How To Actually Travel Well for $50 A Day
How To Actually Travel Well for $50 A Day
There are plenty of guides out there that teaches you how to travel on the cheap. You’ve seen it. Travel for under $50 a day. Travel for under $20 a day. Travel on the generosity of strangers. That’s cool. Most of them show you how to do this, but have you considered the trade-offs and what you are giving up to do so. I’d like to show you how to travel well on a limited budget.
As yes, this number has been thrown around for a while and prices have gone up dramatically around the world in the last couple of years. So the first question.
Is It Still Possible To Travel For $50 A Day In 2024?
Yes, and I’m still doing it. With inflation and a general redistribution of travelers to places that were not so commonly visited, prices have really gone up everywhere. I’ve kept good tabs on my spending over the years and so I can check back to see some of the old prices I paid versus what they are now when I revisit a city. It’s not pretty.
But it’s still very feasible to travel for $50 a day. A quick tangent. $50 a day might not seem like much for some, especially considering most hotels easily cost double that per night. And yet $50 can be an astronomical number for people living and earning in many, if not most, parts of the world. This is something I see and acknowledge. It’s a privilege to travel and it’s admirable to be able to do it with whatever budget one can afford.
I Met A Guy Who Traveled On $10/Day
I met a pretty free spirited French guy while in Cuba who was boasting about traveling over the last 5 years on roughly $10/day. I know it’s possible to travel on a shoestring budget, but that boastful claim didn’t really impress me. We drank and talked about where we’ve been, and a few countries caught my attention, namely, Switzerland, New Zealand and Japan. I asked if he was able to still travel for $10/day in those countries. “More or less” was his response and I had to know how.
“Japan was tough. I try to couchsurf, but it was difficult sometimes, so I would sleep in the streets or in a train station. Sometimes the police come by and kick me out, so I leave and just come back when they are gone. I ate a lot of rice balls from 7-11 and the free samples.”
“I hitchhike, or sometimes couchsurfers give me a ride. I also just go on the train without a ticket and maybe I don’t get caught. If I do, I just ignore the fine.”
I didn’t want to judge, but frankly, I was thinking to myself, “So basically, you were homeless and broke the law.”
At least, he wasn’t “begpacking” – as far as I knew.
Are You Enjoying Yourself By Trying To Save A Dollar?
Eating In Tokyo. Food is such an important part of Japanese culture and you can’t survive as a restaurant unless you are doing it right. Look around when you are hungry and you’re bound to find several restaurants within a block of you offering ramen, udon, sushi, or bento meals at decent prices (5-10USD).
Traveling can be expensive and not everyone has the means to it. That’s just reality. Some though are more determined to make it happen and usually they get my respect for making it happen on such a limited budget.
I actually have heard of others doing it on $10-15/day. But sometimes, I do wonder if they realize or even care how much they are giving up, just so they can be “traveling” in a foreign country. Is it worth it to wait for hours in the blazing sun hoping to hitch a ride? Or hoping to meet someone nice enough that you can guilt them into letting you take a hot shower at their place? There’s something to be said about just having that story to tell, but day in day out of this can get exhausting
Before I continue, I should say this: to each his own. You need to first figure out WHY you travel.
Choosing When You Save Money
I travel on a budget when I’m in Japan, but I still want to eat…everything. I want to go a hedgehog cafe and pet one of those cute buggers. I want to try Fugu (blowfish) and hope I don’t die. Personally, if I’m there just eating rice balls 3 meals a day or boiled spaghetti so I don’t collapse from starvation, I might as well be at home. This is me. I want to make the most of my visits to all these amazing countries, but also still be mindful of my budget. Here’s how I do it.
Don’t Set A Hard Budget
It’s nice to have a number like $50 a day, but it’s not practical to keep the same number in every country. I prefer to average that out across the different countries I’m traveling to on each trip. In Mongolia, I found that most tours ended up costing between $50-70 per day, before your extra expenses. It was very difficult to find ways to shave this number down without haggling for a house myself at the monthly horse auction and then riding into the desert solo.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam or Indonesia, I was comfortably spending between $25-$30/day unless I was scuba diving. This means I could spend a bit more in Mongolia to be a little more comfortable and easily balance things out in Southeast Asia or Central America. I like to figure out my number at the end of the trip. Most of the time, it has averaged out to around $50-60 a day. I guess that’s why it’s such a popular number amongst budget travel writers.
Travel Longer And Be Flexible
With flights, I now plan ahead as much as possible and keep my schedule flexible enough to choose the cheapest day to fly. It’s better to save money by choosing a different day than choose a really bad flight with horrible hours and 8-10 hour layovers at the airport overnight.
You can’t always do this, but it helps to be flexible. The longer you have to travel, the more flexible your plans can be for flights, which can be the biggest cost saver of your trip. When you have longer to spend in a location, your decisions are not forced.
You can book an activity for a later date at a cheaper price, or save on miscellaneous travel costs to get from one place to another by a specific time. I’m happy to walk or take a train instead of a taxi if I’m not rushed.
Last Minute Deals. Last minute deals can vary across similar booking sites. Try them all. The same accommodation might be different across Booking.com, Agoda.com, Expedia.com and Kayak.com for instance, if there’s an exclusive agreement with just one site for last minute deals. Try checking for the prices directly as well to cut out the middle-man.
Live Large When You Can
I love massages and at $4-6 for an hour in many parts of Asia, I take one almost every day. It seems like an indulgence, but it’s not a costly one relative to my budget. The same goes for eating out in these countries. I can eat a meal for $2-5 dollars, or splurge and spend $20 on something that might cost $50-100 back at home in San Francisco.
In Romania, I had a mind-blowing 13-course Japanese meal (cooked by a Japanese chef) that included sashimi, foie gras, caviar, crab, and waygu beef. It cost $30. I don’t even know how that was possible. In Oslo, I had a burger and a beer for $32. I could have easily gone without that burger in Norway knowing that I can get 5 massages or that 13 course meal elsewhere.
I don’t need to get my own apartment when I’m in Paris that might cost $300/night, but I’ll be happy to share an amazing eco-bungalow with all the amenities for $80 in Indonesia.
Even on a budget, I’ve experienced the high life many times. It’s all a matter of when and where. I was able to get a last minute room at a 5-star hotel in Dubai for $75 through Agoda.com. I threw in a big smile and was upgraded to a 3 room suite on the top floor. Considering, a dorm bed in a place that had a 5.5/10 rating cost $50, this was a no-brainer. While $75 is much higher than what I had been paying in India, the relative value made this a great deal.
Save When You Can
Last year I spent month in Switzerland, in a town just outside of Zurich. Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries I’ve been to, and yet I spent roughly $900 during my month there (less than $30/day). I found a room for $450 and cooked all my meals. Eating out was exorbitant in Switzerland, and especially Zurich, but groceries were surprisingly reasonable in St. Gallen.
Instead of going out to drink, I went over to friends’ patios and rooftops and we hung out there instead for the cost of $4 bottle of wine. I hiked some of the most beautiful mountain trails for the shared cost of gas to get there.
On a different occasion, I met with a wonderfully warm group of students and shared a homemade Swiss Fondue with them. These were all the experiences that I wanted to have in Switzerland and I did it for the fraction of the cost.
Plan Ahead For The Weekends
Prices can go up during the weekends. If you plan ahead, you can choose to be somewhere less expensive if necessary, or find alternative accommodations/plans. Rooms in Las Vegas can jump from $25 to $200 depending on the day of the week.
I’ve found hostel prices to more than double during the weekends in Amsterdam. Some of the best deals are found during the weekdays when people are at work. Take advantage of this.
Use Your Time Wisely
Couchsurfing is a great way to save on accommodations and also get to hang out with locals, if you plan ahead. That IF is huge. Consider this, if you were an awesome host with a free room and a lot of excellent reviews, how likely will you be free if I contacted you today about your availability tomorrow.
How about a week from now? You get my point. Spontaneity is great, but planning ahead can save you some money.
As important as your time is here, consider whether you actually want to spend time with the host or just want a place to sleep and make sure your are both on the same page.
If a person is hosting with the stated intention of wanting to hang out, perhaps to work on their English, I would find it rude to just ditch them because I wanted to use my limited time to do something else in the city. Consider this.
Share A Meal
I don’t literally mean to eat half a meal to save money, although that’s pretty common too. If you are staying somewhere with a kitchen and other guests, consider cooking a meal together.
It’s nice to be able to eat something different than whatever you’ve been eating locally, and you save by buying ingredients in bulk. It’s much easier for me to cook a nice meal with more variety for 5 people with $25 than a meal for one with $5.
Take Advantage Of Free Or Cheap Activities/Meals
Some hostels offer free/cheap group activities, meals or rentals. Consider that into your overall cost. In Hawaii, renting a car on your own was pretty expensive, so it was nice that some hostels offered daily trips to places that I would have driven to myself. As always, you’ll get to meet more people this way too.
In London, the museums are world-class AND free. There’s so much that you can often do without having to spend a dime. But…
Do What You Came To Do
This is the most important part. Remember that you are privileged enough to be traveling. Whether you’re doing it for a week or a few months, or for years, you don’t know when you’ll get a chance to come back to a place. If it’s within your budget, do what you came to do.
Early on in my travels, I hesitated to pay a high entrance fee just to see a specific painting by Gustav Klimt in Vienna. I said I’d be back and I still haven’t in 10 years. At the same time, I skipped the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. I had seen enough temples and just didn’t care for it, even if it was the top recommended spot in the city. Do what you came to do and find the satisfaction in that.
Cut Your Travel Short If You Have To
The whole point of a budget is so that it will last across the span of time you are expecting to travel. For most, that’s pretty arbitrary. In a heartbeat, I’d rather plan to leave a few weeks earlier than expected if that meant I could spend the extra amount NOT hesitating to eat and do all the things I wanted to during my trips.
Most of my itinerary, then and even now, is fluid. I don’t keep a hard daily budget on things because it has tended to balance itself out over time and I’m none the wiser if that has cost me anything. I do know that I’ve had a damn good time and no very little regret over the things I’ve chosen to spend my money on.
If you’re ready to get on the road but need some ideas, have a look at my never ending bucket list and get lost down that rabbit hole.
Updated on October 24, 2023