Walking into the gym locker room the other day, I was hit with a musty, damp odor that reminded me of the “wet towel” stench shared by hostel bathrooms across the world—a smell I’ve encountered countless times in my travels. It almost felt like I was journeying abroad again (minus the sweaty patrons and “YMCA” playing over the loudspeaker).
Granted, the cleanliness and crowdedness of hostels can leave something to be desired, but I’ve never felt like more of a traveler than when I was sleeping in a bunk bed among fellow bedraggled backpackers. Despite some people’s aversion to vacationing so frugally, there’s no question that it brings a level of excitement and authenticity to trips that isn’t found in first class or hotels. Besides, a lack of funds shouldn’t prevent us from exploring the great unknown—in fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to experience the many merits of budget traveling.
1. Budget-friendly hostels are great places to make new, diverse friends.
Remember living in the dorms? Staying at a hostel is similar to that, including the need for shower shoes. It can be cramped and noisy, but you’re also surrounded by friendly people equally eager to explore new territory. Hostel dwellers share travel stories and advice around dining tables, not to mention their diverse cultural backgrounds. Chances are you’ll never come across so many different ethnicities as you do staying in communal settings. Hotels are nice and private, but the likelihood of meeting travel buddies is low and the experience itself is pretty cookie-cutter. A night or two in a hostel will leave you with at least one captivating story to tell your friends and family later.
2. Avoiding pricey airfare lets you see new terrains instead.
Obviously, it’s not possible to cross oceans via train or bus, but for traveling within countries, it’s worth looking into. Airplanes provide much quicker trips, but there’s a lot of beautiful scenery that’s missed thousands of feet in the air. The train ride from Germany to the Netherlands felt quite long at times, but I also saw breathtaking views and tiny hamlets I would’ve never known existed. It’s also a fun way to meet new people. I’ve had great conversations and card games with cabin mates. Just don’t attempt to play Texas Hold ’Em when there’s no shared language—I learned this one the hard way.
3. Walking everywhere is a convenient form of exercise (and it’s free!).
Akin to choosing trains over planes, walking to destinations in lieu of public transportation or taxis introduces travelers to unique neighborhoods and gives them a real taste of city life free of charge. It’s also an easy way to stay fit while on the road. People tend to eat out more and indulge while vacationing, but not everyone wants to return home with a few extra pounds as souvenirs. If it’s possible to walk (not all places are stroll-friendly) and it allows a guilt-free second or third trip to that famous local bakery, what better reason to lace up your walking shoes?
4. Street vendors dish up tasty, affordable morsels of culture.
One of the best meals I had on my journey abroad was in Paris, and it wasn’t at a fancy restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower. It was a savory cheese crepe I bought from a cart on the way to a museum. In fact, my favorite travel food memories all involve street food and makeshift picnics. Stepping away from the restaurants and trying out curbside cuisine is the best way to sample regional fare. It’s cheap, convenient, and offers a taste of what the locals eat when they’re on the go. Fine dining is a treat, but people watching in a new place with a packaged sandwich or two is an experience that’s hard to beat.
5. A tight wallet will inspire creativity, spontaneity, and fun.
Most people go to a city to see its famous attractions, such as the Empire State Building in New York or the Coliseum in Rome. Landmarks like these are culturally and historically important, but they’re often overpriced and swarming with tourists—not exactly a true glimpse into city life. There’s no need to fret if you can’t see it all and stay within budget. Skipping a few of the expensive and overpopulated tourist attractions makes discovering hidden gems possible. Give up the guidebook and simply walk and explore instead. It introduces you to new spots that aren’t in Frommer’s or Lonely Planet. To understand what makes a city tick, you have to go where its people are—usually, anywhere the tourists aren’t.
Spontaneous mini-adventures seem to happen a lot more when traveling frugally. Because money is limited, budget-minded vacationers have to get creative with their destinations and ideas for exciting things to do. Being forced to look beyond the scope of obvious tourist activities is never a bad thing—rather, it’s a chance to make your own fun by stretching your imagination. My travel mate and I were down to our last Euro in Amsterdam and couldn’t afford to see Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. We decided to traverse the park near our hostel instead and stumbled upon a beautiful lake and a free movie museum. You never know where your feet will carry you when leave your options open.
There are downsides to budget traveling—the lack of quiet space in hostels, long train rides—but the benefits, such as making connections with people all over the world, outweigh them. Steering clear of tourist trap restaurants and exploring cities on foot instead of on tour buses makes you feel more connected to cities and their people—and isn’t that why we embark on journeys to unknown lands in the first place? It also creates some extra spending cash for souvenirs and treats, which are longer-lasting investments than a night in a hotel. Remember, a cheap vacation won’t feel that way if you recognize the wealth of wonderful experiences it has to offer.