I didn’t choose the name Tales of a Backpacker by coincidence. I was a backpacker out of necessity because I couldn’t afford any other way to travel. I quit my job to go travelling, and although I had some money saved up I wasn’t earning any money for a long time while I was on the road. After spending two years spending as little as possible while backpacking South America, Central America and Mexico, I learned a thing or two about making my money go further! These are my top tips for backpacking on a budget, to help your cash stretch as far as it will go!
Backpacking on a Budget Safety Advice
Before I get into this, I wanted to mention safety. As a solo female backpacker, I frequently didn’t choose the cheapest or free option because I preferred to spend a little more money to make sure I could get to my destination safely and have a safe place to stay. Other people may feel more comfortable hitchhiking or Couchsurfing, but don’t forget that your safety is your priority, not your wallet. However, even taking into account your personal safety, there are still safe ways to backpack on a budget.
Top Tips for Backpacking on a Budget:
Choose Your Destination Wisely
Some countries are more expensive than others, so choosing where to go can have a huge impact on your budget. The cost of everything from accommodation to transport and food can vary hugely depending on the destination, so backpacking in South America is much cheaper than backpacking in Europe for example. It is still possible to visit expensive destinations like Venice on a budget, but it is going to cost more than going to a city in a cheaper country like Bolivia. The other thing to consider when planning your budget backpacking trip is how much it will cost to get there. From the UK, flights to other cities in Europe are cheaper than flying to Asia, but once you’re there the living costs in countries like Thailand are probably going to be cheaper than France for example.
You should also think about the currency conversions for your home country as well – thanks to Brexit the British pound has dropped in value lately, which is good news for backpackers coming to Britain, but sucks for us when we want to travel abroad! Think carefully about where you would like to go and adjust your budget accordingly.
Find Cheap Accommodation
Stay in Hostels
Of course, if you are backpacking on a budget then staying in luxury accommodation is out of the question. Rarely does a backpacker’s budget stretch to 5-star accommodation or even a private hotel room! Hostels were my top choice while I was backpacking and booking a bed in a dorm room is usually the cheapest option for backpackers. However, hostels aren’t just about saving a few quid, they are a great way to meet fellow travellers and potential travel buddies. Staying in a hostel for the first time can be a little scary, but forget about nightmare stories and look forward to meeting lots of new friends!
Camping & Couchsurfing
If you have your own gear then you could camp, some countries allow wild camping where you can pitch your tent wherever you like (usually as long as it is not within view of someone’s home) and spend the night under the stars for free. Couchsurfing could also net you a free nights’ stay in exchange for cooking a meal, sharing a drink and some stories – but if you’re a solo female make sure you are careful about who you choose to host you. I have heard from several women that their Couchsurfing host was just looking for a hook-up, but others say they’ve had great experiences so it just depends on who you choose.
READ MORE: Solo Camping Tips
Embrace Slow Travel while Backpacking on a Budget
If you the time available, then slow travel is the best way to save money while travelling. Usually, the slowest way to get somewhere is the cheapest, whereas the quickest is usually the most expensive – think walking or taking the bus vs flying! If you have more time than money, then opt for buses which are a fraction of the cost. You’ll also get to see more of the country too as you travel slowly, exploring as you go. If you spend more time than just a couple of days in each destination you’ll also have time to suss out each new place, to find what to do and where to go without spending money on tours or paying more for the convenience of doing things in a hurry.
Get a Work Exchange Placement
One of the best ways to travel for free is by working for a few hours in exchange for accommodation. Work exchange programmes provide a way for backpackers and budget travellers to share their time and skills while saving money. Work exchange sites like Workaway, Worldpackers and various others offer a platform for local people, businesses and organisations to advertise for help they need. Potential volunteers sign up to the websites to search for suitable hosts for volunteer placements in countries all over the world. The type of work placement available varies from working in hostels to teaching, cooking, cleaning, helping with eco-projects and everything in-between.
In exchange for working part-time for their hosts, volunteers get free accommodation in dorms, private rooms or tents, and usually some meals too. Volunteers may also get other benefits like free tours or language lessons, as well as a cultural exchange by spending time helping local people with their projects. You will usually need to commit at least a couple of weeks to each volunteer work placement, so if you are backpacking long-term this is a great option for you to save some cash and stretch your budget.
I’ve teamed up with Worldpackers to offer all Tales of a Backpacker readers a $20 discount, which means you only need to pay $29 USD for a full year’s verified membership. Once you are a verified member you can apply to and message all the hosts on Worldpackers and volunteer all over the world. What are you waiting for?!
Stock up on Cheap Backpacking Gear
If you are backpacking around countries or continents at your own pace, without doing any serious hiking expeditions, you don’t need to spend a fortune on expensive gear. The backpack I used for 2 years in Latin America was one I’d bought several years before for going to Glastonbury. The daypack I used cost maybe £20. Check out charity shops and 2nd hand clothes stores, eBay, Gumtree and other places where people might be selling gear.
I bought a second-hand waterproof coat on eBay, and most of the rest of my kit was bodged together from charity shops and my Dad’s wardrobe! That said, sometimes, spending a little extra to make sure you have some good quality basics can really make the difference to your comfort. The biggest investment I made was on some new hiking boots, as I was preparing to spend 4 days hiking to Machu Picchu so I wanted to be able to walk properly! If you are going to be camping, for example, you’ll need a good quality waterproof tent. Figure out what essentials are worth spending a little more on and take it from there. Now I’m earning some money I’ve been able to upgrade some of my gear but the cheap stuff was more than sufficient!
Get A Refillable Water Bottle
You may have spotted the blue water bottle in the photo above? That is my LifeStraw water bottle which I took to South America with me. It has a built-in filter which allowed me to fill up the bottle with tap water, water from streams and a lot of other places where it isn’t recommended to drink the tap water. I saved so money not having to buy bottled water, and saved a lot of plastic too! I never go anywhere without a bottle like this, I’m currently using a Water2Go bottle which also has a filter in it and both brands work really well. If you already have a water bottle without a filter, then buy a filter or water purification tablets to allow you to drink the tap water wherever you are.
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I hadn’t mastered this for my first backpacking trip, so I ended up throwing away a lot of stuff while I was away. At least I had plenty of space in my backpack for souvenirs by the end of the year! If you can manage to get away with hand luggage when you take flights you will save a ton of money on baggage fees, and being able to pack up and carry what you have is much more convenient than lugging around a huge backpack. It will also help you to travel more easily on public transport so you can save money on expensive taxis to or from the airport or bus station. If you are able to carry all your gear easily, you will save money! And your back will thank you for it too.
It is hard to get that balance between being prepared and simply bringing too much. Now when I’m backpacking for shorter trips of around a month, I can manage with hand luggage if the airlines also allow an extra personal item. However, I’m yet to see if I can do that when I go on a big trip – next year in Asia will be a challenge for me! My biggest tip for packing light is to buy a small backpack. We tend to expand to fill any available space, so if you have a big backpack you will automatically fill it! The other tip would be to lay out all of the things you want to take with you and halve it. Don’t forget that there is very little that you won’t be able to buy once you are on the road. If you find you need something you haven’t brought, you will probably be able to get it wherever you are.
Plan Ahead When Backpacking on a Budget
Some people might prefer to skip the planning and just rock up in a destination and see what happens. Sometimes you can grab a bargain by haggling for last-minute tours or accommodation, but I usually prefer not to take the risk. I tend to plan ahead at least by a few days, so I don’t run the risk of not finding a cheap hostel and having to book the last available room in a pricey hotel. Planning ahead with transport is sometimes cheaper too, especially in places like the UK where buying a train ticket online a few days ahead is always cheaper than on the day. At least if you do some research into the available options, you’ll know how much things should cost, and will avoid any nasty surprises on the day.
Eat Local Food
YUM! One of my favourite things about travelling is trying all the local food, which is usually cheaper and tastier than chain restaurants selling the same food you’d get back home. Street food is usually the cheapest option for cooked food and you can check out the local markets for fresh produce to cook up at your hostel. When looking for street food to try, go at busy mealtimes and find a stall where the locals are eating. That way you know the food won’t have been sitting out for a long time – and where the locals eat is usually the best place!
READ MORE: How to Find the Best Local Food & Drink
Find a Travel Buddy
I love to travel by myself, and the joys of backpacking alone have really changed my life. Unfortunately, though, travelling by yourself can mean that you pay over the odds for tours, transport, accommodation and even food. Travelling with someone else means you can share the cost of a taxi, twin up in a cheap private room and help you skip the single supplement which can come in handy! Meeting people while travelling isn’t as hard as you might think, from staying in hostels to taking a tour and meeting local people there is always a chance to make friends.
However, make sure your travel buddy has the same expectations for what you are going to spend on each thing. If someone is travelling for a shorter time or has a bigger budget what seems cheap to them may be more expensive for you. Have a chat before you agree to book anything together so you’re both on the same wavelength.
Always Get Travel Insurance
Travel insurance can be expensive, especially if you are travelling for a long time, and I can understand the reluctance to spend a lot of money even before you leave your house. However, if you get ill, have an accident or have your passport stolen while you are backpacking in another country, travel insurance is priceless. I was very glad to have had travel insurance when my passport and laptop were stolen in Ecuador, and although it didn’t cover all of my costs for replacing the passport, it was definitely worthwhile. The main reason for getting travel insurance though is in case of medical emergencies. If you are involved in an accident abroad, the medical costs can be astronomical. Or what about if you catch malaria or dengue fever, or even need a tooth taking out? All of these things which may be covered by your healthcare system at home will not be covered while you are away.
READ MORE ABOUT BACKPACKER TRAVEL INSURANCE
Travel insurance from World Nomads is available to people from 140 countries, and you can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
I hope these tips help you prepare for your trip and make backpacking on a budget a little easier! If you have any other budget backpacking tips please let me know, you can leave comments below.
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