Imagine you quit your job, sell your belongings and book a one-way flight. Scary? Yes, it was. We’ve now passed the 12-month mark of our travels and that very exciting day over a year ago that realised all of our planning and dreaming now seems so far behind us. I can hear the scepticism in many of you as you read this. No, you don’t have to be a rich kid to pursue your dream, yes you need to work and save hard, and no you don’t need to worry about what will be when you return. You will be a different person when (if) you return, full of experience, new stories, new ideas, new skills and the job you left behind may now be the last thing you think about.
Here are a few tips from our travels across North, Central and South America to help you afford to travel cheap for a year (or more) and experience your chosen destination as a local.
MAKE A BUDGET
But be realistic. Do your own research on how much accommodation, food and transport will cost you in the destination you’ll travel. Be prepared for unexpected costs like visa fee’s, transport to and from airports and bus terminals and don’t forget to allow for the adventures & attractions, they are usually quite pricey. Once you think you’re close to a realistic budget, add 10%.
TALK TO PEOPLE
Interacting with locals is the best way to get to know the country. It’s not only for your benefit, you’ll find they are also interested in you. Learn the local language or a part of it and show them your appreciation. You may gain from it a dinner, a present, free accommodation and a new friend. Also ask other backpackers for advice along the way, no matter how much research you’ve done, someone that’s been there before you will know better. Don’t follow your travel guide religiously, things change and the best hostel or bus timetable printed in the last addition of Lonely Planet is now most probably out of date.
DO NOT SHOW OFF
You are a tourist even if you try not to be. Especially outside of western countries. In Latin America you will be a gringo no matter how hard you try, but that’s ok, most locals will be very happy and proud that you are experiencing their country. I know many people may say “I’m not rich, I’m travelling on a budget” but you’ve already afforded to leave your country and that’s a big enough reason for locals to see you as rich. Just make sure you don’t wave it in their faces with your expensive camera or it won’t be yours for long.
To be honest, without volunteering we would not have been able to stretch our travels for such a long time. And it has been some of the best experiences we’ve had during our travels. There are many websites offering volunteering positions, but the one we’ve used most is Workaway.info. Non profit organisation matching hosts and volunteers all around the world. The most common exchange is around 25 hours per week for your accommodation and in some cases meals as well. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a super skilled graphic designer or professional carpenter, there are plenty of opportunities for people with many different skills or people at least willing to learn new things and some as simple as cleaning or reception work.
We have been lucky enough to experience a great range of volunteer jobs in the past year. Starting with a whale watching camp in Canada where we saw orcas and humpbacks every day. In Portland, we helped with restoring a Victorian era house from the 1890’s, we painted an apartment for our first ever time in Seattle. We worked with cheerful Mayan ladies in Guatemala who spoke zero English and most recently helped with social media and marketing for a Spanish school in Colombia. With enough luck you can even make some extra money from tips.
Traveling from A to C, via B can end up being quite expensive, but here are a few options that may help you to make it more affordable.
Hitchhiking – not recommended everywhere but from our experience we hitched pretty much everywhere in British Colombia, Canada with no issues. We met generous, friendly people who were more worried about us, then we were. We’ve heard amazing life stories, had great laughs and memories to last forever.
A few tips for first time hitchhikers:
trust your intuition
Smile when you hitch (you wont believe how much it helps)
Look into people’s eyes
Talk, break the barrier
Don’t set an exact drop off spot. Write a sign for south, north, etc.
Don’t have set plans as you may not make them, or something even better may come up.
In North America and other western countries, they are nothing to be excited about but are usually the cheapest form of transport. In the US we found Mega Bus and Boltbus to be cheaper, cleaner and more comfortable than the old Greyhounds. In Central America get ready for some amazing experiences on chicken buses. Retired old North American school buses now converted from the boring yellow to every imaginable colour and decorated with all sorts of pictures, religious ornaments and stuffed toys. They are one of the most fun and cheapest transports in Latin America, though usually packed with way too many people, live stock and all sorts of shopping and supplies. It will be sweaty, loud, slow and uncomfortable but definitely worth the experience.
Mostly found in North America, ride shares are either Facebook groups or official website such as Pop Ride Share offering rides from random people traveling from the Point A to B needing to share fuel cost.
Each big city in Canada or USA have similar pages you need to request the membership and start looking. For an example in Canada click here.
Buying a vehicle
A great way to explore more places without spending a fortune on car rentals. It gives you great freedom and if you’re traveling longer it will save you money. Of course every country has their own rules for insurance and registration so lots of research is important prior purchase. We bought a van in the USA, build a bed in it and drove across 11 states. We saved a lot on transport and accommodation, and managed to see much more than we would have without it. For more details about purchasing a car in the USA as a foreigner click here for our article.
Probably you have already experienced that this amazing service is much more affordable than local taxis in your home town. Well, it will not be a difference in other places. Uber is not yet available in all of North, Central or South America, but most of the bigger towns and cities have it. If you are not a member click here and and get $5 off your first ride.
Share groceries and cooking
Just like at home, it’s nearly always cheaper (Mexico was an exception) to cook for yourself and even cheaper when cooking as a group. You don’t have to travel in a group but if you make friends and end up staying in one place longer it’ll save a lot and is a great way to get to know people.
Eat with locals
It’s nice to eat out but go for local restaurants rather than touristy places. You’ll find the food is better, more authentic and a lower price. You’ll also be nicely surprised how many people will be willing to talk to you and maybe even invite you out or shout you a drink.
Cut your alcohol and coffee consumption
I know you are on holiday and drinking beer after a big hike or a glass of wine at sunset is nice. After 12 months it’s still so hard to say no sometimes but imagine you are doing that every day, drinking less alcohol will definitely lower your budget.
The biggest saving for us was the free accommodation through volunteering, you can’t beat it! When we do need to pay though we usually look firstly on Airbnb. As a couple it works out better value than hostels a lot of times and you get to interact with locals more. If you are new to Airbnb, sign up here and get AUD$50 off your first accommodation.
Stay with locals. We’ve stayed with some great people along our travels, either people we’ve met through volunteering, old friends or friends of friends. It’s so nice to break up the nights at hostels and be treated like family.
Camping. If you’re willing to carry the tent and everything that goes along with it than you’ll save some money and get in to some more remote places.
Hostels are not always as cheap as you’d expect. We found that they were totally out of our budget in North America though from Mexico down they’ve been great. Always a good way to socialise and learn from other traveller’s experiences and mistakes. You’ll find great local advice from most hostels and sometimes even have breakfast included and free tours. Hostelworld offers a great selection of hostels anywhere in the world.
Tip: We have experienced that a few hostels in Central America prefer if you contact them via Facebook than book room via a booking website as they try to avoid the commission fee. Search for a particular hostel on Facebook and privately message them if they have any availability. You may find that the room is slightly cheaper.
Couchsurfing – another amazing way to meet locals and travellers in one. May be a bit scary the first time, so our advice would be to go for the same gender you are, pick a person with a lot of references and photos and ask questions if you are not sure about things.
If you are experiencing no responses from selected hosts, try to not just copy & paste one message to all of them. Read the profile carefully and write a nice personal message why you would like to meet him/her. If you are new to CS, be honest, express your thoughts, doubts, ideas in the profile.
There are certainly ways you can make some extra money along your travels. Think about your skills, talents or hobbies, one of them may come in handy.
If you are a great cook, you can suggest cooking for people in hostels and ask for a reasonable price. May not make a lot, but it may cover your food for couple of days.
Yoga teachers, fitness trainers were pretty much needed everywhere we’ve travelled. You can simply create your own class by donation in any place you go. Do not ask for a lot of money, don’t forget, lots of people are on backpackers budgets as well.
Musicians, dancers, performers, basking is one the oldest professions.
This advice comes from our experiences and many amazing times we’ve had.
We hope this helps you to start and see the world. Trust us, it is amazing.