Budget Travel: One year on $15 a day

When I was 21, I backpacked from Germany to Thailand on $15 a day. That included all my flights, activities, hostels, food — everything. It took me one year exactly. I didn’t work at all. I didn’t volunteer in exchange for board. It was a full year of extreme budget travel.

 

This is how I did it — and how you can too.

 

My route — choosing cheap places

 

Your route will be one of the most important decisions you make. There is almost nowhere in the world that’s impossible for budget travel. But some places are a lot easier than others.

 

I spent the first two months of my trip in Western Europe — mostly Italy and Spain. This was not the smartest move from a budget travel perspective, but I had my heart set on doing it.

 

 

This is me, sleep-deprived and hauling my luggage around Siena all day, because I spent the night in the piazza to avoid paying for a hotel.
This is me, sleep-deprived and hauling my luggage around Siena all day, because I spent the night in the piazza to avoid paying for a hotel. Photo credit: Adam Williams

 

To make up for it, I spent my next three months in Eastern Europe — all the same types of sights, but much cheaper.

 

Next, I headed to the Middle East. Then came the cheapest part of my adventure — two months in India. It averaged out to about $5 a day. This was how I paid for my plane tickets.

 

Finally, I spent my last four months in Southeast Asia. $15 a day was comfortable there without being luxurious.

 

The lesson: Don’t compromise on the places you really want to see. Figure out a way to do them cheaply, and balance them with cheaper places.

 

Budget travel life on the road: All the little luxuries you don’t really need

 

So what does it actually look like to backpack around the world on $15 a day?

 

The first thing you’ll learn is that your budget will start to dominate your thoughts and decisions. You will obsess over pennies like you’ve never obsessed over money before.

 

The second thing you’ll learn is how much you don’t really need.

 

Spoiler alert: Assuming you brought clothes with you, the only things you have to spend money on are food and shelter, and occasional train/bus tickets.

 

Here are just a few of the things I cut out of my life during my trip:

 

  • Taxis, tuk tuks, and all other intra-city transportation besides walking
  • Hair products
  • Makeup
  • Souvenirs
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Restaurant meals
  • Personal space (i.e. private rooms or private bathrooms)
  • Phone, computer, and tablet
  • Internet access
  • New clothes — actually, any new things at all

 

The next-easiest thing to cut back on is inter-city transport. The three ways to do that are to move less often (spend 2-3 days somewhere instead of 1), travel shorter distances, and take the slower bus/train/boat. Yes, sometimes that means spending five hours on a Romanian train instead of two. But the $3 you save is 1/5 of your daily budget, so it matters. When you need to take longer trips, try to do them overnight to save money on hostels.

 

What about the necessities?

 

Food is a constant challenge of extreme budget travel. I have a very distinctive memory of staring at the bread selection in a supermarket in Milan, trying to decide whether the $0.89 bread was worth the extra $0.20 compared to another brand. In the end, I couldn’t justify the expense.

 

You’ll have to spend some of your budget on food. Outside of Europe, I had enough money to eat at street stalls for every meal. I often ate breakfast and dinner, and bought fruit from local markets for lunch.

 

In Europe, food was very expensive. So for five months, I lived off of almost nothing but the cheapest bread and off-brand Nutella for breakfast, and the cheapest pasta with the cheapest tomato sauce for dinner. Five months straight. Almost every single day.

 

When you don't have access to a kitchen, sometimes you have to improvise
When you don’t have access to a kitchen, sometimes you have to improvise

 

Shelter is another unavoidable expense. But you can save a lot of money on accommodation if you ask a bunch of hostels/guesthouses for a room and choose the cheapest option (without compromising safety).

 

 

Does that mean you probably won’t be staying at the party hostels? Yes. Does it mean you’ll have to tolerate ratty sheets and gross bathrooms? Of course. Maybe you won’t even have 24-hour electricity. But outside of Western Europe, you can usually find someplace to stay for under $8 a night.

 

And if you can’t? Well, get ready to rough it a little.

 

I slept in airports in Spain, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Thailand. I slept in train stations in Italy, Ukraine, and India. And I slept in bus stations in Moldova, India and Malaysia. It wasn’t fun — but it was free and safe.

 

The other option is CouchSurfing. It was the only way I was able to spend two months in Western Europe. Just make sure you have enough spending money for a hostel in case you can’t find a host.

 

Is budget travel fun? Coping with travel envy.

 

So you’ve cut out every possible expense from your life. You’re spending hours of your holiday or gap year sitting on trains crawling along at 20 km/hour. You’re eating the same thing, day in and day out. You’ve spent the last two weeks staying in dumps. And you’re rarely paying for activities.

 

Meanwhile, you’re walking by cafes full of tourists drinking $4 lattes. You see signs for cute little boutique guesthouses. And you’re hearing about all the adventure tours your fellow backpackers are doing.

 

It’s hard not to get a little jealous.

 

I didn't mind the cheap hotels and uncomfortable buses, but sometimes I got really jealous of other peoples' fancy coffee
I didn’t mind the cheap hotels and uncomfortable buses, but sometimes I got really jealous of other peoples’ fancy coffee

 

For me, the best way to cope with travel envy — and one of the ways to make budget travel rewarding — was to get off the beaten path. It’s almost always cheaper to travel in non-touristic places. And you’ll get to see a more interesting side of the country.

 

For instance, when I couldn’t take the luxury travelers in Italy anymore, I headed for the small city of Mantova — where there were no tourists to be jealous of. I stayed with a great Couchsurfing host and had three of the best days of my entire trip.

 

I also had an easier time in places more popular with backpackers than luxury travelers. The Perhentian Islands of Malaysia are every bit as beautiful as Phuket, but since they’re pretty remote, there is very little luxury tourism. When the difference between my budget and everyone else’s was more like $5 a day than $100 a day, it didn’t bother me as much.

 

Finally, it’s totally legit — and really important — to take “vacations from your vacation.” I used airline miles to stay in a nicer hotel in Hanoi when the thought of staying in one more dirty, stinky dorm made me want to cry. Three days of a clean bathroom and I was ready to get back to roughing it.

 

Is it safe? Budget travel as a woman alone.

 

There are lots of blogs out there that talk about how easy and safe it is to travel on an extreme budget. I love following The Broke Backpacker and other guys who blog about roughing it on the road.

 

But quite frankly, I can’t relate. The truth is, men, couples and groups have a much easier time when it comes to extreme budget travel.

 

Don’t get me wrong — you can totally do it, and you can do it safely. Try to get advice from other solo female travelers — traveling as a woman is different. And remember that no one is going to look out for your safety other than you. It’s always worth a couple extra dollars to feel safe.

 

 

Travel is supposed to challenge us. So don’t shy away from things that scare you a little — like picnicking alone in a park, or staying with a CouchSurfing host, or choosing a cheap hotel. You might find these things to be the best parts of your trip.

 

My Mantovan CouchSurfing host -- she made Italy worth the budget travel struggle
My Mantovan CouchSurfing host — she made Italy worth the budget travel struggle

 

But if something really doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and pay a little more for a good experience.

 

I roughed it a lot on my extreme budget trip. But in the whole year, the only times I ever felt unsafe were in Egypt. The country was in political turmoil, and it’s a miserable place to travel alone as a woman. So instead of staying at the cheapest hotels, I paid a little bit more (like $2 a night more) for places with female staff. It was well worth it.

 

So the short answer is: Yes, it’s safe! But at the same time, don’t be afraid to take steps to protect yourself.

 

So what are you waiting for?

 

Extreme budget travel really is that simple.

 

By choosing mostly cheap places, always going for the cheapest hotel/food/transportation, and not paying for anything I didn’t absolutely need, I made it from Germany to Thailand on $15 a day — and you can, too!

 

So take whatever savings you have, book a one-way plane ticket, and start making your travel dreams a reality.

 

Questions about how I traveled for a year on $15 a day? Other budget travel suggestions? Please leave a comment!