This is a 6-part short series on how to be a frequent traveller. This chapter talks about the most famous topic: how to travel on a budget. After 5 years of travel, living in 6 continents and travelling to over 60 countries, these are my tips and lessons on travelling on a budget.
Be On Budget
This is not a consequence, this is a prescription. By traveling the world, I met people from very different backgrounds. Some of them very successful and rich, some of them a bit less. There is no right or wrong, some people enjoy the luxuries of fancy hotels while others prefer the more local experience. We share about the latter: living on a budget by going local.
Go local, have the best experiences, pay less, make friends, see them later in various places. Have good experience, save, become good at it, and can travel longer. Everything is linked. More often than not, true friendship and good experiences have no price tag.
A special part for transportation hassles, which are a very good way to discover a country and make friends. Staying 2 days on the slowest boat ever in Laos was one of my best experience in Asia. I also found hosts in Bali by meeting people on a boat. You never know where adventures take you when you go local.
Unlike commonly admitted, in most countries, it is NOT disrespectful at all. Local actually expect you to do it. In general, it all depends on the way you behave. If you smile, use a bit of second-degree humor and buy in bulk, you will often make good deals. Eg:
- Safari in Tanzania for 280usd instead of 400usd
- Machu Picchu for 65usd instead of 90usd
- Various souvenirs from a shop in Mexico City, for 25usd instead of 45usd
A good starting point in tourist shops is to divide the price by two, and then start the talking. It might seem crazy, but it works! Always roam around a place, asking prices of what you want to a few places so that you have an idea of the market prices and the leverage you can have.
Everything can be bargained, as long as you are confident enough to do so. Tours, taxi rides, souvenirs, bus rides, hotels, hostels, exchange rates and sometimes even airfares. In Tanzania, Australia or Myanmar, airlines use small turboprop planes that they are willing to fill no matter what.
The Concept of Extra Cost
If you feel like you’re spending too much, consider the concept of “extra”. You’re very likely being tempted to do something unique, for example, a bungee jump, a scuba diving trip, a sports-car driving session, a volcano climb or tailor-made dress-suit! Here are some steps to follow:
- Ask yourself: how much would this cost in your country?
- Convert into your home currency: remember that some thousands of Korean Won, tens of thousands of Burmese Khiat, hundreds of thousands of Tanzanian Shilling or millions of Vietnamese Dong? They convert to less than 100usd!
- Develop the notion of “global cost”: consider that you NEED that dress-suit or this trek, then compute the price gap and start to believe that you are actually saving some money! Because you are saving money.
- Visualize yourself 10 years from now, and think about how you will feel about you doing/not doing, and buying/not buying what you want now. About how you feel about going to Tanzania, arguably the best place in the world for safaris, without doing a safari cause it’s 300 USD. Is a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth 300usd? Your call!
Still doesn’t work out? Then ask yourself how many lives do you have. As far as I am concerned, I have only one, and I don’t want to have a single regret on my deathbed! Prices are meant to be forgotten, memories remain.
Optimization VS Greediness
For most people: Days travelled x daily expenses = Total budget
Which is totally fine. Each parameter is clearly defined: they have X days of holidays and they have Y USD total budget, so they can easily compute their daily budget, and make choices accordingly. Fair enough.
In our case, Trevellers often have a quite wide timeframe. Then, what if the number of “days travelled” is not defined, and somehow trends toward “unlimited”? The paradigm is much different, isn’t it? In that case, with a steady budget, the only way to make it last longer is to cut on the daily expenses. And do it wisely, based on what I said above.
In that case, not taking beverage at the restaurant to save 3usd, or going for a “Netflix & Chill” instead of going to the cinema to 15 USD makes sense.
- 3 USD, it’s two full meal in Tanzania
- 15usd is a day trip to Laguna 69 in the Peruvian Andes.
- Why paying 700 USD for a Lima – Paris non-stop flight, when you can stop in New York on the way, and spend 3 days there, for 200usd less?
- Why pay $1800 for an 8-day Kilimanjaro climb in Tanzania, when you can get $200 for the Huayhuash Trek in Peru, which is as higher and more beautiful?
You’re not being greedy, you’re being smart and rational. And that’s because you’re smarter and make wiser choices than most people, that you can travel further, longer, wiser, and have a more exciting life than most people.
Master both international languages: Smile and US Dollar
What is the most basic interaction between two people, internationally used understood? Smile! Whether you’re facing a baby, and arrogant taxi driver, an old lady selling fruits, or an annoying customs officer who can very well ruin your entire trip, remember they are human beings just like you.
If someone asks you a question, a favor, or needs your help for whatever reason, how do you react if he/she is an arrogant asshole? If she/is an easy-going and smiling person? I think you got the point.
If this doesn’t work out, plan B: this is pretty lame to say, but it’s nonetheless very true. While backpacking, there are few problems, if any, that you cannot solve with a genuine smile or a couple of magic green Uncle Sam’s banknotes! Whether we want it or not,
US Dollars are what makes the world spinning. It’s especially true in South America and Africa. This is far from a perfect world. But if there is one thing that every human being on earth will distinguish and recognize for sure, it’s not the Cristian cross, the Islamic croissant or a can of Coca-Cola, no, it’s the lovely smile of Lincoln printed on an appealing green piece of paper.
If you’re in trouble, if you’re in the mountains with no ATM within 100 miles for example, with no way to get a ride anywhere, whatever people will tell you, they will accept your dollars, even in the middle of Iran. Always carry at least a 100 US dollar with you, and keep them in good condition, dry, not folded, with no holes. In some places, like Myanmar, Cambodia or Cuba, it’s not only about what’s written on the bill, it’s about its condition too, otherwise, their value will be lowered. If your bills are not, just iron them! If you don’t have enough bills, learn more about funding your trip.
Travelling expensively has changed me, even shaped me in a way. I am very keen to share this experience with people, from all backgrounds: people willing to start travelling, or doing it even more often, wiser or in a more sustainable way. I have received more help, friendships and kindness that I would have expected. For me, this is a way for me to give back, to help people in return, to inspire beginners.