A Budget Guide to Shoestring Travel

November 17, 2008 by

Travel Advice & Inspiration

You’ve planned your dream trip, saved up working three jobs (taking every hour of overtime you can), cut back on luxuries and stayed home almost every night, in order to enjoy yourself on holiday. You’ve finally bought the ticket and booked the hotel when all of a sudden…

The economy turns upside down, the currency exchange-rate is a joke, and your travelling companion decides to cancel and go camping instead.

Here are some of the survival strategies that I have tried and tested over the past five years, and would now love to share in the hope that if you ever do get into my situation, you will learn to appreciate the joys of being bravely poor – or richly foolish – enough to feel the fear, and get on the plane anyway.

Sleep in airports, save a few bucks

Sleep in airports, save a few bucks

Don’t take taxis to or from the airport. Ever.

It continues to astonish my friends and family, but there are actually not-so-wealthy people all over the world, some of us managing to travel on a regular basis, for pleasure, adventure, and sometimes work-related projects. The first way to cut back on the expense of travel, is very simple. Don’t take taxis. Ever.

Do a little research, and you can almost always find an alternative way into town from the airport. Usually there is some form of public transport, a shared shuttle bus or public bus for around $3-10 or (in the case of Sydney) a relatively cheap train, instead of an invariably expensive taxi. You will get a sense of your environment much quicker, and start to orient yourself on the way — just finding the bus stop can be an adventure in itself.

Of course, this approach requires that you travel at a reasonable hour, so try to avoid the super-cheap flights at 6am, or you’ll be spending the night in the airport (click here for tips on sleeping in airports). Most airport websites have information about the public transport options available.

Ditch the plane, hop a bus or train

The bus is always the cheapest option

The bus is always the cheapest option

Alternatively, if you can’t afford a plane ticket and don’t mind a few extra hours on the bus, try booking 45 days in advance for extremely cheap tickets on Eurolines, which travels all over Europe.

Train travel in central and eastern Europe is also relatively cheap, especially when you book in sections rather than the entire journey (which attracts international tariffs). It cost me €30 from Zagreb to Budapest on Hungarian MAV, Check out Eurocheapo Rail for the latest schedule and fare information.

Fly cheap (and green-ish)

Buses aside, it is possible to fly cheaply and even reduce your carbon footprint by choosing to contribute a carbon offset fee on the handful of low-cost airlines that offer the service. In general the low-cost airlines airlines cover an astonishing range of destinations in Europe, Asia and more. You could fly Sky Europe from Bratislava to Paris, easyJet from Paris to Berlin, and German Wings from Berlin to Zagreb or Istanbul. Blue1 is the low-cost Scandinavian airline, Central Wings covers Central Europe, Jetstar and VirginBlue offer affordable choices in Australia, and Air Asia is one of the options in Asia.

Life is a picnic; so don’t forget your cheese & baguette

Local markets should be your #1 food source

Eating out when you’re on no-budget is a luxury that will make your trip very short! If you don’t know anyone willing to buy you a meal, then it’s time to shop. Wherever I go, I try to find the local fresh food market, since the produce is usually fresh and (sometimes) cheaper than the supermarket.

Also because markets give a great sense of the place and culture, a way to experience the language as well as the flavours and smells of the area. Once you let go of the expectation that you will be eating in fancy (or even not-so-fancy) restaurants on your trip, you can head for the market and start living like a local.

The supermarket can also be a great way to assimilate with local culture, as you find a world of intriguing choices in the unfamiliar products and packaging, and I find guessing what things are is half the fun. Make sure you get some nutrition, don’t just subsist on fast food and late-night kebabs. It’s still possible to get creative with salads, baguettes, fruit, cheese, and a bottle of wine – take a thermos to enjoy a coffee in the park or along the canal, where you can still people watch while saving plenty of precious euros or dollars on not going to cafes. Pick up a bottle of wine in the off-license or supermarket, and get yourself invited to a party or for dinner.

Sleep on a couch. Literally.

Couchsurfing is a great option if you don’t have an international network of friends and family – log in and find yourself a couch, practically anywhere. ‘Participate in creating a better world, one couch at a time!’ A way to meet people and connect with the local community when you’re travelling, and of course you can choose to offer your own couch when you get back home.

Make art pay

Once you learn to hook into the local scene you can travel almost anywhere, on almost nothing, and still have a fabulously glamorous time. Hit the art scene and find out when the exhibition openings are held. Drop by the nearest gallery and pick up fliers, find a copy of the arts listings in the newspaper or cultural centre, tune into the local radio station, or research online cultural events. The art-gallery circuit may often provide free drinks, and a fascinating glimpse of the edgy, unconventional and out-there sides to the places you visit.

Many museums and galleries have one day a week or month when they’re free. Thursday evenings in Berlin for the museums, and Monday for the Guggenheim in New York; the first Sunday every month for the Louvre in Paris; Friday evenings at the New York Guggenheim are ‘Pay what you wish’. Remember the world’s a stage, go for a walk and lose yourself in the area that’s off the tourist map, and watch the performance of everyday life taking place all around you.

The person who dies with the most friends, wins.

I don’t mean to be macabre this is the peace-joy-and-love part of the survival strategy, remember that life is about sharing experiences. Try to make friends wherever you go, and instead of buying souvenirs, bring back stories of your adventures and unexpected encounters. Remember you are going to have to haul anything you buy across town and possibly the world in suitcases, so if you don’t want to pay excess baggage on it, or move house with it in five years, just leave it there, and start a conversation instead.

Being open to the connections you can make in strange circumstances is one of the most richly rewarding aspects of travel for me, and far outweighs the uncertainty of not knowing how I am going to survive next week! Mostly, I just don’t shop for anything that isn’t essential to survival.

Avoid buying presents for yourself or anyone else, bring back pictures and fantastic stories instead. If you really must indulge in retail therapy, and sometimes it’s fun, try to find the fleamarket and give yourself a $5 budget. It’s extraordinary what treasures you can unearth, and bargain hunting at Boxhagener Platz or Mauer Park in Berlin is one of my favourite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Whatever happens in the course of your trip, as long as you live to tell the tale, will become one more travel story. Finding creative ways to survive and live outside your comfort zone, and venturing beyond familiar paths, is one of the best ways to re-energise your spirit and remember what it feels like to be alive. As long as your sense of humour remains intact, you can get through almost any circumstance.

Jodi Rose


7 Responses to “A Budget Guide to Shoestring Travel”

  1. james Says:

    Nice list – When I travel solo I end up saving money because I don’t eat at nice restaurants. I end up eating at cafes and street carts – which saves time and money, and is very enjoyable.

    If I stay somewhere for more than a few days I try and find a hostel or guest house with a kitchen, so I can visit the supermarket and cook at home. – a local market, especially in another country, is just as enjoyable as a restaurant.

    Also check out libraries and museum free days. Libraries often have rotating exhibits and are very interesting

    james http://www.futuregringo.com

  2. Emily Jacobs Says:

    Hi great list. Couchsurfing is a great option however, some of us do not like the idea of staying at somebody else’s place. An option that I use very often is vacation rentals. They are great, sometimes cheaper than hotels and can be booked fairly easy. A great website that I found is Rentalo.com. This website allows you to send a single inquiry to all the properties in a destination that fit your needs. So basically owners bid for your offer! I think is a great idea, it saves time, and can also save you money without having to stay at someone’s place.

  3. The Seattle Tourist Says:

    These are some great tips! One of the best things about making friends wherever you go is that the next time you go visit that place, you probably have a place to stay and save even more money. Imagine you knew someone wherever you wanted to go vacation. Not only would you save money, but you would be forging those relationship bonds in meaningful ways that you couldn’t do by staying at the local hotel.

  4. Beijing Says:

    I think Couchsurfing is a great option not only for saving the cost but also for experiencing the real tradition of the destination, you can also get more advice for sightseeing options , places for dining ect.

  5. Vincent Roberts Says:

    I love to travel and see the world, but with prices
    where they are you really have to save as much as
    you can when traveling.

  6. Sharon Says:

    Thank you so much for this lively article! As a family of six who loves to travel, we are forever in search of the best way to experience culture with the locals while seeing the world on a shoestring budget. I found your article incredibly inspirational! Thank you for writing it.

  7. Bangkok Serviced Apartments Says:

    I used to do like this in embassy, and wake up at police station.