People who don’t travel much tend to falsely assume that traveling, especially international travel, is expensive. It’s something only privileged rich people do. I’m here to debunk that myth, as I’m far from rich, yet I’ve traveled to 15 some odd countries spanning across countless trips. I’m not even one of those hardcore shoestring budget travelers, either. I like to enjoy myself when I travel, not count every penny. So if I can travel comfortably on my modest salary, then anyone can.
Yes, traveling can be very expensive if you’re foolish and you want it to be, but it’s really not as costly as you might initially think. I want to share almost of decade of frequent traveling experience with you, as I have learned a thing or two about traveling more cost-effectively after all these years. Some of these tips are easy as pie, while others not so much. But if you’re prepared to change your mentality and get out of your comfort zone a bit, you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable travel experiences that’ll stick with you for a lifetime. So without further ado, here are my top ten tips to travel more cost effectively:
1. Use Coupon Codes
I start this list off with the easiest to grasp and to put into action. Whenever booking accommodation or airfare online, ALWAYS first check by Googling if there’s a coupon code that offers a discount before booking. Many of the most popular American travel agency websites – such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and Hotels.com – regularly offer discounts on airfare, accommodation, cruises, and car rentals via coupon codes that you can enter whenever inputting your payment details. They can usually be used for both domestic and overseas travel.
Sometimes these codes will get you 5-20% off your purchase, while other times you may get $25 off. If booking something cheap like a single night in a hotel, that amount may be negligible, but the more you book, the more it can really add up. Regardless, anything is better than nothing, especially considering all you have to do is copy and paste a coupon code. When I stay at multiple hotels in one trip, I use a coupon code for each booking. I save anywhere from $25 to $100 per trip by merely using coupon codes. Don’t let them slip your mind the next time you’re making reservations for a trip.
2. Travel Longer
This may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it for a minute. Let’s say you travel to Bangkok for five days. The round-trip airfare is $500, and each night in a simple hotel is $25. Your total airfare and accommodation costs will be $625 ($500 + $125). That’s an average cost of $125 a day. Now let’s say you travel to Bangkok for 14 days. Your airfare is still $500, and your hotel is still $25 a night. Your total cost is now $850, but your average daily cost is now only about $61. Sure, you paid more for staying longer, but the value of each day you spent in Bangkok almost doubled.
Now let’s take this even further. Let’s assume that you’re a person who likes to dine out every day, as many people do nowadays. Let’s also assume that you’re coming from a moderately expensive Western country. About how much do you pay (per person) to dine out at a restaurant in your home country? Let’s just keep it simple and say $12 a meal. But how much would an average meal be in a local Thai restaurant in Bangkok? From experience, I’d say about $3 a meal. That means for every time you dine out in Bangkok, you’re saving $9 by not doing the same in your home country. Over two weeks’ time, that’s $126 in savings. You could take this argument even further if you wanted to. For example, driving your car back home vs. taking a bus or taxi in Bangkok. Drinking at a bar back home vs. drinking in Bangkok, etc. The trip slowly but surely starts to pay for itself.
Now of course this doesn’t work if you’re traveling to a more expensive country, but there’s great potential when traveling to somewhere cheaper than where you’re coming from. I have been on trips where I actually saved money by traveling and not staying home (i.e. traveling to Ulaanbaatar vs. staying in rural Japan).
3. Take Advantage of Free Layovers
Did you know that whenever you have a layover in your journey from point A to B, often you can stay at that layover spot for days, weeks, or even months at little to no extra cost? Let me elaborate.
I was once searching for airfare from Bangkok to Dalian, China, but all the cheapest tickets had an hours-long layover in Shanghai along the way. At that point in time, I had never been to Shanghai, so I wanted to see what extra cost it would be to simply stay in Shanghai for a few days before making my way to Dalian, my final destination. To my surprise, it cost absolutely nothing. I could stay in Shanghai for a few days, yet I’d still pay the same price for airfare than if I had simply stayed in Shanghai for a few hours. I had plenty of vacation time, so the choice was a no-brainer. I finally got to see Shanghai, yet my only extra cost was the hotel for each night.
Ever since then, I always check if I can stay at my layover spots for days or even weeks without paying any extra. Sometimes it costs more, but just as often it doesn’t cost anything. For my upcoming trip to Hanoi, Vietnam from China this coming March, I have a free week-long layover in Hong Kong. It’s a win-win situation: I get to see a new place (Hong Kong) at no extra cost, and I break my long journey into more palatable single flights, rather than enduring multiple flights and a layover all in one go. You can search for worthwhile layovers like these by using the “multiple destinations” function on airfare aggregators.
4. Keep an Eye out for Rare Plane Ticket Loopholes
This one is similar to number 3, but it gets weird and complicated. I was recently searching for airfare from Tokyo-Narita to Dalian, China (again), but I wasn’t finding the prices I was hoping for. I knew that during the same trip in China, I would eventually be making my way to Mudanjiang, my wife’s hometown north of Dalian, so I figured I’d search for plane tickets going to Mudanjiang from Tokyo-Narita, just for comparison’s sake. And what do you know, plane tickets to Mudanjiang, a city much more obscure and less traveled to than Dalian, were significantly cheaper than those to Dalian.
And not only that, but by flying from Tokyo-Narita to Mudanjiang, there was an hours-long layover in – you guessed it – Dalian. And having just suggested to check for free extended layovers, you can bet your ass I checked to see if I could stay in Dalian for a longer amount of time at no extra cost. And luckily enough, I got what I wished for.
But my point is not exactly that I saved money by having a layover in Dalian. Rather my point is, what if I just wanted to get to Dalian instead of Mudanjiang? I could simply stay in Dalian and not get on the days-later flight to Mudanjiang. After all, the non-direct plane ticket going all the way to Mudanjiang was significantly cheaper than the direct ticket to Dalian. So I could book the ticket to Mudanjiang, yet stay in Dalian, my layover spot, and never get on the final leg of my journey to Mudanjiang, and save significant money for doing so. The moral of the story is to always search every possible route when flying, as you never know when you’ll pay less for seemingly more.
5. Travel Like You Live There, Not Like You’re on Vacation
Stop traveling merely for pleasure and relaxation, and start traveling to learn something about the world. Stop buying countless souvenirs for yourself and family members back home who don’t even value what you’re buying for them. The experiences and memories you gain from your trip are infinitely more valuable than tangible items. Stop traveling to shop at name brand malls, eat at fancy restaurants, and stay at luxury hotels. Rather spend your money on valuable experiences, stay with local hosts via Airbnb when you travel, and eat at authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurants for every meal. Stop going to expensive mainstream tourist sites, and start getting off the beaten path by walking through old neighborhoods. They’ll cost you nothing, and the whole experience will likely be far more interesting and relaxing.
In other words, stop living in a tourist bubble every time you travel. When you travel like a tourist, you don’t see your locale the same way a local would. And not only does traveling in a tourist bubble cost you more money, but you also learn infinitely less. You can still have fun when traveling without staying at and going to the places only other tourists would. In fact your trip will probably be infinitely more genuine and enlightening as a result. Take trips, not vacations.
6. Be Aware of All the Accommodation Options and Budget Airlines out There
There are lots of options to where you can sleep when traveling. There are also lots of somewhat obscure budget airlines out there that you might not be aware of. Yet being aware of all of them gives you more flexibility which can lead to more savings.
We all know about the usual hotels, guesthouses, home-shares, and hostels, but also be aware of Airbnb and CouchSurfing. Airbnb has exploded in popularity recently, so you might already be aware of it. If you’re not, it’s a website that allows individuals to rent out their homes to travelers in exchange for payment. Houses, apartments, cabins, lofts, villas, RVs – they’re all available on Airbnb. Sometimes they’re cheaper than local hotels, but sometimes they’re not. Do your research. I’ve had mostly positive experiences with the website (i.e. staying in a Mongolian yurt for two nights), so I use it regularly on all my trips now.
CouchSurfing on the other hand is similar to Airbnb, but no money is exchanged. Instead, individuals rent out their homes to travelers out of the kindness of their hearts. Both hosts and guests have a reputation to maintain, as both hosts and guests can leave feedback for one another. That means if you’re a shitty host or guest, it might come back to haunt you later when everyone sees your bad feedback. Actually, the same is true for Airbnb.
While I can understand the website’s appeal, CouchSurfing isn’t really something I’d ever want to use again. I used it on one trip to Cambodia, and I felt awkward and cheap for living in a complete stranger’s apartment for free. It wasn’t clear what my limitations as a guest were, and I felt selfish to ask considering I wasn’t paying for anything. For example, would my host resent me for using their washer machine? I’d rather just pay and do whatever the hell I want. Nevertheless, if you’re a more sociable person than me, it can be a great option that saves you lots of money.
As for budget airlines in Asia, there are many: AirAsia, FireFly, Tigerair, Scoot, V Air, Spring Airlines, HK Express, Eastar Jet, Air Busan, T’Way Air, Vanilla Air, Peach Airlines, Jetstar, VietJet Air, Nok Air, Cambodia Angkor Air, Lion Air, Cebu Pacific, and so on. It’s important to know that some of these budget airlines will not show up on airfare aggregators, rather you need to logon to their official websites and search for airfare. I’m sure there are many more accommodation options and budget airlines out there that I didn’t list here. Feel free to mention them in the comments section below.
7. Take Overnight Trains and Buses
There are lots of overnight transportation options available in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, where traveling from point A to point B is an hours-long endeavor. But by taking them, you kill two birds with one stone – you don’t have to waste valuable daylight hours sitting on a bus or train all day AND you save money by not having to pay for accommodation for a night. Not only that, they’re often much cheaper than buying plane tickets, too.
I myself prefer the overnight train option, as you can buy a ticket for a sleeper berth. Thailand is my favorite country for overnight trains, as the sleeping berths are reasonably comfortable and affordable. I highly recommend the Bangkok to Butterworth (Malaysia) overnight train. Bangkok to Nong Khai (right next to Vientiane, the capital of Laos) and Bangkok to Chiang Mai are also good. China also has affordable and efficient overnight trains, but it’s hard for me to call them comfortable.
With overnight buses, sometimes there’s a small booth with a bed to lay on, but other times the best you can do is just lean your chair back. It seems like every country in Asia has overnight buses these days, but I mostly think of those in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and Penang to Singapore are all memorable routes with overnight buses. The older I get and the fussier of a sleeper I become, the harder it is for me to sleep on buses. But when I was younger, overnight buses were a godsend. Taking overnight transportation can grow stale the more you do it and the more you age, but in your earlier days of traveling it can be a fun experience, especially just looking out the window and taking in all the exotic scenery. They’re certainly worth at least one shot.
8. Travel with Both a Flexible Date AND a Flexible Destination
If getting the cheapest price possible for your trip is of utmost priority to you, then having locked down dates and a locked down destination is the worst thing you could do. For example, if you’re 100% sure you only want to travel to Ho Chi Minh City during spring break, then the chances of you getting a good deal are minimal. But if you keep your travel options more broad, say going to any Southeast Asian city during the spring, then your chances of getting something more affordable increase tenfold.
Naturally, traveling during off peak times is ideal for saving money. Traveling just one week before or one week after a major holiday week can lead to much better deals. For example, traveling during Golden Week (the first week of May, a major travel period in both China and Japan) to Bangkok can easily cost double compared to if you traveled during the second week of May to Phnom Penh. Considering Bangkok is only a half-day (or #7 – a half-night) bus ride away from Phnom Penh, it would make much more sense to fly into Phnom Penh, stay a while, and then make your way to Bangkok via bus later on.
Prior to going on one of my more recent trips to China from Bangkok, I was flexible going to pretty much anywhere in the country, so long as it was somewhere I had never been. Considering how huge China is and how many airports there are, I had plenty of options to choose from. I had a two-month travel window in which I could travel. I researched many cities, but I ultimately settled on Chongqing, Chengdu, Changsha, and Kunming – four cities all in roughly the same region of China. It didn’t matter which city I went to first, or which city I went to last, as long as I visited all four. I could fly into one in March, then fly out of another in April, or vice versa, and so on.
After plugging in several different combinations into airfare aggregators like Skyscanner, I found the ultimate combo that lead to very cheap airfare. I visited Changsha first, then took an overnight train to Chongqing, then a high-speed train to Chengdu, then another overnight train to Kunming, my final destination. The round-trip plane tickets to and from Bangkok only cost me roughly $200.
Had I needed to go to a specific city in China during a specific week, the chances of me finding such an amazing deal would have went down significantly. On the airfare aggregators, I could see that the tickets would have cost 50 to 200% more had I needed to book them only a few days before or after the dates I ultimately booked. But because both my travel destination and my travel dates were very flexible, I wound up getting a very sweet deal that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten. This is now the only way I travel, and I couldn’t imagine going back to the old rigid way. Flexibility is crucial if you want to save money.
9. Walk or Cycle
I’m always amazed at how often I meet other travelers who insist on taking taxis anywhere they go. Sure, taxis are convenient, but not only are they the most expensive way to get around, they also ensure that you remain in tourist bubble, which can give you a false impression of what your host location is really like. You should pop that tourist bubble by getting around on foot or on a bicycle. You can usually get around cheaply via public transportation, but I recommend only using it when your destination is a few kilometers or more away. Besides, you learn so much more about your new environment on foot than by being aboard transportation.
Walking of course costs nothing, but getting around on a bicycle doesn’t have to cost you much either, especially in developing Asia. Many cities have low-cost bicycle rentals programs, such as Taipei, Seoul, Beijing, and Bangkok, and many guesthouses and Airbnb rentals often have bicycles you can rent for very cheap or use entirely for free. But even if they’re not free, they’ll usually pay for themselves very quickly because of all the money you’re not spending on the bus, subway, or a taxi. And believe it or not, bicycling in urban centers is often the fastest way to get from point A to point B, assuming you’re not going somewhere several kilometers away.
Even if the savings are minimal, you just can’t beat walking and bicycling when traveling. The sights you would otherwise not see, the feeling of being a part of your new environment, the calories you burn, and the sheer fun of it all are all things you can’t put a price on. Unless it’s 20 below freezing or it’s 20 over 100, then stop being lazy and save some money by walking or bicycling the next time you travel. I personally couldn’t imagine traveling any other way.
10. Never Assume the Prices You See Online Are the Cheapest
Search as much as you want and use all the coupons you want, but sometimes the price you pay in-person for accommodation is cheaper than the price you pay online. I’ve stayed at a few hotels over the years where once I finally arrived, I noticed the price they were advertising outside their hotel was actually cheaper than what I had paid online, and that’s never a good feeling. Also understand that some hotels will let you haggle a bit, especially those that don’t belong to a franchise and those located in developing countries.
Here’s how I tackle this frustrating dilemma: let’s say I’m going to stay in Taipei for 10 days. What I’ll do is book a hotel for my first two or three nights in the city. This gives me a chance to see what the hotel’s local asking price is without having to commit myself there for the entire 10 days. Assuming I still like the hotel after those first few nights, I will then go to the front desk and tell the receptionist that I’d like to stay one more week. I usually ask them at this time if they’d be willing to give me a discount for staying so many nights. Surprisingly, they tend to agree quite often, so it never hurts to ask. After all, the worst thing they could possibly do is just say no. And if the hotel’s locally advertised price is higher than what I’m seeing online, I’ll just go and book the remainder of my nights online again. If I just flat out don’t like the hotel, then I’ll move to a different one.
When it comes to Airbnb, you can always try to negotiate with your host to stay longer without rebooking through Airbnb’s website. Of course Airbnb hates when you do this because you’re cutting them out of the middle and eliminating them from any profits. But on the other hand, both you and your host are pleased because you both get a better deal – you pay less and the host receives more. Once again, the worst the host could do is simply say no. Ask and you’ll be surprised how often they agree.
Also understand that airfare aggregators don’t always give you the cheapest price either. If you find a fare you like on one, say from London to Bangkok via Thai Airways, ALWAYS go to the airline’s official site (in this case Thai Airways’ official site) and check the same route you just searched for on the airfare aggregator. Sometimes, but not often, the airfare will actually be cheaper by booking directly through the airline’s website. All it takes is a few minutes, so it never hurts to check.
If millions of backpackers can travel every year on a shoestring budget, then surely anyone with some wits could do it too. But unlike backpackers, you don’t need to go to their extremes to travel on a modest budget. In fact, with a little bit of preplanning and homework, lots of checking around, some sacrificing of comfort for authenticity, and by getting out of the cliché tourist bubble, anyone who’s capable of saving a reasonable amount of money can travel too.
And the more you travel, the more these ideas will just become your second nature. Sometimes I look way back at how I used to travel, and I nod my head in shame at how careless I was with my money. I could have stretched my trips so much further if I just had more travel sense. But just like anything else in life, practice makes perfect, and it took me years to get on the right track of traveling more cost efficiently. Learn from my experience and get out there, travel with my tips in mind, and watch how much further your money takes you. Traveling requires money, but the experiences and wisdom you gain from traveling are priceless.