I want to start with a story…
The other day I took a trip to visit a very good friend in NYC, also a b-school graduate. It was for a wedding actually. At the wedding, I chatted with some friends and acquaintances, all business school grads, most of whom are bankers. It was funny watching their reactions when I told them I took the bus from Toronto (and I had no qualms correcting them if they assumed I had flown).
I am certain that all the b-school grads at the event are earning well over six figures. And they know that I am also a b-school graduate, same year as them. We all attended top 20 business schools in the US. So I am sure they rightly assumed I was earning good money, maybe not as much as they are earning (since I’m not a banker) but decent money, even working for myself. With these ten-percenters and five-percenters, the Greyhound is not on their radar for travel options. I’m guessing they assumed I was the same. So whenever I mentioned that I took the bus and was planning to take it back, some of them were unable to mask their expressions: First expression, the bus? As in the Greyhound? Second, did she have to take the Greyhound because she is earning so little that she couldn’t afford a $300 plane ticket from TO to NY. Third, damn it must be rough for her.
Thankfully, based on my income alone, I could easily afford a plane ticket. So I didn’t feel the sting of their pity as I would have were I really in a rough spot. However, as you all know, because of my debt burden, I feel like I can’t really afford a plane ticket and felt very happy to have paid under $100 for my round-trip bus ticket. Because, as I have stated before, I am living as though I were a student, travel included.
That brings me to the topic of today’s post. Today I want to talk about saving money when traveling.
I am not the type of girl who is into clothes, shoes, bags, electronics, shopping or any material thing really. However, I do like to travel.
When I was younger, I would save up my money to go live for months at a time in new cities or new countries. Money I saved on clothes or eating out in my home city were put towards my travel fund. I have lived in a number of countries and traveled to quite a few others. I like thrusting myself into new cultures, especially ones where the majority speak a language that is not my native language. I like meeting new people, wandering around in a new city and learning about a place through firsthand experiences. I sometimes practise extreme frugality in certain areas in order to be able to take once-in-a-lifetime trips. Mainly thanks to this quote.
I like all those aforementioned things but I have always been frugal. So I was a frugal traveler, especially once I got to my destination. However, nowadays I have cut back on the ticket prices to my destinations. So my travel destinations the past 3 years have been contained within North America. Thankfully, there are still many cities here for me to discover.
Traveling on a budget – the frugal traveler
Below are a few of my frugal traveling tactics and my travel stories.
Tactic #1: Try to spend as little as possible to get to your destination
- Be sure to check out fares by bus or train and compare with the cost of flights and travel time to see if something else could work for you. I use the Greyhound (including the Ne On bus) and Coach Canada (including Megabus) more often than the train or plane when traveling within North America. Sometimes I take the bus partway to a cheaper airport.
- Ride-sharing is an option to get someplace too. From Craigslist to Ridejoy to other newer sites, you may be able to find someone going where you are headed and the cost of chipping in gas money could be cheaper than any other means to get to your destination.
- Car rentals and peer-to-peer car lending such as RelayRides are also options to check. Be sure to include gas costs in your calculations to do a better comparison with other options.
- If you are going to fly, check nearby airports for cheaper flights. In my case, the Buffalo airport is often significantly cheaper than flying out of the Toronto airports. So I will take the bus to the Buffalo airport then from there take the plane to my US destination.
- Some years back, when I lived in Europe, I took many a trip to other cities and countries. From the beginning, I made sure to use comparison sites to check airfares and often went with the low-cost carrier rather than the airline with all the (unnecessary) frills.
- Protip: Another trick I discovered was that, if you check out an airline/plane/bus site as if you were from your destination city then you sometimes get cheaper tickets, i.e. try to navigate a website in the language of where you are going or with your country set to the destination country. For instance, when I was booking a train from Paris to Rome I checked the train sites based in France and the train sites based in Italy. And when I was on the Italian train site, Trenitalia, I set my language to Italian. Whaddya know? The fares were cheaper on Trenitalia when I set my language as Italian!
Note that I don’t speak Italian but I knew a little Spanish and could figure my way around. Plus, forms where you enter your departure and arrival cities and times are pretty standard in most languages, at least the Latin-based ones. And Google also came in handy for those words I didn’t understand and couldn’t guess. When I was going to Spain, I put my country as Spain on Ryanair’s site (Ryanair is a low-cost European airline). Bus to the Netherlands? Didn’t speak a lick of Dutch but I set my language to Dutch and fumbled my way through in order to compare prices.
- Avoid booking tourist packages, such as the ones that include hotel and transportation to different places. In my opinion, those things are money traps. You can create your own package by booking your flight/bus/train yourself, booking a hostel/Airbnb/hotel yourself and setting up your own itinerary.
- Sometimes you just want to get away and you don’t necessarily have a destination in mind. Or if you do, you would be open to other places. In this case, look for specials to get you out of your city and use the cheapest destinations as your starting point for where you want to go. More than once I have taken a trip to somewhere I’ve never heard of or thought about, mainly because fares to that place were cheap.
Tactic #2: For accommodation, look into alternatives to hotels
I can safely say that when I have traveled on my own and paid for it (i.e. almost all the times I have traveled), I have never stayed in a hotel.
Some alternative options to a hotel are:
- Couchsurfing – I am a proud member of Couchsurfing. When I first started traveling, couchsurfing proved a great way to get to stay in a city for free, meet cool people and better learn about a city. Couchsurfing is an online community of travelers, many of whom welcome others into their homes. Guests get a free place to sleep, the opportunity to interact with locals and better learn about a city. The host gets the chance to learn about a different culture or practise language skills. Everyone gets to make new friends!
You don’t even have to stay with a couchsurfer to meet up with him/her. You can also schedule a time to meet up for coffee/drink/a meal/activity/event. It is nice to meet up with a local who can often give excellent advice for things to do and see. And, if you are traveling alone, it is even better, especially if you also want to spend at least one night out on the town. Having company for that sort of thing is great.
People often tell me I am crazy to do couchsurfing as a single female. Even moreso because I stay in the homes/apartments of men. Maybe I am crazy but, let me tell ya, some of my best traveling experiences came from couchsurfing!
- Airbnb – Airbnb has become my go-to site to check for accommodation when I am visiting another city. To me, Airbnb is a step up from couchsurfing, mainly because of the protection aspects. In reality, the difference between the two is that with Airbnb you do actually pay, although the rates are very reasonable and often much cheaper than a hotel. On Airbnb you can book any type of sleeping arrangement (couch, room, entire apartment) for any period of time and there are policies in place to protect both the host and the guest. Note that there are now a lot of similar sites, some of which are more popular in certain countries (Wimdu is one that comes to my mind).
- Hostel – Hostels are pretty good in certain places. In my experience the ones in Europe are decent but hostels definitely have different levels of quality in different cities. So do some research to find out which cities tend to be ok and then, within cities, which hostels have a good reputation. For instance, I stayed in a 4-bed room in an amazing hostel in Germany for something like 11Eur/night. The room was immaculate! In fact, that hostel and room was eons better than the sketchy hostel and even sketchier 2-bed suite I booked in London for 50 pounds/night! Better even than some far more expensive hotels in Paris!
By the way, Protip: Some people think hostels only have young people, twelve to a room, one shower for an entire floor…that sort of thing. Those aren’t the only ones. There are a variety of room types in a hostel. You can even get a suite as I often did, where you are by yourself or with up to 3 others and the people in that suite get their own washroom, and sometimes even a kitchen, just for the suite guests. Often, hostel suites still work out cheaper than a hotel room, especially when traveling alone.
I’ve just realized that these three all have one thing in common (if you do the room option in Airbnb):
It doesn’t have to be weird, you guys!
Another option for those who are very risk-averse and just cannot see themselves staying in the home of a stranger:
- Stay with friends – One time I stayed in a lovely apartment with a great outdoor pool, in Madrid, with a friend I made in another European city. On all my North American trips so far, including my recent trip to NY, I’ve stayed with a friend. And I have a number of friends living in other countries just waiting for the day I can afford to visit :P. Of course, this option is limited by your ability to make friends from other places or your luck with having friends who move to or who live in other places. No worries. I think this option is yet another reason it is good to make friends from other countries. Of course your motivation for doing so shouldn’t be so you can have a free place to stay in some exotic location. However, by making connections with people who come from a different city you may end up with that lovely by-product of having a place to stay next time you venture that way.
Tactic #3: Don’t spend (much) money on tourist traps
- Guided tours can sometimes be expensive. E.g. those open-deck buses in Toronto or San Francisco are hella expensive. Look for the free walking tours that many big cities have, often in multiple languages. I have done 3 hour ones in Europe. Some people do walk away not paying anything to the free guides but the free tours aren’t really free. They are more like pay-what-you-can. Nonetheless, 5-10 Euros or $10-$15 is much less than the price of the official tours and, in my opinion, they are just as informative. Try to find the free ones!
- If you don’t want to spend any money on paid or “free” guided tours you can find other ways. When I first started traveling, I found it hard to spend money on tours. So I created my own self-guided tours. I’d often research the best places in a city using TripAdvisor and other travel review sites. Then I’d make a list of what I wanted to see, usually sticking to free options only. Then I’d map out the places. Then I’d walk around these places with a hand-drawn map and notes on the different starred places on my map (I never use my cellphone in foreign countries – roaming is too expensive). Nowadays smartphones have built-in GPS that can sometimes work without internet so you may not need your piece of paper like I did. When I was strapped for time or too lazy, I would look up complete self-guided itineraries online, print them off and use them. And so I did “2 days in Venice” and “1 day in Amsterdam”, among others. Again TripAdvisor worked well for me but I’m sure there are other good sites out there.
- I avoid tourist traps in general. Or rather, I avoid paying to go up or inside a tourist trap. Different people have different priorities though. For me, when I travel, it is more important to get a feel for the city as a local. So, for instance, while I love the Eiffel Tower and it is one of the first places I visit whenever I go to Paris, I have never actually been UP the Eiffel Tower. I prefer going up to the Sacré-Cœur and getting a similar view FOR FREE. It is also why I went by the London Eye and wished it well. I sure as hell was not going to spend a ridiculous amount of money for what essentially amounts to a ferris wheel ride. At the same time, there were some things I felt were worthy of me spending money on to see what all the fuss was about (e.g. the Sistine Chapel). Make your list of non-free things you have to visit or see and things you can pass on.
Tactic #4: Enjoy the local cuisine!
I should say that one of the things I most look forward to is learning about the culture of a new city or visiting cool places. But I think the thing I most look forward to is the food! I LOVE food. I love trying new food. So, even when I am being my most frugal, I usually make it a priority to have at least one sit-down meal in a restaurant/cafe serving traditional food of the place I am visiting. This is another area where couchsurfing comes in handy. Usually locals know the good, cheap, non-touristy places. And, if you don’t have company, sit down meals are great for people-watching. Depending on my budget and the type of food that is popular in a city, besides the one real restaurant meal, I will also try to eat popular, local fast food. Belgian fries, currywvrst and everything from FEBO (!!) are a few of my favourite street food in Europe.
Please note that, in some countries, especially developing countries, eating street food can result in traveler’s diarrhea (which I’ve also unfortunately experienced) so be careful.
Tactic #5: Meet up with locals!
A lot of the activities above are made better with the help of locals. Don’t be too scared to meet up with locals, whether they are friends, acquaintances or strangers you meet through friends of friends, couchsurfing, meetup or other similar sites. You will learn a lot more about a city that way and you may also make a new friend!
I know that traveling is the last thing some people think about when trying to reduce massive debt. However, you may be able to eke out a trip somewhere while paying off debt. Over the past year, I have taken long weekend trips (4 days/3 nights) where I spent a total of $100, including travel, food, drink and accommodation. That works out to $25 a day and that was when I was not really counting my pennies when it came to food. So don’t automatically discount traveling because you think it will be out of your budget. Especially if you can scrimp even more in another category and put the money towards a small travel fund. Furthermore, the sharing economy (such as that offered by Airbnb or RelayRides) is a part of our new reality as we seek cheaper and more efficient ways to get things done. And, in my opinion, by virtue of being more popular, sharing with strangers is not quite as dangerous as it used to be. Us frugal babes and men get to benefit from the rising popularity and that includes taking trips that fully utilize the sharing economy.
If you have to save on travel and really cannot afford to squeeze money from any other category, that’s totally understandable. But if you have a little extra to put towards travel or if you can be extremely frugal in other expense categories so you can put money towards travel, then try it sometime!
I have had a number of amazing experiences that came from spending little money or much less than the average. Be sure to try some of my tactics above on your next adventure.
Do you have any tips to add?
N.B. None of the sites mentioned paid me anything to promote them in this post.