My 2018 in travel is off to a pretty great start. I went to Mexico a few weeks ago — five days of beach lounging and novel-reading in the tropics was exactly what I needed. Next week, I’m off to Paris for a short city break. And I’m looking for somewhere new in the U.S. to spend a weekend in March. The one problem? It’s not easy to visit these expensive places on low budgets.
But even though I don’t have to stick to a $15 a day budget anymore, I’m still a backpacker at heart — and one who’s determined not to be priced out of the countries I want to visit. I refuse to let cost be a barrier in my travels. There is always a way to cut costs and make dream trips fit into an attainable budget.
Are you dreaming of a trip to Europe, North America, or another expensive country and want to cut costs? Check out these tips for making it happen.
1. Consider timing
One of the best ways to avoid going broke when visiting expensive places on low budgets is to go in off-season.
During peak tourist season — think summer in Europe, Christmas in the Caribbean, or dry season in major safari destinations — hotels jack up their prices, airlines charge exorbitant amounts for tickets, and tourist crowds mean you have little bargaining power. Pick a different time of year to go and you can save hundreds of dollars.
Traveling in off-season can make even the priciest places affordable for backpackers. I managed to find round-trip plane tickets to Paris in February for just $300. I found a centrally-located hotel that worked with my dates for $70 a night. And I won’t have to contend with impossible-to-get restaurant reservations or long lines at the major attractions.
Of course, if you’re planning weather-dependent activities, it may be worth spending a little extra to ensure those activities will be possible. I wouldn’t plan a diving holiday in the Caribbean during hurricane season, no matter how much cheaper it is. But even when you need the weather on your side, you can usually save a good chunk of change by choosing shoulder season over outright high season.
2. Choose your accommodation wisely
Chances are, your biggest expense when you travel is accommodation. Hotel rooms in cities like New York and London can average $150 a night. Resort-heavy beach destinations can be just as bad, and even wilderness lodges with bare-bones amenities can cost a small fortune. So if you’re traveling to expensive places on low budgets, your top priority should be finding a place to stay that won’t break the bank.
It’s always worth checking if you can find a free place to crash. Ask family and friends who live in the area if they have a spare bedroom. And of course, there’s always CouchSurfing. It allowed me to backpack around Italy for five weeks and spend less than $200 on accommodation, all while having amazing local experiences that I would have never found if I’d stayed in hotels. If you’ve never CouchSurfed before, check out my post on the pros and cons of this style of travel.
But even if you can’t or don’t want to crash on a local’s couch, you don’t have to spend a fortune on accommodation. Most major cities have at least one hostel, with dorm beds in the $30-$50 range. And you can find private rooms for well under $100 if you look hard enough. The tradeoff is usually staying further away from the city center, but you’ll get more exposure to local life by staying in a less touristy neighborhood. I use booking.com to find the widest selection of affordable, but not grungy, hotels.
More interested in heading out into nature? Consider camping. You don’t have to go for the all-out wilderness experience — many campgrounds have modern amenities like charging stations for your electronics, free WiFi, and swimming pool, all for $10-$15 a night. Camping can be especially useful to make a safari in Africa affordable for backpackers.
3. Eat local and cheap
I don’t know about you, but exploring food culture around the world is one of my favorite parts of traveling. So even when I go to expensive places on low budgets, I’m not willing to sacrifice eating well.
And here’s the thing: Most locals aren’t going out and spending $100 per person on a meal every time they go out to eat. So if you’re traveling in expensive places on low budgets, you’ll eat better and save money if you follow the locals’ lead.
When I was in Naples, I had my heart set on eating a proper Napolitan pizza. But during my first few days, I walked past endless restaurants charging $15 or more for a single meal — my entire daily budget. I started to lose hope that I’d get to try the pizza. Eventually, a local friend pointed me to his favorite pizzeria, which was totally unsigned and unnoticeable. I ended up spending $6 on the best pizza I’ve ever had.
To save even more money, plan in advance the things you really want to try. Then, self-cater for the rest of your meals. You can save $10-$15 or more a day by just preparing your own breakfast at your hotel. Take advantage of farmer’s markets and great local bakeries to pick up sandwich or salad ingredients for lunch or dinner. And always carry snacks in your day-pack to avoid emergency splurges just because you’re hangry.
4. Research activities in advance
I love being spontaneous on my travels. One of the most invigorating parts of being in a new place is waking up in the morning with no idea what the day will bring. But when I’m going to expensive places on low budgets, I find that a little more advance preparation can save me tons of money.
You probably picked an expensive destination because there were a handful of things you really wanted to see there. Maybe it’s a famous museum, or a major archaeological site, or an adventure activity. Whatever those priority things are, do them. I’d never tell you to skip Petra, not dive in Cozumel, or miss out on camping on the edge of a lava lake just to save a few bucks.
But when I’m on a trip, I often find myself adding other activities to my day out of mild curiosity, or because I have time to kill, or because a travel buddy wants to do it. These are the things to cut out if you’re in expensive places on low budgets. And it’s easiest to say no to them if you’ve done the research in advance to find out if you’re interested.
For instance, before I went to Namibia, I heard a lot about the “adrenaline activities” around Swakopmund. I read about what was on offer. Sandboarding and ATV riding over the sand dunes both sounded kind of cool, but I read mixed reviews. So when I got to Namibia and found out that they cost $65-$100 for just a couple hours of adventure, it was a no-brainer to skip them. If I hadn’t done my research, I might have been convinced by the tour companies’ sales pitches.
5. Book everything locally
If you’re on a long budget backpacking trip, it’s pretty easy to just show up in town and organize all your activities on the spot. You rarely need to book anything besides your accommodation in advance.
But when you’re on a short trip to expensive places on low budgets, it’s tempting to make arrangements in advance. After all, you don’t want to use valuable holiday time figuring out logistics for a day trip or standing in line for tickets. Still, this is one of the fastest ways to blow your money.
I learned this lesson the hard way on my first trip to Europe. I was an on extremely tight budget — $15 a day. But I was also new to independent travel and pretty stressed about logistics. I discovered that I could buy train tickets for most of Western Europe on Germany’s Bahn website. So I figured it would be an easy way to take some of the stress out of my trip. I sucked it up and spent $80 on a train ticket from Munich to Florence, with stops in Verona and Bologna. Of course, I later learned that buying point-to-point tickets would have cost me about $10 each, saving me $50.
If you really need to book something before you arrive, it’s better to work with a local tour company than one from your home country/city. Sure, it can take longer to make arrangements when you have to do it over email and across time zones, but it’s worth it. I saved over $300 on my safari in Namibia by booking with the amazing, Namibian-owned Wild Dog Safaris instead of one of the international overland companies running trips in the region.
6. Enjoy free things
It may seem obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Be sure to research free activities when planning trips to expensive places on low budgets.
Many famous museums are free to visit on certain days of the week or at certain times of day. Outdoor festivals and concerts cost nothing and give you great exposure to local life. And don’t forget how great it can be to just wander around for a couple hours, taking in the atmosphere.
Have your heart set on a particular activity or attraction? It’s always worth finding out if there’s a free way to do it. I saw most of the Roman forum by going to a dance party that was happening in the middle of the ruins. I got part of a New Orleans cemetery tour by visiting a free cemetery and walking alongside a tour group. And I got a taste of Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona by visiting Park Guell instead of paying a huge admission fee to tour the Sagrada Familia Cathedral.
Check newspaper listings, blogs, and local cultural centers to find out what’s going on. A good guidebook comes in handy, too.
It’s easy to keep travel costs down if you only visit places like Southeast Asia and Central America. But you’d miss out on so much of the world. So rather than avoiding expensive places, plan for them and find ways to keep costs down. I hope these tips will help you make an expensive dream trip happen this year!
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