(Un)common Sense Tips for Budget Backpacking

In my last post I shared some updates about where I am on the road from NOLA to Bogotá and how I’ve stretched my limited funds to get here with budget backpacking. After that post, I realized I’m always alluding to ideas like ‘cheap travel’ and ‘backpacking on a budget’ on this blog without ever really saying what that all means.

When I scan the travel blogosphere, I see that these phrases mean different things to a lot of different people. One of the top Google results for ‘budget backpacking’ links to a page on visiting Amsterdam for just $83 USD a day. There are pages and entire blogs on everything from traveling the world on $50 a day to traveling completely money-free, and both seem outrageous and impractical to me.

If headlines like ‘backpack Europe for JUST $40 a day!’ make you want to cry into the double bowl of ramen noodles you’re having for dinner, then we’re on the same page. Here’s how I’m budget backpacking for about $10 a day on my way from NOLA to Bogotá.

Budget Backpacking in Jalpan de Serra

Jalpan de Serra, home to one of the five Franciscan Missions that form a Mexican UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Sierra Gorda Mountains. Just one of the many places my backpacker budget has helped me reach.

Budget Backpacking Basics

Here’s the most duh tip for planning any big trip, budget backpacking or otherwise: research your destination ahead of time. I don’t mean hit TripAdvisor to look at pretty pictures of the 20 Hottest Beachside Restaurants in Cancun!!, but instead you should find out what it costs to live and get around in the area for a few days or a few weeks or however long you’ll be staying.

A half liter draught beer in Mexico City costs about $2 USD, way cheaper than its $6 cousin in Amsterdam. But the same bottle of wine bought in the supermarket in both cities would cost north of $10 in Mexico City and less than $5 in Amsterdam. The moral: a ‘cheap place’ is not a cheap place. Figure out what the necessities cost, what’s a bargain, and what’s not before you go.

Here are some budget backpacking resources for investigating the trail ahead to prepare you and your bank account for what’s to come:

  • Numbeo. This one is the backpacker’s digital Swiss Army knife: Numbeo gathers information on everything from the price of a meal in a sit-down restaurant to the average costs of renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city center versus the outskirts. Use the super handy comparison tool to see how a handful of cities or countries on your upcoming trip line up with your current residence in terms of eating out, imbibing a beer, catching a cab, and shopping in the supermarket.
Budget Backpacking Numbeo

Numbeo, a budget-minded backpacker’s best friend. Here Mexico City comes in substantially more affordable than Amsterdam, but if you scroll down on the same page where I took this screenshot, you’ll appreciate the affordability of a good bottle of wine in Holland compared to Mexico.

  • Price of Travel. Priceoftravel.com calculates its trademark Backpacker Index by adding up: the price of a dorm bed at a “good and cheap hostel”, 3 “budget meals”, 2 public transportation rides, 1 paid cultural attraction, and 3 cheap beers as an “entertainment fund”. This is a great barometer for the backpacker with a bit of disposable income; for me, I usually skip the hostel (see ‘lodging’ below) and the paid cultural attraction, making my own daily Backpacker Index a solid $10-15 USD cheaper than what Price of Travel suggests.
  • Wikitravel. This user-generated travel guide is often more realistic and detailed than the major guides like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. On Wikitravel, real travelers write place descriptions and advice on topics like nightlife, gastronomy, public transportation, and safety. Scan the article on your destination for general comments on price and specific tips on places to go and things to do for cheap or free. Use the ‘find’ function (ctrl+f) to search for words like ‘free’ and ‘discount’ on the page.
  • Communities of Travelers. This is my personal favorite tool: crowdsourcing your travel info through a trusted travel network. On Couchsurfing, you can easily go to a city page and reach out to the local community for tips and information on their area. Another favorite of mine is the Nomads group on Facebook, where over 80,000 low-budget, nomadic or semi-nomadic travelers offer advice on locations from London and Argentina to Ljubljana and Angola.
Nomad Group Budget Backpacking

‘Nomads – a life of cheap/free travel’, or simply ‘the Nomads group’, is an enormous and surprisingly supportive group of budget travelers on Facebook. I often look there for advice on particular locations or travel topics.

Whatever tools you use, remember that dollars and conversion rates don’t tell as much as the price of a beer or a meal. Paying to ascend to the viewpoint in Mexico City’s Torre Latinoamericana will cost you 80 pesos (about $5.50 USD), but what does that really mean? Instead of dollars or pesos, measure it in universal currencies: 2 beers in a bar, 1 dinner in a fonda restaurant, a day’s groceries, or half a night in a hostel. This is the kind of information that helps you make better budgeting decisions.

Transportation: getting there like a budget backpacker

Transportation is one of the two biggest expenses in traditional travel, but it doesn’t need to be. Flights and trains and even buses can easily rack up to hundreds of dollars spent before you ever reach your destination, eating a huge chunk of the budget that could’ve been spent on — in Mexico City, for example — visiting the National Museum of Anthropology, seeing a football match in Estadio Azteca, or sipping some pulque in a pulquería.

So here’s my genius solution: don’t.

There’s a whole range of cheap and even free transportation options for budget backpackers. From cheapest to most expensive, here are the ones I use most frequently:

  • Hitchhiking. Forget every movie you’ve ever seen about hitchhikers getting murdered. Hitchhiking is generally free and safe in most of the world, and moreover a great way to meet locals in a capacity that you wouldn’t otherwise. There are some places I’ve avoided it for safety reasons, like Northern Mexico, but even there most people have no issues — my buddy Chris Road hitchhiked across the US-Mexico border and all the way to Honduras without incident. Check out my good friend Wei’s blog, Always a Wei, where he shares fantastic tips and stories from thumbing his way around Asia.
  • Discount buses. In regions like Central America and Eastern Europe it’s easy to find an intercity bus that won’t wreck your budget, and even in wealthier countries there are some good options. With Megabus (the US, Canada, and parts of Western Europe), booking far enough ahead of time will get you your ticket for 1 dollar/pound/euro. My normal strategy is to buy up a lot of Megabus tickets ahead of time — maybe one on each day from the 20-25 of a given month — so that I’ve only spent about $5 and can leave on whichever of those five days I please. You’re wasting $4 regardless, but you save $10-20 or more by not waiting until last minute to book it.
Budget Backpacking Megabus

Megabus, one of my favorite backpacking tools in North America and Europe. If you book far enough ahead of time, you’ll get your bus for just a buck: once I took an 8 hour bus from Cincinnati to Buffalo for just $1.

  • Rideshares. This one will vary a lot between countries based on oil prices, but at the moment petroleum is pretty cheap in most of the world, so it’s a good time to take a road trip. Check sites like Couchsurfing or travel groups on Facebook, or sites dedicated to rideshares, like BlaBlaCar in Europe or Zimride or Kangaride in North America.
  • Cheap flights. This topic will get its own full post at some point, but for now the important parts: use the right search engines and look for discount airlines. Skyscanner is generally your best starting point. If you’re in Europe, you’re in luck: with carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet you can hop around the continent for €20 or less. Most parts of the world seem to be getting these kinds of discount airlines these days, except the US, who continues to resist the trend here. A word of warning: skip Spirit Airlines, the American fake-Ryanair, who will hit you with baggage fees and other charges that make your ticket at least as expensive as a normal flight.
Budget Backpacking Rideshares

On my way back from the Franciscan Missions in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Mountains, with a rideshare I arranged through Couchsurfing.

Lodging: how to sleep on a backpacker’s budget

This is the other area where potential travelers are often overwhelmed by images of angry red dollar signs. Hotels, motels, inns, and bed and breakfasts are all expensive. Which is why I don’t use any of these.

Here are some budget backpacking options for cheap or free lodging on a weekend away or a long-term backpacking trip:

  • Couchsurfing. Anyone who’s read this blog before will know I’m a huge fan of Couchsurfing and the community surrounding it. It’s a giant hospitality network of international travelers through which you not only get a few free nights on a couch or bed, but you also get to know a local, who will know countless tips and tricks for the local scene that no guidebook will tell you. Be a good Couchsurfer and don’t abuse the community: you should view it as an exchange, not a free hotel. Get to know your host, maybe cook them a meal or buy them a drink, and pay it forward by hosting and helping other travelers when you can.
Budget Backpacking Hostel Home Reception

One of my colleagues behind the reception in the hostel where I’m volunteering in Mexico City right now.

  • Hostels. This one is perhaps the most obvious discount lodging choice, but not my favorite. In Western Europe and North America I avoid hostels altogether, because they’re too expensive for my budget (at least $20 USD a night and up to $50 or more in cities like New York and London). However, in countries like Bosnia, Morocco, and Mexico, I’ve stayed in great hostels for around $8-12 a night. It’s still more of my budget than I normally aim to spend on lodging, but now and then it’s energizing to share your space with a bunch of other travelers in a well-located area with an equipped kitchen and a clean bed.
  • Hostels (but not as a guest). A lot of hostels, especially in developing countries, are very open to guests showing up and volunteering their time in exchange for a bed. I see this frequently in Mexico City, where I’m currently doing the same at Hostel Home. Check in for a couple days, be a good guest, be sociable, and kiss up to the management a little bit, and a bed could be yours at the low price of wiping down some tables and sitting behind a desk for a few hours a day.
  • Work exchanges. I actually found my current hostel job through Workaway, perhaps the best-known work exchange among backpackers. On sites like Workaway, HelpX, or WWOOF, you can find volunteer jobs from language exchanges to short-term teaching jobs to reconstruction after natural disasters, all of which afford you a bed and even maybe a couple meals a day.
  • (Stealth) camping. A sturdy tent is a great investment for any budget backpacker. This one is almost a necessity for saving money while hitchhiking — I’ve learned the hard way that a failed hitchhiking attempt without a tent means you end up spending more money overnighting at a hotel than you would have just buying a bus or train ticket. In urban areas or along highways, you can stealth camp in the woods or an empty field, and in the countryside it’s a great way to explore nature and escape from cities and heavily populated tourist areas for a while.
Budget Backpacking Río Escanela Camping

Camping along the Río Escanela in the mountains in the northwest of Mexico’s Querétaro state.

The longer you travel, the more equally mobile friends you make, and the geographically wider your network of friends. After a couple years of frequent travel, you’ll find that half of the places you go, you won’t need to spare a thought for where you’ll sleep, because you’ve already got an old friend with a bed or couch waiting for you there.

These are most of the ways I save money (or avoid paying altogether) on where I sleep while on the road, but I’m sure other budget backpackers reading this can offer some more.

Other budget backpacking stuff

Once you’ve gotten where you’re going and arranged a place to rest your weary traveling head, the rest depends on your personal style and what ‘travel’ and ‘backpacking’ mean to you. Some travelers want to see and do ALL THE THINGS on their mile-long bucket lists, and others are ultra-low-budget holier-than-thou types who fancy themselves not pedestrian ‘tourists’ but rather travelers, a special breed of human who cannot be fooled by your capitalism and the common tastes of the masses.

I tend to find myself somewhere in the middle, sliding back and forth along the spectrum depending on my financial situation. Here are some miscellaneous budget backpacking tips on what happens after you’ve arrived and had a rest, given more from the tightass perspective:

  • Eating. Don’t eat out. Really easy. Unless you fancy yourself a gastro-tourist, it’s just not necessary. If you must eat out, skimp on the sides and don’t order drinks. Eat street food (which is usually cheap and delicious in developing countries). Shop in grocery stores and cook if you have access to a kitchen, and ask your Couchsurfing host to cook you a typical local meal. If there are no pots and pans in sight, stock up on backpacker food: canned meat, nuts, and fruits make up 90%+ of my diet while I’m on the road.
Budget Backpacking Market

Mercado Medellin, where I’m currently consuming the majority of my calories in Mexico. Street food and even eating out are cheap here, but still not as cheap as cooking in the hostel.

  • Drinking. I make sure I have a coffee budget so that I can sit down in a café and do a couple hours of work most days, so I usually scout out where I can find a cup of coffee for a dollar or less (which has been doable so far everywhere I’ve ever been). Buy a water bottle and get your water from public fountains or buy it in the grocery store. Buy beer and liquor at the store and drink before going out to minimize the amount you’ll spend at the bar. If you’re feeling ballsy, invest in a flask and see if you can smuggle it into the bar (especially in the US, where you can usually get a soda to mix it with for free).
  • Entertainment. ALWAYS Google ‘free things to do in [city]’. This list is discoverable anywhere that receives any amount of tourists, and it is your friend. Search for student discounts. If you studied abroad, hold onto that student ID in some weird language, because no one in Mexico has any idea that your Dutch student card expired a year and a half ago. Figure out what days museums offer free or discounted entry. Search for Couchsurfing meetups and events, and look for gatherings on meetup.com. Pop into hostels and ask for recommendations or see if they have local calendars of events.
Budget Backpacking British Museum

The British Museum, one of the many free attractions in notoriously pricey London. Finding free things to do like this are normally better than blowing money on the paid attractions anyways.

My guiding principle is that I want to enjoy myself for as long as possible, which means spending less today so that I can travel further tomorrow. At the moment I’m not too strapped for cash, so I generally splurge once a week on sitting down in a restaurant and maybe once more on some tequila shots at a dance club, as well as a touristy attraction every couple weeks.

Budget Backpacking Teotihuacán

The pyramids at Teotihuacán, one of the tourist bucket list items I’ve splurged on while in Mexico City. Even this cost altogether about $10 USD, including transportation.

 

Every traveler has to decide for her or himself what they’re after. Some people will read things in this article like “don’t eat out” and “never stay in hotels” and wonder why you’d travel at all if not for these luxuries, and that’s totally up to you. If ‘travel’ to you means pampering yourself a couple times a year after months of hard work, well then, sorry you read this.

My philosophy is that attractions are probably attractions because there’s something worth seeing about them, but that doesn’t mean my trip is wasted if I don’t see all (or any) of them. For me, ‘travel’ is about meeting people and working on my language skills and learning about the world. And budget backpacking is what enables me to do all that.

Do you have more budget backpacking tips? Did I miss something? Share your thoughts in a comment below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons.

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