5 Hacks For Traveling On A Budget

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
This post was originally published on November 3, 2015.

Travel can be expensive, especially when you’re solo. Even if your destination is ridiculously affordable, airfare and unexpected expenses inevitably drain your bank account. There are multiple advantages to traveling, eating, and shopping like a local, however, and they’re not all about saving money. These options also provide a more intimate cultural experience, and often enable you to engage in a way that tours or more generic travel don't.

Sure, you’ll still get gouged if you’re in a touristy place (or sometimes just by virtue of your foreign status), but the cash-saving hacks ahead will still save you a few bucks — and also provide you with travel memories that'll last longer than most souvenirs. Go forth and experience.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Be Smart With Souvenirs
Purchase personal souvenirs and gifts like textiles and handicrafts at local markets. I also love to buy spices or (vacuum-sealed) prepared foods like dulce de leche, dried fruit, jam, chile pastes, and hot sauce. They tend to be less expensive, plus they're easy to transport — and everyone loves an edible gift!

Tip: Depending on your destination, haggling (and tipping) may be a cultural expectation (one that often involves social aspects, like negotiating over glasses of sweet mint tea, as in Turkey or Morocco). Other countries frown upon bargaining and see it as an insult, so do your homework before you depart.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Embrace Street Food
Hitting up street-food vendors is more than just a way to get delicious eats on the cheap. It’s also an in-road to experiencing a culture first-hand. For many of the world’s citizens, street food is a less expensive, more expedient way to get nourishment, and it’s also a crucial form of social interaction. From Indian truck-drivers gathered at roadside chaat stalls to the puestos de tacos throughout Mexico, these local spots offer the opportunity to engage with people and learn how, when, and why they consume certain foods.

Tip: Many people avoid street food due to legitimate health concerns. Always patronize vendors who have a line, so you know the food is being prepared to order; use good judgment — seafood in landlocked regions? Flies roosting on crusty bowls of sauce? No, thanks — and look for folks using a glove to handle money or who have a separate person dealing with cash. Hand sanitizer is also your best friend.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Skip The Hotel
International hostels are often funky, family-owned places that double as local outfitters and guides. Not all hostels are created equal, however, and sometimes they’re debauched hellholes. Opt for homestays, Couchsurfing.com, Airbnb, or guesthouses rather than traditional hotels or pricey inns.

Tip: The name of family-style budget accommodations varies by country, so a bit of pre-trip research will get you dialed in on what to look for, be it a pensione, casas particulares, or teahouse. Bonus: You’ll often get great food and be able to dine with host families and other locals.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Be Flexible With Timing
Traveling during the low season can save you a considerable amount of money on flights and hotels. High season varies, depending upon everything from cultural or religious factors to the weather. Research will help you determine the best times to visit a destination in order to score the best prices, as well as avoid crowds.

Tip: Climatic factors, like monsoon or hot season, can potentially make or break a trip. Even if you’re not sensitive to temperature or humidity, certain regions and activities may be inaccessible due to seasonal rains. Conversely, places like Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni are spectacular year-round, but the aesthetics are vastly different from wet to dry season. Just be sure to weigh all the variables.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Don’t Fear Local Transit
Sure, you can hire a cab or driver, and sometimes those are safer, more practical options. But usually, doing as the locals do supports the economy and even individual members of the community, since alternative transport like songthaews, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, motorbikes, and so forth are generally privately owned. Local transit can also enable you to better see the sights. I recently paid $15 for a half-day tour of Angkor Wat by motorbike. My driver picked me up at 4 a.m. so we could catch the sunrise, and we were able to access temples, trails, and other sights the big tour companies and cabs might miss.

Obviously, you don’t want to compromise your safety, so always go with your gut (especially if you’re a woman traveling alone). When it comes to traveling in remote mountainous regions, you’re putting your life in the driver’s hands, and often the only option is a clapped-out old bus. I once bailed off a coach in the middle of nowhere in Ecuador, because the driver was a maniac and the one-lane road was lined with 1,000-foot sheer cliff-face. Sometimes, the best option isn’t necessarily cheaper, but if your instincts are screaming at you, take heed.