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.

How to travel cheap and long Part 2: Transport and Accomodation

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.