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Budget hacks for long-term travel

Danielle is a full-time traveler and freelance travel journalist. She’s been on the move since 2015 from Albania to Zambia (and 80+ others in between). You can find her on Instagram at @danieelizabeth

When I first started traveling more than five years ago, I was clinging to each penny (or pence, or dirham) trying to stretch my savings as far as possible. But I found that only stretching them wasn’t going to cut it, as I was still making blunders that cost me a lot of money. For example, after half a year on the road, I tallied up that I paid more than $300 in ATM fees.

At one point, I got obsessive over flight prices without looking at the bigger picture, and I also didn’t realize how much stuff is actually up for negotiation. I was almost too focused on saving money that I couldn’t see certain mistakes for what they were. I needed to learn how to budget hack my travel to stretch my dollar further. So, after more than five years of long-term travel, I’m excited to share the budget hacks I learned along the way.

1. Sometimes what feels like a ‘splurge’ might not be

Traveling on a budget can mean different things. Does the place you’re staying have a kitchen for you to cook your own food? Do they have a laundry machine for your clothes that desperately need washing? Is it walking distance from the places you’ll go to most often, or will you be shelling out money multiple times per day for taxis/buses?

There are so many more factors that go into an accommodation’s final price tag.

Personally, even if a hostel has a kitchen, I’m less likely to use it than if I stay in an Airbnb or guesthouse, where I’m not fighting for space or praying someone doesn’t steal my leftovers.

Glass jar with the label "travel" and money tucked inside, for budget hack article

2. Budget hack with the right travel credit and ATM cards

Budget hack with travel credit cards

My Chase Sapphire Reserve card has been a dream to travel with, in so many ways. It includes no foreign transaction fees and I get 3x points when spending on travel and dining (I’m embarrassed to admit the actual percentage of my spending this accounts for).

When I redeem those points for travel-related purchases like hotels or flights, I get 50% more than a straight 1:1 redemption. If I were to turn points into statement credits, they are worth 50% more too. This card also offers a $300 annual travel credit.

Here’s a budget hack most people don’t think of when it comes to credit cards: An additional travel benefit included in your membership is baggage delay insurance. This means up to $100 a day for five days toward toiletries/clothing when baggage is >6 hours delayed, and up to $500 per person per day for flight delays >6 hours (hotel/food/anything practical).

Other benefits include:

  • Trip cancellation insurance
  • Car rental insurance
  • Free Global Entry/TSA Precheck
  • Airport lounge access
  • …and many more

Another great travel rewards card with similar benefits is the American Express Platinum card. However, it’s accepted in fewer places than the Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa. The Capital One Venture card is great for earning miles as well.

If you frequently travel with the same airline or stay in the same hotel chains, consider getting the airline or hotel-specific credit card to maximize rewards.

Budget hack with a travel ATM card

My Charles Schwab checking account is a travel lifesaver. Not only can I use it internationally as a debit card without foreign transaction fees, but they also reimburse all ATM fees. At the end of every month, I’ll have anywhere from $5-$80+ in reimbursed fees from international ATMs. 

They use the standard exchange rate without any additional costs when I withdraw money from an ATM in any currency around the world. 

3. Don’t get attached to specific places or times

Don’t get attached to ideas. Forcing specific places to happen at specific times can kill a budget. You have to accept that you can’t be a budget traveler without being incredibly flexible.

If you’re insistent on going to certain places at specific times, keep in mind that flight or hotel prices might not always agree with your budget. A “quick trip” to Munich for Oktoberfest or to Rio for Carnival could wind up losing you a full month’s budget.

If you’re not flexible on where you stay, not willing to take buses, or even if you have specific dietary restrictions, you will wind up spending much more money. 

If you really need to stick to a budget, it will bode you well to learn how to live with the occasional cold shower, dorm room and public transport. Additionally, using Skyscanner’s Everywhere Search to find a cheaper alternative destination has always been my favorite “next stop” budget hack for long-term travel.

4. Consider the cost of living 

Whether or not you’re a digital nomad, websites like NomadList can help you budget hack where you travel by giving you an idea of the monthly cost of living in many places around the world. Some of the top places to live on less than $1,500/month include Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Medellin, Budapest, Sofia and Tbilisi.

(And I can personally attest that every single one is worth spending a month or more in.)

budget hack traveler walking on rocks on a beach

5. Take the whole picture into consideration

Sometimes it’s about changing your mindset. If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize about budget travelers, it’s this: they tend to fixate on one or two things.

They’ll become obsessive about flight prices but they don’t realize that the cheaper 3 a.m. flight means they’ll have to pay $50 for a taxi instead of taking the $2.50 bus.

Or they’ll choose to take a $100 flight to Country X instead of a $300 flight to country Y, even though the cost of accommodation in X is five times more than that of Country Y. 

The point is, when you’re traveling on a budget, it’s important to zoom out. A great flight deal isn’t really a great flight deal when it’s to Switzerland or Norway where the cost of living is extremely high. Likewise, what seems like an expensive flight could actually save you big bucks in the end if you’re traveling to Sri Lanka or the Philippines.

6. It never hurts to ask

Big budget hack: negotiate prices, or even just politely ask. For example, if you want to spend five or more days in one place, negotiate with the nightly rate with the hotel/hostel/guesthouse when you arrive. Although this may be easier during the low season, it’s always worth it to ask!

A lot of the time, they will be happy to give you a long-stay discount. 

7. Try to work along the way

Talk to hostels you stay at or to beach bars you love, about working for a couple of weeks in exchange for room and board. Or find small freelance projects you can do remotely online.

Beyond saving a bit of extra dough, working along the way was great for me in another unexpected way: It put me in a position to meet amazing people and form more meaningful connections in those cites. Many long-term travelers can develop a sense of uselessness after traveling without a greater purpose for months on end. Taking on small jobs along the way can be a great for combatting this feeling.

When I first started freelance writing, subsidizing the tiniest bit of my travel expenses felt like a huge win. And if you have any interest in making travel a more permanent lifestyle, you can work on building up remote clients over time.

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