Being a budget traveler doesn’t mean traveling like a pauper -- spending your days dumpster diving for food, sleeping on couches, eating pasta, skipping drinks or not doing anything.
Budget travel is about knowing when and where to find the best deals, and how to get the most value out of each dollar. Through more than 80 countries and 10 years of budget travel, I’ve perfected various ways to travel on about $50 a day.
It’s not only because I’m cheap, but because I believe getting out of the hotel/tour/tourist industry allows you to connect better with the local way of life, meet others and save more money. When you travel like you live at home, your money lasts longer -- and when your money lasts longer, you can travel longer.
Luckily, thanks to the growth of the sharing economy, and the rise of blogs, services designed to connect travelers with locals and deal-finding websites, there’s never been a better time to be a budget traveler.
Here are my favorite ways to save money on travel.
Plane tickets are one of the biggest expenses for travelers, but there are many ways to get free flights with frequent flyer points, even if you aren’t up in the air every week.
Get a few travel rewards credit cards so you can accrue points to redeem for free flights. Most cards offer sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points, and these points will usually get you two flights. I’ve used these sign-up bonuses to collect close to a million extra miles.
If you sign up for both an airline card (like a United MileagePlus Explorer card) and a general rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can combine the two point balances to get a cheap flight faster. Here’s more information on how to pick the perfect travel credit card.
After you get the card, maximize your spending to increase your mileage balance. Like George Clooney in Up in the Air, never spend a dollar if it doesn’t get you points, and make sure you are always earning as many points as possible.
We’re lucky that here in the U.S. we have access to such an abundance of points. I’ve flown to Europe, Dubai, home to Boston and across the country multiple times this year on points! Here are three big ways I earn them:
I sign up for all the airline mailing lists and keep an eye out for special deals like 2-for-1 miles or ways to earn extra miles.
For example, United Airlines just gave me 1,000 miles for watching a demo on their new shopping toolbar.
Speaking of shopping, all airlines have special offers with all the big online stores -- Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Target -- as long as you shop through their portals.
You can earn 2 to 4 miles per dollar you spend, sometimes even more. If you spend 1,000 dollars a month, you can earn up to 3,000 miles -- just for shopping through the airline site, and without spending any extra money. I do all my shopping through these airline malls simply for the extra miles.
Here are a few to start with:
Similarly, you can earn extra points when you eat at certain restaurants -- without spending any extra money.
Sign up for their dining programs via Rewards Network (for example, here’s American Airlines program) and when you dine at participating restaurants or bars, you can get up to 5 points per dollar spent.
One of the biggest changes in travel in recent years has been the explosion of budget airlines like Norwegian Air, WOW and Air Asia fly cheaply from the US to Europe and Asia.
They do the same thing as other major carriers -- getting you between continents -- just at lower costs. You don’t get any food on your flights, the seats are tiny and you have to pay for your movies, but you’ll get from point A to point B at a fraction of the cost.
For example, Norwegian Air flies from both U.S. coasts to Europe for as little as $150 one way, and from Europe to Asia for as little as $200 one way. In Southeast Asia, Air Asia has flights for $20 one-way around the region and $150 one way to Korea, Japan, India and Australia!
Can’t afford your vacation? Watch someone’s house while they go on theirs.
Housesitting websites let you watch people’s homes for free, allowing you to stay in one destination and get to know it well without having to pay for accommodation. Added bonus: You get a kitchen to cook your food!
You’ll usually need to make a commitment of at least a week. One of my favorite websites for finding housesitting gigs is Trusted Housesitters.
Back in the day, you had to book flights at the airport, find hotels in the Yellow Pages and plan everything weeks, if not months, in advance. Thankfully, it's not 1987 anymore.
While many sharing economy websites have existed for years, they keep growing all the time -- Airbnb had 550,000 listings in 2013, and now it has more than a million! You’ll find travel sharing economy websites for just about anything, from transportation to guided tours, meals and lodging.
This sea change in how people connect is a huge bonus for travelers as it gets you off the beaten path, out of the tourist industry and their high prices, and connects you with local community. Some of my favorites include:
The best way to save money on the road is to cook all your own meals. I recently spent $60 for a week’s worth of groceries in Stockholm instead of an average of $15 per meal eating out. That’s a savings of $150!
If you are Couchsurfing or staying at an Airbnb, your host will probably have a kitchen. So do many hostels, campsites and guesthouses.
No kitchen? Pack your own container and silverware and make some sandwiches and salads on the go. Not every meal requires a stove.
Just because you’re traveling, you don’t need to eat out every meal. You won’t ruin your trip to Paris if you decide not to eat out one day. Eat the way you do back at home, and you’ll find yourself saving a lot of money while getting to know the local ingredients and cuisine.
Want to learn about the city, get your bearings and see the major sights? Take a free walking tour.
You can find them in 90% of the major cities in Europe, and there are also a few in large Asian cities, New York, Australia and New Zealand. They last a few hours, can cover a variety of topics and themes, and are an excellent way to learn about the region.
I take walking tours as often as possible. The tourist information center or a simple Google search can tell you about options in your destination.
City tourism cards get you into many attractions for one price, stretching your sightseeing dollars. I’ve saved more than $100 in London by using them, $80 in Paris and $30 in Oslo.
Typically, a pass costs as much as two or three museum entrances, but includes access to dozens of attractions. Make sure you’ll get your money’s worth by adding up the entrance fees of the places you want to visit before you buy one, though!
Best of all, you can get them at the local tourism office and, as an added bonus, they often come with free public transportation. These cards usually come in one-,three- or five-day versions.
There’s no reason to spend $3 every time you take out cash, or to pay 3% when you buy stuff abroad. You know, unless you like wasting money.
Get a no-fee debit card and credit card. The Charles Schwab ATM card reimburses all ATM fees, and credit cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood American Express and Capital One Venture don't charge foreign transaction fees. Sign up for these accounts and cards online -- but check with your local bank to see if it offers any no-fee cards, too.
On a similar note, always use the local currency when you use your card. If they give you an option to pay in USD, don’t do it! The exchange rate will be worse than what your bank will give you, and the transaction includes hidden fees. Just say no to paying in your own currency.
Instead of spending hours searching for deals and last-minute mistake fares, have someone else do it for you. This way, you’ll get an alert when there’s a deal so you can jump on it (because travel deals do not last long!).
Finding travel deals is easier than ever. Travel changes at a lightning pace and thanks to a more interconnected, tech-savvy world, it’s never been easier to travel cheaper, better and longer.
Don't wait until next year to go to the places you've always wanted to go. Stop dreaming and start traveling.
Your Turn: What’s your #1 budget travel tip? Share it in the comments!
Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!
Matthew Kepnes is a travel writer and author of New York Times bestseller How to Travel the World on $50 A Day and the creative force behind Nomadic Matt, a website that provides detailed information on how to travel cheaper, better and longer. His advice is often featured in Time, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Lifehacker, Buzzfeed, National Geographic, BBC and The Guardian, among other publications.