How to Travel as Inexpensively as Possible

volunteer
Volunteer in Ghana, from Wikimedia Commons author Lattitude Canada.

Many of us still fall prey, quite often, to the mindset that travel is a luxury, though it is a reasonable presumption. The majority of us are bogged down with work and other responsibilities, and even thinking of a vacation seems like a sin. And when we throw the expenses into the fray, it further validates the notion that travel is a luxurious delicacy, meant perhaps for some other time, and once per year.

However, there are many ways to travel inexpensively, as long as you are prudent and very inclined. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and for me, traveling is a necessity. I live for travel, and that leads me to diligently make myself aware of ways in which I can facilitate this urge. You don’t need to have the same burning desire as I do to find ways to travel cheaply and more often; all that’s required is a little creativity and time.

Pick a Program and Stick With It!

If you are starting fresh, or are not that much of a frequent traveler, it is important to pick one program for each travel resource. What I mean is, choose ONE airline’s frequent flier programONE hotel’s frequent stay/frequent guest program, et cetera. The reason for this is simple: we want to accumulate as many points as possible into one frequent travel program account, rather than having numerous frequent travel accounts with small balances. Not only will many of these balances surely expire, but you will take indefinitely longer to earn that reward.

I’ve written a bit previously on choosing the ideal airline program/airline alliance, but the most important thing to factor is from the real-estate playbook: location, location, location. There are some giant programs out there, such as Delta’s Skymiles and Lufthansa’s Miles and More, but you need to have access to the program’s airline for it to make any sense. Not only should you choose a program from an airline that has a major presence at your hometown airport, but you should choose an airline that flies where you want to travel to.

Hotels vs. Hostels vs. Surfing a Couch

When looking at accommodations abroad, premiums are paid for luxury, convenience, and privacy. If you are reading an article such as this one, about saving some cash to travel, then I will assume that the luxury and convenience aren’t as relevant to you as privacy. The less you require, the more you can save.

Renting an apartment or villa offers the most privacy, but it also comes with the heftiest fees. However, it could be a feasible option if you are traveling as a group of friends or a large family. Check out sites such as AirBnB for deals on apartments straight from the owner of the property, rather than a broker.

Hotels are the most familiar option when traveling, yet the prices are similarly high. Motels may be a notch cheaper, as well as a notch less private and comfortable.

Hostels are a mainstay to budget travelers and backpackers. The absence of separations such as walls create a peculiar intimacy and environments that can often feel like a frat party. Hostels are a fraction of the price of a hotel in the same area, but you need to possess a certain inner strength to put up with the atmosphere.

Couch Surfing is my favorite, for many reasons. Aside from the fact that it is intended as a free way to stay by being put up in a spare room or on a couch of a local, it has myriad other benefits as well. It is the best way to see the way life is lived, by experiencing the culture of the land you are visiting on the other side of closed doors. Tasting the local cuisine is usually included, many times free (although you should probably chip in for groceries), by eating a home-cooked meal. And you can make lifelong friendships as an icing on the cake.

Live for the Moment

If you are a lover of travel, then you probably have numerous places on your bucket list of where you’d like to someday go. So how about this, instead of setting a goal and creating a plan to save up for a specific location, why not embrace serendipity and decide when you have the funds or points/miles to travel? What I mean is that you could just wait until you’ve saved up a decent amount of funds or miles and then choose the destination. I, for example, want to go anywhere and everywhere; sometimes there is a specific place that I have myself set on, but other times I like to just look at some flight deals in the next week or two.

Subscribe to price alerts and last-minute deals from various travel booking engines, and you’re bound to find a tempting and low-cost itinerary in your inbox in no time. I constantly get deals in my email and text messages on my phone alerting me to bargain airfares to some Caribbean countries, and a few months ago I pounced on an offer to visit 4 countries (Poland, Canada, France, and Netherlands) for only $323 in airfare!

Time is Money

We’ve all heard the phrase that time is money, and this adage holds true even for traveling, in three different ways:

First, the sooner that we need to get somewhere, the more expensive the travel, or the more points/miles required to book an award reservation. Time is money, so if you really wanted to visit a place, choose dates well in advance (I’m talking months), and steer clear of any kind of peak travel dates.

Secondly, if you really want the best shot at traveling cheaply and as close to zero-expenditures as possible, there should not be a limit on the end-date of the trip. For a trip to South America, let’s say, you could decide to do odd jobs and slowly, perhaps after the workday hours or on the weekends, take in all the sites. For example, if you wanted to plan to see Paris in only 5 days, you would feel obligated to spend quite a bit more to get in as much as you could; you might take taxis rather than public transportation, or you may decide to stay in a hotel close to all the touristy attractions.

Finally, quicker modes of transportation are usually gonna run you greater expenses. An easy way to point this out is the simple difference in airfare costs. For far and away destinations, nonstop service could run you a small fortune, while connecting flights will most likely be the most economical. To take this ‘time is money’ example to the extreme, we could say that business/first class time savings (priority security, boarding, deplaning, etc.) can cost about 10 times the amount of the standard economy fare. Or you could perhaps not take a flight at all; trains and buses from city to city could be a much cheaper option, or you could take some sort of cargo ship across the ocean to another continent, if you were so inclined.

A nice paraphrase of the famous adage goes something like this: “If you believe that time is money, you will spend money all the time.” – from Tim Patterson via Matador Network.

Do Something

Want to offset the costs of transportation or accommodations? Instead of making your trip a vacation, consider working while away. Volunteering in the place where you are visiting can not only provide you with great stories and wonderful karma, but often times work like this is compensated by providing you with a place to sleep and/or meals. You could also sign up for work at a local farm or factory, which is monetarily compensated, of course. And the most popular way to earn money while abroad is to teach your native language. English is quite valuable in most countries, and becoming an teaching it is a well-paid vocation, most times (in the host country).