Travel is at a halt, and with the current pandemic reshaping the world’s economy (and your personal finances) the mere idea may not be as glamorous as it once was—which isn’t to say we don’t miss it. Your wanderlust may be alive even as your pockets are emptying, but that doesn’t mean you have to remain homebound once it is safe to move about the globe again. It might just require you to adjust your expectations of what a vacation looks like—which you can do by planning to travel the way broke travelers do it. These are folks who know that travel is possible on a tight budget—if you get a little creative.
Although you may not have a lot of money, there are still ways to see the world.
Fly when you’re broke
Opt for one-way tickets
One year I was waitressing and a friend invited me to Puerto Rico for her birthday. I didn’t want to be the only one not going but the roundtrip tickets were much more than I could afford to spend. So, I did what any broke traveler would do: I bought a one-way ticket there and worked more shifts to make enough money to pay for my return flight.
Buying one-way tickets is always a great option if you’re a broke traveler. In some situations you may end up spending a little more money, but you won’t really feel the hit because it’s not all going out in one lump sum. This option can also save money because you’ll have the flexibility to choose to pounce on your purchase when tickets are cheapest and fly on different airlines going to and from your destination, allowing you choose the cheapest options for each leg of your journey.
The downside of buying one-way tickets is that you might end up spending more money if you end up buying your tickets closer to the dates of travel. You may also need to prepare to fly in one airport and out of another or get used to flying at odd times (very early morning or late night/overnight).
Bring your own food
Flying when you’re broke will prevent you from enjoying those nicely overpriced lattes or bags of chips in your terminal—and that’s okay. Bring your own snacks. If you’re flying internationally and are willing to eat airplane food, you’ll likely be given a meal or two, but it’s always good to have some snacks in your carry-on to hold you over. Additionally, many budget airlines don’t offer free snacks or even drinks even on longer flights, so you’ll want to be prepared.
Don’t check a bag
Checked bags can cost you a lot of extra money in fees for your flight, and in the event they are lost or damaged in transit, they may cost you even more later. A great rule of thumb is to pack light and travel with just your carry-on and personal items. It may sound impossible, but you can do it.
Find the free stuff
Explore the city
There are so many things to do and see when you’re broke. Investigate the options in your destination of choice. One activity that you can enjoy in cities worldwide—and which is absolutely free—is to seek out street art displays. Street art—also known as graffiti—provides a window into what artists in a particular city have to offer, and exploring the streets in search of it can give you a real feel for a foreign environment. Urban exploration will help you learn about an area’s history and make for some pretty cool pictures. Think of it as visiting an outdoor museum.
Head to a museum
Speaking of museums, you can enter many of them free of charge. Washington, D.C. is known for some of the most fantastic museums in the world, and they’re all free. Here’s a list of museums the world over that you can tour without paying a cent.
You’ll also want to take a closer look at the prices at the museum counter wherever you are: The posted rates at some museums are just “suggested donations,” and you can actually pay as much—or as little—as you want to enter. This certainly isn’t the case at every museum, but you’d be surprised at some of the places that will let you in for a measly $1 (New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, for instance). Note that special attractions like IMAX films and limited-time engagements are usually extra, however.
Walk with a tour
This one is a little shady, but being broke sometimes means breaking the rules: Find a walking tour and tag along. Who wouldn’t want to learn about a particular place or time period or pick up on the many fun facts a walking tour can provide? Just keep in mind that if it’s a tour that requires people to pay in advance, you’re going to have to have the guts to just look like you belong—and be prepared to deal with the embarrassment of being asked to leave. If you’re able to get away with it, it would be bad form not to throw the guide a generous tip when the tour is over. It won’t cost you as much as a legit ticket would’ve, but you won’t be stiffing your host, either.
Bask in the ambiance
There’s so much natural beauty in the world, and nature is usually free to all. Take a moment to find a nature trail, mountainside or park to capture some unexpected views. Getting some exercise and enjoying the outdoors is also beneficial to your body and mind.
Catch some waves
When in doubt, head to a beach. Public beaches are always free of charge and a great activity for relaxation and awesome travel pics. Be sure to bring your own towel and an umbrella or something else that can keep you in the shade because cabanas and lounge chairs will usually cost money—and come with expectations of a tip for services rendered.
Eating cheap when you’re broke
Eat street food
No, I do not mean scorpions or mealworms (however, if that’s your cup of tea, go for it). Street food is simply locally made food that is prepared and sold on the street. It is usually fast food, sold from carts or stands, that you can get for relatively little money and which will still fill your belly.
Share your meal
If you’re traveling with others, share your food. Order one less meal than the number of people you’re traveling with and everybody can enjoy a family-style dining experience. Rice and noodles dishes are often the best options because they are filling and many cultures serve them in abundance.
Eating locally and eating street food are not the same thing, so don’t be confused. Eating locally—especially when traveling abroad—means that instead of eating western options like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or some other popular international chain, eat at locally owned restaurants that serve local dishes. Sit-down restaurants always cost more money, but local mom and pops will give you more bang for your buck.
Where to sleep when you’re broke
When you’re looking for accommodations, you have options, even if you don’t have a lot of money. First, stay in the less touristy side of town. The closer you get to tourist sites, the more you’re going to pay. Second, you may have to hop from hotel to hotel: Hotels rates rise and fall with the days of the week as well as the area you’re looking to stay in. Shuffling from bed to bed is annoying but it can save you a lot of money (and provide another reason to pack light). My personal preference is to book accommodations closer to the airport in the last 24-48 hours of a trip.
You can also:
- Book a room instead of an entire apartment in an Airbnb. Airbnb and other homestay options tend to be less expensive than hotels per night. However, if you’re struggling to pay for an entire place, you still have the option of just renting one room. You will still have full use of the apartment or house, but it may be shared with other travelers.
- Stay in a hostel. Hostels are offered around the world and are a good budget bet, though you’ll sacrifice your privacy in the bargain. Rooms are usually bunk-style dorms divided by gender, though some hostels are co-ed. They generally offer shared bathrooms and lockers to put your belongings. (Bring your own lock.)
- Try out a sleep pod—as long as you’re not claustrophobic. Sleep pods are quite popular throughout Asia and can be found in airports and in business districts and tourist areas in many cities. They are big enough to fit a standard-sized bed and often come with internet access. Some will offer a television and lock boxes with shared bathrooms, similar to hostels.
There are many cheap options if you need to get around any city.
- Take the local bus. This option is much cheaper than catching an Uber or taxi and will allow you to see more of a city. A great rule of thumb when taking the bus is know all of your pick up points and drop-offs in advance. You cannot afford to get lost.
- Ride the train. Trains are a quick way to get to your destination while cutting down on transportation costs. Trains are also typically linked to Google or Apple maps which can help to navigate what stations you’ll need to get on and off.
- Catch a hop-on, hop-off bus. These buses are technically tourist buses. They offer you a tour of the city, but you’ll be able get on and off as much as you like within a set timeframe. (Don’t lose your ticket.)
- Hitch a ride on a motorbike. Some countries, like Thailand, have motorbike cabs that pick up people and drop them wherever they want to go. With this option you will more than likely have to negotiate the price, but it’ll be cheaper than riding in a car (and more of a thrill).
- Jump on a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is an open-back truck that seats up to 8 people (or more) and is always much cheaper than any other form of transportation, if a bit more crowded and less convenient to those in a hurry. Tuk tuks are common in many Asian countries but can also be encountered in cities worldwide.
- Ride a bike. Across America and internationally, you should be able to rent a bike fairly easily; increasingly, major cities have installed bike stands that allow you to rent a bike using an app or your credit card. It’s an easy way to see parts of a city for very little—and get some exercise in the process.