There are a lot of important elements to traveling in a financially-sustainable way – making money on the road, managing that money, keeping your money safe (as well as your identity), and of course saving money on the two most expensive aspects of travel on a budget: flights and accommodation.
But what about all the other things you spend money on while traveling?
From meals, to tours, to cab rides, to bottled water, there are a lot of different ways that travel depletes your finances.
But with a few of the tricks below, you’ll be able to cut costs on all the other little expenses in your travels, so you can stretch your dollars a little farther and stay on the road a little longer.
In this guide, I give you 14 expert tips on how to travel on a budget so you can travel like a rockstar.
This post was originally published in 2018. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Table of Contents:
#1. Save On Baggage Fees With This Carry-On Hack
As you may know, I used to travel with carry-on luggage only (for years!). (Here’s my approximate carry-on packing list). I survived, but it was a tight fit, especially if I was traveling to a place where the weather was anything other than tropical.
Thanks to a reader, I eventually discovered a new technique to get a wee bit more stuff through carry-on and still satisfy the regulations. Although this trick doesn’t accommodate a huge amount of stuff, it just might give you enough wiggle room to avoid having to check bags, and/or will save you the cost of baggage fees or penalties that some budget airlines love to levy if you’re so much as a few grams overweight.
Enter From Stage Left: The Fanny Pack
These bags go by many names: Fanny pack. Bum bag. Hip sack. Belt bag. Butt pack.
They’re worn by power walkers and tourists alike. And thanks to a recent (if not upsetting) revival in fashion circles, they’re actually considered “cool”.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, a fanny pack is a pouch worn around the hips or waist that allows you to go hands-free.
I’m not particularly a fan of the fashion statement that fanny packs make, and I’m aware that pickpockets enjoy depriving tourists of their fanny packs (or at least the contents thereof).
However, having learned this little carry-on trick from a reader, I had to get one from a market in Peru and try it out.
Fanny Packs Don’t Count as Carry-On Luggage
Carry-on regulations permit one piece of luggage that fits within the airline’s carry-on dimensions, as well as a personal bag/purse/laptop bag. (Although I regularly had a purse and a daypack containing my laptop, if I was ever accused of having more than one personal item, I simply squished my purse into the daypack and I was golden).
But fanny packs don’t count. In fact, because you wear your fanny pack, it’s considered personal attire, and thus it’s not part of your carry-on entourage. It doesn’t get weighed, analyzed, or even glanced at.
Even if It’s Not Allowed, It Works
This tip came from a reader who confirmed with the check-in staff at an airport that fanny packs are considered personal attire and thus he brought a whole fanny pack worth of extra stuff without incurring any penalties or problems.
But not all airports, airlines, and check-in staff may share the same sentiment. The good news here is that as long as you stand in front of the check-in counter which is usually at chest height, they’ll never see your fanny pack anyway. And once you’re past the check-in staff, you’re in the clear; nobody will stop you from getting on the plane with your fanny pack in addition to your carry-on entourage.
Fanny Pack Drawbacks
These drawbacks to traveling with a fanny pack might not stop you from taking one, but it’s prudent to mention them anyway:
- It’s one more thing to manage on the plane
- Clearing airport security could take 15-20 seconds longer, with another item to chuck in the bin for x-raying
- They’re not always the most flattering of fashion accessories (just saying)
Like I said, I tried the fanny pack carry-on trick (you know, for science) and it worked like a charm. Although I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same results, it appears to be a loophole that could save you a few bucks in luggage penalties if you’re close to being overweight.
And just in case you happen to be on the fence about whether to travel with carry-on or checked luggage, you’ll want to read this post, with a (biased but unbiased!) breakdown of pros and cons for both scenarios along with specific recommendations depending on your situation: Checked vs. Carry-On Luggage.
#2. Stick to Your Budget by Staying Out of Cities
A lot of people assume that the predominant factor to choosing frugal destinations is to visit a developing country where the cost of living is inherently low.
But there’s more to the picture than that.
I’ve lived in a variety of destinations that aren’t cheap (eg: Hawaii for 6 months, Australia for 1.5 years, New Zealand for 9 months, the Caribbean for 2 years, and lots of time in western Europe), and yet I’ve lived very well and in a financially sustainable way.
The key is to stay out of cities. (Or at least really big ones).
I categorically spend more money when I live in a city. Luckily, I’ve spent a good chunk of my travels living rurally. Rural life is more basic (but far from boring – depending on what you like to see and do), and there’s generally not as much stuff to spend money on.
If the hum of a city and cultural attractions/activities are what entices you, you can still save some money by staying out of the major cities. Instead of London, consider York. Bypass Bangkok for Chiang Mai. Not only is the variety of things to do (and the cost of getting around) in major cities a pull on your pocketbook, but also, they generally have a higher cost of living.
Now. Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, because the reason rural/country life is cheap is because there’s nothing to do. Outdoor enthusiasts and introverts alike will certainly dispute this statement, but I’ll let it go and instead say this: Most of my rural outposts were a function of volunteering or house-sitting in trade for free accommodation. When volunteering, you immediately have something to do with your time, a valuable cultural exchange with the locals (for example, your hosts), and sometimes even a community of other international volunteers to socialize with. When this happens, living rurally can be a very enriching experience.
Also, whether or not in a city, the availability of public transport is crucial to your destination ultimately being frugal. Even when I lived in a very rural area of Peru, I was a 10-minute walk from Pisac, which is a 45-minute bus ride to Cusco ($1). If I wanted to splurge, I could go from door to door in style in a taxi for $20. If it’s consistently expensive to get around, your destination won’t be very frugal.
#3. Money-Saving (and Other) Benefits of a Water Bottle
My hair raises every time I fly and I’m offered up to 5 separate disposable cups for whatever beverages they have on offer. If I do take a cup at all, they balk at my request to reuse it the next time they come around.
But most of the time, I don’t take a cup. I have a bottle.
Traveling with a reusable water bottle (ideally an ultralight and ultra cool one like the Platypus foldable bottle, which is my personal fav) has many benefits – financial, environmental, health, and otherwise.
Here’s how a water bottle can be beneficial to travelers:
- You will save money in not buying bottled water (especially in developing countries with non-potable tap water) if you have a reusable bottle and a SteriPEN for sterilizing water. In fact you might not even need the SteriPen, as many hostels/hotels and restaurants now have water coolers in the lobby for guest use. (And if you’re concerned about the cost outlay of buying a SteriPEN, rest assured it pays for itself very quickly by saving you the cost of buying water).
- You’re more likely to drink more water when you have a reusable bottle with you; a very healthy choice, especially in warm climates.
- You will save the environment from unnecessary waste by refilling your bottle instead of using disposable bottles and cups (even on airplanes – refuse the cup and ask them to fill your bottle).
- Bottled water is one of the most unregulated industries, and with the toxins that the cheap plastic bottles leach into the water, the health benefits are questionable.
Water might be a boring drink. But it’s pretty vital, and if you can save money, protect the environment, and improve your health by carrying a water bottle, why wouldn’t you?
For more on the art of drinking water while traveling, especially in countries where you can’t drink what comes out of the tap:
#4: How to Go Local To Save & Get a Deeper Travel Experience
When traveling, most people yearn to do as the locals do. Not only does it often lead to more fulfilling and illuminating experiences, but it usually saves you money too. Nobody knows the place you’re visiting better than locals do; tap into their knowledge with these ways to go local on the road.
Meeting with Locals
Use a special interest or hobby to break the ice with locals; find a local forum or group, and attend meetings (if they have any).
I’ve met up with rock climbers around the world, as well as attended member organization meetings like Rotary and Toastmasters. Apparently Couchsurfing chapters that meet around the world are a blast too. If all else fails, you can drown your sorrows at a nearby pub – a perfect place to meet locals.
Finding Local Haunts
Failing the pub, supermarket, or other opportunities to randomly meet locals, every day there are more apps, sites, and online communities that will show you the scene and connect you directly. There are too many to mention; many are destination or activity-specific.
Making Friends (in Spain/Europe)
One of the most rewarding travel experiences I’ve had was volunteering at Vaughan Town in Spain by conversing in English with Spaniards from around the country.
By virtue of the program’s structure, I befriended more people (from Spain – and around the world with fellow Anglos on the program) than I could have imagined for a week-long investment (which was free and all-inclusive, by the way). In fact, I met enough people who invited me to stay with them in their hometowns/countries, that my next three months of travel around Europe were free.
Go on a Free Walking Tour
I only recently discovered how utterly awesome free walking tours are. Imagine spending a few hours with a local, showing you the local scene and telling you stories about the places you are visiting that perhaps some professional tour guides don’t even know. (You can read an example of a quirky story I learned on a free walking tour in Hong Kong here). Imagine that person answering all your personal questions and making suggestions to enhance the rest of your time in their hometown.
Now imagine it’s free.
Okay, before I go any further, free walking tours aren’t actually free. Although there’s no fee up front to join a free walking tour, it is expected that you will compensate the guide with a tip – the amount is entirely discretionary, and depends on the value you feel you received. So please don’t do what I did the first time I joined a free walking tour and show up empty-handed.
Not sure where to find a free walking tour? Try GuruWalk – a collection of free walking tours in almost 300 cities.
The best way is to stay local. Various ways of staying in a local’s home include the following:
- Hospitality exchanges
- Home exchanges
- Booking inexpensive short-term rentals
All of these are explored in my Creative Guide to Free or Cheap Accommodation.
#5: Get a Local Experience Using Withlocals
Withlocals: Imagine landing somewhere totally new and different and being invited to somebody’s home for dinner. A cultural boon! Some would say “money can’t buy that kind of experience”.
Well, now those people are wrong.
Here’s a great website that connects travelers with locals for just that, and much more.
I love getting the local experience when I travel, and I do so using techniques like staying locally, and I generally stay somewhere long enough to make local friends and integrate into the daily rhythm of things.
But what if you don’t have months to seek out the local experience organically? This is where Withlocals comes in.
Withlocals connects travelers with local hosts in three different ways: through Activities, Tours, and Eating. They got their start with the Eating side of things, and for good reason: It allows travelers to have a cost-effective and authentic meal in a local home, and also for the local host to earn some extra money hosting travelers for dinner; everybody wins.
How It Works
Browse the website for your destination country (of which there are currently about 30 represented), and allow the excitement to grow as you peruse various authentic local experiences offered by 100% local hosts (tour companies not allowed). You can even request a personalized experience from a host based on their listing and how you’d like to tailor it to your needs.
Once you’ve found the perfect local experience, you book it, and once the host confirms their availability, you pay through the website. The host receives their compensation after the meal/activity is complete and everybody is happy. (Withlocals takes 20% of the price as their cut).
Safety and Satisfaction
Withlocals personally contacts every host applicant to guarantee both their identity and a certain quality standard of experience for the traveler.
As a traveler, if you’re worried about the safety of having dinner in a perfect stranger’s home, you can rest assured in the vetting process of Withlocals, and make sure you browse the reviews on the website so you know what you’re getting in advance.
Curious what a Withlocals experience might be like? Here are two I did in 2017:
#6: Free Tours & Local Friends with International Greeter Association
A free tour and a new local friend, you say? Yes, please!
International Greeter Association Basics
International Greeter Association is a volunteer association of independent “welcoming programs” located around the world. This, from their website:
Let one of our Greeters in more than 130 destinations take you on free walks through his home city for 2-3 hours:
* Greeters are a worldwide non profit organisation.
* Destinations around the world offer private free walks with locals through cities for visitors.
* Our city walks – called Greets – are free of charge, no tipping
* Greets are offered for single tourists and small groups up to six people.
* Greeters want to be a friendly face for those visiting a city.
There’s an ever-increasing list of destinations (130+) served, with new chapters opening when local volunteers put up their hands to start one. You can check out the destinations that the International Greeter Association currently serves here and click through to the relevant site to connect with a greeter.
Unlike hospitality exchanges, it isn’t about free accommodation. Instead, it’s about meeting a local whose interests match yours, and allowing them to show you a piece of their hometown.
Bonus: You may well make a new friend out of the deal as well.
#7: How to Save on Transportation with Ride Sharing
If you want to save on transportation expenses (or alternately if you own a car and want to make some cash during your road trip), consider ride sharing.
The basic premise is that Bob is driving from A to B (usually a long distance, although there are some carpooling opportunities for daily commutes and such), and he has extra room in his car. You’re also going from A to B, and through a ride sharing service, you connect with Bob and help him subsidize his fuel expenses in exchange for hitching a ride with him.
Not only do you and the driver save the expense of making your journeys individually, but your collective carbon footprint is reduced, and you may even make a new local friend out of it.
Ride sharing sites vary by country and region. Below is a selection. But do have a search yourself as ride sharing opportunities and apps are expanding. (Search for “ride sharing + [country name]”).
Australia & New Zealand
The price of the ride varies depending on the route, country, vehicle, and space available (ie: for luggage). But you can certainly expect to pay less than public transportation, and similar to couchsurfing, you might make some new friends in the process.
Some of these sites handle payment transactions, and in turn might charge a transaction fee. Again, it’s minimal.
As with any internet service that connects two strangers to ride together, stay together, volunteer together – or heck, even date each other – do your due diligence by choosing a ride-sharing partner with a well-filled out profile, checkable references, and arrange to meet in a public place so you can measure each other up before embarking on the journey.
I don’t have any personal experience with ridesharing, however I hope to try it out during some upcoming travels. Do you have any experience with ride sharing? If so – where, what site did you use, and do you have any tips?
#8: Car Sharing Can Save Money At Home & Abroad
If you travel to urban places, you can also consider getting around with a Car Sharing program.
Set up in most major cities, car sharing programs have cars parked all over the city, allowing you to “rent” them on an hourly basis to run errands, or take a drive out to that sightseeing spot just out of the city.
You don’t have to worry about gas or auto insurance – it’s all bundled in your fee. And if you belong to a program in your home town, your membership can be extended to other cities around the world.
Like ride sharing, the company you use will depend on where you are. Do a search for car sharing services in your area and you’ll likely come up with a few options. You can also check out this list of car sharing companies around the world.
#9: Almost-Free Roadtrips with Vehicle Relocation
Lots of people rent cars and campervans and cars for point-to-point road trips. Thus rental companies can end up with a glut of vehicles in exactly the wrong places to satisfy their upcoming reservations.
By using vehicle relocation services, travelers can take advantage of this to get nearly free roadtrips! As long as your road trip itinerary matches their relocation needs.
This concept is especially popular in Australia and New Zealand with campervans, although you’ll find vehicle relocation services around the world.
Basics of Vehicle Relocation (also called Vehicle Delivery)
While the basics vary, let’s use the popular company DriveNow (who does campervan relocations in Australia) as a case study of how it generally works.
- You’ll get about 2-3 weeks of lead time for available campervans, so be prepared to plan a last-minute trip. Check out this page for a list of current available relocations for an idea.
- Each listing gives a minimum and maximum number of days you can use to relocate the vehicle. The minimum days are charged at $5/day, and additional days cost $75/day (standard rental rates).
- Although you don’t get free mileage entirely, DriveNow gives you an allowance to get to where you need to go plus a bonus amount of miles/kilometres.
- In addition to cheap rental rates (for the minimum day allowance) and a mileage allowance, you’ll also get a fuel allowance – which, when it comes to filling up a campervan in particular, can be a substantial savings.
Car/Campervan Relocation Services
DriveNow only operates in Australia and New Zealand. Here is a list of other relocation companies around the world.
iMoova operates in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, and Europe/UK, relocating vehicles for several car rental companies.
Transfercar is another great option for USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. They have cars as well as RVs and campervans.
Jucy is an RV rental company in Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Canada that occasionally offers relocation deals for their own vehicles.
Hit the Road is Canada’s popular car relocation service.
And there’s more! Check out this article for a more comprehensive listing of vehicle relocation services.
#10: My Favourite Way to Save Money and Explore Culture
What’s the first thing I do when I arrive to a new destination? I go to the supermarket. What’s odd about this? I don’t (necessarily) go to actually buy anything.
The supermarket is a great peek into local culture – from what is stocked, to how much it costs, right down to who is shopping, and how you buy and pay for the goods. I can literally spend hours browsing supermarket aisles, looking at products, and watching people shop.
It’s also a fantastic way to save money while you’re traveling, especially if you are staying somewhere with a kitchen where you can cook a meal or three.
And if you’re shopping for souvenirs as gifts to bring home with you, why not get them at the supermarket? Instead of a tacky t-shirt or fridge magnet, consider buying a local snack food or consumable item instead. It will be a great conversation piece, and will likely get more use than any overpriced souvenir you can get at a gift shop.
Curious what I get up to on my supermarket adventures? Check out what it’s like in Tokyo.
#11: Apply Everything in Moderation while Traveling
“Oh, what the hell. I’m on vacation! I deserve a treat,” are the famous last words of so many people when they travel, ultimately leading to a mountain of debt or a shortened time on the road if uttered too often.
At the same time, maybe we do deserve it; even long-term or full-time travelers like me like to splash out from time to time. What’s the point of traveling if you’re too miserly to actually do anything at your destination?
But it’s important to keep a balance.
Years ago, I wrote an article called Taco Tuesday: The Inner Mechanics of Budgeting on Vacation. It’s a great case study for different approaches to spending money, and despite the passage of time since this article’s inception, it’s still 100% relevant.
#12: Take Advantage of Low-Price Guarantees on Hotels
Here’s a secret: every online booking site has a Low Price Guarantee. Here’s another secret: customers hardly ever use it. But they should. Online travel sites will match the competition if they have a lower price. You just need to do three things.
- Play by the rules. It has to be a lower price on the exact same hotel for the exact same dates of travel on the exact same date that you’re doing the booking. Apples to apples.
- Get a screenshot. Take a picture of the competitor with the lower price and make sure the hotel name and dates of travel are visible, as well as the price per night and total price.
- Get on the phone. You typically need to give your favourite online travel site customer service a call in order to get them to match a price. They’ll give you an email address to send the screenshot to.
Why would you do this? Why not just book with the cheaper site?
Well, you probably are part of a loyalty program on one online travel site but not another. You may want to keep accumulating points on Expedia versus any other site, as an example.
The Low Price Guarantee allows you to keep booking with them, even when they don’t have the lowest price out there. It allows you to consolidate your travel bookings with one company (and get all the advantages of being one of their better customers) without sacrificing on the price you’re paying.
Bonus technique: Hotels themselves will almost always match or beat the price listed on an online booking site if you give them a call. A similar process applies: take a screenshot of the price offered on the online booking site, then call the hotel directly and inform them of your findings. If the hotel can save money on the commission they’ll have to pay the online booking site, it’s worth their while to get you to book directly with them by matching or beating the listed price.
#13: How to Ensure You Get the Lowest Price on Airfare
Getting the lowest price on airfare is a trick, and one that takes some work. I love to fly in business class for less than the price of economy, but some frequent flyer mile programs only allow the booking of return tickets. Even if I can get a one-way ticket with miles, rewards seats are often only available if booked months in advance.
This doesn’t bode well when I need a one-way ticket on short notice.
You also get the best bang for your frequent flyer mile bucks if you use them for long-haul flights and upgrades, since domestic flights are often very cheap and better funded with cash (never forgetting, of course, to collect miles for that flight).
So regardless of my preference for living the high life in the air and flying business class, I occasionally succumb to a good deal for shorter one-way flights.
But who has time to understand or track the forever-fluctuating prices of airfare? Certainly not me, and I’m guessing not you either.
Enter: fare alert systems.
Over the years, I’ve found some free tools – such as Hopper (quite possibly my new favourite app ever), Kayak, Skyscanner, and FareCompare – that have made searching and – more importantly – tracking prices much easier.
These sites have a few other widgets that even make searching for airfare a little bit fun! (And for somebody who hates the process of making travel reservations with a passion – this is saying something).
#14: There’s a Science Behind Free Upgrades
When I rented a car to drive around Hawaii, I got to travel in style in a shiny blue beautiful convertible – for free. (Well not quite for free; for the price of their cheapest compact car).
Why? Because I asked for an upgrade. Plain and simple. When they offered an upgrade for an extra $10/day, I actually had the gaul to say “No thanks. But do you have any free upgrades available?” And I drove away in a blue convertible.
Here’s a bit of insider information: Car rental companies generally keep a reserve of cars available to give away as free upgrades, in case they need to assuage complaints, reward loyal customers, etc. If your timing is right and they decide they don’t need all those cars…and you ask for a free upgrade….you just might drive away in a blue convertible too. The worst they can say is no, so it’s totally worth a shot.
And this doesn’t just work with car rentals (although it might work more often there). I’ve also gotten free upgrades to business class or premium economy while flying, and I nabbed some great hotel upgrades staying in beautiful suites for the price of their cheapest rooms. Why? You got it….I asked.
Sometimes you’ll get an upgrade, sometimes you won’t. But you’ll never know if you don’t ask.
So there you have it. 14 expert tips to save even more money on your travels. Hopefully there were a few surprises in here that you will use on your next trip.
Do you have any tried-and-true tricks up your sleeve to save on travel expenses?
Let me know in the comments!