The thoughts of long-term travel will no doubt garner many questions and assumptions from people. There is one question I wish to address that most sadly gets forgotten or glossed-over during conversation, and that question relates to how much it costs us to travel long-term. That question rarely gets answered, partly because I simply forget to mention exactly how inexpensive it is ($15 each per day) and largely because people just do not ask, due to decorum. The assumption in this case is that Fiona and I have a substantial amount of wealth, and that assumption is totally wrong. So in this post I will lay bare the burning question of just how much it costs to travel with a meagre budget and perhaps along the way I can convince you to give it a try yourself, if but only for a brief spell.
Hotels: $4 – $10 Each Per Night
I also hope to do away with the assumption that long-term travel is a time for luxuriating pool-side with a fancy cocktail, all the while being waited upon by attentive staff. Those things are fine and wonderful, but they tend to elude those on a $15 budget. Understand, long-term budget travel is not at all glamorous and it often means lowering your standards quite a bit; think like a local, not like a tourist. The most we paid for a room during our first year of long-term travel was $10 each per night in Panama, and that still got us air conditioning, cable television and a wi-fi signal. Some of the best values were in Nicaragua, where we paid $4 each; keep in mind any hotel room in these price ranges will be basic and unadorned, and at times they may be a bit unkempt. If you want an oceanfront room in a hotel with its own beach in Nicaragua, how does $6 each per night on the amazingly idyllic Big Corn Island sound to you?
If you know where to go in this world you can score that notion of beach romps and fizzy cocktail drinks (minus the attentive staff), all the while knowing you have saved a bundle. Keep in mind you can always seek out accommodation in any price range if you demand the finest, but you should be pleasantly surprised to know you can get a nice oceanfront room for the cost of a snack back home. While sharing our stories of travel, people are often quite amazed by how cheap a room can cost in certain parts of the world and by the quality of those rooms. We really do swear by hotels instead of hostels as far as true value is concerned.
Food: 5¢ – $9 Each Per Day
Believe it or not, we ate some damn tasty food on the road with our strict budget, and it was quite the value. Again, you must realize there are plenty of places where only the locals eat, and they are cheap and authentic. Bakeries represent a phenomenal value where you can get big bread rolls for 5¢, and for a few pennies more you can acknowledge your sweet tooth with some truly decadent goodies. If you want to eat healthy, bring your coins to the market for some fresh fruit.
The most we paid for a meal during our first year-long trip was $9 for a bowl of Tapado soup; a coconut broth soup with a mixture of 5 or 6 types of seafood, famous in Livingston, Guatemala. To this day that soup remains one of the best meals we have ever eaten. We even once paid $6 each for a leg-sized whole fish, butterflied and cooked to order, along with 2 beers each, all served to us at our beach-side table in Mazatlan, Mexico. One can eat very, very well for a few dollars.
Transportation: Free – $75 Each Per Day
Hitchhiking may not be for you, but it is a way to get around for free. Always offer some money as a token of gratitude, though. In Mexico, buses were quite expensive, so we hitched plenty of rides while there. It is not uncommon in Mexico to pay $25 for a 5 hour ride, complete with plush seats, air conditioning, and a frightening propensity for Nicholas Cage films being played on the video consoles. Sometimes, after fruitless bouts of trying to hitch, we would get a bus and bliss out in the air-conditioned comfort.
That $25 is an astounding value for such a long bus journey, but sadly fares like that can send you home early with your tail between your legs. With enough adventure (but not enough money) you may want to, after plenty of mental consideration, consider hitchhiking around for a bit. Also in Mexico, we busted our budget for a handful of days by hopping a cargo boat from La Paz to Mazatlan for $75. That included a place to sleep for the duration of the 18 hour crossing, our first hot shower in weeks and 2 square meals: not a great bargain, but it wound up being one of our most enriching travel experiences, thanks to meeting Mexico’s biggest “Air Supply” fan who just happened to be on his way to an Air Supply concert! South of Mexico you can expect an amazing value on buses; about $1 for each hour of the journey is a good rule-of-thumb. Our hitching ways slowed down quite a bit south of Mexico, but we still managed to come in on-budget while taking buses in those countries.
By covering the basics – food, shelter, transportation – I hope to have cleared up some of the mysteries surrounding how much cash is needed to travel. If these three basics can be had for such a nominal amount of cash, I hope you can understand that, when other matters pop up from time to time, they can be dealt with for very little money as well. Also, realize that our budget of $15 each per day does get derailed, burnt to the ground and shoveled-over with dirt at times; however we do see days where we spend much less than $15. That off-set factor is a sort of circle-of-life on the road; a feast for each famine, a win for each loss, or a good day for the budget along with a bad one at times. Although we must skip the Michelin-starred restaurants and we have yet to fuss over the optimal thread-count of the sheets at our elegantly appointed resort, we certainly feel as if we are not being denied a thing. In fact, we feel we are getting so much for so little.