Ten Travel Tips for the Thrifty Traveller

[20 minute read]

 The philosophies behind travel and thrift need not be at odds with each other.  To use some (perhaps exaggerated) examples, being a money-conscious traveller does not mean you’ll need to:

  • Sleep in 20-bed dorms, camp out, or Couchsurf every single night;
  • Eat 2-minute noodles, drink instant coffee, or skip lunch every day;
  • Busk for money on the streets with a ukulele, juggling, or doing backflips;
  • Only take the cheapest buses, do self-guided tours, or visit the free attractions;
  • Avoid quality restaurants, drinking at fancy bars, or smoking the odd Cuban cigar.

Many of the above-mentioned ideas will certainly appeal to some travellers.  However, many others will shudder to even seriously consider some of them.  Whichever camp you’re in I am not asking you to completely change.  Rather, the key take-away has to do with having a willingness to be flexible from time to time.  Even if you are a ‘higher-class’ kind of traveller don’t completely rule out the value of cultural experiences such as Couchsurfing, taking Chicken* buses, or eating from local street vendors.

*A really cheap and fun way to get around Central America

Remember that nobody ever lists ‘travel’ as a strategy under their savings plan.  Saving money is what you’re supposed to do while at home.  When travelling you will spend money.  How much you are willing to spend, and what you expect to get for it, are the critical questions you need to ask before and during your travels.

Now that we’ve discussed the crucial difference between travel thriftiness (getting the experiences you want for less while not sacrificing your standards) and outright saving, let’s jump into the list of ideas.

(1) Destination Flexibility

This is the very first question you should ask yourself.  Which region will give me better value for money – Scandinavia or South-East Asia?  Which country would I prefer my wallet to get into the ring with – Thailand or Switzerland?  For the thrifty traveller the answers are obvious.  For those with their hearts already set on a particular destination – keep on reading!

(2) Departure Flexibility

Check when the cheapest return (or one-way) flights are available before lodging that request for vacation (or resignation letter) to your boss.  I have found the ‘monthly fare view’ on Skyscanner.com absolutely fantastic for identifying the cheapest dates to fly.  If you’re not sure of your destination but have a region in mind (such as South America) I have found the ‘map fare view’ on Kayak.com really useful as a starting point.

Bonus Thrift Points: Combining the above two methods forms a solid base for your thrifty trip but it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for last-minute deals and specials on packaged trips.

(3) Don’t Neglect The Basics

There are two sides to the thrift equation.  One has to do with finding the best ‘bang for your buck’.  The other has to do with proper preparation to avoid costly mistakes and uncomfortable situations.

(a) Passport and money card expiration dates

Many countries will not allow you to enter if your passport has less than 6 months remaining until it expires.  Furthermore, your government does not care that you have a flight to catch in 2 days’ time – it will charge you very dearly for a new, expedited passport.  And if you find yourself half-way around the world with an expired credit card you might just be in a spot of trouble.  Check expiration dates well in advance!

(b) Adequate time for vaccinations

Some vaccinations – such as the one for Cholera – require a return trip to the doctor for the second injection a week after the first.  Leaving your vaccinations until the very last moment may mean missing some (or all!) of them or paying for injections you don’t really need due to inadequate time to do your own research.  Also, if you don’t have your proof of vaccination certificate with you certain countries can deny you entry at the border – including your home country upon your return!  Not to mention the possibility of catching a deadly disease you could have prevented.

(c) Multiple sources of funds

Relying on a single source for all of your monetary needs during your trip – such as a debit card – is a foolish move for a multitude of reasons: potential loss, breakage, expiration, security-based limitations, theft, or incompatibility with local merchants.  The solution is simple: the best card you can get your hands on (i.e. zero account fees, zero foreign transaction / exchange fees, and zero ATM cash advance / withdrawal fees) will be your primary card.  If it happens to be a VISA-branded card then your secondary card should be a MasterCard and should be stored in your main bag (not in your wallet!).  In addition, having a cash reserve of about $200 US dollars for emergencies and special situations is a smart move (make sure to have plenty of small denominations in $1’s and $5’s, not just $20 bills!).

(d) Tourist Visas and Entry Requirements

It goes without saying that thorough research and preparation will help avoid massive embarrassment, disappointment and stress at airports and borders.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  Some countries require you to purchase a Tourist Visa at their border with absolutely perfect, fresh US dollar bills.  Others require prior online payment and the presentation of a printed receipt.  Others will need a blank page in your passport well ahead of your departure date to stick your Tourist Visa inside.  Certain border agents will interrogate you, give you a hard time, and might require proof of funds, employment, or vaccination.  Others will let you in with barely a single question.  Do your own up-to-date research as rules, prices, stay durations, and penalties change often and without notice!

(e) Travel Insurance

If you can’t afford it then you can’t afford to travel!  Did you know that some employers include travel insurance as a perk for their employees or might offer you a discounted rate?  If you’re a student you should check with your university or their travel company to see if they have any special offers.  Also, some credit cards come with conditions which may make you eligible for ‘free’ travel insurance if you purchase your flights with that credit card.  If you have exhausted these options and need to purchase travel insurance online, make sure you carefully read the medical section (which is ultimately the only thing that really matters!).  You may be surprised to learn precisely under what conditions the insurance company will and will not cover you.

(f) Proof of exit at entry

Yeah, this one really sucks big time.  And yet the fact is that certain countries will deny you entry at their border if you cannot provide proof of an exit ticket (or return ticket to your home country).  This point can cause many problems for long-term, open-itinerary travellers such as backpackers who don’t know where they’ll be tomorrow let alone when and how they’ll exit the country.  One way of getting around it is to create and print off a fake exit ticket (at your own risk).  The other way is usually to buy the cheapest online bus ticket you can find out of the country and present that to border agents.  Do your research on this and good luck!

(4) Off Season

Going in the off season is a fantastic strategy to visit the really popular destinations for a decent discount.  You can find off-season deal hunters snowboarding in the slush, hiking through 100 km/hr winds, surfing in freezing conditions, and perhaps enjoying a beer in Munich when it’s not Oktoberfest.  In some places it certainly makes sense to do this while in others the savings may not make up for the crappy experience.  It all comes down to you!

(5) Does it Take Two to Tango?

Many articles have been written and opinions shared on the merits and downsides to travelling in a group.  Usually the bottom line is: significant differences in tastes, preferences, and expectations = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience.  The thrifty part of this equation has the same conclusion: significant differences in budgets, spending habits, and standards = NOT GOOD for everyone’s overall experience (and certain people’s bank accounts).  A detailed discussion with your travel bud(s) needs to be had well before committing to travelling in a group.

(6) Accommodation Options

(a) Hotel, Hostel, Bed & Breakfast, or Air B&B?

Whichever one you prefer, silly!  Many travellers forget that all of these paid accommodation options share one thing in common: they all have a bed and a bathroom.  The key question which the thrifty traveller remembers to ask is: “do I expect that a doubling of the price will result in a doubling of my enjoyment and experience?”  Often the answer will be a “no” and so the best-value option should always be selected from the bunch.

(b) Couchsurfing.com

It is difficult to define the Couchsurfing community but if you join up and try it you will meet a lot of warm and open-minded people who share common interests of travelling, cultural exchange, and who often speak or are learning a foreign language.  Of course, it goes without saying that thriftiness is a big part of the Couchsurfing ethos.

(c) Camping & Hammocks

This option is not only for nature lovers or adventurers as camp sites can be found in big cities and certain hostels are hammock-friendly.  In the long term a good tent and an appropriate sleeping bag will pay itself off many times over.  As such, the most important question the thrifty traveller should ask is whether they will actually use their camping gear or hammock often enough on their trip to make it economically (and effort-wise carrying it around everywhere!) worthwhile.  If you’re not sure why would you consider buying one?  My advice if you’re in this boat is to first gain experience with different tent models and sleeping bags by renting them so that you can make an informed decision when and if you decide to buy your own.

(d) Vehicles

Campervans, mini-buses, station wagons, and vans are a popular way to do long-term travel with your accommodation.  This awesome option is not just for retirees and remote-location explorers but should be embraced by thrifty travellers of all ages and budgets.  Having like-minded friends along for the ride can be incredibly fun and a cheap solution – per person – to travelling through expensive countries (such as Australia, USA, Norway, Sweden, and Canada).

(e) Exotic Options

Did you know that you can sleep in monasteries?  Or that farmers can allow you to camp on their property (and might even throw in a free meal)?  Did you know that some people are travelling the world on a yacht?  Doing some research on this can certainly yield some interesting possibilities for those who are daring.

Bonus Thrift Points: Install the most popular accommodation booking apps on your smart phone and scour them for the best deals.  Keep in mind though that these booking companies act like ‘middle-men’ and often add on fees of 10-20% per night for the convenience of booking ahead.  For the more money conscious, calling or emailing a place directly or even walking around and asking for prices at receptions can yield some fantastic places to sleep at great prices.  Just remember: when bargaining for the price of a room at 10 AM you have a lot of power.  But by 10 PM it’s far too late for this strategy to work.

(7) Transportation Tips

(a) Offline Maps & Your Smartphone’s GPS

Did you know that your smartphone’s GPS system works without a SIM card and without a network to connect to?  Did you know that even if you put your smartphone on flight mode and on power saving mode your GPS will still work?  Install a reliable offline map on your phone before you leave.  MAPS.ME and Google Offline Maps are good options.  Take the time to zoom into your next destination and put flags down on the map for your accommodation, bus station, and places of interest.

Bonus Thrift Points: If you can walk to where you’re going then just do it!  Sitting at home and reading this you might scoff and say, “Yeah right buddy, that’s a sure way to get mugged!”  I disagree.  I walked everywhere around Haiti, Honduras, and Colombia without incident.  Just be careful, cautious, and confident and you’ll be fine.  By walking around town you will also get a much better feel for the place.

(b) Uber or Taxi?

First of all, for the thrifty traveller these are always the options of last resort.  If you must take a Taxi for whatever reason (i.e. if there is no Uber) always ensure the following, where possible:

  • It is an official taxi – check for Driver ID on the dashboard;
  • Know your destination and how many kilometres to it;
  • Ask locals what they would pay for your intended trip;
  • Always negotiate the price before getting in (if there is no counter);
  • Use your GPS map to ensure that the driver is indeed going the right way and is not taking you ‘the long way round’ (if there is a counter);

(c) Bus, Boat, Train, Flight, or Rental Car?

Choosing the right option here comes down to so many factors.  The bottom line though is to do your research on which mix of options are best.  Not necessarily the cheapest, but the best for your desired experiences.  Some countries and regions offer long-term train tickets which can be very cost-effective (e.g. Japan & Eurozone).  Certain car rental companies have offices in different cities and allow you to drop off your rental car at a different location.  Doing more research on these kinds of things will enable you to determine the best – or cheapest – transportation mix.

Bonus Thrift Points: Before committing to purchase a flight always check the website of the local budget airline to see if they have an even better price if you buy it directly through them.

(d) Arriving at Airports

I cannot stress enough how important it is to do your research on where you can find cheap transportation (such as buses or the subway) from the airport into town before you board your flight.  This will give you the confidence to barrel past the taxi drivers literally trying to drag you out to their cars.  Why is this important?  Because there are many people standing around at airport kiosks whose jobs depend on them not knowing where the cheap transport options are.

(e) Online Check-In

Travelling with a budget airline?  This little peculiarity catches many new-time travellers completely unaware.  If you don’t complete your check-in online before you arrive at the physical check-in desk at the airport then you can be slammed with a fee for them to “process” your boarding pass.  Rules is rules.

(8) Loss Prevention

Nobody enjoys getting scammed out of their hard-earned dollars.  The damage goes well beyond the monetary loss.  Victims of scams and theft feel like idiots, begin to distrust everyone around them, and in some cases simply cannot enjoy themselves or relax in that particular country any longer.  Let’s dive into some of the scams you’re most likely to encounter while travelling.

(a) Those tricky taxi drivers! Ok, imagine this scenario.  You’ve just arrived to a new place and you’ve taken a taxi and you’re about to pay your driver:

  • If he tells you he doesn’t have any change to break your high-denomination bill, say a $20 USD bill (and you don’t have the exact amount to pay him), don’t give in! This is the first trick they often try on inexperienced travellers;
  • If he takes your high denomination bill and starts scrutinising it carefully, holding it to the light, and tugging on it – keep a very close eye on his hands as you’re witnessing a magic trick! After some time he will look at you sorrowfully, return it to you and inform you that you gave him a fake bill.  Of course, by the end of his antics he has your real bill in his pocket and he has just returned to you the one ‘he prepared earlier’; and
  • If he gives you change to a large bill then make sure that you very carefully check the notes he returns to you! This is the second trick they often try – giving you fake change.

(b) People asking for “donations” for ‘Charity XYZ’. Just have your wits about you and be sceptical.  Not everyone walking around asking for donations is legit;

(c) People approaching you with a smile and calling you “Amigo” or “Hey Friend” and asking to shake your hand. They will eventually ask you for money, trust me;

(d) Anyone trying to give you something for ‘free’. Common examples are bracelets, cards, palm readings, toys, vouchers, etc.  If someone tries to give you something just politely decline;

(e) Exchanging money (even in what appears to be a reputable exchange desk). Always come prepared by:

  • Knowing the latest exchange rate (Google);
  • Knowing how to tell fake bills from real ones (Google & your experience);

(f) Did someone just bump into you? Check your valuables: pick-pockets, after all, are professional thieves and they are very quick with their hands;

(g) Did someone just smear you with something sticky? It’s a diversion!  While you’re busy looking around for the culprit or cleaning yourself you will likely get pickpocketed;

(h) Did someone suspiciously faint or fall in front of you? Should you go and help them?  Yes, absolutely, but not before first checking where your valuables are and having them with you.  Rushing off to help and leaving your bag unattended is the thieves’ best case scenario;

(i) Bags on night buses. I have personally met many travellers who have had their bags stolen on night buses.  It can happen anywhere in the world.  One guy fell asleep with his locked laptop bag firmly on his lap and entwined around his arms.  No way that the thieves were stealing it, right?  Well, they managed to cut a slit in the top and took his expensive laptop right from under his nose.  Literally!

(j) Bags on day buses. Another method that thieves employ for daylight robbery is a diversion.  Someone causes a ruckus at the back of the bus and while you’re busy looking at the commotion your bag (between your feet or in the overhead space above you) mysteriously disappears;

(k) Fake agents. Always ask for a receipt from people selling you tours or tickets.  Even in official offices.  And especially ask for a receipt if you’re entering a ‘national park’ and someone not-so-official-looking is asking you to pay for entry;

(l) Knife-point or gun-point robbery. So you have a knife or something sharp pressed to your ribs or your stomach.  Or there’s a guy pointing a gun at you. What should you do?  Answer: always give the mugger what he wants!  Remember that your long-term health is much more important than short-term wealth.  As a side-note, if you find yourself in this situation it’s more than likely due to poor intuition and decision-making on your part rather than blind, dumb luck;

(9) Discounts and Bargaining

We all like to pay less for something that we need or want.  But not all of us have the confidence to bargain effectively.  First ask yourself why you believe you can’t?  Contrary to some people’s opinions on this you don’t need to be tough, rude, or belligerent in order to bargain effectively.  Here are some methods which the astute and thrifty traveller can employ right away.

(a) Student Card

This is the ultimate weapon of mass discounts!  If you have one of these then don’t forget to bring it and use it lavishly (even in places you think it might not work) because it will save you serious amounts of money.  Not a student any longer?  Not to worry!  Why not bring along your old student card and just ‘try your luck’?  If you’re comfortable pushing your moral boundaries even further then why not just have a fake card made (printed and laminated)?  Many of the workers who verify your student status often don’t care if you’re gaming the system a little;

(b) Power in Numbers

Put yourself in the position of a seller.  If you’re selling tours, souvenirs, accommodation, or [insert anything!] then there’s a serious psychological (and monetary!) difference between losing one customer versus losing many customers.  Remember, if you’re in a group then you have much more bargaining power!  Use it and try to get that 20 or 40% discount!  You’ll be surprised by how low they will go.  If they don’t budge then just stand up and walk away (… and see how quickly even “stubborn” minds can change);

Bonus Thrift Points: If you you’re not in a group or there’s only two of you then be proactive and enlist some more troops!  The likelihood of finding other travellers nearby who want to do the same things as you is very high.  You’ll not only save significant amounts of money on the more expensive tours but it’s a great way to make new friends and enjoy good company.

 (c) Can you beat their price?

This is the classic tactic of letting competitors fight it out.  It removes any feelings of guilt you might have (when bargaining) and is the most unassailable reason you can present to a seller when asking for a discount.  It goes something like this:

“Look, I’d love to buy this [tour, souvenir, etc.] off you but the [competitor so and so] is offering me the same one for $X!  I have a tight budget so if you can beat their price by 10% then I’ll buy it from you right now.”

You’ll get two responses to the above.  Let’s examine both.

Response 1)

“Hmmm… Alright, I can beat their price by 10% [or match it at the very least]!  You have a deal.” Success.

Response 2)

“Sorry but we are offering a higher degree of service and have better quality equipment and etc., etc., etc.…”

How you respond to the above really depends on whether you believe it’s true or not.

(d) Cash is King

There are two main ways in which you can use cash to get a discount.  Firstly, offering to pay in cash if they give you a discount of at least 10% (Pssst: if you want 10% then start by asking for 20%).  Secondly, by stating that you only have $X cash in your wallet and you’re not willing to spend a cent more.

Bonus Thrift Points: When applying the above bargaining tactics it is very important to be reasonable with the sellers you’re dealing with.  In a competitive and busy marketplace you’ll do very well and save money.  However, when there is only a single tour operator in the region or only one hostel with rooms left for the night it may not be such a good idea if you alienate or insult the seller.  So above all always negotiate respectfully.

(10) Back Home

Before you leave for your trip ask yourself the following two questions:

  • “What assets do I own which can work for me (i.e. rent out) while I’m away?”
  • “What services can I suspend (and not pay for) while I’m away?”

We all know that houses and apartments can be rented out while away to make some extra income.  But this is only feasible on long trips.  But did you know that even during short-term travel you can now tap into the rent-potential of your car, motorbike, tools, equipment, boat, trailer, or campervan?  More and more smart-phone apps enable us to create a marketplace for previously “dead assets.”

Another easy way to reduce costs while away is to call your health insurer and tell them that you’ll be travelling for ‘period X’.  They should be able to suspend your insurance payments for this period of time.  If they cannot do this then it’s perhaps time to simply cancel and look for a better provider.  Other cash-leaks such as subscriptions, memberships, and services which you will not be able to use should be scrutinised and suspended or cancelled.

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