How to Travel Cheap: A Complete Guide to Budget Travel in 2021
April 26, 2021
If I hadn't learned how to travel cheaply, my travel history would be roughly 1/3 of its current count. With that being said, I've also never let my lack of budget limit my travel experiences.
There is a fine line between not being able to afford to travel and learning to be resourceful while traveling. I know people that have spent $10,000 on one-week trips. I also know you could travel just about anywhere for a week on under $2,000. If there's one thing I've learned about budget travel through the years, keeping it affordable is a mindset.
I've always had money anxiety. When I knew I was spending too much on my first few trips, a dark grey cloud would hang over my head. I would worry about what my credit card bill would be once I finally mustered up the courage to check it. In many ways, the financial worry took the joy out of travel.
But I've learned a lot through the years. Today, I'm not sure I could overspend on a trip if I tried. You can still travel affordably while not missing out on experiences and still enjoy everything the culture has to offer. Here's how:
1. Be flexible with travel days
I can't remember the last trip I booked where I wasn't flexible with dates solely to save money. For example, if you have March 12-19th for Spring Break, my flight search history would look something like this:
March 11 – 18
You'd be surprised how many times I've saved over $100 on a round trip flight by adjusting my departure or return date by a single day. Better yet, if you are looking to take a vacation anytime in the fall, use the "whole month" option on Skyscanner to search for the cheapest days within the calendar month.
2. Add cost-effective activities to your itinerary
We save the most of our money by choosing free of cost-effective activities, such as hiking. And yes, you can still save money while traveling even you don't enjoy the outdoors! If you fill your trip with admissions tickets, front-row seats to concerts, museum visits, and eating at every Hard Rock café, you're going to be cashing out a lot of money.
For example, a trip to Las Vegas for two could include:
Cirque Du Soleil tickets ($300)
Amusement park rides ($78)
Friday cabana rental ($732)
Club admission ($20)
Total in activities: $1,630
Or, if you want to experience Las Vegas on a budget, it could look like this:
Red Rock Canyon ($15)
Kayak Tour ($200)
Pinball Hall of Fame (25-50 cents per play)
Zip Line ($40)
Las Vegas Comedy Club ($36)
Total in activities: $301
3. Travel in groups
My most inexpensive trips are typically with a larger group where we can split accommodation, food, and car rentals. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, our small bungalow, which less than a half-mile from the beach and had a private pool cost $1,500 for the week. It slept six, and we had five people, making the total cost just $301 per person.
"But I don't have anyone to travel with."
^^^ This is the biggest comment I hear when I recommend traveling in groups. If you are having trouble finding enough people to go with, join a travel group or community. In 2015, we booked a trip to Iceland with four strangers after posting about the cheap $300 tickets in a Facebook community for my University.
Our $11/night per person accommodation in Colombia
View from the same accommodation - on the edge of a 3000ft cliff
4. Be flexible with location
Just like being flexible with dates can be a big money saver for how to travel cheap, so does being flexible with location. If you are looking to have a tropical vacation, don't let Tulum win you over right away. The Caribbean and Central America are filled with tropical paradises like Tulum but at half the price.
Most of the time, when I start planning a trip, I'm not 100% sure of the actual destination. I'll research current flight prices, accommodation, etc., to a handful of locations that pique my interest and note what each one will likely cost. Only once I have gathered that information do I make a firm decision.
5. Know the conversion rate
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted worldwide in today's travel world, which is a blessing and a curse. The need to carry around huge wads of cash or traveler's checks is gone, but that also means we are less aware of how much we are spending on trips. It's easy to get carried away "swiping" only to be utterly shell-shocked by your credit card receipt when you get home (trust me, I've been there).
One of the most significant ways to avoid credit-card shock is to understand and know the conversion rate. For example, if you are in France and your café bill comes to 40€, know that after the current conversion rate, that is actually $48.
There is also a common misconception about countries that are "cheaper than the United States." The misconception isn't that these places don't exist (they do), but sometimes not as much as people expect. Travelers jet away to Mexico and spend money in Cancun without paying attention to price under the assumption it is cheap, only to realize that the prices in the touristy area – which caters to U.S., Canadian, and European travelers, aren't actually that affordable.
6. Earn miles (and use them)
The only credit card I have is a credit card that earns me airline and travel miles. I use it for everything: utility bills, photography equipment, travel, groceries, subscriptions, etc. It's money that I would be spending anyways, except now I am getting beneficial airmiles from it.
Most major airlines and credit cards also have incentives for signing up. When I originally signed up for mine when I was 18, the requirement for 50,000 bonus miles was to spend $3,000 in 3 months. Even as a college student, I met that threshold (thank you, expensive college textbooks) and used my bonus miles to pay for my second visit to Australia in 2018. Almost any adult with monthly bills (rent, mortgage, utilities, phone payments, etc.) can quickly fulfill the three-month spend limit.
Most recently, I paid for the following flights:
Montana – Florida
Florida – Costa Rica
Costa Rica – Wyoming
For a total of $240, taxes and fees included, thanks to my air miles. And that didn't even come close to spending half of my total miles I currently have available on my account.
7. Avoid touristy areas
As mentioned above, touristy areas can be expensive. They can also lack authenticity. Restaurants and shops around the main square of Florence, Italy, are going to be pricey and somewhat gimmicky. However, take the train an hour to a small Italian coastal town with one hotel. You'll find vast plates of pasta for 5€, incredible hospitality from the local families who will sit and eat at the table with you, and sometimes, even a free wine fountain.
8. Explore new accommodation ideas
I preached about Airbnb all over my blog seven years ago as the "new way to stay." It was affordable, new, and exciting.
Today it's one of the most popular ways to stay. Everyone knows Airbnb, and it's not necessarily as affordable as it once was. Many times it is now more expensive than a hotel if you aren't booking at least six months ahead of time. I still recommend searching Airbnb for obvious reasons, but my other go-to accommodation/camping resources include
Hipcamp.com (glamping and camping)
Couchsurfing (local stays)
Freecampsites.net (free camping)
Groupon.com (all-inclusive and international deals)
9. Buy affordable travel gear
I credit a lot of my money-saving to staying within budget when it comes to gear. What good is it to have the latest version of every backpack, camera, and suitcase if it limits my ability to afford to use them? Our first backpacking backpacks were bought off eBay for $40/each and latest us our entire three months in Europe. I just bought my first on-brand down puffer climbing jacket last month in an end-of-season sale, and I've never owned an REI tent simply because I can't justify the expense even when we spend so much in the backcountry. One day I would love to afford all the nice gear, but right now, we're doing just fine without.
With that being said, I am a full supporter that you should splurge for what is important to you. Great gear can be worth the cost.
10. Keep a clear vision of trip momentums
During my first couple of trips, I found myself thinking I needed all these insane momentums to remember the trip only to realize I usually never saw them again after I got home. They're probably still packed away in a dusty box. When I travel these days, I keep my intentions clear. I want one item that isn't necessarily cheap but that I know I will use and love. Learning how to travel cheap doesn't mean you can't spoil yourself. Find something you love and buy it, but don't get carried away swiping for tiny knickknacks and touristy sweatshirts in every store.
Also, know when to barter. Many countries use and accept bartering as a standard. In countries like Mexico, Colombia, or Morocco, know that the first price isn't always the actual price. I've had shop owners come down as far as 50% simply by bartering on certain products.
11. Be conscious with food and drink
There are certain countries and destinations where food and drink are incredibly affordable (Bali, Costa Rica, Colombia, Bosnia...etc.). There are also a lot of places where that isn't the case.
Eating out is one of the easiest ways to spend money without noticing. I am guilty of this, too. One $7 drink doesn't seem like a lot, but it all adds up over time. If you've ever found yourself wondering where all your money went while traveling, it's probably best to track down your food and beverage charges on your latest credit card statement.
If you are traveling and eating out three times a day with two alcoholic drinks, the math might look something like this:
Two Drinks: $15
Now, I know you've got to eat while traveling. I love food. LOVE IT. I'm not saying the best way is to starve yourself. Which brings me to…
12. Cook + shop locally
Trying local snacks is probably one of my favorite things about traveling internationally. We always try to raid a local supermarket or fruit stand to buy anything that sounds local, unique, and delicious during the first days of a trip. This includes alcohol. In Portugal, there are bottles upon bottles of wine for less than a Euro. If you want to try the local beer, grabbing a pack at the store will typically be 50% less than at the restaurant.
If you enjoy cooking and have access to a kitchen, research a recipe local to your region and spend the night shopping and attempting to create the local dish. I've discovered so many delicious recipes that are staples in our household today because we learned about them overseas. It's one of those things that you learn, and it sticks with you forever.
13. Don't go into debt for trips
I've preached about how much I love my credit card above; now it's time to be the devil's advocate.
Knowing how to travel cheap comes with a clear vision of what you can (realistically) afford. There are so many luxurious and adventurous trips I could take right now on my current line of credit, but I don't. I try to keep my total credit card usage at about 5% of the maximum. Credit card companies are notorious for approving customers for lines of credit they can't afford because, in the end, it makes them more money.
Putting your trip on a credit card will quickly ensure you overpaid for your trip when adding up taxes and fees after you've finished paying it all off.
14. Play the "find a restaurant without an English menu" game
Learning how to travel cheap also doesn't mean sucking the fun out of everything about a vacation. I love a nice meal out just as much as the next person, especially when traveling. If in a tourist location, I'll typically wander the streets away from the main square until I find a local restaurant with no English menu displayed along the street.
I've always enjoyed the meals in the tiny hole-in-the-wall joints more than a Bubba Shrimp. These off-the-beaten-path restaurants usually have a couple of significant perks.
Family owned – and the whole family is usually working. Even when we don't speak the language, we'll spend most of our time laughing and bonding through food.
Cheap – some of the best food I've ever had was the cheapest food I've ever had
Large portions – No one should expect me to watch what I eat when traveling. I want it ALL…and dessert.
Unique – There are many meals I've had where I'm not exactly sure what I ate (again, language barrier), but it tasted delicious! As someone who once lived off only pizza and pasta, travel has expanded my tastebuds and showed me how many insanely good flavors are hidden throughout the world.
How to Travel Cheap: The Best and Worst Budget Countries
To some up this incredibly long and drawn out post, here are some of the best and worst countries for cheap travel (in no particular order):
7. Costa Rica
8. Mexico (not Yucatan Peninsula)
6. United Arab Emirates
10. New Zealand
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure and outdoor tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.