As a continuous long-term traveler, I have learnt a lot about saving money on the road. If you want to maintain travelling as a lifestyle, you need to be able to compromise and have the flexibility to change plans as required. I believe that long-term travel can work for anyone who is willing to make it work. Here are some methods that allow me to keep my costs to a minimum.
Accommodation and transport will make up most of your travel expenditure, and so these are the areas that will require the greatest degree of compromise. There are many ways that you can make accommodation work out cheaply, even if you are in an expensive country.
• Find the cheapest hostels
When I’m travelling in more expensive locations, I almost always have to stay in hostels. Even if I’m in South East Asia, I still stay in hostels if it’s only for a couple of nights because it cuts your costs by a large amount. In Europe, you can find hostels at $20 a night and in SE Asia it can be as low as $5 a night.
The disadvantage of staying in hostels is that you have to share your space with others and it can be disturbing if they make noise in the night. So be careful when you pick your hostel and ask how strict they are about noise so that you don’t end up somewhere that completely derails your sleep pattern.
It’s often the case that hostels are booked up. This is actually the perfect opportunity to ‘couchsurf.’ If you turn up at the hostel and explain how you have nowhere else to go, people are often willing to let you spend the night in the dining or living area at a price far less than a dorm bed.
To find hostels, I make use of both booking.com and hostelworld.com. Some online platforms take commission in addition to the hostel charge so I always call up the hostel or hotel beforehand to negotiate a price. Negotiating a price can work in Asia and less touristy areas of developed countries.
• Sharing with people on the spot
In areas populated with travelers, it is very easy to find people who you can share a room with. This can be better than staying in a hostel if you find people who you resonate with, and it will split your costs even further. Other travelers are mostly likely looking to lower their costs as well.
For example, in West Sikkim, I met a group of Israeli travelers on the way there and connected with them pretty well. When we reached the town, I asked if they wanted to share a room with me, and we could split the cost. They agreed and so this worked out three times cheaper than if I had stayed somewhere on my own.
Travelers are generally friendly people and if you speak to them openly, they are likely to respond to you. Don’t be afraid of rejection: people have their reasons, and one good thing about travelling is that you learn that the options are really endless as new people are always coming.
• Staying with locals
In touristy areas, the best way to find locals to stay with is through the Couchsurfing platform. This app allows you to find people to stay with for free (in essence, sleeping on their couch). I have used Couchsurfing in different continents, and it’s never been a problematic experience. People are verified and you can speak with them beforehand to see if you feel comfortable.
A more organic method of Couchsurfing is to find people from social media (like Instagram) that live where you are travelling. You can speak to them, check out their profiles, and meet them in person before asking whether you can stay with them. I generally get a good idea about a person within 10 minutes of communicating with them but I also have a strong intuitive feel for whether a person can be trusted.
If you are more adventurous, you can seek out your own opportunities to stay with locals on the ground. This works in more community-orientated cultures like in South East Asia. For example, in less touristy areas of Thailand families are extremely welcoming and may accommodate you if you explain you just want somewhere to stay. Likewise, I have stayed with shepherds in the Himalayas. There’s nothing like having a family of locals to take care of you in an unknown country and seeing what their lifestyle is actually like.
• Utilizing existing contacts
If you are travelling to a new place you can probably find people that you know that live there, or friends of people that you know. You can ask your parents, your old classmates working in a foreign country, or acquaintances. It is likely that you can find some contact there that would be willing to host you for a few days. Nevertheless, I personally prefer seeking out my own hosts much better than trying to arrange things through other people.
• Pitching a tent
After a year of travelling in and out of hostels, hotels, and houses, I finally decided to buy my own tent This gives me complete flexibility in the event that I can’t find accommodation or just want to live on my own. I also have my own sleeping bag and mat. This worked very well for me in Europe during the summer, because you can find safe places to just pitch without a cost. And you can also find specialized campsites where you pay a minimum fee to use their facilities and set up your tent. Personally, I think this is the most economic and flexible thing to do if you are travelling in good weather.
• Sleeping in public transport
One way to save on accommodation costs is to book overnight bus and train journeys. You may actually do this out of necessity, because flights can be way too expensive. Overnight buses can be fairly comfortable if they are the sleeper sort. I’m not too keen on the reclining chair ones.
In Europe, overnight bus journeys from one city to another can be as low at $30 and in South East Asia it can be as low at $8. Depending on the length of the journey and where you book it can be cheaper.
In order to ease the journey, I sometimes take 5-htp or melatonin tablets along with other herbal supplements. This helps if I have difficulty sleeping and have to do a lot the next day (Read here how to maintain good health whilst travelling continuously).
Transportation is by far the hardest to economize on. If you are travelling long distances, then flight may be your only option. Flights form the majority of my travel expenditure. There are still ways that you can economize on transport.
• Public transport
In many cases I will choose the cheapest mode of transport available. In India, this amounts to taking a public bus. For example, a five-hour journey from Pondicherry to Chennai would cost me less than $3. You may be flung up and down like tennis ball, but it’s not much different from getting a free ride.
A step above taking a public bus would be taking more luxurious Volvo buses, or even the First Class of a train. Though this is slightly more expensive, it is very comfortable and still economical. For example, buses from Delhi to popular destinations in the Himalayas like Manali, Kasol, Dharamsala and Rishikesh cost less than $15 for the overnight journey.
In developed countries, it can help to get a train pass or daily metro pass so that you spend less money overall getting around the area. Again, make sure that you work out the bus and train schedules to avoid having to pay for expensive cabs. You can also try carpooling options like UberPool which may work out quite cheap.
Hitchhiking is another great way to save costs by a large amount. Many people fear hitchhiking in unknown countries, but I have hitchhiked everywhere in South East Asia and it has been incredibly useful. (I shared detailed guidance on how to hitchhike safely in my post here).
Over short distances, hitchhiking can save you lots because all those small journeys back and forth can add up. For example, in the island of Koh Phangan, I often wave at on their bikes and ask them if they could drop me a little further down the road or to the next village. This is literally how I get around the whole island, considering that I can’t actually ride a scooter / motorbike.
When you’re hitchhiking you need to take into account of the surrounding environment you’re in. If you are in the open, and the roads are not totally isolated, then jumping on someone’s bike is actually pretty safe. You just need to make sure that the person isn’t riding too fast – and you’ll be able to see this from the way they are riding towards you.
Cars are a little trickier, but I have often hitchhiked in cars with families or groups of travelers with no issues. This is more convenient over long distances, and it can be safer than riding on a bike especially if the roads are a bit slippery or there’s a lot of heat. Make sure that you are confirmed about where exactly you want to go, and track yourself on Google Maps if you can. It’s important to be able to pick up vibes and have a strong intuitive feeling when hitchhiking, as you often can’t rely on anything else.
A more sophisticated form of hitchhiking is to share someone’s car, which you can formally do through the BlaBlaCar app (https://www.blablacar.in). In this, individual people will advertise spaces in their car for transportation across cities. This tends to work out cheaper than conventional public transport.
I have used BlaBlaCar in both India and Europe, and though I have had some iffy experiences, it is generally safe. Some of my experiences were very comical as I was paired with some idiotic drivers. When using BlaBlaCar I would suggest to speak to the person on the phone first, get a good idea of their vibe, check if anyone else is joining, and find out what car they have. Be sure they will drop you to an appropriate location. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to get out and leave if you get the slightest shred of doubt.
Don’t be scared to negotiate with the driver even if the BlaBlaCar app is quoting a specific price. Alternatively, you can search for people who are driving around the areas you want to visit. For example, you can location search using Instagram to find people who are doing a road trip and ask if they can give you a ride. without a car.
Food & Beverage
• Taking your own food
If you are travelling around expensive regions like Europe you will save huge amounts of money by bringing your own food. For example, I carry packets of instant oats with me to cut down my breakfast costs. I carry cereal bars for a cheap snack and dry fruits for energy in case I feel weak. In addition, I keep additional supplements to maintain my basic level of health (Read here how to maintain nutrition whilst travelling continuously).
• Buying from the supermarket
In expensive countries, it is much cheaper to buy food from the supermarket and make it yourself as compared to a restaurant. In contrast, developing countries can offer extremely street food and so there is no point making your own.
In Europe, I try and find accommodation with a kitchen that I can use. I purchase basic items like cheese, bread, eggs and fruit from the supermarket. This helps me cut my costs by over 4 times as compared to eating out for every meal.
In addition to regular supermarkets, you can also find large outdoor food markets or farmers markets which will sell produce for even cheaper than a shop. Be sure to research these places and when they are held beforehand.
Many places in South East Asia offer food and accommodation in exchange for commercial services like promotion and marketing. These commitments need not last more than even a few days.
For example, in the southern town of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, many travelers work in hostel bars for a few days just distributing leaflets for just a few hours in a day. In exchange they get free accommodation, food and alcohol.