How to Travel on a Budget

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ako želite da pročitate ovaj post na srpskom, kliknite ovde.

Recently I got a comment on my blog post on Warsaw saying "reading your traveling posts gives me a travel itch, and makes me want to pack up and wander away...". It came from a girl from Serbia. What I do know about it from my own experience is that she probably has to wait for her travel itch to be gone. Because she cannot scratch it. If you live in Serbia, chances are that your daily life is a constant struggle: pay the bills, buy food, and at the end of the day you may have enough to go out on weekends and/or visit the theatre, but traveling... it's a big issue. Maybe once a year - to the seaside. Some even go to the mountains in the winter. The majority, however, just has to let the travel itch go.

But there are ways to travel on the cheap, and even though I do live a life that could be seen as a bit more glamorous than the one I led in Serbia, I am still the happiest when I find a cheap deal. So even if you can afford traveling, it's always good to save even the little bits that you can later spend on food, souvenirs, or whatever makes you happy once you are away.

Deciding on a destination
If there is a place you want to visit so badly, this probably isn't difficult. If, on the other hand, you just want to go anywhere, turn this into an advantage by choosing amongst the cheapest destinations. And remember: cheapest doesn't necessarily mean closest, or the most boring! Which mean of transport do you want to use? Are you ready to spend longer time on the road in order to save the money? How much time have you got? If you only want to get away for a weekend, then it probably wouldn't be a good idea to spend 12 hours on the bus. But if it's much cheaper, you might want to consider that too! Living close to Berlin made me a bit spoiled in the sense that I got used to planes, but I took the bus to Warsaw, even though it takes around 8 hours - because it's much cheaper!

When deciding on where to go, you should always remember that not only fancy countries and highly touristic places are worth your time (and money). Yes, if you're in Europe, you probably want to see London, Paris, Rome (so did I, and they are indeed worth seeing), but why not consider Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Baltic countries? If you're close to any of those, it's probably cheaper to get there, and they too offer a lot. For example, I always suggest people go to Belgrade. I don't think I've ever met anyone who had been there and didn't like it. Serbian mountains are also great. Croatian coast is beautiful. I haven't been to Bosnia yet, but I really want to, and I mean, look at this!

The key point in deciding on a destination is having all the information possible. So google, google, google! There is also a pretty little useful tool for deciding: Skyscanner. I usually use it to find the cheapest airlines, but if you just want to go anywhere, leave the destination bar empty and state the dates (or even months). And there it goes, showing you the cheapest deals.

And one more thing: visas! If you don't really care where exactly you would travel, as long as it's traveling, try avoiding countries you need visa for if it's too expensive.

Oh, but here and there there are ways to surpass this obstacle. For example, you can enter Russia without
a visa by boat - even if you normally need one - and stay up to 72 hours. There are ferries to Saint Petersburg
 from Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm, so you might want to keep that in mind. SPB is a beautiful city,
and I highly recommend it (more on it if you click on the SPB tag in the tag cloud on the right). 

Getting there
Ok, so now you know where to go. The next question is how to get there. If it's reasonably close (and I'm aware that reasonably here means different things to different people), consider bus or a train. If you're traveling around Europe, buses can sometimes be really cheap (and I mean really cheap, some companies, for example, offer the first few tickets for a euro), and also fun - I traveled to Berlin from Warsaw with Simple Express and they have little screens on the bus, so I watched two movies haha. Most companies offer free wifi on board. Not those coming from poorer countries - some of them don't even have electric plugs. (Had I heard myself saying this a year ago, I would've thought it was coming from a crazy person. Electric plugs and wifi on the bus?! Well, I guess EU did spoil me a bit. :))

What I must note here is that also one year ago I probably wouldn't have considered going anywhere on a 8-hour bus ride, but now I want to get most of the world, so if it means going somewhere by bus and saving money I would've spent on a flight, yes, let's do it!

Of course, if you're traveling overseas or to Asia, plane is the most reasonable option. But even then it doesn't have to be crazy expensive. Find out what months of the year are cheaper. Consider nearby airports. (Just recently I stumbled upon a Berlin-New York return flight for about 250 euros! The catch is that it goes to Newark airport - it's probably a more distant one, and there are probably some boring layovers, but hey, 250 euros!!) Of course, in that case you would want to check how much it is to get to the city you're traveling to from the airport, because it might be the case that the overall price is not considerably cheaper. Few years ago I flew to London from Belgrade for 50 euros, but getting to London on a shuttle bus was actually 10 more, so the price was basically 70 euros. It was still much cheaper than flying with major companies, but you know, this should also be taken into account.

No, this wasn't exactly how I got to Lapland :) Finland, 2013

This is the second big expense when traveling. But actually it's even possible not to pay anything for the accommodation!

If you're reading this, you probably don't want to go to a hotel. But just in case: you might find something on EuroCheapo (for Europe), TripAdvisor (really reliable, as you get to read common people's reviews), Kayak. If you're traveling with a big group, or just want to feel coziness of a home, you might want to try Airbnb. I did it twice, in Helsinki and Brussels, and I wrote a bit about my experience in Brussels here. But let me say it again: it may be cheaper than a hotel/hostel, you can read the reviews of people who stayed at the place before you, and I think in general hosts are nice and trying to please their guests. If you don't mind staying in a room with a lot of strangers, you might want to go to a hostel. Sometimes they even have rooms with less beds, so you stay with your co-travelers only (it's a bit more expensive then though). They usually have common areas where you can meet other travelers and who knows, make friends?

Now you probably wonder how it's possible to have free accommodation. The first option is rather clear: if you have a friend or family in that city/area willing to host you, it's an ideal situation. That is how I went to Beijing, Paris, Regensburg, Helsinki, Zurich - and how I plan to go to London, Brighton, Barcelona... long live friends and family abroad! :) If you don't, don't worry - maybe somebody you know knows someone willing to host you. It's worth a shot! For example, three years ago I went to London and stayed at friend's of a friend. It was a bit (okay, a lot) far from the centre, but hey, free accommodation! Another point here comes straight away. If you stay at someone's for free, you don't want to be too picky or grumpy. They're providing you with a free place to stay, so show some gratitude. A little something from your country/town would also be a plus. Needless to mention, their house - their rules. If they have to get out of the place early in the morning, get out with them. You'll sleep long when you get home. (Anyway, sleeping long on a holiday is a bad idea in general - you want to see as much as possible.)

For example, I had many stairs to conquer here because my bestie felt like walking. China, 2012

If you've asked all your friends and nobody knows anyone residing where you want to go, it's still possible not to spend money on accommodation - but you have to be open-minded and in the mood for something different. I'm talking about CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing is an online platform for people providing free accommodation and those asking for it. In practice it's a community of supercool people worldwide. I even fell in love with my first CS host - but I'm not telling the whole story. ;) (Maybe if I publish a chicklit book one day.) You might wonder why in the world you would stay with a person you don't know. Well, CS works on the basis of reviews - and I'd say they're pretty trustful, because if you have a bad experience with someone, you want to warn people about it. On the other hand, when it's a nice one, you want to share it and give others opportunity to experience it themselves. CS hosts are usually - at least in my experience - nice, open, talkative people, laid-back and easy going. Some of them would gladly show you around, others are too busy but will provide you with infos about their town. Some of them would include you in their daily life activities - that's how I played dodgeball in Shanghai, that was an embarrassing experience. I think the key to a successful CS experience is being as open as possible, because in general people don't really want you to take advantage of them just because they offer free accommodation - they want you to show interest in the area, share your stories and such. I'd say CS is not for everyone - and I don't even think it's for me alone. I've surfed with friends only - usually those more talkative than me. It's easier to jump into a conversation once it's started. :p

Another important point when it comes to CS and staying at friends': you don't want to mess up their usual life. Don't impose. Staying for one, two or even three nights is okay, but I think everything more than three nights is too much. If you really want to stay longer for some reason, it would be good to go to another CS host, or maybe to a hostel - completely ok if you haven't got enough money for the whole trip, but you do for a part of it. Whatever suits you best - just ask yourself if you'd find it ok to have a guest for a week. Probably not.

You have a plan on where you're going, how to get there and where to stay. Excellent, the majority of the job is done! But you don't want to leave it all up to the moment just yet. So, there is probably a reason why you want to go to exactly this place and a list of things you want to see. Antique ruins? Museums? City squares? Cathedrals? Sometimes they cost money - sometimes they don't. Again, google. Use maps. Make the best itinerary possible. Browse forums for recommendations. Sometimes it's possible to find discounts - use them! Think about the time you will spend there and be reasonable - if you want to visit, for example, the British Museum or the Louvre, remember that you should probably reserve at least 4-5 hours to do so. But I'll dare and say this: don't let your visit be only about the major sights. Let yourself explore. Walk. Look, listen, smell. (But first ask the locals if there are any unsafe areas, and then try to avoid them. Actually, don't try. Just avoid them.)

Of course you cannot go there and forget taking a photo with this, duh! 2014

If I'm residing in one city, my favorite means of transportation is my legs. Sometimes, however, they're just not enough - if it's a city too big, or you want to explore the countryside as well. Public transportation price can be pain in the ass, but sometimes it's inevitable. Stay informed before you get to the desired place and include its cost in your calculation - it'll save you from trouble later on. If there are daily tickets - use them! Sometimes it's possible to enter a train or a bus without a valid ticket, but DON'T do that. The tolls are a lot higher than the price of a single ticket, not to mention the potential embarrassment. And stick to your purse. Helsinki is the safest place on the planet, but others are not, and especially if it's very crowded you'd rather not worry about losing your money, passport, camera or whatever.

I don't know about you, but food is an important part of my travels. You know how they say, for example, that the Chinese cuisine is different in China than elsewhere? It is, and it probably applies to all the other cuisines of the world. So why not try the original stuff? After all, when in Rome... Anyway, food can be really expensive somewhere, and other places are known to be cheap as hell (Asia!). If you're in Western or Northern Europe, for example, I'd suggest having one local meal a day. If you know that you'd be walking a lot, go for some sandwiches, and it's cheaper if you just go to a supermarket and buy some basic groceries - bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes, whatever. Make the sandwiches in the morning and off you go! Then you will have saved enough for a meal in a restaurant. You have to do it at least once. After all, it's not a regular daily life, you're on a vacation - so pamper yourself! :) Don't forget to include bottles of water and maybe a fruit or a chocolate bar in your purse - you'll be happy you'd thought of it. On the other hand, if you're in Asia, you may eat out all the time, it's sooo cheap - it's also a hell lot more interesting than having homemade sandwiches. Just be careful if you have a sensitive stomach.

These scorpions and bugs are not that gross at all. But they're not really national cuisine either, it's more of a
touristy thing (=expensive + the locals were amused to see me eating them). China, 2012

(Speaking of Asia - make some effort and learn how to use chopsticks. My best friend, who is a Chinese language major, had been trying to teach me for years, and I resisted, saying "I'll learn when I actually need it". It was on a plane to Beijing that I realised I was going to China and had no idea how to use chopsticks. It was a hell during the first week. It got better in the second. Also, don't complain. You might not like some food and it's normal, but don't be a brat about it. And again: be open to new experiences. Going to McDonald's is okay if it's the cheapest option and you're trying to save as much as possible. It's NOT okay if you refuse to try the local cuisine - you could've just stayed at home as well. And just because something looks or smells weird, doesn't mean it's bad. It could be. But it might not. You'll never know if you don't try.)

And one more thing you might forget about. Eat before your departure. Sometimes I would rush to get to the airport and forget about food, so once I get there, I starve and have to eat - at least twice as expensive sandwich than it is in the city. It's a stupid expense, so avoid it! Also, if your ride/flight takes a long time, pack some foodies - otherwise you probably won't end up hungry as they have food on planes or at gas stations, but again, it's more expensive than usually. Waste of money IMHO.

During the USA-Belgium match I saw a tweet saying "I can't believe we're losing to a country where they dip
 their French fries in fucking mayonnaise" - hey there, Belgian fries are the best! Bruges, 2014

I don't promote smoking, but if you're a smoker, make sure you bring enough packs with you - you don't want to spend your money on cigarettes, especially if they're way more expensive than in your home country (they're really expensive in the EU). Unless, of course, you're travelling to a cheap place - I think in Russia, for example, they're really cheap.

Try to be reasonable with souvenirs. I get carried away easily and I still have to master this, but I decided that there are three things that are an absolute must: a fridge magnet for me, one for my parents, and a postcard I later paste onto my wardrobe (an old tradition, I saw this in my aunt's room and loved it). Everything else for anyone else can be skipped. Of course, it's always nice to get something to your friends/family, but try not to stress about it. If you're really traveling on the cheap, they'll understand.

If you're traveling abroad, don't forget to disable mobile data on your smartphone. Yes, chasing free wifi can be pretty annoying, and you want to share all those pretty photos on Instagram, but mobile data roaming is unbelievably expensive - plus, if you're a postpaid user, you won't have an idea until you get your monthly bill. And you don't want it to leave a big stain on your trip. Also, try to minimize the use of mobile phone - even received calls can cost much when abroad.

Pre-Instagram era: being hit by a love arrow in London, 2011

This one may sound odd - but check the weather forecast and pack enough clothes so you don't have to buy. Include some extras - you never know when they might come in handy. But on the other hand, don't bring too much. If you're a girl, you've probably experienced carrying too many clothes "just in case", but this "case" never happened and you ended up wearing same two pairs of jeans and few tees. This is especially important if you're flying - a piece of hand luggage can meet all your three days' needs - don't get carried away so you pay extra fees for an overweight piece. (They charge too much, especially on low cost flights - experienced this, so I know what I'm talking about.) And the same applies on the way back - so try to resist the urge to buy every single cute and cheap thing you see. Of course, you may buy something. I love having a piece of clothes or jewellery that reminds me of my trip. But something like a museum ticket, subway ticket, or a beer pad can also be reminder. (I'm a beer pad hoarder.)

The most important thing
Have fun! Traveling is beautiful. I wish it was equally available to everyone. The more you see, the more you understand and the better of a person you become. It takes money to go traveling, yes, but the experiences you get are really priceless.

You don't have to go all the way to the other hemisphere to have winter in August! Norway, 2009

I hope you found this post useful. If you want to see more of the places I've been since I started blogging, click the "traveling" tag in the tag cloud. If you're interested in anything else considering this post, feel free to ask! Do you have any travel tips? It'd be awesome if you shared them in the Comments section! :)



P.S. What Solo Travel Taught MeHow to Pack in a Carry-on for Three Weeks


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