One of the most frustrating things to me is when I expound the virtues of travel, hearing people say, “I wish I could afford it!”
Now usually these people I’m talking to are not homeless people, or single parents, or people with staggering medical debt. I’m not talking about the people with valid financial concerns. I’m talking about people like me, with a moderate income—or even people like how I used to be, a student with very little income.
Because these people are under the misconception that traveling requires riches. Sure, if you’re going to stay in a 5-star hotel, eat at 5-star restaurants, and take black cars everywhere. You can drop a ton of money on travel. But you know what else you can do? Travel on the cheap.
Traveling on the cheap comes with its own hardships, but also its own rewards. It’s something that I believe everyone should do at least once. Here’s how:
1. Cheap transport Step one, leave the USA. Flights are cheaper elsewhere. Step two, have a flexible itinerary. Step three, use public transportation, not cabs (but watch your stuff!) I know navigating a new metro system can seem daunting at first, but really, I’ve yet to encounter one I couldn’t figure out, and I have a terrible sense of direction.
Step four, check to see if any youth or student or teacher discounts are offered. I voyaged happily around France using my Carte 12-25 for nearly a year, paying half price on every train trip I took (my friend, who was 28 at the time, did the same–they don’t always check your age.)
2. Cheap accommodations Hostels, hostels, hostels. I’ve yet to do a post about my favorites, mostly because I’m afraid they’re no longer there and that will make me sad. I know that people who’ve never stayed in a hostel have visions of bedbugs and dirty bathrooms. I’ve never encountered the former, but have encountered the latter. The key is research. Fortunately, a thing called the internet makes this possible.
And when hostels aren’t a possibility and/or you’re just not into it? Travel in a group and squeeze. The number of times in my youth I’ve shared a single bed with a non-significant other or had to wander innocently through a hotel lobby and pretend I wasn’t staying there to throw off the management who had a per-person limit to their rooms … ah memories. Also, there’s this thing called AirBnB now, which may be the most awesome thing to happen to travel since the internet.
3. Cheap eats Street carts. Grocery stores. Traveling doesn’t always mean eating in restaurants every night. Of course it’s nice to go to a good restaurant in a new city, and when I was poor I made it a point to go out to at least one nice dinner per city. But the rest of the time, I cooked for myself. (This is where hostels and AirBnBs save you even more money.) Pasta and tomato sauce, baguettes, blocks of cheese–whatever’s cheapest, buy it, make it, get some cheap booze to go with it. You’re still sampling the local fare, you’re just preparing it yourself.
4. Freebies and discounts Use your aforementioned student/youth discounts at museums. Or look up when their free days are and go then. Or skip the museums and go to parks. Wander. You don’t have to go up the Eiffel Tower just because everyone’s doing it. (Confession: I hate going up the Eiffel Tower. It’s much nicer to simply wander the Luxembourg Gardens with a bottle of 99 centime wine.)
Is it nice to travel when you’re not poor? Of course it is. It’s nice to have a hotel room to yourself, to put your luggage in the trunk of a cab instead of lug it up and down the metro stairs, to eat a prepared meal instead of lining up behind five people for your turn at the stove at the hostel. But I wouldn’t trade my traveling-on-the-cheap experiences for anything. They were mostly good*. I made new friends. I learned new things. I had new experiences.
And that’s what traveling is all about.
*And the things that weren’t so great? They make good writing fodder 🙂
Image of the Chateau de Villandry taken by me in Villandry, France, December 2015