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How to Travel on a Budget: A 5-Step Plan

how to travel on a budget
Allianz - how to travel on a budget

If you read enough articles about travel hacking, you begin to believe that you can have it all. You can travel like royalty on a pauper’s budget! You can work the system and see the world on $10 a day!

We hate to burst your bubble, but… you can’t unless you’re an experienced travel hacker, or you’re already a travel influencer with millions of followers. However, you can travel happily on a budget, as long as you accept that there are trade-offs. Here’s a realistic five-step plan for planning low-cost travel.

1. Write down why you want to travel.

“Wait,” you might say. “I just wanted tips for saving money on hotels!” Trust us on this. Take five minutes to figure out what you really want out of your travel experience.

Are you enchanted by a particular country, like Norway or Namibia? Do you want to lie on a tropical beach when everyone back home is shivering? Do you dream of a very specific experience, like visiting an elephant sanctuary in Nepal or surfing in Kauai? Do you just want a wild adventure? When you know what truly captivates your heart, it becomes easier to work out the details — however tiny your budget might be.

2. Identify your budget travel deal-breakers.

Traveling on a budget requires some sacrifices. You can’t have a swanky hotel and fabulous food and perfect weather (unless you’re super lucky). So let’s figure out what you can, and can’t, put up with. True or false?

  • “I’m OK with shared accommodations.” Staying in dorm-style hostels is a really good way to save money on travel. Poshtels offer all the amenities of boutique hotels, in prime locations, for ridiculously cheap rates. But if you’re a light sleeper or someone who gets anxious sharing personal space with strangers, this won’t work for you.
  • “I don’t care so much about what I eat and drink.” On one budget vacation in the Bahamas, I packed cans of tuna and pineapple juice, so I could make my own sandwiches and cocktails (with local rum) in the hotel room. In Barcelona, I bought bread, cheese, and sausage at the market and lunched on that. If you’re willing to make your own meals or dine only at dives, it’s much easier to travel on a budget.
  • “Bad weather doesn’t bother me.” The number one tried and true secret for saving money on travel is to go in the off-season. In the tropics, this means the rainy season; In Europe, it’s November through March. You may get wet. You may be cold. Attractions and restaurants may be closed. Are you OK with some discomfort if it means you can afford your dream destination?
  • “I’m not in a hurry.” The slower you move, the cheaper travel becomes, notes travel writer Laura Yan.1 If your work schedule/life permits taking extra time to travel, you can save a lot of money by taking the bus instead of a plane, or the slow train instead of the express.
  • “I don’t have my heart set on a particular destination.” For some travelers, it’s Paris or nothing. And that’s OK! It’s possible to see Paris on a budget, as long as you’re flexible on when you go and where you stay. But if you’re open to visiting inexpensive destinations off the beaten path, you can travel farther and spend less.

3. Devise your budget travel plan. 

Once you’ve figured out the answers to the questions above, you can work out some realistic possibilities for your next trip. Let’s say your travel dreams involve palm-lined beaches and partying; you’re not in a rush, and you don’t like sharing rooms. Head to Thailand! “A beachside hut can cost you as little as $5 a night,” Thrillist counsels. “Top that up with some Pad Thai for $3, and throw a couple of more in for a Tiger Beer to wash it down.”2 You can take boats from one island to the next.

Here’s a different example. Let’s say you’re firmly set on your destination: Tokyo. You’ve always wanted to go there, even though it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world.3 To make that dream happen on a tiny travel budget, you’re willing to forgo expensive meals and nice weather.

Book your trip from November to February, when hotels are their cheapest. (March-April isthe cherry-blossom season, which draws tourists.) Cheap hotels can be found in Tokyo for under $50 per night. To save money on transportation, try to find a centrally located hotel near Tokyo Station and the Tokyo Imperial Palace. For meals, “look for local ramen shops, bakeries, cozy bars (called izakaya) and even convenience stores, which carry far higher quality eats than you’ll find in an American 7-11,” travel agent Jonathan Alder suggests.4

4. Assess your ability to use travel-hacking techniques.

Travel hacking is the practice of accumulating huge amounts of miles/reward points, usually with credit-card signup bonuses, in order to get free or cheap flights and hotel rooms. It can be a really effective way to travel cheaply — but it’s not for everyone. You’ll have to have a high credit score (well into the 700s). You’ll have to be able to hit the minimum spending requirement on each card to get the bonuses. Most importantly, you have to be able to pay off your cards on time, and not spend beyond your means. Racking up debts is not a good strategy for budget travel. To get started, read A Beginner’s Guide to Scoring Travel Rewards Points.

5. Protect your trip investment — and yourself.

People think of travel insurance as a luxury. For budget travelers, it’s a necessity. That’s because travel insurance can do two crucial things: reimburse you for your nonrefundable trip costs, if you have to cancel for a covered reason, and cover expensive medical care, if you experience a covered medical emergency overseas.

It’s not hard to find affordable travel insurance. OneTrip Basic is an economical plan for international travel.  If you don’t have a lot of prepaid trip costs to protect, the OneTrip Emergency Medical Plan provides only post-departure benefits: emergency medical and emergency medical transportation, trip delay, a missed connection, and lost/stolen or damaged baggage. Get a quote today!

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