People think traveling is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Most of the time I spend the same amount of money each month when I’m on the road as I do at home — or less.
The obvious way to save money would be to pick places with a favorable exchange rate. I haven’t done that. Instead, most of the time I’m traveling in major cities in North America and Europe — not exactly budget destinations.
I’m not spending my time hacking credit card points or living like a pauper. Here’s how I do it.
Don’t quit your day job
The biggest thing is that I didn’t quit my job to travel. I’m traveling while I work. While I have a lot of flexibility with my hours, I generally stick with a 9-5 M-F work week.
There’s no need to save up money or count vacation days, because I’m not taking time off. My paycheque shows up in my bank account every month.
I also have a steady stream of freelance projects, in addition to side projects (like this one and Welcome Home Ontario).
Not only does working make me money, but it saves me money because instead of spending money to keep myself entertained all day long, I’m busy working.
Don’t pay for housing
When I’m traveling by myself I almost never pay for a place to stay. I’ve shelled out cash for some hostels over the years, but they’re few and far between.
CouchSurfing is great for a few days here and there, but it gets exhausting for long trips. I know, because I’ve CouchSurfed for months at a time. Once I started working remotely, I knew I needed to find something that was a better fit for my current life.
Home Exchange is great for short trips from your home base. When I was married and had two cats, this was the answer to getting out of town for a few weeks, having someone to look after the cats, and having a comfortable space to work from.
Trusted Housesitters is great if you’re an animal lover and traveling slowly. Since I’m working, it’s no problem to have a dog to walk. It helps give my days structure and ensures I get plenty of exercise! Trusted Housesitters is great for long trips, since you can string pet sits together and couchsurf for the days between.
These options always come with perks. A book to read when it’s raining. Local recommendations. A new BFF. Laundry. The use of a car. A really sweet roof deck, gym, sauna, or pool. I’ve stayed in lots of really nice places and met some amazing people.
Don’t eat out
Okay, this is something I need to get back in the groove with. I spend way too much money at coffee shops and eating out. In the winter coffee shops are my answer to how I can walk all over the city while getting work done and not freeze to death. I need to trade coffee shops for libraries and pack some snacks.
I love eating out, but not when it’s for every meal, day after day. There’s a beauty to cooking your own meals and making things exactly how you like it. I’m trying to do a better job of making sure that I’m eating out when it’s something special — part of the reason I’m visiting a place — and not just because I didn’t think to eat before I left the house.
I’m a big fan of ‘self-catering’ and cooking at home. It’s so much healthier than eating out every meal for months at a time. Plus, buying groceries can be an interesting cultural experience.
There’s no reason to not cook while you’re traveling. Just about every hostel has a kitchen. Most CouchSurfing hosts are happy to let you use their kitchen. Some of my best CouchSurfing experiences have been cooking with hosts and guests. In the summer you can even grill in the park!
Having a kitchen stocked with the essentials all to myself is one of the incredible joys of home swapping and house sitting. I get to try out all the gadgets I don’t have at home and explore a different spice rack. I love attempting (and usually failing at) the local delicacies and trying out recipes with the ingredients I can’t find at home. When I was in Rotterdam I ate a lifetime’s worth of smoked fish because it was so cheap and delicious.
When I’m traveling for months at a time, it’s really nice to be able to set up a routine that feels like normal life. For me, cooking is a big part of that.
Packing a lunch isn’t just for going to an office. There are lots of things you can pick up that don’t require any preparation. Not just premade meals — think bread, cheese, fruits, and veggies. When the weather is warm I love having a DIY picnic with things from the grocery store or the local market.
Even when it’s cold out, you can still find indoor places to eat your own food without raising any eyebrows. Most museums, libraries, and universities have places you can eat indoors. Shopping malls and office building atriums also work for this. I’ve even made myself at home in the occasional hotel lobby. Just be polite and discreet. You want to look like an office worker or a tourist, not the homeless vagabond you are.
Don’t pay admission
When I go to three museums in a day, I don’t remember any of it six months later. One of the best things about spending a few weeks in a city is being able to space out my site seeing.
I’m basically an expert at not paying museum admission. Which helps, because even if I only go to one or two museums a week, it adds up quickly!
If you’re in a place for a week, it’s likely that there’s a free or pay-what-you-wish day for the museums in town. There may be free admission for locals and many libraries lend museum passes.
If you’re staying with someone, they may have a museum pass to lend you or be willing to borrow one from the library. I can’t tell you how many CouchSurfing hosts have taken me to museums as their plus one on their pass!
Lots of museums have reciprocal free admission for members of other museums. If you have a membership to a museum, see if there are any other museums you can get in to for free.
Check with your job, professional organizations, and alumni network to see if there are any museum discounts.
The more I travel, the more I’ve grown to love small museums. There’s something about the DIY aesthetic, the personal nature of collections, and the fact that these are usually things I really won’t find in any other city in the world that really gets me. They’re also usually only a few dollars.
Don’t pay for entertainment
Every university, library, and museum has a list of events happening — most of which are free and open to the public. Ask around and you’ll usually get some great tips you would never discover on your own.
There are also tons of meetups in every city. I go to CouchSurfing meetups in most of the cities I visit. Just don’t be that guy who goes to a meetup at a bar and doesn’t get a drink. There’s being smart about your money and there’s being rude.
I have a smartphone in my pocket, which means I have access to thousands of free books, audiobooks, and movies from my library. Really, they stream movies now. Generally, if neither the Toronto Public Library nor the New York Public Library have something, it’s because there’s no digital version. Get a library card.
My work Amazon account has Prime. Since I’m the only one who has access to it (and have no problem with my boss seeing what I’ve binge watched) this means I have access to Amazon Video.
The opera and symphony may not have any free performances during your stay, but they may have a discount ticket program for people under (or over) a certain age.
Don’t pay for wifi
If you have a cell phone plan that charges you for roaming, you need to fix that ASAP. A good international data plan will save you from shelling out for crappy airport or hotel wifi. Working on my phone or using it as a hotspot isn’t ideal, but it does the trick in a pinch.
If you find yourself in airports often, my suggestion is to either slow down your travels or buy a Priority Pass. Lounge access is life changing. All of them have wifi, outlets, food, and booze. Most of them have way more.
There are so many places that have free wifi. It’s not just coffee shops, now it’s just about every restaurant and bar. Even city parks! As long as your laptop is charged and your back doesn’t give out, you can work on the grass.
Don’t pay for transit
My favorite way to get around a city is on foot. I love being able to walk everywhere. Walking around a city is one of the best forms of entertainment. The people watching, the architecture, all the cute dogs. I often pick a somewhat random destination a few miles away and will spend the day meandering there, discovering all sorts of fun things along the way.
Bring snacks from the grocery store, find a nice spot to eat them, and this is a totally free day.
When I fly, take the train, or hop on a bus, my flexible schedule means I can book my travel around travel deals.
I’ve used ride shares to get from one city to another occasionally over the years and always had good experiences. It’s something I need to do more of. While it’s not free, it’s almost always cheaper than the alternatives.
Don’t pay for luggage
You already know that carry-on only is the way to go. Save yourself the baggage fees and the hassle of lugging things around. It also means you can take public transit instead of worrying about a cab.
If you’re traveling with a daypack or duffel bag, it’s easy to leave your bag at a museum locker or coat check for the day. This is almost always free. Sure, you can carry your carry-on around all day, but do you want to? Being able to shed my bag for a few hours has made so many of my day trips so much more enjoyable. Just be sure to pick it up before closing!
Don’t buy stuff
Having a small bag means I don’t have room for souvenirs. It’s rare that I’m tempted to buy anything on my travels. The added hurdle of space means that I pass unless I really want something.
The ‘do I want to wear this every X days for the next X months?’ test has certainly cut down on my shopping. I used to love buying weird stuff at thrift stores, usually items I’d hardly ever wear. Long-term travel has seriously cut down on my wardrobe. I’ve also discovered that nine times out of ten when I spot something I like in a store it’s virtually identical to something I already own. I like what I like and it’s probably black.
Want some souvenirs? Postcards are the answer, my friend. People love getting mail. Send one to your CouchSurfing host from three months ago. Send one to your mom.
When I get gifts I stick with things that are small and edible. I’ll pick up something small and unique from the city I’m in before I stay with them. Locally roasted coffee, booze, and snacks are my go-tos. I can’t resist a terrifying sounding liquor from duty free. They make for fun gifts and no one is stuck with some weird crap they don’t really want.
For me, traveling is just living my regular life, just in a different city. I eat out and go to coffee shops just as often at home as I do on the road — which isn’t great for my budget, but we all have things we decide are important enough to splurge on.