11 tips for seeing the world on a budget

A couple of years ago I made the ambitious decision that, in my lifetime, I would go everywhere. That meant every country and every continent. Unsurprisingly, the greatest hurdle facing this endeavor of mine was the same one that many twenty-something aspiring adventurers face: paying for it.

I quickly learned that I had to get a little creative if I wanted to stretch my dollar. That occasionally meant sleeping in a tent, or a garden, or a cot on a staircase. It meant commuting by bus, by tuk-tuk, or by horse. And it meant spending my days volunteering or working for some petty cash. If you’re willing to live out of a backpack and be a little imaginative, you absolutely can travel the world for as little as $20/day. Follow these easy tips to get further on a twenty-something’s budget.

Get a Backpack

First, give up the rollerboard suitcase you’re used to traveling with. You really don’t need more than a week’s worth of clothes, some toiletries, and a camera. And you especially don’t want to shell out those absurd luggage fees for every leg of your trip. Also, if you have to carry all of your possessions on your back, you’ll probably think twice before buying that souvenir vase you think you have to have. Take a trip to REI to get properly fitted for a pack that will be comfortable for the extent of your trip.

Do your Research

Start with making sure you’re getting the cheapest flight possible. Compare multiple search engines as well as the airlines’ direct website. Flexible on where you go? Kayak Explore allows you to view outbound flights all over the world and SkyScanner has afly to “everywhere” search option. Flying may not be the most affordable way to go. In Europe, you might find trains that travel between countries are cheaper. In Central America, you’ll find local buses that travel right up to neighboring countries’ borders. Explore your options.

Next figure out how much cash you’ll need each day. Account for food, accommodations, and excursions. What you spend on a week in Europe may get you a month in Southeast Asia. Make sure to get an accurate conversion rate for the currencies in each country. I had to learn the hard way not to take someone else’s word for it. Don’t make the same $40 mistake I did.

Sleep for Cheap

Your best bet? Stay in a hostel. Use sites like HostelWorld.com to scout out hostels that are clean, safe, and affordable. The closer you are to the city center, the less you’ll have to spend commuting in and out of the city each day. Introduce yourself to your dormmates and you’ll have friends to split cab fare and other expenses with. Consider couchsurfing. Couchsurfing.com connects travelers with hosts who will host you for a night or two. It can make for an experience that is fun, genuine, and affordable.

Find Discounts

Most places you visit such as museums, galleries, and parks will offer various discounts. Inquire about discounts for having a student ID, AAA card, sometimes even a bus pass or proof of staying at a certain hostel in the city. If it’s not online, ask your hostel owner or the venue itself.

Donate Your Time

If you’re traveling for a while, consider doing some side work. In exchange for a few hours a day, you will receive a unique experience living in a different part of the world. You can also earn a bed for the night, or even some real cash. GoOverseas.com offers trustworthy reviews about international volunteer work. Look for a local non-profit that offers volunteer housing for the best experience. Workaway and Helpx pair travelers with locals who need a variety of services: English tutors, painters, nannies, etc. I spent six weeks in Nicaragua living in volunteer housing while volunteering as a teacher, and I earned some petty cash working for a tourism office. They were terrifically fun experiences and they offered me a respite from my penny pinching.

Learn to Cook

Your dollar won’t get you far if you’re taking yourself out to dinner every night. Hit up local farmers markets for some cheap staples: vegetables, eggs, pasta, rice, and bread. Your hostel will have a shared kitchen stocked with the bare essentials of cookware. Teach yourself to make a few nutritious dishes: omelets, stir-fry, sandwiches, fried rice, spaghetti sauce, and soups. Pitch in on oil and perishables with your dormmates. Or even propose a potluck and share the cooking with your new international friends. Ask your hostel host for street food recommendations to sample the local fare.

Commute Locally

Very rarely will your only option be to take a cab. If you’re willing to do a little more planning, you can save big on intra-country travel. In Costa Rica, for instance, a local chicken bus cost me $8 whereas the tourist shuttle would have cost me $50. If you choose to hitch-hike, you might be able to travel for free. But before you stick out your thumb, make sure you’re safe. Ensure that hitching is legal and not uncommon for locals to do. If possible, hitch with another traveler, especially if you’re a woman.

Learn to Haggle

In many countries, you’re expected to haggle to get a fair price. This can make many Americans uncomfortable as it’s not something we’re used to. (Spoiler: it will take practice.) You may be expected to haggle for the price of food, a souvenir, a bed for the night, or a taxi ride. First, get a good idea of what a fair price is and decide about how much you’re willing to spend. Be polite, but firm. If you’re not getting the price you want, walk away and find a vendor who will accommodate your needs.

Tour Affordably

One of the major highlights of being in a new city is going on a city tour. These often offer you the opportunity to see all the best parts of a city, and learn a good bit of its culture and history. Look for brochures in your hostel’s magazine rack for free local tours. These are typically led by locals and are done solely by walking— evading the cost of transportation. Although these tours are free, you are expected to tip. Tip generously. You’re still saving a ton by opting out of the more pricey “Hop On-Hop Off” tours. Want something really free? Pick up a guidebook. Many offer self-guided walking tours that include a map and a page or two of relevant trivia. With a friend or two from the hostel, these can make for a fun-filled afternoon.

Be Kind

The one constant you’ll find everywhere you go, is that people are receptive to kindness. While in New York, I started chatting with a police officer outside the 9/11 museum and mentioned that I had not yet visited. He disappeared for a minute and came back with a free ticket for me to enter. While in Petra, Jordan, I was letting a young Bedouin girl play with my camera when her aunt saw us and invited me into her cave for mint tea. Now, I’m not saying you should be nice to people so you can get free stuff. But if you’re kind to people, often those kindnesses will often be reciprocated.


Like all new hobbies, travel requires practice. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to living on a smaller budget than you’re probably used to. When you get sick of sharing a room with twelve other people, treat yourself to a night in a real hotel. When you get tired of taking a bus everyday, spoil yourself with a day lazing on a beach or in a cafe. Thus far, I’ve only made it to 17 out of the world’s 196 countries. And with each country I get a little better at budgeting, finding a deal, or saving a dollar here and there. As long as you’re willing to sacrifice a few luxuries and get a little creative, you absolutely can go wherever you want to go with little more than some cash and a backpack.

Janna Karel is a tour guide in Las Vegas and a seasoned international solo traveler. Contact her on twitter @jannainprogress.

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