About ten days ago I shared on Facebook an old post in which I told about how and why I decided to change my lifestyle by turning into a part-time traveler. On the same day I was contacted on Messenger by several people who, after congratulating me on my choice, asked me for some advice to travel low cost.
I know that rivers of ink have already been poured on the subject and probably this post will not add anything new to the known. However, as a long-term low budget traveler and travel blogger, I have decided to put down some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years that allow me to travel several months a year without having to take out a mortgage or make big sacrifices. For some of you they will be taken for granted but for others, those who have asked me, they will be a little less…
As always, I want to make it clear, mine are not meant to be pearls of wisdom but simply an alternative way, my own, to live the journey. It is not necessarily the best, on the contrary, I believe that the essence of the journey is to experiment and sew on your own model tailored. However, given that the long-haul wanderlust has been taking a lot of victims lately, I hope to be able to give you some useful cues while answering, at the same time, to those who ask me where I find the money to be around.
Here are my tips for traveling low cost, especially in the long term, accompanied by personal thoughts and anecdotes.
A premise is a must. I have not always been like this. Until about ten years ago, like a good part of the Italian population affected by my own illness, I allowed myself one long haul trip a year and a few weekends out of town to break the monotony of the eleven working months.
For the long-haul trip, which usually lasted a month, I put a maximum budget of 1,000 euros depending on the location to spend on the way – the plane ticket I bought in advance with the money of the thirteenth – and I was happy and satisfied with my caution.
The same goes for weekends out of town. I bought a low cost flight in promotion and set a maximum of 200 euros that I squandered without restraint until the last penny. Colleagues, friends and relatives asked me if I had the euro plant on the balcony and I answered that I actually spent little more than if I had stayed in Milan.
This until I started with the blessed part-time that works this way. The three winter months – January, February and March – are to all intents and purposes “unemployed”: I do not receive salary, I do not pay contributions, I do not mature holidays, I have no right to illness and my thirteenth is proportionate to the months of salary worked. Since this is my choice, I am not even entitled to unemployment benefit, even though, it is fair to say, I recognise the advantage of not having to bang me every time I come back to find a job and this is no small thing. To summarize, in those three months I have no income but I still have fixed costs that I can not escape, those related to the house of which I will become the owner in almost twenty years – good deal! – and obviously those necessary to face the journey.
Forgive me, I exaggerated a bit with the details but I wanted to give you as complete a picture as possible of my situation to not hear me say, as has already happened, to stop saying bullshit that without money you go nowhere. Of course, without money you don’t go anywhere but on the other hand I think traveling is the last thing you think about for those who really don’t have money.
However, to travel low cost – and by low cost I mean to travel low cost without necessarily depriving oneself of everything or make the life of the beggar – is possible and I am the living proof!
To those who have allowed themselves to insinuate that I certainly have the family that supports me I say that if there is one thing for which I thank my family is to have taught me to rely only on myself without expecting anything from anyone. Teaching applied to the letter and since I left my parents’ house 23 years ago, I have been sweating my money to the last penny! And the only sacrifices I make, believe me, are those that do not weigh on me, like going to the hairdresser every week, buying expensive clothes and so on.
Learning to travel at low cost was a real gym that put me in front of myself and the skills I didn’t know I had.
Well, as usual my forewords are longer than the entire post. It’s time to move on to facts with tips for tackling a low cost trip in the long run. In my case it’s just over three months a year, in your case you’ll tell me!
THE CHOICE OF DESTINATION IN A LOW COST TRIP
So, I’d start with the choice of destination.
A low-cost trip to a third world country obviously does not have the same weight as a low-cost trip to Europe, the United States, Canada and so on. The budget changes, there is little to do, and the choice of destination must be weighted on the basis of the money we expect to have.
I always start with the idea of putting away a tot per month but then you know, the unexpected are always there and rarely I can. That’s why I never buy my plane ticket well in advance.
When I return from my winter trip I begin to dream of the potential destinations of the next one trying to make a balance between the beauties that I expect to find and the related costs. I look for videos on youtube, read books about those countries and listen to music to get into different moods.
Slowly the ideas are refined and I find myself a couple of months before the departure with three destinations in the lead. One with minimal impact (which I have not yet had to resort to but it is always better to keep the parachute handy!), a low budget (which is the one that goes for the most) and, finally, a medium level.
Then I pull out the statement and quickly make a calculation of the cost of the different options. A calculation including flight, board, lodging and transport on site. I round up excess and add a few hundred euros to be allocated to excursions that can not be organized independently and to unforeseen events. Then, finally, I choose.
So let’s say that the first advice I give you to organize a low-cost trip is not to fix you on a single destination but to have an elastic mind.
Traveling low cost does not mean depriving yourself of everything because travel is life and it is legitimate to do in travel what you do in everyday life. Of course, if you are a type of aperitif and dinner out every night I do not think you are suitable for a low cost trip but after all, I assume, you will not even need it. I don’t particularly like social life but at least a couple of times a week I like to go out and try to keep the same good habit even when I’m traveling.
Sometimes I read the posts on Facebook groups written by fanatics who proudly claim not to live because their mission is to travel. Excuse me, but what’s the point? Honestly, I don’t understand it. When I only had one month of time I would go out every night both in Milan and on the road and in fact, as chance would have it, I could afford one a year. Now that I have less money with 1,000 euros I’m around on average two months and a little more and even when I’m not traveling … alive!
Money is the tool that allows us to realize our dreams, but if to realize a dream I have to lose months of life that no one will give me back… then I prefer to resize that dream and fill my life with meaning! Also because, to be honest, big sacrifices are not for me!
CHEAP TRAVEL: HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON THE ROAD
We start from the assumption that if we decide to visit a destination it is not because we have to add a flag to our planisphere but because we are interested in knowing a particular country, its landscapes, its people, its traditions and so on. It seems obvious but I happened to meet travelers who move from one place to another without missing a party, spend the day in a cot just to say “I’ve been there!”. If you don’t have a big budget, partying every night isn’t the best way to be around for a long time.
Personally, when I leave, I already have clear ideas about the daily cost of living of the country that will host me.
Let’s take, for example, to find ourselves in Ecuador where for board and lodging – with the luxury of a beer in the evening – we can easily stay within 15 dollars a day. You can sleep from 4 dollars, eat with 2 dollars and transport costs are cheap and nothing. Well, I set my budget at 20 dollars a day and that 600 dollars a month, which is just over 500 euros, will be used to cover the out-of-pocket expenses that also include tours, unless they are particularly expensive tours like the Galapagos, one of my dreams resized. There will certainly be days when we will spend 20 or even 25 dollars, but there will be other days when we will spend 10 or even less dollars.
From experience, in most of Asia and Latin America you can easily stay within this budget. Africa is much more expensive, unless you choose West Africa, but even there, with a good dose of patience and will, you can do it without spending a fortune.
Needless to say, we need to have a great spirit of adaptation.
For me the accommodation is irrelevant and if I have to share the room or the bathroom with other people I don’t worry about it, the important thing is that it is clean.
The guesthouses and youth hostels – even if I’m not so young by now but I’ve met a lot more people there than I am in the middle of the night – are the solution I prefer. Among other things, often and willingly the same structures organize tours for their guests at absolutely honest prices and if you travel alone is a great way to meet people with whom, if necessary, to share the costs.
To travel low cost and be able to travel well, in fact, you need to be oculati and receptive. Let’s take a taxi a day that costs us 3 dollars. A trifle, I know it well, but at the end of the month it’s 90 dollars, almost a sixth of the total budget. If, on the other hand, we can share that taxi with other people, we will spend a total of 30 dollars, or even 20, and the rest will be used for other purposes. But this is just an example given that we will hardly take a taxi traveling low budget and you know why? Because if the taxi will cost us 3 dollars, which is nothing, for the same bus ride we will be asked for 30 cents.
After all, the trick to travel low cost without having to give up everything is to maintain the same habits that we have at home saving where common sense tells us. How do you move around in your city? By taxi? I rarely do, when I have no alternative. Why, then, should I act differently when travelling? And if mathematics is not an opinion… I would say that we are already saving a lot of money or am I wrong?
Well, at this point I just can’t give a logical thread to all the things I would like to say. Excuse me.
Let’s go back to the accommodation and how to save money on the road.
An alternative to the guesthouse and hostel is camping. I always leave with an ultra-light personal tent, a mattress and a sleeping bag. When I feel the need for a bit of intimacy and I do not want to share the room with others I sleep in a tent. Certainly cheaper than a private room. Obviously it depends on the type of destination chosen but since I hardly go to cold places the tent, or the hammock in some cases, has always proved to be an excellent travel companion. A night in a campsite costs on average between 2 and 3 dollars against, say, the 7 of the hostel … how much money we saved with which we can do more?
Another good option for traveling low cost is couchsurfing although it seems to me that lately it works less than in the past. Couchsurfing allows you to be hosted at the home of the local sharing with them a piece of travel and a piece of life. If you are interested in knowing how it works, read my post Traveling with couchsurfing, immersed in the local culture.
If you plan to embark on a low-cost trip in the long term, it will surely be useful to sign up for Workaway, a site that connects “supply and demand”. A list of hosts scattered throughout much of the planet who will be happy to offer you food and lodging in exchange for a few hours of work a day. The offer is wide and varied: from working in the field to foreign language classes, from volunteering with children to environmental projects, from chairing the reception of a hostel to taking care of animals on a farm, and so on. Just put the dots on the “i” immediately – How many hours of weekly work? How are they distributed? What is the minimum length of stay? – and you save a lot of money that will be added to the inner richness given by a new experience of life.
Personally I look for a workaway when for whatever reason I intend to stay in a place for at least a week for which my choice is absolutely targeted.
In Ecuador I wanted to get on Cotopaxi and visit the lagoon of Quilotoa but I didn’t want to run, so I found a workaway in a finca near Latacunga, a privileged access point to my destination. I spent a week there, from Sunday to Sunday. A week of waking up at 4 am to milk the cows and hours spent in the middle of nature with my host family. A week in which I did not spend a dollar. On Saturday morning, following the advice of Oswaldo, the head of the family, I reached Cotopaxi independently. Probably if I hadn’t looked for a workaway I would have ended up in a hostel and I would have taken part in a tour – like most of the people I met during the trip – that for 40 dollars would have offered me what I spent 3 dollars or a little more on.
In Salvador de Bahia, instead, I found a workaway in a hostel because I felt that it was not a city to visit but to live in. I stayed there for two months, leaving at the weekend to discover the surroundings. I remember it as one of the most beautiful trips. First of all because the small accident on the way that forced me to undergo surgery in Brazil showed me how good, altruistic and human people are. In particular Neuza, the owner of the Hostel Torre, who took care of me as if I were his sister, and then all the real and virtual friends who gave me their strength and their energy. And then I lived those two months in Salvador with six other volunteers of different nationalities and with each of them was born an intense, deep bond, which is still ongoing despite the spatial and temporal distance.
Obviously the Workaway is not the only platform that applies this format, there are others that allow you to “stay” on the go but, it seems, is the one that works best. I’m not unbalanced about it because I don’t know the others but I guarantee about the seriousness of Workaway otherwise I wouldn’t continue to renew the registration year after year.
Let us now turn to food, for which the same principle applies as to means of transport. When are you at home where do you eat most of your meals? As much as we all like to treat ourselves, I think there are very few who go out to dinner every night, something that I absolutely love but I also love to prepare something good at home to not feel like a loser. And since most of the guesthouses and hostels include kitchen use, why not take advantage of it? Often it is around a nice plate of pasta, maybe hot but still pasta, that the most beautiful connections are made. Once again, in addition to saving money, there is the possibility of an exchange of positive energy that never hurts. I may be lucky, but I hardly ever met “negative” people on the road.
If you don’t like to “work under the boss” but you have hidden skills, it’s time to get them out and combine the useful with the enjoyable. Do you play a musical instrument? Do you do magic tricks? Can you paint? Do you like to cook? Take to the streets that you may not become rich but the balance will always be positive.
In Latin America, the continent I know best, everything is legitimate. I still remember the embarrassment of the first times I sat among the hippies to learn from them how to work the macramé, or of my first mangueo on the beach selling crepes.
In Panama then, waiting to find a way to reach Colombia, I worked in a restaurant, I did the PR for a couple of concerts and I was hired to cross the Channel on board a Polish boat. And since the “legitimate” way to reach Colombia via San Blas was out of my reach, I took steps to find someone to give me a lift in exchange for manpower.
. Of course, I have “lost” three weeks – even if for me they have not been lost at all! – but I did a month on a sailboat of which almost two weeks at the San Blas.
Now… in your opinion the $600 a month that we had set as a ceiling for board, lodging, travel, low-cost tours and a bit of a party every now and then, are not more than enough? There are also some souvenirs and why not, once in a while, a nice room with private bathroom in a place that will seem like paradise on earth.
But the most important thing is that traveling low cost is not just a way to save money and travel longer. No! Traveling low cost is a school of life that teaches you to face the world with another spirit and, above all, another awareness of yourself. It’s not always easy or always fun and sometimes it involves sacrifices but it always puts you in front of valid alternatives.
In Uganda I gave up the Murchison Falls for giving my priority to the Mountain Gorilla and I hijacked the Sipi Falls, an intimate place, not very touristy, with incredible energy where I met Noemi and Brian who became, in no time at all, my fellow adventurers. If I had more money I wouldn’t have missed the Murchison Falls but in the end it was better this way.
If you’re thinking of going on a low cost trip, especially in the long term, you’re definitely eclectic people, with an elastic mind, who are not afraid to question themselves. I met doctors and lawyers who had temporarily interrupted their careers to realize the dream of a long trip and although they did not lack the money they chose to make it low cost.
Because the journey, after all, is not only made of things seen but also, and above all, of experiences lived and shared. Experiences that will make your great wealth, both as a person and as a traveler.
Needless to say, there are a lot of precautions that can be taken to travel low cost and change depending on the destination and the person.
If you have any tips that you want to share with me or other readers, leave them in your comments. If you have any questions, which I hope I can answer … do not hesitate to ask!