I like to travel – a lot! Within the last 12 months I’ve visited 11 different countries and over 28 different cities, not to mention rural settings and countrysides. I’ve seen some amazing sights, met some wonderful people and eaten some incredible meals.
With all this globe trotting you’d swear I was flush with cash but nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve learned the art of living off what I need which, to my surprise when I began my journey, is exceedingly little. It’s helped me to appreciate the small things in life and learn to realise the love and kindness of strangers.
In this piece I want to share a few budget travelling tips with you – some suggestions for when your pocket is empty yet your wanderlust is brimming its proverbial cup. Let me know what you think and, if there’s anything you feel I’ve left out, I’d love to hear it!
Be flexible with where you want to go
When I began my travelling I was certain I wanted to go scuba diving in the Algarve, get a boat from Malta to Greece and spend new years in the Arctic Circle watching the Northern Lights. Now that might seem a bit over ambitious to you (and, believe me, it was!) but as a novice adventurer it all seemed within the realms of possibility. And maybe it would have been - if I had a bank account as big as my imagination!
I ended up doing none of those things and getting really frustrated with myself for not having achieved my goals. I guess some lessons have to be learned the hard way. Instead, it's taught me to relax and not become too fixated on my destinations. Plans change and, with the right frame of mind, you'll have a ball wherever you go.
Flights: The flight comparison sight, Skyscanner, has become invaluable to me. Living in Ireland, flights within Europe can be unbelievably cheap and if you're really not too choosy about where you end up you can pick up some amazing deals - I once flew to Brussels for just €4.99.
Hitch-hiking: While, obviously, you have to be careful when getting into a car with a stranger (there's nothing wrong with saying no to a lift if it just doesn't feel right!), hitch-hiking can be a great way to get from A to B while meeting some interesting people along the way. I like to carry a funny sign to attract the drivers attention (like in the picture above). Sometimes you can be lucky and get picked up within a matter of minutes but, be warned, long hours of roadside waiting may also be ahead of you. Bring a book!
BlaBlaCar: Similar to hitch-hiking, but with a small payment involved, BlaBlaCar is a safe and reliable way of getting where you want to go. You can check the driver's reviews on the website and the cost of the journey is usually minimal. If you want to meet new people, and don't mind forking over a little money to avoid the indefinite waiting involved in hitch-hiking, this can be a great way to travel.
This is normally the single most expensive, and important, aspect of anyone's travelling experience and how much you spend on accommodation usually dictates how much, or how little, you have left to spend on anything else. Here are a few tips on finding accommodation that won't break the bank.
Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is an exciting and authentic way to meet locals and, what's even better, it's free! Through the website you can create a profile (it costs nothing), contact hosts (or become a host yourself) and bag yourself a floor, couch or bed in a friendly local's home. As a general recommendation, I would suggest contacting hosts with positive reviews (for obvious reasons) and, for women, for safety reasons, to generally try to stay with female hosts. Also, send out lots of requests as you normally only get about a 40% response rate. The picture above is at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia with a couple I stayed with from couchsurfing who went out of their way to help me explore the local area and make me feel at home.
Camping: Now, while I generally tend not to camp, it is a cheap, or free, means of accommodation while on the road. Be sure to check out wild camping laws and how well they're enforced in the countries you're visiting if that's how you're planning to sleep and, if natural camping isn't an option, organised camp sites are usually affordable and comfortable. Also, know what kind of animals to expect wherever you go - camping in the bear filled forests outside Brasov, Romania is probably not recommended.
Airbnb: Similar to couchsurfing, Airbnb is a platform for residents to rent out a spare couch, room or entire apartment to tourists and travellers in their area. The difference here is that there is a charge for your stay, albeit it a lot cheaper than local hotels, and usually less interaction between the guest and the host. The website is easy to use and you can choose to filter your search depending on your price range and how private you want your sleeping space to be.
Hostels: What accommodation cheap-list would be complete without mentioning budget hostels? Yes, they can be grimey, yes, you may be woken in the night to the sound of people boinking in the bunk above you and yes, you'll have no privacy. BUT, they are cheap! I tend to go for a bottom bunk to avoid clambering up and down a dodgy ladder in the night to use the toilet and I always put a few drops of citronella or tea tree oil on the corners of my sheets and pillow to ward off any creepy crawlies. Also, don't forget to bring earplugs!
I'll start this by saying I'm a massive foodie and, when I'm travelling, it's really important to me that I eat well. If my belly is empty for too long I turn into a seriously hangry hobo and can't enjoy myself at all. Luckily enough, it's not difficult to eat cheap, or even free, while you're on the road.
Dumpster diving: I can hear some of you retching at the thought of this already and, I'll admit, I had some serious reservations about this when I first heard of it as well. I was introduced to the idea while staying in an ashram in Denmark where they fed 20-30 people DAILY on dumpster diving alone. You'd be amazed at the amount of fresh, perfectly edible produce shops throw away! Now, before you go ploughing through the supermarket skip, it's important to remember a couple of things. Well packaged food is the stuff to go for - not lone carrots floating around in a sea of gunk. Thankfully, most supermarket's produce is so tightly wrapped in plastic that it has never breathed a whiff of dumpster air. Despite this, no matter how well packaged it is, wash the food, and wash it well before you cook and eat it. Also, on a practical note, wear rubber gloves while doing your diving and, maybe, hold your breath 😉
Reduced to clear: If wading around in a skip of yesterday's leftovers isn't quite your idea of a relaxing break away then think about heading into the supermarket rather than to the alley behind it. Most stores now have a pretty sizable 'reduced to clear' section with food close to their sell-by dates at a fraction of their normal price. These products will usually be good for a few days after purchase but be sure to give them a quick sniff test before tucking in.
Local initiatives: The internet is a wonderful thing and you really do have the world at your fingertips. Have a search online for local initiatives and you're bound to come up with something. The worldwide Food not Bombs movement (the one in York, UK pictured above) provide simple, free meals to the public every week and The Real Junk Food project run Pay As You Feel cafes all across Europe. Krishna devotees celebrate a Sunday feast together in their temples where anyone is invited to come along and enjoy the free food, music and philosophical discussions.
Now what's the point in going somewhere if you can't soak up the local culture and see what there is to see? Unfortunately, taking money off tourists is a very big industry and you can end up paying an arm and a leg trying to enjoy the local area. Here are a few things you can do to cut these costs without taking away from your experience.
Museums: While entry into local museums can be relatively cheap, if you're on a tight budget, every cent counts. In most places, museums will have a 'free day' where there is no charge for entry into the main galleries and exhibitions. As well as this, you'll often find free entry museums in many towns and cities that you visit. The picture above was taken in the free Geological Museum in Bologna, Italy where I spent the day gasping in awe at the amazing fossils and bones they had on display.
Places of natural beauty: In reality, when you go abroad, the most wonderful sights to see are the ones that cost nothing to visit. Whether it's soaring mountain peaks, beautiful beaches, 'Jumanji'-esque jungles or never ending forests, there's nothing more exhilarating than getting out of the city and exploring a totally new and foreign terrain. Just be sure you're aware of the risks and take the proper precautions. Wear suitable shoes and clothes and if you can find a local who knows the area and is willing to take you off the beaten track, even better!
Meetup: This website isn't just useful at home but also serves as a handy finger to the pulse of any area you're in. On the meetup website you'll find groups of people who come together regularly for pretty much any hobby or pastime you can think of. You're likely to find groups for yoga, photography, bird watching, hiking, art, eating, drinking - the list goes on. It's a wonderful way to get together with locals and travelers alike to do something you all love together.
Of all my budget travelling tips I think I've saved the best for last. Volunteering is a truly amazing opportunity to see the world, meet interesting and unusual people and keep costs to an absolute minimum. The volunteering website I use is called workaway and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's only €29 a year to sign up and the site is extremely user friendly. You can apply to work with hosts all over the globe in homestays, farms, hostels, ashrams, NGOs and more who cover your accommodation and meals in exchange for a few hours work a day.
As with couchsurfing, when looking for a host, send out lots of requests as, again, you'll only get about a 40%-50% response rate and before you go, be clear on what exactly your jobs will be and how many hours you'll be expected to work.
Through this site I've volunteered with a Buddhist charity in England (me pictured above working in their World Peace Cafe), a UK yoga retreat centre, a hostel in Romania and an Ananda Marga ashram in Denmark. I've had the most incredible experiences and had the joy of getting to know some of the warmest and friendliest people I've ever met. It's an opportunity to meet other travelers and hear their stories and a chance to get involved in something you can feel really passionate about.