20 thrifty travel tips: Wanderlust on a budget

katie harrington thrifty travel

Last week, in a conversation with my brother and a friend, I commented: “It’s so easy to travel cheaply these days.” They looked at me like I was insane. When I followed it up by saying I think everyone should take a holiday once every 12 weeks, I thought they might punch me.

I truly love to travel, and I make it a priority. I put together some of my own top tips for travelling on a budget, and I asked other top travel bloggers to contribute theirs. I hope it will inspire you to start planning your next trip, and see that you can afford to travel.

1. Volunteer abroad: Paige Ramsey Moody over at Wanderlust & Dogs says: “Volunteer with a non-profit that includes travel in their work. Sometimes travel will be free or cost very little. You get to see the communities from the inside and get to know people while you’re helping them.”

2. iTravel: Use your smartphone to its full potential. If you don’t have one – invest. It’s your music, your camera and your connection to the world. Download Whatsapp or Viber to keep in touch, use apps like XE Currency for conversions so you don’t get ripped off, and make sure to set up online banking before you leave in case of any emergency. Log on to the Lonely Planet site and get travel tips. Never use 3G or 4G abroad, it’s a massive ripoff – log on at a hotel or coffee shop.

3. See what’s free: Most cities have a range of things you can do for free, like visiting certain museums or art exhibits, historical sites and gardens. Choose one or two free activities to do so that you can afford other activities and sights that can cost a lot of money. Check out this list of 101 free things to do in London, or the Lonely Planet’s top 20 free things to do in Dublin. Read on the beach or in the park, soaking up the atmosphere around you.

4. Stagger your costs: If you want to go away at the end of April, book your flights in February and pay for your accommodation in March. That way, by the time your holiday rolls around, all you need is spending money. Your holiday will cost less the farther in advance you book, and you’ll feel the hit less when you spread the costs out.

Thinking about signing up for AirBnB for your next trip? If you use this this link you’ll get a US$35 discount on your next trip and so will I – win, win!

5. Use the Air Asia ASEAN pass: Jyotsna Ramani from Wander With Jo offered this advice for anyone travelling in Asia: “This awesome pass is practically all you need for traveling within Asia. Air Asia has excellent connectivity and the pass covers over 140 routes across Asia, so once you buy the pass it is pretty much set and forget. If you are flexible with your dates and places you want to visit – then, this is the perfect opportunity to explore at practically 1/4th to 1/10th of the actual air fare cost.

“Basically you have 2 categories: The first is where you can buy 10 credits for MYR 499 (Approx $115) which is valid for 30 days from first flight. The second is where you can buy 20 credits for MYR 888 (Approx $215) It’s valid for 60 days from your first flight booked using the pass. Most flights cost just 1 credit per way, so you can actually pretty much book 10 flights around Asia for JUST $115 .”

6. Be brazen: If your mother, father, and siblings all usually buy you something for your birthday, ask them to club together and get you a travel voucher for the same amount. My mama would usually pay for me to get my hair done for my birthday while my dad is more likely to give me cash (men!). While both of those gifts are very much appreciated, the combined cost would definitely buy me a flight from Ireland to a European destination.

7. Take a detour from the tourist trap: Adam Lukaszewicz at Getting Stamped says: “Avoid eating at restaurants close to big tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower for example. The food is always over priced, and usually not as good!

8. Save on souvenirs: Okay, this one is a little hypocritical of me since I have piles of art, fridge magnets, figurines, candlesticks and who knows what else from all over the world piled up in my bedroom back home. Nevertheless, taking lots of photos and making them your memories is a much better idea than stashing lots of souvenirs away. When you are tempted, buy something meaningful that will help you remember the trip, not something mass produced. Something that has a specific use, like a bag or wallet is a good idea if you can get a lot of use out of it. Make sure you buy something small that won’t break in transit or put you over your luggage weight.

9. Pack better: Choose clothes that are versatile and can be worn during the day, out to dinner in the evening, or to any attractions you’re planning on visiting. Many religious and cultural sites will have a dress code, so be mindful of that. Always pack more underwear than you think you’re going to need. It only takes up a small amount of space and you may end up very grateful for it. As my mother would say: “Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it”. That only applies to underwear though, in a travel context. For everything else, less is more.

10. Cut out some small luxuries: If you saved just €5 every week (that’s one beer or two coffees), you would have €260 at the end of a year. That’s flights and accommodation for a weekend in Prague, Rome or Amsterdam* – for pocket change! If you up that to saving €10 every week (Netflix instead of the cinema, cook at home instead of a takeaway on Friday night) you’ve upped your budget to €520 – meaning you can afford to extend your holiday by a few days, or go somewhere a little more exotic.

11. Travel with work: If your job involves travelling for conferences, meetings, or training, make sure you tag on a weekend at the destination for exploring. Put yourself forward for out of town opportunities. You’ll have to pay for your own accommodation for any additional nights you choose to stay, but your company will likely still pay for 100% of the flights – sweet.

12. Fly for less: Patti Reddi of The Savvy Globetrotter says: “A good way to save money on flights is to sign up for email newsletters, email alerts and certain Twitter accounts that find airfare sales and mistake fares. Some websites such as www.airfarewatchdog.com allow you to set email alerts for when there is a low fare between two cities of your choice.
“Twitter is a great resource for finding really cheap flights, especially time limited airfare sales. Twitter accounts that tweet airfare sales include @theflightdeal, @airfarewatchdog, and @secretflying.”

13. Use your network: When I decided to take a trip to Kenya, I got in touch with friends-of-friends of mine who live there that I met while I was living in Dubai. I was hoping we could go out for dinner some night and I could get the inside scoop on what to see and do from them. Not only did they do an amazing job of showing me around, offering handy tips and inside info, they offered me their spare bedroom for the nights I was in Nairobi, and helped organise my trip to the Masai Mara. I saved a fortune on accommodation and had a much better trip as a result.

14. Soak up the suburbs: When I visited New York City in 2006, I was still a student and totally broke. I stayed in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, and saved a fortune. On top of that, I felt like I got a feel for authentic NYC, not just Fifth Avenue and Time Square. With the subway, it was still very easy to see and do things in Manhattan, and we spent most of our time there.

15. No fly zone: Instead of immediately choosing air travel and looking for connecting flights, see what cities you can reach by bus or train. You can inter-rail most of the way around Europe. Night buses are famous with backpackers in Vietnam; you sleep onboard and in a mere 14 hours of slight discomfort (shots of whiskey/sleeping tablets optional), you’ve gone halfway across the country. Bonus – you don’t have to pay for accommodation that night.

16. Sleep tight: Nicole Geri quit her full-time job to travel, and she has road-tripped around the US as well as visiting Australia, Indonesia and Canada. She saves money by finding alternatives to expensive hotels. Nicole says: “Traveling can be expensive, but certain parts of it don’t have to be. I often skimp on where I’ll sleep at night by couchsurfing, staying in cheap hotels, hostiles and even sleeping in my car.”

17. Travel off-season: Booking flights and accommodation around Christmas, the summer peak, around public holidays or when schools are off is always going to be expensive. If you’re flying Ryanair in Europe, there’s also a huge difference between flying on a Tuesday morning and on a Friday evening. Be as flexible as possible and you can save hundreds of euro.

18. Eat like a local: When you’re strolling down Koh Soang Road in Bangkok, go for Pad Thai. Famished in Florence? Try the spaghetti. In New Delhi, go for a curry (although not from a street stall unless you want to experience the famous Dehli Belly) Trying out local restaurants that local people are eating at is very likely to be the cheapest and tastiest experience of local cuisine.

19. Avoid airport expenses: A badly planned trip to the airport recently cost me dearly. I didn’t leave myself enough time to use public transport, so I had to get a taxi (30). I didn’t eat before I left so I spent 10 on an admittedly delicious pulled pork sandwich and 3 on tea. And I was bored during my time at the Duty Free, and I ended up buying a skirt (45). Before I set foot on the plane, I had spent almost €90. Ridiculous. Eat a decent breakfast so you’re not tempted to pay outrageous airport prices, leave well on time and bring a decent book to read at the gate, so you’re not tempted to hit the shops.

20. Figure out transportation: LeAnn Brown of Economical Excursionists says: “Most major cities have travel passes.  If you are there for several days, these SOMETIMES are a great deal.  They can give you discounts on public transportation, discounts into local attractions and often discounts on featured restaurants.

“Figure out the public transportation.  Sure, it may take you twice as long to get somewhere riding a bus than taking a taxi, but it may also only be $2 per person.  What I just saved now gets me some great souvenirs (or maybe an extra afternoon gelato?) instead of having to waste it on a cab. Most major cities now have apps as well that make figuring out public transport a breeze.”

So there you have it – with a little planning, thrifty travel has never been more manageable. Where’s your next trip going to take you? Do you have any budget travel tips? Leave me a comment.

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*Assuming you’re based in Europe

Looking for great accommodation at incredibly reasonable prices? Check out Air BnB. Join with this link to get a US$35 discount on your first stay.

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Comment (25)

  • Patti| February 22, 2016

    Great tips! Thanks for including me.

  • Svenja| February 27, 2016

    Nice list! There are so many ways to spend less money, and even if you just save a little here and a little there, it adds up nicely. One thing that gets more and more expensive when flying is checked luggage, so flying carry-on only (and thus saving the baggage fees) might even pay for a night or at least a fancy dinner 🙂

    • Katie| February 27, 2016

      Absolutely – over the years I’ve become more and more adept at travelling light.

  • ROBERT LEE| March 20, 2016

    Hi, these are very good suggestions on spending less while on travel. One thing though. I always buy a local SIM card that allows me to connect to the internet. Depending on location, finding a cafe with wifi, for example, is not always possible.

    • Katie| March 20, 2016

      Hi Robert – I agree. It makes sense if you’re travelling in a less developed country. In Europe etc, it’s usually pretty easy to connect to wifi.

  • Freya Farrington| April 25, 2016

    Point 7 is my favourite, whenever I’m in a new place, I always look for the local, smaller and underrated places to truly experience the foreign culture and avoid the tourism!

  • David| April 25, 2016

    Such a great tips that will be helpful for anyone who is traveling. Saving money/time and yet having good experience. Thanks for the tips!

  • Bettina Bacani| April 25, 2016

    I keep telling my family to just give me cash, but they never take me seriously! Lol! These tips are really useful no matter what part of the world you’re in! Thanks for this!

  • Ana De- Jesus| April 25, 2016

    I want to travel but I am not earning enough money to at the moment but it is something I will do in the future. Accomodation is one of the biggest costs so sleeping in a hostel is a great way to cut down.

  • Allan Liwanag @ The Practical Saver| April 25, 2016

    These are great tips. I particularly like eating local and traveling for work. Everytime I and my wife travel, we eat local food (no McDo, no restaurant chains, etc.) We only eat local food because it’s not something that we get to taste that often.

    I also like taking advantage of work travel. It’s basically free travel.

  • Fred Erick| April 26, 2016

    I love these tips. Good thing you mentioned about Air Asia pass. I am from Asia but never really have heard of it. I will try to check more of it on their site. Thanks for these great tips.

  • Emma| April 26, 2016

    I love all these ideas! Being a student it’s hard to save tons of money for vacations! So I love these money saving ideas!

  • Sonnie| April 26, 2016

    Hi Katie,

    The tips you shared are practical and doable- I have my share of sleeping on my car, on the wait for sale airfares, eating like a local and finding a cheaper place to stay. I agree, trips need not be expensive, if you are paying it yourself. In my case, half of my trips were sponsored since I was invited to give a speech or meet someone for biz opportunity.

  • Joanna| April 26, 2016

    I do agree with most of your points. I got very good deals on flights just subscribing to the airline’s newsletter. I am always informed when is the next RyanAir sale or when KLM is reducing the prices for long haul flights.
    Eating at side street restaurants is not only cheaper, but the food is much better too. 🙂

  • Fatima| April 26, 2016

    Woo! These are some really good tips. Loved reading them. I have used the Air Asia flight once, it saved us a lot and was comfortable too.

    Fatima | http://www.blogsbyfa.com

  • Vlad Vaida| April 26, 2016

    Such great tips! Travelling off season is probaly the only reason I travel as I’m just 19. I also just like buying souvenirs as they symbolize memories!

  • Denisa| April 26, 2016

    You are so young and so clever with saving money for your goals (trips) ! im always trying to make the most of my points

  • Carrie| April 26, 2016

    Great tips! We are looking to book a trip soon but we have been postponing until the last possible moment cause the rates keep dropping.

  • IamVagabond| April 26, 2016

    Great collection of some really great tips. I liked this one the best as it’s not very common to see. “Be brazen: If your mother, father, and siblings all usually buy you something for your birthday, ask them to club together and get you a travel voucher for the same amount.” I will try that next time hope it will turn out good 🙂

  • Dreammerin| April 27, 2016

    I’m very glad that I found your blog! You’re writing very important and valuable tips! These are really great information! Thanks so much!

  • Confessions of a Shopaholic| April 27, 2016

    A great list that helps a lot of travellers who like to backpack 🙂 good job!

  • JERNY| April 27, 2016

    These are such a great list! I am intrigued about the Air Asia ASEAN Pass. I’ll have to research more on that item. XD

  • Rose Sahetapy| April 27, 2016

    I love travelling but it can cost a lot. Good advices like these would help to see other alternative on travellling, and lower the budget in all possible way. Thanks for the information about Air Asia ASEAN Pass. That’s reallya valuable information.

  • RashmiChalukya| April 27, 2016

    These are amazing tips; we follow few of them like avoid airport expences, save on souenirs, pack better, no fly zone. I need to check out the Fly for less options that you have mentioned. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bernard Tan| April 28, 2016

    Thanks for sharing! I have always wanted to try the Air Asia Asean Pass.

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