15 tips for budget travel

5 Terre Backpackers Hostel, Cinque Terre, Italy (Photo creds: me)

The price of travel can add up quickly. Here are some tips that will make traveling a bit more affordable for people on a budget (like myself)!
Keep in mind – a couple of these tips are specifically for European travel, but most can be related to travel anywhere in the world.

1. Stay in hostels

Don’t waste your money on hotels or resorts. They are incredibly overpriced, and while they might be much more aesthetically pleasing and extravagant than a hostel, you will actually be more likely to meet people and make friends while staying in a hostel and in the long run, have a better time. In hostels, you stay in dorm rooms that sleep 4 – 12 people typically (some go up to 26 people in a room, but that isn’t as common). I always make sure that the hostel I am booking has personal lockers for my belongings, because theft isn’t something anyone wants to deal with. Being in the dorms is the best opportunity to meet other young travelers, and it is honestly not scary at all. I don’t think my traveling experiences would have been as memorable as they were if it weren’t for some of the great friends I made at the hostels I stayed at.

This one’s a tip for the ladies… I know the ‘female only’ dorms can sound very appealing, especially when the descriptions tempt you with vanity mirrors and other such girly things, but in my personal opinion, my experience in a female only dorm was less than pleasant. The girls who stay in female only dorms tend to be girls that think that every guy is out to harm them or assault them, which is NOT true. So not only do mixed dorms provide you with a mixed gender group of new friends (and ones who aren’t unrealistic in their expectations of society), but mixed dorms are also usually cheaper than female only ones.

Hostelworld is my personal favorite website for booking hostels. They don’t have an extra booking fee on top of the hostel fee, which can be uncommon for third party booking sites. You can search by location and they’ll give you a list of each hostel in that city. Each listing has ratings that are provided by Hostelworld users, and even a rating breakdown with specific ratings for things such as location, security, even atmosphere (among others). I always make sure to not only look at the ratings, but also read the description as well as a page or two of the most recent reviews. Then I compare ratings and prices between different hostels until I find one that suites me.

One last thing about hostels… when choosing the right one for you, make sure that the location rating is high. If you are out of the way and not in the area of the sites you want to see, you’ll end up spending more money than you planned to on public transportation and getting to where you want to be.

2. For larger groups, check out Air BNB

Air BNB is a website where people all over the world put their homes, apartments, and rooms up for rent for travelers and vacationers. While Hostelworld is the better choice for solo travelers, or people traveling in smaller groups (it’s cheaper as well as easier to meet people), if you’re traveling in a larger group, Air BNB is probably the better option. You can all split the price of the rental, and have a unique place to call home for a few days. I’ve personally never used Air BNB for myself before, but I know many people who have had great experiences using it, and stayed in some really stunning homes.

3. Book your rooms in advance

There are two different kinds of backpacking. One is where you book your roundtrip flight, but not much else. You go wherever the wind takes you or wherever you feel like going next. Met some cool people in Germany and their next stop is Switzerland? Cool, you can go with them! Another way of doing it is booking everything in advance and having your itinerary set before you leave. As much as I REALLY want to do the first way (and I will at some point), I’ve been sticking with the latter for now. That’s because you save a lot of money by booking things in advance. And not only that, but you end up in better rated hostels. When you book right before you stay, the better hostels have no more occupancy available, and even the ones that are available have boosted their prices.

For example, this past summer, I backpacked Europe with my friend Laura for almost 2 months. One of our last stops was Berlin, and we quickly agreed that the hostel we were at was the worst one we’d been at throughout the entire trip. It wasn’t terrible, it was just our least favorite. We paid $22 each per night and booked it about 2 months before leaving on the trip. Our roommates at that hostel said that they’d booked their room about a week prior to checking in, and that for their trip, they’d been booking as they go. They paid $36 each per night for the exact same room, and they said that it was the BEST hostel they had stayed in up to that point in their trip. Big difference. So for people on a budget, booking ahead of time is definitely the way to go.

4. Use cheap airlines

Expedia is a great website to search for tons of different flights, but I will always compare the flights I find on there to two other sites. Vueling and Ryanair are two budget airlines that have some seriously awesome prices. $28 from Paris to Venice? Hell yeah! If you choose to fly with either of those (and I suggest you do), it’s not going to be the classiest plane you’ve been on, or the most comfortable flight. In fact, you don’t even get free water, you have to pay. But these airlines usually fly short routes, and saving the money is 100% worth it. Anytime I’m booking flights, I always look on both of those websites to see what my cheapest option is.

5. Get a Eurail Pass

With a Eurail Pass, you can save a ton of money on trains, buses, and ferries. They have different types of passes to choose from, but the best is the Global Pass. The Global Pass gives you access to 28 different countries. Even within the Global Pass, there are SO many different choices for how you want to spread out your travel days. You can purchase a Continuous Pass that allows you to take an unlimited number of trains (or buses and ferries) for a continuous amount of days, or you can get a Flexi Pass that gives you an allotted amount of days within a certain period of time.

For example, on my Europe trip this past summer, I purchased the Flexi Pass ’10 days within 2 months’. That means that within the span of 2 months, I can pick any 10 days and during those 10 days, any train, bus, or ferry I take is free. All you have to pay for is the train booking fee which usually comes out to 3.60€, and even then, not all trains charge you a booking fee – only the trains that require a reservation. This was great, because we were able to determine which of our trains were the highest priced, and we chose those as our travel days. Another perk of this pass is that it gives you a certain number of days, not just trains. (10 days, not 10 trains). Which means that on any day you use your pass, you can take as many trains as you’d like within that day. The price of the pass isn’t cheap, but in the long run you end up saving yourself a nice chunk of cash.

For European residents, use the Interrail Pass.

6. Take night trains

When you make use of night trains, you’re not only saving precious daytime exploration hours, you’re also saving yourself the price of accommodations for that night. Even the Eurail Pass makes it possible for you to take a night train without having to use 2 days of your Flexi Pass (with your Continuous Pass, you can take as many trains over as many days as you’d like). This is possible because of their 7 PM rule. This rule makes it so that if you are taking a direct night train that leaves after 7 PM and arrives at its final destination after 4 AM, you only have to use one day. Even if your stop is before 4 AM, as long as the last stop on the train route is after 4 AM, you’re able to use just 1 day.

7. Take advantage of complimentary breakfasts

Many hostels will offer a complimentary breakfast. It’s usually nothing too spectacular, but take what they give. Even a small croissant or a bowl of cereal will fill up your stomach enough to hold you over for a few hours. In general, just accept any and all free food that you’re offered! (Just not from sketchy people on the street).

8. Take advantage of grocery stores

I know that all these new, delicious, and foreign restaurants can be EXTREMELY tempting, but they can also be the quickest way to waste your money. A meal in a restaurant will typically be 10€ – 15€. Even if you’re only eating out once a day, either for lunch or dinner but not both, you’re still looking at at least 70€ a week, but that’s if you’re lucky. Don’t do that to yourself. If you buy small amounts of simple food items at the grocery store, you can make a little bit of money go a long way and save some serious cash. (Cheese, jam, and crackers? PB&J sandwiches?) Quite a few hostels have kitchenettes where you can keep your food, and most guests are respectful of other peoples food. If you stick with grocery stores for the majority of your trip, it’ll be much better on your bank account. You can still treat yourself with meals out at restaurants, just do it sparingly. You’ll end up appreciating those meals out that much more.

9. Consider flexible flight days

Many airline booking sites have an option for you to check ‘flexible dates’ during your search. If flexible dates are even a slight possibility for you, check that box. What that does is it searches days near the date you chose to see what day around the one you picked has the cheapest flights. You might end up making small adjustments in your itinerary, but if it doesn’t affect what you want to do too much, the cheaper flights will always help.

10. Be conscious of when you’re booking your flight

Before I buy a plane ticket, especially a major long-distance one, I’ll check flight prices every day for a week to see what day of the week has that flight selling for the cheapest price (yes, this really does work). Typically, you’re supposed to book Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday as those tend to be the cheapest sell dates, but the last couple flights I bought, the cheapest day was actually Friday. So you never know, that’s why I’ll always start checking prices about a week before I plan to actually purchase the ticket.

11. Use your credit card rewards

Credit card rewards are SERIOUSLY awesome. It’s literally free money. Just use your credit card for all your purchases and the points will add up like crazy. I know some people are nervous about credit cards because they’ll end up spending more money than they’ve got, but it just takes being smart. With my credit card, I pay it off about twice a month, which is unnecessary in terms of what they require, but it helps me to keep track of how much money I’ve actually got, and helps me make sure I’m not spending more money than I should be. I have the Citibank Premier credit card and with it, I not only have 0% foreign transaction fee (yay!) but I get tons of points on all my purchases. When you first sign up for the card, they give you 50,000 points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. (50,000 points = $500). On top of that, you get 3 points for every $1 you spend on travel including gas, 2 points for every $1 you spend on dining out and entertainment, and 1 point for every $1 you spend on anything else.

My first 3 months with my card I not only spent 7 weeks in Europe (charging almost everything onto the card), but I also celebrated my 21st birthday soon after returning home from the trip, and days after that I moved away for school and for the first time was living on my own (helloooo expenses $$$). After those first 3 months, when I went to check my rewards, I had over 90,000 points (this was including a small amount of points I had from another account). As if that wasn’t awesome enough, I found out that if I use these points for travel instead of gift cards, I get an extra 25%. I happily purchased a roundtrip ticket to New York for this winter and plan on using my remaining points to pay for my flights within Europe when I go back in Summer 2016.

12. Sign up for Frequent Flyer Miles

Again… Free money. Or rather, free flights. Signing up for these bonus accounts doesn’t cost you anything, and maybe at first you won’t have that many miles on your account. But if you sign up now, you’ll start building up and it will eventually add up to something that can make a huge difference for you! And don’t just sign up for one, because you fly on more than one airline. Sign up for all the airlines you fly! You never know when it could end up benefiting you. I currently have 4 Flyer accounts and plan on signing up for any new airlines that I end up flying.

13. Make foreign friends 

Meeting people, making friends, and building relationships is one of the greatest things about traveling. The fact that these relationships you build are with people from all over the world is just the icing on the cake. You can learn so much just from spending time with people from other countries and cultures. Something that I find so interesting about friendships I’ve made during travel is that you can get so close to people so quickly and feel like you’ve known them for so long, when it’s really only been a few days. Maybe it’s because you spend so much time together in such a short period of time, or maybe it’s because people traveling all have a different mindset from the typical, but whatever it is, I love it. But what can foreign friends do to help your tight travel budget? They can let you crash at their place if you’re ever in their neck of the woods! The last thing I say to everyone I become friends with as we’re saying goodbye is “If you’re ever in California, you know you’ve got a place to stay with me.” All my friends I’ve met through travel know that they can absolutely crash on my couch, and I’m sure the same applies for me if I’m ever in their home country.

14. Don’t pay for cabs

You’ve just gotten off your flight, it’s late, it’s dark, and you just want to get to the hostel? Yes, take a cab. You’re running late to somewhere that you’re supposed to be on time? Yes, take a cab. You don’t want to walk to the tram stop? Don’t take a cab. In fact, if you don’t want to walk to the tram stop, why are you traveling? There is no traveling without walking. At least not in my experiences. Do not waste your money on overly priced cabs. Cab drivers are constantly ripping off young, naive travelers like you and me. When you take public transportation, you’re getting a much more realistic feel of city life wherever you’re at. But even better than taking public transportation is WALKING. If you’re going somewhere that is in reasonable walking distance, and you aren’t on a time crunch, WALK. You not only don’t spend money on even the cheapest tram or metro, but you get to absorb the city in a way that would be impossible in a quick moving vehicle or especially underground. When you walk, you can take in everything around you, and really appreciate the foreign area you’re in. And if you see a cute little bookstore or park or something? Awesome, take a detour. Definitely can’t do that on public transport. Also, walking is great exercise!

15. Bring your student ID

Many places that charge an entrance fee will give either free or discounted entrance to people with a student ID card!

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