Can’t Afford to Travel? Bullsh*t! Creative ways to find budget.

May 26, 2021

When I was in college, I became obsessed with traveling to Japan. But travel was definitely not in my budget; I was living on student loans and eating a lot of spaghetti. Still, I was determined to make it happen. I persuaded the college to help subsidize my travel in return for photos for their library.  I hitched a ride to California to get lower airfare and once in Japan stayed at hostels and ate ramen. But for six weeks I had the most glorious adventures.

Since that trip, I have continued to find creative ways to appease my ever-growing travel addiction.  Traveling off season and going to less popular (and less expensive) cities and countries allowed me to explore the world without depleting my bank account.  I have sometimes chosen destinations based on airfares or special deals or flown into secondary airports that cost less. 

I’ve been traveling since age 19 and have been to over 90 countries, all US states and Canadian provinces.  Here are some ways I’ve managed to see the world, even when I had little disposable income.

Check out what the rate of exchange is for your currency and go where it is strongest.  Maybe next year rates will have changed and be more favorable for a country you’re dying to see.

Once you’ve arrived, if you’re interested in luxury, it’s tough to travel inexpensively.  But if you’re after authentic experiences and getting to know a culture, you can definitely do it on the cheap. Being flexible and inquisitive are crucial to a memorable and low-cost trip.  

When traveling city-to-city, go by train or bus or ferry. It’s a great way to see the countryside, chat with people and ferret out recommendations.  Lodgings are where I sleep, shower and stash my stuff.  Because I intend to be out and about, as long as it is clean and safe, it needs no other amenities. You might also consider a house-swap. Many websites offer home exchange services.

You won’t be eating five-star meals, but you can definitely eat well. Think and eat like a local. Go to that small, charming bistro or trattoria or noodle shop. While there, ask people around you for suggestions of other places to eat. I had some of my most memorable meals at hole-in-the-wall places I’d never have found on my own. Then ask people for their favorite places to hangout.  You may not end up at Carnegie Hall, but you could hear a wonderful concert in a local church for free. Or find a local pub with great fiddle music. 

By the way, speaking the local language isn’t a necessity for getting connected. I speak only English fluently; fortunately, in most parts of the world someone will speak at least some English. Students are sometimes happy to act as impromptu guides in exchange for a chance to practice with a native speaker.  In Indonesia two students befriended me, showed me their town, and then invited me home to meet their family and have dinner with them. 

A day in a neighborhood park can get you an invitation to play bocce or join a tai chi exercise group or, as I did in Gorky Park in Moscow, dance with locals.  Parks are also a great place to picnic—go to a supermarket, pick up some cheese, fruit and bread and people watch as you enjoy your meal.  The visit to the grocery store will be a bonus. I love seeing what local specialties are on the shelves, and I’ve gotten into loads of conversations with people.  It’s also a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts.  I’ve brought back unusual spices, licorice, candy bars and packaged soups.

Use public transportation.  Take a random bus or ferry to the end of the line and walk around. In Berlin this taught me as much about the differences between East and West as any guide could have explained. In a café a couple I spoke with alerted me to a free exhibit about the Berlin Wall.  In Sydney, the last stop on the Manly ferry line is a fabulous beach where I watched surfers, swam, sunbathed and wandered into a free art festival. Or rent a bike and explore that way—I can guarantee you’ll have a whole different impression than if you’d been on an organized tour. 

If there’s a specific place or activity you’ve always wanted to see, check for free days or discount coupons—Groupon is a good source. Visit the tourist office and ask them for ways to get discounts, they can be surprisingly helpful.

Pick up a local newspaper, especially on the weekend. If TimeOut is published where you’re visiting, pore through the event listings.  Check EventBrite.  Most cities have scads of free or inexpensive activities. In London I’ve gone on free walking tours, in Kentucky spent an afternoon at a free bourbon festival, and in Tokyo visited a kite-museum and got hands-on practice making one.  I live in New York City and can’t keep up with all the free summertime events.

Go out and explore the world; you’ll return home richer and the memories will last forever.

For more tales of travel, check out author Karen Gershowitz's book Travel Mania - Stories of Wanderlust!

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