[Originally published in Expert Beacon]
One of the biggest lies in traveling is that it requires a lot of money. Too often, people give up on the idea of making their adventures a reality because they are certain the idea is cost prohibitive—so why even dream? This idea is perpetuated by the inflated prices often shared by tour companies (a week-long tour in China costs $2,000!), which further perpetuates the belief until its bleakness is just accepted.
However, seasoned travelers will tell you that indeed, seeing the world can be incredibly cheap if you know what you want, do your research, and are willing to live modestly.
Do determine what’s valuable to do
There are two commodities in travel: time and money. Few people have the luxury of having a lot of time and money, so most find themselves with scales tipping to one direction. Determine what is more valuable to you and base your decisions off this because actual cost is more than dollars.
For example, traveling from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Arusha, where most safaris take off can take 9-12 hours overland on a $20 bus journey that cannot be made overnight because travel by night is not permitted. A round-trip flight costs $350, and a one-way $200 by the local Precision Air airline.
The best shoestring travel is done when time is your friend and money your commodity. Take the bus. Enjoy the ride. Perhaps break it up and stop in Lushoto to bike in the mountains or Moshi to see Mount Kilimanjaro along the way. If you have limited time, the flight is the better value. Understand your commodity.
Do stay in hostels, couchsurf, camp
In addition to airfare, accommodations tend to be the lion’s share of the consideration for travel costs. Whether you want to go cheap to save money for other activities (skiing and diving are expensive hobbies!) or because your budget is truly limited, hotel alternatives are great ways to cut lodging costs.
All over the world, hostels and small pensions, or bed-and-breakfasts provide modest and clean places to stay, which can be booked via mega-engines like Hostelworld (www.hostelworld.com) or Hostelbookers (www.hostelbookers.com).
Also recommended: walk around town and pop into different places to just ask. Depending on your preferences and appetite, you can often book a room in a dorm for as little as $5 in some countries; in the same places, private rooms may go for as little as $20-30 for double occupancy.
Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) may help link you with a local willing to host you for free. And when climate-appropriate, a place to camp can be secured for free or just a few dollars a day.
Do budget on a day-to-day basis
If you have a Lonely Planet guide, there are often recommendations on how much on average to budget per country per day. On a shoestring, a daily budget (including accommodations, travel and food) should be range from about $15-$50, depending where you are. For example, in Bolivia, where accommodations in a hostel dorm can cost only $6, $9 is more than reasonable to encompass food, a few beers and local transport.
Do ask for advice, then do your own diligence. Really: do your diligence
Often hostels and hotels will have partnerships with local tour groups or travel agencies to take you on your hang gliding tour in Brazil or the sunrise hike at Tikal in Guatemala. Although sometimes they indeed may have the best guide or best price, it’s prudent to get as much information as you can and compare against your own intel. What this means is you should first have a general idea of what an activity or transport mode, for example, should cost.
Trip Advisor, travel boards, even Facebook and social media make this easy enough. Second, ask the hostel or hotel for their recommendations. Listen. Take notes. Then leave. Then, walk around town and check out competing travel agencies and even other hostels. Then make your decision based on cost and quality.
Remember: the best prices and the actual market price are not always advertised online.
When researching safari costs, you may find that a 5-day safari trip in Tanzania cannot be completed for less than $1,500, with most scaling north of $1,800 for a single person. However, on the ground, talking to fellow travelers and local agencies would reveal that in fact, operators work together to string together tours to make the most out of their investments in a truck and tour guide. Therefore, the actual market price of safari is $150 per day per person—half the cost of the lowest advertised price.
Do consider the value of all forms of transportation
While it may seem that taking a bus is always the cheapest solution, it is not always—nor is it always the most valuable. Consider that a taxi from San Ignacio in Belize to the Guatemala border only takes 20 minutes and $14 USD. If four people took a bus at $3 USD per person, you might save a hair, but the bus will not come for an hour, and you will need to get off and either walk an extra kilometer to the border or take a $2 taxi.
There is value in traveling in numbers, so do the math to ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck and your time.
Do not be afraid to do nothing for a day
When time is your commodity, the incessant need to get the most out of every possible day, filling it to the seams with activities is less pressing. It is, in fact, okay to take it easy for a day in a picturesque hostel like the Lanquin, Guatemala, where the cost of a dorm is $6. Spending a day watching the river flow by in a hammock and chilling in the outdoor sauna is not time wasted. And it certainly is cheap.
Do not be afraid to DIY
For inexperienced travelers, researching bus companies, hostels, even trip itineraries may seem intimidating and daunting. Therefore, booking a trip through a tour operator or guide company may seem like the safer choice.
Although they are able to leverage volume for lower costs (e.g. their cost to enter a national park may be less than what you pay out-of-pocket for one person), don’t forget that tour operators and guide companies are businesses that have overhead and need to run profits. They are providing you a value-added service, which may potentially be worth something but is ultimately not cheaper (plus you lose the flexibility of being able to stay somewhere longer if you particularly fancy it).
It is extremely easy to do research with online tools and validate your research with third-party reviews and commentary. For example, look for the Hostelworld hostel with the best location and user rating, then read the actual reviews from other humans to make your decision. There is social accountability like never before, which also helps drive up the level of service.
Do not expect that you won’t get ripped off sometimes—no matter how savvy you are
It happens to everyone. Despite the best intentions, you get ripped off—either small time on a trinket that you pay five times the value for. Or big time, when you find that your private tour of the Sahara, which you’ve paid $500 for, is actually only worth $120.
The situation sucks, but the joy is in the journey. You can’t win them all the time, but you can control how you feel and handle it. Accept it. Learn. Move on.
Do not panic when you first get into a new city/country
This is the time that most errors are made. Arriving in a new country, you are struggling to understand the conversion rate while trying to figure out if you can take public transport into town or need to splurge on a taxi.
You are a bit frazzled, slightly unfamiliar, and this is when in confusion, a taxi driver might tell you your conversion of the currency is wrong by x10 (this gets particularly confusing in countries where the currency is in denominations of 10,000, for example), and you end up paying him $70 instead of $7. In the instant you realize something is wrong, the cab is gone, and you are left in the dust, literally, feeling extremely stupid.
Take your time. Figure out your conversions. Ask for help. Breathe. Then proceed.
Do not be a miser all the time
It sucks to count pennies. No one likes the guy who is always counting pennies. At the end of the day, traveling on a shoestring is more about value than it is about hard cost. Determine what is valuable to you, and pinch in the areas where you may not care as much (what bed you sleep in, for example). Put the dollars where it creates the most personal value. Like beer. Or diving with sharks.
Too often, money is the factor that drives people away from world travel. But, in fact, it’s easy to travel on a thimble budget of as little as $15-20 a day, if you pick the right spots. By having a modest approach and being willing to do the research and plan it yourself, a dollar can seem to stretch into $10. Having time as your commodity is frosting.