There’s a difference between being “cheap” and being conscious about your dollar. Like the time I convinced two friends to stay with me in a 12-bed coed room at a hostel during a spring- break trip to Miami. Twelve people sharing one bathroom the size of a closet is never a good idea. I was being cheap. Now that it’s been five years since I’ve finished college and have an actual income, I still look for deals and discounts when I travel on a budget, but not at the expense of my personal space, my sanity, or my health.
I’ve made travel a priority in spite of student loan repayments and living in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles since graduating. I prioritize travel by saving money from each paycheck and getting creative with budgeting, like purchasing groceries upon arrival or planning visits around free days at museums. Saving becomes a game, until pretty soon you’re checking out 12-bed hostels and saying to yourself, “Gee, it’s not so bad. The room even includes MALIN+GOETZ toiletries.”
Being a budget traveler doesn’t mean you won’t have rich travel experiences; it only means you have to get creative, which is never a bad thing. Here are some ways you’ll know when you’re getting the most out of your favorite destinations without breaking the bank.
You’ve never met a private Airbnb room, a hostel, or a friend’s couch you didn’t like.
What are out-of-town friends for if you can’t sleep on their couch whenever you’re in their town? I usually look for private Airbnb rooms when I’m traveling, but when I’m visiting bigger cities like NYC, I crash on friends’ couches because even Airbnb can get pricey. You want me to pay $120 a night for a room in Queens with a pull-out couch covered in cat hair and a bed sheet used as a privacy screen? Okay, no.
When it comes to hostels, I’ve wised up and I only book dorms with four beds or less. The fewer people coming in and out of the room, the better. Most recently, I stayed in a four-person women’s dorm during an overnight trip to Santa Barbara. The room was nicer than some hotels I’ve stayed in, and it was at least $100 cheaper than any mid-range hotel in the area.
You don’t know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Monet, but you’re first in line for free admission.
Picture this: me, sitting on the edge of my Airbnb bed on a Monday afternoon, lamenting how I missed Sunday’s free admission at the Museo de Arte Moderno, one of Mexico City’s best places to view national and international art. I spent the next five minutes mourning the 65 pesos I could have saved. Thankfully, two churros got me out of my funk and on with my day. But it goes to show how much I love taking advantage of free admission days. If you’re into museums, it’s worth checking out the admissions page on their websites to see if there are any free days. You’d be surprised to see how much you can save by getting there on the right day. Another tip is to see if the admission fee is a pay-what-you-wish donation like at the ticket counters at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
You lug a separate carry-on just for snacks.
The last time I received a free meal on a domestic flight was when I wore jelly shoes and carried a purple Tamagotchi. In other words, it’s been a minute. Which is why I always pack an empty water bottle to fill once I’m past security, and snacks in my carry-on.
For flights longer than four hours, I pack a lunch. Sure, you can always buy the $10 in-flight ham-and-Swiss cheese wrap and pair it with a $4 bag of Chex Mix, but why? I took an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Paris that charged $40 for two in-flight meals. Instead, I brought along a baggie full of carrots, pieces of fruit, popcorn, and a Starbucks Bistro Box to satiate me as I went in and out of consciousness during the flight. The only thing I had to buy was water. Yes, this airline charged for water. And a girl can only pack so many empty water bottles.
You hit your step goals before lunch.
For me, the best part of traveling is immersing myself in the cities and towns like a local. One of the ways I do this is by walking to my destinations, so long as my surroundings are safe and there are sidewalks. Pull up a map on your phone and take a self-guided walking tour. You’ll discover gems around the city you normally wouldn’t notice if you were whizzing past in a Lyft or underground in a subway car. This might not be an option for everyone, so if you’re traveling with other people, let them know ahead of time about how you’d like to explore on foot.
You map out your must-sees and the nearest grocery store . . . because snacks.
I’m one of those people who plans trips solely to scope out the food scene. Sure, I love to visit museums, cultural sites, and parks—but I’m here to eat. So before any trip, I research the most popular restaurants to visit that are open for lunch. Usually, the dishes on lunch menus are the same as what you’ll find at dinner, but are slightly cheaper. In Mexico City, I indulged in hearty lunches at sit-down restaurants, and at dinner I followed my nose to the nearest food cart that sold tacos. When traveling internationally, I also love shopping at local grocery stores, not only to pick up snacks and beverages but to make dinner. In France, I bought a baguette, a log of dry-cured sausage, and a wheel of Camembert cheese for dinner. With the half-bottle of Chablis I added to my cart to go with my cheese and charcuterie, my total came out to less than 15 euros. The only thing I would have changed about that dinner would be to not polish off the entire bottle of Chablis. You’ll have to trust me on that one.