How to be a ‘broke’ backpacker in an expensive Chilean tourist-town
1. You find a hostel to stay for free working as a volunteer
2. You raid the free food box every morning as soon as the guests leave
3. You raid the fridge for food that’s been left behind or that guests have not labeled 😉
4. You socialize with other backpackers and they happily share food with you (–> no cooking, free food, no waste ;))
5. You pick yourself apples, lettuce, kale from the garden
6. You walk along the lake and pick fresh blackberries
7. You browse through the lost-and-found box and find yourself some ‘new’ stuff
8. You don’t go out except for walks or bike rides along the lake and chill at the super cozy hostel with the most comfortable beds you can imagine
This is an excerpt that I shared on my personal Facebook page before which can give you a little idea what the following is going to be about.
People who’ve known my lifestyle for a while have continuously asked me how I afford to travel so much.
Let me tell you a secret: You can travel for less money than you’d spend in your home country most of the time!!
There are numerous countries where your earnings will go the extra mile compared to the local price level. I’m sure, South-East Asia comes to mind right away. South-America though also has really affordable countries and certain parts in Europe, like Portugal or Eastern-European countries.
It is not only the price level though. I can only thank my parents for raising me with a very money-conscientious mindset where materialism wasn’t fostered and saving money on anything highly encouraged and constantly discussed.
Nevertheless, many of the tips below I have learned over the years. You get especially creative when you’re on a really low budget and know that the more you save, the longer you can stay abroad. That motivation got me the most inventive.
Let’s see what your biggest expenses usually area:
- I wrote a separate post about how I do these in South-America which can give you a better idea. In short: Reserve in person at places that are not registered on booking websites and buses directly at terminals.
- Hitchhiking, of course, is the cheapest option of transportation. I’ve tried it a few times when I felt it should be ‘safe’ (that’s your own judgment). Some routes are popular by hitchhikers and sometimes people team up together. Note that in the Sacred Valley in Peru, cars that stop to take you with them will charge you money though. Hitchhiking is not always free…
- Another money-saving hack regarding transportation. Take overland transportation instead of air transport. Sure, it takes a whole lot longer but if you take a night bus you can also save yourself the price of one night of accommodation. Buses are extremely cheap in many countries and sometimes you can ‘splurge’ and take a slightly more expensive bus for extra comfort if you prefer. Note that you can sometimes haggle regarding the price, just try 😉 (I got 30 % of my bus ticket in Bolivia with the ‘fanciest’ bus from Sucre to La Paz just because I asked and insisted). It’s also nice to take a bus instead of a plane as you can see the scenery pass by and change over time and get to see more of local life. Plus, you’re doing the environment a favor after all!
- Use local transportation in cities, such as mini-buses. Yes, taxis can be cheap, but buses will always be cheaper and are more adventurous as they give you the real cultural experience. Locals are usually really helpful to tell you which bus to take, where to get off (use a GPS to track your route to figure it out yourself) and you should ask them for the price you should pay so that you don’t get ripped off (which can happen otherwise). Make sure, you know what the right price for a taxi ride is if you do decide to get one. In many countries, cabs don’t use meters, you have to negotiate the price beforehand. A Western face can double or triple the price quoted from the driver right away. Always ask a local beforehand or search online. It will save you a lot of money!!!
- And last but not least: WALK. Yes, you can walk for 30 min to your hostel instead of taking a taxi (please only do that when the area feels safe to walk through!). You might only save yourself a few dollars but you get some exercise in and see the area you’re staying at. I always feel much better when I already have an idea of where I am, where stores are that I pass by on my way to my accommodation. Research and exercise!
Accommodation money-saving tips:
- Volunteering means you can stay in places for free. I’ve volunteered a lot through the work-exchange website ‘Workwaway’. Yes, you work for a few hours every day but you also get a really great cultural and local experience. You can choose whether you want to go to a lesser-known area or work at a hostel in a major city. Just make sure what the requirements are per country as some countries will ask you for a work visa (working-holiday) even for volunteering.
- Your second option for free accommodation is Couchsurfing, a website where people offer to host travelers for free for a night or two. If the thought of staying at a stranger’s place scares you, let me tell you: it took me years to actually start using the website and then I realized that it wasn’t an issue at all. After all, you, the travelers chose the people you can imagine being hosted by. Read the profile and the reviews and then trust your gut feeling. If you are a girl you might prefer only staying with female hosts. That’s up to you and you can put that in in the search-parameters. You might also feel safer staying in a family or with people that have lots of positive reviews. Again, pretty much everyone I’ve met on Couchsurfing has been super easy-going and open-minded. I like to look for hosts that have good reviews.
Sidenote: If it’s a guy I try to make sure he has hosted both, guys and girls previously. I am weary of guys who only host females– sorry no discrimination, just my gut-feeling and stories I’ve heard. Again, it’s up to your own judgment.
Another good indicator for a ‘trustworthy’ host for me is a nice array of pictures and a long description of their profile. To me, that shows that people are interested in meeting like-minded people and take time for their guests and their profile.
That also means that I believe you shouldn’t just do Couchsurfing to get a free bed and then not hang out with your host. Have a drink with them, maybe they’ll take you out to meet their friends. If you just want to get up early and have a full schedule for the day, maybe a hostel is more suitable.
Also, let me repeat that Couchsurfing is not only good for free lodging. You can find great local events (an option on the website other than finding hosts) and hangouts with other people (this works through their app that finds you other Couchsurfers in the area). I made my best friends when I lived in Montreal and Barcelona and how I hung out with locals across South-America thanks to this! amazing network.
What about food?
- Many countries have cheap lunch deals and sometimes dinner deals. Yes, even in Japan you can have a great lunch for 5$ at a restaurant! In cheaper countries that price can start from as little as 1$.
- Local markets often have food courts which serve affordable meals
- Street food is probably your cheapest option and a great way to get to know the local cuisine and atmosphere. Just make sure what you eat is well-cooked and use your judgment regarding the hygiene of the food stall.
- Nothing will ever be cheaper than making your own food when traveling, so, if you want to do this, make sure your accommodation does have a kitchen. I’m not going to lie, I actually made a salad at my hotel room before, by storing veggies on the shelf and cutting them with a knife I have with me and a ‘plastic container’ as a plate. If you want to save money (or eat healthy veggies in countries that won’t serve them much) you’ll find a way.
- Buy local ingredients! Buying cheese in Japan is expensive, but so is buying the nori seaweed to make sushi in your own country isn’t it? Stay curious and try local ingredients to cut down on your grocery bill. Every country has its own version of nutritious food, you just have to learn about it. Go to markets and see what the locals buy if you’re not sure what to get. And as a rule of thumb: The more expensive it is, the less local of an ingredient it will be.
Some other money-saving tips:
- The countryside will almost always be cheaper than a city. Prices will be lower and there will be less temptation for you to spend money.
- Saving money on phone bills. Use Skype for cheap calls abroad (to phone numbers! see my post about useful apps for traveling here).
- Use free WIFI wherever you are. This one is self-explanatory, however depending on the country you’ll have an easier or harder time finding WIFI-places. My top tips are shopping malls, public libraries and, yes, Starbucks (no matter whether you agree with the brand, their WIFI is usually among the best I’ve ever come across).
- Otherwise, forget about expensive roaming. Buy a local sim card, get some data and save a lot of money. And don’t forget: You do not have to change your phone number that you are using for Whatsapp, so you can keep changing simcards and people who have your old number can continue contacting you on Whatsapp.
- If you want to go on a tour, try and not book it online before you visit a country. It will almost always be more expensive. I can understand that it might feel better and taken care of but in most countries, you can book a tour the night before and head out the next morning. There is always a way and people will help you, so they can take your money after all 😉
- Free walking tours in cities are something I wish I had discovered and used earlier. Most cities have tours that are carried out by volunteers. They will ask you for a tip afterward but it’s up to you whether and how much you give. Do some research beforehand as some tours might try and ‘drag you to shops’ where they get a commission whereas others won’t. The good old internet will tell.
- Downsize on your possessions. The less you have the less can break. Use everything until you really cannot use it anymore. I’m talking about clothes for example. If an item starts not looking that glamorous anymore, try wearing it on night buses, to sleep… you don’t need fancy pajamas and nobody cares what you look like while you sleep 😛
The same goes for electronics. Take only what you really cannot live without and if possible, refrain from taking the latest iPhone with you. You’ll get really upset in case something gets stolen or if the wear and tear of traveling affect your gadgets.
- Try finding multi-functional items. My all-time favorite travel-time is the sarong that I bought in Bali 9 years ago. I’ve used it as a yoga mat, a towel, a dress, a skirt, a scarf, a blanket, a long-sleeve ‘cover’ for my arms when it got cold, a pillow, a picknick blanket…. Traveling is a great time to get started on minimalism!
- Avoid the temptation of buying too many souvenirs. That might be too extreme for some people but simply be aware of how much money you can save by not over-spending on goodies. And please, if you do, haggle (in the appropriate countries of course)!! It hurts me so much, seeing tourists paying 5 times the price the item should be ….
- Make sure you know your ATM fees!! Withdrawing cash in other countries can get really expensive. If you have to pay 10$ every time you want to get some cash withdrawn, you’ll have a terrible extra bill. There are many ways around it and I am sadly not a complete expert (so do your research before you leave!!). I can only say that the ATM fee for withdrawals differs from country to country and bank to bank. Don’t rely on other travelers ‘advice as it also depends on your bank from your home country. What I mean by that is that if a traveler tells you ‘at his ATM you can withdraw for free’ that might not work for your bank card. The only thing you can do is try as many ATMs as possible, compare the fee (which usually only gets stated at the very end of the transaction) and then return to the ATM with the lowest fee.
Some banks from your home country might reimburse you (parts of) the fee, again, this is something you have to check for your individual situation. There are banks and companies that offer cards where you pay low or no fees, however I personally haven’t had experiences with them as I wasn’t able to set anything up while traveling (and forgot to do so beforehand), so do your research!
Another point to notice is that you can withdraw as much as the ATM lets you (and if you feel safe having that cash with you) as you save on the one-time ATM fee, as it’s always a fixed fee and not a percentage). Again, this will vary per bank.
- To avoid this whole ATM issue, you can pay by card as often as possible. You do risk fraud in some countries and in some countries, cash is king, so again, see for yourself once you’re there what locals do. I try and pay with my debit card or credit card at hotels/hostels, in supermarkets, etc.… when I trust the place. Always make sure to be charged in the local currency, not on your own as you’ll pay more on the conversion otherwise!
One piece of advice regarding South-America: Try getting a visa card if you travel here. I do not know why, but in South-America, Visa rules and Mastercard is very uncommon. I felt that in Europe or North-America it usually doesn’t matter which one you have, yet trying to pay by Mastercard in South-America from my experience many times will not work. So, get a visa card if you can! And as always. Have numerous bank cards with you. Getting a card replaced abroad is a major hassle and takes a long time (I’ve been there….) so if you can, take several debit cards and credit cards so if one gets hacked or stolen you can just cancel it and use another card. Getting a new card can take up to a month and you might not be staying in one place for that long.
- Try exchanging your leftover cash with travelers who head the opposite way when you’re traveling to numerous countries. Say, you head to Colombia and meet someone who goes to Ecuador. You could ask whether they’d want the rest of your USD and get rid of their Pesos (on a side note having USD is always a good thing but you get the idea). That saves you the fee/bad conversion rate you get at currency exchanges. If you do need to use a currency exchange, shop around. Prices always vary!
Ok, this turned out to be a long post. Please leave a comment if you have anything to add! I hope you could see how traveling doesn’t have to be as expensive as you’d think it is.