The Art Of Traveling WELL for $50 A Day

The Art Of Traveling 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.


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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 how to travel on a shoestring budget, but that sounded both impressive and a little far-fetched. 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 ask 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. They 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.”

And transportation?

“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.”

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 so you see if you can take a hot shower? 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.

I travel on a budget when I’m in Japan, but I still want to eat ramen noodles and sushi. I want to go a hedgehog cafe and pet one of those cute fuckers. 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.

Eating Fugu Blowfish in Tokyo

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 difficult to find ways to shave this number down. 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

I try to fly out on Tuesdays and Saturdays when flights are usually cheaper. It’s not always the case, 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 spend $100 on an amazing eco-bungalow with all the amenities in Indonesia.

Lake-Nita-Eating-Well-Sushi

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. 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.

Group Jumping Shot In Mongolia Abbey Road

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 mean I could spend that extra amount NOT hesitating to eat and do all the things I wanted to during my trips. Most of my itinerary, then and 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.

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