We are going to pick right up where we left off in Travel Affordability Part 1. If you haven’t already, make sure to read that piece for the first two steps of Setting your goals and Don’t pay for your flights. This post will cover tips on saving money on accommodations, food, and transportation, as well as minimizing extra fees and keeping track of your travel costs. Have at, ya'll!
Choose your bed wisely: We can’t remember the last time we stayed in a traditional hotel for personal traveling. It just hasn’t made sense to do so. While there are plenty of hotel perk programs (similar to flights), we’ve found that they are more geared to the corporate traveler whose company pays the bill. If you are able to give up the glitzy Hilton or overpriced boutique, you may find your lodging bill significantly cut…or even free! As a very close second in most costly part of your trip, this is an area where a lot of savings can be found without sacrificing experience. Here are a few alternatives:
- Airbnb.com: By far, this has been our most common source for accommodation in all our travels. We love it! The basic premise of the program is that locals of your destination who are out of town, have extra space, a second home, etc. will list their property on the site, often for an extremely reasonable price. This means that you have all the comforts of a home (like a kitchen, laundry or even saunas and local cell phones) at a fraction of the cost of a hotel.
It’s made very clear on the website whether you are renting an entire property or if it’s simply an extra room in the house. This way you can match your choice with your budget and preferences. We’ve found that renting a whole house or apartment is often an amazing deal for small groups/couples as you share the cost but there are also major perks for staying with a local. Aside from the cost savings, many hosts will provide breakfast (eg. the amazing meals of Don in Charleston or Me Ae in Queenstown) but, more importantly, they are a window into the local community. How better to experience the culture of Hanoi than to stay with a Vietnamese family and have their recommendations of the best parts of their city? Some of our favorite experiences and meals have come from the extremely knowledgeable advice of our Airbnb hosts.
For those of you who think this sounds a bit sketchy, be comforted in an effective system of vetting and accountability, as guests rate and review their experience with Airbnb hosts. This will often give you a very clear idea of cleanliness, convenience of the location, and general helpfulness/demeanor of who you are staying with. In over 40 (and counting) stays with Airbnb and relying on reviews, we have yet to have an experience we did not like!
*Extra money saving tip: list your space on Airbnb while you’re gone! It’s an easy way to make some extra cash to supplement all the extra saving you’ve been doing!
**First time using Airbnb? If you sign up here, you’ll get $25 off your first stay - we will also get a few bucks towards our Airbnb account, so it's a win win!
- Hostels: it seems like backpacker hostels have popped up in almost every major tourist city we’ve been too. However, the cost and quality can be extremely varied. There are a few great hostel aggregator sites like Agoda and Hostel World that can help you weed through the quality options. Don’t always rely exclusively on the score (numbers are relative and can be deceiving,) rather, take a few minutes to read the descriptive reviews that people have left to describe their experience to get the best picture.
However, you can't control the selection of travelers who will be your bunkmates. That’s why we always recommend earplugs, sleeping masks, and bag locks if you decide to go this route. Or if traveling as a couple or group, make sure to check for private room options. NEVER assume that hostels will be the cheapest option if you are more than one person traveling. Airbnb may surprise you on what you can get when splitting the cost with another.
- Couchsurfing: it doesn’t get any cheaper than FREE, but Couchsurfing.com is about so much more than just a zero cost place to stay. This website is a network of travel-lovers who want to help others experience the world through a mutual generosity allowing people to experience life through the eyes of locals. Hosts around the world open up their homes for travelers to crash on their couches, air mattresses, or even private rooms. Here's why they do it. With a community of over 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities, there is always a host nearby.
Couchsurfing takes security very seriously and there is a background check process that hosts and travelers can opt to go through to strengthen their profile when hosting or surfing (they even include safety tips & good surfing habits on their site.) However, much of the responsibility is on you to use your instincts and make educated decisions based on the reviews and information on each profile you apply to stay at. Remember that a mutual trust is required for someone to let you into their home so make sure to complete a full (and detailed) profile before you start to apply and feel free to add us (Shane and Julie) if you want to build some street cred :)
NOTE: please be courteous and considerate surfers if you go this route. Hosts are sharing their lives with you and, while free, please be equally as generous with your time, stories, or help.
- Home exchange / sit: for anyone that owns his or her own home, why not arrange a swap with your travel-doppelganger overseas? This requires a little more travel flexibility…and obviously having your own place…but here are a few websites that link you up with some pretty appealing options:
Or if you don’t have the property or location suitable for a swap, you can always watch someone else’s place while they are off paying too much to travel! There are some small setup fees involved but here's an article that has some awesome information on the process and perks of house sitting. We definitely hope to try this one out soon!
- Monastery Stays: this is a good one for those looking to bump up the cultural experience and not the budget. Obviously, this is the least expansive of options but definitely a cool and cheap way to stay in an operating monastery in accommodations managed by the monks. Here are a couple listing sites:
Reduce your food costs: We love food. A lot. In fact, we think that cuisine is an incredible way to learn loads about the places you are visiting and is an integral part of our travels. But that doesn’t mean it has to break the bank. Here are a few ways we have saved some cash:
- Eat Local: it’s just absurd to go to Spain and not have paella or Vietnam and miss out on the banh mi. A country’s dishes reflect their culture and are often a good bit cheaper than finding American renditions. This doesn’t mean you pick the glitziest steakhouse in Buenos Aires. Rather, talk to locals that you meet along the way to discover their favorite cheap eats. If that fails, TripAdvisor can give you a decent picture of inexpensive but tourist-loved spots in a city. Just keep an open mind as you explore the holes in the walls or, better yet, the world-class street food options available in each country. The very best meal we’ve have EVER had cost us $2.50 / person and was eaten on the side of the road in a child-sized plastic chair.
- Cook for Yourself: one of the beauties of staying in an Airbnb or even some hostels is access to a kitchen and a refrigerator for putting together your own delicacies. We wouldn’t recommend making your own food for every meal (for experience sake) but it’s a great option to mix in when you would rather spend your money on renting a cute Vespa or bungee jumping. We’ve loved packing a few sandwiches and finding a beautiful park or overlook to enjoy our uber-cheap meal.
- Easy on the Booze: don’t get me wrong…we love a cold I.P.A (especially after SE Asia’s endless supply of flavorless lagers) or a glass of smooth Chianti, but drinking out can get rather expensive. We’ve met more than a few backpackers who spent way more than they expected on a trip but failed to attribute any of it to the routine bar crawls. I’m definitely not telling you to pass on grabbing a Guinness at a local pub in Dublin but just be cognizant of the money you are spending and keep to a strict budget.
Be Transport Flexible: the easiest and cheapest way to get around a country is always going to be dependent on the country itself. However, we’ve found it best to not default to flying from place to place when hopping around a destination. We would rather save up our miles for the long haul flights where you get more bang for your buck. Rather, always look for alternative modes of transportation that offer a better feel for the country and are easier on the pocket.
- Trains: this is a personal favorite of ours as you have far more space and flexibility to move around and enjoy the scenery passing by the window. It’s also rather nice to just show up 20 minutes before your departure time with as much food and drink as you’d like without the hassle of a cumbersome check-in process. For the longer rides, many countries offer night trains with comfortable cabins for you to snooze the trip away in and save the cost of a night of accommodation. For all our train travel, we rely on The Man in Seat 61 who has compiled an absurd amount of information on train travel, conditions, schedules, etc in more countries that you can name.
- Buses: there are few quicker ways to get to know the local people of a country than to spend 5 hours cuddled up on a bumpy bus with them. It might not be the most comfy ride but it is usually the cheapest way to get from point A to point B. Many of the longer and more popular routes are even starting to mimic the trains with sleeper buses offering nearly fully reclining seats or beds for overnight trips. This is a great way to make your dollar stretch even further.
- Budget Airlines: there are times when it’s just ridiculous to spend 36 hours on a bus on a 2 week trip. When you need to fly, make sure to look at the local budget airlines first (don’t you dare rely on Expedia). There have been times that we’ve flown RyanAir from Italy to Portugal for under 20 Euros or Vietjet from Saigon to Hoi An for $15. Do your research to figure out what the budget airlines are in your destination country and keep an eye on rotating deals before you travel. BUT be on the lookout for a future post completely dedicated to finding flights for cheap cheap.
Minimize extra fees: this one might not be a total game changer but the fees for just using your own money overseas can really add up if you’re not careful. First and foremost, there is no reason for you to pay another ATM fee…ever. We’ve had friends whose banks will charge them over $10 every time they pull out cash in another country. That could buy a delicious doner kebab and Peroni in Turin! If your bank has fees for international draws OR doesn’t reimburse you for the fees that the ATM company charges, then you should open a Fidelity or Charles Schwab account who will each reimburse any ATM fees worldwide. Our brother-in-law, Cliff, has one of these accounts that he keeps open only for the sake of travel and will transfer money into it when needed. Not a bad option if you have a bank you already like working with.
If you do find yourself needing to exchange money, simply make sure you are doing your research on current conversion rates. I like the app XE Currency - it allows access to 10 currencies at a time to compare against each other and still calculates (at the most recently uploaded rate) when offline. Of course the airport is going to be the most convenient place to exchange your money but that comes at a price as they tend to have the worst rates. Banks can be a little better but the best are the street-side operations or, in some cities, the gold shops. If you go this route, just make sure that you run the calculations of what you should be getting first and ALWAYS count the money they give you back…some can be champs of the slight-of-hand.
Keep track of the money you spend: in conclusion, one of the best things you can do to effectively manage your travel cash is the simplest. Only you know what you can afford on the trip and it’s vital that you know where it’s going. The research discussed in step 1 of the previous post should help set expectations for average costs of your destination. Don’t forget about this as you travel and track your expenditures so that you know if you are over-spending in one area or another. We keep an excel spreadsheet on our Google drive that we update every few days and can access from anywhere. Or, for an automated option, try Mint.com – they also have an app that lets you watch things on the go.
Don't worry folks, we've got wayyy more to cover on this topic! Stay tuned for future installments of our travel affordability series as we share ways to save leading up to your trip. Do you have any tried and true money saving travel tips that we haven't covered yet?