There is a quote that I heard when I was younger by one of the most controversial and, I would argue, interesting American novelists of all time, Ayn Rand: “Learn to value yourself, which means: fight for your happiness.”
I realized recently that for me, happiness is to travel. Happiness is rolling shirts and jeans up into a tiny backpack and grabbing a book that I would be proud to give a stranger, climbing into the car, unfolding the map on the seat beside me, and driving. Happiness is stepping off of the airplane, exhausted and oily-faced, onto the dirt of a country you’ve wanted to see since you were a child. Unfortunately, I also recently had a much less pleasant realization: traveling requires some amount of money, no matter how small. Instead of worrying about finding a way to earn heaping piles of cash, I’ve decided to minimize my travel costs as much as possible, even if it means compromising my comfort. Because when you love something, a sore back or grumbling belly seem very unimportant indeed.
Here it goes… tips for traveling on a tight budget. I came up with these tips after travelling extensively across Germany and staying in all its major cities, particularly Berlin.
1. Buy from markets and grocery stores instead of restaurants.
I know this seems obvious, but if I have learned one thing from being a weary traveler, it is that there is an enormous temptation to slump into the closest comfortable restaurant and dish out some cash on delicious cuisine. Don’t do it! Allot yourself two to three meals from regional restaurants per week and besides that, stick to the grocery stores. Buy something substantial if you are doing a lot of walking/hiking, like sausage, bread or cheese as well as some fruit. Sit down outside the grocery store and enjoy your food. Just imagine some candlelight and voila! Your own personal gourmet fare.
2. Consider sleeping somewhere cheaper.
While traveling in the United States, my companions and I became extremely comfortable sleeping in our cars, in the parking lots of hotels, which are usually safe and well-lit. While traveling through Western Europe, however, we were car-less. We couldn’t afford to sleep in hostels or hotels every night so instead we set up our tent and sleeping bags in public parks. We did not once encounter trouble from locals or law enforcement, and got away with many nights of free “lodging”. This is much less comfortable in the colder, wetter climates where we traveled and I will admit that we splurged on some indoor, more conventional lodging to avoid catching cold.
3. Hitchhiking is an option.
Completely free, slightly risky. I paid for less than five train rides during my entire three month trip through Western Europe, and even managed to hitch a ride with a sweet British couple on a ferry to England. Need I say more?
4. Couchsurfing is another excellent lodging option.
If you have access to Internet, the website couchsurfing.org is an invaluable travel resource. It provides recommendations for couch hosts by surfers and vice-versa, so the experience is safe and you know what to expect. Many hosts even welcome their surfers to stay as long as multiple weeks. More importantly, the people opening their homes are locals, eager to share their hometown with you! Whether it be the spice of the hottest local cuisine, or the sleekest jazz bar, you will be shown around by a new friend: someone who definitely knows the town better than any trip book or tour guide. We became such good friends with one of our hosts from couchsurfing- Alexey- that he put his job on hold, bought backpacking gear and a ticket to Italy, and met up with us in Pisa a few weeks later!
5. Look for freebies.
While we were out at a bar in Spain, watching the Eurocup along with millions of other football fans, I specifically remember having a debate with my conscience over whether or not to buy a glass of wine. I was watching the game and wanted a drink in my hand, but could I spare the money for something so unnecessary? From the corner of my eye, I saw a young couple leave their table five meters away. They had left a pitcher of red wine that was almost entirely full! This might not be your cup of tea, but I absolutely hate the thought of wasting untouched food and perfectly good Pinot Noir, so I requested that our waiter bring the serving pitcher to our table so we could finish the wine. She politely obliged, and I saved what could have easily been ten euros. You’ll be surprised how many times you notice that the universe is pushing gifts in your direction.
6. Fill up your bottles or Camelbak whenever you are in an area with safe drinking water.
Water from the sink, water from the soda machine– it doesn’t matter. I have spent an abundance of money on bottled water while traveling because my supply of water has run out in a city where tap water is not safe for foreigners to drink. Think ahead.
7. Seek out the free entertainment.
From street performers to sidewalk chalk artists, many large cities are hubs for cost-free entertainment. While it is nice to throw in a tip for listening, you sure won’t spend as much money as you would on an expensive show! Since many of the local citizens can’t afford the expensive shows either, you can often get the scoop of what is happening around town just by asking. In Rome, we watched the Eurocup football final match on a huge projector with an enormous crowd in the park, surrounded by sparklers, booze and chanting fans. I don’t think I could have had a more genuine, boisterous, incredible experience from even the front row of the bleachers in the arena.