Within the last year, many people have asked me how I travel.
How do I pick my destinations, how can I afford traveling, etc. Being a recent college graduate with no reliable income and no job prospects other than waitressing, these are all valid questions.
So for anyone who is interested, this article outlines exactly how I have been traveling cheaply without missing out on any cultural adventures. I will specifically highlight my most recent trip to Portugal, where I lived and worked for one month and spent only 200 Euros (excluding the price of the round-trip flight from London, though it was a RyanAir flight so you can bet this was pretty cheap as well).
When I arrived in the sunny city of Porto, I withdrew 200 Euros from an ATM and told myself I would not withdraw money again unless absolutely necessary. After forming this rough budget of 50 Euros a week, having the actual money in cash helped me visualize my spending and stay on track. I avoid paying with credit or debit cards while traveling, so as to avoid foreign transaction fees and to avoid swiping my card mindlessly.
After forming a budget, I used the following tips to save money while living in Portugal.
This is the most important step in my cheap travel plan: work in exchange for free accommodation. Work exchanges vary from place to place, but in Porto I volunteered in Nice Way Hostel, working 8 hour shifts for 3 days a week. In exchange for these few manageable shifts, I had a bed in a staff dorm, free breakfast, and other perks including a free wine tour and a free stay in Nice Way Hostels in other Portuguese cities. Not only did this situation save so much money on accommodation, food, and activities, but I easily made friends with the other volunteers, staff members and guests in the hostel.
Setting up a work exchange is incredibly easy, as hosts reside in all countries looking for all different types of work. WorkAway requires you to pay $40 for an account, but then you can freely browse through hosts in any country and contact them about an exchange. I also used WorldPackers in South America last year, a similar website that is free to join but charges you a small fee for each exchange you complete. Both websites serve essentially the same purpose, and I had great experiences with both.
2. Cook Often
The second way I saved money in Portugal is cooking my own food whenever possible. Having a kitchen in the hostel made all the difference, and I spent only 55 Euros on groceries during my whole stay. Buying fresh produce from the local market and cheap grains and beans from the grocery store also made for healthier meals than most restaurants can provide, and I enjoyed group cooking sessions with the other hostel volunteers.
Because I cooked at home most of the time, I didn’t feel guilty eating out once in a while. Twice I spent 7.50 Euros on incredible vegetarian buffets, and I often indulged in traditional snacks like heavenly Pastel de Nata pastries and roasted chestnuts for a couple Euros each. Alcohol can also put a dent in a traveler’s budget, so I always opted for a one Euro bottle of wine from the grocery store rather than blowing more money on drinks in a bar.
Portugal is very affordable when it comes to food and drinks, which definitely benefited my budget since I love to eat. One extravagant night out included numerous bottles of wine, pitchers of sangria, endless plates of cod fish cakes, an array of cakes and dessert liquors, and everyone only spent 10 Euros each.
3. Walk Everywhere
This may be obvious for most people, but walking everywhere costs nothing and allows you to experience a city more in depth. While in Porto, I only paid for public transport to and from the airport, which added up to 4 Euros. I spent my free days walking for hours to different areas, or going on runs along the river in order to see more of the city. When you have lots of time in one place, you can take your time and slowly become acquainted with the area without paying for public transport.
4. Take Day Trips
I did pay for public transport outside of Porto, however, when I embarked on numerous day trips. The best way to cheaply explore other highlights of a country is to take an early morning train to a different city and return later that night. This saves money on accommodation for an overnight stay, and it gives you a full day to experience the wonders of a new place. I took three day trips from Porto to the nearby cities of Braga, Aveiro, and Viana Do Castelo, spending a total of 28 Euros on these train rides.
5. Choose the Best Attractions
Much to the budget traveler’s dismay, not all attractions are free in touristy cities. It can be tempting to take advantage of everything a city offers, but the trick is to only spend money on the attractions that spark passion inside you. In addition to Porto’s free landmarks, I paid 4 Euros to climb the enormous Torre Dos Clerigos, and I paid 5 Euros to enter the world-famous library, Livraria Lello. Because I am a sucker for aerial city views, and I absolutely love bookstores, these attractions seemed worth it to me despite my usual frugal ways.
When I visited the city of Sintra, I also paid a total of 23 Euros to explore the city’s most famous attractions, the Moorish Castle, the Pena Palace, and the Quinta da Regaleira. These gorgeous and unique landmarks turned out to be highlights of my trip, so I used my money wisely. That being said, I could have paid to climb every tower or enter every castle in every Portuguese city I visited. Limiting my spending to a few, carefully selected attractions made those few experiences that much more memorable.
6. Limit Souvenirs
Similar to my last point, one should only buy souvenirs when they are absolutely certain that the money is worth it. The best travel souvenirs are always the intangible memories and friendships you make, so physical gifts are hardly necessary. Also, souvenir shops tend to mass-produce the same overpriced, tacky goods, so it is best to avoid these stores designed to lure in tourists anyway.
But again, you shouldn’t deny yourself something you really love, so buy souvenirs that are truly unique, and that you are certain won’t become dust-collectors at home. I spent 4 Euros on a pair of earrings from Sintra, because I always wear earrings so I know they will be useful, and the little old man selling them from a blanket on the edge of the forest was too adorable to ignore.
7. Consider the Destination as a Whole
As I’ve reiterated numerous times, Portugal is an affordable country. The culture and lifestyle of the country obviously affect the possible budget, and I definitely would not have spent so little if I had decided to live in an expensive country like Sweden or Denmark. But living in Portugal made my 200 Euro budget quite easy to abide by.
Though I did not include my flights to and from Portugal in my budget, I do want to mention how important it is to look for cheap flights. Budget airlines and off-season prices make it possible to fly internationally for very little money. The peak seasons are more expensive for the favorable weather, but off-season travel saves you so much money and will give you an unforgettable experience no matter what.
So those are my methods for traveling on a budget, and I will probably continue to travel this way no matter how much money I may have one day. Though I am often hesitant to spend money, I never feel like I am depriving myself anything or missing out on cool experiences. I spent most of my time in Portugal walking around, cooking, observing my surroundings, taking photos, going for peaceful sunset runs, sitting by the river, talking with people, and slowly forming a connection with the local culture. Travel can easily cost little money if people learn to enjoy the simple things in life, and try to only spend money on the essentials.
So for anyone who is afraid to travel because of money, cheap travel is definitely possible. And for those of us young people who are stuck with college debt and have never had a real job, exploring the world is not entirely out of the question. And with that, I end with an incredibly overused and cliche yet accurate quote: “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer”.