I spent several years during the decade that was my 20’s travelling far and wide with a limited budget. Central + South America, China, New Zealand, Mainland Europe were all tapped where I squeezed as much fun out of a limited budget as possible.
What follows are my tried and tested tips to backpacking on a budget.
Whilst I wouldn’t advocate running the gauntlet through countries where genuine health problems arise, packing an arsenal of medication can be a little overzealous.
I went to Tropical Medical Bureau and the Doctor showed me a chart of South America highlighting the various health danger zones. He gave me a great sales pitch and I was determined not to fall ill and took my various shots and inoculations aswell as a medipack of potions for all sorts of ailments including Malaria, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Intestinal upsets – pretty much any potential malady that could affect a traveler.
Zoom forward 9 months and the only items from my medical pack that were used were band aids. I hadn’t considered the fact that well stocked pharmacies, or even hostels abroad stocked such ‘essentials’. A lot of travelers sell their anti-malarial tablets at the end of their trip.
Of course, it goes without saying to exercise good judgment. Should you be spending 2 weeks in the Amazon jungle or mosquito infested plains, take appropriate measures, but most of what you need can be bought far cheaper abroad, whenever you need it.
2. PACK LIGHT
Consider the climate you’re entering.
I took more durable, warm clothes thinking ahead to cold, winter months. As a result, I was lumbered with a bloated backpack for many months which was silly.
Clothes are a lot cheaper in developing countries. The bargains you can pick up in Asia and Central/South America at markets are incredible. I had a rain jacket taking up valuable space in my backpack for 9 months having only used it once.
Cheap laundry services are available in most good hostels/hotels. People always end up bringing far more than they need to. Traveling to warm climes means that you should only need 1 pair of jeans, couple pairs of shorts and a bunch of t-shirts. If I was backpacking again, I would bring enough to fill a 40l backpack. Much easier to navigate around countries and anything additional you can pick up en route.
3. SEEK OUT HOSTELS WITH KITCHENS/CANTEENS
One of the major expenses you’ll incur is the cost of food.
Most gringo’s slip into their comfort zone and seek out the nearest McDonalds instead of sampling local cuisine. For the price conscious among us, you would be better served cooking up dinner at your hostel. Most backpacking destinations at least along the gringo trail have adequate facilities to allow you to do that.
Towards the end of my most recent trip in South America, I began cooking for myself much more often. Even more cost-effective is cooking for a group of people. Dining on pasta every other night may not be Michelin Star cuisine, but it does the job and allows you to portion your money into more desirable avenues e.g. drinking and partying! Hostels that provide free breakfast are a Godsend – I took the chance to eat until bursting so that I wouldn’t need to look near food until early evening again.
4. BEWARE SCAMMERS AND PICKPOCKETS!
Always do your research before entering a shady zone. A good Lonely Planet book will tell you which they are, or the lonely planet forum which is excellent.
I always carried a copy of my Passport instead of the real thing. Friends of mine were threatened in Antigua, Guatemala (which is otherwise a charming town) and in those cases, give them what you have. Don’t put up a fight. The 10 dollars you have in your pocket is worth more than your life.
In Shanghai I fell victim to the infamous Tea Scam which cost me several hundred dollars. Without sounding too paranoid, be wary of the generosity of locals or taxi drivers. Sometimes it is too good to be true. Stay on guard especially at night. There is safety in numbers especially when returning from bars/clubs. Unless you live a block or two away, always get a tuktuk or taxi to return to your hotel at the end of a night.
5. BUY ALCOHOL AT THE STORE
Very cheap with most good hostels allowing you to bring your own alcohol into the premises.
Be careful with drinking in the streets. Corrupt police can use any excuse to extort money from you.
6. WALK DURING THE DAY
I love walking through new cities in the morning, as the hubbub of market traders reaches a crescendo and the sun is beating down on me, turning my pale skin to lobster red.
I saved so much money by not using taxis or buses. I’m not averse to either but you eat so much junk during backpacking and have little opportunity for exercise that walking was my way to fit in some physical activity each day,and a lot can be discovered by using your own two legs to power you around strange and new surroundings.
It’s also a great way to orient yourself, and find hidden gems – local eateries off the beaten path, much cheaper than convenience stores and other places likely to bump up their prices because they’re within the touristic zones.
7. CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS
I haven’t been brave enough to try couchsurfing but know many people who have. It’s a great, friendly community that provide a free bed to travelers in return for company/friendship. Very much a reciprocated ideal, the idea has really taken off in recent years and many residences worldwide open their doors to backpackers at zero cost.
Alternatively, you could try camping. There are many campsite across Europe where you can pitch a tent. They are generally cheap and a great social hub to meet new people. I stayed at Keycamp in France several years ago and it can be a refreshing change, with great scenic views and air – provided you don’t mind the cold!
8. HAGGLE FOR ROOM PRICE
Every city in every country has an off-peak season. Typically in Europe this is October to March. In South America, it is May to August. In S.E. Asia off-peak is June to October.
Usually hostels are crying out for backpackers a this time. Whether you are travelling solo or as part of a group, you are in a much more powerful position to negotiate a price, especially for a longer stay. With the range of options available and transparency of prices through hostelworld.com, you can really drive a great price.
It may be a euro here, or there – but it can make a big difference especially if planning a longer stay.
9. FOLLOW THE LOCALS
Very rarely did I see locals eating in McDonald’s or getting their caffeine hit in Starbucks. Was it because the food and drink on offer was shite? Perhaps.
But when I stayed with a Guatemalan host family I quickly realized that they don’t have the free flowing finances that us Westerners do. When they aren’t cooking their own meals, they would dine in small local places eating the traditional food which is a fraction of the price of some of the Uncle Sam outlets.
In most cases, they provide a much heartier meal too. My advice? Ask the locals what’s good and what’s not, and avoid the neon lights.
10. CONSIDER VOLUNTEERING
If tight on a budget, many hostels will give you employment. In return they will provide a roof over your head and meals.
You won’t receive a salary but will have certain privileges like free laundry, breakfast, access to drinks, and a huge network of new friends.
Those are just some of the tips I’d suggest to help eke out cash reserves.
What inventive and creative ways have you employed to make your money last longer?