Let’s be honest. Even if you don’t necessarily need to travel on a tight budget, odds are you are at least interested in traveling thriftily. Because who in their right mind is looking to spend their hard-earned money on silly, unforeseen travel costs? Or even worse – waste their precious time due to lack of foresight!?
After living in Europe for roughly two years (and traveling on a budget to 20+ countries), I’ve got five tips and tricks up my sleeve to help you make the most of your own travel adventures!
1. Cheap tickets are great, but they could cost more in the long-run.
For budget travelers, the impulse to jump on cheap tickets (regardless of departure time, duration of journey, or destination) is practically instinctual.
“A 6 am flight from Madrid to London for 20€!? I’ll take it!”
I won’t knock that deal; a 20€ flight is hard to pass up. However, there are a few things to consider before adding that flight to your virtual shopping cart.
First things first – and this may seem obvious, but still – remember you need to arrive at the airport roughly two hours prior to the flight’s departure. If you’re contemplating a train or bus, then strolling into the station at 5:45 am should be just fine. For a flight, however, you’re looking at a 4 am stroll through airport security screening.
This is especially important to keep in mind when contemplating transportation to the airport. In Madrid, for example, public transit closes from 2 am to 6 am every day. So if you opt for a flight departing at 6 am, you have two options (assuming you don’t have a car at your disposal):
1) Spend the night in the airport on the eve of your departure.
2) Hire a cab to take you to the airport the morning of.
If you are a tried-and-true budget traveler, you’ll likely bite the bullet and sleep in the airport. However, if the idea of curling up on a chilly tile floor doesn’t tickle your fancy, you’ll wind up hailing a cab. In Madrid, taxis are mandated to charge a 30€ flat rate for all airport transfers. Therefore, unless you’re traveling in a large group (allowing you to split the bill) you’ll find yourself tacking 30€ onto your travel expenses, meaning that 20€ flight now costs an additional 30€.
My point is, if there was another flight from Madrid to London departing at 8:30 am for 40€, alongside that 6 am for 20€, it might be worthwhile to spend the extra 20€ up front because in the long-run, you’ll actually save 10€!
Secondly, (this tip is particularly relevant for bus/train travel) consider the time investment. Say you find a 50€ bus ticket from Berlin to Milan.
“Wow! This seems too good to be true! Flights are practically triple the price!!”
The reason it seems too good to be is because unless you have endless amounts of time and don’t mind spending 15 hours on a bus – it is. I’ve made this mistake. I’ve opted for the cheaper, lengthier option out of my budget’s best interest. However, in the end, I often find it’s worth splurging for the more expensive and efficient method of transport because, let’s be real – time is money. Saving 100€ by opting for a 15-hour bus over a 2-hour flight might not be worth the savings if it means sacrificing valuable time you could use to explore your destination.
2. If you only stay in hotels and/or hostels, I’m sorry but you’re nuts!
You’re going to want to sit down for this. When I went to Budapest, Hungary last June, I paid 11€ per night to stay in a beautiful, spacious room with enormous windows in a cozy shared apartment right next to the renowned Hungarian Parliament Building. When I went to Seville, Spain last May, I stayed in an elegant two-bedroom, fully-equipped private apartment with unobstructed views of La Giralda for under 100€ per night total. When I went to Cinque Terre last month, I stayed in a clean, spacious, fully-equipped three-bedroom shared apartment where I paid 25€ per night.
If you haven’t already guessed it, each of these fabulous accommodations was reserved through Airbnb. I cannot rave or recommend this online hospitality service enough. I have stayed in more than 20 Airbnbs – some were rented private bedrooms, others were rented private apartments – and I have nothing but positive feedback to share.
If the idea of renting an apartment or bedroom through Airbnb still gives you the heebie-jeebies, I’m telling you – just try it. I won’t deny being nervous and skeptical at first, but since giving it a chance almost two years ago, I haven’t wanted to book lodging through any other platform.
3. Befriend the local grocery stores.
One of the costliest yet most underestimated travel expenses is food. When traveling Europe especially, you will walk a lot. (Over the course of two days in London, I took over 70,000 steps!) All that expended energy typically results in one thing – hunger. Even if your metabolism doesn’t kick into overdrive, you will need to allocate money to food, and if you plan on dining in a restaurant for each meal, you are going to spend a pretty penny.
My advice – find a grocery store. If you are staying in an Airbnb, ask your host where the nearest supermarket is. At a hotel or hostel, ask the front desk. I guarantee they can recommend a place to pick up some essentials. My friends and I got in the habit of grabbing breakfast food, portable snacks, fruit, and bottled water at local supermarkets. It saves a ton of money (and time!), and it also kept us feeling healthy and energized. Even in Europe, where food tends to be healthier and served in smaller portions, eating out for every meal can lead to bloating, discomfort, and fatigue. Do yourself (and your gut) a favor and stock up at the supermarket!
4. Google Maps and Google Docs are life-savers.
If you won’t have phone coverage during your travels – don’t sweat it. From take-off to landing on the Madrid Barajas Airport tarmac, my phone was set to airplane mode, which meant my iPhone only functioned fully while connected to WiFi throughout all my international travels. Maybe this sounds like your worst nightmare, but I grew to enjoy unplugging while traveling, especially when I discovered the offline features available within Google Maps and Google Docs. I have both apps on my iPhone and swear by them for travel (and life in general).
If you have a Gmail account, you can log in to Google Maps and “save” locations. If you’re going to Paris, for example, start by saving the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum. Then, (by clicking on the three horizontal bars in the search box at the top) select “Offline Areas” and customize a region to download for offline use. By saving locations and downloading the offline map, you will be able to utilize Google Maps to help you orient and navigate from point A to B.
Google Docs has a similar feature that enables users to save premade documents for future access with or without data/coverage. My friends and I often collaborated to create lists of activities, plan itineraries, and keep track of important travel info (such as flight times, Airbnb host contact numbers, etc.). By downloading the app and our shared Docs for offline use, we could access our research throughout our trips (without killing trees to print it out)!
5. Do your research.
This last tip ties in with the previous – put in the time to prep for your trips! Even if you’re a laidback, type B, go-with-the-flow personality, trust me when I say it’s worth doing a little research before taking off.
I’m not suggesting you create a detailed itinerary (i.e. 9 am: Breakfast; 9:25 am: Visit Big Ben; 9:45 am: Walk to London Eye; 10 am: Ride London Eye). This will only stress you out and ruin your trip when you inevitably cannot follow your schedule to a T.
However, I am suggesting that you investigate the basics. For example: things to do; how to get to and from the airport/lodging; public transit; currency… You get the idea. I’m telling you, it is vital to do a bit of prep work to avoid unnecessary stress, frustration and – most importantly for a budget traveler – spending.
So there you have ’em – my top five tips and tricks. I hope they serve you well and help keep your travels fun and affordable! From one budget traveler to another – bon voyage!
Also by Sarah: The Surprising Thing that Finally Cleared My Hormonal Acne
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Photos: Sarah Kelly