You’ve heard the stories of people budget traveling and coming back with almost unbelievable tales of everything they experienced over what feels like a very long time frame considering their very small budget. If you’re thinking about your own next trip and are concerned with how to make every dollar stretch, you likely have budget travel on the brain.
So, what is budget travel?
It’s all about being cost-conscious and price-aware.
Budget travel entices those who look for the most economical accommodations and transportation, wallet-friendly food, and free or relatively inexpensive attractions. Whether you’re hostel jumping through Europe, booking your entire trip using rewards points, or traveling off peak and discounted the entire way, with advanced planning, an eye for details, and a willingness to be a bit more inventive and flexible with your plans, budget travel will be less about compromise and sacrifice and more about making every moment count.
It’s not just about doing things as cheaply as possible, either. Yes, traveling on a more shoestring budget does feel like the majority of the identity of this industry, but that’s not the only part. Budget travel is also about perceived value and prioritizing what really matters to you when it comes to budget. Don’t just get fixated on how much is spent. How you spend it matters just as much.
Keep in mind, though, budget travel can have negative aspects, as well, especially when visiting perceived “cheap” locations. Yes, many countries have bartering as part of their culture, but there are steps to this dance. Make sure you are traveling respectfully. Just because something is out of your budget doesn’t mean it isn’t worth what is being asked. Don’t be that tourist.
What’s happening to the budget travel industry?
Some analysts believe budget travel will not be sustainable for a while post-pandemic. Tourism is hitting a boom in 2022 and that is expected to continue to rise. Airlines, who really kickstarted the budget travel revolution in many ways with sub-$10 flights, are less inclined to offer budget travel right now due to increased tourism and high fuel costs.
That being said, the traveler of today has so much information at their fingertips. So many more budget-friendly resources exist where you can still look for discounted flights and accommodations. Be mindful, though, that blogs from pre-pandemic that talk about budget locations might not be accurate right now. Many of those locations are trying to jumpstart their tourism economies and are really working to bring in the bigger spenders.
Additionally, inflation is here (2022) and it’s not a traveler’s best friend. Tourists are definitely feeling the squeeze with budget travelers feeling it more than ever. That doesn’t mean budget travel is impossible. It doesn’t mean it will likely require a lot more planning and preparation, though. Willingness to research is a budget traveler’s best friend.
Since budget travel can be seen as a bit research and pre-planning intensive, it can feel very overwhelming to a beginner, so let’s chat basics.
Determine Your Budget
Budget will be one of the most important factors when budget traveling. Remember, it’s not about being “cheap”, but about how you want to allocate funds. I tend to look at my travel funds divided into three categories: Pre-trip budget, During trip budget, emergency budget.
Pre-trip budget: all of the expenses you need to cover before you leave for your trip, like transportation, any luggage or gear you need, visas, vaccinations, passport, and travel insurance.
During trip budget: all of the accommodations, food, tours and activities, local transportation, and souvenirs.
Emergency budget: I recommend putting aside money for those “just in case” scenarios, like a lost or stolen credit card or cash, or unexpected expenses, like a traffic ticket or a meal you just can’t miss that’s pretty pricey. Remember, budget travel isn’t about just going cheap. Don’t sacrifice your enjoyment if your budget will accommodate your desires.
Choose Your Destination
Now that you have an idea of how much you can spend, you need to determine where you want to spend it! If you have a bucket list this is where you comb through it and decide which bucket list item fits your current budget travel goals.
Ask yourself a few questions:
- What time of year works best for you?
- Why are you traveling?
- What transportation methods do you prefer?
Once you determine the answers to the above questions, you can check the latest deals for flights and accommodations to see what matches with your preferences. At different times of year, different places might be more expensive. Off-peak times will be your friend. Keep in mind, budget travel can require a bit of tenacity. If you are still struggling with narrowing it down to that one place, look into travel based communities that align with how you travel and who you are as a traveler, like Her Adventures, which has a Facebook community of women who want to support other women in travel. Put all the information you know that matters to you, like your budget, time of year, etc. and ask if they have recommendations for locations. Do Google searches on your preferred parameters to see what the blogging community has to say.
If you can’t find a destination that matches your budget needs, you might need to reevaluate either your budget or your travel purpose to see where there is some flexibility.
Pick Your Accommodations
Accommodations can often be a very large chunk of your budget. A major fixed travel expense.
I prioritize looking for accommodations that are the best value based on my need, not just the cheapest price. I have Lupus and we travel with our kid, so there are some non-negotiables that we need when thinking about accommodations. I tend to look for options that have a kitchen, since my dietary concerns often mean we tend to cook a bit more for ourselves.
By understanding what your non-negotiables are, it’ll really help you determine what accommodations really make sense for your needs. Saving 20% on accommodations that wouldn’t work for you isn’t really savings. That will end up being a potential stressor in the long run.
There are many websites dedicated to helping you find budget-friendly accommodations, like Booking.com, Airbnb.com, and Priceline.com. Staying mid-week or over Sunday could end up being a cheaper overall rate, as well, since Friday and Saturday tend to be peak. If you are good with shared accommodations, hostels are a potential opportunity to book something more budget-friendly, as well. Also, location really matters. Center of town or city can often be more expensive, so a nearby town or something a bit further from the city center can also be more economical. Finally, I tend to prioritize places that have free cancellation policies just in case a better deal pops up.
Planning & Timing
Now it’s time to really plan this trip and determine the exact dates and times for what you want to do. I’m a big planner, which works in my favor for budget travel. I naturally like to dig for the best deals. Additionally, I prefer to visit places during less touristed and more off-peak times so that we can have what feels like a more local experience. If off-peak works for you, you’ll open yourself up to some amazing experiences that would normally be more expensive (and more crowded).
Planning in advance often means better deals on travel, activities and accommodations. Booking early can really save you money. And the more money you save on the pre-trip expenses the more you’ll have for the during-trip expenses. I also will note that if your schedule allows it, last minute travel can also be super inexpensive, albeit a bit more stressful. At least for me.
In the end, if you’re willing to put in the work ahead of time and during your trip, there is a lot of money to be saved. Finding deals and lots of free activities is totally possible, just like cooking meals for yourself and using public transportation during the trip can save you money. Keep in mind that travel is about experiences, so make sure to prioritize that for yourself.
Obviously, eating and drinking is a required expense, but there are ways to help cut costs. Food is a big part of travel for us. We truly love exploring local cuisines and the best tastes every new place has to offer. That doesn’t mean that food has to wreck our budget, though. By planning our meals ahead of time, we can really get the best of both worlds: great food and budget-friendly.
First, refillable water bottles are your friend for so many reasons. Dehydration is a big issue while traveling, so it’s great for your health. And buying beverages, especially single use plastic water bottles, can really add up in a hurry. If water works for you, refillable is the way to go (as long as you have access to safe water).
Second, if you enjoy cooking, think about booking accommodations with a kitchen or some kitchen access. Just because you’re cooking for yourself doesn’t mean you’re missing out on the local experience. We always research local ingredients and dishes and then have a great time exploring the grocery store. What’s more local than eating like most locals do?
Third, eating out doesn’t have to be the enemy. Just be mindful if the restaurants are really authentic and locally enjoyed or if they are more geared for tourists. Most touristy restaurants will often have a bit of “tourist tax” added to the price. We tend to look for those off-the-beaten-path restaurants that the locals go to when they eat out. The food and experience is almost always way more authentic.
I know I just talked about planning, planning, planning. But with budget travel, flexibility will be key. Your when, why, where, and how much might not all work together. Embracing a flexible mindset means you are more likely to find a better deal. Flexibility also means really prioritizing what’s the most important part of the travel experience for you or what is more non-negotiable.
For instance, if your “when” isn’t super flexible due to work, school or other responsibilities, that may limit locations based on the season you’re traveling. Or if you really want to hit up that hot, expensive restaurant in the center of town, what about checking out lunchtime or happy hour if a seated dinner isn’t comfortably in the budget. Remember, you don’t have to sacrifice, you just need to be creative.
Get Travel Insurance
I know when budget traveling, something like travel insurance feels like an easy cost to cut. And you may not need it. Honestly, I hope you never need to use it. But the one time you need it and you don’t have it will make every other time you purchase it totally worth it.
Travel insurance can help in the case of lost or damaged luggage, if you have anything stolen, and medical insurance will definitely come in handy just in case anyone gets sick or injured while traveling.
Enjoy Yourself and Don’t Rush
When budget traveling, we often feel compelled to fit as much into our time as we possibly can. While I understand that inclination, and am totally guilty of it myself, it can make the entire experience feel really high stress and high stakes. Instead, try to really make the most of every experience. Additionally, if you have access to more available time, longer can end up being more economical if you’re creative. Like longer booking time discounts or finding flight deals for somewhat odd traveling times. Or you can travel by bus or train instead of plane for all or some of your trip.
Don’t get so focused on the budget side of things that you forget to enjoy the travel of it all.