Maybe things are better now summer is around the corner, but New Zealand sure felt bone-chillingly miserable when I left in late May.
I paid $250 for a one-way ticket with unpleasant layovers. Eighteen hours after I left Auckland Airport, I stepped excitedly out of Changi into the overwhelming humidity of Singapore. For the six hours until I could check in to my hostel, I staggered around the CBD without cash or internet, sweat-soaked, sleep-deprived and wide-eyed.
Since then, I’ve been to Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, The Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam, where I’m currently exploring the sunny southern coast. In that time, I’ve learnt a few things about how to travel (relatively) pain-free while coming in under a $50-per-day budget.
If you too want to save up, quit your job and experience the world while it’s still there, read on for my top tips.
In the world of post-pandemic travel, carry-on is king. It’s probably easier than you think to cram your life into a 7kg backpack, but inevitably you’re going to have to make sacrifices. It will often be cheaper to buy clothes and toiletries at your destination to avoid baggage fees.
You’ll be surprised at what you don’t need to bring. I’ve hardly used my raincoat, despite having mainly travelled through the rainy season. In retrospect, I could have saved the weight and used more cash to figure out a solution when I landed.
It would also be one less semi-valuable thing to worry about, which brings me to another point: if you’re travelling on a strict budget, you’re going to end up walking lots and your resulting misery will be directly proportional to how much stuff you’re carrying.
Beat the queues and the airline charges: travel writer Tim Richards shows you his carry-on bag packing secrets.
Stay longer in cheaper places
It’s all about maintaining the daily average. Sometimes you’ll go over your limit, but the goal is to have balance with the cheaper days. Your destination is probably the biggest variable.
For instance, Singapore is horrendously expensive and the cheapest dorm bed will cost about $30 a night. If you can pack a lot into a couple of days and prioritise free attractions, you’ll be able to spend longer exploring a place like Pai in northern Thailand, where a bed starts at $6. Transport to new destinations, especially across borders, is a major cost. Jump on cheap flight deals, but try to maximise each visa period. Having flexible, open-ended plans means you can stay longer if you stumble across an affordable location that you enjoy.
Rideshare apps like Grab or Uber are consistently cheaper than taxis, especially if you’re not a local.
Use platforms like 12GO or Easybook to get intercity buses and trains. You can sometimes message operators through social media and ask for a smaller price, particularly if the route isn’t very busy.
Booking.com reliably throws up the best options for budget accommodation, but do check other platforms. Bring earplugs and a blindfold for dorms. Stock up on breakfast at hostels where it is provided. Consider accommodation with food preparation facilities.
Use Google Maps to check menu prices ahead of time. In most cities you can get a meal with half the price and twice the flavour if you look a few blocks away from the tourist hotspots. Always check reviews and be wary of inauthentic ratings. Before you leave Aotearoa, find a bank card that won’t gouge you for making overseas withdrawals.
Sticking to a budget while travelling is a habit and sometimes you’re going to be your own personal Grinch.
Keeping track of your expenditure is important, ideally in a form that allows you to compare days. I tried using a dedicated app, but it wasn’t as convenient as jotting down purchases in a notes app. Drinks and other refreshments add up quickly, even in cheaper destinations. You’re going to need to put some limits on your hedonism, particularly if you’re aiming for a long trip. Always check prices before you place an order and get comfortable walking away if things are too expensive.
It’s arguably feral, but don’t pay for laundry. Instead, wash your clothes in a plastic bag when you shower. Periodically use vinegar to get the stink out of synthetic fibres.
Sometimes you’ll get overcharged, shortchanged or outright scammed – never mind the money you’ll lose from your own bad calls. Call out a bad bill, but keep things in perspective and don’t waste a tonne of energy haggling over a few cents here and there.
Sometimes the cheapest option is a clear recipe for misery and it’s worth springing for something better. More often, you’re going to have to endure some discomfort. Chalk it down to experience, find the funny side and take solace in the fact you’ll probably get a good yarn out of it.
What are your best tips for budget travel? Let us know in the comments.