When I returned from travelling abroad in Switzerland, everyone asked how I could afford such an epic trip. I am notoriously cheap and admit that budgeting for an international excursion was intimidating. However, with some careful planning before and during my trip, I was able to see everything on my Swiss bucket list and still make it home with some money in the bank.
Traveling abroad on a budget can seem daunting, but if you’re eager to live like all those instagrammers who seem to be constantly holding hands and walking into the ocean, these tips and tricks should help get you there. Let’s start with the basics.
Apply for a Passport ASAP
File the passport application as soon as possible. Rushing the processing will cost you an extra fee that would be better spent on a nice meal during your travels. Also, some countries require your passport be valid for at least six months before you can visit. Others won’t let you in if your passport has less than six months remaining before its expiration date.
Pay close attention to your activation and renewal dates and check the passport provisions for any country you intend to visit. The U.S. Department of State offers a traveler’s checklist with required documents for travel, insurance information, and other helpful tips for Americans traveling abroad.
Use Travel Rewards Programs
You don’t have to travel often to earn points and perks from travel credit cards and rewards programs. Choose a reward program or travel credit card with transferable points that can be used with a variety of airlines.
Take the time to understand all the perks associated with your chosen card. A few minutes of thorough research can save time down the road. Some travel credit cards offer perks like in-flight meals, upgraded seating, or refunds for delayed flights. The more you understand your card, the more likely you are to take advantage of all it has to offer.
You’re more likely to save money when you’re flexible with your travel arrangements. Let the prices dictate where you go, when you go, and where you stay when you arrive. Your research should give you an indication of the most affordable places to travel and off-season tickets and accommodations will save you even more.
Flights during the off-season are less expensive, sights are often less crowded, and businesses offer better deals to encourage visitors. For example, Venice is terribly overcrowded during Carnival but feels almost abandoned just a few weeks before the event. We were able to secure affordable accommodation, modestly priced meals, and we didn’t wait in line for attractions because we visited during the rainy season. Carrying around an umbrella was well worth the savings.
Where to Go
Choosing the right destination makes all the difference when it comes to expenses. Popular tourist destinations like Switzerland or Italy are notoriously expensive, and though there are ways to save, you may want to live more lavishly by visiting an area with a lower cost of living.
Places like Cambodia, Panama, or India offer beautiful getaways for a fraction of the cost of traditional tourist destinations. For example, I stayed in a five-star resort in Cambodia for just $40 a night. The cost included a decadent continental breakfast buffet, a giant swimming pool, a swim-up bar, live poolside music, an on-site restaurant, access to a dedicated tuk-tuk fleet, and ultra-plush sleeping accommodations. The same services in Switzerland would easily cost several hundred dollars a night.
Where to Stay
Your accommodations don’t have to be luxurious to enjoy your stay. There are several great options for saving cash if you are willing to rough it (at least a little) during your adventure.
Stay with friends, or friends of friends. “Facebook People” allows you to search any location for people who share mutual friends with you. You may be able to strike up a conversation with these mutual acquaintances and score a place to sleep while you’re in their area.
Couchsurf your way to savings. Couchsurfing is a network of more than 400,000 hosts who have an extra couch, air mattress, or floor available to visitors. The sign-up process is simple, like building a social media profile. If you can host a few surfers before you start traveling it will help your ratings and familiarize you with the process. When you find yourself on a host’s couch, making a meal for them or doing something thoughtful will help boost your rating.
Camp out to save cash. For those with an adventurous spirit and a tight budget, consider bringing your camping gear. A small investment in light-weight gear and some early planning could save you a bundle on sleeping arrangements. Find public lands, free campgrounds, or national forests where you can set up a tent. There’s no better way to connect with an environment than to sleep in it.
House sit for a vacationing family. There are some great options for house sitting across the globe. Vacationers want their properties tended to and often have a pet they would rather not leave unattended. You’re job is to take care of the place, and often their pets, in exchange for a place to stay. Websites like HouseCarers or Mindmyhouse charge a small annual fee to connect you with hosts.
House swap with another traveler. If you own your home and want to save money going abroad, consider house swapping with a family from the region you hope to visit. Sites like HomeExchange, HomeLink, or Intervac charge a monthly or annual fee to list your home and communicate with other homeowners about a potential swap.
WWOOF your way to adventure. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a program that connects volunteers with farmers who need some extra help and have a bed to spare. The work isn’t easy, but you’ll have the opportunity to learn from and share with the host family while you pick up some new skills.
Humble yourself at a hostel. Hostels are a tried and true method of saving money while on the road. You may have to share a room with other travellers, but if you are open to the experience you might make some new friends along the way.
Use Airbnb for affordable lodging. Airbnb opportunities can range dramatically in price, but if you’re looking for a deal there are plenty of options. Set your price range and start searching around the area you’ll be visiting. The opportunities can be odd, like a camper van in a driveway or a cot in a shed, but budgeting isn’t always pretty. Plus, you’ll have a cool story to tell when you get home. During an Airbnb stay in Cambodia, we shared our lodgings with several fist-sized spiders and what, I believe, was a badger. But, we survived the night and saved enough money to splurge on a five-star lunch the next day. Worth it!
Budget Before and During Your Trip
Saving for travel can be as easy as automating your monthly deposits and expenses. Many banks give clients the ability to choose a percentage of each paycheck to be deposited into a savings account, or even a sub-account dedicated specifically to travel. Automation takes the guesswork out of saving and ensures that a consistent percentage of each deposit is allocated to your travel fund.
During your travels, set an amount you’re comfortable spending each day. Include expenses for lodging, food, drink, and a little extra for unexpected purchases. If you’re splurging on lodging, save money by cooking your meals at the hotel. If you spent more than expected on souvenirs and still want to eat a nice meal, take advantage of a lunch special rather than opting for a pricier dinner portion. You can also save money by taking advantage of the sharing economy for housing, tours, transportation, and dining.
Use the Sharing Economy
The sharing economy is a system in which people connect with each other online to share assets or services for free or for a small fee. This includes sharing things like rides, rooms, or even meals with locals who want to show you around for a fraction of the price of traditional services.
Locals also know where to get the best deals. They know where the best out-of-the-way restaurants are, which markets have the cheapest groceries, and where to get the coldest beer for the lowest price. Some great sites to for exploring the sharing economy include Vayable, BlaBlaCar, and EatWith.
Work While You Travel
Working during your adventure doesn’t sound glamorous, but it will pay your way and help you connect with locals who might help you save even more money in the long run. You can pick up a job as an au pair, a bartender, a tour guide, or even a yacht worker to make ends meet.
These jobs may not boost your resume, but they will help you meet some great people and expose you to more opportunities. Teaching English is another option that pays fairly well. Some companies will even cover airfare and lodging when you commit to their institution.
Prepare to be Uncomfortable
Traveling abroad can seem daunting, particularly if you’re a person who enjoys the comforts of home. There will be uncomfortable moments, times when you will wish you could just crawl into your own bed and get a decent night’s sleep. Being mentally prepared for moments of discomfort will help you to get through them, and there are some other things you can do to feel more at home while on the road.
Consider bringing a silk sheet; they’re lightweight and provide a layer of separation between you and whatever floor, cot, or couch you happen to be sleeping on. Bring some small travel containers with your favorite shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion. The familiar smells provide sensory comfort and you won’t have to buy any of those items while you’re abroad. Further, occasionally treating yourself to a nice hotel or quality meal will go a long way in keeping your spirits up. If you’ve budgeted properly, there should be enough wiggle-room for infrequent luxuries.
Pack Light for International Travel
Take time to carefully decide which items are essential for your trip. If possible, take no more than what fits inside a carry-on bag. You won’t spend extra money checking your baggage and you won’t have to carry multiple bags while transferring buses or trains.
Keeping track of one bag is easier than keeping track of two, particularly if you plan on staying in hostels or using shared lodging where theft can be a real concern. If you get to your destination and realize you’ve forgotten an essential piece of gear, you can usually pick up whatever you need at a local store.
Extra Tips for Traveling Abroad on a Budget
Rail passes, student discount cards, and tourist cards can all save you money while exploring. The European rail system can take you all over the continent and buying an all-inclusive pass is much cheaper than buying tickets to individual destinations. Similarly, student discount cards and tourist cards will save you money on admission fees. Check out the local tourism office to find more information about discounts and deals available in the area.
You’ll also want to stay connected to friends and family while abroad. With access to an internet connection, apps like Viber or Skype offer free or low-cost international video chat, messaging, and phone calls. Ultimately, budgeting abroad is similar to budgeting at home: be conscious about your purchases, stick to your daily allowance, and network with local people to discover new ways to save.