This is part of a week-long “Money Smarts for Travelers” series. If you want to see more about planning the trip of a lifetime, please sign up for my newsletter to get monthly emails with exclusive updates, stories and offers. Friends don’t send friends junk mail, so I promise I won’t spam you!
She looked at the ground, then at me with wide, worried eyes, as if warning me that something terrible was about to happen. Sitting in my marketing class in Brazil, I looked around at the classroom where I was sitting. Three Brazilian girls sat chatting in the corner, the professor was reading some papers at his desk, half-asleep students poured in as the bell rang. Everything seemed normal. In my complete confusion, I asked her why she was looking at me like that.
“Your purse is on the floor,” she responded, while gazing, pained, at my purse leaning against my chair. I have to admit, I had no idea what was going on.
As I later learned, there’s a legend in Brazil that if you place your bag with your wallet on the floor, the money inside will disappear. It might have been true, because traveling through and living in Brazil for 6 months, I definitely saw my money evaporate more quickly than I thought. But instead of attributing my dwindling bank account to superstition, I blame it on bad expenditures, terrible record-keeping, and impulsive decisions on my end.
Travel expenses can definitely add up – one dollar here, fifty cents here and there turns into hundreds of dollars over the course of many months on the road. So, if you’re planning on putting that money you saved to the best possible use, abide by these 18 simple tips. You’ll be sure not to let your money disappear right before your eyes!
1. Pack light.
If there’s any overused travel advice, it’s to pack light. Yet this advice, time and time again, proves to be very valuable and useful advice. It can also help you save a ton of money in checking your bag, catching a cab, and gratuities. So many times while traveling I see people who can’t handle their own luggage, and then they have to shell out lots of money every time they change location to tip the guys carrying the bags, pay for a taxi, and check them in at the airport. If you travel with the minimum amount off stuff, you can walk from place to place more easily or take public transportation, and you will be able to avoid most (if not all) of the money expenditures associated with an oversized, unnecessary bag.
2. Forget the souvenirs.
When you start traveling a lot, you realize that every place sells the same type of stuff to tourists — baggy pants, logo t-shirts, woven handbags and cheesy shot glasses. Do you really need to buy those things and lug them around for your entire trip? Not only do souvenirs cost a lot of money, but they also weigh you down and ruin any light packing job you’ve already done. For me, whenever I travel I buy a couple of postcards from each destination to remember them by — they cost basically nothing and they weigh nothing.
Now, I realize sometimes it’s important to purchase something for a loved one back home, for your friend’s wedding present, or for your cat’s birthday. I get it. The best thing to do in these situations is to wait until the very last day to buy the gifts, so that you don’t have to carry them for a long time but also so that you can determine how much money you have left over to spend.
3. Skip the clubs.
I fully condone having a beer every so often while you’re traveling. It’s a great social activity, helps you relax, and is usually pretty cheap (sometimes even cheaper than soft drinks). However, if you’re going to partake in such beer-drinking activities, I suggest you go for the local, relaxed bars and avoid drinking and going out to clubs.
Nightlife is a big industry, and nightclubs are designed to cater to people who are willing to spend a bunch of money and make bad decisions. Well, if you’re trying to save every bit you can, buying an $8 beer at a club that should have been $3 won’t help you much, especially if you drink more than one. Also, nightclubs often come with an entry fee or “cover charge,” which can range from $5 to $30, depending on the place. That doesn’t include taxis to and from the venue. So, sooner than you realize, you could have spent over $100 in a night you barely even remember! Yikes…
4. Carry snacks.
Did you know it’s healthier to eat many small meals each day, than three large ones? Not only is it healthy, but it can also save you money. Carrying a few small snacks like granola bars or trail mix can help you stay fuller throughout the day, and ultimately saves you money on food. Snacks are usually cheaper than buying a full meal, and if you snack throughout the day you’re less likely to need a giant lunch or dinner. Better to spend $5 on snacks for the day than $20 on a huge dinner because you were super hungry that day.
5. Learn the local language.
People are more sympathetic to people they can relate to, and what’s more relatable than speaking the same language? Learn a few phrases in the local language (bonus points if you can figure out the accent, too!) and people will be much more likely to help you out with discounts or favors. Plus, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the culture much more thoroughly!
6. The more the merrier.
Sharing is caring, and in travel there’s no exception. If you can find a group of friends while traveling to split meals, taxi rides, tour fares, and potentially even rooms you’ll be able to save a ton of money while doing so. When I was in Southeast Asia I did this a few times and, on days when I shared the most with people, I was able to cut my budget almost in half!
7. Try DIY activities.
When I was traveling in Southeast Asia, I went scuba diving, participated in guided treks, and took a few cooking classes. While those activities were awesome, they weren’t cheap! If you’re really trying to slim down your budget, try doing activities like hiking, free walking tours, exploring markets, and snorkeling. These require minimal equipment and you can often do them on your own, for free. Just make sure to ask your hostel staff for recommendations on the safest way to do these things, as some hiking areas and snorkeling spots are more prone to danger.
8. Eat street food.
Oh street food, how I love thee. Street food is the king of all of the foods, a) because it is usually authentic, delicious food from local vendors and b) because it is usually much, much cheaper than eating in a restaurant. Why not grab some street food and people-watch at a local park? Then every day is a picnic. Or, ask a local street food vendor to show you how he or she makes a dish — free cooking class! From langos in Hungary to pad thai in Thailand, döner kebab in Turkey and tostadas in Guatemala, I have loved exploring street food around the world and will continue to do so even when I’m not scraping for every last cent of my college budget!
9. Connect with friends of friends.
As much as I enjoy Couchsurfing, sometimes I just don’t feel comfortable doing it while I’m traveling completely solo. However, I’ve taken to posting Facebook statuses whenever I’m headed to a new place to see if my friends have any other friends who would be willing to hang out. The first degree of separation thing really works! Through this method, I’ve met dozens of new friends, had free places to stay because of kind people in many different countries, and even had people willing to be my local tour guide and show me around throughout my trips. When I had my appendix taken out in Thailand, dozens of people (friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and even complete strangers) came to my side in the hospital, very few of which I’d actually met before in person! The world is so interconnected thanks to the Internet, and I really believe that this is one of the best ways to meet locals and potentially even save money on meals and accommodation.
10. Drink more water (from your own bottle!).
This was a tip on my money saving guide earlier in the series, but I’ll say it again — drinking lots of water can save you money. Studies have shown that drinking more and staying hydrated can help you feel more full, so you won’t have to buy as much food. Also, staying hydrated will keep you healthy and with that you can avoid medical fees associated with dehydration (which is common while traveling long-term). If you bring your own water bottle and refill it with filtered water (or tap water if you’re sure it’s clean and drinkable), you can save a lot of money on drinks.
11. Designate a daily budget.
Do your research and determine how much you can reasonably spend in one day wherever you are. If you exceed that budget, cut down the next day. If you end up spending less, treat yourself to a beer or pocket that money for later. Try your best to stick to the budget you set for yourself and you’ll feel much safer and better in your expenditures.
12. Avoid buying things in very touristy areas.
If you do plan on buying food or souvenirs, avoid the most touristy areas of a city as much as you can. Sometimes, buying a meal in a touristy area can cost 2x the amount it does if you walk a few blocks out and eat at a local diner. Souvenir vendors in these areas will sometimes try to rip you off to get a quick buck, since many tourists do fall for those traps. Do yourself a favor and spend your money outside of the main tourist strands — you’ll save the stress, hassle, and premium prices that come with following the crowd.
13. Do your own laundry
Laundry detergent: 15 cents
Laundry service: $2 per kilo
These were typical prices I saw when traveling around Southeast Asia, and while I did often cave and get my laundry done for the convenience of it, I could have saved $30-50 a month on laundry alone. While that may not sound like much, $50 could easily feed someone in Southeast Asia for two weeks or more. Laundry really doesn’t take that long and most hostels have an area where you can hang your clothes to dry. If you’re really trying to save money, this is an unnecessary expense you can definitely cut out.
14. Cancel your subscriptions.
Do you subscribe to Netflix? Goodie boxes in the mail? Auto-renew gym memberships? Well, if you’re traveling, you can’t use any of those things. Save the money and temporarily (or permanently) cancel your subscriptions while you’re abroad. Many people forget about these expenses when they’re away, then realize they’ve spent $100 a month in subscriptions while they were away for 6 months! Netflix doesn’t usually work in other countries and you can’t use a gym you don’t have access to, so be sure to cancel those or at least put them on hold so that the price tags don’t creep up on you.
15. Bring essential medicines with you.
There are a few ailments you can expect to have while traveling long-term — headaches, physical pain/soreness, food poisoning, allergies and motion sickness are some common ones. Bring medicines from home with you in your bag! Sometimes, there’s no access to those medications in rural areas, and buying the same type of medicines in the cities can be a huge expense, especially without insurance in that country. Bring the basics – Tylenol, Tums, Zyrtec, Dramamine, etc. – with you, and you won’t be in a panic when you need them. More importantly, you won’t have to fork out tons of money for medications you already have back at home!
16. Walk everywhere.
If you’ve taken my advice to pack light and avoid super touristy areas, walking everywhere should be a breeze. Walking is the only form of transportation that is truly free (besides hitchhiking, but that’s fairly dangerous if you’re a solo female like me) anywhere in the world that you go. And walking is a great workout that enables you to immerse yourself in any location! For longer distances, I would try to rent a bike for a day instead of taking taxis — it’s often cheaper, and it’s much better for the environment.
17. Take care of your things.
One of the worst ways to spend money is to not take care of your things, and have to replace them along the road. Clothes, bags, etc. do get worn out, sometimes to the point of no return, but taking good care of your things can go a long way in making them last. And then you won’t have to settle for buying cheap, poor-quality items, either!
18. Ask locals.
Who knows a place better than the people who live there? No guidebook, hotel brochure, or travel blogger (like me) knows better places to eat, hang out, or see than the locals. Instead of going on an expensive city tour, why not duck into a small coffee shop and ask the barista where she recommends you visit or eat that day? Locals don’t go to places that charge extra for tourists, so they can recommend cheaper, local favorites that won’t break the bank.
When I was in Mawlamyine, Myanmar, I did this and met a lot of friendly, kind locals along the way. They fed me, showed me around, and even gave me medicine (for free!) when I got a terrible bout of food poisoning. I not only saved a ton of money from the kindness of others, but I also crossed paths with generous people and immersed myself in a very unfamiliar culture in the process. It really exemplified the beauty of traveling and the strong sense of compassion people have.
You don’t have to speak the same language (though it helps) to meet locals. I spent an evening on Prague’s street car taking to an elderly man with my hands because there was no common language between us. I hung out with female monks for a day who knew not a word of English. I laughed until I cried with Brazilian students before I was forming coherent sentences in Portuguese.
And not one of those heartwarming experiences cost me a dime.
Do you have tips you use to save money while traveling? Did I miss something on this list? Let me know in the comments!