- See budget travel for less radical advice.
Have you gone through the usual budget travel advice, and still short of money? Minimum budget travel requires forfeit of comfort, time management and predictability, in order to travel at no or very small cost, either as a necessity, a lifestyle, or a challenge.
The prime directive of budget travel is not to trespass, steal, evade fares, participate in the illegal market, work illegally or otherwise violate local law, regulations and customs. Trying to limit expenses is one thing, but unethical (or even illegal) behavior is another thing. Not only would you ruin your own reputation (and conscience) and face legal or social consequences, but you would make it harder for others coming after you as they will be more likely to be perceived as moochers or dishonest.
A recent trend in bare-bones budget travel is known as begpacking, in which people from high-income countries travel to poorer countries with little to no money, and beg for money in the streets in order to fund their travel. We do not encourage such behaviour here because it has a negative impact on the local economies. Many locals rely on tourism revenue to feed their families. If you have money, spend some of it. If you don't, competing with those begging as a last resort, or asking for money from people poorer than you who will never get the chance to travel is still hardly ethical. It is also illegal in some places.
Many of these hints are risky; choosing low-income neighborhoods or sleeping outdoors might increase the risk of being a victim of crime. As usual, use common sense.
Generally, a slow mode of transport allows you to cover a smaller area, but instead of wasting time on getting somewhere (or waiting at an airport), you can use every minute to experience the place where you are at the moment.
Most transportation tickets are cheapest when booked in advance.
Walking is the cheapest but slowest mode of transportation. If you are an experienced walker, can carry the stuff you need and have several weeks or months for your travels, you can cover quite long distances by foot only.
Carrying what you need for weeks will force your using a minimalist approach. Be prepared to get many of the things you need along the way. A good backpack, or a cart or stroller, is your friend. One that looks rugged is better than one that looks expensive, but do not compromise on a good fit.
Except walking, cycling is usually the cheapest mode of transportation.
Subsidized bike-share systems can be found in some cities in Europe (and, increasingly, in the Americas too), and is usually cheaper than public transit; with average speed about the same. In some cities - particularly in the Netherlands and Denmark - a bike is the fastest way to get around.
For intercity travel away from home, consider buying a simple or used bicycle (in a thrift store, a garage sale, etc) to be re-sold, donated or discarded at the end of the trip. Check that it will not need major overhauls or repairs, or new parts, as those can easily cost more than the bike itself. Advanced bikes with delicate parts are more risky than simple and sturdy bikes, so prefer the latter unless you indeed need the speed.
Freighter travel or hitchhiking boats may be an option for transportation between continents. They are usually not cheaper per mile than flying, but if you like the experience and not count food and accommodation aboard as transport expenses, they may be quite cheap nevertheless. To some less visited destinations they may still be the cheapest or only option.
If you have a canoe or can find a cheap sailing or rowing boat (sometimes available for scrap prices, but check they are seaworthy enough) those can be cheap ways to travel, e.g., down a river.
Hitchhiking and ride sharing
Hitchhiking, while faster than walking, is one of the least predictable modes of travel by its very nature. If you are lucky, you will be almost as fast as if you were driving yourself. If you are unlucky you will be mostly waiting or walking for days. A foldable bicycle may significantly increase your speeds for the times you are at the wrong place for getting rides.
An alternative is ride sharing. Typically, ride sharing passengers pay some token amount to defray the cost of the trip, but this may still be more economical than scheduled bus or train lines. There are websites where people post their travel details: where, when, what kind of car they have, how many spare seats, and how much they want you to pay them. It's not just a great way to cut travel costs, it can also be a great way to meet new people! In Germany, this kind of travel is called a "Mitfahrgelegenheit", in Portugal "boleia" and in France "covoiturage".
Public transport is usually a reasonably cheap way to get around in cities, especially with multi-use tickets. In some cities, and on some dates, it is free of charge.
Local transport is often considerably cheaper than express or long distance transport. European cities often have overlapping public transit systems providing cheaper transport than inter-city buses or trains. In countries like Japan, local trains are cheaper if you have time on your hands and can manage the connections. However early bird fares (where they exist) for long distance public transport such as trains can sometimes be the cheapest option available. This comes with the downside of limited flexibility (they may be limited to certain days or times of days) and often no possibility for a refund.
Sometimes, public transportation lines can be temporarily free due to a force majeure such as heavy air pollution.
Some public transportation systems can be an attraction in their own right, at the price of a ticket; see Urban rail adventures.
Buses tend to be cheaper than car or train for most routes, and can be very cheap on some. The deregulation of Intercity buses in Europe has created a competitive market. Once more, the key to low prices is booking early and shopping around. Cobbling together a connection between two different companies might be cheaper than buying the whole route from one operator, but naturally you are responsible for making the connection.
Shop around for bargains. Sleeper services are usually more expensive than non-sleepers, but you might consider them for the money they save you on accommodation. Taking a seat instead of a sleeper for a ride 24 hours or longer is very uncomfortable and thus often steeply discounted. Some railways only charge the sleeper surcharge once per unit of accommodation, thus enabling pairs or small families who share a room(ette) to get a sleeper at quite an affordable price.
In the United States, you can try a driveaway car service. These most often serve "snowbirds", seasonal travellers who want their vehicles brought south to them in the winter or back north in the spring. In this service, you pay a small fee to an agency to deliver a car to a business or individual in another city, often hundreds or thousands of miles away. The customer wins by reducing their shipping costs, and you win by having a car to drive for cheap – but likely only one way. You are often allowed a certain amount of flexibility in the route and delivery time, allowing you freedom to explore. This is also possible, although not very common, in Canada. HitTheRoad.ca is a Canada based driveaway service.
A shared taxi can sometimes be cheaper than public transportation.
- See also: Flying on a budget
For distances of less than 1,000 km overland transport is usually much cheaper than flying. If you, however, do not have a boat for crossing that sea, the weeks to cover the distance by foot or the confidence to go by bike, flying may be necessary. Sometimes tickets can also be real bargains: empty seats give no money at all to the airline and sometimes cheap tickets are sold as advertisement for the route.
Even if you get a cheap ticket, you have the problem that the ticket does not include your bike, and transport from airports to somewhere where there is cheap accommodation, or where you can get that bike, is usually expensive. From some airports there is cheap public transport, but not from all.
Economy-class tickets can differ by as much as a factor 5, depending on booking time, flight time, and ticket class. Look for bargains. Budget airlines sometimes offer air tickets for very low prices; even legacy airlines have cheap offers at times. With a bit of luck you can fly even below the price of airport taxes and charges.
Still the price is not proportional to distance. You might save money in illogical moves such as flying hundreds of miles in the "wrong" direction to another airport with cheaper flights, or buying a two-leg ticket where you drop out from the second leg. The airlines have in recent times tried to crack down on some of those "tricks" while they generally don't care about some others.
If you are flexible with your origin and/or destination airport, look at air rail alliances, which allow you to for example fly into Frankfurt airport and take a train to Hamburg or the other way around for possibly much cheaper than the flight to the city would have been.
Budget airlines usually touch down in small airports, far from the nominal destination. Airport transfer might cost more than the flight itself. Consider options such as hitchhiking or ridesharing. Ryanair is famous for selling transport to/from its airports that is much more expensive than the same trip bought locally. Look up local connections before booking.
See and do
Tourist information offices and official hospitality websites usually have advice for gratis activities.
Many art galleries, museums and other attractions are free. The most famous attractions of cities are usually located in the public space — from skyscrapers and towers to statues and fountains. While you may need to purchase a ticket to enter, they are free to see and take pictures of from the outside. Of those that require an entry fee, some have discounted or free days at least once a month, or a time after which admission is discounted or free. In some countries you get a discount if you are a national of that country. Students and elderly people also often get discounts, but the need to prove this status may apply. In Finland there is the Museokortti card, which at a moderate price offers free entrance to many museums all round the country for a week or all the year – a real bargain if you like such venues. Even if you need to pay a (steep) entrance fee to enter or get close to an attraction, it can often be watched for free from the outside.
Some national parks and hiking trails charge an entrance fee, but it's often lower if you're a biker or hiker compared to if you're driving. There may be year passes for national parks in a country, which can be worth considering if you'd like to visit several parks. Also, it's possible that a lower or no fee is charged off-season (though the weather may be really awful then).
Many guided tours (even some of the commercial tours) are free or charge, or paid by tips.
Urban exploration is a form of tourism without cover charges. However, it can sometimes be illegal.
In many places in Western Europe, and possibly also in other parts of the world, you can find give-away shops, shops where you can take things you want for free (as long as you don't take too much), and where you can leave stuff you don't need anymore. Some flea markets run by charities have perfectly good items for ridiculous prices.
It is really good to combine this with dumpster diving, looking for usable stuff at the garbage – you can bring the usable things you find there and don't want to have yourself to the give-away shops!
Beautiful rocks or sand can be taken as a souvenir; be sure not to damage property. But don't even think of doing this at places like archaeological sites, if caught, those souvenirs tend to get extremely expensive and you won't be allowed to keep them. In protected areas or areas with many tourists, not taking anything may be important for the place not deteriorating over time.
Eat and drink
The cheapest places to buy food are traditional markets, supermarkets and street vendors. In countries with high hygiene standards, you may be able to find perfectly acceptable food in supermarket's rubbish (note that taking that food might be considered stealing in certain jurisdictions, and some supermarkets especially in the U.S. dump bleach or other noxious substances into food waste bins to deter "dumpster divers"). In some countries supermarkets no longer simply wait to throw out expired food. Food with a short period left to their "best before" date are sold with 30-50-70% discounts. In some countries grocery stores have additional discounts on food during the last hour or two before closing on the "best before" day of the product.
As for hotels, prices are lower in low-income areas, away from tourist venues. You might only need to divert a few blocks from the most touristed streets, to find significantly cheaper food.
Self-catering, buying your own ingredients and preparing your own meals, is a great way to stay on a budget. Many hostels provide kitchens where you can cook your meals. When camping outdoor cooking comes in handy. Many supermarkets sell food that is about to expire at a discount, and if it has been properly stored, food rarely spoils right at the Best before date. Canned and other packed food with a long shelf-life is often cheaper than fresh food, even if perhaps not that much of a culinary experience.
In places where drinking bottled water is necessary, buy the biggest bottle of drinking water you can find in the local supermarket. Leave it at your place of accommodation, and use it to refill a smaller bottle you carry around with you. That way you can save through bulk purchase and reduce waste. Or boil your water (where this is sufficient treatment) and use it to refill bottles.
Food and drink is perhaps not the part of your travel expenses you want to cut down too much. Even if you are on a minimum budget, you do need to eat and drink and you shouldn't compromise your health by eating or drinking something of questionable quality. Travellers' diarrhea or worse is never fun (especially when away from home), and it can in the worst case result in a hefty hospital bill as your insurance company might be reluctant covering ailments caused by something you've voluntarily consumed.
Foraging can provide free food, as well as souvenirs (such as flowers). Beware of local laws though; picking up animals and plants is usually prohibited or restricted. Fungi and other organisms can be poisonous, or edible only if prepared the right way.
Commercial lodging is usually the largest single cost for travellers, especially in high-income countries.
Camping is cheap, and it's often the closest accommodation to lots of natural attractions. This will mean burdening yourself with camping equipment. Also, many popular sites like national parks limit camping to particular spots and often have you pay for a site. This is still almost always cheaper than hostels, except in the most popular camping spots.
Wild camping is camping without using designated camping sites, on undeveloped land. This is allowed and common practice in some countries, e.g. Sweden, Norway and Finland (according to the Right to access principle), and may be possible in many sparsely inhabited areas elsewhere. You should know how landowners are likely to react, and other possible issues, such as weather hazards, dangerous animals and pests, and e.g. whether water in the wild is safe to use.
You could sleep rough, that is sleep out of doors wherever you find a spot. This is difficult for three reasons: the first is that it will often get you in trouble with the police if you do it in urban areas (and with property owners anywhere); the second is that it makes you unusually vulnerable to crime, both theft and violence; and the third is cold or otherwise severe weather. There are few places where this is seen as an acceptable way to holiday (i.e. "sorry officer I'm on holidays" is unlikely to be believed). The real key to sleeping rough is to arrive late in the evening and pack up early in the morning. Also look for areas with rugged topography and thick vegetation that will interrupt the line of sight and ease concealment. Also consider using a tent or hammock that blends well with area vegetation; green is best for most areas. In Japan you can participate in the nojuku tradition: there sleeping rough is a well established practice.
You could sleep in your car. Although also illegal in many areas, if you have a van style vehicle with limited rear windows, it is often easy to get away with.
The objective of hospitality exchange networks is to meet new, and local, people. It can be a great way to get a free place to stay the night, but besides that it's a fun and easy way to get acquainted with an area, city or culture. Active users of online hospitality exchange networks also tend to have broadband connections, which you can use while you are staying there.
If you have friends in the area, they might welcome you for a night or two. With today's travel speeds you might very well have a dense enough network of friends to avoid other lodging most nights. You should be sensitive, though, not to abuse their hospitality. In general visiting friends and family has become an ever more popular reason for travel in the last few decades and there is no reason not to make the visits a mutual thing – them staying at your place and you at theirs. Just remember – after three days fish and guests start to stink.
If you do not have friends in the area, look for different networks with shared interests. If you know Esperanto, that might give you a bed and a new friend. Likewise for many other hobbies and interests: a fellow nature protectionist or a fellow boy scout may be glad to offer accommodation and spend some time with you. Communities living in abandoned facilities may be an option, but choose carefully to avoid dangerous places, trouble with authorities and groups with drug problems.
Religious communities might offer housing for those in need, without or at a token cost.
You can stay in hostels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts, usually the cheapest type of commercial tourist accommodation. Many hostels offer cheap one- to four-person rooms, but the cheapest of all are dorms shared by up to twenty people: you'll usually be given a key to the room and left to choose a bunk bed. Dorms are a great way to meet fellow travellers. There are some international hostel associations, members of which get discounts at participating hostels. Linen is included in most regions, though not everywhere.
Sleeping on vehicles
- See also: Bus travel#Sleep
If you have a long distance train or bus pass, you can often sleep on a train or bus. Ferry passages of suitable length sometimes have affordable cabins (or other places where sleeping is possible) – sleep onboard instead of searching for accommodation when you arrive.
- See also: At the airport
Travellers might find themselves spend lots of time at airports; especially when awaiting a budget flight. When sleeping in the public area at the airport, airside is usually safer and cleaner.
Sleepinginairports.net gives advice for different airports around the world.