In my last post I talked about our budget for a year of round-the-world travel, which is $50 per day per person, and how we arrived at that number. $18,250 per year may sound like a lot of money, but it goes fast when we only have $50 a day to cover lodging, food, transport, flights, excursions, sightseeing, toiletries, and incidentals. In this post, I will describe some of the tricks we use to save or manage our money so we can stick to our RTW backpacking budget. For some of these points I will go into more detail in future posts, but for now here is a brief overview of how we save money on the road.
We track all of our spending. Like, every single cent. We track our spending using a combination of apps and spreadsheets, which I will go into more in a future post, but knowing how much we spend is critical to staying in budget. It can be tempting to keep a running tab in your head rather than writing down every tiny little purchase, but it is also easy to vastly underestimate how much you have spent. Tracking our spending lets us see how much money we have spent and how much money we have left, which translates to how long we can travel before we have to go home. Good info to have.
We don’t pay ATM fees. Before we began our trip, I signed up for a Charles Schwab checking account because I would get all ATM fees reimbursed worldwide. There may be other banks that do this, but Charles Schwab is the main one I know of, and this feature has saved us so much money. ATM fees around the world range between $2-$10 per withdrawal, so it is a huge money saver to have these fees repaid to me at the end of the month. I try not to abuse this privilege but it has come in handy when we almost have enough cash in local currency to get through a leg of the trip but don’t quite have enough. I like being able to make several smaller withdrawals than trying to take out all my cash at once to save on ATM fees. Banks also usually provide better exchange rates than money exchangers so if we need cash, we go to ATMs.
We use travel credit cards. Travel credit cards are a must have for pre-trip planning and to use while on the road. Travel credit cards allow you to earn points that you can redeem for flights, hotels, cruises, or rental cars, and they also come with benefits such as trip cancellation and rental car insurance. We have utilized the benefits of our cards while on our RTW trip, and in a future post I will talk about our favorite travel credit card and how to maximize its perks.
We use hotel points. Joe has some Hilton points left from when he was traveling a lot for work, so we have used them a couple times when the cost of accommodation in a place was too expensive or when we just needed a break from hostels.
Pretty much if you see us staying in luxury, we are using points. I do not think hotel points are the most necessary points to collect, especially as many travel credit card points will transfer to most of the major hotel chains, but they have been nice to have during our trip.
We travel slowly. When we began our year-long round-the-world trip, we were spending a few days in each location, hitting all the sights, and moving on. In the first week of our trip alone, we were in Sydney, Brisbane, Uluru, Melbourne, and New Zealand. We realized almost immediately that this way of traveling is not only exhausting but expensive. After accommodation and food, transportation is our biggest expense and when we are taking a bus, train, or flight every day our costs rise very quickly. When we slow down our travel, staying longer in a place, we not only save money on transportation but also get the opportunity to recharge and maintain our stamina for long-term travel. Whirlwind tours of places are draining on us, both physically and financially, so we tend to stay a week or so in each new location. It is always funny to read articles in preparation for the next leg of our journey that have titles like, “36 hours on Langkawi Island, Malaysia” or “How to do a day trip to Georgia’s wine country” We stayed weeks in each of these places and had plenty to do, and it also gave us the chance to see the sights at our own pace.
We prioritize what we want to do. Early on in our trip I would extensively research our next destination and map out all the sights we had to see during our time there. We visited every museum, temple, market, park, and tourist attraction in each place. I no longer feel the need to “do” a place to the best of my abilities, spending money and time running all over town to check all the tourist itinerary boxes.
Now we pick out a few things we want to see or do and put our money toward those activities. We may visit the main museum of a town or check out the well-known monastery nearby. It feels like a better use of our limited funds to see the main highlights of a place than to hit up every museum we will not even remember in a few months. And since we tend to stay in a place for longer than most people do, we have some flexibility to go to museums on their free days or explore some of the lesser-known attractions, which are usually less expensive than the most famous sights, if not free. Thankfully, a lot of the things we enjoy doing happen to be free anyway, like visiting libraries, hiking, or going to supermarkets to look at all the weird foods in foreign countries.
We compare prices. The main 4 websites I use to find accommodation are Booking, Agoda (useful in Asia), Google Maps, and AirBnB. I tend to get the best prices from Booking.com, as they offer discounts from 10-15% for frequent travelers, but I always like to compare the prices I find to make sure I’m getting the best deal. If I find that I have booked a place at a higher price point than I find on a different site, I’ll dispute it as all of the websites offer price matching. I once spent $1 more on a hotel in Taipei through Booking than I would have through Agoda, so I asked them to price match. Joe was teasing me a bit about fussing over a dollar, but I ended up getting a refund of $6 from Booking for my trouble, so it made it well worth the little effort of emailing them a copy of my receipt.
We take advantage of free cancellations. Booking accommodation far in advance is usually cheaper than waiting until closer to your stay or at the last minute. Booking, Agoda, and sometimes AirBnB offer free cancellations up to a certain date, which could be a few days before your stay up until the actual date you are due to check in. I like to reserve places as far in advance as I can if they seem like a good deal, and this gives me time to research the neighborhood, price compare, read reviews, and make sure it’s a place I want to stay without worrying that the price will rise or it will sell out. Then, if I find a better deal or decide the place is not for us, I cancel free of charge. I have made several reservations for the same dates and then cancelled all the ones I did not like. The only caveat to this is you must make sure the listing says “Free cancellation until (date)” because there are places where the charge is final and non-refundable in the event of cancellation.
We use AirBnB discounts. We normally book accommodation through other websites because AirBnB adds service fees to every transaction, but by using new rental or weekly discounts to our advantage, we have been able to find AirBnBs that, even with service fees, are incredibly cheap. in a future post I will explain more about how we find and combine AirBnB discounts and price glitches.
We Couchsurf. Couchsurfing is a website that brings together travelers with hosts who are willing to let them stay in their homes. Sometimes the sleeping arrangement is literally a couch in the living room, but other times hosts offer up their spare bedrooms or guest cottages.
It may sound weird or dangerous to let a stranger into your home, but there are built-in protections for both hosts and surfers. Joe and I have hosted surfers and couchsurfed ourselves all over the world and have had some amazing experiences in the process. I will talk more about how Couchsurfing works and the pros and cons of using the site in an upcoming post.
We do Workaway. Workaway is a website to find volunteer positions around the world that provide room and board in exchange for a set number of working hours per week, usually 25-30. There are thousands of Workaway hosts worldwide offering all sorts of jobs including working at hostels, on farms, at hotels or guesthouses, at summer camps, housesitting, working at non-profits, babysitting, helping the elderly, and more.
Joe and I have done several workaways, finding positions at hostels as well as in private homes where the elderly owners need a bit of extra help in the garden. Workaway has saved us thousands of dollars in lodging and meals, and I will go more in-depth into the kind of work we did and the actual experience of doing a Workaway in a future post.
We use public transportation. And when we do, we take the cheapest option, which is usually the slowest. Thankfully, we have the time if not the money. We take local buses, 3rd class trains, and pretty much never take Ubers or taxis. Even if taxis in a different country are cheap compared to the US, they are still going to be more expensive than local public transportation.
We walk. While we do take public transportation for long distances, most of the time we walk everywhere. Like I said, we have the time, not the money. It gives us the chance to orient ourselves in a new place, check out stuff along the way, wander around on no fixed route, and it’s free!
We also love to hike, which is good because walking up a mountain is cheaper than taking a bus, or God forbid one of those overpriced cable cars. Some may think it is ridiculous to hike two hours straight up a mountain to save a couple bucks, but I think there is something badass about saying you trekked to a temple rather than taking a bus.
We use ridesharing apps. While we almost never use taxis or ridesharing services, sometimes it is unavoidable, such as if there is no public transportation to an airport, or in Cambodia, where tuk tuks (rickshaws) are the main mode of transportation rather than city buses. Uber works in many countries around the world, but sometimes there is an alternative app instead, such as Grab or PassApp in Southeast Asia. With all of these ridesharing apps, you can call a car or even a rickshaw or motorcycle. I find ridesharing apps to be indispensable while traveling, not only because they are usually much cheaper than taxis, but also because they add a level of safety with their location tracking and emergency contact services, and they cut out the price negotiations and trying to tell your driver where to go when you don’t even know where you are going yourself. The apps provide a good idea of how much a ride should cost, so even if you choose to negotiate with a driver on the street, you know how much to pay.
We relocate cars and campervans. Rental companies offer cars or campervans for very cheap as part of their relocation specials. Relocations come up when the rental company needs one of their vehicles in a certain place by a certain date, and rather than paying an employee to drive it there, they offer steep discounts for anyone who wants to do the driving for them.
Relocations have been a huge money saver for us during our travels, as we have rented cars and campervans for as little as $1 per day. Normally campervans could rent for as much as $200 a day during peak season, so by relocating the vehicles we have saved thousands of dollars while taking epic roadtrips through New Zealand and Australia. I will write a more in-depth future post on relocations and how to get them.
We cook our own food. Don’t get me wrong, food is probably the thing I enjoy most about traveling the world. But it can be cost prohibitive to eat all of our meals out, especially in sit down restaurants. In places like Southeast Asia and Georgia the cost of food on the street and in restaurants was ridiculously cheap, so we never cooked, but in places like Australia and Europe the food is much more expensive and therefore we buy groceries and cook many of our own meals in those locations. Of course we go to restaurants to try the local specialties, but cooking some of our meals means we have a bit more money to spend when we do go out and can sample more kinds of food rather than scrimping every time we eat. Also, breakfast is an easy, cheap win. Trust me, most places are serving the same shit for breakfast as everywhere else, so save yourself some money and buy some eggs and toast to make at home.
We eat two meals a day. This one kind of happened by accident, but it saves us money, so it’s on the list. Once we left our jobs and started traveling full time, we fell into a natural sleeping rhythm that works for us. We usually wake up around 9 or 10 am and eat breakfast/lunch around 11 (it’s not brunch, there are decidedly no mimosas). Then we eat dinner around 7 or 8pm and snack in between those meals. We go to bed around 1 or 2am. This is by no means a set schedule or even an intentional one, it’s just our body clocks. Sometimes we wake up earlier and eat a proper breakfast and then lunch as well, or other times we eat a later dinner because we are basically Europeans now.
We pack light. We are traveling around the world for almost a year with nothing but the clothes on our backs…in our backpacks. We save money by packing light enough to put our backpacks in the overhead bins on flights rather than paying to check a bag, which is the norm for budget airlines around the world.
We say no. Contrary to what it may seem like when you’re looking at the wanderlust pics of Instagram influencers, you just can’t do everything on a strict budget. We have had to say no to certain things that were simply out of our budget. For example, we met up with friends from the US in Goa, India who flew over for about ten days.
All our friends rented a villa together, but at $50 per person per night, the lodging alone was double our $25 daily budget for India. Instead we rented a little studio down the road from the villa. It ended up being just fine, but we were a little disappointed to have to make the choice to be the only ones not staying in the villa. We had to remember that travel is a balance of time and money, and our friends had limited time and more money while we have more time and a limited budget. We sometimes have to say no and make sacrifices of comfort or convenience to stay within our budget, such as by walking rather than Ubering or avoiding expensive countries and going to cheaper destinations instead. All that being said, Joe and I recently had the discussion if there’s anything we feel we missed out on because of our budget and we could not really think of anything, so let that be a reminder that you don’t even think about the small things you sacrifice when compared to all the amazing places you see, food you eat, and people you meet on your journey.
So that was my overview of the ways we save money on our round-the-world travels. Did I leave anything out? Did any of these money saving tips surprise you? Am I a crazy cheapskate? Let me know in the comments!