Defining a Budget Traveler

Budget traveler walking through a park carrying a backpackAmong long-term travelers, there seems to be a certain degree of competition, a one-upmanship, over who can visit a place while spending the least amount of money. It’s a badge of honor to say, “Well, I did France for X dollars cheaper than you,” as though the cheaper you go, the more authentic your experience is.

I’ve seen this attitude expressed on my site when I share my cost-of-traveling posts. There are always a few people who say things like, “Well, I think you overspent, because I did it for half the price.”

I’ve never understood this cheapness competition. To me, being a backpacker or budget traveler has nothing to do with how much money you spend. Rather, it has everything to do with how you spend it. Just as you don’t have to have deep pockets or a trust fund to afford to travel, you also don’t have to live on a shoestring to call yourself a budget traveler.

One of my biggest pet peeves is this obsession with cheapness that I see among a lot of travelers. I’ve never understood why a person would live like a pauper while saving money for a trip, only to then go on that trip and still live like a pauper. If you only have a small amount of money to spend, better to take a shorter trip doing all the activities you want than constantly saying, “I would love to do that, but I can’t afford it” on your longer trip.

To me, traveling is about being frugal—not cheap. It’s about not wasting money on frivolous stuff. Not snacking or buying a million tacky souvenirs or going out and getting drunk every night. It’s about knowing when and where to spend your money, no matter how much you happen to have.

Can places be visited for dirt cheap? Sure. You can be like this guy who mooched off Europeans for 12 months and thereby only spent $5,000 USD. He spent so little by squatting, hitchhiking, never going out, not visiting one museum, and getting free stuff from people. That’s a great way to travel cheap. I’m sure the locals really appreciated him giving back to the community the way he did. But beyond that, if you camp, cook all your own meals, don’t drink, or never do anything extra that costs money, you can always go somewhere and spend very little.

But I don’t see the point.

Whenever I visit a place and then do a budget guide for it, I always admit that I overspent. Without a doubt, you can always visit a place cheaper than I did. I overspend because travel is my everyday life, and I like to treat myself once in a while. It’s why I include not only what I spent, but also discuss why I overspent and how much that country should really cost.

But my guides reflect my idea of what a budget traveler is: someone who spends money smartly, not cheaply. They’re for the traveler who wants to go away, perhaps doesn’t have a lot of money, but still wants to enjoy lots of activities.

Budget traveler walking on the beach empty handedI didn’t visit Italy to skip the nice meals and gelato. I didn’t go to Bordeaux to turn down a wine tour. I didn’t spend over a year saving money so I could cook cheap dinners every night in a hostel kitchen. I didn’t go to Australia dreaming of the Outback to turn around and say, “No, that trip is a bit out of my budget. Maybe another time.”

I remember when I first went overseas. I did everything as cheaply as I could. I skipped doing a lot of things I would have loved to do in the name of “budget travel.” I never took that cooking class in Italy, never went diving in Thailand, never did a wine tour in Australia, and never went inside the Tower of London.

I regret those decisions to this day.

I said I’d do them next time, when I had money. But you know what? Next time has yet to come. Other things have gotten in the way.

Everyone has his or her own view of what a budget traveler is. To magazines like Budget Travel, Travel and Leisure, or even writers like Rick Steves, “budget” means $120+ USD hotels and $40 USD meals. I read those magazines and look at their prices and go, “How is THAT budget travel? That is expensive!” But I guess for their readers who have a bit more money and are most likely solidly middle to upper middle class, those prices are budget.

At the same time, some people will look at my budget guides and say, “How is THAT budget?” There are always ways to do places cheaper if you’re willing to make the sacrifices. Personally, I love camping, tenting, and cooking my own meals—when I’m in the wilderness. But as part of a day-to-day travel lifestyle? It’s not for me. And based on my experience, I don’t think it’s realistic for the majority of travelers out there.

One of my biggest budget tips is to know what you want to spend money on before your trip, and then use that as a basis for forming your budget. That way, you don’t overspend while on the road, because you prepared as much as possible. You won’t come home early because you got blindsided by costs.

If you’re aware of your costs, you can better plan your budget and then be frugal with your money—without being cheap. Because you won’t get a second chance as often as you think you will. Spend your money on those great activities you’ve dreamed about instead of skipping them just because they come with a price tag.

Travel isn’t some race to the bottom. You aren’t a better traveler because you went to France and decided not to spend any money. That doesn’t make you a budget traveler. I think that just makes you cheap. I think the conversation needs to shift from “cheapness” to “frugality.” A traveler who spends his money wisely, no matter how much he spends, is a budget traveler.

Because frugality is cool. Cheapness is not.

  1. I so agree with this. I made some mistakes when I was younger and now I never turn down something I really want to do within reason.

    There was a pair of 18 year old German girls on a bus tour I took up to Cape Trib in Australia and when I asked what they were doing with their free day in the area, they said, whatever is free. I told them I was doing my first intro dive the following day and they proceed to tell me that they were certified divers, but had not planned on doing any diving in Australia because it was too expensive. I couldn’t wrap my head around why anyone would travel all that (be certified at that!!) and NOT dive in what is know to be one of the worlds best diving spots!!

    • NomadicMatt

      I can’t fathom that either. I would have saved extra to make sure I could travel all that way and visit the Great Barrier Reef, especially if I knew how to dive!

      • maybe they literally didn’t have the budget for it guys, they were only 18. I’m sure they’d have loved to have dive, but it’s about priorities. I remember back in 2006 when I first left home, the thought of spending a couple of hundred bucks on an activity was well beyond me.

        We should consider ourselves lucky that we’re in a position to do that, and spare a thought (and a memory) for when those costs were prohibitive.

  2. I totally agree Matt – I prioritise spending – last time in London we went to the Cabinet War Rooms and Westminster – both cost a fortune – but nothing compared to the 1/2 way around the world airfare! Yes there are lots of free museums in London (I’ve seen a lot of them) – but partner is obsessed my WW2 – and he loved the War Rooms.

    I personally would never cook my own food in Asia – I love the street food and the restaurants – eating in hostel is just tragic there IMHO. On the other hand in out back of Australia – the food is – to be kind – medicore and over-priced – we cooked most of the time and I still think the best meal I ever had was some barramundi which bought from a ship’s shop – threw on the barbie and ate with bought chips -amazing !

  3. “To me, being a backpacker or budget traveler has nothing to do with how much money you spend. Rather, it has everything to do with how you spend it. ” Well said! There is a difference between cheap vs. budget. Great article!

  4. I totally agree. I have been saving to travel around South America for a few years and I have dreamed about it for even longer. Now that I am here I will eat steak, drink wine and hike the Macchu Picchu trail, no matter how much it costs. Now is the time to reward myself for all the skimping on luxuries I had to do when saving! Thanks for making me feel less guilty about it :-)

  5. Matt, my motto ever since I started doing this has been the same. People don’t understand budget travel. Budget travel is not about spending as little as possible but about getting the most experience from what you have to spend. People of all income levels can be budget travelers. It’s how you approach travel and what you get out of your travels that matters. EVERYONE, regardless of income level, has a budget. Some budgets are bigger than others but we all want to get the most out of what we have to spend for our travel experiences.

  6. The part that intrigues me is how interesting other people can be in anyone else’s spending choices. How anyone else chooses to spend their money can’t possible give an insight into the experience they had along the way. Anyone using their time to worry about how someone else is budgeting isn’t concentrating enough on their own opportunities for a good time.

  7. I will never understand how certain aspects (okay, ALL aspects) of travel can be made into a competition.

    I mean, was there an award ceremony for travelling that I wasn’t aware of?? Are we getting trophies for visiting the most “off the beaten paths” places or spending the least in a certain area or *shudder* visiting the most countries?

    I hope not.

    Like you mentioned, “budget travel” can mean something different to you than to Rick Steves than to that guy that bummed his way across Europe. Isn’t it enough that we are all saving money and travelling in a way that WE want to?

    I hope so.

    Sweet post though, Matt! Frugality: in. Cheapness: out.

  8. Well written, I completely agree.

    It’s also something that changed for me the longer I was traveling. To me – like I think you point out – I think it’s not so much about the cost but more about the value I receive. I’ve become better at getting more out of less, but I do spend more the longer I travel and get much more value back from the whole trip.

    With that said, I don’t think the budget traveler should be criticized or judged. I would rather have people travel on a tight budget than never leave the comforts of their homes. Also, different people – different styles. While I generally don’t like to bargain with sellers, I have friends who get a real kick out of it and do it with style while having amazing interactions with the locals. As long as you’re exploring the world and having fun… who cares how much you’re spending?

  9. I agree that for me, budget travel is more about getting great value for your money and time than saving every last nickel. So some very fond memories have been: a Russian Orthodox men’s choir singing in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a Goran Bregovic concert in Vienna, a 3-day organized tour (in the middle of an independent trip) in Israel, a full-day tour of Teotihuacan in Mexico City, staying at the Sheraton in Iguazu Park (albeit on points) and so on. Not that I haven’t had lots of great free memories too.

    For me it’s key to spend some time ahead of time strategizing about the best use of time and money and how I can get some great deals.

  10. Yep, count me in the agreement category. A few years back I traveled from Honduras to Caye Caulker Belize on a whim (as Belize wasn’t on the itinerary) with the thought that I would dive the Blue Hole once I got there. Upon arriving, I found out the price of diving the Blue Hole was $200, and I thought to myself that I just can’t afford that, it’s way out of my budget. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to dive the Blue Hole in Belize because it was “out of my budget”.

    And boy am I glad I did, there is something oddly liberating about narking out at 150 feet staring into the darkness below and seeing shadows become sharks, and then shadows again. A beautiful site!

    • NomadicMatt

      You remember the experience more than 200 USD you would have saved. After all, you can always work to make up the money but the chance to dive the Blue Hole is then and there.

  11. I’m pretty sure I could “do France” on zero dollars per day. It would require sleeping on street corners, scavanging food from garbage cans, never going anywhere and never doing anything – but “Hey, I win!”

    A very old long-term traveler I met answered the question “How much does perpetual travel cost” by saying “As much as you have.” And for the most part, it’s true. People spend what they can afford. For some that means staying at the 4 Seasons, and others it means sleeping in dormatories. And while it’s true that spending too much can isolate you from your experiences, few honest people would say that they actually prefer hitchhiking and walking to taking a cab.

    For me, I try to strike a balance between what something costs and what something is worth. Sometimes that means spending a lot. Sometimes it means not doing something because it is too expensive. But here too, I think if I had more coin, I’d be saying no to things less often than I do.

  12. Chris

    Great post, wish I would’ve thought of it first! Somewhat along the lines of the minimalists who cut the bottom half of their toothbrush off to save weight in their pack. My jaw dropped when I read that as a tip.

  13. Nicole

    Hi Matt,

    Great post. I am a newbie budget traveler (leaving in March) and I couldnt agree more. Im selling everything I own, leaving my job and family and friends for an uncertain amount of time to see the world – Why would I bother going through all of that just to cook for myself every night (I do that at home) and not see and experience the amazing wonders the world has to offer.

    I understand the idea of ‘budget traveling’ but I do not understand why someone would save up to travel the world only to not actually experience the world. To me that is a waste of time.. not to mention so far from the point of travel!

    Yes, I will need to stick to a budget to enable me to see as much of this beautiful world as possible but it will be the scuba diving, day tours, parasailing etc that I will remember after its been and gone – Not how much money I saved by NOT doing all those amazing things!

    Thanks for your insight, its always inspires me!

  14. Joy

    I totally agree with you, but I decided to comment because of one of my biggest gripes – Tourists from the West who come to Asia, and then act like total assholes trying to bargain everything down to ridiculous prices.

    In Cambodia, there were all the little kids hanging around Angkor trying to make a dollar or two off you through buying drinks. They’re just little kids so I don’t mind letting them earn a dollar off me, but I guess I was all smiley and friendly with them that they charged me a dollar for the bottle of water. This Scandinavian man behind me saw that they charged me a dollar, but they charged him US$1.50 and shouted them down to US$1. I was SO angry.

  15. Emanuele

    Great points Matt. During our RTW trip my wife and I tried to stick to the budget we’d forecasted before the trip, which was the budget that was right for us, considering OUR travel style and preferences. We all are different, we have different priorities and preferences, which of course result in different spending choices… At the end of the day, who cares if you spent less or more than we did? :)

  16. I try hard (and mostly fail) not to judge people. We host a lot of couchsurfers here in Thailand, and while the majority of the community is great, there are some people who are jaw-droppingly…. not great. We hosted some very young girls who HITCHHIKED down the coast of Thailand alone (I realize some people reading this are all, “that sounds awesome!” Um, a bus for that 10 hour trip is like 10usd). At one point they ended up lost in the wrong part of town and a Thai man took pity on them and insisted he pay for their bus as he was so concerned about their welfare.

    Then they did a lot more stupid crap, but I think more than two paragraphs of ranting definitely counts as judging.

  17. Bia

    Hey Nomadic Matt,

    I’m “that guy who mooched off Europeans for 12 months and thus only spent 5,000 dollars.”

    I think that you miss the point. The point is that when you only have 5000 dollars to spend then you spend it wisely. Not everything about “experiencing” travel costs money.

    You completely misread everything about my trip. I drank quite often, just not in Skandanavia where it was more expensive than the joy I was going to get out of it. A notable exception was the World Cup Final. I was in Turku Finland and got rip roaring drunk with some locals.

    I went to plenty of Museums. My interests are mainly in history and archaelogy. I went to cheap state run museums and not expensive art galleries. I also liked walking around towns and enjoying the buildings.

    Hell yeah I cooked for myself, saved a ton of money doing it too. When you’re on the road food is expensive, and since I wanted to spend my money on things that made me happy I was able to save a ton of money by not eating crappy restaurant road food.

    Were some parts of my style of travelling uncomfortable? Hell yeah they were. Sleeping in a tent on the side of the highway while waiting for a ride isn’t the way that some people would want to spend their one year anniversary with their girlfriend. But we went into a store, bought some chocolate and a few bottles of wine and had a great night.

    The point was to live free of the constraints of society, meet interesting and kind people, and explore the world. We visited 16 countries on 2 continents and experienced more than most people can ever hope to.

    Right now I am saving up for a South American trip. This style of life is awesome.

    Oh yeah, and we never mooched off anyone. Whenever we couchsurfed with anyone we cooked and cleaned for them. Whenever someone picked us up for a ride we never tried to get them to take us farther then they were already going, and we never asked for a single handout.

    • NomadicMatt

      “The point was to live free of the constraints of society, meet interesting and kind people, and explore the world. We visited 16 countries on 2 continents and experienced more than most people can ever hope to.”

      I would say that people experience more than they ever hoped on many different budgets. And statements on Reddit like this sort of counter your argument above:

      “I was cheap. I only spent money on food, beer, and ganja.”
      “No eating in restauraunts, no electronics, nothing but travelling. All my clothes I got for free, all I need I have.”

      as well as this:

      “I didnt go to the Van Gogh exibit in Amsterdam though, that would have been nice.”

      I’m all for the kindness of strangers but I would say your freeganism is mooching.

      • Bia

        Yes, taken out of context you can easily build a straw man and then discredit it.

        I didn’t spend money on traveling. I hitch-hiked. This may seem like mooching to someone who is able to make money selling advertisements. But to those of us who don’t earn enough money to spend 50 dollars a day (or over 18,000 dollars a year) this is a way to stretch our money. Also, I never tried to brow beat someone who didn’t want to pick me up. I also never tried to get anyone to take me farther then they were already going.

        My lodging was either camping or couchsurfing. Sometimes, generous people picked me up and were interested in my travels. Out of their own free will they would offer me a place to stay for the night. I never asked or begged. Hostels cost around 15 – 20 euro’s a night. This would have made a serious dent in my budget and forced me to go home early.

        I didn’t go out to restaurants. Instead, when I wanted to sample local dishes I couchsurfed and sampled the true dishes from a local. of course I cooked for my host, brought wine and beer, and made sure that I left their place cleaner than I found it.

        My clothes I either found in free bins that the alternative community in Europe set up, or I worked for them. One pair of pants (that I just wore out after a year of use) I found in a bag on the side of the road in Amsterdam after some guy that I was helping to move threw them out.

        The definition of mooching is “to take surreptiously, to steal, or to beg” according to merriam-webster. None of what I have just described fits the definition of mooching.

        Just because there were no economic transactions does not make it mooching.

        As for the Van Gogh exibit. Yeah, that’s something that I regret. But are you going to tell me that you don’t have any regrets from things that you missed? I don’t understand where you get “not visiting one museum” from the fact that I regret not going to one museum. I went to plenty of museums in Europe. This one I missed.

        You are trying to set up a strawman of my travels so that you can knock it down and prove some point.
        In my last post I showed you how all of your original points were false. Yet you didn’t correct them or ask me to clarify in order for you to understand better. This shows to me that you are more interested in proving a point then in being correct.

        Who knows when I am going to be traveling in Europe again. Like I said I am planning on heading to South America next. But I am able to happily say that I was able to experience as much as I got the maximum out of the money and time that I had.

        There are many styles of traveling, my style is not for you, and yours is not for me. However, if your goal is really to get as many people on the road as possible then you should not discourage people without the funds that you have from experiencing the blissful freedom of the road.

        I wish you the best in your travels.

        • NomadicMatt

          There are many styles of travel out there. Like I said in this post, what one persons defines as budget is not the same as another.

          I think hitching and couchsurfing is a great way to travel, keep costs down, and meet locals. But I take strong issue with your freeloading and I will call it that because at some point it becomes that. Here’s why:

          Travel is a huge economic benefit for local communities and while I am an ardent advocator for cheap travel and proving you don’t need to be rich to do it, local communities and economies DO depend on tourist dollars so by going there you create a positive economic impact on communities and when I meet travelers like you who go to these places but don’t help economically, it aggravates me because it is a way to help local communities sustain themselves. This especially aggravates me in developing economies when I see backpackers haggle with sellers for the equivalent of 50 cents. The locals need it more than you and give back a bit.

          You are going to South America. A place you don’t need even close to 50 dollars a day. But ask yourself this – how are you going to give back to these communities? With good will and karma? The same way you did in Europe? I’m sure locals will appreciate your good will and behavior but they also could use the dollars you bring that help develop their economies and put bread on the table.

          So you are right, not everyone can afford 50 dollars per day which is why I include tips to lower that down. We all travel on different budgets. But travel is also about giving back to the places you visit and doing so economically, especially in South America, can help locals a great deal.

          • Koy

            Hey spirit travelers,

            If you are tight on your budget, how about volunteer a little of your time to give back to the local communities? I believe everyone has a skill to teach and to share.

            For me, I can sing and play guitar-(self taught), I make accessories, I speak English and I teach Yoga and a massage therapist. I always carry a guitar, materials to make my jewelry and a yoga mat when I am traveling. On top of my savings, I do music busking and sell my accessories whenever it helps with my travel expenses. Over the years as a budget traveler, I have received great hospitality, kindness from strangers, not to mention feed me and shelter me. To repay my gratitude to their kindness, i believe heartfelt gestures are one of the wonderful methods to show you care.

            I remembered staying at a family-run guest house in Shangri-la for free because they want me to entertain them with my music. When I leave, I gave away a set of 12 necklaces which I have made previously for selling purpose. While invited to stay with a local family whom I met a woman on a bus ride in Cambodia, I taught English to her 3 children and sang with them. We all had a blast! In India I did a short term volunteering living at an orphanage teaching English and music to the children. We stayed in touch ever since. These are just some examples to give and to share. The experience is one of enriching and fufilling.

            I have made a conscious choice that learning, giving and sharing are my mission during my travel. While you have time to have fun and sight-seeing, you will equally have time to give yourself to the local communities by sharing what you know.

            Please remember we are visitors to their countries and we can contribute in many ways with a good heart.

            happy travels :-)

          • Bia

            Yeah, I think that we can agree on most points here.

            I used to live in East Africa where I volunteered for a year teaching and helping to build a rural malaria clinic. It was fun and rewarding work. Best of all I was able to meet some of the best people I have ever met. I learned Swahili and was able to travel in a different way.

            Instead of paying a company to take me into a remote village I would find a local friend who wanted to go visit their family in that remote village. I would pay for the travel, usually bus, and then buy small things like paraffin, matches, soap, and my own food. Now hospitality in Africa is very awesome, so they were always happy to see us, but even more happy that we brought them the small essentials that poor people depend on.

            I think that using traveling as a way to enrich local populations leads to dependency, and encourages locals to view me as a cash register. Now, that is not to say that when I was in Africa I didnt help out my friends. Whenever someone was sick, or had no money for food they knew that i was there for them. We would set up free dinners for street children, and cook dinners for the children at the local orphanage. I think that providing a thing is much more valuable than providing money which is often harmful to a local community.

            All of this seems rather pointless though, like I said your style of travel is different. You want to pay 100 dollars a day to hike the Inca trail, well I would rather hike some of the several hundred miles of Inca roads that still exist, visiting local communities, and enjoying my time free of tourists. Then I wouldnt mind taking a bus to Machu Picchu. These are the strategies I employ to save money and have what I believe to be more authentic experiences.

            I have plenty of time and little money. I would rather spend my money in ways that rewards myself and encourages personal development of the people I meet on the road.

            Either way, safe travels.

  18. Michelle

    All really great points! I completely agree with you. I usually like to compromise with myself during my travels. Eg. I’m going to cook my own meals in the hostel for two weeks and not eat out, but with the money I saved, I’ll go book a diving trip, etc. plus being a girl, I hardly ever have to buy alcohol… :)

    • NomadicMatt

      Travel is about compromising with your budget sometimes. Sacrifice in one area so that you can do something else you really wanted.

  19. Claire

    I gotta admit, I do look at the people that spend a lot longer than me travelling and I get a pang of jealousy, but I have a minor obsession with tours and trips and shiny things and I need to stop and work for a year or two at a time as I can’t make money through writing or photography.

    My theory is, I spend as little as possible on food, accommodation and transport (although I’ll take a dorm bed in a backpackers over a cheaper hotel room for the social aspect, and I love street food) which frees up a heap more cash to go on the Inca Trail in Peru, swim with whale sharks and dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, bungee jump the Nevis in NZ and all the other awesome stuff I’ve done, and still have change for a few beers with the people I meet along the way.

    S’all about priorities :)

  20. Incredibly agree with you. Excellent.

    My first offshore trip was a 2 and 1/2 month backpackers to India, Nepal, and Thailand, with a day in Paris each way.

    For well being, the Fielding’s guide (India and Nepal on Near Zero Dollars a Day or whatever) advised not to spend the minimum possible in these countries. I met many travelers not following that advice, who had become quite ill or who were otherwise not enjoying their trips at all.

    BTW, you are very brave bringing up the issue of not giving back. Some apparently feel they have every right to mooch off the Third World–Never tipping people who depend on tips for their livelihoods and all that. On Craigslist, they nearly came after me with pitchforks and torches when I brought up this topic.

    • NomadicMatt

      I love the haggle game of markets but at the end of the day, I’m OK with paying a bit more. Just by flying half way around the world to Thailand, means I have more disposable income. But that conversation about haggling would take up a whole new blog post!

      • Hey Matt, I love haggling too (and have become fairly good at it) but know that as a non local I will pay more, and that’s okay.

        I was referring to travelers who do not tip in places where locals depend on tips to support themselves and their families. You know those who manage to get to Hawaii in order to play all day, while others have to work, and then refuse to tip a server in a restaurant because they are on “such a limited budget.”

  21. I tend to be of the mind that sacrificing certain experiences IS budgeting. I work my way around the world, and in general, a 20-something expat doesn’t demand a very high salary.

    The biggest bank drains are going to be the big tourist attractions and major cities. Choosing to spend the weekend in Torino instead of Naples or in Aix-en-Provence instead of Nice kept my bank account safely padded while I lived in France without sacrificing lots of gorgeous photo ops and cultural experiences a foreign country offers, which were my priorities.

    It’s like Lissie said, touring Westminster costs a damn fortune, but if it’s on your list of must-see locations, it’s absolutely worth it.

  22. I met this guy once in Myanmar. He didn’t go to Bagan to see the temples. He run out of time and in order to be able to go to Bagan he would have to reschedule his flight which would cost him $20. He decided it was too expensive, so he never went to see the most amazing place in Myanmar, and one of the most amazing places in Asia.

  23. When I first went to India (more than ten years ago) there was a lot of that sort of competition going on. I remember buying some necklaces from a guy on the beach and paid 10 rupees for 3 necklaces (that’s not even a quarter dollar), and someone started to tell me off for overpaying. I probably was overpaying and an hour of haggling would have brought the price down but… come on.

    • NomadicMatt

      PLUS the guy in India needs it more than you. If you can afford to get to India, you are already better off than that necklace seller on the beach.

  24. Ha ha, what a great subject. I went overland through Asia many years ago on one of those trucks and we camped under the stars and did our own cooking. We managed 3 months travel on a kitty of $160 each which included entrance fees to sights, paying for campsites at hotels in the bigger cities, and the occasional restaurant meal. I still remember the embarrassment of watching a Kiwi couple whose turn it was to cook haggling over the price of tomatoes at a local market in India, trying to beat the man down from 4Rp to 3Rp a kilo. Now that’s cheap!

  25. I agree! Great post. I use to feel the same. As a keen diver all of my “cheap” trips become expensive if I added the money I spent on diving. But it worth every penny for me. I remember a trip a decade ago where I tried to be real budget traveler and just waved to my friends who went to dive with the boat. And I thought “why am I here if not to do what I really like?” So since then I prefer cheaper destinations or organize 5 day trips instead of a week but I try and taste anything I like. And I usually have a great time wherever I go…

  26. Thank you so much for this post!

    During my year-long trip I was told off often enough by “real” backpackers because I’d rather spend a dollar or two more for a clean room (with a door that locks) than sleep in a mouldy shack with moist walls and a whole family of roaches in the bathroom.

    When I visited New Zealand for the first time I basically lived off 2-minute-noodles – but this meant that I could afford to go sky diving.

    The philosophy of my year travelling was pretty much the same: don’t spend just for the sake of it but because it’s worth it. I didn’t turn down a single opportunity to dive even though it’s a very expensive leisure activity. When I put all the numbers down back home had spent a considerable amount less than I had originally budgeted – without feeling like having missed out on anything I “should have done”!

  27. Well, somehow I don’t fit into the budget traveller category. I just worked out today that in the last 5 months I spent AUD$10,000.

    And I’m the first to stay in a crummy hostel, camp out under the stars, or use the CouchSurfing network to reduce the price of accommodation (and of course meet locals).

    I think it’s the style of travel (flights, because I’m a last-minute planner) that has eaten up my budget. If only I’d come up with a better plan before I left; or had the balls to hitchhike.

    Oh well, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and it’s only money. So I’m not a die-hard budget traveller — I don’t hitchhike, I don’t dumpster-dive for dinner — what of it?

    I definitely agree with the folk that say spending that little bit of extra coin gives back to the local economy. Plus, I like to enjoy a decent meal (and drink) every now-and-again.

    I don’t usually skip-out on things because of cost, usually its because of time. 6 months, and only 12 countries… I have to move on eventually; otherwise I won’t see much at all 😮

  28. I can’t say I agree with you this time around on much of what you wrote. I’m that guy who might not eat an Argentinian asado because it costs 20 dollars, yes. But you know, I think it has a lot less to do with saving money, or trying to one-up other vagabonds… no, I think it has to do with the fact that I try to avoid bringing money between me and experiences whenever possible. Why? I don’t know. I think if you have a relationship with someone with money (ie tour guides), their actions are geared toward tips or service, and are not authentic. This goes along with the idea of generic experiences as well. I held off on the Argentinian asado. Eventually, I came about a single night of work in order to eat an asado. I know–you worked as well. But when you work for something other than money–that blasted middle man–then you have a different feel for whateve reward your receive. Asado.

  29. Your blog is freakin’ awesome! I just found your blog and have to say I am hooked by your honesty and genuine appreciation for the right kind of travel.


  30. Kyle

    I just started my own budget travel blog and I came across your site. Love it man! I think you really took the words out of my mouth with this post. Even though my blog is called the cheapest way to travel, I want people to find the cheapest way to do the things they WANT to do. I don’t want expense to become an excuse to not travel, like it so often is, because once you get out there and see the world you can’t help be changed in a way and I think that’s so important.

  31. Dave

    I try not to judge, but when I see these budget travelers haggle to save 50 cents and then pull out an Iphone and Instagram the locals….but whatever makes you happy. It’s taken me a long time not to give a damn what anyone thinks about me or the way I travel—hell, the way I live my life. That’s true freedom.

  32. Lawrence

    Hi all.. i am student and I am doing a research on Budget Traveler, can anyone here help to answer my questions, please.

    #1. What is the expectation of a Budget Traveler on a budget hotel?
    #2. What kind of facility or service attract you most when choosing a budget hotel?
    #3. Given a special package at a reasonable price, say US$20/nite with complimentary pick up at airport, a free laundry per 3 nites stay, plus a free automated(machine) foot massage per 6 nites stay. Does this attracts you?

    Please comment.

  33. I know this article is a couple of years old, but I agree with it so much I just had to comment! When I was first out of school, I was led astray by an ex-boyfriend who sounds dangerously like that Reddit fellow. Basically, we went to Paris, but he thought it’d be a waste to climb the Eiffel Tower. Went to Venice, wasn’t allowed to go on a gondola ride, etc – was all about doing it cheap. And I did, but I regret it a lot. Luckily, I have since ditched that mentality (and the ex-boyfriend!).

    Since then, I still travel on a budget but as you said, I make room in my budget for things that are important to me. Some of my best ever travel memories were expensive, but totally worth it, such as staying on an Estancia in Argentina or going bungee jumping in Nepal.

    So thanks for a fantastic article that I wish I’d read 3 years ago!

  34. This post and some of the comments had some good and interesting points, but it also annoyed me a bit.

    Everyone is different, everyone see’s things differently, people enjoy different types of travel. Travel is not a competition. On the other end of the scale, everyone will have a different definition of what is cheap and what is budget.

    I think laying into the guy, which it came across as to me (though fair enough, I could have taken it the wrong way), about spending so little in Europe was a bit harsh. It’s ok to be a budget traveller when you have enough budget money to do your trips but sometimes people do have to be as you described ‘cheap’.

    I am a cheap/budget traveller and I’m not ashamed of it at all. I am disabled and have trouble earning money because of this, but my passion is to travel and I will find a way to do this as I shouldn’t have to miss out because of my disabilities or lack of funds. I don’t leech off of people who really need the money, I even try to take things out with me to poorer countries to give out to children etc but I will try my best to haggle on prices from tour companies, hostels, or cook my own food and make other sacrifices that you may think strange or not worth it etc

    I actually hitchhiked around Europe for free a few years ago. We had the best time camping, asking at bakeries at the end of the day if we could have what they would throw away. We met amazing locals, we didn’t ask them to go out of their way for us and overall we personally felt that we had a trip around Europe that we considered more enjoyable than most people may experience on their budget busabout/interrail trips. But that’s our personal opinion.

    And we were giving back, my friend and I were doing the hitchhike as a sponsored challenge to raise money for a cancer charity back in the UK, our challenge was to see how far we could get with no money at all (a common charity challenge with UK university’s)

    Maybe we should all agree to disagree, this shouldn’t be a competition, we shouldn’t try to put each other down or anything, whether intentionally or not but just enjoy our shared passion for travel. Each to their own :)

  35. When you can’t afford to spend your money on seeing and doing those amazing things that is actually what attracts people to those certain places. Then how do you even define spending your money on even getting there . . . . ? I am a budget traveller but no way would I let my bank account get in the way of the world highest bungee, the worlds best snow, beaches, Petra, pyramids and everything else that is bad ass in this world. Frugal all the way I say!

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