Make travel a habit – how to be a budget backpacker

You don’t have to save for years to have just one backpacking trip. 

Travel every year with these budget backpacking tips

I travel every year for a few months and have been doing so for nearly twenty years. I’m not rich, I’m not a paid travel blogger nor do I have a particularly well paid summer job. So how do I do it?

Shades of red at Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs, Mongolia
Admiring the Flaming Cliffs in the Mongolian Gobi desert

Well, there’s two components to the answer. Firstly, I work summer jobs that have accommodation included so I don’t pay rent. Plus I spend virtually nothing during my working months. Secondly I’m a hardcore budget traveller!

With the Covid 19 outbreak, my life is already changing. Potentially I don’t even have a job this summer and who knows if travel will be an option later this year. But I’m going to stay positive and keep planning future backpacking trips.

I thought I’d share my top tips for how to travel on a minimal budget and still enjoy yourself.

Maximise Flight Stopovers

There’s plenty of advice out there about how to find cheap flights. Personally I’m a huge fan of Skyscanner and adore their “London to Everywhere” search option. Flights are listed by destination country in order of price and I often just go through the list until I get to a country I’ve never been to before!

But for budget travel, the stopover or layover is key to maximising your travel experience. When searching for flights to your chosen destination, does it involve a transfer? If so, I always then check the price of buying the flights separately, partly to see if it’s cheaper (often it is) and partly to see if it’s worth having a few days in the transfer country.

Using this technique, I’ve had mini trips in Hong Kong (New Zealand to London), Oman (London to Sri Lanka) and Tokyo (Perth to London).

Travel and volunteer with Workaway

Consider lengthening your backpacking trip without any additional expenditure by giving Workaway a try. I’ve blogged a few times about my experiences volunteering and travelling using Workaway – have a look here at the time I spent two weeks in an off-grid cabin in Uruguay or here to find out my fortnight at a butterfly farm in Belize.

Workaway has a simple premise. Hosts who are willing to offer food and accommodation in exchange for around five hours of help a day create a profile online. Would-be volunteers also create a profile listing their skills, then send messages to hosts they like the look of in countries they plan to visit.

Hosts usually need general help on their property, so all you need is an energetic, can-do attitude and some physical fitness. I’ve helped make jam in Tasmania, looked after chickens in New Zealand, planted veggies in Portugal and dug up weeds in England. Yes, you can even volunteer in your own country – a great idea for a staycation which is going to become more necessary with the coronavirus crisis affecting overseas travel for the foreseeable future.

Seek out low-cost accomodation

This is a fairly reasonable obvious one. Accommodation is usually the biggest expense when travelling, which is why Workaway is so great. You can also plan a trip that features overnight travel, thus saving on accommodation. I travelled China on night trains which helped reduce costs, while overnight buses in South America are comfortable and cost-effective.

Even at the advanced age of 39 (!), I still use backpacker hostels, although I do my research to avoid fleapits and party hostels. Hostels are often far better than budget hotels, as they’re geared up for travellers. Staff usually speak good English and know the answer to traveller questions such as how to move on to the next place or exactly where to start your volcano hike.

Suss out local transport and never ever take a taxi

Taking a taxi to your hostel will probably cost the same as your twelve hour night bus just did. I never take taxis unless there’s absolutely no other choice. I spend a lot of time researching how to travel on local transport within cities or I simply walk. I pack really lightly for this reason. I can, and often do, trek up to an hour across town with my rucksack as the sun rises.

Walking to your hostel is great – you get to stretch your legs after a long journey, avoid unpleasant haggling with unofficial taxi drivers and get a good sense of the city you’ve just pitched up in.  Of course, if you can get talking to other travellers on the bus and share a taxi to the centre of town, that’s also a great option!

I really enjoy the challenge of sussing out local transport. Whether it’s the Kiev metro or the trolley buses in Ulaanbaatar, my first task in a new place is working out how to buy a ticket. Annoyingly many large cities across the world are now moving to prepaid transport cards – I seem to be leaving a trail of them behind me everywhere I go. I lost count of how many I bought as I travelled through Argentina this past year. Even Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia uses them.

Find free activities and avoid the temptation to do that skydive or jet boat trip

Adventure sports are great but they cost a lot of money! For frequent and lengthy backpacking trips you have to put them out of your mind.

My kind of trips are not for everyone. I spend a vast amount of time people watching, walking around cities looking at the outside of tourist attractions I’ve deemed to expensive to pay to enter and low-key hiking. I tend to avoid cities mainly because I can’t afford them. I plan my trips around small towns and villages, where I can enjoy simple pleasures like hiking to the next village and get the bus back, sitting in the town square watching people go by or finding the best vantage point for sunset.

I also move on fairly frequently, rarely spending more than a night or two in one place. Three nights and it must be special! This means I don’t get bored, I see a lot of a country and because I use local transport to travel it doesn’t cost much. Some budget travel guides advise you to travel slowly to avoid transport costs and this also one way of reducing costs but it’s not for me!

Choose to self-cater on a backpacking trip

My final tip is to self-cater when possible. Street food is a great way of eating cheaply and I would definitely do this in South East Asia for example, where healthy and filling curries or noodles are available on every corner. In Central America though, I found that most street food was deep fried or meaty, which doesn’t suit my delicate taste buds!

To be able to self-cater easily I pack accordingly. I take a travel cutlery set, a silicone folding bowl, a small Tupperware box and a travel mug. This means if I’m out hiking, I can always make a picnic from salad veggies, bread and tinned beans, for example. Even if I’m staying in a guesthouse without a communal kitchen, I can still make a meal. The Tupperware is useful for leftovers – perfect for lunch the following day or for making overnight oats for breakfast.

The other great thing about self-catering is that I love going to the local market and buying random fruit and vegetables I’ve never heard of. A zapote? A daikon? A mangosteen? Yep, I’ll try them all!

Do you have any great budget travel tips? Feel free to comment below.

Want to know a little more about my life and how I structure my year? Have a look here at my blog post on making travel a habit.

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