It’s that time. Time to bust out the plastic, check the bank account and lock everything in. You’re about to book your next vacation, but a big question remains: how long can you afford to stay? You want to get the most out of your trip, but you know the duration of your vacation is highly dependent on how many nights you can afford. “We’ll start with 4 days in Paris, jump on the fast train, 2 nights in Amsterdam (with a stop in Bruges first), another train, a night in Munich and then 2 days on the Romantic Road before heading over to Switzerland…. or Vienna?
What’s that, 8, 9… no, 11 days! I can’t afford 11 days in Europe with multiple flights or high speed rail trips!”
Trip planning for me used to go something like this:
“Ok… I have a budget of $1900 per person. The hotel is $120/night and round trip airfare is $800 plus another $275 for domestic travel within Europe. That makes 7 days for a total of $1495 per person leaving us each with around $400 for incidental costs. If I make it 6 days, that’s a few extra dollars in our pockets!…”
You know the drill. Every vacation plan entails chopping off or adding on days depending on what your budget allows. Time is money, after all; but not always in the sense that you may be thinking.
After years of reducing vacation duration (especially trips with multiple stops), due to budget constraints I figured, “there has to be a better way to get more for less…” Well, there is. It may mean making some small sacrifices here and there, but it’s actually possible to lengthen a vacation (sometimes significantly) while saving some money. Here are a few of my methods for extending my vacation without breaking the bank:
1) Use local public transportation. Flights, especially international trips, make up a huge chunk of any travel budget. There’s no question that flying for at least a portion of your journey may be inevitable. After all, how else are you supposed to “cross the pond?” Still, many travelers fly to multiple destinations within a single trip (i.e. Paris to Amsterdam to Munich, etc.). Renting cars and taking high speed trains can be just as expensive as flying (sometimes more. I spent $270 on Madrid-Valencia train tickets once).
Fast Trains, Planes and rental cars are fast and convenient. Travelers pay a premium for that convenience. However, if you budget yourself more time in the planning stages of your trip (i.e 14 instead of 7), you can use some slower transit methods (buses, local trains, ferries, and much more) which are far more affordable. Aside from not being pressed for time and saving money, you will actually be able to immerse yourself in your travels quite a bit more. Instead of watching those orange groves in southern Spain whiz by the windows of a train at 200mph, you can stop, step outside and smell the mountain air while enjoying a fresh orange (or two) from a small local stand in the Spanish countryside.
Most of the world is far better off in terms of public transit than the United States. It’s often difficult for an American to allow themselves to fully rely on public transportation. Around the world, public transit is generally far more affordable than it is here in the U.S.; and many times, it’s more comfortable.
Taking local rail lines in Europe and transferring to other local lines in order to (slowly) reach a destination can cost 20% of what a flight or high speed line would cost. There are big, comfortable buses (leather reclining seats) in South America that travel 18 hours serving full (good) meals and even wine for as little as $25 per person. In India, a first class sleeper car on a train can cost as little as $50 for a private cabin whereas a flight on the same route will cost $300.
Sure, all of these travel methods are slower. Some may be a bit more uncomfortable than flying (word of advice… as enticing as the “Western bathrooms” sound on Indian trains, use the Indian bathrooms instead. The hole in the floor– yes, you can see the tracks passing below– makes for a much more sanitary experience than an overflowing rusting metal toilet bowl). However, many are much more comfortable than a sardine-like airplane. You’ll certainly experience and see more of wherever it is you are visiting.
2) Cut back on accommodations. “Hostel.” It’s a word that sends chills down the spine of most people who are over age 22. It churns up mental images of partying college kids, dirty hippies, rows of bunk beds and foul odors. The reality is a little different. Sure, there are still plenty of dorm style hostels out there. However, there plenty of hostels and guest houses with private rooms (private bathrooms even) that offer peace and quiet for a great value ($20-30/night even in cities that are somewhat expensive). I’ve stayed in plenty that are actually quite couple-friendly (private rooms and even private bathrooms) so traveling with a loved one is not an issue. If you must have a 4 star hotel room (do keep in mind that 4 stars in different countries is not always the same as the U.S.), you can mix and match your accommodations (some nights in a hostel/guest house, some in hotels) to fit your budget. It is, however, tough to argue with 5 nights in a room with a private bathroom for the cost of a single night in a hotel with only a few slightly more elegant amenities.
Searching the internet for apartment or condo rentals can save you money too (especially if you’re traveling with a group). Many people rent their private residences to tourists at a fraction of the cost of hotel rooms. You can find a 2 bedroom apartment in Boston for $150/night where a 3 star hotel room will cost upwards of $200. What makes this a better deal is a kitchen and fridge which gives you the freedom of cooking, storing snacks and bringing home restaurant leftovers. Going out for every meal quickly adds up. Craigslist often has apartments in the U.S. and major international cities listed. VRBO and Homeaway also have good rentals available. Apartment rentals also allow you to live like the locals do and see what some of the residential neighborhoods look like. It’s a great way to see a city or town the way most tourists don’t get to.
3) Fast food and street food. Somewhere, America lost its way with quick-serve food. “Fast food” to Americans brings about visions of golden arches, hamburger monarchs and artery clogging fried “chicken.” In most of the world, however, fast food is healthy, cheap and readily available right on the street. In Mexico, a taco with any kind of meat (pork, beef, chicken, etc.), the freshest local vegetables, soft corn tortilla and mouth-watering sauces can be found on the street for $0.35. In Southeast Asia, you’ll find everything from handmade noodles to fried insects for under $1. No visit to Spain is complete without a full-fledged tapas crawl which can last hours while barely putting a dent your wallet. What’s more is that enjoying street food and fast food in most countries is one of the best ways to really immerse yourself into the culture of that particular area (one thing every culture does is eat, but we all do it differently).
Most of the time, it’s generally pretty good. If you’re worried about getting sick (I was worried, I still haven’t been sick from street food and I’ve had it in India, Mexico, Spain, and beyond), here’s a tip: go to the busiest vendors. Crowds mean that the product is probably very good.
More than that, it means that there’s high turnover and that nothing you’re buying has been sitting for too long.
Many cities in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia have big central marketplaces where a variety of fresh, local ingredients can be found.
These markets also generally have a stall or two where you can take your purchases from the market and they’ll prepare them for you. It’s cheap, and it’s one way you can control the quality of your food while really getting a taste of the local flavor.
Another great feature of most hostels and guest houses is the communal kitchen. These allow you to purchase ingredients at a market or grocery store and do the cooking yourself. Even if you only do this a 2 or 3 times over the course of a 3 week trip, you can save hundreds of dollars that would have been spent on restaurants (many times, you’ll find that what you cook is better and the experience is more fun).
Everyone travels differently. Not every suggestion I’ve made will work for every individual. Still, you don’t need to be a college aged backpacker, or live out of a tent for a month to enjoy the world on a budget. Even if you can use a just few of these tips and extend your trip by a day or two (not everyone has 3 weeks to travel, unfortunately), it’ll be worth it. A little creativity can go a long way when planning a vacation.
Guest post written by Jonathan Fox.