Travel. It’s on virtually everyone’s ‘bucket list’, but it can seem that packing and selling everything is the only way to do it. Money is often named as the number one reason why many don’t get away regularly. People think that they must spend thousands, but the reality is it can be affordable to travel the world.
The great news is that a 1, 2 or even 3 month holiday doesn’t have to be an once-in-a-lifetime experience that sets you back financially at all.
Over the course of the last 12 or so years, we’ve travelled to 23 countries across 5 continents spending a total of over 1 year abroad. And we’ve come back from most trips with at least as much money as what we started with.
In the meantime, we’ve also paid off a mortgage in 9 years, renovated the house, got married, bought a new car in cash and gave freelancing a go.
There is nothing glamorous about the way we get away. Forget any idea about luxury or having it all done for you.
In fact our travel philosophy is closely tied to Stoicism.
The point is, we make it happen. We travel far, travel wide and as often as possible.
Here are our best tricks for travelling affordably.
Independent versus Guided Travel
Independent travel is without a doubt the cheap way to travel. I get that it’s not for everyone. It’s logistically challenging, often gets you out of your comfort zone, requires you to put trust in strangers and it can be terrifying especially on your own.
I know, because my first solo, independent travel experience at 18 was all those things. Especially terrifying.
But every time I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and been challenged, I’ve also grown and that’s half the point of travelling
I’ve returned with greater confidence in myself, knowledge that I can overcome challenges, deal with complicated logistics, make decisions.
In short, thanks to independent travel I’m richer both financially and emotionally.
Getting There and Getting Away
It goes without saying we shop for the cheapest flights. But I’ve never found a consistently cheap place to buy. Sometimes we’ve gone through a travel agent, other times through Webjet, sometimes direct through the airlines.
If the destination is flexible, for example in Europe, I check various cities to see if I can get a better price. Budget airlines rarely work out cheaper if you have to get from a random airport back to town. Price gouging for airport to city transport seems universal from Athens to Santiago.
I also compare intercity flight prices, but these are almost never cheaper than ground transport. Unless there’s water in between the places I want to be, catching a train or bus usually works out better especially once you consider transport to and from the airport.
Finally, driving is usually cheaper than flying for two or more people. A few months ago we did a 2,400km round trip for around $260 with a 1 year old. Flights, transport to the airport and a rental car would have cost $1,250.
A few good audiobooks meant we would have happily kept driving just to find out what happened next.
Pre Departure Food
Apparently buying food and drinks at the airport and during flights is popular. But it’s a complete waste of money; you’ve barely even left home and price gouging at airports is also pretty popular.
Save yourself a small fortune and bring snacks. Awesome snacks like waffles, muffins and Danishes that you’ll actually want to eat.
Bonus points if you bring extra and sell them to your inflight neighbours who will probably be drooling while waiting for the flight attendants to get to them.
Saving Money On Accommodation
At 28 we thought we were too old and too married (if such a thing exists!) to stay in ‘youth’ hostels. For our first night in Santiago, Chile, we booked a nice double room.
It was a the start of a 3.5 month trip and we were paying four times what it would have cost both of us to stay in bunk beds. Multiply that by 85 or so nights and you get the picture.
No, it’s not glamorous, but hostels are cheap and the best place to make friends and connect with other travellers on the road. Not only did we end up having some great evenings with our travel buddies, we often ended up travelling together and even visited each other in our home countries.
And the good news is, you’re never too old. To our surprise, in Argentina and Chile, most of the travellers were at least our age and often married. But around the world, it isn’t a rarity to run into 60 year old travellers at ‘youth’ hostels either. And do they have some stories to tell!
Most of our trips these days are outside of the city, so camping is our preferred accommodation option. We’ve got a small light weight tent that’s easy to throw in our luggage for overseas trips and a big family tent for Australian road trips.
Long Distance Transport
As a rule of thumb, to save money on transport we get around the same way the locals do. Argentina and Chile have amazing long distance buses, providing hot meals and sometimes wine as part of the service.
In Europe, we usually travel by train, though rarely the high speed options. Nothing beats the over-crowded buses in Mongolia and Nepal, expect maybe getting off them in one piece.
Car hire in Australia seems inevitable, although we’ve caught the odd long distance bus as well.
In short, we rarely pay for additional air travel once we’ve reached our destination.
When travelling long distances, we always opt for the overnight option. This saves money on accommodation and time.
Getting Around Town
As a kid I had a fear of not getting onto a train in time and watching my family get whisked away while I stood helplessly on the platform. This might have informed my subsequent, irrational fear of public transport.
Specifically, I worry about getting on the wrong subway or bus, missing my stop, not being able to get off in time with my luggage, not having understood the directions etc. So when possible, I walk to get around.
Not only is this great for actually getting the vibe of a place, it’s cheap and great for my fitness. Give me a local map and I will attempt to get myself anywhere and everywhere on foot. Except in Paris and Beijing I’d recommend the metro.
The one thing we almost never do, is catch a taxi. Ever. They’re convenient, especially when you’ve just stepped off a 30 hour flight and don’t want to contend with carting a backpack through three bus transfers, but they’re expensive.
And you usually have to negotiate a price upfront when neither of you speak the same language and your grasp on the currency is vague. Especially, when there’s a few zeros to contend with.
Not catching taxis is my rule and I stick with it, so there’s never any temptation. The same applies in my home city where my husband and I have walked home from the city when public transport wasn’t an option.
A holiday seems like the perfect excuse to treat yourself to nice meals out and maybe even a cocktail or ten.
Apparently our brains are even wired to spend money out of figurative ‘buckets’. This means that an expense that would usually come out of the day to day living bucket such as a bottle of Bacardi to make a cocktail at home is hard to justify. But on holidays, even though it may be three times the price, because it’s coming out of the ‘luxuries’ bucket, we can justify the spend to ourselves.
That’s probably why most people gain weight on holidays. I usually lose it.
We do eat while travelling and generally very well, but we rarely go out unless there’s no other option like in Nepal.
In more expensive countries, most of our food is sourced at local supermarkets or markets and cooked in our hostel (the kitchens are another reason we usually stay in hostels) or on a camping stove. We’ve even steamed snails on a camp stove in France. It wasn’t very successful.
I apply the same principles for buying food while travelling as I do at home. Eat good, enjoyable food that doesn’t cost too much and prepare it yourself.
Luckily it’s almost always possible to get great bread and cheese for a picnic lunch or dinner.
In Australia, drinks at a bar, restaurant or café are terribly expensive. And I’ll be honest nothing annoys me more than spending $4 on a coffee, in a café proudly displaying a ‘life’s too short to drink bad coffee’ only to be served a bad coffee.
Needless to say, at home, I avoid drinks out because they’re often disappointing. On the road, things are no different.
Which doesn’t mean not enjoying a tipple here, there and everywhere, especially in countries where public drinking is permitted.
Sunny terraces in hillside villages in France usually have park benches. We grab a 1 Euro bottle of wine and voila, you get pretty much the same experience as everyone paying for chilled drinks served in glassware.
On a 3 week driving holiday in France, we shared a 1 Euro bottle of wine every night, which means we drank far more than normal.
With the exception of a coffee detox we had for our trip to Mongolia (we thought the logistics of getting ground coffee there might not be feasible), we don’t leave home without a coffee sock.
The result isn’t quite cappuccino worthy, but when it’s cheaper to buy a beer in Poland than a bad coffee at a café, I figure it’s better to be self-prepared.
Although we’ve never had to use it, I don’t leave home without travel insurance. Ours is covered by our credit card as long as it’s been activated in advance for travel related purchases.
The annual card fee is higher than a standard no-frills credit card, but regularly paying for standalone insurance would cost more.
The card attracts no fees when withdrawing cash in a foreign ATM, although a conversion is still applied. We always preload cash onto our credit account making sure it’s positive so that we are withdrawing our own money, not getting it from the bank.
We compared policies with a standalone option a few years ago and found there was no difference in what was included and excluded.
Once In A Lifetime Experiences
By spending as little as possible on necessities, there’s plenty of kitty in the bank to spend on experiences. Where we can we focus on seeing the sites on our own usually with a Lonely Planet guide to show us the way.
But otherwise money is not a barrier to getting a once in a lifetime experience – like skiing in the Austrian Alps, doing multi-day horse treks in Mongolia and Argentina, visiting Dracula’s Castle in Romania, paragliding in Nepal or glacier trekking in New Zealand.
As you can see, travel doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You can choose how much you spend. So go out there, see the world and don’t let money be an obstacle.
Where do you dream of visiting? How do you keep costs down while on the road?
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