Budget Travel Pros Share Top Tips For Exploring Affordably

Time to take notes!

No doubt, travelling has its benefits. The change of pace and new perspectives while exploring new places bring a different sort of happiness and peace. Those fleeting yet long-treasured moments are what pushes some to hustle, powering through months, looking forward to that sliver of time they could finally escape into the world. But as enriching as the experience is, travelling can definitely make a dent in your budget. If you do it wrong, you could end up indulging in your one-week adventure and return home scrimping to make it to the next payday. 

Coins on a map - budget travel tips

It can be hard to find the perfect balance between comfort and affordability when we travel

Depending on where we're from and where we're going, money can actually be no problem at all. Still, it wouldn't hurt if we could save up and use the money we'd otherwise spend on fleeting experiences on much more important things in life when we get back home. Because, as much as we find it a necessity for our sanity, the truth is, travel still remains a luxury. So to help us all perfect the balancing act, we had a chat with a few travel pros to get their secrets for a budget-friendly adventure.

Explore different options

Yoshke Dimen and Vins Carlos started their blog, thepoortraveler.net, to chronicle their hilarious misadventures in hopes of helping readers around the world avoid making the same costly mistakes they'd made in their own trips. For over 10 years of frequent flying, Yosh and Vins figured that the key to travelling smart is exploring a lot of options. For example, knowing the multiple airports that serve your destination can help you save up. "On our recent European trip, we came very close to booking an expensive flight from Krakow Airport to Athens. But we realised that not too far from Krakow is Katowice Airport, which has Athens flights at significantly cheaper prices," they shared. Apps like Skyscanner and Traveloka are great for comparing flight prices.

This mindset also helps in scoring a great deal with your accommodations. Hotels, which often have pricey rates, aren't your only options; hostels can be great, too. For those worried about compromising their privacy and space, fret not! Yosh and Vins can attest that "hostels have private rooms, too." If not those, then you can still easily find apartments and homestays on booking websites like Agoda, Booking, and more.

Yosh and Vins advise that, once you arrive at your destination, you should visit the local supermarket first. "It gives us an idea of how cheap or expensive the destination is. The next time we see an item sold outside, we can easily compare it to the supermarket price. We also buy some of our meals here," they say. But you don't have to scrimp on your food your whole trip. It's important to find balance. If you think you've splurged on this fancy meal at a famous restaurant, consider getting your dinner at the supermarket, where you'll still find a wide variety of cooked dishes. Note, too, that drinks can be costly at restaurants, so remember to bring your own water bottle to save up.

Overall, for a meaningful trip that doesn't hurt your pockets, it's important to do extensive research beforehand. When laying out your itinerary, it's best to check out websites that provide sample itineraries and see which attractions are worth checking out. The two says, "Don’t try to see them all. One of the most common pitfalls among new travellers is trying to visit as many places as they can." If you don't have plenty of time, just pick out places that suit your interests best. In short, just have fun and chill out. Drawing from the duo's experiences: "It’s less stressful and, yes, cheaper that way."

Go off-the-beaten track

Travelling the world is the dream, but Singaporean couple Elijah Hooi and Joysalyn Loh recognise it's quite difficult to achieve given the lack of time and money afforded by a career-driven lifestyle. Despite this, they still attempt to visit as many destinations as they could. To date, Elijah, in particular, has visited over 80 countries — most of which are documented in their blog, A Girl And A Bald Traveller — showing that comfortable yet affordable travel is actually quite achievable. 

The feat mainly lies in how the two choose the destination they'll visit. They tend to venture off the beaten paths instead as experiences in touristy destinations tend to be pricey. Forgoing popular destinations allows them to still pretty much experience the same things for less. "You could be paying top dollar to have a beer by the sea in Italy, enjoying the blue waters and white sand beaches. But you could also be paying 80 per cent less by having a beer by the Albanian Riviera, just across the same sea, looking at the same blue water. Same sea, different country," they explain.

Once they've finally zeroed in on their destination, of course, booking a flight comes next. Elijah and Joysalyn have quite a few tricks up their sleeve to save on their airfare. "One way is to book your flights in the native currency of the airline," they suggest. Though it doesn't work for all flights, it's worth checking out, because based on their experience, they save up to 20 per cent.  

Like Yosh and Vins, these two also take into account the airport they're landing at. Usually, flights that go through larger airports cost less than those that arrive in smaller ones. "For instance, if I were to visit the Balkans for a vacation, I would fly to Belgrade, Serbia, as opposed to say Skopje in Macedonia, simply because more flights run through Belgrade than Skopje," Elijah illustrates. How does that work? In main transport hubs, more airlines compete with each other, resulting in lower costs.

Accommodation, on the other hand, mainly depends on the country you're visiting, your flexibility, and well, guts. Elijah details his trip to Kazakhstan, where he had no place booked prior and just drove to random hotels he found on the map: "I just turned up at the hotel, and bargained down 50 per cent of the room cost from what I was initially offered." Seems kind of risky, but the tactic worked, that it gave him the courage to do the same thing in Tanzania. He posits, "If they gave me the price I wanted, they would earn something as opposed to nothing if they refused to budge and let me drive on to the next hotel." He, of course, admits that it won't work for huge hotel chains, so it's really about the location you choose to explore.

Elijah and Joysalyn's travel style really revolves around getting the best experience possible, rather than riding on the hype a destination has. Even when they dine on their trip, they apply the same philosophy. "What we do is to eat off the main stretch where costs are way lower, then head to the main part to enjoy a drink." That way, you still get more or less the same good food, the same experience, and the same ambience of the main area without paying the same cost. 

Research is your friend

For around 25 years now, Matt Gross has been flying off to different parts of the globe. "It's just the fact of my life, just moving all around," says the former Frugal Traveler for The New York Times, who reckons he'd still do it anyway even if it wasn't for work because of the sheer, liberating experience of it. Being a writer, aside from the occasional snippets of his trips on Instagram, Matt has chronicled his escapades in his book, The Turk Who Loved Apples. And for him, the one thing that's completely essential to budget travel is understanding what's affordable and suitable for your needs. "If you're hoping you're gonna be flying first class, and staying in gorgeous hotels all the time for very little money, you're gonna be disappointed." 

And with that, you also have to put a lot of your effort and time in research. While flight search engine sites like Google Flights, Kayak, and more definitely help make things easier, searching beyond them will help you get better deals. "There are tons of low-cost flights all over Asia but they don't always show up really well in the big flight search engines. You have to know which airlines go where and do a little extra searching just to find those," Matt explains. So one trick he does is he goes to the local airport's site to see their schedule and the all airlines that pass through there. "That often clues me into some unusual small local airline that happens to fly from Taipei to Danang or something like that. Like, 'Hey, who knew that this route existed?'" 

When booking your accommodations, too, you have to set first what's comfortable for you. While he enjoys fancy boutique hotels, Matt also finds happiness in the simplicity of staying over with friends and couch-surfing. It's cost-efficient, and you get to meet a lot of cool people — something you don't exactly experience when you check into a hotel. But, of course, if that's not an option you're comfortable with, you'll find that a number of chain hotels that offer necessities can be quite affordable, too, especially in up-and-coming destinations. Travelling with kids? No need to worry — a lot of these affordable establishments have kid-friendly amenities like pools to keep them busy. But want to score an even better deal? Matt suggests going online and signing up for free loyalty programs. "Book with the same chain enough that you get some points on you and use those points to cash in for three nights now and then," he advises.

Another thing that would really help you travel frugally is acclimatising your state of mind and learning to like things that don't cost a lot of money. "It makes everything open up in an exciting and new way," Matt exclaims. He's the kind of explorer who loves digging into food that's usually cheap. He enjoys street food and dining in small restaurants and doesn't really care for fine dining when travelling. "That's the more basic approach," he explains, "I've learned to like it, and because I like it, I can do it more affordably." But for travellers whose palates are more inclined to sophisticated dining, there's still a way to go about it without shelling out as much. For example, fancy restaurants tend to offer their menu at a lower price during lunch or at the bar. If a restaurant is famous enough, sometimes, you can also trace apprentices who've worked under their kitchen and left to do their own thing. "Those places will often be new, up-and-coming, and more affordable than the fancy old place," he shares.

If you can find an apartment that has a fully equipped kitchen, then that would be great as well. Booking an Airbnb with such definitely helped him feed his daughter in one trip to San Francisco years back. Moreover, he says "if you're really serious about exploring markets, understanding the food, and doing it more affordably" is one way you can fully enjoy the experience. 

But, of course, perfecting the art of budget travel doesn't come overnight. You actually have to go out and experience these through, well, travel. "This is gonna be the rest of your life," he says, after all, "[travel] is an investment in yourself."

Though we might view travel as a way to escape ourselves and our daily troubles, it also inevitably brings back to who we are. "It's all about learning and part of that is learning what you actually care about," Matt elaborates. Prioritise what's more important for you and work from that. Is having a comfortable bed and privacy a must for you over shopping? Then divide your budget accordingly. "When you start off travelling, you don't necessarily know what your trade-offs are gonna be. But the more you do it, the more you learn and eventually get to a point where you can have a measure of confidence."

Next, here's how you can make eco-friendly travel choices.

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