For those of us fresh out of our university years or just starting nascent careers, sometimes everything seems like an unaffordable luxury, especially that vacation you so desperately need. Too often you read a travel article about some spectacular place only to end with a sigh and the wistful thought that maybe, one day, you’ll get to go somewhere like that.
But actually, chances are you already can, even as a young professional, student, or anyone else not swimming in disposable cash.
‘Travel’ used to mean beach resorts and all-inclusive hotels for the wealthy and mid-career professionals, but not anymore. In the shrinking world and its growing Internet, it’s possible and even easy to take a vacation on nothing more than a long weekend and a couple hundred bucks.
All you need is a bit of cultural openness and a dose of enthusiasm for the unfamiliar, and you’ll discover that it’s unbelievably easy to pinch pennies in the four main categories of your travel budget that traditionally run up the bill.
1. Don’t Blow Your Whole Budget on Transportation
Back in the day, the young professional’s fantasy vacation was squashed from the get-go by prohibitively expensive flights. But nowadays, budget airlines like Ryanair, Spirit, and Frontier are cropping up all over the globe, and they love to deliver you from A to B on a two-digit price tag.
For airborne travel, skip the popup-riddled cheap flight search engines of yesteryear and instead head straight for Skyscanner or Google Flights. Skyscanner is great especially for the flexible traveler, as you can simply search an entire month for the cheapest flights (rather than specific departure and return dates), or just find the cheapest flights from your nearest airport with a search for flights to “Everywhere” in a particular month.
For bus travelers in the US, check Wanderu for a side-by-side comparison of discount bus lines like Megabus with other major ones like Greyhound. And for those who just want an adventure and don’t care how they get there, sites like Rome 2 Rio give you all the options—by land, air, and sea—from one point to another.
2. Stay in More Affordable (and More Authentic) Accommodation
Just ten years ago, those who could scrape together the savings for a flight were only in for a disappointment when they found that pricey hotels were almost comically beyond their budget. But thankfully, in 2016, there are plentiful, diverse, and affordable options for accommodation on a budget.
For the standard vacation, check Air BnB for hotel-like rooms offered by locals in their own homes. You’ll often find that not only is the general quality of your stay comparable to or better than what you’d have in an average hotel, but also that staying with a local dramatically enhances your trip and even affords you enough insider tips to save money elsewhere.
The more extroverted and culturally open should consider Couchsurfing, a network of travelers who offer their couches (or air mattresses, or guest rooms, etc.) to other vagabonding Couchsurfers, totally for free. The ‘catch’ is that Couchsurfing isn’t intended to be a free hotel, but rather a cultural exchange network, which means you’re generally expected to make a genuine effort to get to know the person opening their home to you.
Long-term vacationers can also ‘housesit’ all over the world through sites like Trusted Housesitters, also free after the annual registration fee.
3. Eat Like a Local
If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, take advantage of it and do some shopping in local markets and grocery stores to take care of your breakfast and lunch. This gives you a chance to interact with locals as they live and shop, as well as save enormous amounts of money you would’ve spent eating out.
Even if you’re already breakfasting on the produce from the market down the street, you can free up even more space in your budget by avoiding restaurants at dinner time. In many countries around the world (and even many US cities), street food is an ubiquitous part of local culture, and you’re missing out if you don’t try it.
When you do treat yourself to the occasional restaurant meal, try visiting a neighborhood outside the main tourist drag. In most of the world, you’ll find that the further away you get from the shining lights and fancy buildings of the city center, the drastically cheaper your meal will be.
4. Find the Free Stuff
Even ‘expensive destinations’ don’t have to be expensive if you do them right.
Cities all over the world have days or hours during which museums and cultural institutions are free or reduced. London is a budget travel goldmine for its free museums. Cities like New Orleans even feature enough free food nights that you feasibly could (and absolutely should) schedule an entire week around eating for free. Walking tours can be found from a few dollars in developed countries to a few cents in developing ones.
Instead of going for the guided tour, why not do some independent sightseeing on public transit? A few cents to a few dollars in most parts of the world will buy your passage onto buses, trains, metros, and cable cars, all ideal ways of taking in the sights and discovering hidden gems missing from the guidebooks.
Always google “free stuff to do in [city/location]” before starting your holiday, and you’re likely to get at least a few suggestions to get you started, if not a detailed list or even an entire website for popularly visited world cities like New York or Paris.
Mixing and matching all of the above tips can and often should be an attraction in its own right. A day spent adventuring around the city metro, popping into local markets and restaurants, catching a live music performance in a park, and just chatting up the locals: that’s the stuff that travel is made of.