Right now, as the coronavirus continues to sweep through the world, any voyage much farther than work or the grocery store is probably the furthest thing from your mind. However, for people who want to expand their horizons, the coming months are going to be filled with opportunity.
Airlines, hotels, tour operators, restaurants, luxury resorts: all of these are going to be desperate to attract customers, meaning that the prices they’ll be offering are going to be at rock bottom. If you’ve always wanted to visit Venice, Las Vegas, or Moscow but were never able to afford it, this is your chance.
Of course, you probably don’t want to wipe out your life savings for one indulgent week in paradise. Luckily, you don’t have to: there are plenty of practical tips on how to travel cheap without looking or feeling like a refugee. Here are some of the best:
Table of Contents
- 0.1 Robotic Travel Agents: Websites You’ll Want to Make Friends With
- 0.2 Timing Is Everything, Flexibility Is the Rest
- 0.3 Search for Hidden Treasures
- 0.4 Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Saving on Accommodation
- 0.5 Be Nice to the Concierge
- 0.6 Watch Out for the Small Stuff
- 1 Budget Extra for the Things that Matter
Robotic Travel Agents: Websites You’ll Want to Make Friends With
Shed no tears for the travel agent industry: its decline at the hands of websites like those you’ll find below was as inevitable as it was welcome. Many of them provided (and still do) a useful service, but they will typically not be the frugal traveler’s first port of call.
The way travel agents saved customers money in the past was largely by having a database of flight prices the average Joe couldn’t see, as well as special discounts from airlines and hotels they could pass on, partly, to their clients. Today, assuming that saving money on travel is your priority, you’re better off using the following services:
These websites and apps make it ridiculously easy to find the cheapest flights and get notified when a great, time-limited deal is on offer. If you do use airlines’ websites, make sure to use incognito browsing or even a VPN – the prices you’re shown will often increase the more times you look.
“Travel hacking” is something anybody can do, but there are also some real experts on the subject. A few advanced techniques, like hidden city ticketing, are totally legal though airlines wish they weren’t, but it may be best to leave these alone unless you’re willing to read the small print. The most important thing to keep in mind is this: the cheapest flight is the one nobody wants to take.
Timing Is Everything, Flexibility Is the Rest
Usually, taking a flight that leaves at 5 a.m. rather than a more respectable time, or on Tuesday instead of Friday, is hundreds of dollars cheaper. Booking a month in advance is sometimes the cheapest way to travel, but occasionally buying your ticket at the last minute gets you a bargain. In other words: if you have a job with flexible leave policies, take advantage of this and save! Even if you don’t, just planning your vacation in April or September instead of June or December can save you a bundle, as these are (for most places) the off and peak seasons.
Remember that charging peanuts for a seat is more profitable for the airline than leaving it empty. If you’re more flexible than the average flyer, you can travel more cheaply. If staying an extra day or three at your destination cost less than what you’ll save on taking a later flight, for example, you’d be a fool not to.
Flights with stopovers are often much more affordable, too. Look for those that are either shorter than 2 hours or longer than 10, assuming that this isn’t at night, giving you time to explore the city instead of just yet another airport terminal.
In addition, if you don’t have your heart set on a particular destination – i.e. anywhere but home seems like more fun – you can leave your destination blank on several of the websites mentioned above and take advantage of some really cheap travel options. Don’t just look at flights alone, either: taking an ocean cruise in the off season may be just what you need to unwind. Trains take a while to get where they’re going, but they’re also much more comfortable (and a lot less scary) than airplanes.
Search for Hidden Treasures
Destinations like Barcelona, Dubai, Venice, and Bangkok are almost cliches by now: crowded, commercialized and way too expensive. Looking a little further afield, you’ll very often find cheaper rates, less clutter and friendlier locals.
You’ll want to do your own research to suit your particular interests, but here are a few suggestions for low-cost travel treats:
• Tunisia is just as much a Mediterranean country as Italy and Spain, with great food, pristine beaches and architecture dating back to Roman times. A room in a so-so hotel goes for about $30 per night, a meal in a fairly upscale restaurant less than $10.
• A skiing holiday in Eastern Europe will cost you less than half of one in the Alps – and there’s plenty else to experience too. The legacy of Communist rule is still visible, but definitely in the past, and many locals speak English.
• Ecuador has the reputation of being the safest country in South America as well as a treasure trove for nature lovers, surfers and hikers. Active volcanoes, the upper Amazon and whale birthing grounds are some of its major attractions.
• Most people still associate Ethiopia with war and poverty, but this is an unfair stereotype. The country actually hosted an advanced civilization in classical times, some ruins of which are still preserved. This is not to mention incredible wildlife and rock-bottom prices.
• Popular tourist traps in Italy can seem almost like the 51st state during the summer, with hamburger-chomping, sandal-wearing Americans everywhere you look. Slovenia has many of the same charms and features, yet can be visited for pennies on the dollar. (Slovakia, by the way, is an entirely different country).
• Vietnam has extraordinarily friendly people and incredible cuisine, beautiful nature as well as some of the most hair-raising traffic you’ll ever encounter. Beer is only about 30 cents a bottle, though, and the country beat the covid-19 epidemic as early as late April.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Saving on Accommodation
There seem to be two main schools of thought on how to find a good night’s rest in a foreign country: either plan meticulously and book your room weeks in advance or just turn up and wing it. If you’re traveling with children, like to take your adventure in small doses or refuse to speak anything other than English, the former is probably the way to go.
Don’t restrict your search only to hotels, though: especially if you’re going as part of a group, these are rarely the cheapest way to travel. The following websites are all alternatives to the ubiquitous Airbnb. Any of them can help you find a house or apartment with all the comforts of home while paying less (especially for things like laundry and meals):
• HomeAway (owned by the same company as VRBO, but has some different options)
• Booking.com (lists hotels but also homes)
• HomeStay (live with a family or host who has extra space)
• Outdoorsy (rent a campervan or RV and drive it wherever the urge takes you)
The other approach – showing up in a strange town an hour before dark with just a suitcase and a phrasebook – isn’t as happy-go-lucky as it might seem. Especially in less developed countries, many minbaks (Korea), pensions (France and many other countries), hosterias (Latin America) and English pubs with a few guest rooms upstairs don’t advertise online. The easiest way to find one is to ask around. This brings us to a cardinal rule of traveling cheaply:
Be Nice to the Concierge
Have you ever heard the phrase “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar?”. Leaving aside the question of why you’d want to catch flies in the first place, treating people in the service industry with kindness is a great help when traveling on a budget.
In most coastal cities, you can find charming, affordable seafood restaurants just two blocks from the glitzy, overpriced waterfront. Hotel employees – even the window washers and floor polishers – know where these are and which to avoid. Sometimes, they can even get you discounts of the “Tell them Marco sent you” variety. Businesses who rely on locals for business may be less flashy, but have to offer good value and quality or face going out of business.
Tourists don’t normally know to find microtheaters, all-night emergency pharmacies or local handicraft workshops…but taxi drivers do. As another example, I once saved about $40 getting to the airport outside Quito just by being polite to a bus company employee.
If you treat locals with respect, they’ll tell you about travel savings like these. If you’re arrogant and bossy, they’ll forget they even speak English.
Watch Out for the Small Stuff
When it comes to cheap travel, saving on big-ticket items like airfare and accommodation should be the first thing on your mind. Don’t forget about the devil in the details, though:
Snacks and drinks at the airport cost an arm, leg and kidney: bring your own. In fact, keep some refreshments handy at all times and fill up a reusable water bottle at every opportunity. You’ll have more energy to enjoy yourself, and it’s a lifesaver when dealing with tired, grumpy kids.
You should also be mindful of transport costs – walking everywhere is a great way of getting to know a strange city, but your ankles can only do so much. This is one way in which buying a guidebook (and actually reading it) saves you money. In London, for instance, a short trip in one of their famous black cabs can easily cost ten pounds sterling, compared to £42 for a weekly bus-and-subway pass (just remember to call it the Tube if any Londoners are present, and please wear deodorant if you’re planning to get on during rush hour).
While you’re researching this kind of thing, also check if you can save on admission to the biggest attractions using a city card. Especially in Europe, being able to show a student ID can get you many discounts – all you need to do is ask, and the worst that can happen is them saying no. Knowing about stuff like this is a great help when drawing up your budget – something you should definitely do before departing.
If you’re planning on bringing home presents for everyone you know, it will be worthwhile finding out how much these normally cost (and buy them close to the end of your trip so you don’t overspend). 90% of the time, a thoughtful gift will be appreciated more than one that’s merely expensive, and you can easily order things like a Japanese tea set, balsamic vinegar from Italy or yerba mate from Argentina online.
If you haven’t shopped around for the best deal on credit cards lately, now might be the time. Many of these are geared to travelers and will let you earn (or spend) rewards points on flight purchases, accommodation and meals. Several have hotel and airline partnerships that will get you access to incredible deals from time to time. In addition, using a bureau de change to change your currency is usually a bad idea, and almost always at the airport – get a travel-friendly prepaid debit card and use ATMs instead.
Budget Extra for the Things that Matter
Nobody tells stories about how they booked a business class seat instead of one in coach – this would be painfully boring to listen to unless the plane caught fire. Similarly, the difference between taking a 2-hour flight (which in reality occupies five when you include getting to and from the airport, security checks and losing your luggage) instead of a six-hour bus ride is ridiculously mundane. You won’t even remember either in a month’s time.
Some memories, by contrast, last a lifetime, whether they’re documented on Instagram or not. Unsurprisingly, people who spend money on experiences rather than comforts and commodities tend to be happier. The lesson here is obvious: cut down on expenses that won’t bring you joy or just allow you to avoid a moderate amount of discomfort. Then, put the money you save towards the things that really matter to you.
To give one example, the musical West Side Story is currently playing in New York. The cheapest tickets sell for about $110, while a premium seat will set you back over a thousand dollars. This cost difference is much the same as three nights in a Big Apple hotel, most of which you won’t enjoy anyway because you’ll be asleep.
Enjoying a live performance to the hilt or seeing your favorite sports team up close, by contrast, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Clearly, spending more doesn’t help you save in any kind of direct way. Traveling is going to cost you in any case, though, and probably quite a lot. It just makes sense to ensure that you get some real enjoyment out of your trip, whether it’s for business or pleasure.
Expect the Best and Plan for the Worst
If there’s one thing you can always expect from the unpredictable, it’s that it’s going to happen. You can, however, decide in advance whether this results in a hiccup or a catastrophe.
It’s essential to keep some emergency cash on you, or at least an extra debit card packed separately. Besides that, travel insurance (which is often included in your credit card package at nominal cost) can quite literally be a lifesaver if you suffer a medical emergency abroad. It can also refund you as much as the whole cost of your trip if this should be canceled or cut short due to circumstances beyond your control.
It’s never a bad idea to do your research: some countries require vaccinations, or you may be refused entry or get stuck in quarantine. Reading the news and checking travel advisories before you start making reservations is also essential: countries like Israel, Thailand and Guatemala are fantastic places to visit, but are best avoided whenever they suffer an outbreak of politics. Notify your bank that you’ll be traveling so your cards don’t get canceled and email yourself copies of your important documents. If you’re in doubt about anything, join an expat Facebook group based in the country you’re thinking of visiting. These people can give you the low-down and are almost always happy to help out strangers.
Take Everything You Need With You – and Nothing Else
Many people pack as though they want to be prepared for everything from a spur-of-the-moment wedding to a wide variety of natural disasters. This is a classic mistake that can cost you big bucks: pretty much everywhere a normal person will want to go has stores.
Chances are, whether you’re going to Tokyo or Tennessee, items like socks, toothpaste and sunscreen will cost pretty much the same as they do at home – buy them once you land and leave more room in your suitcase for important stuff. If you feel safer taking some toiletries along, try squeezing some out into a smaller, leak-proof bottle instead of lugging extra weight around.
Another way to avoid excess baggage charges is to pay a few bucks for a wearable suitcase – since a passenger’s weight doesn’t matter, to the great annoyance of skinny people everywhere, you might as well do your best Michelin Man impression. Just remember that many common items are only allowed in checked luggage. If you’re planning a long stay somewhere, you can even have someone ship some belongings to your destination – some companies actually specialize in this.
Even if you simply can’t travel light, decide on a minimalist 24-hour kit that includes a change of clothes and absolute necessities that will fit in your carry-on luggage. If the airline happens to send your luggage to Bermuda, you won’t have to buy duplicate items.
All that having been said, don’t skimp on packing the essentials. Medication is a must, but also remember that homesickness becomes a problem sooner than you think, even in paradise. Cellphone roaming charges are murderous; instead, pick up a cheap, unlocked phone and a SIM card at your destination. Comfortable walking shoes that aren’t sneakers are important, too. Finally, getting a good camera can save you money on souvenirs (and even earn you some).
Improvise Your Own Meals
Experiencing the local cuisine, whether this means crab cakes in Baltimore, squid balls in Taipei or bouillabaisse in Marseilles, is one of the best reasons to travel. Really, don’t be that guy who goes to Japan and immediately starts looking for McDonald-san.
At the same time, food is sometimes just fuel, meant to keep your tired bones moving and your kids from going berserk. It’s also usually your biggest travel expense after airfare and lodging.
If possible, look for hotel rooms that include a microwave or at least a kettle, and perhaps breakfast. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, though: one cheap London hotel I stayed at served two slices of toast, jam and instant coffee and called it a “continental breakfast”.
Branded foodstuffs you’re used to are probably imported abroad (if they’re available at all) and therefore cost much more. Instead, pop into a bakery and grab a croissant (or whatever local pastry) for breakfast and buy some delicious, low-cost treats from a street vendor for lunch on the go. If you’re able and willing to cook, plan ahead, buy some suitable utensils and search for cheap, local, seasonal ingredients.
Even if you’ve never prepared anything more complicated than scrambled eggs, create a portable pantry from inexpensive meals like granola bars, instant soup and ramen. This doesn’t have to mean giving up everything you enjoy: slice some fresh fruits into yogurt once in a while, or invest in an espresso maker you can use anywhere.
Free as a Bird: How to Travel Cheaply the Backpacker Way
Many people refuse to believe this, but it is actually possible to see the world without room service, tour guides or even an itinerary. If you’ve got a bad case of wanderlust and don’t know how to travel for cheap, go backpacking!
This way of traveling is often used by students, but also by free-spirited retirees and even entire families with children once they’re about waist high. At its best, it takes foreign trips from being a rare event to a hobby you can enjoy several times a year.
Choosing your activities and next destination based on a whim is a lot more relaxing than rushing from place to place as if you’re getting paid for it. This is also by far the cheapest way to travel: depending on the country and amenities, staying at a backpacking hostel can cost anything from $50 to $5 a night.
You’ll also meet some of the most interesting people you’ll ever encounter, discover unique spots well off the beaten track and learn to become an adventurer instead of a tourist. The simple math is that taking a long vacation costs less per day than a short one. This is because travel costs are spread across a longer span of time and you can explore alternative accommodation ideas. In some countries (Vietnam, Colombia, Morocco) you can actually spend as little as $20 per day. This, of course, assumes that you’re okay with sharing rooms with strangers and live a lot like a local: use their modes of transport, eat their kind of food and cut down on luxuries like cocktails.
You can also rent a motorcycle and go from town to town at your own pace, try volunteering for a charity or in exchange for a place to sleep, and even keep working if your job can be done remotely. If this kind of thing appeals to you, the following websites may be of help:
• WorldPackers – An organization dedicated to helping you travel cheaply, connect with hosts, learn a new language or help the less fortunate.
• WWOOF – Live and work on an organic farm in Europe, Asia or another exotic location.
• CouchSurfing – Stay with a local family for an unforgettable cultural immersion experience.
Time to Dust off That Suitcase
Only a few decades ago, overseas travel was something available only to the rich. Not long before that, a person might spend their whole life without venturing further than a day’s train ride from their birthplace.
Opportunity is knocking. If your idea of a vacation is just doing the things you’d ordinarily do on a Saturday, but on a Wednesday instead, it’s time you took some initiative. If you have a week to spare, you can easily experience a magical, exciting foreign country for under a thousand dollars. All you need is a sense of adventure, a little planning and some common sense, so what are you waiting for?