8 Great Alternative Budget Vacation Ideas

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 9th, 2012

adventure travel in the Waitomo glow worm cavesWhile many of us dream of world travel, or, at least taking a few months off from work in pursuit of adventure, for many it’s not always feasible. While I frequently talk about long-term travel and round the world trips, I know that realistically, not everyone can travel that way. I don’t think traveling the world is hard, but I also know that what I do isn’t for everyone. For a number of reasons, people just aren’t able to do it.

But there are many other ways to travel the world and even if I won’t find you backpacking Cambodia, I still want to see you travel. The two most common reasons that stop people from traveling are time and money. But you don’t need to be rich or have three months off a year to take a vacation. There are many ways to get on the road and see the world if you are cash-strapped and time-poor. Here are eight ways to travel and explore the world when you don’t have a lot of time and are on a tight budget:

Be a Local Tourist
How often do you visit the tourist sites in your own city? Hardly ever, right? I know New Yorkers who have never seen the Statue of Liberty and Bostonians who have never walked the Freedom Trail. I once took a friend on a tour of Amsterdam because, despite growing up there, she had never seen the local attractions that lure millions of visitors per year to the city. I am also guilty of doing this. It took me 5 years to see the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok and I’ve still never been to Bunker Hill in Boston despite spending the first 24 years of my life there. We always put it off until tomorrow because when we live in the city, there is always a tomorrow.

So make your vacation that tomorrow. If you’re short on time and money there’s no better way to take a vacation than to take one in your own city. No matter what the size, your city has a number of wonders just waiting to be explored.

One important point for becoming a “local tourist” is to check out of your house and into a hotel/hostel/guesthouse. It’s important to get out of your familiar environment because, if you stay home, you’ll find something to do around the house and create excuses on why you can’t sightsee. Moving to a different location can help give you that feeling of adventure, excitement, and unfamiliarity.

Travel Regionally
Sightseeing around Boston
Travel brings to mind far-away and exotic destinations. It invokes images of all the places we’ve dreamed of and seen in movies. Because of that, few people look in their own backyard for adventure — but your backyard offers many places to travel. I grew up in Boston and from there, I could visit New Hampshire, the woods of Maine, the bed and breakfasts of the Berkshire Mountains, or the farms of Vermont. New York was a 4 hour car ride from home. You don’t have to fly across an ocean to explore the world. Head to the bookstore and buy a regional guidebook and see what there is to see in your neighborhood. Your backyard holds as many possible travel destinations as does a country half a world away.

Go Camping
The great outdoors presents a great chance to go somewhere on the cheap. Camping, after all, costs very little money. Park fees in National Parks in America are $15 dollars. Additionally, you come stocked with all your own supplies and accommodation (i.e. a tent) so you won’t have to worry about spending money at expensive restaurants. Your food bill is whatever you spend on groceries and nothing more.

You don’t need to love camping to go spend time in the national parks either. I hate camping. I need toilets, beds, and especially hot water. I’m not the camp-in-a-tent kind of guy. Luckily, many parks provide cabins that you can use. While hiking the Grand Canyon, I stayed at a national park lodge at the bottom. I had a room in a dormitory but for a few nights, it was the cheap accommodation I needed.

Book a Last-Minute Cruise
The deck of a carnival cruise ship
Cruises are normally very expensive, with a 5 day Caribbean cruise costing over $600 USD. But if you’re the last passenger running onto that ship, you can get a sweet bargain. Cruise lines always offer incredible last-minute deals. A quick look at http://cruise.expedia.com/ shows last-minute cruising going for around half that at $348 USD. Plus, cruise operators always throw in some on-board amenities, free upgrades, and cash vouchers to sweeten the deal.

And now, because of the Costa Concordia cruise disaster, travelers are beginning to rethink their trips and cancel so cruise lines want to make sure people keep booking. There will be a lot of good deals right now.

My research has shown that you can go on a cruise for as little as $30 a day. If that interests you, read this guide to finding super discounted cruises.

Think Outside The Box
Forget Mexico and go to Guatemala. Skip Paris and head to Budapest. Forget Italy and see Greece (it’s really cheap!). Ditch Brazil and see Bolivia. The list goes on and on. Travel counter to the prevailing trend. Zig when everyone zags. If people are going in the summer, you go in the spring or winter. Skip the popular destinations and head off the beaten path a bit.

Contrarian travel will save you a bundle of money. It’s like reverse commuting. Whenever one heads into the city in the morning for work and is stuck in traffic, you breeze the opposite way hassle free. The same is true for travel. Flights to Europe in the summer can cost over $1,000 dollars. In the winter? Half that. It might not be the most ideal time to go or your favorite destination, but thinking of places off the beaten path and visiting in the off season is going to save you a lot of money.

Book a Last-Minute Tour
My G Adventures tour group in Costa Rica
Just like cruises, tours are best booked last-minute. Tour companies need to fill the seats just like cruise companies because once that trip departs, they still have the same costs. Last-minute tour bookings work the same way as cruise bookings. My favorite company, G Adventures (I’ve been using them since my first trip abroad), often has 15-30% discounts on last-minute tours. That’s some pretty good savings.

Why are tours and cruises so cheap last-minute? Well, think about how people plan vacations. People are predisposed to planning. You get the time off work, you book your vacation, you buy your flight, and you go. Since people pre-book, prices are higher in advance because these companies understand booking patterns and then price accordingly. Hardly anyone wakes up and says “Today, I’m going on a cruise.” So as departure time nears, companies know people aren’t likely to turn up and book on departure day so they sweeten the point to increase bookings. So take the time off work, wait until the week before, see what’s cheap, and then go.

Volunteer
If you’ve been thinking about doing something positive or giving back for a while, voluntourism might just be the way to do it. The really good volunteer organizations will usually cover your room and board so you just need to cover the cost of a plane ticket. Moreover, you aren’t going to have many chances to spend extra money either on your trip since you’ll be “working” and waking up early. Volunteering gives you a chance to give back to communities around the world without spending a lot of money.

If you are looking to volunteer, please do so with the right companies so that the money actually reaches the community. Often times, volunteer groups keep a lot of money for administrative costs and little of your money or donation goes to the local community. If you want to volunteer, please read this article on how find ethical and responsible volunteer opportunities.

House Sit
houses in Charleston, South Carolina
Accommodation can eat into the cost of a trip big time. You might get a good flight deal but then accommodation, even if you can find it cheaply, might push the cost of your trip into unaffordable territory. A way around that is to stay somewhere for free. While I like Couchsurfing, it’s hard to do that for two weeks without annoying your host. A unique way to overcome this is to house sit for someone while that someone else is on vacation. You get free accommodation, a kitchen to cook in, and the chance to explore one destination in depth. It’s a pretty unique way to travel and one that I know a lot of world travelers do.

Not everyone can jump overseas at the drop of a hat or wants to spend six months backpacking around Asia. Luckily, there’s more than one way to see the world. You might not have a lot of time or money, but there are plenty of ways for you to get out and see the world. Travel doesn’t always mean some fancy vacation to Mexico or some six month trip around Europe.

Travel is simply the art of going somewhere new and different and exploring everything the place has to offer. It doesn’t matter if you have two days, two weeks, or two months.

What’s next? Start planning your budget trip with these other articles:

comments 37 Comments

Also try CouchSurfing your way through a country. If your only major expense is transportation and food, in many countries you can travel on nearly nothing.

Also, if you’re in Europe, sign up to Ryan Air’s newsletters. Hop on board the £5 flights that come your way every once in a while and take spontaneous, extremely cheap trips whenever they come up.

Cheers :)

I’m always using CouchSurfing for traveling. It’s not only cheap, but you get the locals point of view and the inside tip on where to go as well as what to see and do.

House sitting is a great way to go for digital nomads, too.

Marilynn

Also, if you have a decent home you can trade houses. I was going to go that route but it is too confining for me. I want to wander.

Great list Matt. I work in a different city each week, and that has made coming home on the weekends seem like a vacation to me. I’ve been slowly working my way through all the tourist sites I missed for the first 25 years of my life, and I’ve discovered some incredible attractions and museums that I never thought twice about before.

Excellent list. I especially like the first two suggestions. Now that I’m location independent and living in Thailand, I think about what I would have done with the luxury of this much time back home in New York. I would have seen and done much more! And when I go home to visit I look forward to doing just that.

Dude, I’m with you on Guatemala. We’re here right now (in Antigua) and it’s really cheap.

$800/month for a really nice apartment
$3 lunches (called “almuerzos”)
$7 steak dinners with potatoes, veggies and tortillas.

Oh… and did I mention a litre of rum is $7. WOO-HAA!

Marilynn

I LIVE half the year in a condo on the Sea of Cortez in Baja Sur, Mexico. The comment that gets to me the most is, “I could never afford that.” Excuse me, but we were not wealthy, we just made a decision and made a plunge to buy back 20 years ago. Can you imagine cashing in half your retirement savings to buy a condo in a foreign country? Well IT WAS OUR RETIREMENT and now it is MY retirement. Take the risks, they are the pay offs.

Great list Matt. Love the concept of being a tourist in your home town! Recently did a photography challenge which had me looking at my home town differently. Was great fun to get out there over the duration of the challenge, open my eyes and look at things in a different light. I/we run around like crazy getting on with the business of life – it is great to slow down and stop to smell the roses! Have not tried the house sitting option, but have friends who have, and love it! Keeping that on the radar for the future!

2nd here for Guatemala, especially for families. We took our kids (4 and 7) last summer and it was surprisingly stress-free. Our American friends thought we were nuts, but it totally worked, and was cheaper for two weeks (even including our airfare) than driving to and staying at the beach.

Great tips here, Matt — especially about being a local tourist. And I’m just as guilty as anyone. I know more about other countries than I do about my own.

How about visit a friend or relative?

You might think you don’t know anyone who lives anywhere interesting but you just might be surprised. When I asked my parents about this the other day I found out that a cousin of mine had recently moved to Argentina and another was working in Prague! I had no idea . . .

These are great ideas! I’m planning on doing some regional traveling this summer before I go abroad. I’ve traveled to four continents, and yet I haven’t seen much of Canada at all…

Great ideas, esp thinking outside of the box. Contrarian travel is something every traveler or backpacker should do. At least that´s what I tell myself while I´m huddled in front of a heater while it´s snowing outside. I´m solo backpacking in Europe now when there´s a cold snap and it´s great, there´s no other tourists around. That is, if I get over the cold and go out do my backpacking thing away from the heater and forget how warm it is now in the Philippines where I come from ;)

LAbackpackerChick

Excellent ideas! I’m forwarding this to my friends from home!

This article really comes at the right time for me. I was just recently thinking about how much I’m missing travelling since I’m working full-time and that I should try to travel more – even if it’s just for a weekend. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it, but I always find an excuse not too. It’s too expensive, one weekend really isn’t enough to go anywhere, there’s too much stuff to do at home – and things like that. None of these things are true. I’m living in Germany, so there are a lot of places suitable for a weekend trip. I’m living close to 2 airports (one of them with access to budget airlines) and to one of Germany’s best connected train station, so I basically just need to get out of the house and jump on a plane or train. I also like the idea of being a local tourist. I’ve seen a couple of sights around here, but there’s plenty of more things to explore. I used to live in Tokyo for a while and I used almost every day off to explore the city and its surroundings. I want to get back into this habit because I’ve had so many great experiences exploring places I’ve never been to and I’ve met a lot of interesting people through travelling. I’ll start planning right now :)

Great list and ideas. I never thought about being a local tourist…Interesting

Excellent tips here – especially about being a local tourist. It is a better way to take a vacation in your own city, if you’re short on time and money. No matter what the size, your city has a number of wonders just waiting to be explored.

Your blog contains lots of information about how we can plan our vacation in budget. You can also take help from the book “World Travel Adventure” where you can find information on financing options, accommodation and the bureaucratic procedure when planning your trip around the world.

All good ideas. Travel as a local is such a great way to see a country, in particular. I saw so much of South Korea living there as an expat that I might never have found traveling around the same amount of time.

I think traveling your local area is a great tip! A lot of people don’t realize the great stuff just minutes from their house! I live in Ohio and there are plenty of interesting places to see but people only “feel” like they’re on vacation if they’re at least two states away. I’m going to make it my goal to see at least three Ohio attractions over the summer. Also, camping is a really great way to get out! A bunch of friends and I drove to Virginia Beach a few springs ago and instead of spending a lot of money on a hotel we camped and it was surprisingly fun! It was super cheap and the idea of “roughing it” made it more interesting!

Thanks for the other good tips!
Jenna

Wow! Creative! I didn’t know that booking a cruise last minute would be at a discount. I always imagined they would be like flights and triple in price as the date for departure drew near.

Thanks for such great ideas!

Malika J

Awesome article. For someone who loves to travel but on a budget, these are some great tips!!!!

These are definitely great tips, I am going to pick a leaf from here , as the summer approaches I need good ideas on which trips to refer to some of my colleagues going on leave..

I don’t think you can beat camping for budget accommodation. I understand it is not for everyone but camping isn’t like it was years ago. You can have your own toilet, shower and you can put your own bed in if you like.

Adrienne Morton

Awesome list. A couple more things have been useful to me, in my very cheap world-traveling:
•Dont forget that you can easily work at a hostel pretty much anywhere & then board very cheap.
• Camping in the Caribbean (St. John! Jost Van Dyke!) is so different than camping in New England, etc. Its hot & there’s gorgeous night-swimming all over. Bring a mosquito net & love it.
•Grab some good cash AND food AND meet great people who you can stay with by working as a barback overseas. You don’t have to have a work visa for this, trust me.

islandgoddess

Great list! Also think about:

House or apartment trades
Look at the local Craigslist from the city/region where you want to go. Sometimes free or cheap opportunities crop up
Check out bed & breakfasts or homestays…their prices are usually substantially less than hotels and often come with some meals
Get on the email list from the airlines that service your local airport and check out their specials. My son recently got a flight to Kauai (Hawaii) for $116 on Alaska Air!!!

Camping is a lot of fun – I’ve had a better time holidaying in a tent than I have in some big hotels.! :)

This is such a good list. I especially love the idea of being a local tourist!

I think volunteering, house sitting and couchsurfing are all great ways to really experience a country. Not only do they save you money but they give you a more genuine experience of a country than a guided tour does.

Jane S.

Become a WOOFer. My kids did it a few years ago and lived in Hawaii for 9 months. They worked from 7AM till noon at a B&B and in return they got free lodging and meals. There are WOOFing opportunities all over the world. My son’s friend worked in New Zealand on a yacht, not a true Woofing experience but a great one nonetheless.

Jane S.

Oops, it should read WWOOF

Lilian Gouws

hi was it easy to do that and how do you get residence to move there permanently??
would appreciate the info

Catching up on your favorites, Matt. I like this one as well. Lots of good tips and feedback. I have always thought that traveling like a tourist made you a tourist, which I always refused as a caricature. I would much rather hang with the locals, eat what they eat, see what they see, go see a band play, get to know some families, etc. The best way to do that is either to meet folks on the road, or meet folks at home, then catch up with them when they move abroad. Military families and marooned business folks could probably use the company and the familiar faces. Crash on their couch, do their dishes, take them out to dinner, make their lives a little better. Sounds like a blast and I don’t do it enough. Anthony Bourdain has a great perspective on this. #swatswishner

kevinn g

good idea to go against the crowd though ironically many of your other travel tips mention that a place is a “highlight for backpackers” or a “huge party scene” etc.

Great article. It goes to show the there are countless ways to think outside of the box or plan a staycation without breaking the bank.

I like the idea ‘Think Outside The Box’. Traveling can be very expensive and can limit how long or far you travel. I want to stretch out my travels for as long as possible so have chosen to settle down for a few months in a beautiful city in Bolivia called Sucre. It’s incredibly budget friendly a great place to do Spanish school (at only $5 and hour!), and there are many wonderful organisations to volunteer with. On a side note…love the idea of traveling in your own back yard!

Lea

Great blog! I just traveled across Europe and stuck to the less-popular destinations (such as Serbia, Romania, Slovakia, etc.) AND it was off-season, and it was amazing how affordable and un-crowded it was. Everywhere I went was surprisingly unique. Most people don’t think about venturing outside of Paris/London/Spain/Italy and don’t realize what they’re missing out on.

Really like the volunteer idea Matt! My partner and I are in Australia at the moment and we’re really suffering with the prices – but we really want to stay and see this amazing country!

We’ve found that Helpx is really good for finding volunteer opportunities – all hosts have a responsibility to feed you too which is always a plus! :)

Cheers Matt!

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