Learning to travel on a budget can turn dream destinations into a reality. As someone who’s spent the past three years traveling on a shoestring budget, nothing’s taught me more about budget travel than getting my wallet stolen three days into a six-week trip.
Using a little flexibility and innovation, I visited Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Thailand and Denmark on a $2,700 travel budget. Here’s how.
Saving before my trip
Finding a mistake fare on Priceline.com for a one-way ticket from New York to Bangkok, via Milan and Prague, for just over $300 was the swift kick that got me started on my budget trip. With only a month to save for a six-week excursion, my first step was to cut expenses, namely from eating out.
Eliminating dining out saved me about $100 a week, in addition to the extra income I was earning picking up bartending shifts in the evenings. For my visit to Thailand, I also arranged a week of work cooking on a boat, a hobby-turned-skill that has become a major supplement to my travel funds.
By the time I was ready to leave, I had about $1,500 saved and expected another $1,000 from my week of work on the road. My budget came to $35 a day, which would call for diligent budgeting in Europe – but left a lot of freedom once I got to Thailand.
Getting around with low-cost transport
Being flexible with my travel plans allowed me to book low-cost transportation. Being open to indirect routes, I was able to make it from New York to Bangkok for just over $400. I booked separate flights through Copenhagen on Norwegian airlines and stayed in Copenhagen during a week-long layover. By building a familiarity with budget airlines and their major hubs, I was able to create my own connections at a reduced cost.
For overland travel, Rome2rio.com was my go-to site for getting between cities. From Venice to Ljubljana, Slovenia, I was able to reserve a rideshare for $18 on BlaBlaCar.com, less than half the price of taking the bus. When I did take the bus, train or flights, some lower-cost fares were at night, sometimes eliminating my need to book a room.
Booking the right accommodations
In designing my budget, picking the right hostel was my first priority. Though centrally located hostels tend to be slightly more expensive, I didn’t have to use subways, buses and taxis as much.
When I arrived in Ljubljana, freshly pick-pocketed, my friend offered me a place to stay just outside of the city. I realized, however, it would be more expensive getting in and out of the city than just booking a hostel near attractions. I ended up staying both at Hostel Tresor and Hostel Celica, a former-prison-turned hostel.
In Europe, HostelWorld.com helped me cut back on spending. On average, I found hostels in Europe cost about $15 per night, leaving $20 for my remaining daily expenses.
After I ran into financial issues, I turned to Facebook. There, friends living within reasonable distance of Slovenia offered up their couches, and I reworked my itinerary so I could stay in cities where I could couch-surf. So while my expenses visiting Venice were unavoidably high, having a free place to stay helped to get me back on track.
Exploring foreign cities on a budget
While adjusting to my low-budget lifestyle, one of my favorite parts of the trip ended up being exploring new cities on foot. In the process of trying to save on taxis and metro tickets, I got into the habit of preloading Google maps onto my phone and getting lost roaming random streets.
In Milan, a large but walkable city, I was able to take the metro to the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and explore the streets on foot. I stumbled across Chinatown and the trendy Brera area, which I might not have otherwise gotten to experience. Where larger cities like Budapest made walking more difficult, I was able to take the metro there to the infamous Szechenyi Thermal Bath for less than $1 round trip.
When it came to getting deals on day trips, putting in some research proved worthwhile. In Slovenia, one of my major goals was to see Lake Bled, an ethereal church on an island by itself in the middle of a serene lake. My hostel sold day trips there, but after asking around, I found a local bus for $15, about one-third of the price the hostel offered.
Similarly, Let It Bee Hostel in Koh Lanta, Thailand, sold tickets to Phuket, but it charged a $5 convenience fee for not walking to the station yourself.
Food and entertainment
For me, the most important part of low-cost travel is staying within my budget while ensuring I don’t feel like I’m missing out on experiences. The highlight of my stays in Budapest and Bratislava, Slovakia, ended up being the city’s free walking tours.
Free Budapest Walking Tours and Be Free Tours, for instance, provided three- to five-hour guided tours of the city’s main attractions for the price of a $5 to $10 tip. After getting an overview of the city, I was able to go back the following days and revisit Budapest’s notorious Szimpla Kert Ruin Pubs, Bud Castle and the gorgeous Parliament building, among other attractions that piqued my interest during the tour.
Similarly, in Bratislava, our walking tour guide recommended we try Bryndzove halusky, a dumpling, meat and cheese specialty of the country. On a recommendation from another person on the tour, I visited the Slovak Pub to split the hearty dish with others.
Visiting Italy, a country renown for its cuisine, was exciting for me as a chef and equally hazardous as a budget traveler. Fortunately, Italy – Milan, in particular – is famous for its “aperitivo,” a happy hour during which customers can enjoy an appetizer buffet with a drink purchase. For the two nights I was there, I was able to avoid dinner altogether, spending my evenings on the restaurant-filled banks of the Navigli canals, enjoying traditional Italian antipasti and an Aperol spritz.
While eating on a budget generally meant I avoided restaurants, every now and then I splurged on a nice meal. While exploring on foot in Ljubljana, I enjoyed $6 meals on a two-course menu at Druga Violina, which ended up being my go-to lunch spot during my week there.
Ljubljana also had plenty of budget-friendly restaurants with student specials, including Zhong Hua, a Chinese restaurant with a set student menu for $6, and Falafel, a Middle Eastern fast food joint with delicious $4 wraps.
After making the mistake of eating at a tourist spot in Venice, I realized eating like the locals was the way to go. In Thailand, I didn’t eat a single meal in a restaurant, opting instead for its famous street food, which cost about $2 per meal. Terminal 21, a mall in Bangkok, also featured a food court – with dishes starting at $1.50 – for when I wanted to escape the midday Bangkok heat.
Of all the tips I learned while traveling, almost all of it could be boiled down to one fundamental principle: Be social.
Talking to other travelers and locals afforded me many opportunities for adventure I might not have otherwise learned about. Finding out about Metelkova in Ljubljana, an avant-garde artists community with Friday night parties, is probably something I would have missed on my own.
In Vienna, I was taken on a walk through the Christmas markets. In Thailand, a talk with a few Swedes ended up with me hopping on the back of a motorbike for a sunset tour of Koh Lanta.
Not only have fellow travelers guided me to some great sights, restaurants and unique experiences, but making new friends has provided me with places to stay and homes away from home around the world.
In Bratislava, Slovakia, at A Wild Elephants Hostel, staff frequently engaged with guests. Not only is the hostel one of the cheapest in the city, but the staff have a $3 community dinner where you can meet other travelers. There, when I mentioned to one of the employees how I was pick-pocketed, and my intentions to go to Vienna, they told me how someone had left half of a round-trip ticket from Vienna to Bratislava and that I could have it for free.
It’s these kinds of experiences that make traveling so enjoyable – and made me feel like part of a global community.
The bottom line
By thinking outside the box and being open to unconventional travel methods, I was able to see eight countries over six weeks on a travel budget some would spend on a one-week luxury vacation. More importantly, I never felt like I was missing out on experiences in any of the places I visited. The trip taught me that the journey can be made – and be worth it – no matter the budget.
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