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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