Monday, January 19, 2009

Tips on traveling for cheap

Well, folks, Journeys Around the World is going to have one last spike in activity before quieting down for a while. As of this coming August, I am making a pretty giant career change, and as a result, I'll be trading in my backpack for a white coat. That's right, in a few months I'll begin my new path as a "non-traditional" (read "old") student at one lucky, and yet to be determined, US medical school.

In the meantime, however, I plan to put my last months of independence to good use. The itinerary has not been finalized yet, but it begins with two months in India and Nepal, and hopefully ends with riding a train back across Siberia. I'll be keeping you posted throughout my adventures, but since things will be quiet for the next month until my last major journey begins, I thought I'd write about something else today.

One of the questions that I get asked most often when people find out how much I travel is "how in the world can you afford to do that??" usually preceded by "you must be terribly rich." This is always a little bit awkward, and I do my best to explain that when I go backpacking, I generally spend less money in a month of traveling than I would in a month of living in New York City, or often even than I would spend in rent alone! If I sublet my apartment and work freelance jobs from internet cafes while I'm gone, I can almost break even. How is this possible, you ask? Here's my basic list of tips and tricks to travel super cheap.

1. Travel in the developing world. You get a much bigger bang for your buck: hostels are cheaper, food is cheaper, and the rules are more lax.

2. Be flexible and open minded. You can save a lot of money by staying in a hostel rather than a hotel, in a bunk bed in a dorm rather than a private room, or even in a campsite rather than a hostel. In some countries, you can even get away with "wild" camping for free.

2a. Bring your own sheet, towel and shower shoes. This lets you stay in very cheap places without worrying (too much) about the inevitable grime and germs. And you avoid charges in places that charge you for sheets and towels.

3. Be friendly and get to know the locals. They will point you to the best places to go, and often they'll give you a tour, a place to stay, or a bite to eat. They'll also be able to help protect you from local scams and overcharging that are inevitable wherever tourists are.

4. Learn the language. Or at least learn a little of it. The more you understand, the harder it is for people to cheat you. And it will open up options that are not open to the standard English-only tourist (plus you have the chance to meet people and learn all about the culture).

5. Cook your own food. Many hostels have kitchens you can use, and you can save lots of money by buying boxes of pasta and some vegetables and cooking your own dinner.

6. If that's not possible, eat local food. Tourist food is made for tourists, and so are the prices. If you want to eat cheap, eat what the locals eat, in the places they eat it. But be sure to look for popular places with lots of turnover, as that decreases the likelihood of your getting sick from the food.

7. Spend time, not money. Being in a hurry to get a million places in a short amount of time is the biggest possible suck on your money. Plan a trip where you hit fewer places, and waste some time waiting for the bus instead of getting a private driver. In some places it's even relatively safe to hitchhike, which is, of course, the cheapest and slowest form of transport. These are also good ways to get to know locals.

8. Get really good at bargaining. In most developing countries (and some developed) you can bargain for just about everything, even when it seems like you can't. Find out ahead of time, or from other backpackers, what the local custom is, and then haggle like your life depends on it. Many times the prices of tours, souvenirs, even hotel rooms are actually a third to a half of the original asking price. And don't feel guilty about this - your aim is to get a fair price, not to take advantage of anyone.

9. Key into the backpacker network. Stay in hostels and talk to other travelers. Find out where they stayed, what they did, and how much they paid for it. Check the thorntree forum, and make good use of it. It's an excellent resource.

10. Use the Lonely Planet guidebooks. No guidebook is perfect, but I have tried pretty much all the series of guide books out there, and in general the Lonely Planet books are the best. They have by far the best maps of any of the guides, and they are geared towards budget travelers taking public transportation (though I hear this is changing in some of the books).

11. Hoard frequent flyer miles. Always get credit for miles you've flown, and try to fly on the same airline or its partners. Get a credit card that gives you miles, and pay all your bills with it. Do offers online that give you miles. And then use all those miles to get free tickets to other countries.

12. Learn to sleep on buses and trains. This is a tough one, but if you can manage to do it, you can not only save a night of hostel charges, but also a day of travel time when you are going long distance.

13. Hook up with other like-minded travelers. Nothing saves money like sharing with another person. Find someone on your same budget with similar tolerance, and share costs.

and last but not least....

14. Don't be scared! The biggest hindrance to all of these points is the overwhelming fear that strangers are going to do bad things to you, the food will make you sick, you'll get lost or get eaten by insects, you'll be uncomfortable, or something terrible will happen to you. I'm not going to tell you it won't, but the chances of that happening are so much slimmer than the chances of you having an amazing, life-changing adventure, that I'd say it's worth a shot.

Adventure map for 2009...