breakfast, too, so load up.
- Packing carry-on luggage only. You won’t pay checked-bag fees, and you’ll be off the plane/train/bus and ready to go before everybody else. Lower cost, lower stress. Some more specific tips here.
- Taking advantage of budget transport options.
- Prioritizing. Again, no one can really have it all; you must let some things go. If you fork over the money to see a favorite work of art, you might not get to experience a city’s nightlife, and vice versa. Running around trying to check everything off a list takes some of the adventure out of traveling and ironically may keep you from seeing what’s around you as you rush. There will always be a travel “one that got away,” but there will be plenty of the sweet unexpected, too.
Many of my favorite travel memories have come free (or almost-free). Weaving through a mega-sized grocery section gaping at displays of fruits and sea creatures I couldn’t begin to identify in Tokyo; battling the wind to the top of Arthur’s Seat for a bird’s eye view of Edinburgh; stumbling into a small poets’ meeting at Shakespeare and Company in Paris; making my way through night, jade, bird, and fish markets in Hong Kong without ever taking my wallet out; sharing a bench with an interesting stranger… these memories endure.
“BUT!” you cry bitterly, “what about people who have three jobs and three kids and heaps of debt?” OK, OK, kids/terrible work hours/debt do make doing anything recreational vastly more difficult. Still, I know it sounds lame and that it’s not really the same, but I truly believe you can travel without putting much distance between you and home. Several years ago when I’d just finished school and the market crashed and I was saving every penny for work clothes and equipment and my own place, I used to get my travel fix wandering the local forests and riding different public transport routes. I recognize how lucky I was to have both the advantage of supportive parents who let me stay with them for a little while after graduation and the freedom that comes from being single, but the mental stimulation of movement and exploration kept me sane while I sent out hundreds of unanswered job applications. It also allowed me to make a place in which I’d grown up more mine than it had ever been.
In short: if you want to travel, you have got to be proactive. It may be that you like your flatscreen or your take-out food or your weekly night out with friends or your daily to-go coffee more than travel, and that’s completely fine. I do not presume, of course, to give advice to those in true financial distress, struggling to meet their basic needs, but rather those who have disposable income of some kind. Choose travel over something else (even if that something else is convenience), and you’ll find a way!
*The United States is one of the only countries with an “advanced” (read: rich) economy that guarantees no paid vacation.