How I Travel Extensively -- Like, Really Extensively -- On A Budget
We all have that friend: she just got back from an ah-mazing few months in Colombia, spent a month working in a National Park in South Africa, cycled solo from Alaska to Mexico. She can speak bits and pieces of languages you’ve never even heard of. She’s at ease in a bus station in Indonesia the way you’re at ease at Starbucks. Oh, she was in France for six months, that’s why she didn’t text me back.
Smarmy Traveling Assholes. Do they even have jobs, or what?
It’s easy to feel like People Who Travel are all white-collar, blue-blood superhumans who are just on the loose with someone else’s pocketbook. But I know it’s not true, because... I’m one of them.
When I turned 19, I made a list. It was a list of accomplishments that I wanted to achieve in 5 years time, and included “Get a passport.” Oh, I got one, and it had pages of stamps years before my 24th birthday. The secret turned out to be just prioritizing it above all things. Easy peasy, right?
Other than limping through college, travelling became my sole purpose. Through late-night ticket purchases, working multiple jobs, and sometimes doing homework, I became a Smarmy Traveling Asshole. And you can too! I honestly recommend travel over college--it’s one of the most worthwhile things you can do with your money.
Traveling is expensive. But not more expensive than buying clothes. Don’t believe me? Go through and add up your clothing purchases from the last year. Or the last month. Chances are, if you’re the average person, you spend about $900 a year on clothing. That’s a plane ticket, son.
If you’ve ever wondered why those backpacker jerks you know are using an old North Face bag, or don’t drive, it’s not because they’re copping some Dharma Bums style, it’s because they can’t afford it. I don’t eat out, drink at bars, buy clothes I don’t need, and it’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because I want to see monkeys in the Philippines more. Every purchase is measured against The Trip. If it’s not a necessity, it gets the axe. Sometimes it takes a year or two to save for a trip, but having a goal that ends in exploring ancient cities or eating strange foods is oh-so worth it.
Go when it makes sense
Fitting travel into your life can be easier than you think. Tickets are usually cheaper outside of established holiday periods: I just found a ticket for $390 to Hawai’i for mid-May, in contrast to the $1100 current price.
Check the local weather of your destination, and check it against what you want to do. Going climbing in the rainy season in Venezuela is dangerous, and whatever vistas you’d imagined will be cloaked in mist. Another good reason to travel outside of common holidays is that you won’t have to fight your co-workers for time off. Most companies can spare you for a few weeks in a slow period, but during Christmas, people turn in time off months ahead of time. Which you should also do, if you’re planning on being gone for more than two weeks, no matter when you go.
Pack smart, pack less
Unless you’re going to the middle of the Atacama and staying there, you don’t need about half the crap you want to pack. If it doesn’t fit in a backpack, you don’t need it. One change of clothes, a light rain jacket, and some health essentials is all you’ll need.
I always bring an array of over-the-counter drugs like Loperamide and Pink Bismuth to keep the inevitable anal turbulence down to a dull roar. Anything else, like extra clothes, deodorant, a comb, mascara--you can get it where you’re going. Trying to find hair ties in Mexico City with shitty Spanish might be tricky, but it can be done. It’s a lot easier than navigating the logistics of moving multiple pieces of luggage anywhere.
Stretch that dollar!
People constantly ask me WHY I choose to go to peripheral nations with unstable or developing economies, like Indonesia or Colombia. The main reason is because it’s cheap as shit. Whatever currency you’re operating under, find out where it stretches farther. There are all kinds of cool web tools to help you do this.
I went to New Zealand right after they had some market problems and their dollar was at a historic low. A month in Peru cost me about the same as a week in Paris would. All of the sudden a three-week trip to a beach seems do-able.
I’m not saying that you should limit yourself to JUST peripheral nations, but far too few people pass them over because they worry about security. A poor country is a scary country, right?
Not necessarily--do your homework. Do a news search, seeing if any tourists have been targeted in protest violence, or if kidnappings are common. Though you should check the U.S. Consulate’s website for travel advisories, you should treat their advice the same as an overbearing relative. Most of the advisories don’t affect budget travelers much at all.
Enlist a friend
Traveling alone is totally dope, but one ship that doesn’t sink is friendship. Having a traveling partner is good just for backup and cost-sharing. It’s also amazing to share new experiences with someone else, and they can provide that little bit of home when all you’ve eaten in a month is white rice and fried plantain, and to have conversations deeper than “Soy de Alaska. No entiendo, lo siento…”
Get a ticket on the cheap
Even the though the days of insane, rock-bottom international tickets are mostly behind us, that doesn’t mean you need to spend a month’s income to get somewhere. Kayak is one of the best online ticket search engines; unlike a lot of they don’t sell tickets, just point you to the airlines’ websites to purchase. Also unlike other sites, Kayak isn’t brokering large quantities of tickets they’ve already purchased for re-sale, so whatever quality assurances or insurance that you would normally get through an airline isn’t forfeited the way it is for a bargain-bin ticket.
While you might pay 5-15% less for a re-sold ticket, you might be singing a different tune when the airlines won’t honour a re-sold ticket when you’ve missed a connection.
Take a book
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or not, it’s always a good idea to at least pack a small travel guide for the area you’ll be in. Nowadays it seems like there is mobile coverage everywhere (even in the middle of the Andes!) but you can’t count on it. Most guides have a wealth of important information, basic phrases, and even better, MAPS.
Whether you pack it or not, it can be useful for the planning phase of any trip, to familiarize yourself with the culture, the sights, and your overall plan of where to go while you’re there. It can be more challenging and fun to just wing it, but knowing where the nearest hospital is might come in handy.
Get off the beaten track
The number-one way to save money on any trip? Avoid going to the places where other people go. No, it’s not about poo-pooing popular places and sights, it’s about getting away from established tourist areas and saving money doing it.
When I went to Peru, I made the decision to skip Machu Picchu, not because I didn’t want to see it, but because every hotel in the direct vicinity was priced about 200% above the rest of the country. Costs around popular destinations can be inflated, as well as risks to travelers. Where there is an established flow of moneyed tourists in an area, you can bet there are also established scams. I’m not knocking going to the Great Wall, Victoria Falls, or Uluru, just know that you’ll probably pay more for lodging, food and transportation in and around the site.
Take a bus
But how to get around? Renting a car can be a good way to be in charge of your own destiny, but driving in another country can be a major pain in the rectum. You might think you’ll catch all the fantastic in-between places-- but really, you’ll just be yelling at whoever’s holding the map as you drive past everything because holy crap it’s just easier right now. Is that a CHILD in the road?
Take a damn bus, guys. It’s the best way to dive right in to the culture, make friends, and just relax while staring out the window. Buses are a popular way to get around all over the world, in all different levels of luxury. Night buses are a clever way to cover ground and save on a hotel room too--just make sure to stash your valuables before you snooze.
Best part of bussing it? It’s insanely cheap. Most rides average about $10/100kms, give or take depending on the country.
Chill the hell out
If traveling has taught me anything, it’s to chill out. Busses are late. Hotels are full. There is going to be a random parade or festival that will make a city come to a grinding halt for a few days. Instead of pitching a fit about not making it to whatever you had planned, give up, settle in, and see what happens. You’ll probably even learn some patience. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in life have been because of some random pop-up karaoke festival. Seriously.
I have so much more to say about traveling. I’m currently saving up for tickets, and thinking about how much having a mobile toddler will affect how I travel.
Where would you go, if you could go anywhere? I would probably go to New Zealand and never, ever come back. Cheese, wine and chocolate for MILES.