After spending two soggy winters sailing on the west coast, my husband and I (along with our then-two-year-old and six-month-old) were eager to trade the impending Canadian winter for a tropical adventure.
We wanted more than just a two-week getaway—but doing so on a budget was easier said than done.
While budget travel was synonymous with wild adventure when I was in my 20s, I’m now a grown woman in my 40s.
While budget travel was synonymous with wild adventure when I was in my 20s, I’m now a grown woman in my 40s. Finessing a 3 a.m. diaper change from the top bunk of my hostel bed or quelling a toddler-fuelled tantrum while couchsurfing are not my version of adventure. (If I’m going to take on an 18-hour flight with two babies, I want more than farm labour in exchange for my supper at the end of it.)
Here are eight budget savvy travel tips tried and tested by my adventurous family.
1. Use online booking sites to benchmark prices—but hold off on hitting “buy”
Accommodation sites such as Momondo.com and Booking.com state a fixed (albeit often sale) price. And yet, many independent accommodation operators are open to negotiating a lower price once you are on their doorstep.
Use online booking sites to shortlist potential accommodation in your price range, but forgo the urge to book ahead. Instead, get good at haggling, which may be part of the local culture. (Street markets in China, India, many parts of Africa, Spain, Peru, Brazil and Indonesia—to name a few—are great training grounds.)
Admittedly, not pre-booking can send spasms of anxiety into the heart of my fellow list-makers. But it was our willingness to wait that afforded my family a bungalow in the heart of Ubud, Bali for $8 CAD less per day than the advertised price online—massive savings in a total daily budget of $30 for four people.
2. Book short-term stays
A willingness to move around (rather than trying to book just one room for the duration of your stay) will allow you to take advantage of last-minute deals as hotels try to fill empty rooms.
Be a deal detective when chatting with other travellers; don’t be too shy to ask how much they are paying and for what type of amenity. You may well find your next Shangri-La.
3. Understand how high, low and off-season affects accommodation
Travel during high season isn’t necessarily a budget buster. Understand when high, low and off-season occurs within your destination and how each of these affects accommodation.
Sometimes it means higher room prices, sometimes the effect is limited to availability and other times you may need to look at changing locations from beachfront to mountain-top setting to get the best deal.
4. Assess how often you really need to eat
I once found myself sitting in the stifling midday heat of our beach bungalow staring at the lunch hour when I realized I simply wasn’t hungry. Part of adjusting to a tropical climate was allowing that three square meals a day was too much food for a slower-paced life in 80 per cent humidity.
I quickly learned to feed family midday eats of affordable and delicious local fruits and filling carbohydrate-based chips, crackers and snacks from street vendors. The result was handily reducing our daily food budget from $22 to just $12 per day.
5. Eat local in-season produce and buy at local prices
Apply budget tips from home life. I buy local, in-season produce both at home and when abroad. Pay close attention to the produce and other local fare served each morning at your hotel.
On one trip in Indonesia, we asked our hostess which fruits were in season. “Mangoes,” she said, smiling. “There are too many mangoes right now. Cheap price, too.”
This led to a conversation about the price locals pay for all manner of food and fresh produce—a far different price point than I received when I chanced the open-air markets on my own, armed only with my fresh-from-the-airport untanned skin and generally bewildered and awed expression.
The same conversation led me to a warung (food stall), where the locals stopped in for cheap takeaway food. It was $1 for a paper-wrapped package of nasi campur (spicy Indonesian rice mix)—a perfect on-the-go dinner option.
The same applies to restaurant meals. Ordering standard Western fare—foods such as pizza, pasta or hamburgers—will cost you more than if you stick to local menus with readily available, locally sourced and in-season products.
6. Eliminate alcohol
“I leave in six weeks,” I announced over the phone to my mother. “It’s a great deal. My travel agent booked me into an all-inclusive resort.”
I returned after my first naïve foray into the fine-print world of all-inclusive resort vacations with a sunburn, a few cheap seashell trinkets and swollen credit card debt. I didn’t anticipate that “all-inclusive” didn’t always include alcoholic beverages. It turns out indulging in those fancy multi-coloured, multi-layered drinks topped off with little umbrellas cost extra.
While following the flow of locals to discover where and what they indulge in can be good options for affordable wines and spirits, consider this bold idea: Eliminate the expense of alcohol altogether. This ensures a more predictable daily budget by removing the temptation to overindulge in what is generally an expensive addition to meals, regardless of where you are in the world.
7. Take advantage of online communities for local information
Online groups, particularly Facebook and Instagram, are an abundant source of information from locals on everything from pest control to feminine hygiene products.
A staple of budget travel is packing light. Taking the time prior to your departure to ask locals—either residents or expats—what items can readily and inexpensively be purchased upon arrival can save you money and precious luggage space. (Be mindful that expats can be a notoriously inaccurate source of local pricing as individual budgets will vary. Always state your own budget limits before asking for prices.)
8. Rethink how you think about travel
Travel is more than tourist attractions. It is experience that reveals character and shapes and emboldens our views.
Every city in this grand world offers endless things to do and see for free: walking, hiking, people-watching, being present to experience the new and the different. Exhaust all avenues for free experiences before spending travel dollars on tours and attractions.
From testing skills with a new language in a busy market, to sampling unfamiliar street fare, travel tempers our own cultural practices against a new majority and opens our minds to what we may not understand or even agree with. It’s finding our pace in an unknown place.
Rethink how you view not just budget travel, but travel itself. Make your destination—authentic and unadorned—the real attraction.Add this article to your reading list