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 save before you travel

  • The slow burn – put away as much as you can each month, into an ISA or regular savings account. Earn as much interest as you can, and be brutal. I found doing it at the start of each month helps me be as disciplined as possible, once I had a good idea of what my outgoings would be each month. Plan ahead for things like holidays and festivals, so you don’t end up putting too much away and having to take it out again, which means you’ll lose some of your annual allowance (with an ISA).
  • Instant cash injection – if you’re lucky enough to get an annual bonus, birthday money or come into money somehow, instead of splurging on a holiday or shopping trip, put it straight into your savings. Think of the long term goal! Over the years, these big sums really add up into a potentially life changing amount.
  • Cut all the unnecessary stuff out – everyone’s different in what they prioritise, and if going to the gym is a big part of your life, don’t quit it. But take time to think about where you can trim things down. Some examples…
    • Join the cheapest gym you can find on a rolling monthly contract so you can quit any time, or start running around the park instead
    • Get rid of your expensive mobile contract and get a SIMO deal with an affordable basic, older, or even your current handset. This will save you hundreds over the course of a year.
    • Limit the amount of new things you buy, or just buy bargain clothes/products – shopping in sales and cheap shops will still give you that ‘new things’ buzz without denting your wallet. Ask yourself what you really need vs. what you already have already that you can re-purpose, up-cycle, or fall in love with again. Wear your winter boots for one more winter; sew up that holey top you love; try that jacket with some different outfits and see if you can make it work.
    • Avoid buying things that have a huge mark-up and create a work-around instead. I’m looking at you, takeaway coffee. £3/day = nearly £100/month. Buy a keep-cup and bring nice coffee from home instead!
    • Sell your old stuff you don’t want! Old uni textbooks, electronics, old DVDs, clothes that are still in good condition… easier now than ever before with Marketplace apps like Shpock that don’t even charge to list! People will literally come to your home and pay you for your old stuff.
    • DIY grooming: paint your own nails, cut each other’s hair (me and Sam have been doing this for years – just buy a trimmer, some professional scissors, watch a few YouTube videos and away you go!), shave yourself… you get the picture!
  • Day to day, there are a few things that I (still) swear by to keep spending down, and I’m lucky enough to have a frugal boyfriend and frugal friends who feel similarly so it doesn’t feel like a chore:
    • Hanging out a lot at friends’ houses – for drinking, meals, parties. This saves serious dollar vs. spending a ton of money in bars and restaurants
    • Bringing packed lunch/snacks everywhere – you can save an insane amount of money by preparing lunch at home and bringing it into work, or even out and about at the weekends if you’re hanging out in a park, at museums etc. You also have time to think about tasty and (usually a bit healthier) food you can enjoy preparing and eating. It doesn’t have to be a chore! Similarly, carrying a reusable water bottle helps cut costs.
    • Meal plan when you do food shopping – not only is this better for the environment (you throw less away) and saves you serious cash, but it’s also really rewarding! Planning meals and batch cooking over the weekend makes life easier, and means you have tasty food to look forward to all week. You can also look out for deals when you do a ‘big shop’ (in bigger stores or online), and you’ll spend less than if you shop most days after work in pricier smaller stores and be drawn into more impulse buys. I found food shopping mainly online (and topping up on fresh) was a good way of controlling spend.
    • Go to cheaper food shops, and buy lots of fresh stuff (loose fruit and veg) and scratch-cook huge meals (curries, chilli, stew, pastas) rather than buying lots of single-serve fast-food like pizzas. Cut back on meat (if you can) as this is a huge money saver!
    • Travel as cheaply as you can. This might mean riding a bike (if you’re not too scared, as I am!), walking more, or buying an upfront travel card the cheapest way you can. You can save by taking buses or walking a travel zone further into town in London, for example.
  • Easier said than done in some cities (especially London!) but living in an affordable rental property also really helps. I was lucky enough to have my rent pretty much frozen for a couple of years (and stuck it out, despite living with my ex for a brief period!) If you’re spending more than about a third of your income on rent, it’ll be a lot harder to save. Search around for a more competitive deal, split a good deal with friends, move a bit further out of town, or in the short-term moving in with parents can really help you save fast, if this is possible.
  • You still need to go on holidays and trips whilst you save, but be frugal about it. Look out for sales on flights (set Skyscanner alerts; look out for regular Easyjet or Ryanair sales); buy cut-price train tickets online; and stay at Airbnbs or even hostels rather than hotels. Not only is the accommodation cheaper but you’ll get to cook for some of your meals, hang out/drink in the apartment (rather than always in cafés or restaurants), and have access to essentials like drinking water and whatever food you fancy!
  • Sometimes long haul holidays (like India or other parts of Asia) can actually work out pretty cheap if you go for a few weeks, as the main cost is the flight. A short term solution to wanderlust!