How to travel cheap and long Part 3: Day-to-day spending

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:

3/ Day-to-day spending

  • Know the value of everyday products. Go to the supermarket, see what things cost, use these prices to barter on local markets for food, drink, clothes, whatever and avoid being overcharged in local shops or stalls with no prices. This is key when you’re moving country and currency a lot. Watch what locals pay as they hand over the cash (e.g. for a bunch of bananas or an iced coffee on the street), and expect to pay (roughly) the same to avoid being tourist taxed.
  • Don’t eat/drink out all the time! Often hostels are great, social places where you can prepare food; meet new friends over drunken nights, and this is a really great part of the experience. Eat and drink in your hostel when/where possible (especially if there aren’t many affordable or interesting food options, like in one-horse towns or super touristico towns) – we actually had some of our most fun and sociable nights doing this, meeting new friends over a 1.5L bottle of Chilean wine or gross Bolivian Singani!
  • Similarly, in a lot of countries it’s perfectly safe and legal to drink alcohol in public, so hit the beach, park or public square with a few drinks and you’re also more likely to meet fun locals (rather than just travellers like you)
  • Prioritise what’s important to you, and balance out your spending. ‘Feast and famine’ is a good way of planning your days e.g. eating out a few days a week balanced by cooking at the hostel/packed lunches on others; lots of night buses to ‘save’ for really nice accommodation; in quieter places with less activities, free your budget up more for eating/going out; if you’re doing a lot of activities, pare back spending elsewhere.
  • Get used to bartering. As nice as people are, they will always try and tourist tax you. From hostel prices to tuk tuks, fast taxi meters, bus prices, street food. Read up on what you should expect to pay and get used to what things roughly cost. It’s not always possible to come away with the best deal (e.g. if you’re arriving somewhere late at night) but try your hardest, and sometimes threatening to walk away helps to lower prices. Or try a ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine with your travel buddy e.g. ‘I’m happy with the room but my friend isn’t sure, we’ve seen another place….’
  • Do as the locals do! Shopping and eating on local markets/stalls is the freshest, most authentic food you’ll find and the high turnover of food means it’s actually very fresh; we’ve got more sick from tourist restaurants with long menus and food sitting around not being cooked. Tourist restaurants are sometimes 4-5 times as much money, and who needs Western food when you’re travelling?!
  • If you’re staying in one place for a few days, find your favourite locals/local restaurants, and keep going back e.g. coffee stalls, food markets – often if you reward good service with repeat custom, you’ll get to know them, you’ll have nice chats, and you might even get something free! This happened to us a few times in Asia, as street food is so competitive there!
  • Set menus for lunch are great in South America – often $5USD for 3 courses! When eating on markets/in restaurants in Asia, opt for small plates or eating off buffets rather than a la carte (especially at lunch). Although it’s harder to tell what the price is, it always works out cheaper and you get the chance to try everything. You can always check the price first.
  • If you HAVE to order off menu and there’s more than one of you, do a menu hack and get a few things – e.g. one meat dish, veg dish, rice, and combine – rather than two complete dishes. Fried rice / carb heavy dishes are always good; mix high and low value items. Always about half the price! In a lot of places, lunch is the big meal (rather than dinner), so just follow the locals and the deals.
  • Buy local brands of snacks (cassava or chiccharon crisps are way more interesting than Lays!) and huge bottles of local branded water, then decant into smaller reusable water bottles to take out daily. We even managed to convince shops to sell us the water barrels that go on water coolers, with a little deposit if we brought the bottle back. A huge money saver when you’re drinking litres and litres every day!
  • Stay on top of your budget! Sounds obvious, but look at your bank statements every month or so, work out what you’ve spent, what you’re averaging per day, if you’re happy with this, and plan around how to get on target. We knew South America would be way more expensive than South East Asia so we were more lenient in our first few months, but we still actively saved in easy ways (cooking at the hostel, camping) to bring our average spend down.
  • Boring but useful for saving as you travel: before you travel, try and get a 0%, no-charge credit card (like the Halifax Clarity Card in the UK) and check out which ATMs offer the best rates in each country, then take out the maximum amount each time to limit the amount of fees you’ll be charged.