Sam and I embarked on an 18 month trip with a firm budget in mind, and we did so well at our budgeting that we actually came back with nearly half of our travel budget still in the bank! We erred on the side of caution with our spending to ensure we’d have a cushion of money to come back with, but our frugal behaviours became so ingrained they didn’t even feel like a chore; it was actually really rewarding doing stuff cheap, independently, locally and maximising on the experiences that were so key to our travel goals.
Here are a few of our top tips for how to travel cheap and travel long, split into three parts:
2/ Transport and Accommodation
- Research different transport options to see what’s cheapest before doing what’s easiest. Yes your hotel / hostel will book your travel for you, but they’ll also charge a hefty commission. It’s always cheaper to rock up at the bus station / port and find the cheapest over-the-counter price, even if this means making the trip to the bus station/port in the first place. You can sometimes book buses online in South America.
- Sometimes transfers (e.g. bus-boat-bus) are cheaper in Asia (especially island hopping in Thailand) but overall, independent travel saves you a hell of a lot of cash over time.
- Local buses (rather than tourist ones) are ALWAYS an experience, and sometimes much nicer e.g. stopping for (free/included) lunch at local restaurants during the trip, and they can even be comfier (…sometimes!)
- If you’re waiting for a local bus with others, you can ask locals what the bus costs to your destination – women especially seem to always give you the right answer, so you can prevent being hoodwinked by a gregarious bus driver!
- Avoid taxis and private transfers wherever possible. Look into public shuttle buses, ask locals, or walk where possible. We’d have a rule of walking if it was less than 1 or 2km, depending on the time of day and heat. Make sure you’ve always got plenty of water so walking is a possibility to stay fit and save some cash.
- When public transport isn’t possible, learn reputable taxis, logos/names and where/how to book them (looked up in Lonely Planet or Wikitravel)
- In South America, certain areas like Argentina and Chile’s long north-south highways are super easily (and safely) hitch-hiked, which can save you hundreds of pounds given the crazily high price of bus tickets in South America (approx £50-70 for a long journey!). We hitch-hiked in and out of Chile and Argentina, and spent about 10 hours in a water delivery truck on our longest hitch-hike. It was super easy to do – our hostel owner in Chile helped us make a sign, and we were picked up within about 5 minutes at each stop, with each friendly driver advising us on where best to hitch our next ride. Eduardo, the water truck driver, was very sweet and tolerated our terrible Spanish, plying us with water and snacks for the journey. An unforgettable experience!
- Be open to spending some time to find good value accommodation, and don’t rely on travel guides. Very occasionally we’d book online (if a flight/bus is coming in very late at night or if it’s high season) but most times we’d arrive somewhere and spend about 15-20 minutes walking around and looking at hostels/guesthouses, what we could get for our money, how clean the room is, with or without bathroom etc. Although this is a bit of a faff, it saved us so much money – sometimes we’d cut the cost of room/night in half in just 10 minutes. Lonely Planet is a good starting point to check out cheap / well reviewed places, but once included in the LP, hostels often rest on their laurels, so they weren’t always the best. So, onto the next point:
- Use Wikitravel!! We found Wikitravel to be an incredibly valuable resource. You can save it offline on your phone and search by location, to see where the best hostels are, travel information etc. As it’s all peer-to-peer, reviews were often far more realistic than Lonely Planet and we usually cross-referenced the two or headed straight to a Wiki recommendation.
- If you feel like booking ahead (if it’s a busy area / time of year, or you’ll be arriving late), it’s always WAY cheaper to just email the hostels recommended on WikiTravel / in the Lonely Planet, and ask for their best rates, rather than booking on a hostel booking website or the hostel website. You can have more back and forth over email, and they’ll generally cut you a deal if you promise to stay a few days.
- You don’t have to stay in hostels. There are so many other options out there – local guesthouses (‘pensiones’ in S America); local cheap hotels; B&Bs; homestays. Often you’ll be surrounded by domestic tourists rather than backpackers, but that can be a really nice thing. Having breakfast or tea with locals is a great way to connect to that country, and often they’ll have a friend who can hook you up with a local activity for half the price of a hostel, even if it’s just knowing a local tuk-tuk driver or fisherman for tours.
- Don’t rule out slightly ‘rougher’ forms of accommodation like camping. We bought a tent in Ecuador for $40USD and given the average accommodation was $20-30/night, this paid for itself almost instantly. In many places (especially in S America) you can camp in the grounds of fancy hostels/hotels, use their nice bathrooms/kitchens/pool/common areas, but only pay about $5/night. We camped in a beachside serviced campsite (with hot showers, kitchen etc) for $3/night for a week in Ecuador to ‘save’ in advance of the Galapagos. Bargain! Camp sites in S America in particular (in/near National Parks) are also often STUNNING, so it’s an activity in itself.
- Get used to sleeping on night buses, as they’re everywhere and are such a good way to save money! Just take ear plugs, a night mask, wear money belts with all your valuables, and wrap up warm (air con is a bitch!) and you’ll be grand.
- Stay in accommodation with a kitchen you can use, if possible. Free breakfasts are nice, but you can save even more if you can cook up lunch, make cups of tea or coffee throughout the day or have a home-cooked dinner if the mood takes you. This is far more relevant in South America than South East Asia, as eating out in Asia is almost always cheaper (and more delicious)!
- If you’re travelling (relatively) slow and staying somewhere a few days in a row, you’ve got the power to haggle with your accommodation owner. We would do this every time, as most of the time they’re willing to give you a good rate if you stay 3+ days. The more days, the better the deal, so consider how long you’re likely to spend there (do your homework and put together a loose itinerary) as you can’t normally bargain these deals retrospectively and you might have already paid.