Travel tips and tricks for the budget-minded
This post is going to be all random bits, so I'm just going to dive right in.
Gina and I plan differently, so it only made sense that we planned different aspects of the trip. She researched the gear and products, as well as food and restaurants. I was more on the flights and accommodation end. We both researched what to do and see because that's the fun part!
I have tried most of the price comparison websites out there for flight deals, and I always go back to the same system. I look up flight possibilities on Cheapoair.com as well as Skyscanner.com, and usually go with whatever is cheapest. Keep in mind that for budget airlines such as Tiger Air, Ryan Air, etc you will probably have to look up separately on their own sites. When using Cheapoair, you can also usually save anywhere from $20-60 by also looking it up on retailmenot.com and getting a coupon code.
We were lucky that our schedule was usually flexible, so we could jockey for the best flight price. Usually it's cheaper to fly in the beginning of the week, but always check because sometimes you just never know. I was surprised it was cheaper for us to fly closer to Christmas but maybe it was because there are many more flights available on those dates.
But in the interest of saving money we also opted for many long layovers and inconvenient flight times. It was worth it, because the more money we saved, the further we could go, but we had to remind ourselves of that every time we had to sleep in an airport.
Between the two of us we've flown many airlines, and our unanimous favorite is Emirates. The planes were new and clean and high end, and the staff was kind and efficient. The food was excellent and we always got warm towels. The Dutch airline KLM was also excellent. We flew budget airlines a few times and it's worth saving the money but irritating to pack your own food and deal with the other downgrades of flying budget.
Sometimes I had to get really creative with the flights. For example, the whole reason Vienna, Austria got added to the itinerary was because we saved hundreds of dollars by flying into Austria from Asia instead of into Zagreb, Croatia (our final destination). Know your geography! Vienna is only a four hour bus ride from Zagreb, and it was only $30. We saved a few hundred right there. And it was cheaper to fly back to the US via Istanbul, Turkey, so I had to backtrack and find a way from Zagreb to Istanbul. Flight times sucked but rather than choose a different Istanbul flight, we decided to fly out of Ljubliana, Slovenia, since we could get there super fast (aaaand cheap) on a bus from Zagreb.
And there's always a way to get to the airport via bus.
Cross -country buses were a better option than flights in South America. There's not much of a flight network and so they are expensive. We had to opt for that once due to time constraints but other than that we took buses everywhere. It was great though because the buses are super nice and they feed you a lot. Buses were less fancy but also very convenient in Southeast Asia and Europe. And you might remember our admiration for the Intercity bus pass system in New Zealand. But Australia was just too big. There were buses from major towns but flights were usually comparable price-wise and much faster.
Normally I find the best prices on hotels.com, but hotels weren't usually in our budget, so I relied on hostelworld.com for reviews and bookings for budget accommodation. It has guest houses as well as hostels, and the reviews are almost always accurate. I wrote hostelworld an email though, because the type of wifi is not always accurately represented on their rating system. For example it can say it has "free wifi" even if that wifi is retracted to a ten foot radius around the front desk. This is a big deal when you're trying to blog as well as book other travel plans. Sometimes I cross-referenced the hostelworld reviews with those on tripadvisor.
Gina has used AirBnB a lot and never had any problems, but my one AirBnB experience was our weird night in the Sunshine Coast with Rebecca and I wasn't a huge fan. Hostelworld always had my back, and when I accidentally got double charged (through struggling with the website and connectivity issues), I didn't even have to contact them and they refunded the error within 48 hours. When I choose a property I weigh price against amenities (wifi, free breakfast, discounted tickets to stuff, etc) and location. Maybe a place costs more but you can make it up by not having to use transport. Or maybe you are worried about safety and want to be close to a particular area.
I always gravitate back to Tripadvisor when I'm researching what to do and see in a new place. If I know someone local or who has been to this destination before I for sure ask for insider tips, but when that's not available I always like Tripadvisor. As someone who has worked a lot in tourism though, if there are just a few horrible reviews, take those with a grain of salt. There might be two sides of the story or it might have just been a fluke. Tripadvisor reviews can be great for unexpected advice too, such as free museum days or tips on how best to get there.
I can be a bit....thorough....when I'm looking up things to do and see. I note opening times and possible lower priced admission days, and group things according to location as much as possible so we're not wasting time bouncing around. But other times you just want to explore, so we just pack some water and set off from the hostel with only a neighborhood in mind. It always depended on where we were touring and who we were with.
When Gina researches food and restaurants she usually starts with Google, reading Buzzfeed, local blogs and websites about "best eats in ___ city." Airline magazines can be useful for that too. She would note the list of places, look them up later to see their affordability, and then we would plot me on a city map to see what was close to where we would be, and what was worth going out of our way for (Nutella milkshakes!). Sometimes the front desk of your accommodation has great advice, sometimes they just usher you towards a sister enterprise or a go-to tourist spot. We found that in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we were always directed towards a really touristy area that was basically Cambodian Bourbon Street, with burgers and stuff. That works for many people but it wasn't really what we were going for.
Number 1 piece of budget advice: visit friends and family! Chances are, you know some people in some cool places, and being able to see a new place with someone who lives there is always cool. Plus you get to visit with them! And then maybe they can come visit you in return, and you can show off where you live. We were so, so fortunate to be welcomed into many home of family, old friends and new friends, and I truly hope some of them are able to visit us in the future so we can even begin to try to repay some of their kindness.
We walked. Everywhere. Because transport costs add up fast and walking is sightseeing in and of itself! Of course, sometimes it's just too far, so in those cases, investigate if there is a pass or something that might be able to save you money. However, depending on how long you will be in a place and how much you will use it, a pass is not always the cheapest option.
Check out the tourist info center. It sounds cheesy but they know their shit, probably speak your language, and usually have coupons. Also their eatery advice tends to be unbiased. New Zealand was a pro at tourist information centers, and they wound up saving us a lot of time and money. Plus, free maps!
Sometimes it was hard but we had to restrict our eating out while in pricier countries. For example, Sydney had lots of awesome places we wanted to eat, but to balance this, we ate breakfast at home and packed a piece of fruit, then ate around 4 or 5 so it was sort of a lunch/dinner combo. Same applied to Austria and New Zealand. We often just bought groceries and cooked at the hostel. We also raided the free food bins at each hostel. You never know what you're going to find. But don't be too cheap, food is one of the best aspects of visiting a new place.
We kept our shopping (and suitcase weight) down by focusing on certain items. I collect fridge magnets (because they are small and every place has them) and we both bought a piece of local art from each stop. These are usually not too expensive, are unique, and at some point I will have a wall of reminders from my travels. If this sounds good to you then I recommend buying a mailing tube. I had ours in my pack the whole trip and when we bought artwork it got rolled up and added to the tube. Photography was harder to keep flat. Markets are awesome places to buy local artwork, and front desks and tourist info centers always know about local markets.
Be careful in Asia (and possibly elsewhere) if a stranger tells you something is closed. It's almost always a scam to get you to go somewhere else. Sometimes people work in teams (men and women). So if a kind tuktuk driver (for example) asks if you need directions and tells you that particular place is closed, he/she can ask a seemingly random stranger, who will back them up. All of this is probably to steer you towards another attraction, restaurant, or just a fare. People tried this several times and we just smiled, thanked them, and walked away. And our original destination was always open.
Be gentle with yourself. If possible, build in some time for jet lag, altitude adjustment, etc. Dont feel pressured to do things you don't want to do, such as party every night or extreme sports. It's your trip, so make the most of it. That being said, consider trying new things. Gina and I were very fortunate in that we have very similar tastes in what to do and see, but they are just different enough that we push each other to try new things.
And above all, roll with the punches. You can't plan out every little thing, and why would you want to? Travel is about discovering the new and the foreign, and stumbling your way through that can be just wonderful. And if things go wrong, try to keep your head because freaking out never helps.
If you have any tips or tricks of your own, please share them with us! We appreciate your company on this epic journey, It's been awesome and life-changing.