By: Shannon Klaft
May 25, 2019
We travel a lot. My daughter celebrated her first birthday in Guatemala and her second in Austria. In the past few years, we have spent Christmas in 4 different countries. We value seeing the world and our budget, job choices, and life decisions are all centered around making it possible. Because globetrotting is important to us, we have developed ways to make this lifestyle sustainable for years to come.
A desire to travel the world is commonly expressed during the vision setting phase of our Commit to Thrive program. Along with this yearning, often comes a barrage of excuses for why it isn’t currently possible. Due to a perceived lack of time and money, worldwide travel is often a “one day” goal for retirement, or considered a lofty dream reserved for lotto winners. That doesn’t have to be the case.
Let me be clear. My kind of travel is not for everyone. Rarely will you find me sunbathing on the beach, sipping cocktails. (Hiking through the rain forest with 50 SPF and later making mojitos at the Airbnb would be more like it). If you prefer luxury getaways, my tips might not interest you. If you travel to developing countries, but fear leaving your resort or veering off the touristy path, you might find my approach too risky. My current travel style is not always convenient or comfortable, but it has allowed me to spend time in 34 countries by the age of 34.
Before giving tips for saving while traveling, I want to acknowledge that traveling may not currently seem realistic to some of you for a variety of reasons. I understand that we all have unique circumstances. In a later post, I will address tips on restructuring your life to make travel a reality, but this piece is focused on saving while actually traveling.
My Approach: Live below your means to save for trips. Spend below your means while on trips. Just because you CAN afford it, does not mean you need it.
Here are ways to save money during adventures:
Thinking to avoid: “I work hard; I deserve XYZ.” “We are on vacation; let’s live it up!” “Let’s enjoy it now, and deal with the credit card bill later.” This mentality will cost you a small fortune and cause a financial headache later.
Instead try: “I work hard; I’d rather visit 3 countries instead of just one.” “I refuse to waste money; I’m very conscious of how we spend every dollar.” “Let’s “slightly lower our standards” in order to make this trip (and future trips) possible.” “Let’s live, eat, and travel like the locals.”
Know when to splurge. While we are very frugal while traveling, we know when to shell out the money. You would never see us refuse a Gondola ride in Venice, midnight Plankton kayak tour in Thailand, or hike to hot springs in Costa Rica. We save our splurging for things that really matter (like food and experiences unique to the site.)
Have flexible destinations. This may sound crazy When we book international trips, we seek the cheapest one way tickets to anywhere in the world. When we land on a desired spot, we determine the length of stay and then start a new one way ticket search from there to anywhere in the world. The cheapest options may surprise you. In December, we bought one way tickets from Saudi (where we were living) ->Turkey ->Austria ->Egypt (and back to Saudi). Now we are on a trip from Saudi-> Spain-> Iceland ->US. Those random spots were chosen because we found awesome deals. This approach landed us in many unexpected locations including Istanbul, Turkey and Hanoi, Vietnam which are now two of our favorites.
Have flexible travel dates. Try to be flexible with dates (especially for international travel). I can’t tell you how much we have saved by playing around with our itineraries for hours before we get the price to where we want it.
Use public buses and trains when possible. We always travel like the locals when possible. Buses are typically the cheapest route. We charter bussed from Guatemala to Panama and they even served meals.
Carefully consider the cost of renting a car. Renting a car can either save a lot of money or be an unnecessary hassle and expense. Factor in the price of gas and parking. We once saved $160 in 4 days by finding a hotel up the street from our original choice that had free parking on site. Also, willingness to park at an offsite lot and walk across the street to your car can save you up to $30/day.
Look for unusual places to stay. Search for nontraditional places to stay that offer a whole other type of experience. For example, we stayed in a cottage on a farm in Spain, as well as, a silent Buddhist retreat center in Sri Lanka for $6/day (meals included).
Stay at Airbnbs. If you haven’t tried this, you are missing out. People rent out their houses/apartments and we have found awesome deals all around the world.
Stay at Bed and Breakfasts. We enjoy living right at the house of locals. We rent private rooms or a small apartment offset from the family and have found rooms for as little at $10/night (including home-cooked traditional breakfast). Getting advice natives can open up the door to territory untapped by most tourists.
Seek Home-stays. Some local families take guests for extended periods. I lived with a family in Guatemala for many months for $50/week (3 meals/day included). This is an excellent choice for language and culture immersion. Home-stays are easier to find for singles and couples, but some host families. You can find options through language schools and volunteer organizations.
Look for Hostels. Hostels can be much cheaper than hotels (anywhere from $3-$50/day). The bunkbed style arrangement sleeping side by side with fellow travelers represents one setup. Other hostels have private rooms with shared kitchens. In Singapore and San Jose, Costa Rica we opted for a hostel due to the significant price difference. I’ve never taken my young kids to a hostel (and some don’t even allow them), but for singles, couples, or people with older kids, it is a good option.
Find Boutique hotels over chains. Stand alone hotels offer character, charm and personal service unlike chain hotels. Providing a good stay is often more personal to them and the price is usually the same or cheaper than chains.
Overnight Sleeper trains/boats/busses. We have been very strategic about booking overnight trains (and once slept in hammocks on a cargo boat in Nicaragua). If you must pay for transportation anyway, do it at night to save one night of hotel pay. You also don’t waste a day of your trip.
Stay with friends and family. Create memories with people you care about and develop an even closer relationship. As “locals” they are likely to have suggestions about where to go and how to fully maximize your time in a given location.
We ONLY drink water! We bring our own bottles, and drink tap water when possible. If we are traveling somewhere where the tap water is not safe to drink, we buy our own water from the store rather than overpriced water at other establishments.
*We make exceptions to this rule when trying special local drinks like coconut milkshakes in Thailand or Bubble Tea in Malaysia.
Oh wait I lied…we drink coffee too! I’ll admit I have very high coffee standards. I loathe the instant coffee with powdered cream provided hotel rooms. Luckily many hotels and B&Bs serve coffee in the lobby for free or include it with their complimentary breakfast. When I know that I will have a kitchen, I bring a french press or AeroPress. Last resort is finding a local cafe vs. a chain. I try not to skimp on good coffee, but it can easily turn into a big expense if I let it.
BYOB. If we are in the mood to “adult drink”, we usually buy from a store rather than restaurants, bars, or hotels. We save that for special occasions. There are times we splurge (like having a pitcher of Sangria in Spain) to try famous drinks specific to the location.
Food practices are important while traveling because little decisions (multiple times per day) have a huge impact on the final price tag. Yet, trying local foods is one of the main reasons to travel, so finding a balance is key!
Avoid overpriced food traps. Rather than dining at airports, tourists venues, etc. we try to eat before or after being in those locations.
Split meals. Sometimes we just order two meals for our family of four. Also if there is a local snack we want to try sometimes we just get one and share. For example: At a Christmas market in Austria, we wanted to try roasted chestnuts so we shared a pouch rather than buying four of them. We all got to try which was the point.
Take your own healthy snacks. This way you don’t get stuck somewhere starving and get forced to buy whatever is around (despite the price).
Stay at a places with free breakfast. In the US free breakfast is sometimes just frozen breakfast sandwiches, but abroad you usually find local cuisine and home-cooked meals. Some of the most amazing free breakfast we found was in Istanbul, Turkey and we also love the traditional beans, pico de gallo, eggs, cheese and plantains throughout all of Central America.
Say no to room service. Unless we have a really good reason stay in the room, we avoid room service. Once in a while it is SO worth it and we go for it, but we don’t make it a daily practice.
Seek local food. We try to avoid high priced touristy places. In Egypt, we got some amazing Kushari that a local led us to. If you look around a restaurant and see all tourists eating, that tells you it is a different kind of place than if you see natives eating there as well. Obviously food safety is very important to us (especially when traveling with our 2 and 4 year old). Seek “middle of the road” restaurants.
Bring/buy your own food when possible. While we always aim to try the local food, depending on the length of our stay, we sometimes need to make our own meals which saves a lot of money. Sometimes we have a full kitchen or kitchenette. Other times we use the mini fridge to store fruit, veggies, yogurt, etc.
Get high quality stuff that lasts. I paid like $400 for my Gregory backpack in 2009. Ten years later it is still in almost perfect condition.
Shop at outlets. While there are a lot of things I buy second hand, when it comes to travel gear, I prefer to buy new (but for discounted prices). I plan to have my gear for many years and it is not the kind of stuff I like to buy used. Look for mark downs on brands that are known to last.
Take care of your stuff. I have been known to only have one Patagonia rain jacket or pair of top notch sunglasses and keep them for more than 10 years. When you only have one of something you are more likely to care about it. If you buy high quality things, don’t lose stuff, and you take care of it, you will save you a lot of money.
Packing and Prep
Don’t over pack and don’t check unnecessary luggage. Depending on the airline, sometimes it is cheaper to have a carry on bag (sometimes it isn’t). Regardless, try not to pay extra fees because you are bringing your whole closet.
Don’t go out and buy a bunch of extra things. For some reason when people go on trips they feel like they need to go to Target and buy up the store like it is the end of the world….mini this and mini that. I’ve done this, but it is not necessary. It goes back to the fear of needing something during your trip. I always remind myself that other people live and survive in my travel destination so I will too. Anything I “need” can likely be found along my journey.
Hand wash clothing while traveling. Been there. Done that. Makes it easier to pack less and avoid checked baggage fees! Cheap laundry service is also sometimes available.
Souvenirs and Shopping
Don’t go overboard. One of the hardest things about traveling is the idea that you may NEVER be back in that place again. It sparks this crazy drive to consume things you will “never have access to” again. As a novice traveler, I used to buy tons of souvenirs. Over time, I learned that I had to find ONE or two really cool things to symbolize my entire trip.
Find a “shared souvenir” for others. Bring back food to try together, a special tea, or a spice to make a meal. Rather than buying gifts, find ways to share the culture with others upon your return.
Find free things. Find things from nature or keep things that you come across along the way (Ex: a tiny jar of local jam that you got at breakfast).
Look for FREE activities. Seek parks, gardens, outdoor concerts, festivals, free museums, bodies of water, etc.
Walk and explore. A simple stroll will teach you a lot about a city and its culture. People watch. Dog watch. Take in the sounds, sights, and smells.
Pick and choose. You really can’t do everything. Factor in the price of activities when deciding which ones to do. Some travelers spend a lot of money trying to do everything, but feel so overloaded that they don’t enjoy anything!
Compare prices. Always look at the prices of the competition. In Puerto Rico, paddle boarding was $25 cheaper per person 50ft from the original place that we visited.
Skip the guide. Rarely do we partake in tours or hire guides. We use the internet to do our own research in advance. Tours with small children are just not worth it. Even before kids we found being forced to go at a certain pace a bit annoying. The exception to this is “Hop on Hop off” Tour buses which are an awesome way to see an entire city for an affordable price. We had good luck with these in big cities like Rome, London and Dubai because there is just so much to see and do in those places; it can feel overwhelming. The guide is included in the ticket price.
In Summary: Don’t feel like international travel needs to be a goal for retirement! Know that there are creative ways to explore the world. This mindset will decrease the amount you need to save in order to make it happen! While on the trip be mindful about ways to cut corners to stretch your money. Be okay with occasionally being uncomfortable, thinking outside of the box, taking advice from locals and going off the beaten track.
When our clients Commit to Thrive , finding a way to do more traveling is often on their list. Knowing how to save money during the actual trip is key to ensuring you can take more trips down the road. Thanks for giving me the chance to share these tips with you!