Tips on how to afford travel when you’re young & broke.
I’ve written about most of my travels on this blog before, but I still get questions ALL THE TIME about how I maintain a traveling lifestyle. Most of these questions revolve around money, so I want to write a detailed article outlining exactly how I gallivant around the world without going completely broke.
Since I found my passion for traveling at age 18, I’ve funded every trip myself and had to pay student loans in the process (like most other Americans). My parents never just handed me money to travel, but they taught me to be independent and smart with money.
My life is by no means extravagant; those who know me could say I sometimes take budgeting to the extreme. I’ve spent countless nights sleeping on airport floors to avoid buying a hotel room and I’ve eaten only oatmeal and plain pasta for an entire week to save money on food. But I’ve been to over 30 countries and I’ve only just turned 23.
So for those who think traveling is too expensive and complicated, I’m here to tell you IT’S NOT! If traveling is truly one of your goals, it is very achievable with the right mindset. In this article, I’ll list all my general tips for saving money as well as explain how I afford traveling so much. I genuinely hope this advice will inspire some people to travel more 🙂
TIP 1: WORK AND SAVE MONEY BEFORE A TRIP
Pretty much everyone in their 20s has a job and a savings account, and with these you can begin to travel the world. The key is actually saving enough money to afford a trip, which may require some lifestyle changes. Stop buying things you don’t need and you will be amazed at how much you can save.
Last summer I lived at home for a few months, worked two jobs, and made money-saving my main priority. I rarely had days off and sometimes felt overwhelmed working 60+ hour weeks, but I paid off all my student loans and bulked up my bank account again. This allowed me to travel without an income for the following four months.
This lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Some people love shopping and dining out, and there’s no point restricting yourself if it’s going to make you feel unfulfilled. This advice I am giving is for those who think traveling might fill their lives with more joy than material possessions. So for these people, basically just save all your money except for buying things you actually need.
TIP 2: WORK WHILE TRAVELING
If you have a longer time frame to travel (three weeks or more) try working abroad in one of the following ways.
A. WORK EXCHANGE
Work exchanges are usually unpaid, but your living expenses are close to nothing since you get free accomocation and sometimes free food and other perks in exchange for your efforts.
My two favorite work exchange websites are Workaway and Worldpackers. Workaway has a yearly fee of about $30, and you can contact unlimited hosts for free. Worldpackers is free to join, but you have to pay a small fee of $10-40 with every trip you confirm. On both sites you can easily browse job listings either by country or by type of work, then send a message to the host to discuss details and dates.
Some work exchanges look for travelers with particular skill sets. I’ve used my writing and social media skills to live and work in a little resort in Ecuador’s cloud forest and at a surf camp in Costa Rica.
I’ve also worked on a family lodge in the mountains of Ecuador and in a hostel in the bustling city of Porto, Portugal. Both of these jobs mainly consisted of tidying rooms, making beds, and preparing food, which basically ANYONE can do. The work was easy and I got to live in amazing places for free.
Most work exchanges require a minimum three week stay, but encourage longer visits. If you stay somewhere for less than 90 days you usually won’t even need a visa. You can literally just show up in a foreign country and start working. SO EASY.
B. GET A VISA AND A PAID JOB
The second way to work abroad is to obtain a visa and stay for a longer time period. If there’s a country that really intrigues you, why not just pack up and live there for a while? Be sure to consider visa costs and requirements, the cost of living, language barriers and your likelihood to get a job. If you have a skill that is in demand in that country, and you can afford daily life there, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take the risk.
In my case, I took my seven years of hospitality experience abroad and found work easily because this industry thrives all over the world. In London I had a student visa, so I worked in a cafe and did social media for a jewelry store in Covent Garden. I currently have a working holiday visa in Australia, and have spent the last three months working in a cafe and bartending on the weekends. It took me a month to find a job here in Australia, even after I handed out over 50 resumes. But I knew I couldn’t afford to live here without working, so I persevered and now my savings are only increasing.
Note that in London and in Australia, I didn’t have to overcome a language barrier, and I could afford the cost of living with the wages I was making. Living and working abroad may seem confusing, but once you obtain the visa the rest is just like living and working at home.
C. SEASONAL WORK
The third way to work abroad is to look for seasonal work. Tourism companies need tour guides, ski and surf resorts need instructors, cruise ships need employees. These are just a few examples of businesses that hire people for only a few months at a time, and often the job description includes traveling or living abroad.
This is how I was able to live in Rome for five months. I worked at Smart Trip student travel company as a tour promoter and tour guide, and the only prerequisites I needed were an outgoing personality and a passion for travel. Though the pay wasn’t substantial, the company covered our rent, our public transport passes for the city, and our travel expenses when we led trips with the students. So I didn’t make lots of money, but I did save a lot considering the exciting lifestyle I was living.
TIP 3: FIND THE CHEAPEST FLIGHTS
Though I believe any plane ticket is worth the money, the budget-traveler mentality should still be active when searching for flights. Fly during off-season, use budget airlines and check flight prices daily on the right websites. I have the most success with Skyscanner, though Google Flights and Secret Flying are all good places to find cheap fares.
Even consider changing your destination if you can find a much better deal somewhere else. Be creative when planning flights; take weird layovers and search for unexpected departure airports. Flights at inconvenient times may be more difficult to make but they’re usually cheaper, so take the 6am trip and know that extra $20 will contribute to another flight one day.
I flew from New York City to Bangkok and back for only $800. I’ve found countless flights around Europe for under $10, and most recently I flew from London to Australia for around $400. When deciding which country in Central America to do a WorkAway in, all I did was search for the cheapest flight. I found round trip from Florida to San Jose, Costa Rica for $100. Done.
All of these cheap flights I found were during the off-season of the destination. Peak tourist season is not only more expensive, it’s more crowded. I’ve found off-seasons to be just as culturally rewarding with less crowds, and the weather is still great depending on where you go.
TIP 4: PACK LIGHTLY
Overpacking makes traveling more difficult and costly. Only pack carry-ons when possible, as budget airlines can charge you as much as $50 for a checked bag. This may not seem like much, but consistently packing less can save you hundreds of dollars in the long run.
Comfort always overtakes style while traveling, especially once you realize the people you meet abroad care more about your personality and your experiences than how you look. Pack less clothes and just do laundry more often. To really save money, hand wash your clothes in the sink or shower instead of paying for laundry service. Only bring comfortable shoes and accessories that you know you’ll wear often. For toiletries and makeup, only bring the essentials and keep them under 3mL.
TIP 5. FIND CHEAP ACCOMMODATION
If you’re fine with sacrificing luxury for affordability, stay in hostels. If you’re eager to meet people from all over the world and have an epic time, DEFINITELY stay in hostels.
I can’t stress enough how amazing hostels are, though I was a bit nervous to stay in one at first. Everyone has this image of hostels being sketchy, dirty dorm rooms where people steal your things, but this is rarely the case. Reading reviews on Hostelworld can point you in the direction of places with a great social atmosphere and the amenities you need.
Some hostels have delicious free breakfasts, laundry services, city maps and activities, group day trips and pub crawls, free group meals, fully equipped kitchens, comfy beds and nice showers, computers and printers, and anything else you could hope for. They are usually centrally located, and you can even book a private room which will still be cheaper than a hotel. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been in hostels, so don’t be afraid to give them a chance.
In busy, touristy cities, a hostel dorm room can be around 15-20 USD a night. In less touristy areas and countries, a dorm room usually costs less than $10 a night. I stayed in a hostel in Cambodia that had a rooftop bar and swimming pool, comfy beds and air conditioning, and free pickup from the airport and it cost only $4 a night. YOU CANNOT BEAT THAT!
Couchsurfing is an even cheaper way to stay in a foreign city. Join this online community to find hosts who allow travelers to stay on their couch for free. I’ve never done this, since staying in a stranger’s home doesn’t exactly scream “SAFETY” to a small solo female traveler. But I know plenty of people who have had great experiences with locals through couch surfing, so the brave should definitely give it a go.
TIP 6: EAT AND DRINK AFFORDABLY
Treating yourself to fancy cocktails and nice restaurant meals is a fun part of vacation, but it’s not conducive to making your money last while traveling. Try to cook about 75% of your meals, buy about 20% of meals at cheap street markets and food stalls, and dine out for 5%.
By cooking your own meals, you can still indulge in the local cuisine. Go to the markets and buy all the local, in-season produce, including weird foods you’ve never tried before. When eating out, try to avoid the restaurants near public squares and touristy areas because they’ll definitely be overpriced and the food will lack authenticity. Search for restaurants downs quieter streets and look for places crowded with locals. If there’s no English menu, you’ve hit the jackpot.
A similar pattern follows with drinking. First of all, consider cutting back on alcohol in general not just to save money, but to enjoy a healthier, clearer mindset for exploring. If you do love to party, drink what the locals drink and chances are the cost will be lower.
This logic varies depending on the country, however. In Italy, I frequently bought bottles of wine but each one cost less than 2 euros. In Australia, I’ve only drank maybe 5 times in the last 3 months because alcohol is so damn expensive here. Buying a cocktail in a bar is usually $15, so a few drinks can easily empty your wallet in Australia. But a glass of wine in Portugal or a beer in the Czech Republic can cost as little as $1 in a bar, so it’s not as costly to drink out in those countries. Cater your alcohol habits to the local culture to find what’s most affordable, and you won’t burn through your savings as quickly.
TIP 7: USE TRANSPORT WISELY
Walk whenever possible. Obviously it costs no money and is a great way to see the world around you. The amount of times I’ve been exhausted and lazy and wanted to take public transport, but have forced myself to walk, is too many to count. But I’ve probably saved hundreds of dollars over the last few years with this habit. Even since living in Australia, I bought a super cheap secondhand bicycle on GumTree and have been biking to work to save money on transport.
If you do need to take public transport, always choose buses, metros, or trains over taxis. Try to share Ubers with people to split the costs, and don’t be afraid to share with strangers (while using good judgment of course).
This is probably common knowledge for everyone, but sometimes we forget basic life skills while traveling because it feels like vacation. But if you really want to afford traveling long-term, try to be as smart as you normally would while appreciating what a beautiful, exotic place you are in.
TIP 8: OVERALL BE MINDFUL WITH MONEY
I write down everything I spend on trips. Not always, but within the last year I’ve found that visually looking at my expenses helps me spend less. I just list every expense and try to keep that list as short as possible.
Rarely buy souvenirs or pay for expensive touristy attractions unless they are absolutely worth it. Paying $100 to play with elephants in Thailand for a whole day? WORTH IT. Paying $30 to ride the London Eye for 20 minutes, when there are plenty of other free viewpoints in the city? NOT WORTH IT.
TIP 9: DITCH/POSTPONE THE IDEA OF FINDING A REAL JOB
This point is less about budgeting and more about the overall mindset of traveling. If you are determined to pursue a solid career path and advance in that field, as many 20 year olds are in the USA, it will be hard to travel constantly. Unless traveling is actually part of your job description, you may need to stay in one area to really focus on your career. This is an admirable path, and you can still travel on your vacation days.
But if you’re like me, and don’t have a clear career path in life, why not spend your 20s seeing as much of the world as you can?
With this type of fluid, adventurous lifestyle, you need to accept that you probably won’t be working for the same company and moving up in the ranks (again, unless that company is travel-related or allows you to work remotely). The bright side of this is that you can try many different types of work that appeal to you, knowing it’s not permanent if the work doesn’t suit you. Working random jobs all over the world helps you form connections and work on your communication skills. Everything you learn while working abroad will develop your world view and your range of experiences, and these will most likely benefit you in the long run.
More traditionally-minded folk may look at me, a 23 year old bartender and think I need to get my shit together. But I see myself as an independent, open-minded, and hard-working individual who just wants to take advantage of all the beauty and culture this world has to offer. If I can explore this world and still have a decent amount of money in my bank account, so can you.