Traveling the world on a budget can be your reality. Here are the tips and resources you need to get started.
When I was working in my corporate career, I used to daydream about taking time off to budget travel the world. It seemed far-fetch, unrealistic, and even taboo, which made me the most uneasy. No one else in my friend or familial circles had taken time off from there careers once they got started, and especially not to travel. Taking a gap-year before college was okay, traveling when you're "younger" was socially acceptable. Even spending tens of thousands of dollars to study abroad while in university was also fine.
But once you signed up for the real world, that was it. No take-backs.
That's how things felt, at least. I'm here now, writing this from a sunny rooftop in the Middle East, which means I overcame a lot of that self-doubt and a lot of the internal obstacles that I thought were in my way. But way back when, when my traveling was only a daydream, I used to spend a lot of time on the internet, researching everything from budget travel tips and tricks, to specific travel routes and budgets.
I found an online community full of valuable resources, which helped me get my emotional and physical shit together, and ultimately, helped me get out the door with a backpack strapped to my back.
So the big question today is: How to travel the world on a budget. To be honest, this is a loaded and complex question with endless answers, but everyone has to start somewhere. This is also a topic that has been discussed extensively online by plenty of experienced budget travelers (I'll share some of my favorite resources at the end).
This is meant to be a tip-of-the-iceberg crash course, that also covers some new ground that some of the older resources haven't covered before. I'm not actually going to talk about how to save money to travel, because I wrote about that here, and I also discussed how much money you might need to travel on a budget here. So with all of that out of the way, let's get into it.
#1 The where and the when
This is a great place to start the conversation about traveling the world on a budget. Because when it comes down to it, these two factors will determine how you prepare your budget, and how long you're able to travel for.
Some parts of the world are going to be much cheaper than others to travel to and within. Certain countries and regions are havens for budget backpackers, because they're much more affordable. Southeast Asia, South and Central America, and India are all excellent options for budget backpackers. Europe, while a dream for many travelers, has the potential to be much more expensive.
If you do have your heart set on a more costly destination, you can certainly still make it happen, and to do so, I highly recommend learning the trade of the work trade (details on that below). I lived in Tel Aviv for several months thanks to a work trade, and as it's one of the most expensive cities in the world, I never would have been able to afford it at the time otherwise.
If you want to visit a lot of countries, picking ones that are in the same region will save you a ton on airfare and transportation. Going from Australia to South America will definitely drain your budget, fast. But taking a bus from India to Nepal for about $20 USD (as I did) will enable you to travel the world on a budget, and for much longer. And making choices like that is only possible if you pick you geography carefully.
So I recommend: pick a region, or a cluster of countries, that include budget-friendly nations, like the areas listed above.
I've said this before, but when you're planning to travel the world on a budget, time is your friend. Meaning that the longer down the line your trip is planned for, the better it is for your savings and finances. Now, this is a double-edged sword, because it can be really difficult to plan something a year or two in advance, and who knows what will come up in your life then. But it's definitely what I recommend doing. If you're saving money from your bi-weekly paycheck, the longer you can work, the better. I saved for about a year for my travel plans, because my finances were tight and saving was a slow process.
My advice to help with an intimidating timeline? Three things:
#2 Learn the trade of the work trade
Doing work trades is one of my favorite things ever, and can be key for traveling the world on a budget. Work trades helped me pay for my yoga teacher training in Oregon, helped me travel extensively, and even gave me experience in areas like social media and marketing. While traveling, work trade refers to you working at a place for your accommodation, greatly reducing your overhead costs. Some of these opportunities will also include some or all of your meals, again greatly mitigating your travel costs.
There are plenty of websites to help you find work trade opportunities (also called volunteering or even interning). These resources are definitely great one-stop-shops for helping you find legitimate and safe work trades, which is your priority. Even better, these websites help you find opportunities you may never have heard about otherwise, such as volunteering on an island with horses in Greece, assisting with community projects in Kenya, and setting up music festival sites in Ukraine (these are all live projects right now, but I'm not linking them because these opportunities change all the time). Workaway, WWoof and Worldpackers are three great resources for work trades. The downside? You usually pay a membership fee for access to the website. Now, it could be considered a nominal investment for a safe and incredible work trade experience, but it's not your only option.
I don't necessarily recommend using work trade platforms, unless you find a specific opportunity you want to apply to (you can usually peruse through the websites for free). Firstly, I myself have never used them to actually accept a position, and why would I recommend something I've never used? The truth is, I personally think the "need" for work trade platforms is a little outdated (unless you're planning to work in agriculture). For example, at this point nearly every hostel will accept volunteers and work trade opportunities, for example. You don't need to use a paid membership platform. You simply find reputable and highly-rated hostels in destinations you want to visit on Google or Hostelworld, and reach out to them individually about volunteering or doing a work trade. Even at the smallest hostels in India, I saw opportunities for work trades, as bartenders or waitstaff.
If you're more interested in professional development opportunities, you can work trade for that as well. I was able to volunteer as a marketing and social media intern for a massive hostel chain, and learned a ton of skills from bonafide industry professionals, in an international setting.
Now, if you want to volunteer on farms or in other agricultural opportunities, I think using work trade platforms is definitely safer and more efficient. You need to be able to easily communicate with people in rural areas and make sure they're reputable and again safe.
While I travel, I prefer to work trade in countries where the accommodation is more expensive. For example, if I'm traveling in a country where a hostel bed is only $4 USD a night, and I work for my accommodation, I'm essentially working for $4 a day. I would rather spend that $4, and have the free time in my day.
On the flipside, I volunteered for a hostel in a country where a hostel bed was around $20, or $600 a month. That was well worth my time, and the experience itself was a true jI also prefer to alternate my work trade opportunities. For example, in one instance, I did a work trade for three months, followed by two months of traveling without a work trade, and then returned to doing a work trade. This enabled me to not feel overwhelmed by the work commitments, but still save money.
#3 Let it be a slow go
Slow travel is going to be your friend if you want to travel the world on a budget. The slower you travel, the cheaper your travel will likely be. Because when we break it down, some of your biggest costs as a traveler are going to be your airfare and other transportation costs. The slower you travel, the less you'll be flying and taking taxis or tuk tuks from remote airports. So what if you want to see 20 countries in 3 months? Of course it's possible. But it's going to be much more expensive than visiting 3-5 countries in that amount of time.
I prefer to travel slow for a few other reasons, besides the budget. Traveling slow also allows you to become a part of a community, get to know a place and its people, and make friends in the traveling community there. If you only stay in a place for a night or two, you'll just barely be scratching the surface. For me, this is the case only sometimes. But more often, I choose to stay in a place for at least a month, to really soak it in.
You can't stay in every place on your list for months at a time. But in my opinion, the slower you go, the better of a budget traveler you'll be.
#4 Spread out your purchases
This is something I really haven't seen talked about, and I think it's one of the most useful things I personally did in advance to prepare for budget traveling around the world. While I was biding my time on my year-long timeline (see tip #1), I got myself amped for my travel by buying some of the stuff I would need for my trip every few weeks. This 65-liter backpack, Deet bug lotion (truly lifesaving for countries with mosquitos), hiking boots, all-purpose sandals, a toiletry bag, and a fanny pack were just a few of the things I needed to buy to take along with me. Not to mention my first big one-way plane ticket!
I bought these things over the course of several months, so I was able to pay them off gradually, and mitigate my costs before I left to travel. As a rough estimate, those items I just listed (including the first plane ticket) probably cost around $1,000. It would not have been fun to have that cost at the last minute right before my big trip.
(Note: I'm a member of the Amazon affiliate program. If you buy something from the links I've listed, I receive a nominal fee)
#5 Don't change your eating habits just because you're on the road
Do you eat out every night of the week at home? If the answer is yes, you could maybe save some extra travel money if you cooked at home a little more! If the answer is no, and like most of us, you cook a lot of your meals at home, continue to do that on the road!
Of course, it can be such a joy to try the food of other cultures, and in some scenarios on the road, eating out will be totally affordable and within your budget. So you don't have to be all like, Michelle, we can't eat out while traveling? Of course you can, and you will plenty of times. But don't be afraid to get used to using hostel kitchens, packing dry foods like peanut butter and bread, and taking advantage of inexpensive local produce.
But when I was driving around Cyprus for example, me and my friend went to the grocery store, and stocked up on tahini, vegetables, bread, cheese, olives, even pickled eggs in a jar, and ate mostly that for a week. It was a feast fit for queens, and most importantly, it helped us keep our food costs low.
Moral of the story is: hit up your local grocery stores while you're on the road, just like you would at home.
#6 Plan but don't over plan
I had a good friend of mine who traveled on her own a few years before I did. She did a trip that included Hawaii and Thailand, it lasted for seven months, and most importantly, she planned it out by the day. Now, she got to do and see a lot, and checked every box on her list, but she later expressed to me some regret that she hadn't left some of her plans more open.
That's because when you're on the road and out there in the world, plenty more opportunities are going to present themselves to you, which you didn't know existed before. Another good friend of mine made a similar decision while traveling for three months in SE Asia, and later put it this way: at a hostel, she made friends with a group of Australian travelers who invited her to Vietnam for a few days, but she had to turn them down because she already had her next few flights booked. And when you have one flight reliant on another flight, you really can't start just skipping flights, or you'll demolish your budget.
So I approach it like this: have a loose outline of your plans, and book things one "leg" at a time. In India, I knew I was starting in Mumbai, because my flight landed there, and then I wanted to head south to Goa. I only booked my flight to India, and after a few days in Mumbai, I was able to book a next-day 15-hour bus ride down to Goa. And after that, my plans fell into place, because I linked up with some other travelers, and I ended up on a whirlwind adventure.
When you're booking airfare, it may seem intimidating to not have many flights booked. And if you see a sweet deal that works with your plans, maybe you should jump on it. I just don't think it's best to plan out every day of your trip.
So plan, but don't over plan. Make sure you're being safe, meaning that you know things like where you're sleeping for the night. Make lists of things you would like to do, then rewrite the list when you learn about more things while you're there, and don't be upset when you don't get to everything. This world is big and beautiful and it would take every lifetime to explore every crevice.
#7 Do your homework and keep these resources close
In today's digital day and age, it is ridiculously easy to travel. Seriously. I will never know what it's like to travel without a smartphone, like my backpacking forefathers and foremothers before me. There are endless resources to help you prepare for your journey, and to make your time on the road smooth sailing. Here are some of my personal favorites:
Cheap & Free Accommodation