Don’t let an empty wallet stop you from dreaming big when it comes to your travel plans. From accommodation to transportation to sight-seeing, there are a wide range of options out there for you to travel for little to no money of your own. (Yes, it is actually possible!)
Search for Authentic Experiences
Strive to experience your destination like a local for guaranteed good times that are easier on the wallet. Take public transport instead of taxis, eat at restaurants packed with locals instead of tourists, attend festivals and celebrations on your own instead of as part of a group tour. Living like a local is guaranteed to save you a few dollars, introduce you to some new experiences, and maybe even make you some new friends along the way.
Take the Bus or Ride a Bike
Pedal power gives you a chance to immerse yourself in your new environment, allows you to experience things at a slower pace and notice things you might not otherwise see (not to mention let you eat that second piece of cake guilt free.) But if the prospect of biking long distances is giving you nightmares, consider taking the bus instead of trains or planes. While often slower, bus tickets are usually considerably less pricey than train tickets, and many now offer free wifi so you can spend the extra time planning your next stop.
12 million people based in 200,00 cities worldwide make up the Couchsurfing.com community, and it’s a great way for you to discover a new city and experience it like a local. Search the database for hosts willing to set you up in a spare bedroom, on their couch, or maybe just an air mattress on the floor, and get ready to make new friends and gain some great memories along the way. Not ready to take the plunge and live with a stranger? Most cities have group meets throughout the year, why not join in and meet some locals and fellow travelers? (Check your home city for events too, you can meet up with people who have couchsurfed and hear about their experiences first hand. Or if you want to help out, become a host and share your life with someone traveling to your city) oh yeah, did I mention it’s all completely free?!
Discount Cards are Your Friend
Still a student? Don’t leave home without your ISIC (International Student Identity Card), it will allow you to receive a discounted rate everywhere that offers student/concession discounts. Not a student? If you’re under 30 you can get an IYTC (International Youth Travel Card) which will often qualify you for similar rates. I used my ISIC everywhere I went when I backpacked Egypt and Europe and received some amazing deals from 50% off to completely free admission at times!
Student and Youth cards aren’t the only discount cards out there though. Many European cities have Museum Passes, or similar, that offer discounted or free admission to museums and other city attractions and usually also allow the card holder to jump to the front of the line. Some, like the Roma Pass, include public transportation, which means you end up saving a lot of money with just one card.
Eat Local and In Season
If you’re dining on the local, in season cuisine, you can rest assured that your meals are going to be the freshest, tastiest plates out there. And by eating in season food, you can also expect menu prices to reflect the fact that the restaurant didn’t have to import it from elsewhere. Likewise, drink the local specialties as well. You’ll save money by drinking red wine in Bordeaux, beer in Prague, vodka in Kiev, and sake in Tokyo.
Having a general overview of where you’re going and what you want to do is key to being a prepared traveler, but make sure you allow yourself time to take advantage of opportunities that pop up. You might meet some travelers along the way with an extra spot in their group activity; or maybe you’ve just received an email with killer last minute fares to an exotic beach locale. While in Zambia I knew I wanted to raft the Zambezi River, and I was going to pay for it no matter what. But by being flexible with what day I went, I saved 25% on the price by tagging along with a group staying at my hostel. AND we all got free DVDs with pictures and video because we met the group booking minimum size requirement.
Read the Guidebook
Guidebooks are relatively small expenses packed with loads of valuable tips, tricks, and recommendations. Many have key words and helpful phrases translated into the local language too, which can come in very handy when nobody around you speaks English, and any attempts made at speaking their language will always garner you some goodwill with the locals as well. Even with all of the information out there on the internet, guidebooks are helpful when you are in your destination country and might not have 24/7 wifi, and sometimes can be one of the only sources of trusted information you have before arriving at your destination. When I traveled to Myanmar, the government had literally JUST opened up online visa processing, and there was so little info available on the internet that everything I knew about the country came from one pamphlet that I had downloaded from the Myanmar government’s website. Not exactly the only travel advice you want to be taking when said government isn’t exactly democratically elected. (not to knock Myanmar, it’s actually one of my favourite places and the people there are amazing, it’s just that without a guidebook I would have effectively been arriving blind)
Stay at Hostels
If couchsurfing isn’t a thing you’d be into, then stay at a hostel. Many hostels offer private rooms if you don’t want to share a dorm room, and they are almost always less expensive than hotels. Hostels are great places to meet new friends, get some tips and recommendations from people who have visited the sites you want to see, and many offer tours and travel deals geared towards budget travelers. You might get extras thrown in as well, like free shuttles to popular sites, free breakfast, all day tea & coffee, free activities for guests, etc. At Base St. Kilda in Melbourne, I even got free champagne in the bar every evening during happy hour!
Invest in Key Items
When you’re trying to budget and save money for traveling, it’s easy to just start choosing the cheapest of every option. But when it comes to the gear you’re going to be relying on, it pays to invest some of your hard earned cash. Backpacking for an extended period of time? Get a pack thats tried and tested to be comfortable and can withstand a beating. You might have to walk long distances with that thing on your back so you don’t want it to be rubbing your armpits, cutting your shoulders, or falling apart sending your undies onto the street for all to see.
Join a Group
Joining forces with other travelers can save you a fortune in expenses. Are you all traveling to the same destination? Considering renting a car and splitting the rental fee + fuel. Or check out some of the many ride-sharing websites that are popping up these days. kangaride.com (sounds Australian but isn’t) offers ride-sharing for Canada & US and there are tons of others out there if you do a quick Google search. When visiting Inle Lake in Myanmar, I met a family from France on the street along the canal and we rented a boat and driver as a group instead of joining an organized tour. It saved us all money since we just had to split the cost of the boat rental, and we still went to all the same places the organized tour would have gone, plus we were able to customize exactly when and where we wanted to go.
Keep an Eye Out for Special Deals & Promotions
Got a week off work but no firm travel plans? Check out last minute deals on airline and vacation package websites for some great prices to various destinations. Last minute deals are usually posted by airlines and package providers close to the departure date as they try to fill up seats on a plane or spots on a tour. Sometimes airlines will also offer promos on certain itineraries like double the reward miles if you fly to a specific city, which can help you earn free stuff faster.
Take Advice from the Locals
Locals know their city, and are usually eager to give advice to help travelers enjoy their stay. You might learn about a free concert in a park on the weekend, where the absolute best place to eat dumplings is, or what neighbourhoods to avoid after dark. If a local offers up advice, and doesn’t follow you into a store to collect their “commission,” you should definitely try to work it into your travel plans.
Book a Multi-City flight
Also known as open jaw tickets, you can save time and money by avoiding booking separate flights. When flying internationally, one way tickets are often almost as much money as a return ticket. But what if you want to fly from A to B, then travel overland across the country, and fly from C back to A? Two one way tickets could end up costing you thousands, but if you book a multi-city journey, the airline usually prices it as though it were one return ticket. Some airlines, such as Icelandair or Air New Zealand, also allow you to use the multi-city booking tool to include a stopover in their hub city for up to 7 days absolutely free.
When airlines introduce new routes it’s not likely that they have an established base of travelers flying those itineraries yet, so they offer incredibly low fares to get people interested. Watch airline websites, or sign up for alerts from apps such as Hopper, for announcements for new routes and you can save BIG. When Icelandair started flying direct from Edmonton to Reykjavik I was able to book a return ticket for $500 including taxes! And starting this June, Air Canada will be flying direct from Vancouver to Brisbane. I booked a ticket on that route for $534 taxes in each way.
Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you’re eating at restaurants in tourist areas that post “We Speak English” signs in their window I can guarantee that you’ll be paying a premium. Nothing against those restaurants, but you’re likely to get better value for your money if you head off the main roads and search out spots that are packed with locals. Not only will you be paying the same price locals pay to eat out, but if you choose a restaurant full of local people, you’ll be getting a tasty and authentic meal as well. If you can’t read the menu, try ordering from the daily specials and hope for the best! I ate some amazing meals in Cairo (from a restaurant that a local walking by on the street recommended) and I never had any idea what I was ordering. It was an adventure, and despite the staff laughing at some of the things I ended up with, it was a great experience.
Have a Picnic
The best way to save money while traveling is to avoid eating at restaurants, especially in expensive, tourist-centric locations. (looking at you, Times Square) Save some dollars, and potentially your waistline, by picking up some items at a grocery store, convenience store, or market nearby and having a picnic for some of your meals.
Quench Your Thirst Without Going to a Bar or Restaurant
Grocery and convenience stores are just as useful when it comes to wetting your whistle. Fancy a beer in the sun? Grab some drinks from a shop rather than a pub, and set up a people-watching spot in the park. (Note: always check local laws and customs to make sure you aren’t going to get yourself in trouble.)
Take Advantage of Rewards & Loyalty Programs
It usually doesn’t cost you anything to sign up for rewards/loyalty programs, and if you’re going to be flying somewhere or buying something anyways you might as well get what you can out of the transaction. I use Aeroplan as my program of choice, but you can choose whichever program works best for you, and sign up for as many as you will reasonably use. I also opted for a TD Aeroplan Visa card which means I earn bonus miles for every purchase I make too, and it can really add up quickly.In the first three months of 2016 I’ve racked up over 33,000 miles, enough for a free flight from Vancouver to Hawaii (only 22,500 miles one way!) Joining an airline’s loyalty program has extra benefits too. Move up to various tiers in the program and earn free luggage, upgrade credits, complimentary seat selection, lounge access and more. It all adds up to saving you even more money when you travel.
Another way to earn for stuff you’re doing online anyways is to sign up for a rewards program like mypoints.com which awards you points for shopping, booking hotels, etc. Then you can trade your points in for gift certificates or cash deposits into your Paypal account.
Travel in Second Class
The second class cars on a train get to their destination just as quickly as the first class cars, and the same reasoning can be applied to your airfare too. In many places the difference in comfort (on trains at least) is not significant between first and second class, giving you a chance to save mega bucks with little inconvenience to yourself. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, take a chance on third class and immerse yourself in the true local culture (that is, if you don’t mind potentially sharing your lap with chickens, sacks of rice, or even another person.)
Teach English Abroad
Although useful to have a TEFL certificate for this, not everywhere will require this. The most important qualification you have is being a native English speaker, and in some countries you just need to look like you might be a native English speaker to get the job. Teaching English (especially if you’re certified) can earn you a comfortable wage, often in countries where the cost of living is extremely small. Many schools will also subsidize your accommodation, pay your flight costs, and even provide a bonus when you finish your contract. There are many websites out there dedicated to helping connect English teachers with open positions if you just do a quick Google search, just one of many is Footprints Recruiting (I have no actual experience with this agency, but they seems to get good reviews from others that they’ve placed abroad)
If an actual teaching contract is too much to commit to, try Culture Go Go; a site that connects English speakers with host families that want to improve their English skills. You volunteer your time and the families will provide you with room & board in exchange.
Utilize Your Internetting Skills
Talk to the people you know who’ve been travelling to places you’re interested in, and consider the advice they give you. But ultimately, you need to take responsibility for your own time abroad, so it’s in your best interest to do as much research as you can if you want to make sure you are paying the lowest prices and getting the best deals. The internet is a great resource, with new information constantly being added, and the more time you dedicate to searching for it, the more likely you will be to find those awesome deals. Or even just to find historical weather data so you can try and pack accordingly. The more info you’re armed with, the more seamless your trip will be. (But also recognize that things change, so just because you read that a hostel doesn’t require reservations and only charges $5/night, doesn’t mean this will be the same in a year once it’s been discovered by the backpacking crowd)
Stop By the Visitor Information Centre
Often found in or near major train stations and other hubs where tourists congregate in cities, the official visitor info centre can be a wealth of knowledge in an unfamiliar place. Get recommendations on top sites to see and advice on the best times to go in order to avoid crowds, or learn about activities you may not have even known existed. The info centres will stock free maps for you to take, pamphlets for sites and activities, and the knowledgeable staff can help you out with anything, from which bus to take to get to your campground, to where the cheapest gelato can be found.
Work for Your Board
Ask at your hostel if they need someone to help out in exchange for a free or discounted room. They often don’t even require you to have a work visa since you aren’t actually getting paid, you’re just “volunteering” in exchange for a place to sleep. One hostel I stayed at in Thailand would let you stay for free as long as you manned the reception desk for 2 hrs/day. One in Australia would pay travelers cash to clean rooms and change bedding. Another option is WWOOF, which connects volunteers with organic farmers. In exchange for your help on the farm, you get accommodation and food, and yet another chance to immerse yourself in local culture.
Become a Xenophile
Get interested in foreign cultures, languages, and people. Knowing local customs and behaviours before you arrive in a new destination will ensure you don’t accidentally offend people or get yourself into trouble, and your attempts to speak the local language will have others happy to help you. Show respect to the people around you and for the new culture you find yourself in, and you’ll find that the local people couldn’t be friendlier or more helpful. Act like an ignorant tourist, and you’ll find yourself paying more for the same items, being given the wrong directions, or worse. One Canadian guy found himself kicked out of Myanmar thanks to a Buddha tattoo on his leg that he refused to cover up while traveling through country.
Be a Yachtie
Yearning to get to Europe but can’t afford the flight? Consider sailing the high seas as a member of a yacht crew. The more prestigious jobs will require you to have experience, but it’s not impossible to get yourself a spot on a smaller boat as an entry level crew member. Living in very close quarters with the same people you work with all day long isn’t for everyone, and you will be expected to work long and sometimes irregular hours, but it will help you travel the world for little to no transportation cost, and you might find out that you actually really love it. There are many “yachties” out there who have been doing this for years. Try searching Crewseekers for available opportunities.
Don’t Be a Travel Zombie
If you’ve only got a limited amount of time to explore a new country, and a mile long list of things you want to see and do, it can be really easy to fall into the “checklist traveler” trap. Racing from one location to the next and trying to fit too much into your itinerary will wear you out, and make your trip less enjoyable (or downright miserable!) If you’re exhausted and constantly focusing on the next attraction you need to get a selfie in front of, you won’t have time to look around and enjoy the moment you’re in. And if you’re not fully soaking in the atmosphere of where you are, right now, then what was the point of paying the admission fee? (It’s a waste of money if you aren’t having fun.) So chill out, adjust your expectations, and appreciate what’s right in front of you. Quality over quantity, my friends. Always.
So there you go…are you ready to pack your bag and start roaming the world? Just remember, sometimes maximizing your traveling dollars isn’t only about getting the cheapest possible price. Experiences and memories are the true travel currency, and the more of these you collect, the richer your life will be.
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