9 Things I Learned as a Frugal Traveler

The Frugal Traveler … and the beach!1. Consider Your Options

People want us to believe that time is money. This is nonsense, of course. Time is not money. Time is life. That said, there are whole industries based on this false assumption, and you’ll necessarily meet people involved in them during your travels. You can be the most relaxed person on earth, but there will be pushy sellers playing the “time is money” card to convert you into a customer.

So, this is the first lesson I learned as a frugal traveler: Never let anyone press you into a deal that involves exaggerated time constraints. Don’t get on a tour just because someone tells you that it’s “your last chance”, don’t reserve a hostel room just because someone tells you it will be “impossible to find something later”. If someone tries to sell you anything under pressure, it’s most likely a bad deal that easily could be exposed if you just took your time to consider your options.

2 .There is Always Cheap Transportation

Whenever you arrive at a new city, especially at night, the situation can be a little awkward. You are tired, you want to find a place to sleep, you long for a meal and a shower, you want to feel safe. You look around and there seem to be some transport options, but the bus or train system is complicated or, worse, there doesn’t seem to be any cheap transportation around. So you decide to grab a cab and leave, paying the driver money worth three nights of single-room accomodation in a decent hostel.

My experience is that, especially when arriving at a new place, it’s helpful to relax first, and follow lesson number one: Consider your options. The good news is that there are always cheap alternatives for transport at any larger airport or bus station around the planet. The advertised shuttle bus is the most obvious, but often, even normal cabs will offer cheaper deals on a per pessenger basis. In other countries, there might be motorcycle taxis that are even less expensive.

If there doesn’t seem to be any affordable transportation available, try to talk to any local that isn’t affiliated with the taxi drivers. Often, by just leaving the airport or station by foot and taking a bus or cab outside, you can save a lot of money, as they won’t charge any special entry fees.

3. All Plane Tickets Are Changeable

I learned this from Chris Guillebeau, and could test it a couple of times already. I applied it the last time only a few weeks ago, when noticing an error on a ticket issued for my wife. While the call center agents would tell us it was “unchangeable”, we were later told it could be changed for a ridiculously expensive fee of $400. In the end, we managed to change it for free – just by talking face to face to some friendly airline employees.

If you want to fly earlier than planned, you may also risk appearing spontaneously for your desired flight at check-in. Just hand over your ticket and ask if there’s any space available on the earlier flight. If there is, airlines will often be happy to change your tickets for free.

4. Bring Your Own Booze

In many parts of the world, it’s not expensive to go out for a few drinks. Things change if you want to go somewhere nice in the touristy areas: Suddenly, you are charged six euros for a lukewarm cappuccino, just because you are sitting in front of the Pantheon. Even here in Cartagena, you are forced to pay an exaggerated 4 dollars for a beer that’s worth 50 cents, if you manage to go the wrong places. The solution? Stay outside the tourist traps and bring your own booze (or whatever you like to drink).

The point is that you don’t have to enter restaurants or bars, just to be sitting at one of the magical places, next to a nice fountain or some impressive sight. Atmosphere still comes for free and will often be nicer outdoors anyway.

Also, BYOB in this case doesn’t mean that you have to suffer embarrassing and tiresome walks with a cold box. All you do is to avoid the uncomfortable aluminium chairs of the cafés and bars around the plazas and instead get a cold beer from the local corner shop. If you are not sure where to find one, just ask the students that generally hang out at these places. They’ll know for sure! You get the same view, probably more fun, and a better atmosphere for about 1/6 of the price.

5. Guidebooks Suck

Guidebooks. I don’t really understand why they still exist. Okay, maybe you want to prepare your trip a little and read a nice atmospheric introduction to your destination before you leave. Although I personally prefer novels for that (they are generally not only more entertaining and better written, but also cheaper), you could use a guidebook for practical reasons. But that’s when you’re still at home – bring them along on the trip? Why?!?

Guidebooks weigh a ton. Guidebooks are outdated by the day they get to the shelves of your book store. Guidebooks limit your vision. Guidebooks, like in the case of Lonely Planet Colombia a few years ago, may even be made up. And, from a frugal perspective, guidebooks are way too expensive.

Newsflash: There’s this nice little thing called the Internet nowadays, and it works pretty much like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Only that it’s better. There is practically no question that Google refuses to answer, and if you really manage to contrive one, just ask it at an active forum. Apart from that, locals will generally help you out if you need anything. And if you don’t speak their language, just ask other travelers you met on the road. You’ll save money and weight, and might even get some real insider information.

6. Ebooks = ♥

It’s not just guidebooks, to be honest. Books in general suck. Don’t get me wrong, please. I love reading them, and I read a lot; generally one or two a week. But that’s a lot of paper, and a lot of cash invested. Now, as long as you’re still at home, you can just access your library. Weight doesn’t matter here, and it’s incredibly cheap, if not free.

On the road, things are different, though. Although here in Colombia you have a useful library system that allows you to lend a book in one city and return it in another, you won’t have that everywhere around. Also, the catalogue is very limited, and it doesn’t work once you cross the border. At the same time, book stores are rare, have a very mainstream offer, and are extortionately expensive.

Thankfully, the solution for all these problems is right here: Ebooks!
By now, I am reading probably a 70% of all my texts electronically, and this number would be even higher if there was a decent e-reading device. (The Kindle hasn’t got a touch screen and thus doesn’t allow me to write directly into my books, a thing I do all the time. The backlit iPad screen will kill the last percentage of eyesight I still got. I can as well use my laptop. And Sony readers… well, I better don’t even start to talk about them. Apart from this, all of these devices are kind of expensive.)

As for money, the prices for newer ebooks will often be exaggerated. At the Kindle store, $9,99 seems to be an accepted price for most customers, but publishers and authors alike would prefer to raise this number. The good thing about ebooks, though, is that there is a huge amount of content available for free. Just have a look at Project Gutenberg, or dive into the vast amount of free ebooks published by independent authors around the web.

7. Cooking for Yourself Isn’t Always Cheaper

There seems to be a frugal rule in the US to always cook for yourself, as you’ll save a lot of money compared to eating out. While this is probably true, it doesn’t always apply when you’re on the road.

First, a disclaimer: Generally, it’s better for your health to cook something tasty and wholesome on your own. You decide about the ingredients, and you avoid a lot of the chemical and greasy stuff cheap restaurants like to use for their meals. That said, a decent and not too unhealthy lunch with meat of your choice, rice, beans, plantain, soup, fresh juice, and a small dessert goes for as little as 2 dollars here in Colombia. Meals in countries like Bolivia, Peru or Thailand can be even cheaper.

If I were to cook for myself all the time, I’d have a hard time. Simple ingredients in the supermarket are way overpriced. Buying small quantities at the farmer’s market isn’t a good deal, neither: If you only need a handful of mangos or potatoes, most vendors will rip you off. What’s more, if I wanted to cook for myself while traveling, I would have to rent a place that not only comes with a fully equipped kitchen, but also with storage space for the ingredients. I would also have to take care for spices, and then be attentive that nothing of the fresh stuff goes to seed.

Thus, it’s useful to check out local meal prices when traveling on a budget. If you are staying longer than a few weeks in a place, try to get a room or apartment where you can cook. If not, skip American chain restaurants and go out eating where the locals go – fresh, tasty, and often cheaper!

8. Ad Hoc Travel Alliances

The Night Bus that never leftSometimes, traveling alone can get boring. It can also be more expensive than traveling in a group. The solution: Create an ad hoc alliance with some fellow travelers you met on the road.

With three or four nice people, you can share taxis, negotiate bus and accomodation prices, and also book tours together.
Traveling in a group during some parts of your journey can also be safer and less stressful: If you have to pass a night at a shady bus terminal in some small town at the Orinoco, you can take turns watching your luggage. (Yes, the night bus you see in the photo never left. After eight hours or so, a new one arrived to finally take us to Barinas.) Best of all, while traveling in an ad hoc group, you get to exchange thoughts with some friendly and interesting people, but you are still free to decide upon where to go next!

9. Money Doesn’t Matter

Money is so overrated when it comes to travel. While I don’t want you to get into debt, be aware that it’s totally possible for you to travel on a (very) tight budget, as long as you are a little flexible and not looking for five-star hotels. There are cheap places everywhere: Be it in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, or in the major cities of the world, thanks to communities like Couchsurfing.

Floreta from Solidary Panda made a great point in a recent post when she recommended to have confidence in the kindness of strangers. While you don’t want to exploit them, strangers often can give you a ride or will happily invite you to sleep or eat in their houses. Do your part as a friendly traveler and give something back: Prepare a meal or clean up the kitchen. Tell great stories. Show a selection of your travel photos, or take some and send the prints later. In the end, traveling is not about money, but about making new experiences, seeing the world beyond your own nose, and being open to the cultural differences that make this world an interesting place.


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Comments 18

  1. Nate June 25, 2010

    Fabian – I got a good chuckle from a couple of these. You know what, I actually got an awesome guidebook for when my wife and I went to Paris for our honeymoon a few years back and it was….gasp…Fodor’s. I forget the exact name, but it was something like ‘see it’ Paris. The items we like the most were the walking tours, which had detailed maps and actually took us off the beaten path. We walked down random side streets and visited tiny shops that were far from the tourist traps. It was actually awesome! I like to call it ‘helpful exploring.’ My wife and I just love to wander around going no place in particular…but just flat out explore. This sort of helped us in that endeavor. If anyone is reading this, I would highly recommend the guide. They have them for other cities as well.

    I love eating cheap…and local. In Mexico, on the local beach where all the locals went, we were able to buy fresh grilled mahi mahi on a stick with a lime and hot sauce for a whopping 20 pesos (and that was probably jacked up a little bit). 2 bucks for fresh caught fish was a pretty good deal in my opinion, plus going to the local convenience store on the corner and purchasing a can of beer for a couple of pesos…it was great! I definitely recommend trying random stuff…even street food. Follow in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps!

    • Fabian June 26, 2010

      I don’t know what fish mahi mahi is, but it sounds delicious! :)
      As for the guidebooks: None of this is as black and white as I paint it, so the chuckles were definitely intended. Admitted, I even have a great guidebook for Colombia, though I never carry it around… and the experiences with planning travels only through the www and talking to some friendly strangers have proved to work great, not only here, but also in Venezuela and the Brazilian Amazon. One thing less to carry is always welcome when you’re backpacking. :)

  2. floreta June 26, 2010

    thanks for the link love :)

    I think guidebooks are kind of embarrassing. I hate to seem like a tourist :P I bought the rough guides to India but gave it away to a fellow traveler when I left. I knew I didn’t need a book about India anymore.. I prefer to read travel logs/memoirs when I prepare for a trip, or read a book about that particular countries politics/culture/religion. Like I read parts of Rig Veda, etc. Always fascinating!

    Colombia has a library system?? <3 That's the #1 thing I miss being in Asia.

    • Fabian June 27, 2010

      Floreta, reading other stuff is just great… and the Rig Veda seems perfect when traveling through those regions. It helps to get into the atmosphere and is just so much more interesting than the usual guidebook talk.
      And yes, Colombia has a net of public libraries with branches in all bigger cities. Unfortunately, it’s underfinanced, and thus the offer isn’t too great, especially when it comes to newer books. But it’s better than nothing! :)

  3. Oscar - freestyle mind June 29, 2010

    A question about changing ticket name. Do you do that at the airport? I bought a ticket for august and I might have to change the name. The website I bought the ticket from says it’s not possible, so I would opt for calling the airline company? I’m not sure if this will be necessary but it’s good to know in advance.

    • Fabian June 30, 2010

      Hey Oscar, name changes are complicated. I was referring to changes of routes and dates mainly. That said, a name change often MIGHT be possible, although many airlines will indeed state in their sales conditions that they are not allowed.

      I would recommend you go to an office or a desk at the airport as soon as possible, once you know you want to change the ticket. If there is a choice, go to the biggest/most important office. Then it’s really a question of charms and a little bit of luck. I only did a name change once (for free! :)), but I SUPPOSE that it should be possible to do for any airline employee who can access the booking system. If not, try your luck with a superior, but always remember to be gentle. Good luck!

  4. Earl June 29, 2010

    All of these are excellent points Fabian, although I’ve yet to switch over to eBooks…perhaps I should seriously consider doing so.

    As for the guidebooks, back in my early days of traveling, I once took a travel writing course that was taught by a Lonely Planet author. And on the first day of the course, she admitted that 80% of the information in her LP India was based upon second-hand information she received by talking to travelers in cafes and not from actually obtaining the information herself. It absolutely blew me away!

    And for #2, I remember reading a post from John at JetSetCitizen.com once about how he always goes straight to the cafe in the airport, bus or train station upon arriving in a new place. This way, he drinks a cup of coffee, collects his thoughts and then proceeds without suffering from that overwhelming feeling that often leads us to make bad decisions. It seemed like a good idea to me.

    • Fabian June 30, 2010

      Earl, that confession is quite delicate, although it doesn’t really surprise me too much. Pay is low, time is limited, so that’s whow it gets done… There are some exceptions to this for sure, but how do we identify them?

      As for number 2, I have done that in many occasions, and it’s certainly a perfect recommendation! Sit down and take your time to consider your options. And coffee is always a good idea! :)

  5. B @ logos coaching July 2, 2010

    E-books are fab! As much as I enjoy flipping the pages of an actual ‘book book’ the advantages of e-books cannot be under estimated, especially when travelling a short or long journeys. Project Gutenburg is a terrific resource and there are some other fantastic free e-books online ….can’t get more frugal than that ;-)

    • Fabian July 2, 2010

      Yup, the haptic of books is the only thing I really miss with ebooks… but as you say, the general advantages of ebooks are just bigger when on the road…

  6. Eric Normand July 15, 2010

    Hey Fabian. I agree all the way. Here are my awesome additions to your list:

    Guidebooks do suck. Just ask locals. Let them know you want a little adventure and you want to go where the locals go. Memorize some food names and some simple phrases and try out places that don’t have an English menu.

    Couchsurfing is great for short stays. helpx.net is great for long stays.

    The internet is great for questions, but it could be better. I’d like to create an online guide that is more question/answer oriented. I’ve had lots of little questions that I could not find answers to online that would go in my guide. It would be like a smart hitchhiker’s guide. You’d be able to ask “Where can I find free wifi in Dublin?” or some such question. The current top ranked result in google is five years old.

    • Fabian July 15, 2010

      Thanks for the additions, Eric! I had never heard about Helpx, but it looks interesting!
      As for the guide you describe, maybe a Wiki would be the easiest solution. Something like Wikitravel, but with a little more practical information, and where everybody can participate…

  7. TerryDarc August 1, 2010

    Just riffing on Eric and Fabian’s comment above: I kinda like ask.com for general travel info. Agree that even tho I bring a guidebook (sheepishly admitting, yes, even LP) but rarely use it – they’re better for planning.

    But we take longish vacations: 5 weeks to 2 months which, while not European in length, are at least long enough to forget stuff. So mid-trip it’s nice to pull out a guide and find that, yes, there IS a Spanish language school in Nebaj and its email addy is thus-and-such or that you can stay in a convent in San Fabianao, Brazil, just off the square next to the bus station. Sometimes.

    I’ll check Floreana’s blog – sounds like a remarkably sensible lady to me. “Time is life, not money”. I tell my wife that every time we load up on another costly trip – who wants to die with money in the bank anyway? I tell my friends this but they’re wrapped up in their so-called lives.

    Also love the idea of stopping to think before plunging into the crowd of taxi drivers outside the transport nexus. I’m sure we’ve been taken many, many times and “senor, this is the last taxi tonight!”

    Let me add one final thought: rather than trying to see an entire country or region: pick one. Live there. Find out what it’s like and meet people. Rushing from place to place sucks worse than being pushed into a Toyota van with 15 other people headed for the local highlights tour.

    • Fabian August 2, 2010

      Hey Terry, thanks for your insightful comment! I especially agree with you on your last point, that´s soooo important. Doing the Grand Tour in 10 days is absolutely possible, but is it really worth it? It´s so much better to stay longer and get a feel for things going on under the surface and beyond the usual sightseeing hotspots.

      Also, guidebooks certainly have their use. I don´t like them too much, but still check them out from time to time in book stores or with friends and fellow travelers. As you say, they make planning easier… although they also may give us false ideas of the places we travel to, before even seeing them with our own eyes.

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  9. Etienne January 13, 2011

    I have been traveling a LOT myself, and I must say… great stuff! I didn’t know you could change your plane tickets like that, and you gave me a few ideas.

    A few other things I’d like to mention.

    1. People often think other countries are more dangerous which is NOT true. In small villages of Czech Republic, you see 15-year old girls hitchhiking to come back from school. You would never ever see that in Canada! I’d also say that 90% of places on the planet are LESS dangerous than America.

    2. It’s good to travel alone. That say, you meet more local people, you learn the language and you really get into the local culture. If you go with friends, you just end up speaking your own language with them and you don’t really interact with the people there.

    3. It’s often MUCH cheaper to travel than to live in Canada/USA. Usually I travel for extended periods of time. Once I went to Barcelona for 1 month. That trip was VERY expensive because, on top of paying for my apartment and expenses there, I ALSO had to pay my apartment, internet access, cell-phone and all other expenses in Montreal. My home expenses were higher than my travel expenses for that month. If you really want to travel, make sure to get rid of home expenses.

    • Fabian January 13, 2011

      Etienne, thanks a lot for joining in and adding these points – I wholeheartedly agree with them! Always happy travels for you!

  10. Kelly Rogers March 3, 2014

    I agree that cooking for one person is not economical when travelling. However, if your cooking food for 6 people like our family, then that’s the best option than eating in a fancy restaurant.

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