How to Travel for Cheap
Here is my personal toolkit and strategy for more affordable travel.
For a long time I let the flight prices choose my destination. I didn’t care much where I went as long as the price was right. I have flown Los Angeles to Europe for less than $250 on several occasions. It is quite possible to find such a flight for even less though if your timing is right. I have been using Skyscanner since 2014 for my flight deal searches. More recently, I have been using both Skyscanner and Google Flights to search broadly.
First, Skyscanner has an option that allows you to choose your home airport and pick “Everywhere” as a destination. You can then enter criteria like number of layovers to narrow down the results. It will show you the cheapest rates to fly from your home airport to various countries, increasing in price as you scroll. You can also pick wide ranging dates, such as a whole month, as a flexible option to find even cheaper deals.
My Flight Strategy
Sometimes I start by working backwards. By this I mean I identify a place I really want to go. Then search from that location back to home. This usually exposes indirect ways to get home.
I personally will avoid a layover at all costs because they add a lot of stress and anxiety to my travel experience. This means that if I can’t get to my dream destination in one flight, I will incorporate the “long layover” into part of the journey. For example, a flight from Los Angeles to Dubai nonstop would be very expensive. Instead I would fly direct to a European country and then onwards to Dubai. I would spend a day or two in that “layover” city before continuing. This is usually not only cheaper, but you also get to explore more. This method usually only works though if you have two of the ultimate luxuries: time and a strong national passport.
I could write an entire new article about passport privilege, but I’ll save that for another time. In general, having a strong national passport means you come from a country where you have few barriers to entry upon arrival. For many countries in the world, prior visas have to be arrange in order to allow entry to the country. Now sure, Americans need an arranged visa for China, Russia, and a few more. However, image needing to get prior visa approval for practically every country in the world. This not only takes time, but it is costly. Even when time and money are invested, it still often results in denial on the basis of nationality. This is the reality for many people.
So, if you can, adding a city break to a long haul flight is one way to make travel more affordable. However, understand that there are several reasons that not everyone may be able do this.
I stay in hostels for 90% of my travels. This is especially the case when I am traveling alone, which is also 90% of the time. If you have a friend or two with you, a hotel or an AirBnb could be about the same price as a hostel, but honestly it probably isn’t. Hostels range in price, but can be as much as $50 a night (such as in Oslo, Norway) or as little as $4 a night (such as in Bangkok, Thailand). Most of the hostels I stay in, anywhere in the world, range from $15-30 a night.
There are a few platforms for finding and booking hostels, but the one that I live by is Hostelworld. You find absolutely everything you need know there. For me, my search criteria usually includes free breakfast and security lockers. Those are important for me because a) free food and b) peace of mind. If you review the address and directions of your chosen hostel, you can also usually find the cheapest way to get to the hostel from the airport, train station, etc. Read How to Book a Great Hostel if you want to secure the best experience possible for your budget travel.
Another way I have traveled for cheap is by booking an AirBnb for a long duration of time (such as 1-3 months). This is usually cheaper than rent in San Diego or Los Angeles, but if you don’t live in a high priced area this may not be a money saving strategy for you. If you are traveling alone, it is also a limiting way to meet people. This strategy though can be really nice if you pick a city in a central location and use it as a base camp for further travels. This way, you can take a bus or a train to nearby areas without taking all your bags or worrying about finding the next place to sleep.
There are other ways to travel for cheap too that I have not yet tried, but have explored. I have browsed Couch Surfing, a free place to sleep and a way to meet a local. There is also WorkAway.Info that can connect you with a host in need of assistance on a job or project such as farming, childcare, or operating a hostel. In exchange for your work you get accommodation and sometimes are also paid for the work. This could be another good option to explore if you are looking for longer term, flexible travel.
Related: How to Travel on a Budget
“Cheap” Travel is Relative
Cheap is a relative term. I wrote this article with the goal of erasing the illusion that travel will always cost thousands of dollars. Five dollars a night for a bed in hostel is cheap when compared to $300 a night for a beautiful hotel. Flights that cost $200 are cheap when compared to some flights that cost a thousand dollars or more.
Spending two hundred dollars on a flight is not cheap when you make minimum wage and can hardly cover your essentials like rent, food, and healthcare. Being able to afford travel is not as simple as bringing your own lunch to work or skipping your morning Starbucks to save up on cash. Roughly 38 million Americans (~11% of the population) live in poverty. “Affordable travel” is not something millions of Americans can even entertain the idea of really doing, much less people from other countries around the world. The “brag worthy” $200 I spent on an international flight to make myself sound like a thrifty travel guru is more money than hundreds of millions of people around the world will ever see in a year.
So, while it is my goal to share tools and ideas that can perhaps help you find better deals, do not forget that it is generally a privilege of the comparatively wealthy to be able to travel internationally. Wealth can be tricky thing to measure since it is always relative and often times us budget travelers do not perceive ourselves to be wealthy. The reality is though that if you are able to spend a few hundred dollars to catch a flight and then a few hundred more on even budget hostels and self-made meals in the hostel kitchen, you likely still have more resources than the majority of the world. Travel is only “cheap” when it is compared it to luxurious travel.
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