By: Ethan Maurice
I've spent a majority of the past two years traveling and honed some serious ultra-cheap traveling skills. I've bicycled across the United States, lived like a local in Mexico, worked as a deckhand on a cruise ship, and had many other adventures on a shoestring budget.
I am not rich, nor do I have passive income. I just picked up skills, strategies, and a host of resources along the way that make traveling insanely cheap. I suppose you could call me a “travel hacker.” A quick example: I spent two and a half months on the Big Island of Hawaii last summer for $669 (including airfare) without budgeting or “penny pinching.”
Here are 10 rules I attempt to follow that produce some insanely inexpensive trips:
1. Don't pay for flights.
That's right. Most of the time, I fly for free. Credit card companies give away huge airline mileage bonuses for signing up and spending a certain amount of money on travel credit cards. If you play your cards right you can earn those mileage bonuses for free and redeem them for free flights. The bonus on the last card I signed up for gave me enough points to fly round-trip to Europe or South East Asia from the States.
2. Forget hotels. There's often no need to pay for a place to stay.
There are many ways to avoid paying for a place to stay. If you're feeling bold, bring a tent and stealth camp, which I've successfully done many times while pedaling a bicycle across the United States. Or if, like most people, you prefer to have walls around you, use Couchsurfing to stay with locals for free. Do you have a home you could exchange with someone else for a couple months in a faraway land? Use HomeExchange and swap houses. If you are going to pay, use AirBnb instead of staying at a hotel, which can be less expensive and take you off the beaten path. Hostels are way cheaper than hotels and a great place to meet fellow travelers to share the adventure with.
3. Use the cheapest form of transportation you feel safe using.
I must have hitched a ride over 100 times in my two and a half months on the Big Island of Hawaii—it's surprisingly commonplace and completely free. In Mexico, I was unsure about hitchhiking, but hopping on a colectivo (a van the locals use to get around) cost less than $2USD to get between beach towns more than an hour's drive apart. Buses are often a cheap, reliable form of transportation too.
4. When possible, travel under your own power.
Don't get a taxi if it's possible to walk there. Walking is great for you, gives a better sense of where you are, and, best of all, is free. I'll walk three or four miles each way in some places. It makes what would be a quick, impersonal taxi ride into an intimate adventure and exploration. If you're staying for a few months, buy a used bicycle. You can resell it at the end of your stay and get your money back. Real, backcountry backpacking can be hugely adventurous and insanely cheap too. Consider a couple weeks on one of the world's best backpacking trails.
5. Pack light.
Don't overload yourself! Packing light will save money on baggage fees and makes traveling under your own power much easier. I recommend backpacks as they keep walking a couple miles more enjoyable than rolling a suitcase. Here's a great article on packing light.
6. Work trade rocks—use it.
Websites like WWOOF and HelpX can set you up with part-time work in exchange for room and board almost anywhere on Earth. I WWOOFed in Hawaii last summer. In exchange for 20 hours of farm work per week, I earned my own cabin and $60 a week for food. People who do work trade are notoriously awesome too. It's a great way to pick a dream destination and know that you'll have adventure buddies upon arrival.
7. Follow the right crowd.
Eat where the locals eat. Shop where the locals shop. Live where the locals live. Tourist zones are expensive. You shouldn't avoid them, but you should avoid spending money in them. When learning the ways of a new land, follow the right crowd (the locals, not the tourists).
8. Be your own chef.
Buying and cooking your own food is remarkably cheaper than going out to eat. Buy groceries. Go to the local market. Cook your own food as often as possible.
9. Pregame and pre-eat like a champ.
When going to any sort of gathering, festival, or outing, always eat or drink at home in anticipation before you go. If it's going to be $10 for a hot dog at a music festival, eat right before you go out and have one hot dog instead of three. If you're going to a bar for the night, drink before you go out and only buy one or two overly priced beers instead of seven.
10. Have foresight.
Planning the large aspects of your trip beforehand can go a long way. If you want to fly to Europe in May, apply for the right travel credit card a couple months in advance. If you want to work in Alaska in the summer, start looking for jobs in March – not a week before you go. Getting the big pieces set ahead of time is essential, but everything else can be as spontaneous as you please.
These 10 rules are but the tip of the iceberg. My in-depth guide, Go. A Ridiculously Useful Guide to Cheap, Unconventional Travel is out! You can download it free here.