Ask anyone what they wish they could do more of, and the answer is literally always the same: “I wish I could travel more.” Yet when you remove all the excuses, few people actually do. I don’t have enough vacation days! It’s too expensive. My friends don’t want to go with me.
I know I’ve been guilty of this.
Today, I’ve asked Nora Dunn, a professional world traveler, to write up a detailed post with her tips on traveling affordably. What I love about this article is how Nora has used money to do what she wants– instead of waiting around for a mythical day where she’ll be able to travel.
Below, you’ll find a few sites you’ve heard of, some you haven’t…and the overall message: Once you remove the barrier of money, what’s your excuse?
(Note: This is part of the new book, 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.)
Travel for a living on less than $14,000 per year
I “retired” from the rat race at the tender age of 30 to embrace my life-long dream of traveling the world, before life had a chance to get in the way.
So far, I have frolicked in the Rocky Mountains, fallen off the grid in Hawaii, managed tropical hostels, survived Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster, led eco-treks on Llamas, and nearly froze to death in a camper van. (The traveling life is rarely a dull one.)
I am not rich. I am not a trust child, nor do I have rich parents, a sugar daddy, or a stream of income that allows me to live the high life on the road. Full time travel doesn’t have to be expensive, and after two years on the road, I’ve learned plenty of tricks to travel the world without breaking the bank, and without an end in sight.
Here are my secrets (click to jump to the 11 tips below or just keep scrolling):
- Save 80% on Airfare
- Work for Accommodation
- Get Free Accommodation
- Work While Traveling
- Learn the Truth About Volunteering
- Become a Part of a Community
- Avoid the Biggest Trap
- Be Food Wise
- Roll with the Punches
- Rethink Travel Expenses
- Travel Slowly
If you solely use the big online search engines to book your flights, there is a good chance that you are overpaying – sometimes dramatically. I will demonstrate with a case study.
For the purposes of this case study, I arbitrarily decided to fly one-way from Paris to Madrid on June 15th, 2009.
In performing my search on Orbitz, the cheapest fare came from Air Brussels for $249US. At first blush this seems like a terrific deal, considering the next highest price came in at $939US.
But before I got all excited and booked the flight, I checked a few other sites, the first of which is called Which Budget. By simply plugging in my starting point and destination, I was given a listing of all the budget airlines that fly this route – many of which are not indexed with the larger search engines.
If no options appear in your Which Budget search, the alternative is to do a series of Internet searches to find other airlines that fly this route. A great starting place is to find the website for your departing or arriving airport, which often lists the airlines it caters to.
In my search, Ryanair was one of the options that came up, and before I knew it, I had found a flight on the same day, direct no less (the Air Brussels option had a stopover), for… drum roll please…. 33 Euros. This works out to a whopping $45US.
Not only did I get a direct flight by doing a little extra research, but I saved more than 80% on the listed fares.
Words of Caution/Wisdom for Saving Airfare
- Be prepared to fly from other terminals or airports entirely. If you are booking connecting flights, ensure that you are arriving at and departing from the same airport, or that there is enough time for you to hustle to your new departure point.
- Watch the luggage rules. Many budget airlines cut their costs by charging for checked-baggage by weight. If you don’t pre-pay for your checked bags, or if you exceed the limit you paid for, you could face some hefty fines.
- Don’t expect to be wined or dined; not feeding guests is a common budget airline tactic. It’s no loss really – just pack some snacks.
Other Flying Tips
- Flying mid-week is usually the cheapest time.
- Picking your seats doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark with Seat Guru.
One of the biggest expenses for a traveler is accommodation. Working (or rather, volunteering) in trade for accommodation – also known as caretaking – is a great way to meet the locals, learn about the land, and get off the beaten path. All the while saving thousands of dollars on places to sleep.
Although most people think of WWOOFing (Willing Work on Organic Farms – we will discuss this in a minute) as the way to work in trade for accommodation, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There are work-trade gigs available in many countries, for people with a variety of skill sets. Among other things, I have milked goats, painted murals, manned reception, cleaned cottages, and maintained estates in trade for my accommodation.
My accommodation has varied in nature from five-star accommodations, to camper vans, to tiny shared hostel rooms, to Oceanside yurts (photo to the right is the view from my yurt). And you would be surprised at the lack of correlation between quality of accommodation and work expectations. Every position is unique and offers something different to the lucky (sometimes not so lucky) applicant.
Here are six resources that will allow you to find the work-trade arrangement that is perfect for you:
Caretaker’s Gazette – This is one of the most useful resources I have found to date. For the $30 annual fee, you will receive listings from around the world for people who are willing to offer rent-free living (and sometimes food too) in trade for your work. Work situations vary from house-sitting, to caring for the elderly, to farm work, campground maintenance, and beyond.
House Carers – If all you want to do is watch the house and walk the dogs, House Carers is for you. Basic membership is free, and the full meal deal is about $45. A majority of the listings are in Australia and New Zealand.
Organic Volunteers – For a $20 membership, you will find a variety of work-trade opportunities that are not limited to organic farming. It is an easy platform to use, and you can converse with hosts using their system to protect your personal information.
WWOOFing – As the most popular work-trade platform, you will find individual WWOOF membership plans for each country. After paying your fee (which varies from country to country), you will receive a booklet detailing the WWOOF hosts in the area and what they are looking for. It is recommended that you get your WWOOF booklet well in advance of your trip, as some are not fully online and will only mail you their listings.
Help Exchange – With a free basic membership (and a nominal premium membership which allows you to converse with hosts using their online platform), you can browse listings around the world which entail a variety of work-trade duties. The sky is the limit.
Work Away – This platform is very similar to the ones above, and costs €20.
Advantages of Work-Trade Arrangements
- The commute is never very far.
- You will learn many new skills.
- You can travel slowly (more on this later) and live inexpensively.
- Locations are sometimes remote (whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on what you want out of your travels).
- You don’t need a working visa, since no money exchanges hands in a work-trade arrangement. Many countries allow volunteer work in exchange for room and board.
Disadvantages of Work-Trade Arrangements
- Sometimes having your boss and your landlord as the same person can be troublesome. If you have a falling-out, you will not only be out of a job, but looking for a new place to live – and fast.
- Privacy (or lack thereof) can be an issue, depending on the situation.
- Sometimes you have to do grunt work. (Hey – if your host liked doing it, they wouldn’t have work-traders.)
Using hospitality exchanges, you are a guest in somebody’s home free of charge. The arrangement generally lasts only a few days as opposed to the weeks and even months that a work-trade gig will last, so it is more geared towards active travelers.
What’s in it for the host?
They get to meet you, proudly show their home town to you, and live vicariously through your stories of adventure and travel. (Oh – and if you are nice, you will do the dishes for them too.)
What’s in it for you?
Instead of staying in an expensive and sterile hotel room, you have an “in” with the locals, you get to see how they live, and you have an instant local friend who can show you the ropes.
Although your stay is technically free, common etiquette dictates that you bring a gift for your host, and help out with the household chores and such. So while budgeting your free or almost-free trip, don’t forget to add in this cost.
Here are four resources for you to find the right hospitality exchange:
Couch Surfing – Couch Surfing is arguably the most well-known hospitality exchange, although not the first. Your bed for the night can take the form of a couch, extra bedroom, or chunk of the floor depending on what your host can offer. You can browse online listings, learn about and converse with your potential host online, and make arrangements to meet. Safety checks are in place to ensure no dodgy travelers/hosts ruin it for everybody, but as with all the opportunities listed in this section, please do your due diligence and go with your gut instincts to be safe.
Hospitality Club – I have used Hospitality Club to stay in a few Australian homes and meet new friends in other places in the world. The platform is similar to Couch Surfing with checks and balances, and a wide variety of members can make this site an adventure to surf.
Global Freeloaders – If the platform or profiles on Couch Surfing and Hospitality Club aren’t doing much for you, then check out what Global Freeloaders has to offer. The only stipulation to membership is that you must be able to reciprocate and offer up your home to travelers within six months of signing up. So if you are on a long trip, best to wait until you get home unless you can host travelers before you leave.
Servas – With over 50 years under its belt, Servas is considered to be a pioneer in the hospitality exchange arena, and is recognized by the United Nations. The membership application process is more grueling, and requires a personal interview before acceptance. Fees vary from country to country, and many country listings are not yet available online (instead, they are mailed to you). Although I don’t doubt the quality of candidate screening and such, I find it much easier to use the other three options above.
There are a few ways you can keep the money flowing while traveling long-term, depending on your skills and desires. Here are three:
Freelancing on the Web
With an increasing trend towards telecommuting, the widespread use of social media, and online businesses cropping up everywhere, it is quite possible to make a living online while you travel, with little more than an internet connection. Personally, I make my millions (ha) as a writer, the income of which pays my expenses over and above accommodation (which I usually work in trade for). I know another fellow whose websites and freelance SEO work make him over $3,000/month – a more than adequate long-term traveling income. (You will see shortly that the cost of full-time travel may not be as high as you think).
Reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss was instrumental in helping me to see the online income, telecommuting, and outsourcing possibilities. Freelancing on the Web is possible in many careers, even if at first it may not seem so. If you are new to the concept of being an Internet business-person, then start slow; subscribe to newsletters, lurk forums, and watch how other people in your line of work are making a go of it. Combine this prep work with an ingenious idea, and you could end up laughing all the way to the bank. (Or at least covering your next dinner out. Either way.)
If you are under the age of 30, you can get a working visa without much drama in many western countries. In this way, you can take your skills on the road and enjoy learning how to do your job on the other side of the planet. Some country-specific resources can be found here on this topic: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK. Search for the country name plus “working visa” for the countries you’re interested in.
Do you know how to tend bar? Serve tables? Are you a scuba dive master? You would be amazed at the working opportunities that present themselves to you on the road with a little networking and looking under the right rocks.
Now I would never condone working illegally in a foreign country, so if that is your gig, just don’t tell anybody that I suggested it. But depending on where you travel and your ability to communicate with the locals, don’t be surprised if a chance to work for a little extra cash comes your way. With a few nods and winks, you can make enough money to cover off some of your traveling expenses.
Or – as was the case with my travel partner, who used to fight forest fires in Canada and found himself in the middle of the worst bush fire Australia had ever seen – you may find your skills are suddenly in such demand in the country you are traveling to that a working visa will materialize.
A quick cautionary note for anybody planning to travel and work: Be aware of maintaining a balance between work and play. I have more than once entrenched myself so deeply in my work that I have lost sight of why I am on the road in the first place. As with most freelance lifestyles, everything in moderation is a key thing to remember.
Although you would think that volunteering never costs the volunteer any money, you may be surprised. Depending on the organization, you could spend more money for the privilege of volunteering your hard labor than you would to sit on a beach at a luxury all-inclusive resort, being plied all day with tropical drinks bearing umbrellas. So volunteering on vacation is rarely a financial decision, and more likely an altruistic one.
But don’t lose hope if you are on an altruistic travel quest with a minimal budget. There are a number of ways to volunteer inexpensively (or for free) if you are willing to do some research.
In Asia, I met two German girls who were on a world tour, volunteering everywhere they went. In each destination, they found orphanages and refugee camps that were more than happy to have them in each afternoon to play with the kids or help out with some of the chores. They rarely paid for this chance to help, and more often than not got a rewarding grassroots volunteering experience out of it.
If you are looking for something a little more packaged or travel-friendly, there are a number of volunteer travel resources that can help you find the perfect position:
Continental Divide Trail Alliance – A little closer to home, you can work on nature trails in North America with this company. A small membership fee applies, which allows you to volunteer as much as you like. It’s hard work, but satisfying work at that.
Conservation Connect – If you are in Australia or New Zealand, this website will connect you with a myriad of volunteer opportunities, depending on your area of interest. Day trips are free to volunteer for (pack a lunch), and overnight trips work out to $200/week, all expenses in.
Personal Overseas Development – This non-profit organization connects travelers with volunteer opportunities across the world.
Compathos – This organization brings awareness and support to worthwhile international projects and volunteer travel opportunities through film, digital storytelling and grassroots media.
Voluntourism – As a pioneer of the term “voluntourism,” this comprehensive site is a practical and educational resource.
Idealist – This site connects volunteer organizations with supporters and volunteers. It has a great search engine for finding just what you want, where you want.
Transitions Abroad – This is also a fabulous resource for eager volunteers to use.
I have personally found that the most rewarding volunteer opportunities were serendipitous and not organized. While in remote northern Thailand in 2008, Cyclone Nargis (which devastated the neighboring country of Burma) just missed me. Touched by the incident and the amount of suffering that was a stone’s throw from where I was, I dropped my trip and volunteered my help wherever it was needed. My initially simple (and admittedly naïve) plan exploded in 24 hours into the ride of a lifetime. By virtue of this adventure, I now have lifelong friends in Thailand.
Less than a year later, I found myself in the middle of the Victorian Bush Fires: Australia’s worst ever natural disaster. Once again, I rolled up my sleeves to do whatever I could, which involved working for almost a month (full-time) at a warehouse which was accepting donations of supplies for the survivors of the fire from all over the country. It was a heart-warming community-strengthening experience, and one with a happy ending: by virtue of the work that my partner and I did, we were granted 1 year extensions on our Australian visas – and given working rights. (Well, maybe it helped a bit that I ran into the Australian Prime Minister during the relief efforts: see photo to the right.)
You never know what can come out of an earnest and unselfish desire to do good for the world.
And as a Rotarian, I attend local Rotary meetings wherever I go, and am immediately tapped into local volunteer projects. It is a fabulous way to fast-track becoming part of a community.
Rotary– Rotary is a service-based organization that works on both community and international levels to improve quality of life for everybody. Almost solely responsible for eradicating polio around the world, and with numerous sponsored student and career exchanges available, attending a meeting abroad is a brilliant way to share some camaraderie with fellow Rotarians around the world.
Toastmasters – As another international organization (this one dedicated to public speaking), you can show up at a Toastmasters meeting anywhere in the world and be welcomed with open arms. (Well, within reason. If you are a female arriving in a Muslim country wearing nothing but a bikini you have made your bed.)
See an Opportunity? Help!
The quickest way I worked my way into a completely foreign community was when I adopted the project to help the Cyclone victims of Burma. By simply rolling up your sleeves and helping where you see a need, locals will see what you are doing and come to help you. It doesn’t have to be a monumental project: start with helping an elderly person with their groceries, and see where that takes you.
At least in developed countries, and even in some lesser-developed areas, libraries are a hub of community information and resources. You will often find access to free or inexpensive seminars, workshops, and special interest groups. Besides which, the library is a great place to research your trip and pass some time for free.
In many global circles, enjoying a drink with somebody is the unspoken sign of kinship. Not only that, but who is the best person in town to talk to if you want the latest word on the street? The bartender, of course. So pull up a stool, and just take in the scene at the pub. If you look remotely approachable, you won’t likely leave alone if you don’t want to.
I love bulletin boards. Be they in hostels, libraries, pubs, or supermarkets, you can learn lots about a community by virtue of their bulletin boards. Search the listings – you may find a job opportunity, some gear you want to buy (or a buyer for something you want to sell), a place to stay, or even just a new friend.
Although a little less interactive than bulletin boards, a community newspaper will give you a decent sense of what makes the community tick and tap you into the local pulse.
Keep your Eyes Open, and Get Involved!
Be aware of your surroundings, and don’t be shy. In Thailand one evening, my boyfriend and I noticed some elderly people sitting around a radio and listening to the closest thing to Thai-Country music I could imagine. We spent a spontaneous evening enjoying their company and watching all the tourists at the market, almost none of whom looked up from their souvenir shopping long enough to notice that we were having a good time right in front of them.
By becoming part of a community, you will discover new doors opening for jobs, places to stay, and places to eat. You will get to know the local culture better, avoid the tourist traps, and best of all – you will make some amazing friends along the way. Enriching travel involves putting yourself out there, potentially making a few mistakes along the way, but also reaping the benefits of your courage in unimaginable ways.
This is an easy tip to learn, but one of the hardest to practice. I still struggle with keeping my travels free or almost-free, given the never-ending temptation to…are you ready for it?…buy souvenirs.
One of the easiest ways to save money while you are traveling is to steer clear of the souvenir shops. Most often, the goods are mass-produced in another country entirely, and lack the authenticity that you are probably looking for. Even if you find yourself coveting a trinket that is “real,” ask yourself these questions:
- Is it an accurate representation of the place I am visiting?
- Will I use it?
- Will I remember this trip by virtue of owning this souvenir?
- Was I planning on buying something like this anyway?
If you even think twice about answering yes to these questions, it is best to reconsider your purchase.
Instead of leaving yourself to chance and impulse, why not put a little purpose into your souvenir shopping? Before leaving for your trip, choose one or two items that for you will encapsulate the trip and the destination, then spend your traveling days searching for the perfect artifact. If the whole family is planning, allow everybody to choose their own souvenir. It gets other family members involved in the trip planning process, and will minimize the kids’ incessant requests for “can I have this…and this…and this?”
I have a pair of blue tanzanite earrings and a mask from South Africa, a silk shirt and painting of Buddha from Thailand, hand-carved wooden salad spoons from Spain, and a hand-crafted Didgeridoo and piece of black opal from Australia, as examples. Not a tacky t-shirt or keychain can be found in my collection of souvenirs from around the world. My wallet thanks me, and I like it this way.
From food selection, to the time of day you eat, to how you eat and socialize – there is a lot of money that can be spent (or alternately saved) by virtue of paying attention to how you eat while traveling. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell you to eat ramen if you don’t like to.)
Case Study: Taco Tuesday
When I lived in Hawaii, I met a lot of travelers at the hostel where I was living (and working in trade for accommodation). Everybody enjoyed sharing and hearing travel tales of adventure and misadventure alike. So when “Taco Tuesday” presented itself as a way to get super cheap beers and tacos, we jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a night on the town all together.
Interestingly, Taco Tuesday became a fascinating study in the spending patterns of people on vacation.
John and Wendy, having nipped over to Hawaii for a quick break before embarking on a major move across the country, didn’t have huge money concerns, but were trying to be frugal knowing that their upcoming move would cost them dearly. Dave and Angie were finishing off a trip around the world, having been on the road for eight months already through countries both expensive and inexpensive.
They played hard during their trip, but their stash of cash was predictably dwindling (an expected bi-product of good budgeting through their long trip). Julie was a very young headstrong woman figuring out where she belonged in the world, and Wayne was an older gentleman on an extended vacation. Rounding out the group (in addition to myself) was Phil, who was something of a nomad, living and working in Hawaii for a bit before moving on to the next locale that tickled his fancy.
I describe each friend’s background in an effort to paint the picture; one of a group of people, all originally from North America, but bringing an entirely different set of experiences, finances, and travel values to the table.
Where things got interesting was in how people indulged on Taco Tuesday.
John & Wendy decided that cheap beer was more appealing than cheap tacos, and so they engineered their budget for the night to partake of the beer (at $2/bottle), and prepared their own full dinner at the hostel prior to going out. Dave & Angie being well-seasoned travelers chose to fill up on some home-made appetizers prior to going out, and each nursed one beer and a taco or two. Julie simply had Coke (not only was she young, but she was broke and underage), and Wayne (who had gads of money) flew under the radar with one beer and two tacos, as did I. And then there’s Phil. Poor Phil.
Phil was definitely out for the party and camaraderie, but didn’t have much money to spare given his lifestyle. This didn’t seem to stop him from indulging though; he managed to order seven tacos, and four beers – not the beers on special though – premium beers.
Phil’s tab ended up being more than everybody else’s tab – combined. No wonder he was constantly broke. He listened to tales of faraway and exotic destinations with drooling enthusiasm – and a bit of melancholy, as he wished he had the ability to travel to these places, but couldn’t scrape together even the airfare if he had to.
Here’s the rub: The amount of money spent on this night was in no way correlated to how much fun each person had. Everybody laughed, shared stories, enjoyed the leisurely walk along the ocean to and from the bar, and came away with great memories. If anybody, Phil seemed the least enthused about the night, spending much of the walk home doing the math about how many hours he would have to work to pay for his tab. At least he had a good buzz on to dull the financial pain.
Despite a range of financial backgrounds and intrinsic values, the people who had the ability to spend a wad of dough that night chose not to. Most people ate something at home prior to going out, so they wouldn’t be starving and end up over-eating at the bar. The tacos were cheap – but they weren’t cheaper than a healthy homemade snack or meal.
Next to accommodation and long-haul flights, food and drinks are going to be the biggest drain on your expense account while you are traveling. So although you don’t want to sacrifice quality of your vacation by limiting yourself, you can decide what is important to you and budget accordingly. If you were at Taco Tuesday, what would you do?
Do you like beer? Then scrimping a bit on food may be a way for you to enjoy a night on the town without wondering if the next beer will put you over-budget.
Do you like food? Then drink water instead of premium drinks, and order that dish that makes your mom’s cooking look like slop.
Here are some more tips for saving money on food:
- If you don’t normally eat breakfast in a restaurant, don’t do it while traveling. Instead, save your money and buy some basic ingredients from the grocery store.
- Want a special meal out? Consider going out for lunch instead of dinner. You often get similar if not identical portions, but for a fraction of the dinner prices.
- Avoid hotel restaurants, especially for breakfast. They tend to be overpriced in the name of convenience.
- Does the restaurant have a beautiful view? If so, chances are you are paying for it with your meal. Instead, go to the restaurant around the corner (for better and cheaper food), and/or take a picnic to where the view is.
Don’t carry your 20% American tipping conventions around the world with you – it is unnecessary, and in some cases, you can actually offend locals. Instead, do some research. For example, tipping at bars and restaurants is not expected in Australia, China, and Italy. In Germany, look for the words “Trinkgeld Inbegriffen” on your bill which means a service charge has been included already.
When I decided to travel full-time, I had aspirations of heading to Costa Rica as part of a broader Central and South American adventure. But before I booked the ticket, an opportunity came to me that took me across Canada instead. When I was ready to re-join my original plans, another opportunity to go to Hawaii cropped up. Then Asia. Then Australia. And so on. I’ve yet to make it to my original destination, but Latin America isn’t going anywhere – it will surely happen yet.
While you are traveling, opportunities of many an ilk will come to you from all directions. Be prepared to adopt and accept these changes as part of your traveling credo. You can’t possibly predict what will happen or how you will feel when you land in India, so cut yourself some slack if you either feel the need to get out of there ahead of plans, or want to extend your stay after accepting the generous and spontaneous hospitality of a local family.
Had I not rolled with the punches and allowed my travel plans to evolve with me, I may never have had a chance to meet Bracken – the kangaroo I lived with for six months nor would I have ever learned to milk goats (hot on the heels of being a very city-oriented business person a mere few months prior).
I might have missed out on meeting the generous people in the tiny town of Lightning Ridge, and I certainly would never have become a part of the local Chiang Mai community if I had continued with my agenda and not helped the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis.
In my first full calendar year abroad, my partner and I spent $20,000 in total. This included a host of miscellaneous and pricey expenditures, such as the purchase of a new laptop, a car, insurance, and numerous long-haul flights. For a single person, I would suggest that the cost of full-time travel could be achieved for $14,000/year. By utilizing the techniques outlined in this article, you can see that travel doesn’t have to break the bank.
Tripbase has some funky widgets for planning your trip, including the handy Trip Cost Calculator, which estimates the cost of lodging and three daily meals in any given destination, according to your selection of a budget, mid-range, or high-end price tag.
The more flights you take, the more money you will spend. The more you have to pack up, hop on a bus, a train, or a taxi, and find a new place to stay, the more money you will spend. Want to keep your travels free or almost-free? Consider traveling slowly.
Think of your trip as a lifestyle and not just a getaway, even if you are only traveling for a short time. Don’t worry about seeing absolutely everything there is to see in Europe – just focus on one or two countries if you don’t have years to see it all.
By staying in one place for a while, you will get to know the people, the language, and the culture. Your new connections and friends will help you to have fun, plan the next stage of your trip, and embrace the place you are visiting. If you are actually living there as a local (even for a month or two) as opposed to actively traveling through, you will get a different perspective of the place entirely.
Traveling slowly is very rewarding. I am about to take a four month trip around the world (yes, I’m already a full-time traveler; it’s a long story). But I’m only choosing to visit a few destinations, which I will explore in depth.
By volunteering for a few weeks here and there, working in trade for accommodation or using hospitality exchanges, watching what (and when) I eat and what I buy, and being savvy in booking flights, I will integrate myself into the local community, see the sights, and make friends. Oh yeah – and I will be traveling for free – or almost-free, anyway.