How to Travel on a Budget: 10 Best Tips

A waterfall surrounded by greenery in Bali

Being on a budget doesn’t have to get in the way of having the trip of your dreams. Not only can some of the best experiences be either low-cost or even free, but traveling on a budget doesn’t have to necessarily mean backpacking, staying in a dorm with 20 other people, or only eating street food (although those are all definitely helpful tactics). As for how to travel on a budget, first things first, you’ll want to figure out what your priority is. Most of your budget will go to that aspect.

When it comes to planning your first solo trip (or a trip with your friend, partner, or a group), if your priority is going to that bucket list destination that only has super pricey plane tickets, then you’ll probably have to choose a more affordable hostel or hotel.

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If you’re open to different destinations depending on where the deals are, then that opens up your opportunities to spend money on either a nicer accommodation, tours and activities, or food. No matter which path you choose, there are a number of tried-and-true strategies that can save you money in the planning stages, as well as throughout your trip.

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Without further delay, here are my 10 best tips to travel on a budget:

1. Go where the flight deals are

This is one of the best strategies for saving money when you travel. Google Flights’ explore tool is an amazing way to find the best flight deals worldwide. You can either search with specific dates or flexible dates. Skyscanner has a similar feature that I also love. I’d also recommend following airlines on social media and/or signing up for newsletters that share flight deals. 

2. Track your flights and buy in advance 

But, if you’re set on a certain destination, that’s no problem. I’m a firm believer that you can make any destination work on a budget, it just may take some strategizing. 

Using a tool like Hopper is always my go-to when I’m looking for a certain flight route, but there are a number of tracking tools you can choose from. You can track routes, and it will notify you when it’s the best time to buy. You can also freeze prices if you’re not quite ready to purchase.

As for how soon to book, this can be tricky. There’s no magic time for when it’s best to buy a plane ticket, but a general rule of thumb is the earlier the better, especially when it comes to international flights. I typically try to buy my international plane tickets around three months ahead of time, but you could even plan earlier if you want. (You have a little more leeway for domestic flights, and usually a month to three months is enough to snag a good deal.)

Keep in mind that flights are always basing their pricing around holidays and other major events, so it will still be hard to get an affordable flight during those times, no matter how far ahead you book.

As for when the best prices are, there are no rules — but Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the cheapest days to travel, and prices are typically better for early-morning flights.

3. Travel off-season

If you’re in school or working with other time limitations, you may not have so much control over when you travel. But if possible, traveling off-season or during shoulder season is the best way to save money on flights, hotels, and even some sightseeing activities like tours. When you’re researching certain destinations, look into when the most popular season for travel is, and work around that. An added bonus is that you’re less likely to have to fight the crowds.

4. Use points and miles

This one takes some time and effort, I know. But getting a travel credit card is one of the best things you can do to travel for cheaper, or even free. I use the Chase Sapphire card, which earns me points that I can either use to book directly on their travel platform, or I can convert my points to partner airlines and hotels to maximize the points even more. Here’s my referral code if you’re interested. 

Gaining loyalty status with a specific airline is another great way to fly for cheaper or even free, while upping your chances of getting upgrades as well. This basically means that whenever possible, you fly with the same airline, which will slowly build up miles. This is a strategy that I’m still looking into myself (I’d like to at some point get an airline credit card), but it’s best to pick an airline that has a major hub at your home airport, so that it’s easier for you to consistently book with them.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

5. Stay in hostels

For some reason, hostels can have a bad reputation. Years ago, when I told my coworkers I was staying in hostels in Southeast Asia, there were more than a few references to the horror movie “Hostel” made. In the decade since then, I think some of the stigma has improved, but there can be some lingering hesitance, especially for women travelers. 

A lot of hostels are, in fact, really nice. While I have stayed in shared dorms, 90% of the time I can find a comfortable private room, usually with a private bathroom, that’s significantly cheaper than at a hotel. and are always how I find where to stay. I make sure to always choose places that have lots of photos, and lots of reviews, and are rated highly for things like safety, cleanliness, and location. 

If you are up for a shared room, this will of course save you even more money (I’ve stayed in some dorm rooms for just $10 a night), plus they make socializing even easier, which is great if you’re traveling alone. 

Tamarindo, Costa Rica

6. Consider working or volunteering while traveling

This one may not be for everyone, but if you’re interested in spending a long time in a place, or just saving as much money as possible, this is a great option. There are plenty of reputable sites with tons of cool opportunities across the world. Some just offer you a place to stay in exchange for a few hours of work a week, while some come with meals and some pay as well. I know this is weird, but honestly I just enjoy perusing Workaway from time to time and seeing what opportunities are out there. I made an account in the beginning of 2020 with hopes of trying it out that summer . . . we all know how that went. So although I can’t personally attest to the experience, I’ve heard so many good things. If you’ve done this, I would love to know how it went 🙂 

7. Exchange your money carefully

Even for locations that accept credit cards, it’s always a good idea to have some cash on you when you travel. And when it comes to getting cash in different currencies, you want to be careful or you could wind up losing more money than necessary. 

The best place to exchange your money can vary depending on your destination. Apart from searching on Google for where to exchange your cash, you can also try searching “foreigners in X Country” on Facebook or Reddit for any relevant tips and suggestions. But a general rule of thumb is that the first places you see upon arrival typically don’t have the best rate. More often than not, the airport will be the worst place to exchange your cash. 

The Atacama Desert, Chile

In some places, I’ve found that it’s best to just take out cash from a local ATM, rather than exchanging. An ATM in the bank is usually the safest. Just make sure to always select the local currency instead of US dollars, in order to get the best rate. (This tip also goes for when you pay with your credit card at restaurants or stores. You’ll often be given the option to select your currency. Always choose the local one.)

On that note, I feel obligated to point out that you should never carry all your cash with you at once when traveling. During the day-to-day, I only take what I’ll need and one card, leaving the rest in my hotel room. (For more safety tips, check out this guide!)

8. Travel slower

Slow travel is great for so many reasons. You get to experience more of a place and learn more about a city and culture. It’s more environmentally friendly. And you save money! Avoiding multiple destinations in a trip means less transportation costs (and logistics) to factor in. If you do opt for multiple destinations, consider taking a train, bus, or other shared shuttle instead of flying. Although it probably takes longer than flying, it can be one of the biggest money savers.

One of the many methods of public transportation in Bangkok, Thailand

9. Try to eat where the locals eat, and cook when possible

Okay, I’ll admit that I hate when people suggest cooking when traveling to save money. I’m on vacation, I’m not trying to cook. Buuut, when traveling long-term or just trying to stick to a budget, cooking at least *some of the time* will do wonders for your wallet (in most destinations  — in some places, groceries can actually be more expensive). 

As for eating out, try to enjoy street food for some meals, which in some locations, like in Mexico and Thailand, for instance, is actually an important cultural experience anyway. As for restaurants, always try to walk a couple blocks away from any main tourist destination. Those places will all be geared towards tourists, both in food quality and in price. If you’re in a non-English-speaking country and there’s a menu in English, there’s a good chance that prices are marked up. 

A fruit stand in Santiago, Chile

10. Stick to free and low-budget activities 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the best sightseeing and tourist destinations. It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds to find free or low-cost activities. Most museums and cultural centers have days with free or reduced admission. Going to the beach or visiting local parks are free. Hiking is usually free, but some hiking destinations do require or suggest you go with a guide or tour group for safety reasons. 

One of my favorite things to do when I get to a new city is check to see if there are free walking tours. (While these are free, just be sure to tip your guide at the end.) These are a great way to get an overview of a city, check out a ton of important tourist destinations, and get recommendations and insight from a local. 

Siem Reap, Cambodia

With these 10 tips to traveling on a budget, you can have an amazing trip without breaking the bank. What other money-saving tips do you have? I’d love to know. And if you’re getting ready to head out on your next adventure, check out this list of must-have items I bring with me on every trip (most are low-cost :)). 

Tess <3 

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  1. April 23, 2024 / 7:14 pm

    Great post Tess. I might have to try Hopper next time I’m looking for a flight x

    • Tess
      April 23, 2024 / 8:39 pm

      Thanks Chloe! I hope you do 🙂

  2. Marilyn
    April 23, 2024 / 7:30 pm

    There are many hostels that rival hotels too, so this is a great thing to remember. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips!

    • Tess
      April 23, 2024 / 8:40 pm

      So true! I’ve definitely stayed in some really nice ones. Thanks for reading 🙂

    • Tess
      April 24, 2024 / 7:35 pm

      I’m happy to hear that! thanks for reading 🙂

  3. April 24, 2024 / 7:02 pm

    I haven’t traveled on a budget in so long. This was a good reminder! My luxury travels, which are always sponsored, make it easy to forget the importance of budgeting.

    • Tess
      April 24, 2024 / 7:33 pm

      love that for you though! I hope to get there someday 🙂

  4. June 23, 2024 / 9:19 am

    A great post with really useful tips! I always travel on a low to modest budget although I have grown out of the dorm rooms. I have stayed in many hostels, many offer small private rooms and kitchens, and often, run by great locals full of superb tips! I often stay in little guesthouses or hostels run by locals, especially when travelling alone.

    • Tess
      June 23, 2024 / 5:15 pm

      thank you, Anja! I love how hostels and guesthouses can often connect you to locals — it’s definitely a more intimate experience than staying at a hotel, and usually way more memorable and impactful!

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