Traveling frugally doesn’t have to mean an around-the world-tour of McDonald’s or sharing communal bathrooms with sweaty, barefooted men and loud teens living up their gap year. For me, traveling is a high priority—the one thing I save my money for and take time off to do. But traveling takes cash and lately there’s been a lot more outs than ins in my bank account, so I set out to find some creative ways to travel on the cheap.
Work while you travel
Maybe you’re a nomad at heart, maybe you’re looking for cultural immersion, or maybe you just want an opportunity to polish up your Spanish. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms lets travelers exchange their help around a house or farm for a free place to stay and eat—and the chance to learn about organic, sustainable living around the world. All it takes is joining the organization’s chapter in the country you’re headed toward (the fee is usually under $50) and it’ll send you a list of farms that need some extra help.
WorkAway is an option for those of us with a not-so-green thumb. This site sets up similar work exchanges, where volunteers commit to five hours a day and, in exchange, hosts provide food and housing. Work spans a variety of jobs—painting, babysitting, yard work—and the site operates sort of like Craigslist; you sift through the listings and respond directly to ones you like. The great thing about a work exchange is that you can set it up for however long you want. Traveling through Asia? Schedule one per week, and you’ll have a diverse trip with free food and housing. As an added bonus, you’ll be helping local economies and getting a chance to be immersed in the culture.
Travel while you work
Despite the dismal economy, the tourism industry is still booming in many places, and industries like cruise lines, tour agencies, and summer camps are looking for people to show travelers a good time. CruiseJobFinder links you (the adventurous English speaker) with adventure travel companies around the world. Gigs include bike tours in Germany, glacier hikes in Alaska, and even working as a chef on a ship. Summer camps are less permanent, but still a smart choice since housing and food are usually included. Two popular international camps that hire English speakers are SuperCamp and ActionQuest.
Another option is working as an au pair. “It’s a great way to live abroad,” says Veronica Weber, who took on a position in Spain after graduating. “I have all of Europe right at my fingertips with my living expenses covered.” She recommends doing extensive research before committing (she found her family through greataupair.com) and being aware that you will be actually working. “The kids are definitely a handful and learning a language takes a lot of studying,” she says. “Choose a family that has had previous au pairs you can contact for a reference.”
Slash the biggest cost
Hotel costs, that is. There are a lot of creative ways to do this, too. “We did a house swap through Craigslist,” says Meredith Brown. “We switched houses with a couple from Tuscany, paid absolutely nothing, and stayed in a comfy little home in an Italian village.” Besides Craigslist, there are a few sites dedicated to making the swap run smoothly. HomeLink and HomeExchage.com are good places to start.
A new option for those of us without a home to swap is the Couch Surfing Project, an international network of people who’ve made their couch available for travelers to crash on. It’s totally free and the only commitment users have is to open up their own couches in exchange for surfing others’.
Sites like kayak.com line up the hotel deals from multiple travel sites to find the cheapest. But don’t forget to compare the travel sites’ offers with the official hotel Web site; sometimes they’ll have an even better deal. If at all possible, travel in the off-season. Midweek stays at resorts are usually cheaper than weekends, and vice versa for urban resorts.
This is another biggie in terms of cost. “The earlier you book, the better deal you’re going to get,” says Patrick Evans, marketing communications coordinator at STA travel. “As the supply of seats goes down, cost goes up.” But what about getting online in the middle of the night to find the lowest price, or booking last minute to save more? “It’s highly unlikely that the price is going to go down,” says Evans. He recommends signing up for one of STA’s discount cards if you’re eligible. There’s one for students, another for youth (anyone under twenty-six), and another for teachers. “They’re $22 and you easily make that up in one flight,” says Evans. “I saw one flight from San Francisco to Rome last week that was $150 less with the card.”
Or you could fly as a courier. Doing this allows you to fly internationally for as much as 50 percent less—or free. Courier companies need people to transport documents and baggage quickly to another city (that is what they do), but purchasing an airline ticket is cheaper than freight, and a passenger can pass through customs faster. That’s where you come in. You become said courier, transporting what needs to be transported and after delivering the goods, you’ll find yourself on the other end of a free (or nearly free) round-trip plane ride.
Cut the little costs
You know, the expenses that quietly amass until your card’s getting declined as you try to buy another round of drinks for your newfound Danish friends? There are some tactics for keeping these out under control:
- Try to swing a room with a kitchen and commit to eating in for two of your daily meals.
- Get even more bang for your dining buck by making lunch your splurge. Prices are usually cheaper midday for the same food.
- Get an international youth or student card if you qualify. “If you travel a lot, you’ll save a tremendous amount of money,” says Evans. “For example, cardholders get a 50 percent discount on Park-n-Fly.”
- Go local. Ask a waiter or the girl at the front desk where she goes for happy hour. If you make the extra effort to leave the tourist strip, prices are likely to drop fast.
Explore the Internet’s riches
The Web has transformed travel planning to comparison shopping. Meta-search engines like SideStep and Kayak scour multiple Web sites for hotels, flights, cruises, and car rentals. InsideTrip rates airfare based on the number of stops, legroom, aircraft age, and whether you have to take a bus to the gate. (I hate taking the bus to the gate.) Many sites also allow users to sign up for email alerts about our dying-to-go-there destinations, which means I’ll get an email when flight fares to India plummet. Yapta notifies users when the price of a flight drops into their range and—if you buy yours through the site—it lets you know if the price drops low enough that you’re eligible for a refund.
Join the club
With so much competition among bargain sites, every hotel, airline, and rental car company is vying for your loyalty with extra incentives. And it’s usually no more than a matter of supplying your email to become eligible.
Joining a hotel loyalty group can give you goodies like free upgrades and complementary nights. Southwest gives you a free roundtrip after you fly eight roundtrips with them. AAA membership holders can cash in on hotels, restaurants, and attraction discounts around the world.
Speaking of joining the club, credit card miles can be a goldmine for free travel. My parents own a business and charge every expense through their American Advantage card. This allows them to earn miles constantly and build up enough to take a great vacation, virtually for free, each summer. The miles cover more than just flights, too. They use them for hotels, eating out, tours, and attractions. Granted, you do have to spend the money to get the miles, but, if you’re spending it anyway, why not get some free travel for it?
Traveling isn’t a luxury for only the rich, but a possibility for everyone. It’s just about knowing how to get there and back with your finances in check, which is often as easy as a few minutes on Google.