This year we have hiked out of the Himalayas, stayed in a tribal village in Northeast India, ate our way through Malaysia, followed our hearts and made our dreams a reality. All with a year’s savings.
We’ve spent 5000 euros in 6 months for the both of us including flights, visas, accommodation, food, transport and anything in between, averaging to 27 euro a day. This is far below what we had originally budgeted for and we will therefore be able to travel for much longer with just our savings!
Do you want to know how we did it? Here are our top 10 money saving tips to travel cheap:
1. Choose your destination wisely
Cheap countries allow for cheap travel
Not all countries allow for low-cost travel. To get an idea of how much it may cost you to travel around a certain part of the world you can check this website, or look for cost breakdowns of people that have taken a similar trip to the one you wish to take. We, for example, send a breakdown of expenditures by country to all our email subscribers LINK.
Don’t forget the visa fees
When considering which countries you want to travel to, you have to take into account visa costs. Your passport privilege, or lack thereof, will really make a difference. India, for example, is a country that is known for being cheap to travel in. However, our last trip there, cost us 280 euros for a 3 month tourist visa (even though we had applied for 6 months). It was painful. Malaysia, on the other hand, was completely free to enter for the same amount of time.
If you’re flexible, there are probably interesting countries you can travel to without additional costs. And whilst you may still want to visit a country regardless of the visa challenges and fees, this cost is something to consider.
Different areas, different costs
Having arrived in your destination of choice, take into account that not all parts of the country cost the same. Whilst in some cases, traveling to less touristy areas can mean a significant drop in costs (local transportation and food without jacked up “tourist tax” can save you a lot), this is not always the case.
In our last trip to India, we decided to go to the remoter areas of the north-east. Being more difficult to access, traveling through Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya, often implied more expensive transportation. Furthermore, accommodation options were often less varied and more expensive than the rest of India. Our prior research had prepared us for this, and in the end it was totally worth it. But it’s something worth noting.
Avoid touristic spots
Once in location you should generally avoid spending money in tourist hot spots. Whether in Venice or Kuala Lumpur, the areas popular with tourists tend to be more expensive, especially for food and drinks, and often less “authentic”.
I’m not saying to skip them all together – these areas are normally popular for a reason – but don’t spend the bulk of your time there. Basically go, see what there is to see, and then leave to spend your money somewhere else. As the Dutch would say: “kijken, kijken, niet kopen” (look, look, don’t buy).
2. Be flexible and travel slow
The more fixed your travel plans are – because of having to go to a specific destination, fixed dates, or wanting a rigid itinerary – the more expensive your trip is likely to be. Flexibility is key when wanting to travel cheap.
Being willing to take that train in the middle of the night, waiting for the cheapest flights, altering your route and dates to be out of tourist season… adapting to what saves you most money, can really be a game changer.
Low season is the best season
Do your research beforehand to see if traveling in low season is still worthwhile. Many travelers, for example, avoid countries during monsoon at all cost, scared of constant bad weather. But there is normally no need to fear. Monsoon seasons vary wherever you are, even for different parts of the country (the small island Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons), and in most countries it only rains for two hours or less a day, leaving you the rest of the day to explore.
Take it slow
A key way to being flexible and thus travel cheap, is to travel slow. Whilst staying longer in a place and not constantly moving around you save a lot of money on transport costs, which is a fair share of your expenses whilst traveling. You can also get better deals on accommodation when staying for longer periods of time.In addition, you get a better understanding of a particular place and therefore a better understanding of how to cut back on costs in these places. Only after a couple of days you’ll figure out how the locals live, the cheapest shops and restaurants to go to, and the places’ do’s and don’ts to save you money. This local knowledge will bring your daily spendings down to a minimum.
From skipping agency fees when booking your tickets, to saving on that expensive guided tour, doing things yourself can save you tons of money. And with the wonders of the internet at your hands, it doesn’t take much to figure things out about your next destination.
Avoid agencies and guided tours
The best rule of thumb is to avoid anything with agencies or tour guides. They are always more expensive. We have seen travelers lose money countless times, relying on third parties to organise or book even the simplest parts of their trips.
It may seem convenient to book your train tickets through your hotel, instead of having to figure out a complicated online system or go to the station yourself, but the fact is that all these minute fees, that may seem like nothing at the time, sum up to a lot when traveling long term.
Don’t buy guidebooks
You don’t need to buy an expensive guidebook to tell you where to go or where to eat. Online reviews and simple searches like ‘what to see in…’, already give you necessary general information. And many hotels and hostels already have copies for you to browse through.
In some cases, it has helped us to read posts of travel bloggers before exploring a place. A good travel blogger (be wary, there’s a lot of bluffing out there) can tell you of interesting spots to visit, free or cheap things to do, and give you a more honest review of the must sees and the places to skip. Written in a booklet or an Instagram post, idealised language and downright lies (everyone claims to be discovering hidden gems nowadays) can be easy to fall for. We try not to guide ourselves too much by what others have experienced, or claim to have anyways.
Online reviews to the rescue
Want to find somewhere good to eat without risking it? It is easy to find a recommended restaurant online. We scan Happycow for all the vegetarian and vegan delights, and if that doesn’t work it always helps to just google ‘vegetarian/vegan restaurants in…’.
We don’t always book somewhere to sleep in advance. But we always do a bit of online research to have an idea of the prices and conditions we can expect for accommodation. This, not only prevents us getting scammed (see tip 7), but also makes it easier to know what we are looking for when finding the cheapest options available. In those places where bargaining is a given, it would be difficult to do so without any prior knowledge.
An easy way to keep track of all those must-see sights, shops and restaurants, is to mark and save them on Google maps or MapsMe. If you don’t have data, just make sure to download the offline map to your phone, so you always know where you are and where to go next.
To organise everything and plan out your own trip, may take more time and effort, but if you have the possibility, use it to your advantage and save those extra bucks in the process. You might just become more resourceful and get a new sense of ownership over your travels!
4. Accept peoples generosity
We’ve been blessed with peoples’ generosity and kindness aplenty whilst traveling. In India, we were welcomed into 4 homes where we stayed for days on end (covering more than a month of free accommodation). In Sri Lanka we also stayed a couple of nights at a friends’ home and our last week in the home of a lovely older couple who took us in.
We’ve also been driven places when hitch hiking, and been invited to tea, snacks and full on meals, countless times. These people took us in, even though they barely knew us, they made us feel at home, like we were part of the family, they fed us and took us around, and ultimately made our experience of traveling through those countries that much better. Some of our fondest memories are with them, and for that we’ll forever be grateful.
Coming from Europe, where random strangers are not usually as welcoming, it can feel weird to accept someone’s invitation, as if you’re taking advantage in a way. We’ve definitely dealt with these feelings of guilt. But it’s important to realise that it is okay to accept people’s generosity. In fact, it’s beautiful to acknowledge and foment kindness. Welcome it, and return it.
You may feel like you’ll never be able to repay the kindness you receive, but you can always do something in return. If the gesture of buying them a small present doesn’t feel like enough, show you care in other ways. We have offered our time, skills, knowledge and know how, and helped with whatever we could when allowed to contribute.
Kindness is contagious. These experiences are bound to make you feel more welcome, appreciated and grateful. They will instigate real connections, ultimately creating a beautiful chain reaction that has nothing to do with money.
5. Alternative accommodation options
A big chunk of the money spent whilst traveling is on finding the right place to sleep in. Having a small budget often translates into small, cramped, uncomfortable or basic accommodation. But it doesn’t always have to be like that. By exploring all options of accommodations (both online and on the spot), we have been able to sleep in beautiful places that were both (fairly) comfortable and cheap.
Dorms are not the only option
We personally no longer stay in shared dorm rooms (too old for that shit), but that doesn’t mean things have become more expensive for us. Besides the standard hotels and backpacker hostels, there are many guest houses and home-stays available. Weirdly enough, we have found many places offer a double bedroom (sometimes including a private bathroom) for cheaper than what two beds in a dorm would cost. Besides these, there are also more creative/less obvious places to stay in, which could save you a lot of money.
Look outside the box
Our favourite alternative accommodation is definitely house/pet sitting. Being able to have all the luxuries and amenities of a home, whilst taking care of an adorable furry being, is a dream come true for us. However, before considering this option remember, you’ll be responsible for someone else’s home and pet, and this is not to be taken lightly.
Other options include:
- Couchsurfing – we’ve both traveled a lot like this and have great stories to account for it;
- Short-term rentals – usually much cheaper if you’re staying in a place for longer periods of time;
- Camping – in countries where free camping is allowed like Norway, it can mean saving a lot;
- And if you’re willing to work in return for a free place to stay (sometimes also free meals), look into volunteer exchanges like Woofing and Workaway.
You can also save on a few nights of accommodation by using (public) transport overnight when moving places. This is a good solution for long trips – if you are not a light sleeper – as they pass by quicker and save you that night’s accommodation fee. Just make sure its a safe option wherever you are traveling!
Whilst we still stay at our fair share of less than ideal hotel rooms, we have managed to strike a balance and find nice, comfortable places to sleep in without braking the bank.
6. Living like the locals
Use public transport
We travel by local transport wherever we can. This sometimes means hard, long trips that leave us tired and sore-bummed. Or being slightly confused/lost in a city we don’t know. But also, the rides can be beautiful, enjoying the scenery whilst socialising with local passengers and seeing daily life go by. Regardless, using local transportation is a great way to travel cheap.
Local or home made food
Where we don’t mind spartan accommodation and transport, food is a very important part of our life. No skipping meals or crap fast food for us if we can help it. Instead, we try to find a good balance between healthy home cooked meals and going out for local food, that doesn’t hurt our limited budget.
When eating out, we save a lot by eating in small food stalls on the street and restaurants outside of the touristic heart of a place. And although we love trying veggie burgers in every country we visit, we stick as much as possible to what the local cuisine has to offer. More traditional plant-based meals tend to be tastier, made with local ingredients, and cheaper.
And in more expensive places, make your own food! Cooking at your hotel, hostel or Airbnb saves a lot of money and is generally a bit more healthy (when you cook right of course) than the cheap food of the streets. We try to balance our street eats with a fair share of self-made meals or quick snacks.
As for our groceries, we buy the produce in street stalls or markets that sell seasonal and local. We avoid the more expensive supermarkets at all costs. Buying in bulk also allows us to get the quantities we need, without having to throw away anything or carry our leftover food with us the next day, thus saving us money in the process.
No drinks for us
Now this may be unpopular, but another way to save a lot of money is by limiting or, even better, completely cutting out your consumption of alcoholic drinks (and smoking and drugs for that matter). In many countries, that chilly bear or tasty cocktail can cost you a pretty penny. In the Perhetian Islands (Malaysia), for example, a can off beer cost as much as a whole meal.
We also try to skip having drinks with our meals, or buying more expensive soft drinks, water bottles and juices in stores and roadside stalls all-together. Refillable water bottle to the rescue! This may not be for everyone, but it is a guaranteed way to save a lot when trying to travel for cheap.
7. Better safe than sorry
Preparation is key
Imagine going on that early morning climb up the hill to see a temple, only to get there and realise you don’t have anything with you to quench your thirst or hunger. Luckily there is a stall, but everything costs double. That’s when we take out our prepped snacks and drinks and simply focus on enjoying the sunrise.
It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised on how much tourists are spending because of not thinking ahead and being prepared. And a good packing list has a lot to do with not making this same mistake. Be it through free purified water or the cheap soap bars that last months on end, make sure your backpack/suitcase is filled with useful items that help you travel cheaper. Our travel essentials are really important in aiding us to travel sustainably, but also help us save a lot of money daily.
Knowledge is also an important part of being prepared. Because of that, we try to always get a local SIM card* when staying in a country for longer periods of time. It gives us the possibility to navigate, stay connected and research the local do’s and don’ts, available transport, restaurants and accommodation, etc. It also makes us feel more in control and safe.
*We normally don’t get the SIM cards offered at airports or any other point of arrival in a country. These cards are made for tourists and cost a lot more than local ones.
Don’t get scammed!
Obviously, no one wants to be the victim of a big extortion scheme that obliterates your savings. We’ve heard too many a crazy story of dishonest taxi drivers and fake travel agencies that cost unsuspecting newbies a couple of hundred euros (in addition to the upset and frustration).
But anyone is susceptible to being ripped off in unfamiliar cities or countries, even experienced travellers. Not knowing how much a bus ticket costs, the real prices of groceries on the street, or how something works, makes you an easy target. Paying that extra “tourist tax” quickly sets your budget back much more than you could imagine, and worse yet, it promotes the wrong behaviour, benefiting touts and cheats.
The best way to limit these scams is by being informed and prepared. Check and compare prices – the sooner you have a general idea of how much accommodation, transport and food should cost, the better for your wallet – ask helpful locals or other travellers for advice/recommendations, and make use of helpful apps like Google Apps, MapsMe or Uber (equivalents are sometime even better) to always be in control of where you are. Make sure to do your research before heading out somewhere new, read up on any warnings from fellow travellers, stay alert and keep safe.
Unexpected costs can really derail your budget. Our laptop’s motherboard broke because corrosion after visiting a very humid area in India, and we both got infected with a rare skin fungus in Sri Lanka that needed to be treated in a private hospital. Shit happens, regardless of how careful and safe you are whilst traveling.
We can therefore not stress enough how important it is to have a good travel insurance, that actually covers you for what could happen on the road. Make sure you do a fair amount of research and cautiously go through multiple insurance policies before choosing the best one for you. And although the initial cost may be painful (like several months budget painful), you will for sure be grateful you have it to lay back on when everything seems to be going against you.
In general, we would also recommend to never think about money when it comes to safety and health. It’s way more important to take care of yourself. And being stingy in a potentially risky situation can cost you much more than you think. Better safe than sorry.
8. You can’t do everything – Be frugal
Visiting a famous landmark can cost you a significant part of your budget, whilst finding a lesser-known view point from which to enjoy said landmark, with a spectacular sunset, may be completely free. And skipping on that pricy organised canyoning morning, can mean you get to enjoy a couple more days of stay in that cool village you’ve stumbled upon.
You may have to skip out on some of the places and sights a country has to offer, because they are too costly to visit (expensive entry tickets, guides and surrounding accommodation) or too expensive to reach (pricy boat rides, four-wheel drive etc). It can be difficult with all the cool things the world has to offer, and when the FOMO creeps in. But realising you can’t do/buy everything your heart desires, will pay out in the long run.
This doesn’t mean you have to cut back on everything. You are of course out to discover the world, and there will be sights and activities you wont want to miss out on. It’s not about an all or nothing approach. Just be realistic about your expenditures and keep your choices limited to what will be worth it in the long run.
Traveling the way we do, has meant many times having to look away when something pretty caught my eye, sleeping in some less than ideal rooms, and skipping that diving day trip that cost a fortune. But looking back, I don’t think about all the things I “had to give up”.
On the contrary. I’m just grateful for all the delicious food we’ve had because of going to small local eateries, all the places we’ve discovered because of spending our days roaming around instead of enjoying a luxurious room, and all the cool things we’ve done because of looking for an alternative way to entertain ourselves.
9. Keep track of all your costs.
You wont know what you can save money on unless you know where your money is going. Keeping track of all your costs, no matter how small they are, is key. Even seemingly insignificant expenses start to add up over time. Being aware of how much you’re spending will make cutting unnecessary costs and saving up easier.
Like this is how we realised in past trips that we were loosing a considerable amount of money on ATM fees and exchange rates. We now have a Mastercard that allows us to withdraw money for free 5 times a month, and with no extra charges on the exchange rates. So make sure to do your research beforehand and choose the best card for you.
We use two apps to keep track of our expenses:
- In Trail Wallet we write down every cent we spend and categorise it. It gives you an overview of the total sum spent that day, the amount of days you are already traveling and the average expense per day. The app is not free if you want to use it extensively, but it was totally worth the 4 euros it costs.
- Since for us the previous app shows cost in euros, we also have the app Currency foreign exchange to calculate foreign currencies back to euros (or any other currency).
We had originally set a daily budget of fifty euro a day for both of us, including all cost (flights, visas etc.). Within a couple of months we figured that we were doing much better than expected and brought our daily budget down to 26-27 euros a day. Every day spending less than the 27 euros was a small victory, and we became more creative in how to save. This has given us the confidence to travel for much longer.
Pro tip: When traveling to cheaper destinations than your home country make sure you don’t justify expenses because of calculating prices back to your local currency. When things look surprisingly cheaper than what you are used to, you easily start spending more. But even the smallest expenses will add up over time and jack up your daily budget if you are not careful.
10. Splurge on what’s important
If you’ve made it till here, you’re well aware that we do a lot of things to save money whilst on the road. But travelling as cheap as us doesn’t always mean cutting back on everything that costs money. We also think it’s really important to feel free to splurge on what makes you truly happy. After-all, it is about living your dreams to the fullest.
We make sure to spend all that extra cash we’ve saved up on things that really matter to us. For example, when rescuing kitty Purrito in India, and puppy Waggy in Sri Lanka, we didn’t think twice about the costs related to their well being and recovery (they were both very sick when we found them). There were days we spent more on their food than our own (seriously, meat and packaged pet food can be expensive in some places!), and there are no regrets there whatsoever.
We’ve also splurged on things like visiting national parks, nice dinners, and other special activities. This trip, we spent three days in a cool apartment in Kuala Lumpur just so we could make use of its rooftop infinity pool. We didn’t do much more than watch Netflix, swim and relax. It was just what we needed at that moment, and we still look back happily, without thinking of what it cost us.
Be sure to take care of yourself. Whilst traveling, as in every day life, you can have days, or even weeks, in which you’re just a bit done with it all. Treat yourself in these moments with a bit more luxury, a fancy meal or an activity that is just a bit more expensive than you would normally go for.
Saving up should not become a goal in itself; traveling is still about enjoying life and having fun.
All photographs were taken in Malacca, Malaysia