Ten real budget travel tips

Do you continually feel wanderlust’s pull but fear that you don’t have enough money to see the world?

Your fears, thankfully, are misplaced. Despite the mainstream travel media’s concerted, ongoing effort to make you think that travel is solely the domain of the rich, it is actually possible to travel well for surprisingly little money–and not just in those places where good deals are plentiful.

If saving money is your first goal, always do advance research by perusing published articles and guidebooks covering your intended destinations. Also be sure to take a look around the budget-oriented travel media. The Guardian’s budget travel guide is very likely the best English-language newspaper for budget travel advice. The Guardian does an especially great job of focusing on budget travel itineraries and showing readers, step-by-step, how to travel well while remaining on a tight budget.

Following are ten general tips to help you travel for far less than you think you’ll need to spend. Later this week I’ll look at some local budget travel techniques that are little-known outside of their home territories, which will provide a useful supplement to this post.

1. Hostels and low-price hotel chains. Increasingly these days, hostels boast individual rooms, some with their own toilets and showers. So even if you’re no longer interested in early morning dance parties, don’t write off hostels. Many of these new hostels are also quite stylish, which means that in many locales ratty, filthy hostels are finally facing price point competition. Also of note are the newish budget hotel chains, like Tune Hotels (Indonesia, Malaysia, UK) and easyHotel (UK, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus, United Arab Emirates). With advance booking, these no-frills hotels can be huge money-savers.

2. Empty university dorm rooms. Many universities offer their rooms for very affordable rates during those stretches of time when there are no students around. Some of these rooms show up on booking sites and others can only be reserved through the universities themselves. During the summer of 2007, I stayed in a university dorm in Vienna for €19. My private room was clean and spacious, with appealing modernist touches.

3. Private home stays. Airbnb is the newest and slickest arrival on the scene, a well organized and very attractive listings site that allows proprietors and guests alike to comment on each other’s performance as hosts and guests. This social media function makes Airbnb especially useful for quality control. In many destinations, tourist boards organize private home stays; in some others, guest rooms are advertised by locals. Guidebooks should help you figure out the best way to go about securing reservations in private rooms. As always, use common sense.

4. Volunteer tourism, or Voluntourism. This tourism/volunteering hybrid has taken off in the past decade. To give but one example, Andaman Discoveries’ volunteer gigs in southern Thailand charge around $210 for a week of on-the-ground volunteering. That charge includes accommodation, many meals, and airport transfer. Check out VolunTourism.org for more information.

5. Couchsurfing. This free accommodation option is the ideal recession-era budget travel trick. It’s a free and very popular way to bed down. Though there are a number of couchsurfing sites, CouchSurfing is the granddaddy of the movement. Couchsurfing fans get starry-eyed when discussing the practice, which depends on peer review and typically prompts guests to contribute something (like meals or a service) to their temporary hosts.6. WWOOF. This strange acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is a fantastic organization that pairs up farm hands with work opportunities on farms, providing room and board in exchange for labor. WWOOF currently lists farms in 100 countries and territories around the world. Many people get involved with WWOOF in a kind of quasi-apprenticeship manner, though the organization is open to travelers.

7. Social media. Travel bloggers are notoriously friendly and forthcoming with their tips and their time. Reach out to travel writers whose articles you’ve liked and strike up a friendly rapport. Approach them respectfully and you’ll usually find that travel writers love to share their knowledge. Scour Twitter for interesting people in the destinations on your itinerary. Be friendly and make contact. The likelihood that you’ll meet someone who will give you some tips for interesting local action is high. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone who will show you around, treat you to a meal, and drink a cheap bottle of something or other with you.

8. Supermarkets and street food. You don’t have to eat in restaurants while you’re on the road. Supermarkets, public food markets, and street food can all help you save money while traveling. In many places, you will find fresher produce in markets than in restaurants. Public food markets and street food provide a route into local culture and are usually quite inexpensive. Follow the crowds for the freshest and tastiest grub.

9. Hitchhiking. All the caveats apply. Be prepared, be careful, use your judgment, and embark on your hitchhiking adventure with a friend. Beyond the shared cost of fuel, hitchhiking is more or less free. It is a great way to meet locals and learn about the places you’re visiting.

10. Home exchange. Swapping your residence with another is far easier than it sounds. Home exchange networks charge an annual membership fee, which allows a place of residence to be listed. Once a listing is in place, members organize exchanges with each other. The net result? Free accommodation. And sometimes intercontinental friendships. Home exchange networks include HomeExchange.com, INTERVac, and International Home Exchange Network. See this article (written, to be fully forthcoming, by my first cousin!) for one family’s experience with home exchange.

[Image: Flickr / ArchiM]

7 alternative European accommodation options

If you love to travel but are having difficulty finding a way to pay for that trip to Europe, consider some alternative lodging options. Not only will these unconventional options save you a few bucks, but you’re bound to end up with some amazing stories in the process, since everyone else stays at hotels … but YOU were far more resourceful.

Convents and Monasteries

In Italy there are over 400 convents and monasteries located in both metropolitan cities and in the countryside, all of which offer incredible savings. Many cost as little as $40 dollars a night, while some ask only for a voluntary donation or assistance on the grounds in lieu of a room charge. This is a great way to save money while enjoying the beauty of historic — really historic — buildings.

Convents and Monastery resources

Farm Stays
Staying on a working farm is very popular in Britain, France, Spain and Italy and can offer savings along with a unique cultural experience. In addition, this vacation will work your muscles, too, so you’ll actually come home fitter than when you left!

Farm stay resources

  • Budget Travel has a nice primer on the subject.
  • GoNomad has a thorough roundup (with contact information) for numerous farm stay opportunities.
  • Reid’s Guides also has an excellent roundup of farm stay options.
  • Agritourism.net leads you directly to the home pages of those farms offering rooms for rent.

Home Exchange
Don’t rent a room; stay in a house! If you’re willing to offer your home to someone else to stay in, you can have access to thousands of listings, which can include homes, motorhomes — even boats — in dozens of European countries.

Home exchange resources

Hospitality Exchange
Couchsurfing is a network that connects travelers who host each other in their homes. This allows for a more social experience, since you’re hanging out in someone’s home with them. There is no cost, and the database can match you up by interest as well as by location.

Hospitality exchange resources

  • Couchsurfing is hands-down the leader in this lodging option.
  • However, the Times Online has a nice explanation of the process and lists several alternatives to this already alternative lodging style.


If you’re looking for an opportunity to immerse yourself deeply in a foreign culture, there are many programs that allow you to volunteer your time in exchange for free accommodations.

Volunteer resources

  • Europe Up Close has a nice overview of the process and some suggested organizations.
  • Transitions Abroad hosts numerous “volunteer reports” so you can learn what the experience is truly like.
  • United Planet lists volunteer options by destination and by duration of stay.
  • Workaway.info is a database that lists a variety of volunteer opportunities in over 24 European countries, in a range of fields.

Organic Farming

If you have a strong interest in organic farming, then there are several options for you. In exchange for lodging, guests are expected to help work on the farm. On the face of it, “work on the farm” doesn’t sound like a vacation, but spending some time outside with animals in a rural setting seems pretty idyllic to us.

Organic farming resources

  • WWOOF offers opportunities in over 24 European countries.
  • Help Exchange offers farm stay options in Europe and elsewhere.


OK, so hostels may not be all that unconventional any more, but a lot of people are still nervous about or unfamiliar with them. Understand this: Hostels are no longer geared just to the student traveler or the drunk English stag party. You can find hostels that cater to families and even some that offer private rooms with private bath.

Hostel resources


Remember: a trip to Europe isn’t about staying in certain hotels. A trip to Europe is about exploring the destination.

What better way to really explore a destination than to get outside a conventional hotel and experience something new, unusual … and just a little foreign?

WWOOF: A cheap, eco-friendly way to travel, except in China

I’ve always been intrigued by the organization WWOOF (“World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”), which connects organic farms around the world with willing workers who are usually travelers looking for a deeper connection to a country. Every person I know who has worked on an organic farm through WWOOF has raved about their experience, which usually included light farm labor, healthy meals, and a family-like atmosphere. Up until now, I’ve balked at registering for WWOOF, however, because you have to pay to view the hosts for each country. I’m too non-committal for that – until now.

Since I’m headed to China with a six-month visa, I thought it would be the perfect time to test out WWOOF. I paid my $40 with an innocent (and ignorant) daydream of working ankle-deep in rice paddies or some other pastoral setting. Imagine my disappointment when I logged on to find that the majority of hosts live in or very close to a major city, and are looking mostly for language teachers. One host needed an accountant, another an engineer.

It appears that WWOOF has loosened the rules for Chinese hosts: in order to encourage participation they’ve waived the host registration fee, and also state that hosts need only “have some work for a WWOOF China traveler who comes to your place to do each day.” Pretty broad.

I’ll skip the housekeeping in central Beijing for now, and hope that more farmers – organic or not! – are able to register.

Talking Travel with Susan Griffith

Susan Griffith is a freelance writer and editor whose specialty lies in working and volunteering your way around the globe. Her most well known book, Work Your Way Around the World, was first published in 1983, and she personally updates the long-running series every two years. This month will see the brand new 13th edition hit stores, and it’s packed full of the most definitive information on working and volunteering abroad.

Through her shoestring travels in and around Europe in the early 1980s, she happened upon a few short-term jobs before realizing that people can travel indefinitely, working a string of odd jobs they find during their travels, and make enough money to survive — and then some. The idea for Work your Way Around the World was born, and today it is the go-to “guide for the modern working traveler.”

We’ve got a few copies of the brand new edition of the book to give away to three lucky Gadling readers, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can score one.

How did you get started traveling?

As a child, family holidays seemed to consist almost exclusively of driving somewhere a long way away. I grew up in southern Ontario, right in the middle of North America, so it was a very very long drive to the east coast and to the west coast. But that didn’t deter my parents on our fortnight-long summer holidays. Once I was independent, I was desperate to fly somewhere completely different so flew to London and spent ten weeks InterRailing round Europe and a month hitch-hiking round the UK. I seem to remember we used Europe on $10 a Day and concluded that that was unnecessarily extravagant. I was hooked from then on, both on travel and on Europe as a place to live.

What events led up to first writing this book?

After finishing university in Toronto, I schemed to get back to Britain, and did a graduate degree at Oxford. After that, I wanted to stay on, so got a job with a publisher in Oxford. This little press published some boring but useful directories of summer jobs and one or two travel titles, and I started as an editorial assistant. While updating these job directories, I thought it would be much better to bring the hard information alive by including the stories of the people who had worked abroad. To find these stories, the publisher and I placed small ads in the Guardian newspaper and the local student newspaper, asking for work-abroad stories of all descriptions. Scores of people replied, many of whom I invited to the Nag’s Head pub around the corner from the publisher where I heard the most unlikely tales from people who had earned a fortune gutting fish in Iceland or who had delivered trucks to west Africa or who had worked for gold prospecting companies in the Australian outback.

Meanwhile I was doing a lot of shoestring traveling myself since my employer was generous with time off but not with pay. I managed to avoid doing slave-labor jobs like fish-gutting, but opportunities kept presenting themselves unbidden, mostly in the nature of work-for-keep exchanges that meant you didn’t have to spend your travel fund. While roaming around the Ionian islands (before Captain Corelli made them famous), my companion and I were befriended by a local farmer who offered us the chance to work in his fields. I got the easy job of wandering around pouring wine out of a plastic jug into the workers’ cups while my less fortunate companion did some strenuous digging. Later on the same trip (on Crete), a hostel owner asked us to clean out her dogs’ kennel in lieu of paying for our beds, not one of the most appealing jobs. On a solo trip round the Indian subcontinent, I met a round-the-world yachtsman in the wonderful south Indian port of Cochin who was looking for crew to join him on a trip to Dar es Salaam. It sounded romantic, but I had commitments at home which didn’t really allow me to entertain that one seriously. Then in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan I stumbled across a film being shot with the Himalayas as a backdrop. They asked me if I would like a bit part as the Colonel’s daughter, but their faces fell when I had to confess I was no horsewoman. I began to see that if you were a free and unfettered traveler, you could take advantage of all these things and stay on the road, maybe indefinitely, which got me excited about writing a book to guide and encourage people.

What sort of information can people expect to find in Work Your Way Around the World?

I include anything that will help travelers who are willing to offer their labor to extend their stay or to get from A to B. Of course all the usual seasonal jobs are covered, like working in a ski resort or working for farmers at harvest time, or longer jobs abroad like teaching English abroad which is covered in some detail and becoming an au pair and doing volunteer work in developing countries. A classic example of the kind of topic covered is crewing on yachts. Inexperienced sailors might not be able to cross the ocean for free, but the daily cost will be much reduced if they pitch in and share chores. My aim has been to make the information as concrete as possible, to cut the vague generalities and waffle. So that in the sections about crewing, specific yacht basins, chandlery stores, crew list agencies, etc. are named and contact details given. The book is of course strewn with first-hand accounts by travelers who have found these and a thousand other opportunities on their travels.

Who is the book written for?

Any individual with guts and gusto, from students to grandmothers. Everyone has the potential for funding him or herself to various corners of the globe. In fact, the majority of readers are 18-28, and the type who loathe the prospect of settling down prematurely with a nice safe job and mortgage.

What benefits does the updated edition have against older versions?

I have personally updated the book every other year since the first edition was published in 1983. I read every word, check every fact as far as is possible and add lots of new accounts of people met on my travels or that readers of the last edition have sent in. Google has changed everything and the new 2007 edition has nearly 2,000 web addresses, all of which have been checked in the past few months. The internet has become not just an asset but a necessity for the job-seeking traveler. But unless you know precisely what you are looking for on the internet, you can quickly (in fact within 0.19 seconds) become overwhelmed. You will feel as though you have been hit by a tsunami of undifferentiated information. Books are better at cutting through the clamor and rubbish, and I like to think that WYWATW creates order out of chaos.

What makes the book live are the first-person stories which I am always collecting. Since the last edition was published in 2005, I have either chatted to or corresponded with many recent working travelers, including a Canadian who got a job on a dude ranch in the American Rockies after cold-calling them out of the Yellow Pages, a lively Flemish woman who volunteered at the Botanical Gardens in Berlin and interned with a consultancy company near Frankfurt, an American adventurer who at the time of writing had decided to stay a while in Mauritania where he had t
alked an English language centre into giving him some hours of teaching, a serial volunteer in national parks in North America who especially enjoyed her stint at a school in the remote Canadian arctic, a young woman who spent 2006/7 between high school and university picking grapes in France, joining a three-month conservation programme in South Africa and traveling in India, a long-time resident of Crete who reported on the temporary job opportunities on the island, an American photographer who fixes up short English teaching jobs – most recently in Poland and Taiwan – in order to extend her portfolio, a newly graduated Canadian who spent a year teaching English in Korea, a 19 year old Australian who worked for a floatplane company in Vancouver before backpacking across Canada, and a round-the-world TEFLer who has picked up teaching jobs on arrival in Brazil, Ecuador, Thailand, Australia and this year Seville, Spain.

What laws/regulations are in place for foreigners working in other countries? I assume it varies by country?

Every country in the world has immigration policies that are job-protection schemes for its own nationals. Full and realistic account is taken of these restrictions in the book. The European Union has largely done away with the need for work permits for people lucky enough to have access to European nationality. Outside the EU, work authorizations become more tricky though there are lots of ways round these, for example government-sponsored schemes such as the Japan Exchange & Teaching/JET programme, farm placements made by a Norwegian youth exchange organization or the recently expanded New Zealand one-year working holiday visa for travelers aged 18 to 30 (www.bunac.org or www.ccusa.com).

Apart from these specific programmes, the job-seeker from overseas must find an employer willing to apply to the immigration authorities on his or her behalf well in advance of the job’s starting date, while they are still in their home country. This is easier for high-ranking nuclear physicists and pop stars than for mere mortals, though there are exceptions, especially in the field of English teaching.

What countries are the friendliest when it comes to U.S./Canadians looking for work abroad?

A huge number of North Americans are looking to the Pacific Rim countries (Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan) for job opportunities, primarily but not exclusively as English teachers. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia are equally welcoming. Closer to home, American and Canadian job-seekers have an advantage in South and Central America because the whole continent is culturally and economically oriented towards Il Norte. There is a decided preference among language learners for the American accent and for American teaching materials and course books, which explains why so many language institutes are called Lincoln and Jefferson.

There are ways round the work permit restrictions. To give just one example, an organization called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) operates in many countries around the world. National WWOOF co-ordinators (including in most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Japan, etc) compile lists of their member farmers willing to provide free room and board to volunteers who help out. No wage is paid and no work permit is required.

What’s your opinion/experience on finding and working under-the-table jobs while traveling?

Some travelers are prepared to throw caution to the winds after concluding that by the time the system discovers they are ‘aliens’ they will be long gone. This is more serious in some countries and in certain circumstances than in others, and the book tries to give some idea of the degree of risk, again based on first-hand accounts. It seems that the authorities will usually turn a blind eye in areas where there is a labor shortage and enforce the letter of the law when there is a glut. It is always important to be as sensitive as possible to local customs and expectations, but many informal arrangements work perfectly smoothly.

How realistic is it for someone to fund their travels while they travel? Is it possible to forgo the traditional save-money-then-go practice of traveling in favor of leaving with the intention of making money as you go?

By its nature, any trip like this is unpredictable, so there are no guarantees that a given individual will be able to fund him/herself abroad for a fixed period. How much you decide to set aside before leaving will depend on whether or not you have a gambling streak. But even gamblers should take only sensible risks. If you don’t have much cash, it’s probably advisable to have an open return ticket so that you have an escape route if things don’t work out. Sometimes pennilessness acts as a spur to action as it did in the case of one of my informants of longstanding whose travel fund ran out in Australia but who stayed away traveling for a full 18 months after that. On numerous occasions, he got down to just $50 but somehow something always turned up. He says, “When your funds are REALLY low you WILL find a job, believe me.”

What type of traveler is best suited to work on the road?

The kind of traveler who feels most at home looking for ways to work their way has an optimistic and resilient personality and does not give up at the first hurdle. Usually it is a self-selecting group who happily contemplates this “seat-of-your-pants” kind of travel. An affluent, tour-package kind of person is unlikely to choose to travel this way. On the other hand plenty of well-off people accustomed to a luxurious standard of travel relish the prospect of a spell of simpler living. They might be tempted for example to do some conservation volunteer work in Africa or to live on an organic farm for a while.

While I’m sure it will make it easier, do you need a college degree to find work abroad?

Most of the casual jobs discussed in the book like fruit picking, working on summer camps, au pairing, etc. need no degree. The notable exception is English teaching. Having a university degree is a visa requirement in some countries (e.g. Japan, Taiwan, Turkey) but not all (e.g. Latin America, Africa).

What options are available for degree-less travelers looking to work in another country?

Many other qualifications and skill sets can prove more useful to the round-the-world working traveler than a university degree. Among the most useful qualifications you can acquire are a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (for which a degree is not a prerequisite), sailing, diving or other sports qualification, catering experience, knowledge of a foreign language and so on. But WYW is aimed at people of all backgrounds, as long as they feel the call of the road and the spirit of adventure flicker.

Thanks so much, Susan!

Susan Griffith’s Work Your Way Around the World, 13th Edition (Crimson, $21.95) will be in bookstores in June, 2007.

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to three lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select three random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, May 16 at 8:00 PM.