Travel Cheaply Without Short-Changing Your Experience

When I tell people about 7 weeks traveling solo in the Balkans, I get one of two very different reactions. Either, they can’t fathom how I could afford to travel for so long or they think I am staying in the sketchiest of places and only eating Cup ‘O Noodles. In reality, it is easy to travel on the cheap if you follow a few guidelines:

  1. Travel slowly. Why? Because transportation costs money, especially if you have to get in an airplane. Going to and from airports, train stations or bus depots costs money. Housing costs money, and you can often get discounts to stay places longer.
  2. Avoid hotels, especially Western ones. You can almost always get a much better deal at an AirBnB, hostel (even private rooms), pension or guesthouse.Often, if you stay a week or longer, owners will knock 10-20% off the nightly price. Here in Podgorica, I’m one block from the Hilton. My week in a lovely AirBnB cost the same as 2 nights at the Hilton.
  3. Keep thyself out of taxis at all costs. I’m a big fan of Uber, Lyft and other rideshare options that reduce the possibility of fare manipulation. But, in many countries where it’s cheap to travel, taxi drivers are the best scam artists. Taxis often don’t have meters. You may not know your way around. The driver may decide to hold your luggage hostage in his trunk until you pay him the amount he demands. For all these reasons and more, I would rather walk or use public transit.
  4. Self-cater. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try local cuisine. By all means, have lunch at the local cafe or grab a pastry at the local bakery. But, trust me, self-catering can save you tons. And once you’ve been on the road for a stretch, the comforts of a yogurt for breakfast or whatever you’d regularly eat can’t be discounted. So, find a grocery store and use that kitchen in your AirBnB. You can still experience local food — instead of your typical beer, try the local brew. Check out local produce and enjoy local baked goods and cheeses. Even better, hit up a farmer’s market.
  5. Take the free walking tour. Many cities offer a free walking tour. Go — as soon as you get in town. Led by locals, these are great places to find out how to eat and explore on the cheap — all while seeing the sights. Your guide will have loads of tips about where to get a real sense of the city. Just remember to tip your guide afterward to express your appreciation.
  6. Eschew Viator and other large-scale tour operators. They ratchet up the price of trips that you can get for a fraction of the cost once in country. Again, hit up the free walking tour to find out who the reliable operators are and then go pay in local currency. I’ve stumbled into several private tours for a fraction of what a Viator “big bus” group tour would have set me back. And, often these local operators will let you customize your trip.
  7. Learn a few key words and phrases. In 7 weeks, I’ve been to 8 different countries that speak 8 different languages. Each time, I’ve taken about 30 minutes to learn how to say a few key phrases: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no and excuse me. As a result, I’ve been treated with extreme courtesy and respect throughout my trip. And, I’ve gotten some great local insight and enjoyed some pleasant conversations because of it. One woman said to me in disbelief: “You can’t be American. They never try to speak our language.”
  8. Find the street food. If you really want to eat the local cuisine, you have to go where the locals are. Chances are, the menu may not be in English. Again, this is where your local guides come in handy. They can tell you the place, the dishes and what they are called. Befriend them. Heck — offer to bring them along and cover their meals. It will still be cheaper than the meal you would have eaten by yourself, and I’d wager a bet it will be a lot tastier.
  9. Check prices carefully. In many places, prices fluctuate dramatically depending on whether you are in an area aimed at tourists or locals. Here in Macedonia, the bodega around the corner from my apartment (near the Hilton) sells 1L bottles of sparkling water for 1.5EUR. A 5-minute walk away, the same bottle of water costs one-third the price. Those increased costs add up quickly.
  10. Collect memories, not knick-knacks. One of the great things about semi-minimalist travel is that I don’t have room for souvenirs. So instead of spending my money on things, I’m putting it toward experiences and collecting memories. Sure, I’m purchasing local candies and other consumables. But, they are being consumed at my location. Instead of buying another ashtray (does anyone buy those anymore?), put that money toward a local coffee, soft drink, sweet treat or something else you can’t experience in your home country.

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American expat. University professor. World traveller. Dog lover. Eating and drinking my way through the Balkans for 7 weeks.

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