On the Greek island of Paros, you can rent a comfortable, if small, guesthouse room for about $35 per night. Flights from Boston to Paris (at time of writing) ran about $500 round trip, and in most of the world, you can find an excellent meal for less than $5.
The point? Seeing the world is not as daunting as it appears.
Travelers from places like the U.S. and Western Europe enjoy a modern golden age. Cheap oil and rapid expansion have opened up the most affordable flights in history. Visa restrictions have tumbled as nations try to encourage wealthy tourists. And spending a strong currency like the dollar, pound or euro makes most economies a serious discount.
Now, that's good news. The bad news is that there are limits to this philosophy. For all the pixels spilled on this subject sooner or later you run out of good ideas. Or, worse, you reach out for travel hacks that are far more trouble than they're worth.
So let's take a moment or two to talk about how to travel the world on the cheap. And then let's take a moment or two to discuss a few ways you really shouldn't.
How To Travel the World Cheap: 9 Ways
1. It's All About Flexibility
There is no better advice than this: If you want to see the world cheap, adjust your plans to your budget.
Every year travelers spend untold hours scouring the internet for hidden airfare, hoping that the right combination of sites, searches and links will unlock that flight to Rio for $27. They always end up disappointed because, despite what travel sites tell you, they are all the same.* Every online airfare site relies on the same back end set of data. The only distinction is which airlines any given site will search.
If you want to change your output, try changing your input. Instead of searching five different sites, search for five different cities. If you know where you want to go, change the dates of your trip. If you can fly mid-week, by absolutely all means do so. (Tuesday is the cheapest day to fly.)
Build your trip around your budget, not the other way around. This right here is the single best way to save money on your travels.
2. *Check Regional Airlines
Okay, one caveat to the advice we gave above. Most of the time ninja airfare hacks are just a myth. The way to save money on flying is to change your dates or destination because, by and large, the price to get to City A on Date B is just what it is.
Except it is worth looking up regional and budget airlines. These aren't always small operations. "Regional" airline can include significant carriers like Copa Air CPA, Asia's Lion Air or Europe's Ryanair RYAAY or it can mean entirely local airlines that just operate in and out of a single country.
Often online travel sites don't include these carriers in their search results. When planning your trip, try searching Google GOOGL for the smaller airlines that run in and around your destination. They might have a great deal for the last leg of your trip, maybe even good enough to rebuild an itinerary around.
3. Listen to Your Second Instincts
Wherever you want to go, the odds are someone else has thought of going there too. High profile destinations like Machu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower attract millions of visitors. This makes flights expensive, hotels expensive... everything expensive.
You should, by all means, see the world's greatest treasures, but if the cost is an option consider looking for a secondary destination.
Think about what you want to do on this vacation than spend some time looking up alternatives. Would you like to see monuments? Then perhaps search for World Heritage sites, sprawling castles or historic landmarks to think of some you may not have thought of. Is there a particular country you'd like to see? Look up the less-known options for visiting.
The Greek isles deserve every word of praise they receive, but Santorini and Mykonos cost an arm and a leg. Consider budget-conscious Sifnos, Paros or Naxos instead. The Caribbean has everything to offer, and not that many people hit the Virgin Islands. Nice has gorgeous French architecture, as does the northern town of Nantes.
With a little bit of homework, you can have the experience you want without breaking the bank.
4. Stay in Guesthouses and Hostels
Recently I spent an impromptu weekend in Portland, Maine. On this particular trip, I stayed at the downtown Westin, a lovely hotel that I booked pretty much entirely because it offered the best price in town for that particular night. Yet where I wanted to stay was an entirely booked-up hostel set up a few blocks away called the Black Elephant.
I did not expect to type that sentence as a man in his 30s. I vividly recall my days as a student backpacker staying at hostels and thinking of the older travelers, "man, don't be that guy." How things change.
You see, something funny happened over the past 10 - 15 years. The millennial backpackers of 2008 grew up and realized that they like staying in hostels. These travelers have jobs and money. They don't want to stay in dorms anymore, demand a private bathroom and expect a comfortable bed, but they still want to hit the downstairs bar, make a bunch of friends and swap stories late into the night. That's hostel culture at its finest, an experience you can't find at the Four Seasons no matter how high your credit limit.
Hostels increasingly cater to this audience. Many look more like miniature resorts than the creaky, one-blanket barracks of 20 years ago. The Black Elephant that I considered on my trip to Maine does, certainly, offer dorm room options, but alongside private rooms and even a full studio apartment. In southeast Asia, the Lub D chain rivals any local hotel for amenities, and Peru's Pariwana builds its guesthouses in former colonial mansions.
One of the most expensive parts of your trip will be the hotel room. You can cut it to a fraction of the cost by starting your plans on Hostelworld.
5. Maximize Points
Credit card rewards really can help you out when it comes to travel.
Now, this advice can get dangerous. We can't stress enough that you should not use a credit card for the rewards unless you can pay it off. The interest on a significant monthly balance will more than offset any points you get on your card, so do not do this if you can't keep your bill at or near zero.
However, if that's not a concern, a good travel rewards card really can offset a lot of expenses. I use the Venture Rewards Card mostly because it's straightforward. Another good option depending on where you live can be a dedicated airline rewards card. These usually offer the best schemes for reimbursing airfare, and if you live near a major hub or otherwise expect to fly on the same airline a lot this can make great sense. (Just remember that those points won't do much good when a competing airline offers the best fare.)
6. Also, Maximize the Little Things
This is kind of a catchall category, but an important one.
The two biggest expenses on any vacation will typically be hotels and airfare, typically in that order. Dining, food, and drinks will typically come in a solid third. Except for the occasional big-ticket experience, the rest of your trip will generally come in a distant minority compared to these expenses. As a result, it's easy to overlook the little things that can add up in your budget.
That doesn't mean they aren't there.
"Little things" can include fees for checked luggage or using your credit card in a foreign country. It can mean paying for Ubers UBER and (much more rarely) Lyfts LYFT to get around town. It can mean constantly spending money on bars and cafes because you don't want to go back to your hotel. It can mean buying expensive English-language books at tourist shops. It can mean paying double for sundries at a hotel store or triple for laundry if you're traveling that long.
These add up. Pay attention to how you spend your money on a day-to-day basis, and look for little ways to save. It can turn into hundreds of dollars throughout an entire vacation.
As for solutions to the above: Pack light and use a carry-on; get cash, but do so intermittently to minimize ATM fees; learn the subway system if your destination has one; stay someplace you'd enjoy killing time at; find a used book store or bring an e-book, and walk a little ways until you find a store that does mostly local business.
7. Eat Wisely (and Well)
Once again, food and booze will make up a significant line item in your travel budget. That doesn't mean it has to make up a large line item in your travel budget.
Wherever you go, you will want to eat well. But do you imagine that residents take themselves to the Michelin-starred restaurants on an ordinary Friday night? Do they look for the places that have spent the money on multiple translations or a global reputation? Do you, where you live?
Of course not. While you can spend a ton of money on a great meal, virtually every destination on Earth also has a vibrant and cheap food culture. In Greece, you can linger over small plates at an ouzeria for just a handful of euros. Southeast Asian street stalls will offer you some of the best meals of your life for a dollar. Even here in the U.S., our most creative chefs burn their pans in a food truck.
Meanwhile, if you would like to try the high-profile options, try visiting during lunch. This will almost always cost less and you can get the same meal.
As a traveler, it's easy to look for high-profile meals, but that's not necessary. Don't just look for the expensive food… look for the good food.
8. Don't Get Too Drunk
There are few things in life universally true, but here is one: If you want to save money, lay off the sauce.
9. Don't Take Bad Advice
And then there's the bad advice.
See, here's the thing about cheap travel options. Everyone out there has different hacks and gimmicks designed to save you money while you see the world. Much of it is good, but not all.
Some travel hacks just don't work. Others do, but they simply aren't worth the money. Here are two of the worst pieces of common advice that travelers often take (and regret).
• Sleeping in Airports
The first website helpfully tells you whether the adorable animal in any given movie will make it to the end. This is useful. It gives you information both important to know (but what happens to the Westie?) and practical in its application (should you watch this film).
The second website helps you to save money by taking overnight layovers. This is Bad Advice.
Long layovers are an effective way to save money while you travel, and maybe if it's the difference between taking your trip or staying home the layover might be worth it. But rarely. As someone who has spent seemingly countless evenings on assignment trying to get comfortable at Schiphol, Dubai International, Suvarnabhumi, and many more airports, I can tell you that this is a miserable way to save a buck. Nine times out of 10, pony up the extra $80.
• Go Off-Season
Would you like to know why nobody visits Cambodia in November? It isn't because they roll up Angkor Wat for the winter. It's because of four months out of the year southeast Asia rains. It rains, rains, rains and then, for a change of pace, it pours.
Now, to be entirely honest, I love spending monsoon season in Siem Reap. The Angkor landscape was built as an immense waterworks designed to channel the water that turned Khmer society into an empire. Most people have more sense than me. They would rather not take their vacation in the pouring rain.
It sure is cheap though.
"Offseason adventures" are a clichéd bit of travel advice that recommends you see the world when everybody else stays home. Like sleeping in airports, it gets right the idea that you can save a bit of money by traveling this way. Also like sleeping in airports, it ignores the sheer amount of misery you have to endure. There's a reason people stay home during the offseason. Whether that's Peru in July, the Cyclades in April or Angkor Wat in November, the offseason is when a destination is at its worst.
Yes, you will save some money. Will you have any fun?