The Hidden Factors of Budget Travelling
15 dollars doesn’t seem like a lot if you’re in San Francisco and you’re thirsting for a really good cup of coffee. But if you’re a low-budget traveller, it’s all you need to spend a fun day eating and exploring in a foreign country. I spent a month travelling from north to south in Vietnam and spent $15 a day on average, including everything.
I graduated university without much money in my pocket. Having worked all through college, I had a little bit of fun money to play with, but I knew I would have to spend wisely if I wanted to travel for an extended period of time, which I did. Over the course of 4.5 months, I successfully traversed much of Southeast Asia on a shoestring budget. Thankfully, there were a few key factors working in my favour.
Go With the Flow
Perhaps the most important factor in low-budget traveller is flexibility. In my case, the only parameters I had for planning a trip were that I had my heart set on Asia and I wanted to leave some time in the beginning of the summer. Whether I left in the last week of June or the third week of July didn’t really matter. My main priority was to get a cheap trans-Pacific flight. After that, I knew I could travel over land and by regional budget airlines.
As a result, I ended up flying to Singapore in the middle of July. After researching flights endlessly into different Asian cities, I ended up scoring a good deal on the flight. Singapore wasn’t a place I wanted to stay for weeks on end, particularly due to the expense of accommodation and activities, but it was a great jumping-off point for heading into Malaysia. Being flexible about my dates and locations allowed all of the cheapest flight options to become available to me.
Money on the Mind
Mindfulness is usually thought of as a stress-relieving or meditative practice, but it’s actually a key factor in sticking to a budget. Without proper attention to your expenses, money trickles out like there’s a hole in your pocket. In many developing countries, cash is king. Especially at first, handing over brightly-coloured bills to vendors and taxi drivers doesn’t carry the sting that it would if you were using your home country’s currency. Similarly, charging your credit card in a different currency is almost too easy.
Budget Travel Tips: Fight the FOMO
The important part is to pay attention to what you’re spending. Using a travel budget app can be a great way to keep track of your expenses. There are several options available. I’ve used Trail Wallet on each of my extended trips for three years and I love it. You can set a daily, weekly, or full-trip budget and log your costs each day, keeping track of the category (food, accommodation, etc) and the currency in which you paid. Using an app is a great way to see if you need to cut down on your mango sticky rice addiction or if you can afford those new elephant pants at the market.
One of the best and worst parts about travelling is the fear of missing out. Many times, FOMO can drive you to do something that scares you, like whitewater rafting or bungee jumping. Other times, you end up paying for an experience not because you wanted it, but because you felt like you had to. Good budgeting is finding this balance and only paying for things you truly desire.
The challenging part about tackling FOMO is knowing you might have to defend your choices to others. Oh, you went to Siem Reap but didn’t see Angkor Wat? You were in Giza but didn’t go to the pyramids? Perhaps you’re completely disinterested in ancient temples and ruins, but the pressure to see the classic sights is insurmountable. The fear of these conversations can often lead to purchasing expensive tours and tickets that you wouldn’t have chosen to.
The easiest way to navigate these situations is sticking true to what your heart (and your wallet) truly wants. Easy one-liners like, “Nope—maybe next time” or “It wasn’t in the budget this trip” are a great way to conquer the FOMO and save up for the experiences you crave. While I didn’t see the famous Kelingking viewpoint on Nusa Penida or spend a night out on Ha Long Bay, I happily spent my money doing activities that were more personally fulfilling and easier on my wallet.
When in Rome
If you grew up in a Western country, many countries around the world will feel inexpensive compared to home. There are certainly ways to make them more expensive, but if your goal is low-cost travel, do as the locals do. This may mean giving up some comforts and luxuries that you’re used to.
Eating street food is a great way to experience authentic cuisine. Most of the time, it will be cheaper than eating in a restaurant. Your best bet is to find a stall that the locals are eating at—that way you know it’s likely inexpensive and more true to the local flavours. One of my favourite memories of Jakarta was wandering through back neighbourhoods and sitting at roadside stalls with local families and children, ordering food with sign language.
Budget Travel Tips: Embrace the Grunge
Taking local public transport whenever possible is also a great way to go. Most countries will have options to pay extra and book private cars or luxury buses to get from place to place, but there’s usually a much more affordable local option as well. Yes, you may have to sit on a wooden bench in a bus next to a lady with a live chicken in her lap, but you’ll create new memories and save a pretty penny along the way. The best way to book local transportation is to go directly to the bus station or ferry port and buy a ticket there.
A true backpacker is thrifty, tenacious, and… a little bit grungy. So, maybe you’ve been using complementary hostel soap to wash your clothes. So, maybe you can’t remember the last time you got new shoes. As long as your hygiene is inoffensive and you comply with the local standards of modesty and decency, leaving your pearls at home is a-okay.
As a budget backpacker, you’ll find yourself eating with your hands, using squat toilets, and sweating as you walk from place to place instead of taking a taxi. Accept that this as part of the job. The coolest part about your journey is not how you look, but the lengths you go to have an amazing experience.
Travelling on a budget is more accessible than many people know. If you’re willing to forego some creature comforts and get creative, seeing the world on a dime is as simple as having the ambition and a little bit of grit to get you through.
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