Budget Travel the Jamie Z Way
I have been a budget traveler as long as I have been a traveler. Mostly out of necessity, but also because budget travel conveniently coincides with the type of travel I like to do. Namely, I like to be as much a part of the local culture as I can. I donít envy for a moment the people who spend thousands on an all-expense-paid tour. I have little desire to stay in a lavish luxury hotel. And I think carrying everything including the kitchen sink is wasteful.
Not only are luxury options expensive, but they generally distance the traveler from the very place he wants to visit. How can you enjoy Mexico while soaking in a hot tub at the Hilton? Do you meet any locals at the five-star restaurant? Living and eating like a local is not only usually cheaper, but provides more opportunities for local experiences.
This document provides my opinions of budget travel. The advice here isnít absolute, but rather itís the Jamie Z Wayô to visit new places on the cheap. My experiences have provided me the means to refine my tips and techniques, though I welcome new ideas.
The ideas in this document are often US-centric. I have traveled for cheap in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia, but the majority of my time on the road is in the United States. There are some things in here which may not apply elsewhere in the world. Iíve tried to include international advice when I can, but often Iím not familiar enough to be an expert.
Many of my tips involve relying on the friendliness of strangers. It should go without saying that whenever approaching someone, you should be warm and kind. If youíre on a motorcycle or bicycle, remove your helmet and gloves. Greet the person and introduce yourself. Tell them about yourself and include them in your adventure. Be straight-forward and honest. No need to make up a story about being down and out or poor. Itíll fall on deaf ears. If youíre traveling, you obviously have some money. My experience shows that people like to help others who donít require it, and theyíll shy away from someone desperate. One technique I find works well is to let the person offer to help you, rather than asking for it directly. For example, you might speak with a guy who has a very large back yard and ask him if he knows any good place you could set up a tent for the night.
All prices are relative. Because something seems cheap doesnít mean there isnít a cheaper alternative across the street. When I was traveling with some other backpackers in Peru, we all agreed to find an inexpensive lunch. The first place we stopped offered $4 meals, and everyone thought that was a good price. What they didnít know is that Iíd been traveling in Peru for a month and that was the most costly lunch yet. Shop around.
Night-time accommodations are often the largest chunk of any travelerís budget, so itís here we begin. Itís easy to travel around many parts of the world and spend $100+ per day on hotels alone. In the US itís difficult to find a room costing less than $40/night. It only takes a little effort to spend almost nothing.
A tent is the first and most obvious alternative to staying in a hotel. A decent tent should be part of any budget travelerís gear. Smaller tents are inherently cheaper and lighter, so you should shop for the smallest tent in which you are comfortable. For me and my gear a two-person tent is more than adequate. If you are a couple, a two- or three-person tent should be the most youíll need. A freestanding tent will give you more options when you make camp. Iíve camped on hard-pack dirt and concrete where a fixed tent with stakes and lines would never stand. Freestanding tents are easier to clean (just pick it up and shake it out) and can be set up and then moved to another location. Also, a dark color is more inconspicuous.
I know some diehards will cringe, but I recommend going without a ground sheet. The extra weight, cost, and complexity of a ground sheet are not worth the minor gains in protecting the bottom of your tent.
Where to camp? Most people think of a campground when they picture a tent, and a campground is a good place to stay. In the US, there are scores of state parks which offer tent camping, although prices have risen drastically in the past few years. Tent camping in some state parks can cost as much as $20 per night. National Parks are similarly expensive. Theyíre after the retirement dollars of full-time RVers and the prices reflect it. Some parks offer ďprimitiveĒ tent camping for less. For cheaper alternatives to expensive parks, look for small county or city parks. Or stop and ask a park ranger if there is any out of the way place you can set up your tent. I had a ranger in a $12/night state park in Tennessee once tell me that if I went down a particular gravel road, I could camp for free in one of the little pull-outs.
Try this tip I used in an expensive campground: find a small group already camping and ask if you can set up your tent off to the side. Good way to make friends. When I did this outside Nashville, I ended up with dinner and a couple of beers; I gave them some chocolate.
Private campgrounds such as KOA and the many mom and pop places tend to be more expensive than parks but frequently offer more amenities. Sometimes itís possible to ask the proprietor if you can simply set up your tent somewhere if you donít plan to use the electric or septic hookups.
There are lots of (usually free) other places to set up your tent outside of campgrounds. Some suggestions: behind a church, behind a cemetery, off the side of the road, behind a warehouse or other large building. There are countless places you can conceal a tent. Just look around. Experience helps.
If youíre staying in your tent all the time, you might start to wonder about bathing. Itís not hard to find a shower. State parks often have a bathhouse which is open to the public during the daytime. Alternately, stop at a small hotel mid-morning and ask if you can take a shower in one of the rooms which havenít yet been cleaned. Offer a couple dollars for the housekeeper. Itís an unusual request, but most hotel owners wonít mind.
The most rewarding sleeping option is to ask a local if you can set up a tent on his property. A key here is to use the phrase ďset up a tentĒ instead of ďcamp.Ē Emphasize that youíre merely looking for a place to sleep; ďcampingĒ in the US has the connotation of partying all night with beer and a bonfire. When Iíve asked permission to set up my tent, a lot of people ask me if itís just me, or if there are more people. Sometimes your host will offer a bed, shower, laundry services, dinner, or beer. You get a place to stay, and they get a great story to tell their friends and family.
If you have a schedule before you set out on your adventure, you can find places to stay beforehand through websites like couchsurfing.com. More informally, you can meet other like-minded folks through the forums of other websites. Iíve stayed with fellow geocachers and hosted another motorcyclist who emailed me through advrider.com. Donít forget long-lost relatives who live in far away places.
I stay in a hotel now and then. Itís a nice treat, or when I canít find a good camping place due to weather or other factors. The best tip for finding a budget room is to shop around. If your situation allows, stop at two or three different hotels to check prices and look at the rooms. If a place is out of your budget, tell the clerk itís a little more than you need and ask if there is something a little cheaper nearby. Most will point you to a less expensive option down the road. What I find rarely works is to ask for a discount. One hotel owner offered to knock a dollar off the $36 rate. Worth asking, though.
Budget hotel prices vary broadly worldwide. The cheapest room I ever had in the US was around $20, which is more than the most expensive room I had in Mexico. In many developing countries, you can find budget rooms in the range of $5-$10 per night. Youth Hostels, if available, are inexpensive and usually cleaner than comparably priced hotels. Theyíre a great option even if you arenít a youth. A guidebook such as Lonely Planet will help you find a hostel or other inexpensive room.
Another big slice of the budget pie is eating. Thereís no such thing as a free lunch, but I can help you minimize your food costs.
Letís cover some easy stuff first. Donít buy bottles of water. You know those 16 oz containers that everyone carries around? Individual bottles cost more than a dollar and some people I know buy several per day. You can buy a gallon jug of water at almost any grocery store for less than a dollar. Buying bottles of water is eight times more expensive. Iíve found that one gallon containers seem to be the sweet spot for buying water. Smaller containers are more expensive. Carry a Nalgene or other water bottle to drink from. Youíre doing a good deed for the environment this way, too.
But wait, thereís more. If youíre traveling in the US or other developed country, water is free. Yes, absolutely free. Carry an empty gallon jug and fill it up at any spigot you see. Donít worry, the water supply in a modern developed country is vigorously guarded and tested. I have crossed the United States by canoe and bicycle, and spent almost nothing on drinks, filling up at spigots, water fountains, and bathroom sinks. If you want flavor, carry powdered Gatorade or Tang.
Think of it this way; what if gasoline were available almost anywhere for free, or nearly free, yet people paid $4 and $5 a gallon for it anyway. Wouldnít you think that was crazy? Same deal for water.
In general, the best way to keep the cost of eating down is to cook for yourself. By carrying a small stove, you can shop at any grocery store at a fraction of the cost of eating in a restaurant. Unfortunately, I havenít been able to master this technique on my own and canít offer much specific advice. When I travel, my limit is to eat out for one meal per day, I eat cold or dry grocery store food otherwise.
Eating out doesnít have to be expensive if you donít want it to be. The first rule of eating in a restaurant: donít order a drink. Ask for water, or bring in your own. A drink can add 20-30% to a budget meal. Those dollars add up fast. Take your leftovers if you canít finish the whole plate. Makes for a good snack later.
When choosing a place to eat, as when looking for a hotel, shop around. Ask to see the menu and donít be afraid to turn around if the prices are too high. Thank the wait staff and tell them itís more than you want to spend, no big deal.
In less developed countries, street-side stands are some of the cheapest places to eat. In Mexico I was able to find a plate of tacos for $2-$3. In Peru, many small eateries had a plate-of-the-day for as little as a dollar or two, including drink. Thatís where the locals go. Look around.
If youíre like me and not carrying a stove, there are many cold or dry items available from a grocery store. Fruit is generally quite cheap, especially bananas. Apples are inexpensive and travel well. Look for local fruit stands along the road. In Florida, I bought several pounds of strawberries for a couple of dollars. There were strawberry fields as far as I could see and it was picking time.
Loaf bread doesnít pack well, but look for bagels, hamburger buns, or flour tortillas. Peanut butter and honey last forever and are energy dense. Be aware that outside the US peanut butter can be hard to find. Cans of tuna fish are cheap; be sure to carry a P-38 to open them. For tuna fish sandwiches, pick up handfuls of mayonnaise packets at nearly any deli or gas station condiment counter. Grab some jelly packets if they have them, too. No refrigeration required. Granola bars (the chewy kind donít crumble) make a good instant breakfast, better when you spread peanut butter on top.
Getting around is another expense that canít be entirely avoided. You canít travel without going someplace. Transportation costs vary all over the world, and depend highly on your mode of travel. The most useful advice is do what the locals do.
In the United States for example, even bus travel is surprisingly expensive. And the price of a taxi is ridiculous. Most people drive their own car in the US because gas is fairly inexpensive and distances are long. In other countries, bus or train travel is the rule; look for the regular routes, as opposed to tourist-only options which usually cost much more but go to the same place.
If youíre driving yourself, the best you can do is to drive a fuel efficient vehicle, keep it in good maintenance, and keep your speed and jackrabbit starts reasonable. Toll roads almost always have a free alternative.
Flying is almost universally expensive. Other, more unusual modes of transportation such as by boat should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around. I donít have much experience hitching, but Iíve met several people who successfully travel this way. A friend who lives in Michigan thumbed his way home from Louisiana while toting a 17-foot kayak! A European I met in Mexico had crisscrossed Central America almost exclusively by hitchhiking. Itís good courtesy to offer a few dollars to the driver for gas. For more success while hitchhiking, keep yourself and your gear clean (and clean shaven) and presentable. Make your distance goals conservative. Donít stand on a corner in San Francisco holding a sign which says ďNew York.Ē Tell the driver youíre trying to get 20 or 30 miles down the road, and youíll be surprised how many of them bring you much farther once they learn youíre not a crazy hobo. I carried the above-mentioned European 1000 km over three days after picking him up and enjoying his company.
Walking is a good way to get around a small city to see the sights. Itís free, good exercise, and youíre among the local population. The slower pace helps you find things you might miss in a vehicle.
The rule for gear is bring less. Less gear is short for less-gear-to-lose. Aside from the inherent money savings from not having to buy as much gear, carrying fewer items is an indirect method of budget travel.
When traveling light, you can move more quickly, your stuff fits in a small space, making sleeping arrangements and transportation easier, and people are more likely to help you if it looks like youíre not carrying everything you own.
Losing things costs money and is an inconvenience. By keeping your gear minimal and organized, you can limit the chances of losing things. When I pack, everything has a place and must fit inside my luggage. Iíve met several people who have lost or nearly lost poorly secured gear.
When doing laundry, count your items when you put them in the washer and then again when theyíre dry. Visually and manually inspect the machines; it only takes a second to feel the blind spot behind the door. You donít want to leave a sock in the washer. I lost a pair of underwear in Vienna, Austria when I didnít count my things when I picked them up at the cleaners. (Quick laundromat tip: you can often scrounge enough laundry detergent from the empties in the trash for a small load.)
If your equipment is organized, youíll know quickly if something is missing. Make a routine of packing up in the morning. Do it the same way each time. A checklist might be handy for this task. Not only does this make you more efficient, but youíll greatly decrease the chance of leaving something behind.
A habit Iíve started since my very first budget adventure is what I call the Ďonce over.í Pack up all your things. Don all your gear. Youíre just about ready to head out. If youíre in a car or motorcycle, pull away a short distance. Now stop and go back one last time and check around your campsite. When staying in a hotel pack up all your things then make one more trip back to the room and double check you didnít leave anything. I like to pull the blanket off the bed and shake it out. Itís incredibly easy to drop something small (and important) when loading up and youíd never know where it went.
When possible, use multi-purpose gear. For example, I carry a medium Nalgene bottle filled with Dawn dish soap. Use it in the shower, on my hair, clothes, dishes, and even my motorcycle. Instead of carrying both long pants and shorts, use convertible pants with zip-off pant legs. A stuff sack filled with clothes makes a good pillow.
The best things in life are free, and itís true when finding activities on the road. The corollary is that tourist traps cost the most and are over rated. If youíre like me, youíll find that your most memorable moments happen not when you buy an entry ticket, but when things come to youówhen you meet a friendly local or when you watch a storm blow over mountains youíve never seen. Enjoy what comes during your travels and youíll find that entertainment costs almost nothing.
That said, sometimes you just gotta see something cool. I spent half a dayís budget to tour the Josť Cuervo factory in Mexico (Did you know the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee is free?). And even tight-fisted Lonely Planet acknowledges that the $100 or $200 minimum needed to get to and tour Machu Picchu in Peru is worth the price. Feel free to splurge now and then, but donít let ĎIím on vacationí be an excuse to blow your travel dollars. Be wary of dual pricing, where tourists sometimes pay substantially more than locals.
Local museums, libraries, and churches are all inexpensive ways to view the history and culture of the area. Beaches, parks, and other places frequented by the local population are typically free. You never know who youíll meet.
Preparing for your trip is the first thing youíll do, but itís listed last here. Now that youíve read through the topics and picked up some ideas, itís time to plan. In order to successfully become a budget traveler, you must begin by planning like a budget traveler. Budget travel doesnít simply mean spending less money, it means giving yourself the tools to travel for less. Pick a route and destination which corresponds to your budget needs. All things being equal, it will cost you a lot more to go to Hawaii than Guatemala. The gear you pack should allow you to spend less: tent, cookware, durable clothing. Travel light so you can move efficiently. Budget travel is a thinking exercise, not a math problem.
A good guidebook can help with your planning as well as while on the road. I particularly like Lonely Planet and Moon guides. Other similar low-budget guidebooks are Letís Go, Fodor, and Frommerís. A guidebook will give you an inside edge; youíll have a list (and possibly a map) of some budget places to eat and sleep and things to do. To rely on signs and advertising, youíll often be directed to more expensive and usually tourist-oriented places.
If you find this document helpful, or have comments, new ideas, questions, or criticism, feel free respond here or via PM. I plan to update the PDF now and then.