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How to Stretch Your Travel Budget: From Freebies to Fun Alternatives

Myth – You need lots of money to travel to wish-list destinations or to travel longer term.

Reality – You need some money but there are many ways to make a little go a long way.

There's a world of would-be travelers out there who dream big, scribbling away at a bucket-list which they figure will become reality... just as soon as they hook up with their fairy godmother; those who buy into the myth's school of thought and are sadly destined to go nowhere.

So, which are you? One of those people who makes lists or one determined to create magical memories? Come with me – all those with limited funds welcome - I'll show you how to turn your castles-in-the-air into real-as-it-comes travel adventures.

​Beds on a Budget - Accommodation Options

There's another widely bandied about travel myth – this time with regard to accommodation for budget travelers. This would have us believe that limited funds equals bedding down in grotty places and although 5 star hotels are probably not an option neither will you be forced to stay in cockroach infested pits either. From conventional bargain beds to free bunks on a boat – anything is possible.

Nights for Nothing

Couch Surfing

From tiny beginnings, this now millions-strong community offers travelers the chance to bag a free bed/couch for the night which, incidentally, can also include the services of the best tour guide in town – your host.

However, should you approach this wonderful set-up with the mentality that it is only about a free bed you're not going to be very well received. Some just surf, some just host, some do both – all of which are totally acceptable - but the whole idea works best with some form of symbiotic exchange – even if all you have to give is your respect, sparkling company and travel tales.

If this seems like exactly the sort of thing your mom told you not to do you'll be happy to learn there are all sorts of Couch Surfing systems in place to ensure you don't end up sleeping in the house of some worryingly weird individual. First time users are encouraged to have a thorough read through Couch Surfing's own safety resource guide which along with teaching you how to use the website ensures you avoid problems.

Boat Crew

Whether you can show some previous boating experience, are a great cook or have nothing to offer but your charming personality, there are boat owners all over the world ready to take you on board. The purpose of the voyage may be to deliver some water-craft or simply to make up a fun crew for an ocean-based jolly.

Some ask you to make a contribution towards food and travel costs while others are happy to take you along for free in return for some work. There's a whole bunch of websites whose aim is to hook up boat owners with willing individuals – www.crewseekers.net is one of them.

Voluntary Work

You can't wander far around the world without stubbing your toe up against some voluntary work opportunity but beware – not all are created equal. There are plenty of organizations which promise you the time of your life...provided you pay them a hunk of your cash first. These are often in reality no more than manufactured experiences but there are thousands of genuine, worthwhile organizations out there – you just have to know how to find them.

- all have extensive lists of organizations which are either low cost or totally free with sometimes food and accommodation included.

Alternatively www.helpx.net is a mammoth, all-over-the-planet listing of those looking to find helping hands for all kinds of unusual projects from milking the goats daily to building eco-friendly dwellings. www.wwoof.org – (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a similar exchange of work for food and accommodation.

And in case you're thinking all work and no play does not make for fun travels you'll be pleased to know that voluntary work opportunities range from an hour a day commitment upwards giving you as much or as little free time as you like for the adventure bit.

Added bonuses – learn new skills, get to stay in places that might otherwise be off the map and get to hang out with some awesome, like-minded characters.

Other Tricks for Bagging Bargain Beds

Quite what bang you get for your buck will be dictated in some degree by the country you're in – the cost of a basic budget hostel bunk in Florence, for example, could land you a luxury pad in some parts of South East Asia. Keep the following in mind though and you'll find yourself on a fast-track to the deals:

  • Being prepared to situate yourself a short bus ride/tuk-tuk/walk away from the center of the action, where prices are always at a premium, may save you a fortune as well as giving you somewhere twice as nice to stay.
  • Look for accommodation options which include meals in the price. At first glance these can often be dismissed but after a little math show themselves to be the best choice for the budget-conscious traveler.
  • Sometimes the truly lovely hasn't made it into any guidebook, web resource or tourist literature so if you're free and easy enough to rock up somewhere and then check out your options you stand a chance of striking gold. If that idea is unthinkable you could, alternatively, book one night and then go for an explore to see if you can unearth some hidden gems.
  • Go low-season – all countries have them and this is the time when you might be able to dictate the price of your stay with desperate-for-custom accommodation owners.
  • Everyone wants to be beach-side/by the lake/in the place with the best view and so forth but you'll typically pay for it. Prices can nosedive dramatically if you're happy to walk a street or two back from the obvious draw of where you're staying.
  • Be aware that properties which have earned themselves a coveted mention in the traveler's bible – The Lonely Planet – will often see this as free license to raise their prices.
  • Make sure you know the terms used for budget accommodation at your destination. If you're going to Indonesia, for example, your cheapest choices are called 'losmens' and many countries have something comparable.
  • Hostels are almost always the cheapest option but do your research and read your reviews to make sure you don't end up at party central when you were actually hoping for a laid-back hideaway or vice versa.
    - Hostel World
    - Booking.com 
    - Agoda
    are some of the websites which will help you find your perfect match and then let you book it online.

Food Options That Won't Break the Bank

If you happen to be in a country which offers street food choices this is almost always going to be the best pick for stretching the travel budget. Many Westerners seem to have an inbuilt aversion to this type of culinary experience which means not only do they miss out on some of the best and most country-authentic food but overspend on their budget. Exercise caution without being paranoid and check out where the locals go – they don't want food poisoning either.

Accommodation which gives you facilities to prepare your own food – common in hostels particularly - is also a great way to keep the travel spend at a minimum, especially if you seek out the local markets and shops which the locals use.

Keeping a rein on the day-to-day food costs means the occasional splurge is possible when you're feeling a little travel-jaded or in need of a treat.

Getting Around on the Cheap

Just as in your own country, there are numerous ways of getting from A to B which range from ridiculously cheap to horrifically expensive. However, don't assume that price tags which apply to each at home are the same at your journey's end. For example, throughout South East Asia and in many parts of Latin America domestic airlines tickets can cost less than the price of a bus ride for the same journey – although admittedly nerves of steel are required to board the planes in some places. Otherwise consider the following:

  • Getting about as the locals do will typically be your best budget option. It won't always offer the most comfortable ride but it will give you front-seat-viewing for observing the country's culture while leaving you with some of your most colorful travel memories.
  • Organized tours have a way of eating into your travel budget at an alarming rate. It is almost always possible to get yourself to the tourist attraction in question and be your own tour guide for considerably less cash lay out. Load yourself up with free literature and maps from tourist offices, hostels and hotels and go exploring under your own steam.
  • If you have truly limited funds for traveling about you can still pack in the fun if you pick your destination carefully. Some regions of the world are bursting at the seams with things to see and do, all within a small radius, which keeps the need to travel to a minimum.

So, are you still thinking dreams are only for the financially fortunate or, if you haven't been pole-axed by the exploding myths debris, have you run off to pack your bags already?

Perhaps you'd like to add a few travel myth busting facts or cash-stretching tips of your own? Join the party – traveling is all about sharing.

About the author


In 2003, after a too-close-for-comfort brush with the Grim Reaper, I decided life was for living. So I sold my house, gave away my business as a professional gymnastics coach and divided most of my worldly possessions among family and friends. With my trusty surf board tucked under my arm and hefting my backpack I set out to explore the planet. I have been doing that ever since - the last few years as a go-it-alone female. My work as a freelance writer allows me to make my 'office' anywhere – from the middle of the jungle to a beach hut; sometimes I take on voluntary work too. No surprise that I now have a vast collection of adventures and travel experiences hard-wired into my memory bank. Hardly in the first flush of my youth I am often asked 'isn't it time to settle down?' That would be a resounding no! Never knowing what is around the next corner and choosing whichever nook of the planet I am in to call home, feeds the permanent nomad in me.