Renting a bike in Amsterdam is the cheapest (and most fun) way to get around!
My hometown, San Francisco, California, is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Because I can work remotely, I have found that it is actually more cost effective to be out of my city for the majority of the year. If I do it correctly, traveling actually saves me money. You do not have to be a millionaire to see the world. It is possible to travel on a budget, and yes, even in Europe. And as a professional traveler and a travel consultant, I know a thing or two about budget travel. I am happy to share some tips to maximize your budget while traveling:
Free museum hours
Last night I visited the Prado (Madrid) for free. And I just came from Museo Reina Sofía (also free). Imagine, seeing world-class art and not spending a cent. It really is possible. Whenever I find myself living in Madrid, free museum hours are something I regularly take advantage of. Here, many of the museums are free for the last two hours each day. And it is not only Madrid. In Paris and Rome, several museums are free the first Sunday of every month. Museum entrance fees are often very expensive. Doing a quick Google search for free museums hours in whatever city you are visiting can save you money. Tip: During the free hours, you should expect lines. In the case of Madrid, I always arrive about an hour early to line up and bring a book to read. In fact, tonight I think I’ll hit up Museo Reina Sofía for free!
Stay and play locally
Why stay in the center of all of the tourist action (expensive and not authentic) when you can stay in a local neighborhood (cheaper and more authentic)? Instead of searching for hotel rooms and entire apartments, try renting out a private (or if you are adventurous, shared) room on Airbnb. Couchsurfing and shared rooms at hostels are also a great way to cut your lodging costs. Whenever people ask me for recommendations on where to stay in San Francisco, I recommend real neighborhoods as opposed to Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf. It saves money, and you will experience the city in a much more local way. Tip: if you stay locally, explore locally. Bars, restaurants, shops, and cafes are often much more reasonably priced in local neighborhoods than they are in the tourist trap areas.
Cook for yourself (and make your own coffee)
If you stay in an Airbnb, most hostels, or even couchsurf, chances are you will have access to a kitchen. Use it to cook your own meals instead of going out for every meal. I am not much of a cook, but even I enjoy going to the local market, buying fresh (and local) ingredients, and trying to make a culinary miracle from that. And visiting neighborhood markets are a great way to try the local specialties and travel authentically. I loved wandering around the markets in Thailand, buying ingredients, and seeing what I could make. Tip: you can also save some serious money by making your own coffee every day instead of having it at a cafe. When I was in Guatemala, I bought a bag of Guatemala’s best coffee and made it at home every morning. Not only did I save money, but every day, I drank some of the best coffee in the world.
Walk walk walk (or ride a bike)
Cities are made for walking. Public transportation costs add up quickly. If you rely on the bus, light rail, or the metro to get around, you will quickly see all of your change disappear. Walking not only saves you money, but it is great exercise. It is also fun to see the steps add up. A few years ago, during a ten-day stint in Paris, I walked (on average) 16 miles each day. Thanks to that, all the pastries and cheese I ate did not really add any extra weight to my body. Many cities also have bike sharing programs that are a good bargain. Nothing beats biking around a new city! And if it is really too far to walk or bike, use the public transportation instead of a taxi. Taxis are expensive. Tip: if you must use a taxi, it is much better to hail one on the street (when possible) than at a taxi queue, train station, or airport. There are usually surcharges for getting into a taxi at one of these points. When I arrive to a new city by train, have all of my luggage, and want to take a taxi I will often walk across the street from the train station to hail the taxi. That surcharge can be a real budget killer!
Find inexpensive or free gems
Here in Madrid, you can go up to the top of city hall for a great view of the city for just €2. In Barcelona, the bell tower of Santa María Del Mar offers a great view of the city, and for much cheaper than the teleferico to the top of Montjuic. In Paris, a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower can easily cost a lot of money. But there is an abundance of free (and even better) views of the city. Smaller art galleries and museums are often free of charge (or very cheap). Again, local neighborhoods are the best place to find these little gems.
Cover less area
This seems obvious, but often budget travelers (especially to Southeast Asia) overlook this. Covering less area makes your money go further. Yes, the countries of Southeast Asia are generally cheap, but getting around quickly adds up. If you try to cram too much in and have to fly around to save time, there goes your money. Over-landing is always cheaper, but it takes a long time. Tip: If you only have two weeks in Southeast Asia, it is much better to focus on only one country, save money on getting around, and do that big multi-country backpacking trip when you have several months.
Don’t buy tacky souvenirs
Let’s face it. We live in a consumerist world. Shops around the more touristy areas of cities are littered with cheaply made in China trinkets that you can buy almost anywhere. Most of these end up in the garbage, a junk drawer, or are never looked at again. Instead of buying tacky souvenirs, my new rule is to buy just one special, small, locally made, and inexpensive thing from each country I visit. Some of my favorite purchases were the fish shaped stash bag I bought from the Barefoot store in Sri Lanka (less than $3 USD), the small wood carving I had custom made in Malawi (about $5 USD), the locally handcrafted silver fish necklace I purchased on Lake Inle in Myanmar (about $25, a little more than I usually spend), the tiny silver box (with an elephant on it!), perfect for use as a travel pill box, from Cambodia ($3 USD), and the perfect size case for my passport, with tile patterns from the Alhambra, that I bought in Granada, Spain (about $6 USD). As a digital nomad constantly on the go, I can not collect “stuff.” The same goes for buying gifts for your friends and family back home. They don’t need random crap from every country you visited. Just one small, special, and inexpensive thing per trip is my rule of thumb for this one. Tip: take photos of the beautiful things for sale in the colorful markets. You will still have the memories, but it is much cheaper than buying several items.
See, you can travel cheaply! And I can help you decide where to go, get there, and what to do while you are there. Please reach out to me if you need help making your travel dreams come true. Professional travel consultants can actually save you money (and lots of time).
My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.