If you have scrimped and saved in order to travel, then it is only natural you should want to save money while you travel. Though there are some things that justify splashing out a bit of cash every now and then, getting into the habit of conserving as much coin as possible will eventually buy you more time on the road. In this post we will look at some daily choices we can make that will preserve the piggy bank.
Backpacking and budget are two words that go together quite well, so we are often shocked to see how other travelers fail to take full advantage of all the ways there are on the road to hang on to the travel funds. Take a look at our suggestions and share yours.
Where To Eat
Our very first rule of thumb is to stay away from establishments that are catering to the tourist market/palate. Many restaurants who cater to the tourist will feature photos of the cuisine on their menus in an attempt to assuage any fears of what the unsuspecting tourist may be ordering. The tourist, sensing a bit of relief, will then become desensitized to the punishing blow caused by the price of the cuisine, which is very often of lousy value.
In Mexico and Central America there are very affordable, basic eateries called comedors where you can order set meals for about $2 which include several courses and a beverage, known as a comida corrida or a plato tipico. The food is very filling and tasty; consider it homestyle cuisine. These places are not hard to spot and are quite numerous. Speaking of Mexico, look for cantinas (which are astoundingly un-touristy places) serving botanas and you will be given food with your drink, at a price that makes it worth it; around $2 for a beer and a small plate of tacos or a bowl of soup. Killing two birds with one stone has never been so economical…and tasty.
Eating cheap and yummy street food should be one of the highlights of any backpacking trip, and it should also be your main go-to option. We are both totally convinced that eating set meals from local eateries and eating street food is way more affordable than self catering, which I will discuss later in this post.
If you want to crank up the money-saving moments even more you can always limit yourself to one proper meal per day, which is not as bad as it sounds. You can eat very healthy for very little by purchasing fruit from the markets and bread rolls or pastries from bakeries, which are not full of the healthiest fare, we know. Eating a bit here and there from either the markets or from a bakery will cost you just pennies, and you will not starve throughout the day. Eat your one proper meal at lunch or dinner and save a bundle by cutting back on the feed bag. Eating may indeed be one of your smallest expenses while on the road; just stay away from the tourist restaurants.
Shopping For Goods
Whatever you may need while traveling can be found as you are traveling. We have worn out fancy performance gear purchased at home, and have found name-brand replacements for pennies while on the road. Almost every town in Mexico and Central America will have shops or market stalls selling second-hand clothing from up north; they even proudly display it as such with signs saying Ropas Americanas, or American clothes. One can find all manner of quality clothing and footwear. We even managed to outfit our climb of Central Americas highest peak with some good quality, expensive cold weather outerwear for a few dollars. Imagine our pleasant surprise to see the genuine brands, albeit used, for such low prices.
As mentioned with the clothing, things tend to wear out and run out. When your toiletries run out, rest easy knowing you can get these cheap no matter where you are. Some marketplace vendors specialise in providing these goods, and you can find them real cheap if you shop around and haggle. In some cases even medications can be purchased for next to nothing.
All types of gizmos and gadgets can be found as well, for the whole world is a “connected” place. Batteries, chargers, headphones, and other accessories are out there for very little cash. Whether you need a needle or an anchor, you will find it for an unbelievable price while you travel.
Where To Stay
Paying for accommodation can be one of the biggest expenses for the budget traveler. Convention would steer the budget traveler in the direction of hostels in order to find the cheapest deal, however we are again convinced that hotels are a better value than hostels if you are traveling as a couple; let there be no doubt about this.
The ratio of hotels to hostels, even in towns and cities well entrenched on the backpacker trail, make the hotel market less specialized if you are looking for a budget bed, and that means simple and reasonable prices. Lavish hotels do exist should you be inclined to splurge, but bare bones hostels seem to be a thing of the past in Latin America; they are now in the boutique sphere and they offer more of a traveler vibe than a traveler value. If a noticeable scene is your focus, then by all means stay at a hostel. Consider them treats rather than a viable way of saving money while on the road. The basic hotels we have stayed at mostly seem to agree to discounts for longer stays, so couple that with the fact that they tend to be 20% or 30% cheaper than hostels and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a very handsome deal.
Another great thing to know about snagging a budget hotel room would be there is no reason (and often times no way) to pre-book online. Unless you know beforehand what the base rate is for a hotel or hostel, any online rate is going to be a quoted rate which can be inflated. Of course it can be deeply discounted as well, and once again you need to know beforehand what the base rate is, which can be found posted at the establishment: room rates are almost always posted at the desk in Mexican and Central American hotels. Being quoted a rate online keeps you in the dark about the base rate. Knowing the base rate is power: remember that money-saving tip.
As you see, it really works out in your favor to show up without a plan at hotels. The transparent pricing policies these places have will never leave you at a disadvantage. Have a peek at a few rooms before you commit, which is absolutely customary. Hotels are a dime a dozen, hostels are not.
Seeing the Sights, and Sites
Quite often we found certain sites and museums free on Sundays, so it makes sense to save cents by looking out for this handy bit of magic. Of course, some attractions are free all of the time as well. Mostly you will find yourself paying to see things, so it makes sense (and cents) to get the most bang for your buck by getting there early to avoid the crowds. If you are going to pay, you should insist on a quality experience, and that means getting there early.
Getting to the sites via arranged transportation can often involve more money that can be better spent elsewhere. Arranged transportation can be convenient, but the cost is often of poor value. There is a very good chance you will be able to find a local bus route that will get you within striking distance of your intended target. Sometimes that pricey arranged transport is part of a tour you signed up with, which brings me to the next area of potential savings.
Insisting on enjoying the attractions by yourself will save you bundles of money. We have hiked several volcanos on our own, seen plenty of ruins and have found our own way around simply by demanding to travel at our own pace. There are indeed times when a guide is necessary and that is mostly for legal reasons; try taking a factory tour or visiting an official residence without a guide and you see what I mean. Many guided tours are not necessary though, they are often just implied. Do not feel as if you are missing out on any information by skipping the knowledge of a local guide to see the historic sites, for that information is to be found at your fingertips these days; it is only a tap or click away!
So, why not accentuate your keen sense of adventure and independence by making your own way when you can. Take the time you have given yourself to move at your own pace and blaze your own trail. Saving all that money will feel so good!
Getting from A to B
Transportation is going to be a huge part of the budget, although there are ways to soften the impact. The best way to do this is to travel like the locals (that means with the locals) and insist on paying what they pay. In many parts of Central America you pay during the bus journey and prices are not posted, so before your money is collected ask another passenger how much the fare is to your destination in order to avoid being charged too much. Being overcharged at some point is bound to happen, but the vast majority of the time you will be charged the same as the locals; just be on the look out.
At times it is possible to take an overnight bus to your next destination. This is a great way to save money by avoiding the cost of a room. Your legs will be itching to move about by the time you get off the bus, so save further money by walking for a bit instead of taking a cab. Keep walking instead of taking inner-city buses or cabs whenever you can.
Put out your thumb from time to time; hitchhiking will save you plenty of money. Many people rely on getting around like this in certain parts of the world, and indeed local custom will consider it rude to not stop and offer a lift if there is space in the vehicle. Should you be picked up, do the right thing; make conversation and offer a bit of money for gas. Of course, before getting into any vehicle, use your best judgement at all times.
Laundry (Keep it Clean)
Nobody considers laundry a part of the budget before they set out to travel, but sooner or later you will find yourself faced with the issue of what to do about the state of your clothing. Although it is not difficult to find laundromats on the road, you can save some money by washing your apparel in the sink or even while in the shower. Do this at night so your clothing will be dry in the morning. The day will come when you will splash out a bit of cash to get your laundry washed properly though; the softness and that sweet smell will seem like something sent from above and you will soon learn to appreciate this little treat we often take for granted.
Eating on a Budget
If you are like me, you must consume a certain amount of coffee within moments of waking, otherwise the outcome can turn disastrous really quick. Believe it or not, coffee can be hard to come by south of Mexico. The good coffee is reserved for the export market, leaving most people to rely on instant, which tastes better than the poor grade of coffee bean that is left over after the good stuff has been shipped out. I roasted coffee for years in Portland, Maine, but I would rather drink instant than go without a cup every morning.
Those years of roasting fine coffee beans did not turn me into a coffee aficionado though; rather I became more of an addict than ever and I will lick it off a sore leg if I must. In Mexico you can find OXXO shops everywhere, and they have some pretty decent coffee, but they charge about $1 a cup. There is a great way to make your own coffee without ever even leaving the confines of your hotel room, for just pennies a day.
For a few dollars you can purchase an electric heating element that was designed to hang off the rim of a cup or mug. Within minutes you are ready to enjoy a cup of instant coffee! You can also make a nice mug of hearty soup, which means you are self catering just a bit. I have mentioned that self catering costs more than eating out at certain establishments – and I swear by that – but having the ability to boil water with a gadget that takes up the space of a deck of cards is a quantum leap forward for any budget traveler.
You don’t even have to pay for the electricity! If you are convinced that cooking rice or pasta is the way to go, you can boil your own water without the need for a cooker ring or a pot. Just pack along a sturdy, non plastic mug or bowl and you are all set. These wonderful gadgets are very low-tech and can be purchased for about $8 at any shop selling kitchen goods or camping supplies.
So there you have it, in plain and simple terms. These are some tips that will, without a shadow of a doubt, save you money while you travel. Remember, the name of the game is not to feel like you are denying yourself anything; you deserve that splurge every now and then. It is the world you have given to yourself, and that is not to be taken lightly, so do whatever you must. As a budget traveler the thrill is knowing just how much there is to see out there and how much is really possible with very little money. This post hopes to be a sort of light that guides you along the way.
Please share any tips you may have for saving money while on the road; the comment line is always open!