Budget Backpackers: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

There’s a much less sexy side to backpacking. Behind all of the kissing photos in front of the Eiffel Tower or candid photos in front of Nyhavn, Copenhagen was a lot of planning, budgeting, and constant searching for the lowest prices on food, the cheapest hostels, the best flights, and the most effecient transportation to and from each place. Actually, while travelling, budgeting makes up the vast majority of your time and energy. It’s the thing not enough people tell you about travel. They’re quick to write stories about how eye-opening it is to see other cultures, or to blog about how fun trying new experiences are, but not enough seasoned travellers mention how much time they spend on Skyscanner, Momondo, Hostelworld, booking.com, coughsurfing.com, workaway.com, etc.

As much as your romantic heart is ready to binge on a steady dose of Kerouac-idealism, if you don’t properly plan and budget nearly everything you do you will be out of money and asking your parents for money to get you home before you know it. A few days of mis-budgeted travel in expensive places (I’m looking at you United Kingdom and Scandanavia), can easily cost you a month of budget travel. Seriously. We spent as much money in three days in Scotland as we had in an entire month in Romania. That said, we were able to budget and save well enough to spend nine months continuously travelling, and along the way we got to take all those cheeky photos in front of World Heritage sights and eat and drink our way through Europe. If you want to know how we did it, here’s how to budget travel like a pro.

To start, we saved for a long time. I started my first “Paris Fund” my sophmore year of college (Ok, once I used most of it for burgers, but it was still there). We both put away savings money for years without actually knowing what we would spend it on. Once we decided to travel, we stopped celebrating Margarita Monday and Taco Tuesday and went for huge crock pot dinners that would last for days. We were both working 50 hours a week, on completely opposite schedules, so we rarely had time to spend our money anyways.

Two weeks before we left, I haulled my “Paris Fund” and Ryan’s piggy bank to Wells Fargo for it to be counted. We were ecstatic to hear the teller say we had $500. We decided to exchange it for Euros and Pounds and were less happy to see that we lost around $100. This was our first realization that budgeting was going to be in the forefront of our travels. The US Dollar is comparable to the Euro, but you will still lose a few cents on every dollar, which adds up quickly. As for the British pound, the exchange rate really hurts for US citizens. Prices in the UK are comparable to the US, but when you factor in that everything is about 40% more expensive because of the exchange rate, your hard earned and carefully saved money dissapears quickly.

Our original trip was for ten days – London, Paris, Munich, and Copenhagen. Four friends, four cities. Then, after a few long days at work, we made the leap to travel until we ran out of money. Ten days turned into somehwere close to 300 days. Four cities turned into 18 countries, 2 states, and nearly 50 cities. In order to make that happen though, we had to change the way we traveled. Short trips for leisure can include hotel packages, vintage botles of wine, Michelin star restaurants, or expensive nights out on the city. But travelling for longetivty, vagando for as long as possible, means budgeting and planning each and every stage of the trip. A cheaper flight means more money for hostels in another country. A cheaper meal means three or four cheaper meals somehwere else. Every dollar saved equates to another experience, another sight, another country, and new friends. We would have to skip lunch at Noma, because that lunch equals easily a week of travel in cheaper countries, but that’s how you have to think when you are trying to travel for as long as possible.

Traveling until you run out of money is not for everyone and we would only suggest it if you are ready to commit. Once you’ve made the committment though, you have to choose what you are willing to spend your money on. We chose to spend our money on beer and history. Anyone who knows us knows that we are history buffs and craft beer fans. Therefore, we knew going in that we would drink whatever the locals drink and visit as many World War II sites as possible. Other things like art museums, expensive dinners, or churches would fall to the wayside. One of our travel rules is to never pay for churches. There are hundreds of thousands of beautiful, ancient churches, mosques, cathedrals, or synogogues all over Europe and most of them are free. It’s not worth paying for one. Save all that money for another round of drinks.

When we look at how much we spent and divide it into days it came out to be around $40 a day. I actually thought it would be much more and I was pleasantly surprised by that number. The guy from nomadicmatt.com wrote the book about travelling the world on $50 a day, which means you’re getting our advice for free and actually saving $10 a day.  You’re welcome. Our price mostly averages out that way because we did Workaway, where we spent almost no money for weeks at a time. This makes up for the massive amount of money spent of transportation or those more expensive cities (Hmph, hmph, Stockholm).

Now to the meat and bones of budget travelling. Your major expense, especially if you want to visit as many different places as possible during your travels, is going to be transportation. There’s no way to avoid it: transportation is going to cost a lot of money. We did our best to do it as cheaply as possible, but it is still by far what we spent the most on. It can be a lot more expensive, though, unless you take some of our hard earned advice.

We orignally booked one-way tickets to Europe – Los Angeles to London Gatwick. I know what you’re thinking: “But I thought you lived in Boulder?” A major theme for budget traveling is to be creative. It was actually cheaper for us to fly to L.A., stay a few nights with friends, and then fly to London than it was to fly straight from Denver. ¡Vagar mis amigos! Go where the cheap flights take you and enjoy the ride, you’ll get to your destination eventually.

The tickets to and from Europe are relatively cheap if you choose the right airlines and the right cities. Paris, London, and Oslo are major hubs to fly into. We flew into London with Norweigian Air and flew out of Paris eight months later with XL France. For those tickets, round trip airfare to Europe we paid $1,300. We highly recommend Norwegian Air, especially their LowFare Calendar. For a bonus tip, if you change your country of origin to the UK rather than the US you can save even more money. With the exchange rate, we saved about $100 on both of our tickets. 

Once you are in Europe flights are even cheaper. RyanAir and Wizz Air have cheap flights all over Europe. However, all the budget airlines charge you $30 for bags, close to the price of your ticket. Save even more money by bringing a bag that fits into carry on.  I bought a Kelty Redwing 44L backpack and it doesn’t always count as a carry on, which means that the two of us constantly paid the baggage fee, which could have saved us hundreds of dollars had we brought smaller bags or planned better.

All of these cheap flights exist, but you will have to spend some time searching. Forget Travelocity or Orbitz. New age websites collect all of those prices, plus hundreds more. And those sites are rarely the cheapest flight. Here’s how to it:

1. Check momondo.com.

2.Check Skyscanner.com

3. Choose the cheapest option. Double-check the airline’s website in case they have a promotion or a cheaper price straight from their site. Make sure you double check the baggage fee deal and make sure you are getting the right ticket. We once bought cheap tickets with AirBerlin, only to find out that our tickets didn’t include baggage even though the site said it did, and then had to pay a $70 baggage fee at the airport. It would have been chaper to fly on a luxury flight. But you can learn from our mistakes!

Skyscanner has a great option if you truly want to vagando. You can select a departure city and then choose to fly everywhere and it will give you the cheapest option by month. We met a guy who flew from Romania to Portugal for 5 Euros simply by using this option. The flights are rarely that cheap, but it is certainly possible. And don’t forget to be creative and find linking flights. Stay a night somewhere and take the cheaper flight a day or two later and visit two places along the way.

If you search all these sites and nothing quite works, then be patient and check again. Prices change constantly, so if you’re checking far enough in advance then you have time to wait for the right price. The best time to search for flights is 6-8 weeks before the flight. Airlines tend to start with high prices and raise the prices again just before the flight, so 6-8 weeks is the sweet spot for cheaper flights.

Okay, maybe flying isn’t for you. It’s a hassle to check in and out and no one knows how to move through security fast enough. Come on people, I’ve got sights to see! Then another option is to buy a railpass. $1,000 is a steep price, but worth it if you commit to consistently travelling via rail. Given our circumstances, we didn’t purchase a pass. We were committed to several Workaways and wouldn’t be moving enough in the first few months to justify the price. However, had we just been sight seeing and moving consistently, it would have been the better choice. Trains can be oddly more expensive that flights in certain places, especially in Spain and the UK.

If you don’t buy a rail pass but find a good priced ticket, buy it! The price will go up each day after midnight. If you can’t tell, this happened to us more than it should have. The tickets will literally double, even triple in price within 12 hours of the departure. Thanks a lot, UK trains.

One of the best budget transportation methods are buses. There is a wide discrepancy is bus quality, though. Some are luxurious, and some are a small van fitting 10 people that drives away from a gas station with you still inside waiting on your Subway sandwich to be made (Romania). Traveling by bus is cheap, but usually uncomfortable, especially long trips. It seems like a great idea to take a night bus so you don’t have to pay for a room that night, but it’s not. You won’t sleep on a bus. Stop kidding yourself. And since you can’t rest when you get to your destination you’ll pay way too much on coffee the next 2 days to power through all your sight seeing and partying.

The only bus we would recommend without a doubt is LuxBus. It’s cheaper than many other buses, but there’s free tea, water, and coffee. They give you free headphones to use with you own personal TV. If that is not enough, they have leg room. It’s an absolute bus oasis. Unfortunately it only operates in Eastern Europe, but it’s defintely the way to travel.

Finding buses and trains is easy using goeuro.com or rome2rio.com. However, it can be difficult naviagating local buses, which oftentimes are not translated into English. The bus stops can be a little hard to understand (they aren’t as clearly identified as you might think) and outside the UK the driver will all but guaranteed not speak English, so you better know where you’re going and when to stop before you get on. Good news is that if you’re friendly and honest, someone on the bus probably does speak English and will help let you know when to get off!

Bonus tip: All of these websites will track you and raise their prices so it is very very important that you use the incognito setting on your browser and delete your cookies after using them. This sounds like a no brainer, but I forgot all the time because I was obsessively looking at them every day. Once you delete your cookies, the prices will often drop by several dollars.

Outside of public transportation, there is another underworld of private citizens who can give you a ride. Person to person travel is an amazing way to meet people, get there quicker, and save some money. In the States we do not usually invite strangers into our cars, but in Europe it is quite common. We met many people who decided to hitchhike around, one guy in Romania going all the way through the Balkans by hitchhiking. We did it once in Bulgaria, but for the most part we avoided it. I can honestly say I am not a big fan. A great site for getting a lift is BlaBlacar.com. People offer lifts to places they are already driving to and you pay depending on the milage. It may seem a bit dodgy, but everyone who has given us a ride has been great! They are a local and can always tell you the best places to eat and what to see. This differs from Uber in that you are basically just joining someone already driving somewhere and you offer gas money. It’s a rideshare, not a taxi service. They typically won’t take you directly to your destination, but will usually drop you off right downtown. To make the most of the website, make sure to add a picture of yourself and try to book a ride about a week out.

Okay, now you’ve made it your destination. You saved a bunch of money on your international flight by flying Norwegian Air and then you skipped the expensive London Gatwick Express and you booked a BlaBlaCar to London like a champ. Your ride drops you off near Victoria Station, and now all you have to do is get to your hostel (which you booked direct like a pro without us even telling you). Then you find out that London is an incredible sprawling mess of a city and your hostel is actually an hour and a half walk from Victoria Station. Welcome to Europe. You have a massive backpack on and everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road and yelling at you to get out of the way on the escalator. Relax. Vagando. And read our next post for how to maximize your sightseeing days, with insider tips on how to travel in cities (you’ll learn to love to walk) and how to save money on food and accommodation throughout Europe.

¡Feliz Vagando!








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