How to Fit Expensive Destinations into a Backpacker’s Budget

I’m a strong believer that backpackers should not limit themselves to destinations that are easily traveled with small budgets.

As a backpacker, I’ve traveled to expensive destinations like the Maldives, Japan, Australia, Iceland, and Hong Kong, among others, and still managed to do most or all of their iconic activities with a reasonably low budget. Basically, with a backpacker’s budget.

I’m going to show you 15 tactics I use on a daily basis to keep my travel costs down to a minimum.

1. First and Foremost, Set a Budget Goal

Whether it is a total budget for the trip or a per-day budget, set a goal of what’s the most you’d feel comfortable spending on this trip.

Do some research by googling something similar to “cost of a week-long trip in [destination],” “how much does it cost to travel in [destination],” or head to budgetyourtrip.com to check their average cost per destination.

Their numbers are not 100% accurate, but they will give you an idea of what to expect.

The Alps in Switzerland
The Swiss Alps

Compare those numbers with your ideal budget, to know if it is a realistic target. And if it is, then establish at what range will your trip be: bare-bones, budget, mid-range, or luxury.

For example, I try to always spend $50 or less per day. In Thailand, this is a mid-range budget, but in Norway, this is a bare-bones budget.

While I could have done Norway for roughly that daily budget, I knew that I would have depended too much on Couchsurfing and hitchhiking, which are very popular there.

I preferred to have a bit more comfort and flexibility, so I increased my budget to $80 a day to be able to take trains, do some tours, and such.

2. Travel Hack Your Trip With Hotel And Flight Points/Miles

Travel hacking is the art of minimizing your travel spending by finding ways to either game the system or maximizing your points and miles earning to then use those for flights, hotel nights, and such.

Redeeming points/miles for free flights and stays will help substantially to lower your average daily spend.

Monaco-Ville
The historic Monaco-Ville in Monaco

My previous post gave an in-detail explanation on how to find the cheapest flights possible, and among the techniques discussed was the use of miles/points.

In its most basic sense, you must think of points and miles as a currency. And like any currency, you must earn it and spend it at a certain value.

Sign up to your favorite airline and hotel loyalty programs and accumulate miles and points to use them to your advantage.

See how many miles/points you earn per dollar spent, and how they value such rewards at the time of redemption for a flight or hotel stay. Not all programs are valued the same.

3. Look For Accommodation Alternatives Beyond Hotels

Consider renting a room or apartment through Airbnb or a similar site. (With this link you get $40 off your first booking on Airbnb)

If you’re staying in the same city for a long period, some accommodations give a lower weekly or monthly rate. Ask them directly at the reception for those long-term rates or call them beforehand.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE

Hostels are also a great and popular alternative to paying less for accommodation if you use the points/miles technique (discussed above), or are flexible enough to book them last minute.

Sites like Booking.com often offer hotels at a huge discount when booking them the day before or the same day. These accommodations would prefer to make a small profit at the last minute rather than have an empty room.

I use this technique a lot since I mostly plan my trips on the go.

Lastly, if you’d like to have free accommodation, check for Couchsurfing hosts at your destination. Couchsurfing is a travel social network where people from around the world open their home to offer a place to stay to a fellow traveler for free. This post shows you how to use Couchsurfing.

4. Scout For Small Cafes And Street Food Stalls

Often, when I go out to eat, I walk around for a few minutes looking for restaurants. If I’m not satisfied with restaurant prices, I start looking for small cafes and then for street food stalls.

Street food will more often than not be the cheapest option (and on many occasions the most delicious).

Don’t be afraid of walking in as asking for any deals they might have. Not all restaurants publish all their deals on the menu.

5. Order Online

Similar to asking for their daily specials, check for deals and coupons only available if ordering online. A few restaurants offer online-only deals to encourage customers to use their app or website.

More often than not these online orders are “carry-out,” but depending on the restaurant you might be able to sit in and enjoy your meal there.

Persian Food
A typical meal in Iran

6. Have Your Best Meal At Lunchtime

Many restaurants in major cities offer a lunch menu at a fraction of the normal price. These lower prices are often reserved to a time block (i.e., 11 am to 2 pm) and sometimes apply to carry-out/pick-up food only – it varies per restaurant.

When I find these cheaper lunch menus, I try to have a generous lunch so I can have a smaller dinner, which would hopefully cost less than a full I’m-very-hungry dinner.

7. Think Of “The Spillover Theory”

Guidebook recommendations are often nice, but sometimes establishments deteriorate their service or raise their prices after they gain “guidebook fame.”

Should the recommended hotel or restaurant not fulfill your expectations, think of “spilling over” to an adjacent hotel/restaurant.

Usually, these adjacent locales absorb the extra clientele (the spillover) of the popular place and often provide the same or better service for a lower price.

I always recommend checking those “guidebook famous” hotels on TripAdvisor and read their reviews there, as they are unbiased and written by other travelers.

Sea Lions in Galapagos, Ecuador
Snorkeling with Sea Lions in the Galapagos!

And again, use the spillover theory; if the guidebook famous hotel is on the #5 spot on TripAdvisor, check which hotel is on #6, #7, and so on and see how they compare. Pick the best one based on your needs and requirements.

The same applies to tour companies. The travel industry is very competitive, so tour operators are always trying to up their game to attract even more customers. And again, I highly recommend reading TripAdvisor reviews for each tour company.

8. Buy Groceries at Supermarkets and Local Morning Markets

If you want to eat cheap, you have to buy food like a local. Go to the local supermarket and buy produce and food you can cook at your place.

Morning markets are excellent for buying fresh produce and other locally produced foods at cheaper rates. You just have to be a morning person!

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

9. Be A “Late Customer”

Many convenience stores, supermarkets, bakeries, and coffee shops offer some of their remaining perishable merchandise at a percentage of the price when it is near closing time.

Businesses want to still make a profit out of the unsold donut, cupcake, cooked pasta, etc., instead of throwing it away as a loss.

To find out these sale prices/times, ask the cashier if they have any sales at some point of the day.
On the other hand, certain businesses offer an “early bird” discount to boost business activity early in the morning.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask if they have a “secret” menu. Some chains like Starbucks and Chili’s, and Five Guys, among many others, are famous for having secret menu items.

Subway, for example, is not allowed to sell broken cookies (nor throw them away), so if you ask if they have broken cookies, they will give those to you for free (if they have any).

10. Be Aware of Local Attraction Schedules (When is it Free?)

Many museums, bars, and attractions are free one day of the week or month. Some attractions don’t charge to enter their facilities for a certain period of the day while they might charge later in the day when it is busier or when the main event happens.

Ask around in tourist information booths and request specifically for the free schedule of local attractions. Otherwise, search online for “free things to do in ____” to see all your options.

Norbert in Hong Kong
Hong Kong!

11. Use Apps to Guide Yourself

I use apps like TripAdvisor, Triposo, and Trover to know which sites are around me and get a brief description of what it is about. With these apps, I’ve guided myself through the city, hopping between sights, without the need for a guide or tour.

Also, these apps, especially Trover, are excellent to discover “hidden” places through the use of geocached images.

Trover did marvels for me when I drove the Great Ocean Road in Australia. With it, I found all the spots I wanted to see and then some!

12. Take Free Walking Tours

Many major cities offer free walking tours around the city center. Take advantage of these since they are often very insightful and sometimes even better than paid tours.

These tours are often run by people who love their city and enjoy showing it to visitors. Even though they are free, don’t forget to tip the guide, as many of them are not paid.

The Underwater Waterfall and Le Morne in Mauritius
The underwater waterfall in Mauritius

13. Ride Local Transportation

This is a must. You must ride like a local to spend like a local. If locals take buses to move around the city, you should do it too. If they take trains or trams, do take trains and trams too.

Think like if you were living here, how would you go from A to B on a recurring basis without spending much?

Now, how do you know which train or bus to take? Google Maps is really good at plotting public transportation routes in almost every major city in the world. I use it on a daily basis.

In some cities, like Kuwait City, I had a bit of trouble getting public transportation routes on Google Maps, but I instead visited the local transportation website and found the bus routes there.

Also, ask your hotel or host, as they might know the routes you need to use to get to any point of interest.

14. Buy Attraction Passes

Several major cities that have expensive attractions offer bundle passes or a “city card” that allows you access to such attractions at a fraction of the price.

Buy this only if you know you’ll visit enough attractions to make it worth your money and the savings.

Diving at Silfra in Iceland
Diving at Silfra in Iceland

15. Track Your Spending

Yes, you must! I find it extremely useful documenting all of my spendings to know where my money is going and how much of my budget I still have available. I use the TrailWallet app for this.

I track all my spending per country, so it helps me keep a record of how much I spent at each destination – with graphs telling me how much I spent per category and average daily spend.

16. There’s Power in Numbers

While you could manage to travel on a budget as a solo traveler, traveling as a couple or as a group helps make things cheaper when you share accommodation, transportation, and food, among other expenses. 

I’m a solo traveler, mostly, but often I meet people on the road and if we click, we end up traveling together for a few days or weeks based on our travel plans.

When I traveled South America overland I started the journey on my own. As I moved north from Ushuaia, I started meeting travelers who were doing the same “gringo trail” north.

Potosi, Bolivia
With other travelers (now friends) I met on the “gringo trail” in South America. Some of us traveled together to six countries in a span of a month!

Soon, we were three travelers together, then six, and at one point we were eight! We shared groceries, accommodation, transportation, and everything we could to make our spending the least possible.

This was the main tactic I used to travel The Galapagos and Easter Island for much less that the average budget. 

17. Don’t Forget to Think Like A Local

I know I mentioned this previously, but it bears repeating. Thinking like a local is key to spending the least amount of money possible. Always think, “if I lived here and wanted to do X, how could I do it cheaply?”

Using this local thinking, as well as many of the tips above, has been key to me being able to visit remote and exotic destination like The Maldives, The Galapagos, Mauritius, and Easter Island, among many others, and still do them with a modest budget – many of them for $50 per day or less. These links lead to the posts I wrote detailing the best ways to travel each of those destinations cheaply.

Lastly, I want to conclude by emphasizing that to travel cheap, you have to think like a local. Think like this is the city you live in – how would you explore it on a recurrent basis without spending too much money?

Do you have any other tip you’d like to add to this post? Share it below?

How to Fit Expensive Destinations into a Backpacker's Budget

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