Have you always dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night as you stroll along the banks of the Seine river? Or how about mountain biking down volcanoes on ancient Maya trails in Guatemala? Have those trips seemed out of reach either due to budget or not knowing where to start planning? Whether you're a new traveler or would like some fresh tips on how to travel smart & cheap, I'd like empty my brain and share some of my tips & secrets on how to get around the world.
Being an airline pilot I'm quite fortunate to have the opportunity to travel and take photos around the world. Through my camera lens & travels I hope to inspire others to get out and see the world. Travel not only opens our eyes and erases stereotypes it also makes for life long memories that are irreplaceable. So aside from my typical posts on sharing my work & photography tips I'd like to change gears for a minute and post some useful info on how to travel smartly and affordably. So YOU can make that trip you've been dreaming of. Since I'm a pilot you might correctly guess that my wife & I pay very little airfare to get around the planet and that enables us of course to do a lot of travel. So while I can't help you with cheap airfare, I have plenty to share about the other aspects of traveling and saving money in order to make your dream trip a reality. So save up (or earn those miles) for that airline ticket and in the meantime I'll help you with the rest!
Learning the Ropes
To start, planning for a trip a abroad can seem like a daunting task but worry not. A little smart planning and research will go a long way in helping your trip go smooth. My wife and I have always traveled independently and have never utilized any sort of travel agent or booking agency. Their fees and itineraries just aren't something we dig or believe most people really need, though a few speciality outfitters do offer some great trips but can come with a big price tag. Utilizing resources such as Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Trip Advisor, travel forums, friends, family and good old fashioned common sense will help you get by just fine. We always like to learn some basic phrases in the local language as well to aid in getting around and the locals always appreciate the effort (especially Parisians). So using an app such Duolingo or trying out Rosetta Stone wouldn't hurt in that regard.
One of my biggest money saving tips is to travel during the low or off season. While you may not get the best weather, the crowds will be few, the accommodations cheaper and your sanity better for it. We typically travel during the spring and fall (Europe in the winter is great too!) to avoid the crowds and still find good weather for the most part.
Once you get a general idea of where you want to go, I just say 'go'! Yes really, throw caution to the wind (mostly since you've done some research right?) and just go. To quote the famous Warren Miller of ski film lore, "if you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do!" If you've never tried international travel before, I always suggest one of the large European capitals to start as most inhabitants speak fluent english and are used to tourists. Once you've warmed up a bit you can head out to the less traveled parts of the globe and get some truly amazing & unique experiences.
Where & How to Sleep Affordably
My wife and I are long over staying in hostels, save for the occasional private room with perhaps a shared bathroom in the right place. For the most part these days we frequent mid-range locally owned establishments when possible to help keep our costs reasonable and keep the money in the local economy. If you are up for the hostel experience, by all means share a room with other folks and enjoy the experiences hostel stays afford. Other than camping, it is most likely the cheapest stay possible and offers the ability to meet other travelers, swap stories and share tips. As a 30-something married couple we like a bit more comfort these days and seek out nicer amenities. We've stayed in camper vans, hostels, gross hotels, expensive boutique hotels, B&Bs, airport hotels, thatch huts, safari camps, etc. Finding the right place will likely be tailored to your adventure, so my best advice is to not simply revert to one of the big booking sites and blindly choose a brand name hotel. Rather, dig deeper and stay local when you can.
Depending on where you choose to go, my best advice is to stay out from the city center and away from tourist attractions. You can save some big money by simply taking a train or bus (see Getting Around below) to get where you need each day. You'll also benefit from staying nearer where the locals live & work and will experience a bit more of the culture than you otherwise would in the tourist areas. We recently stayed in the Da Costabuurt neighborhood on Amsterdam's west side which saved us some money and had a much more local vibe which we loved.
How do we find our places? A mix of Trip Advisor, WikiTravel, Lonely Planet, knowledge from other globe trotting friends or simply doing an internet search for 'local stay Amsterdam' can yield excellent results. We've also started using the very popular Airbnb service in places such as Sri Lanka, Paris and even Crested Butte here in Colorado. All with great result in the budget, comfort and local flavor category.
Eating & Nourishment
Aside from hotels, eating is usually one of our larger expenses when we travel. We absolutely love finding local high quality food and will pay a premium at times to enjoy the best a locale has to offer. That said, we are thrifty in this area in between those splurges and find creative ways to keep nourished without breaking the bank. In Italy? Grab some cheap local wine in a plastic jug, a loaf of bread, some prosciutto and cheese from the local market and lunch is had! While I feel like it is a silly endorsement, we do honestly bring Snickers with us to keep those 'diva' moments at bay in between meals. After we've hit a museum for instance they make for nice snacks while we find a worthy place to eat without settling and saves my wife from dealing with Cranky Travel Nick. Which brings me to...
Avoid at all costs eating near big monuments & museums. Without fail, prices will be hefty, the food less than great and the service mediocre. You'll pay a premium for less than memorable food in most cases. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part avoid the tourist trap places and seek out cheaper & better options away from the action. Sometimes it only takes a few blocks away from the madness to find some true gems that won't break the budget.
Lastly, take advantage of any free breakfast your hotel may offer and buy snacks from whatever local market there is to get you through the day. We typically don't spend much money until dinner time and that meal is usually well worth the wait!
Once your plane lands, the cost of getting around locally can really add up if you aren't careful. While it's tempting to want to just grab a cab and pay the price to get to your hotel quickly after a long flight, consider using the train, bus or shared rides. A cab fare from the airport in a big European city can cost upwards of 40-50€ (euro) or more, whereas a train or bus ride is much cheaper. For our last trip to Paris the train fare from Charles de Gaulle airport to downtown was only 10€ per person. And you don't have to deal with traffic! It might add a little more stress and research to figure out local transportation, but the savings add up quick!
Aside from getting to and from the airport, local transportation during your trip can obviously add big costs as well. Best advice is to bring your walking shoes, look for multi-ride bus or rail passes and use cabs sparingly. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as Panama City, Panama where cab rides are ridiculously cheap and safer for skipping certain seedier neighborhoods. In most large cities trams, buses and metro rail lines are plentiful & cheap. Being a bit adventurous and trying to utilize the local transportation will help immerse you in the culture and save money.
Travel Smarter (useful apps)
Since there are a million apps out there, I'll just list a few favorites that we use most often. Since I'm an iPhone guy these apps will be iOS related, but most are cross platform so you should find them on other phones as well.
- Trip Advisor City Guide - a downloadable (offline) guide that actually has a lot useful info and has a map that will keep track of your location even when your phone is in airplane mode.
- Currency - handy app to check the latest currency data and exchange rates
- Airbnb - allows you to search for local stays at good prices that will have that local flavor
- Hotel Tonight - for the last minute traveler or emergency stay (missed flight) good deals for same day hotels
- Flight Track Pro - great app for planning and knowing which airlines serve certain destinations, also has departure boards
- WikiTravel - a free and expansive resource on travel destinations
- Transit - a newer app that is building a worldwide database of local bus & train lines, good experience so far using it
- Skype - cheap calls or free if the other person has Skype too!
While I'm on the subject of technology, if you don't have a data plan that covers other countries leave your phone in airplane mode! Data usage costs can be astronomical if used abroad. Instead, stop by a cafe and use wifi when needed or connect in your hotel. A lot of mapping apps will still know your location based on your last connection. So that little blue dot can know where you are even when you're not connected. A little 'big brother', but can come in handy if you are lost in the back alleys of Istanbul for instance.
One mistake a lot of travelers seem to make is to want to spend big bucks on all kinds crazy expensive activities. While these can be fun (who doesn't want to bungee jump or power boat up the river in Queenstown, New Zealand) they can really add to the cost of your trip. I'll suggest to do activities on the cheap such as hiking, renting bikes, use free hotel amenities (bikes, kayaks, snorkels, etc.) and focus on one or two activities that you really want to do if the budget is tight. Museums and other attractions can add costs as well, so choose wisely and don't get caught in the trap of trying to do too much at once. Slowing down and enjoying your trip vs. running like mad to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (guilty) will pay dividends for your peace of mind and pocketbook. Paris will always be there and who knows, perhaps you'll be back to explore more once you're hooked on this travel thing.
Unless you've budgeted money for shopping, don't purchase lots of things you didn't plan to and don't forget you somehow have to get all that stuff back home! We don't buy many things when we travel for both budget and packing reasons. Most of our purchases will be limited to small items from local artisans as you can find many of the same things all over the world. Look for those unique items made locally that will easily pack in your suitcase.
Be sure to check with your bank before you leave as foreign transaction fees and ATM withdrawal fees can add up. There are several good credit cards and banks out there that don't charge for such things. The folks over at NerdWallet have some good data to share if you need help researching a new card. We don't worry about bringing travel cheques (a thing of the past) but rather simply withdraw money locally as needed. Just be sure to research where ATMs are if you travel to remote locations and plan ahead.
Lastly be sure to let your bank know where & when you'll be traveling. That way your cards don't get shut off while abroad. It's also a good idea to bring two different types of cards, MasterCard and Visa for instance as some places may only accept one over the other.
Yep, just go. Stop thinking about it and make it happen. I hope you've found this little guide handy and inspiring without being too overwhelming. Stepping out of our routines and experiencing other cultures can seem daunting at first but you'll be rewarded with amazing experiences along with a new outlook on the world that just might keep you on the move. And of course, don't forget your camera! Check back soon for a fresh article on travel friendly camera recommendations to capture those new adventures. So do you have the travel itch now? Scratch it, go see the world and capture your own travel photos for your friends & family to see!