Unfortunately, I don’t have any secret travel websites for amazing deals or someone in the background funding my adventures but what I do have is experience traveling solo to over 30 countries throughout North America, South America, Asia and Europe on an average (or less than) income. My trips are planned to maximize destination duration and adventure while minimizing cost and headaches.
Travel as a Priority
The main reason I travel is because I can. It’s a priority in my life and I choose to focus my energy on experiencing new places as often as possible. Of course, having a job helps fund travel but no one has unlimited vacation days so use them wisely.
Typically, I plan two big trips a year. The first one is a week long sandwiched between two weekends, while the other is two weeks in length (including three weekends). Throughout the year I do my best to not waste vacation days, rarely getting sick and always coordinating local travel over long weekends to avoid unnecessary PTO.
Additionally, I’m lucky in the sense that I don’t have many responsibilities (and have purposefully chosen this lifestyle). My apartment is a rental. I don’t have a car. No kids. No pets. There’s really nothing major eating into my budget. And say what you will but even my student loans are paid at a minimum. I’d rather enjoy life today than pay off never-ending loans (I owe so much I’ll likely be dead before they’re paid off. Thank you, Master’s Degree!).
Choosing a Destination (and Time of Year)
Depending on your schedule and budget, certain places are more desirable than others but THE SKY IS THE LIMIT. Don’t feel like you can’t plan a trip if you’re short on cash - just pay as you go. That said, always use cash. Don’t plan a trip if credit cards are funding your adventures.
Activity Level & Landscape
First off, think about the activity level and landscape you’re into. Do you want to explore an ancient city or would you rather sit on a beach? Are you in the mood to reconnect with nature or is a modern technology-rich city more your speed? Do you prefer skiing in the mountains or four-wheeling in the desert?
Keep in mind you can find very affordable flights off season but you may be dealing with cold weather, rain or snow. Always check the average temperature and weather conditions of your destination before booking a ticket. The weather has a huge impact on prep and enjoyment; sunscreen and bikinis are much different than raincoats and hiking boots.
Duration & Budget
Consider your budget and length of getaway. Personally, the longer the trip the better (within reason). You have time to decompress and gain a real sense of place if you visit multiple cities rather than only the capital. Remember that travel time eats into your schedule. If you plan a five day vacation and two solid days are spent on flights and buses, that’s a total bummer.
A budget will also help determine where you end up. It’s best to consider how much you want to spend on lodging, food and tours plus the cost of a flight and visa, if needed. Daily spending is usually related to how developed a country is. Consider Asia - do you want to see Cambodia for $3 a night and hop into dusty rickshaws or would you rather spend $20 on a cocktail in Singapore? Both places are equally amazing but extremely different experiences.
Hostels | Yes, Please
Hostels are my best kept secret (#notreallyasecret). There are so many benefits to staying at hostels. First off, prices are great. Even if you aren’t traveling alone many offer “private” rooms with your own washroom and security (no one will be in and out of your space risking theft). And hostels are often in the best locations with tons of amenities like internet, kitchens, bike rentals, laundry, 24 hour door service, tours…you get the idea.
Hostels provide a great sense of community and other travelers can be very helpful. Ask them about their travel plans. Did they do anything fun in the city? What should you avoid? How much does this or that cost? Wanna grab a bite to eat? Often while traveling alone, I’ll pick up a buddy for the day from my hostel. You can meet some pretty amazing people this way.
Another benefit to hostels is the wealth of knowledge they offer. They know the area and usually organize activities like free walking tours or pizza nights. You want to get from Leon, Nicaragua to the mountain town of Copán, Honduras (as I once did), well just ask if it’s easier by bus or train. By bus, okay, where’s the station? How much should a ticket cost? How long is the ride? Nearly all these questions can be answered by hostel staff.
When booking a hostel, first consider location. How far is it from the city center? Can you walk there? Read a few reviews and see what people have to say (note the age and country of the reviewer for biases). Take a look into the amenities they offer. Is there 24 hour door service (especially if you plan on arriving in the middle of the night)? Do they provide free breakfast and what is it? Is there a kitchen or rooftop you can enjoy? Do they charge to rent towels or have locked storage for your belongings?
In recent years, my focus has been on booking smaller “shared” rooms rather than huge dorms. First off, I don’t like being bothered. Travel is exhausting and sometimes you need a nap or the reverse, you need to get up at 4 am to catch a bus. If you’re in a room of 20, trust me, it’ll never be quiet. People will be in and out, coughing and farting all night long. The lower the number of beds, the less commotion. And less people means less chance for theft and more accountability for those in the room. You’ll end up paying a few dollars more a night but it’s totally worth it.
To book, you can’t beat Hostelworld. Each hostel is rated on a number of criteria including cleanliness, location, environment, etc. and given an overall score. Dig a little deeper than the overall score though. Sometimes a hostel receives amazing reviews only because it’s a party hostel and a bunch of teeny boppers are the one’s rating. Unless that’s what you’re into, those places can be a nightmare.
Money Saving Tips
Buy Your Flight Early
Think about buying your flight early on in the planning process. Not only will you get a cheaper price, you’ll spread out costs over time so everything doesn’t hit you all at once. This tends to be the push I need, as well. If you purchase a flight, you’re going on a trip.
STAY IN HOSTELS. Really the best travel advice I can give. They save tons of money and offer a great launching point in any city.
If staying at a hostel or Airbnb, pretend you’re a local and get yourself to the market. Pick up a few staples and cook your own meals. This will help save money, especially in expensive cities. Cocktails included.
Stop Being a Tourist (Eat & Travel Local)
If you do plan on eating out, AVOID THE TOURISTY AREAS. I lose my mind over this one. It’s likely you’ll save up to 75% eating and shopping at spots that aren’t full of tourists. You’ll also get the benefit of experiencing local culture. I mean, who in their right mind goes to Bali and eats at Hard Rock Cafe? (You know who you are.) And of course, travel as locals do. When it makes sense use the bus or train rather than a taxi.
Get this. Getting to and from Machu Picchu by train costs locals around $5. Do you want to know how much I paid? Over $100. Point being, follow the locals. They know best and don’t typically waste money. Be aware though that conditions might not be the same for locals as for tourists. That $5 ride to Machu Picchu means standing room only (including chickens).
Weigh your transportation options and plan ahead (research what methods are best in the area you’re visiting). For example, flights within Europe are super cheap (and quick) but try to fly within South America and you’ll be shocked. We’re talking more than $600 from Colombia to Ecuador by plane. Buses are the only way to go but they’re slow and terrifying.
In the end, consider cost versus time, as well as convenience. Sometimes the hassle isn’t worth saving a few bucks. But overall it’s cheaper to choose shared rides or public transport as often as possible. Try asking for “collectivos” which are available in many countries and ASK AROUND. Locals know how much things should cost but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ripping you off. Don’t accept the first price you’re given.
Why I Travel
Remembering back on my first major trip, I was terrified. At the time I told myself, “Just BUY THE TICKET. Once you buy the ticket, you have to go.” And so I did. During my first year teaching in Korea I saved nearly $10,000 and took that money backpacking in Europe for two months, ALONE. It was so many things: amazing, difficult, exciting, exhausting, expensive but I learned one lesson day in and day out. I’m much stronger than I thought.
Travel offers perspective and growth. Some of my most amazing moments have been alone in some far off place fending for myself. I’ve found myself in the rice terraces of Bali drinking the world’s most expensive coffee made from beans shit out by a raccoon-like animal called a luwak, as well as dining on beef tartar and drinking champagne while watching Moulin Rouge in Paris. Both experiences are incredible and offer so much in the way of self discovery, so let the self discovery continue.