This is a guest post from Matthew Kepnes. He runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. His first trip was supposed to last a year. Over six years later, he is still out exploring and roaming the world. His new 272 page, 60,000+ word book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, is now available to help you travel cheaper, better, and longer.
A friend once told me the purpose of money was to spend it – and I certainly like to do that. But I don’t believe in ever being stupid with money, nor do I believe that we should spend frivolously; I don’t mind spending money as long as I am spending it well.
Value is incredibly important when you spend your life on the road. Traveling all the time with the intent of traveling more, I need to stretch every dollar and ensure that I make my money last. After all, 6 months exploring Europe can get damn expensive, especially if you engage in the style of travel promoted in advertising and TV.
And let me tell you: I think that way is wrong. Sure, you can have a good time, but more money doesn’t always mean a better trip. You can enjoy an amazing holiday on the cheap that brings you even closer to the people.
That’s how I travel and how I make my money last – and how you can do the same. Here are my go-to methods for saving money before and while you travel.
Clearance gear. One way to obtain cheap gear is to buy last year’s models at an outlet store. Get all the gear you need at half the price. Unless you’re a slave to fashion, who cares if you don’t have this year’s model? Great outlet stores for travel gear are:
Discount cards. Travel discount cards will help you save money on hostels, airfare, transportation, and tours. The most widely used and accepted cards are:
- ISIC (International Student Identity Card). This student-only discount card provides discounts on tours, hostels, and transportation. It costs $22 USD and can be purchased through their website or some travel agencies. There is no age limit, so you can obtain a card as long as you are a full-time student; it doesn’t matter if you are 21 or 51. While part-time students are ineligible, there is also a version of this card for teachers and people under 26 offering the same features and benefits.
- YHA (Youth Hostel Association). This discount card is valid at Hostel International or Youth Hostels Association member hostels, providing a 10% discount at these worldwide chains. This card can be purchased when you check into any YHA member hostel, and your membership will be valid worldwide.
- VIP (general-purpose discount card). This card provides discounts on global tours, travel, and accommodations, though it is primarily used in Australia and New Zealand. It can be purchased at hostels and tour operators or online. The cost is steep at $43 USD, but this card can pay for itself very quickly. You can generally save on accommodations, get free bus tickets, save up to 20% off tour packages, and more.
- BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels). This is a New Zealand hostel card that saves you $2.50 USD each time you book at participating hostels. The card costs $37 USD per person and membership is valid for one year. You can purchase this card online, at New Zealand visitor centers, or at any of the participating hostels.
Free flights. There are a lot of ways to earn miles for free flights even if you aren’t jetsetting around the world all the time:
- Get something for nothing. All airlines have special offers for shopping online at companies such as Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and Target. Spending money at those preferred stores will earn you 2 to 4 miles per dollar, and sometimes even up to 10 miles per dollar spent. I went through an American Airlines link for Netflix because it got me 1,500 extra points. I bought flowers for a friend through a United link to get 2,000 extra points. No extra cost for me, just extra points.
- Watch for special offers. I sign up for newsletters because they often feature offers not found on an airline’s website. This could be triple miles on a selected route or as simple as Starwood’s recent promotion: I signed up for their newsletter and received 250 SPG points. These bonuses don’t amount to much by themselves, but they add up in the long run.
- Be a crazy flyer. On forums like Flyertalk, where people hunt down the latest chances for miles, you often find people going on mileage runs. This means that an airline will offer triple miles or double elite qualifying miles (these miles, unlike normal miles, count toward your elite flyer status and can only be earned by flying) if you fly a certain route. When airlines engage in price wars or offer new routes, they often launch multiple mile offers Mileage runs are very common and, while not free, can be a useful method to earn a lot of miles on a cheap fare.
Last minute cruises/tours. By booking tours and cruises at the last minute, you can save 25-50% off the list price. No one wants to run an empty tour or leave port with an empty boat, so last minute deals always abound. For me, I simply decide I’m going somewhere and then wait for the deal.
Shop for travel insurance. Every insurance company is different, so look around to see what companies are best for your trip. For that, I highly recommend the website Insure My Trip. They compare the insurance policies of more than 20 providers and it’s easy to see exactly what each company offers. You’ll be able to compare medical coverage limits and coverage for emergency evacuations, trip cancellations, dental needs, disasters , and everything else under the sun. For more information (it can get confusing), check out my post on picking the right travel insurance.
On the road
Train passes. Rail passes are offered in many regions of the world and can represent a 50% decrease off the price of train tickets. Rail passes in Australia can save you close to 70%! These passes will allow you either a set number of train rides or unlimited rides for a set amount of time. If you plan on using the train system often, strongly consider a rail pass.
City tourism passes. Provided by local tourism offices, these cards offer free entry and substantial discounts to all the attractions and tours in a city, free local public transportation (a huge plus), and discounts at some restaurants and shopping malls. The cards are typically valid for 1, 3, 5 or 7 days beginning when you first use your card, whether that is at a museum or on the train.
In Oslo, Norway, the VisitOslo card offered by the city tourism board costs $60 USD. However, admission to each museum in the city is between $12 and $15; when I visited 9 museums in the city I saved $30 USD with the pass – plus got free public transportation.
Forget about expensive restaurants. This is a simple enough tip, but one often forgotten: Prices at restaurants in tourist areas generally tend to be 20% to 50% higher because tourists are often unfamiliar with local prices.
Walk away, explore some side streets, and find a place where you don’t hear a lot of English. It’s more challenging, but the food is a lot better and you’ll be paying the local price instead of the tourist price. While in Barcelona, my friends and I wandered the city – away from the touristy La Rambla – and found a tapas restaurant. We filled our stomachs for $12 USD each, while the meal would have cost double that on La Rambla, where a single dish can be $20 USD.
Free tours. In most major cities around the world, you can find free walking tours that will show you the city’s highlights and help you learn about the culture. In NYC, you can use Big Apple Greeters; throughout Europe, almost every big city hosts a free walking tour, with the biggest company being New Europe Tours. Moreover, you can also use the hospitality site Couchsurfing. Many of the locals on that site are more than happy to show visitors around and give you a first-hand look at the local culture.
Reusable water bottles (or Steripen). Water might be cheap, but the cost of buying bottle after bottle will add up over time. So buy a reusable water bottle and just fill up from the tap. If you’re visiting a country where the water isn’t safe to drink, consider getting a Steripen, which is a handheld water purifier.
Avoiding paying bank fees. Giving banks your hard-earned money is foolish and the best way to avoid that is to get a Schwab checking account (no ATM fees and any fees charged by the other bank are reimbursed). Because of this card, I no longer pay oversees fees and save hundreds of dollars per year, money I’d rather spend on food or activities. Note: If you are going to use a credit card for international travel, consider one without any foreign fees.
Hotels are very expensive, so explore the cheaper alternatives that don’t require you to stay in 10-bed dorm rooms with snoring strangers.
Staying with locals. One of the best ways to save money on accommodation is by not paying for it. Stay with a local who will provide a free place to rest your head, local information, and someone to hang out with! A few websites can make this happen:
Home exchange. This method works best for older travelers who already own a home. These programs have been around for a long time but are growing in popularity due to good marketing and word-of-mouth. Home exchanges are just like they sound – for a set amount of time, you exchange homes with a family from another country.
House-sitting. If swapping homes isn’t your thing, then consider house-sitting as an alternative. In exchange for watching and maintaining someone’s home while they are on holiday, you’ll get a free place to stay in the area you are visiting. House-sitting jobs tend to be best for people who can stay in a destination for at least a couple of weeks, though there are occasionally short-term stints. Use these house-sitting sites to find a place:
Apartment rentals. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate apartment rentals more as I desire calm surroundings, a place to work, and privacy. You get all the comforts of home and get to stay in non-touristy places. Plus, having a kitchen lowers expenses. This is an especially good option for those traveling with children. My favorite rental websites are:
Monastery stays. Accommodation in monasteries is often very spartan (think a bed and desk) and you get simple meals prepared by the monks and nuns. While many monasteries cost at least $50 USD a night (many have dorms for half that price), most simply ask for donations or are free, making them an amazing budget option.
WWOOFing. This program, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, will let you stay on a farm and trade your labor for free accommodation. You can use this option even if you have no farm experience and many times, the work you are given is simply keeping things clean and organizing supplies!
These small tips can shave hundreds upon hundreds of dollars off the cost of a vacation. Using the tips above, spending wisely, getting off the beaten track, and avoiding the tourist centers, can bring your costs down and give you much more value for your money. These and other methods allow me to travel for $50 USD per day or less and not for the hundreds per day seen in those vacations on TV commercials!
What are your favorite large or small tips for saving on travel expenses? Comment and let us know!