How to Travel on the Cheap

It’s easier than you think—as long as you're ready to be a little uncomfortable.
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My left buttcheek had fallen asleep and the uncomfortable, deadened sensation was slowly traveling down my leg. Shift even an inch, and I’d fall off the only bench in this wing of the airport without armrests—again.

It was 3am, and I was halfway through an overnight layover in Atlanta on my way from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta. Soon, I’d be lying on the beach—sand between my toes—instead of the hard, plastic airport furniture.

Why would I fly five hours east in order to fly four hours back west? I saved $200! And, for whatever reason, for me that’s worth traveling for 15 hours straight instead of taking the 4 hour and 40 minute direct flight.

If you’re that kind of traveler—the kind who prioritizes saving dough over experiencing comfort—you’re in for a treat. Here are some thrift-friendly tips for traveling on the cheap.

1. Fly to Destinations in the Off-Season

The breeze off the Seine in Paris in summer is delirium-inducing. But the crowds and the cost are not.

When I first got my job writing for the REI Co-op Journal, there was a strange sort of initiation: My boss took me aside and asked if I liked to travel. “Of course,” I replied “Who doesn’t?” He leaned in and whispered a mysterious phrase: “Scott’s Cheap Flights.” It’s my personal top tip for cheap travel.

This website is a flight-alert service, just like your news alerts (you have those, right?). But unlike the news alerts, Scott’s Cheap Flights has taken me to far-flung places during off times. It’s amazing. Simply sign up, and they email you when they find cheaper flights to places you might not even have heard of (yet).

The author, Aer Parris, in Paris, France.

The author, Aer Parris, in Paris, France.

Once a deal that takes my breath away hits my inbox, I flip over to Google Flights to nail down the specifics. You can search countries, continents or the entire world to find flights to destinations that aren’t top of mind. That’s how I booked a round-trip flight to London from Seattle for $500 last year—a deal I couldn’t pass up, even though I knew visiting the U.K. in the dead of winter would involve a bit of shivering from site to site under a thick layer of rain clouds.

2. Do Your Research

Once you’ve booked your flight, the fun sets in. It’s time to obsessively plan your trip.

Maybe you’re like me, and you can’t sit still, even on vacation. I see travel as my time to kick into overdrive. I’ve been known to wake up at 5am while traveling to watch the sunrise before visiting as many museums and palaces as possible. Next up? Dinner and a show before collapsing into bed late at night.

The way I’m able to pack so much into a short period of time—and save money—is doing exhaustive research. I look at online reviews, blogs and then lean on the internet to map out my jam-packed tours of cities, towns and even (the highlights of) whole countries. I have a list of must-dos, might-dos and don’t-dos.

But how do you save money? I head deep into forums to find names of local guiding companies (which often are much cheaper), suggestions on what modes of transportation are most affordable and thoughts about how locals take advantage of the local sites. Most recently, in a trip to Puerto Vallarta, I found out that locals walk the 4 miles to Las Animas, a beach I wanted to check out, instead of taking the more expensive boat ride. I also book museum and show tickets far in advance, along with any inter-country travel I’m planning on doing (overnight buses or internal flights). That saves money too.

3. But Leave Room for Ditching Those Plans

The best trips usually come down to speaking with locals and skipping out on your plans for better itinerary options that you could never have found on the internet—plus they’ll (hopefully) tell you the real tips for saving money.

A central pyramid of Tikal rises from the jungle.

A central pyramid of Tikal rises from the jungle. (Photo Credit: Aer Parris)

That’s how I found myself in Guatemala on two eight-hour overnight budget buses from Guatemala City to Tikal and back, to spend only a few hours pondering Tikal’s incredibly engineered, impossibly tall pyramids. The budget bus, packed with locals, cost a fraction of what a flight would have cost, but my internet research told me that flights were the best way to travel between the cities.

My partner’s father’s ex-girlfriend’s son met us for lunch when we touched down in Guatemala City, and he convinced us we couldn’t miss this UNESCO World Heritage site. Without his suggestion, I’d have headed to the small town of Antigua for a few days. While not a bad option, I now consider visiting Tikal one of the highlights of my life.

Sometimes, all you need is that push toward the bus stop.

4. Eat Like a Local

It’s easy to spend a lot of money on subpar tourist food when you’re traveling. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve found myself happiest (and most satisfied) while eating from cheap food trucks/carts with plenty of locals milling about. My mouth waters at the memory of the mole verde on offer inside a tiny, unsuspecting restaurant deep in the center of Oaxaca City.

A side-alley of street food buzzes with activity adjacent to Hefang Street in Hangzhou, China.

An alley of street food buzzes with activity adjacent to Hefang Street in Hangzhou, China. (Photo Credit: Sam Morse)

The staff seemed to wish I wasn’t there, as it was a locals-only kind of establishment, but it was hands down one of the best meals of my life—and it cost just a fraction of the price of the stuffier, tourist-driven restaurants a few blocks away. How did I find it? You got it—I talked to locals. The person at the front-desk of my hostel, a Oaxacan native, told me it was a must-visit spot.

5. Sleep Cheap

I found that mole via a recommendation from the front desk person at my hostel. Which brings me to my next point: Why waste money on a place you won’t even see?

I don’t sleep with my eyes open. Thus, I end up spending about an hour tops looking at my overnight digs, which means where I stay doesn’t need to win any awards. There are hostel search engines that not only offer mapping options, so you can choose which to stay in based on the location of your pre-planned activities, but also offer reviews. That way you can find the party spots, quiet locales or most central digs—whatever tickles your fancy.

Maybe hostels are a little less comfy, but hey, with a bandana over my eyes and earplugs stuffed deep, sleep is (almost) always possible. And the savings can be spent on something magical, like another plane ticket or repeated trips to that mole joint in Oaxaca City.

6. Take the Slow Way Around

They say the journey is the destination. So, why not make it longer than it has to be?

The author wanders the graffiti-covered alleyways of Lisbon, Portugal.

The author wanders the graffiti-covered alleyways of Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo Credit: Aer Parris)

If it makes travel more affordable, I don’t shy away from cramped buses, painfully-slow trains and even long-distance bicycle rides. I’ve even been known to extend a thumb from time to time.

Memories are made when you’re forced to mingle with people you would have never met any other way—like the time my bus got trapped in standstill traffic on the outskirts of New York City for four hours. We couldn’t get off the bus, phones with data didn’t yet exist and sadly, I didn’t pack a book.

Shared misery makes for tight bonds. But it can also make for cheap tickets.

What are your best tips for thrift-minded travel? Leave them in the comments below, and help a fellow traveler (and me) out.

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