Budget Travel the Jamie Z Way

Discussion in 'Trip Planning' started by Jamie Z, Feb 26, 2008.

  1. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    Over the course of meeting people and posting here in the forums, I've had a number of people respond positively to my idea to write a low budget travel article. Well, here it is.

    The article is available for download in PDF format. (Six pages, about one megabyte.)

    For convenience, I have copied and pasted the text of the article in the next post, although I think the PDF is cleaner and easier to read. I prefer that the PDF be the standard copy.

    As always, I'm open to discussion, suggestions, questions, criticism, and new ideas. I'll update the PDF occasionally.

    Jamie
    #1
  2. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    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 don’t 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 isn’t absolute, but rather it’s the Jamie Z Way™ 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. I’ve tried to include international advice when I can, but often I’m 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 you’re 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. It’ll fall on deaf ears. If you’re traveling, you obviously have some money. My experience shows that people like to help others who don’t require it, and they’ll 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 doesn’t mean there isn’t 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 didn’t know is that I’d been traveling in Peru for a month and that was the most costly lunch yet. Shop around.

    Sleeping
    Night-time accommodations are often the largest chunk of any traveler’s budget, so it’s here we begin. It’s easy to travel around many parts of the world and spend $100+ per day on hotels alone. In the US it’s 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 traveler’s 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 you’ll need. A freestanding tent will give you more options when you make camp. I’ve 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.

    [​IMG]

    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. They’re after the retirement dollars of full-time RVers and the prices reflect it. Some parks offer “primitive” 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 it’s possible to ask the proprietor if you can simply set up your tent somewhere if you don’t 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.

    [​IMG]

    If you’re staying in your tent all the time, you might start to wonder about bathing. It’s 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 haven’t yet been cleaned. Offer a couple dollars for the housekeeper. It’s an unusual request, but most hotel owners won’t 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 “set up a tent” instead of “camp.” Emphasize that you’re merely looking for a place to sleep; “camping” in the US has the connotation of partying all night with beer and a bonfire. When I’ve asked permission to set up my tent, a lot of people ask me if it’s 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. I’ve stayed with fellow geocachers and hosted another motorcyclist who emailed me through advrider.com. Don’t forget long-lost relatives who live in far away places.

    I stay in a hotel now and then. It’s a nice treat, or when I can’t 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 it’s 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. They’re a great option even if you aren’t a youth. A guidebook such as Lonely Planet will help you find a hostel or other inexpensive room.

    Eating
    Another big slice of the budget pie is eating. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but I can help you minimize your food costs.

    Let’s cover some easy stuff first. Don’t 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. I’ve 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. You’re doing a good deed for the environment this way, too.

    But wait, there’s more. If you’re 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. Don’t 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. Wouldn’t 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 haven’t been able to master this technique on my own and can’t 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 doesn’t have to be expensive if you don’t want it to be. The first rule of eating in a restaurant: don’t 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 can’t 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 don’t be afraid to turn around if the prices are too high. Thank the wait staff and tell them it’s 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. That’s where the locals go. Look around.

    If you’re 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 doesn’t 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 don’t crumble) make a good instant breakfast, better when you spread peanut butter on top.

    [​IMG]

    Transportation
    Getting around is another expense that can’t be entirely avoided. You can’t 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 you’re 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 don’t have much experience hitching, but I’ve 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. It’s 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. Don’t stand on a corner in San Francisco holding a sign which says “New York.” Tell the driver you’re trying to get 20 or 30 miles down the road, and you’ll be surprised how many of them bring you much farther once they learn you’re 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. It’s free, good exercise, and you’re among the local population. The slower pace helps you find things you might miss in a vehicle.

    Gear
    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 you’re 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. I’ve met several people who have lost or nearly lost poorly secured gear.

    [​IMG]

    When doing laundry, count your items when you put them in the washer and then again when they’re dry. Visually and manually inspect the machines; it only takes a second to feel the blind spot behind the door. You don’t want to leave a sock in the washer. I lost a pair of underwear in Vienna, Austria when I didn’t 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, you’ll 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 you’ll greatly decrease the chance of leaving something behind.

    A habit I’ve started since my very first budget adventure is what I call the ‘once over.’ Pack up all your things. Don all your gear. You’re just about ready to head out. If you’re 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 didn’t leave anything. I like to pull the blanket off the bed and shake it out. It’s incredibly easy to drop something small (and important) when loading up and you’d 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.

    Entertainment
    The best things in life are free, and it’s true when finding activities on the road. The corollary is that tourist traps cost the most and are over rated. If you’re like me, you’ll find that your most memorable moments happen not when you buy an entry ticket, but when things come to you—when you meet a friendly local or when you watch a storm blow over mountains you’ve never seen. Enjoy what comes during your travels and you’ll find that entertainment costs almost nothing.

    That said, sometimes you just gotta see something cool. I spent half a day’s budget to tour the José 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 don’t let ‘I’m on vacation’ be an excuse to blow your travel dollars. Be wary of dual pricing, where tourists sometimes pay substantially more than locals.

    [​IMG]

    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 you’ll meet.

    Planning
    Preparing for your trip is the first thing you’ll do, but it’s listed last here. Now that you’ve read through the topics and picked up some ideas, it’s time to plan. In order to successfully become a budget traveler, you must begin by planning like a budget traveler. Budget travel doesn’t 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 Let’s Go, Fodor, and Frommer’s. A guidebook will give you an inside edge; you’ll 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, you’ll 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.

    Jamie
    #2
  3. elmoreman

    elmoreman takin' a break, boss

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    Free camping in all national forests. you need to be something like 100 yards (or feet) from a road and a water source. Other than that, its all yours. Hell...we pay for it. Gotta pay to get into "national" parks. At least some low impact camping is free:lol3
    #3
  4. swjohnsey

    swjohnsey Banned

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    We may be twins seperated a birth. A boon to the cheap traveler is the Platypus collapseable containers.
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  5. WilderRider

    WilderRider Long timer

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    :thumb
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  6. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    Great suggestion. I've camped in national forests a handful of times, but I'm not up on all the regs. I'll look into it and add it to my article. Thanks.

    Any ideas to add? Platypus is interesting. I've always used rigid containers (except for a Camelbak). How well does the Platypus hold its shape when it's full of drink?

    Jamie
    #6
  7. swjohnsey

    swjohnsey Banned

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    When the Platypus is full it will stand upright. When empty it can be folded to about 6"x2"x1/2". They come in several different sizes. The one I have is 3 litre, I believe.
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  8. super8mm

    super8mm Been here awhile

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    I use one of these in a 3 Liter for drinking kept in a tank bag and then one of these in a 10 Liter when I get someplace for camp site water (dont neet to haul around full) and need more for cooking and dishes etc.

    These will fold up or roll up small and are very tough material but a bit expensive. :eek1
    #8
  9. drneo

    drneo mmm... delicious

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    Simply beautiful... great job!
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  10. tricepilot

    tricepilot El Gran Payaso

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    :ear

    Always great stuff, Z-Man

    Hey, you are overdue for your next Mexico fix. :jose

    P.S. I've been good to my pizza delivers guys, just so you know.

    Bob
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  11. Grinnin

    Grinnin Forever N00b

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    Good job, JZ.

    Your write-up explicitly states some things I've encountered but didn't really think about enough to understand. (I've gotten about a little bit on small budgets.)

    THANKS!
    #11
  12. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    Details?

    I'm curious what things readers find useful. When I had a good friend proofread it, she surprised me with what she thought were the best parts about the article. She really liked the suggestion to leave a restaurant if the prices on the menu are too high, for example.

    I might submit it to the Hall of Wisdom...

    Jamie
    #12
  13. Grinnin

    Grinnin Forever N00b

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    First I have to amend my comment above to mention that there was plenty in your write-up that is all-news to me.

    You mentioned that asking for discounts is often not productive. You're right but I've been slow to recognize it. More than one writer has suggested asking for discounts. I've tried at hotels, motels, and campgrounds and get only a token if that. Last year I was looking for the full KOA showers/laundry setup and stopped at one that didn't recognize the AMA discount.

    I've asked people if I could "sleep in their field" while wearing a backpack with pad on top. Your advice to ask about "set up a tent" may be better. I had wanted to emphasize that I'd be quiet and about invisible. Homeowners really do offer food and showers to travelers.

    If you have a bushes or a bit of woods where you feel private, it's possible to bathe completely (except hair) with 1 to 2 quarts of water and 2 or 3 bandannas. Most comfortable if you have two mossy spots: one to stand on wet and one to stand on dry.

    I like asking for water at farmhouses in the U.S. Most town water is chlorinated and I like the various flavors of iron and minerals that well-water offers.

    Everything you wrote about introducing yourself and making the other person part of your trip were total news to me. I'm not outgoing at all. I have experienced but not recognized that people offer help when I don't ask.
    #13
  14. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    Yeah, this is one that confuses me. I've read "tips" several times to ask for a discount on a room. So far, I don't think it's ever worked for me. What has worked is sometimes I ask if they have a cheaper room available. While they won't discount the standard room, sometimes the have a cheaper room which they don't tell you about at first. Seems like if it's late and they still have vacancies, they'd rather give it to someone for cheap rather than letting it stay empty.
    Yeah, it's always good to let them know you aren't having a party. And like you said, almost every time that I've asked someone if I could camp out in their yard (or wherever) they've offered a plate of food, breakfast, shower, or whatever.

    This is a new one to me. The only outdoor bathing I've done is carry a package of baby wipes and clean up at the end of the day. It still leaves me feeling grimy though--and it's certainly not a budget shower.

    I like that... and to go along with my passive technique, what I do in a situation like that is go up to the farmer and say, "Do you know where I can get some water?"

    I'm not really outgoing either. It's hard for me to approach a stranger and ask for something... but it's part of what I like about travel. It forces me to do something a little outside my comfort zone, and that's a bit of a rush.

    Great comments, thank you for the feedback and new ideas.

    Jamie
    #14
  15. Dilligaf0220

    Dilligaf0220 Miserablist

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    You made a point about not being able to cook well on the road. One of the things that I personally like is the similarity between roughing it on a bike and canoe tripping. I do alot of canoeing but haven't had a chance in the last few years to really get away, but running out to the boondocks on a bike can be pretty close, closer even than hiking. You need to watch weight, no reefers, but you can bring luxuries and don't need to be fanatical about every last gram (titanium tent pegs need not apply). So look to canoe sites for decent, packable meal ideas. My personal faves are fried granola for breakfast, DIY dehydrated pasta sauce (30 min lasagna on a single burner anyone?) and making bannock (versatile Canadian camping bread recipes). Really helps stretch a buck, and tastes a ton better than any processed chain food. Also, you can find refillable squeeze tubes that you can pack with anything (mayo, peanut butter, margerine).

    e.g. For less than $10 you can have pancake breakfast, soup & bannock lunch, with bannock pizza or home made jerky lasagna for dinner. All recipes are just add water with no reefer needed, needing 30mins or less preparation.

    http://www.myccr.com/SectionTechniq...s/viewrecipecategory.php?recipe_category_id=3
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  16. El Guero

    El Guero V4 Whore

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    I'll admit, I learned a little bit from this but the most important thing:

    TORTILLAS

    Why didn't I think of that? I love tortillas but I was thinking of how I was going to back 5 PBJ sammiches on my next trip :scratch :lol3


    I really appreciate this though. The first time I took a trip that was on my dime, and I spent money like a drunken sailor because I was so high off the road. This time around, I've got to fight that and work at being a little more constructive with my money (I'm a sucker for beer and greasy food and that adds up fast :deal)
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  17. Jamie Z

    Jamie Z Long timer

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    Better test out the PB&J tortillas before you go. I had a hard time eating peanut butter and honey tortillas. Just didn't taste right.

    If it's the buzz you're after, and not necessarily the taste of beer, pick up a liter of your favorite liquor. One of my favorite drinks is now Southern Comfort and Tang, acquired from a long-term canoe trip. Beth Johnson, who wrote "Yukon Wild" about an all-female expedition down the Yukon river by canoe, carried Everclear because of it's alcohol per dollar content. They mixed it with Tang or other beverages they got along the way.

    As for greasy foods, you can still dive in (to some extent) if you follow my advice to skip the drinks, and aim for the lower-priced items on the menu. A good burger or fried chicken is a few bucks. Steaks or ribs is where it's expensive. Getting a coke with your meal (or a beer, in your case) suddenly adds 2-3 dollars.

    Thanks for the link. I like those squeeze tubes. I had an issue carrying honey, and a jar of peanut butter never seems to fit anywhere. How leak-proof are the tubes? Can you carry margarine unrefrigerated?

    Jamie
    #17
  18. Burtonridr

    Burtonridr Wanderlost

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    You can make a good tortilla wrap with cheap lunch meat and cheese with mustard. I dont use mayo, but thats just me.

    Instead of carrying an expensive cooking stove that uses white gas or alcohol. Build a cheap wood stove out of 4" dryer exhaust tubing. Or just buy this guys

    http://www.trailstove.com/winter/

    I'm going to try making one out of the 4" exhaust tubing, Maybe I will post a write up.

    Oatmeal is another cheap, just add water meal.

    Potato flakes are another

    Cant think of anything else to share at the moment...

    There are some great ideas on this thread, thanks :thumb
    #18
  19. Burtonridr

    Burtonridr Wanderlost

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    +1 I carry an MSR bottle filled with Vodka, a nalgene bottle and ready mix koolaid, just add water :thumb
    #19
  20. mhpr262

    mhpr262 Banned

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    Good, but maybe you ought to put the link in your sig line or sth. so more people get to see it. Trip planning isn´t the busiest forum on advrider.
    #20