Ultimate Guide to Budget Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Budget Travel

Big travels on a little budget

Before I moved to Europe and really began traveling, I had always associated a jet setting lifestyle with the global elite; people who could afford to buy a ticket to a far-flung locale and somehow afford accommodations for days, weeks or even months on end. Following that logic, I reluctantly accepted that ticking off all of the boxes for my bucket list adventures may never happen. Keep in mind, as an American, young adults are not encouraged to go on gap years — the traditional university route is widely accepted to be the more socially appropriate course.

I had been familiar with hosteling, of course, and in college knew people who headed to Europe or Asia for a summer experience, but it wasn’t until I moved and met many European globetrotters that I understood the real depth of budget opportunities. So, if you’re dreaming of setting out on a big travel experience – or a round the world trip! – here are some resources and tips to keep in mind for traveling big on a tiny budget.

Transportation {Flights}

There’s no doubt about it, flights can be a huge expense when you’re budgeting for travel. Where I find I can often times book hotel rooms the day of and secure a discounted price, flights are not same. A study done by CheapAir.com shows that buying 54 days prior to a flight is optimal, with flights booked further in advance for international flights. I typically book international flights 3 – 6 months in advance to find the best deal.

Fly on Miles // For The Loyal Flyers

1For a long time, I steered clear of being loyal to an airline. I flew whichever airline was cheapest and didn’t think twice about it. Then I got sucked in to American’s program and have since scored free flights using miles. For folks that fly frequently within the US, don’t discount airlines like Southwest who have great ‘Wanna Getaway’ fares that can be secured for minimal miles.

SkyScanner + TravelZoo // For Single Destination Travel

2I’ve written before about how much I love SkyScanner, and my love has yet to dwindle. I scored my parents a roundtrip ticket from California to the Caribbean (St. Maarten) for $505 roundtrip. We’d previously paid in the neighborhood of $750 – $800 or more for that same ticket. This isn’t for those that are tied to an airline but when it comes to scoring a deal, I’ve found some great options. The same can be said for sources like TravelZoo. I subscribe to their Top 20 newsletter and have found some incredible deals on airfare. A great example? When I moved to London, I flew direct from San Francisco for $250. Remember, if you know where you’re looking to fly – a main hub, perhaps – engage an alert so you’re notified when prices drop!

One World Explorer, et al. // For RTW Trips

3Many airlines offer round the world ticket options for those looking for a truly global experience. Star Alliance offers their Round the World Fare and One World Alliance offers their Global Explorer or One World Explorer options (One World Explorer allows you to choose how many continents you’ll be visiting, with up to 16 segments booked). They work in roughly the same fashion: you put in your point of origin and then select ongoing destinations that will be part of your itinerary, with the terminal point being the same as your starting point. Prices will vary, and aren’t cheap, but do provide a bit of incentive for those hitting many locales.

Regional Airlines // For Regional Explorers

4So, you’re not up for a RTW trip but are looking to explore a region. In this case, keep your eyes peeled for regional flight deals. For example, One World offers an Asia pass that allows you to fly around the continent on Cathay Pacific, Royal Jordanian and others using a simple rate structure. The folks over at Family Travel Forum talk about their $1200 ticket that granted them entry into 8 countries within a 30 day period. Considering what single legs can cost, that’s a steal!

Likewise, Seabourn Airlines is currently offering a Caribbean island hopping pass for $699. Traveling within the islands can be very expensive despite the short distances so package offerings like this can represent a huge savings. There is a time frame within the flights must be used but you can fly to any island serviced by Seabourn.

Other airlines and groups offer Air Passes for different regions so dig a bit deeper and find out what’s available. Some of the promotions aren’t ongoing so keep yourself looped in by following airlines on social channels so you can learn about deals when they arise.

Southwest, AirAsia, EasyJet // For No-Frills Short Flights

5If I learned anything while traveling within Europe, it was how to pack light. I flew EasyJet almost exclusively (unless there was a cheaper, more convenient flight on a line like AerLingus or Alitalia) and quickly learned that their restrictions on weight and dimensions are no joke. The airlines are pretty basic and are strict about the luggage requirements but they’ll get you from Point A to Point B pretty inexpensively.

Know of other great budget airlines to score cheap flights? Share them in the comments below!

Transportation {Ground Transportation}

Inca Rail, Peru

Perhaps flying from destination to destination is not your style. Instead, maybe you want to see the landscape while traveling from Point A to Point B (to Point C, to Point D…). There are lots of budget travel options for bus and train travel if you’re looking to go that route. Some are cheaper than others but your choice will depend on how budget you want to be and where you fall on the time vs. money continuum.

Eurail, Amtrak, etc. // Long Distance Travel by Train

  • For US travel, look at Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass options which allow you to choose from 15 days/8 segments, 30 days/12 segments or 45 days/18 segments depending on the trip you have in mind.
  • In Europe, train travel is a common option for budget travelers as it represents one of the better values for longer rail experiences and can allow for more flexibility. A Eurail Pass is a famously good option and allows you to choose from single country passes, two country passes, 4 country passes or a custom itinerary for trips that go beyond that (the Global Pass is good for up to 24 countries). I’ve had a number of experiences with European train travel and have had great experiences each and every time.
  • In South America, train travel options exist in many countries with varying degrees of efficiency and comfort. Check out Seat61’s guide to South American rail options for greater details depending on which countries you’re interested in visiting.
  • In Asia, it will largely depend where you’re going as investment in infrastructure is hugely varied. In China, you can  check out China Highlights for tickets within the country. As an example, you can get a second class ticket from Beijing to Shanghai for $94. For a broader, albeit much more expensive, option, check out the Trans-Siberian Railway which connects China with Mongolia and Russia.
  • From what I’ve seen in Africa, many of the longer distance train opportunities are focused on the luxury experience (Blue Train for example, which is roughly $1300 for a ride from Cape Town to Pretoria).

If you’re familiar with any great train options in South America, Africa and/or Asia, please leave your thoughts and insight in the comments below!

Eurolines, Mekong Travel Pass, etc. // For Travel by Bus

Buses, while not the most glam of options, can certainly be a great route for budget travelers looking to explore many great locales without having to worry about flights or more expensive train travel. Buses can be an extraordinarily good value but do be aware that trips can be very long and roads can be very rough in developing areas. Certain regions with larger backpacking population are a bit more well worn and buses are a bit more versed in getting around. Here are a few options, depending on which region interests you.

  • In Europe, check out the Eurolines pass which gives you access to 41 cities across Europe and total flexibility with travel destinations. You can choose from 15 or 30 day passes and prices are available for youth (under 26). A 30 day youth pass is around $330 in low season and $500 in high season.
  • In the US, Greyhound is your best bet if you’re looking for bus travel across many states. They have Web Only Fares that are significantly less than in-person rates.  You can go from San Francisco to LA for around $15, or SF to Vegas for around $35. As far as I can tell, you have to book each leg independently (there’s not a US pass). Also, check out Megabus which now serves many areas in the United States for shorter legs of travel (it’s less prevalent on the West Coast). For example, you can get from DC to New York for as little as $3 one way (rush hour is typically 5 – 10x as much).
  • For Central America, check out Bamba Experience’s ‘Complete Central America‘ package. The packages are super flexible so you can make changes to your itinerary before or during your trip so it follows the path that’s best for you. This particular option starts in Cancun and ends in Panama City with stops in Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica and more.The recommended time is 23 days and the cost is around $1350.
  • In Southeast Asia, check out Stray’s Mekong Travel Pass which grants you access to what is essentially a hop on – hop off bus in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Entry to a number of sites is included with the $1368 pass. You can start and end anywhere on the route since it’s situated in a loop! Country-specific options are available as well if you want something less broad.
  • In South America, Bamba offers a number of routes depending on which areas pique your interest. You can choose a route that starts in Lima and ends in Santiago with their Pacific Ways South trip, stopping at other coastal cities along the way (it’s $899 and they recommend around 22 days to complete the trip).
  • In New Zealand, Flexitrips offers flexible bus passes for exploring both the North and South Islands. You can choose options that allow between 5 and 30 trips, and an option that includes the interislander ferry.
  • In Southern Africa, check out Intercape, the largest intercity passenger transport operating in South Africa, Namibia, Malawi and other countries. BazBus is a good option for bus travel within South Africa specifically.


Couchsurfing // Free Stays in Local Homes

1Couchsurfing (here) has become wildly popular for budget travelers and the community represents 7 million people that are traveling the world and staying with locals. Though I haven’t personally gone this route (and, to be honest, I’d be hesitant as as lone female traveler), I’ve had friends who have done this with wonderful experiences to share. Accommodations often represent a huge expense when traveling; to be able to cut this cost entirely can make traveling more extensively a much more feasible option.

WWOOF // Room & Board for Services

2WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it’s actually something I looked into when I was coming to the end of my graduate school stint. Knowing I’d be headed back to the US (womp, womp), I wanted to find a way to continue seeing the world without having to spend loads of money. With WWOOF, opportunities are available worldwide in a number of environments (think olive farms in Italy and coffee farms in Peru), and typically require 4 – 6 hours of work in exchange for a place to stay and a full day’s worth of food.

Had experiences with WWOOF? Please feel free to share your thoughts + experience in the comments section below!

Housesitting // Free Stays for Week-plus Stays

3I first was really introduced to the concept of housesitting after communicating with the team at Suitcase Stories, a blog focused on housesitting experiences. The concept had me a bit skeptical, but it’s all totally valid. There are people around the globe seeking out trustworthy sitters for their house and/or pets. With a quick glance, I spotted opportunities from London to Costa Rica, with thousands of listings around the globe.

HomeAway, VRBO, et al. // Inexpensive Group Lodging

4When I began brainstorming ideas for an upcoming milestone birthday, I headed to HomeAway to find a house that could accommodate 8+ people in my desired location. What I quickly discovered was that the results span the gamut. Yes, there are drool-inducing estates but there are also incredibly affordable villas that provide a great deal for groups (or even just a pair traveling together). Look outside of a central city area if you want lower rates (and are okay with having to rent a car or call a cab for transport). You can find deals around the world and rates are often seasonal. If you’re flexible, you can score homes in places like Tuscany for the equivalent of around $25 per person per night. Bonus: remember that staying in a house will help you save on food costs since you’ll have a kitchen at your disposal!

Hosteling, International // For Hosteling Around the World

5Lest I skip the most obvious of choices for budget travelers, I can’t discount the ever-present hostel. Hostels are a famously good option for those traipsing around Europe but they’re found around the globe from Algeria to Vietnam. Often times, hostels are well situated and offer great additions like free wi-fi and inexpensive dining options. Sign up for Hosteling International’s membership to get discounts on hostels and activities while traveling. If you’re not concerned about having your own room, most hostels offer dorm-style setups with bunk beds and rooms for up to 16 people or more. Rooms of 10+ are not uncommon. I once stayed in a place called The Tent in Munich which housed dozens of people under one massive tent.

Obviously price is hugely dependent on where you’re going, but rates are generally very inexpensive in comparison to local competition. For example, a hostel in Bolivia costs $4.50 per night for a shared room with 4 other people. If you want a private space, you’ll fork over $8.90 a night. Not too shabby. By comparison, in a major developed city like Sydney, your entry level rate in a shared room is around $33 per night.

Are there any other accommodation options that I’ve neglected to mention that work for budget travelers? Do you have any experiences with the options I’ve just listed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


Eurotrip, Athens, Greece

Youth works on your side when it comes to scoring deals on must-see sights and popular attractions. As I mentioned above in the hosteling section, showing your Hosteling International card will have benefits when it comes to cultural immersion experiences. Don’t forget to bring your student ID with you, either. Many places around the world offer great discounts or free entry (or designated freebie nights) to individuals bearing a valid student identification. A few examples based on my personal experiences: free entry at the Acropolis in Greece, discounted entry to the Louvre, discounts on European rail tickets, and incredibly inexpensive tickets to musicals across London (I once scored Grade A tickets to a performance of Wicked in London’s West End for £15 instead of the typical £60+).

You can also check out the International Student Identity Card (ISIC) which is internationally recognized and offers global benefits to card carriers.


Food Trucks, Treasure Island Flea Market

When it comes to dining, I always found it a plus if my chosen accommodation had breakfast included. What that means will differ based on the accommodation and the destination, but I’d be happy to start my day with a cup of coffee and something light before heading out to explore. Some hotels boast an extra large buffet option (this was the case when we were in Prague) where you can load up in the AM and sometimes not be hungry again until around dinner time.

I have never eaten at an American chain when traveling though I realize some American fast food spots can provide inexpensive options. Instead, I’m a fan of street food where I’m nearly certain that it’s safe (I suppose you can never be 100% certain). In Turkey, that was hummus and pita at a hole-in-the-wall spot; in Paris that was an inexpensive crepe at box-sized kiosk. There are options, and you don’t have to give up local flavor and a cultural experience just because you can’t splurge on a fancy dinner by a famous local chef.

Now it’s your turn to share your experiences and best-kept secrets! Is there anything that I’ve forgotten on this list? How have you managed to experience great travels on a little budget?

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.