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Cheap Travel: Is it really possible?

By Sunday, December 30, 2012 , ,

We all want to travel more; more adventures, more memories, more stories!

But there's always one big obstacle in the way: Money.

Sure, there are plenty of articles and blogs about traveling for cheap, but after looking at them the only thing I've found that actually works is:

Get a job that requires lots of travel!

I've seen lots of advice out there, some of it seems reasonable, but many things people suggest they clearly haven't tried themselves, for example taking the train here in Germany and in the US is often more expensive than flying. Yes, it's more relaxed, you can bring as much liquid and luggage as you can carry, but it can get really expensive (140 Euros for round trip 1.5 hours away, for example) and it will take a long time.

Hopefully, I'm going to be traveling a lot and I'd like to try some of these tips and figure out which ones really work, and which ones are practical. I'll keep updating this, or create a separate post with tips that have actually worked for me.

I find it far easier to try to save money while at your destination on things like food and transportation, like I did in my Saving Money in Stockholm post and upcoming Hotel Room Cooking post.

I'm going to leave out tips that would sort of ruin your travel experience like paying for your travel by working at your destination (one site even suggested fruit picking and day laboring), or ones that might be dangerous like hitchhiking.

Popular tips that I'm skeptical about:
  • Travel with a friend to split costs! Yes, if you split a hotel room or rent a car this will help, but you still have to buy separate plane and train tickets. Plus, if you travel with your spouse all the money is coming from the same account. If you travel with a friend or family member you have to coordinate both getting time off from work at the same time and you may have to take separate routes to your destination. For example, all my friends are in the US, so a trip to Berlin is much harder for them than me.
  • House Swapping, Renting a House, House Sitting, etc. This could work. Or it could end terribly. While this works well in theory, I think it's a little naive to trust a stranger this much.
    • Chances are the house isn't going to be right on the beach, in the Old Town or Center City and you end up paying a lot more in transportation than you thought. 
    • Or you could end up staying in a run down shack in a bad neighborhood. 
    • Or it's fine, but there's no TV/coffee maker/parking for your rented car and you spend all your time trying to track down a TV/coffee maker/parking for your rented car.
    • Plus, do you really feel comfortable inviting a stranger to live in your house for a week? I wouldn't like that at all.
    • What if you break something?!
  • Discount airlines. Yes, these work. Sort of. The problem with companies like Ryan Air and Easy Jet is that 
    • they are very, very limited. For example, Ryan Air only flies from certain small airports (so have to get a bus out of a city with a busy airport to a smaller one nearby. Bus fare is not include in the price.)
    • They only fly to certain places - so even if you have friends in Florence you can stay with, it doesn't mean you can get there on a cheap flight from your airport.
    • They only fly on certain days - ok, you can get from your location to Florence if you go through Barcelona. Unfortunately, the flight from your location to Barcelona is on a Wednesday, and the flight from Barcelona to Florence is on a Tuesday. So either you wait a week for your connection in Barcelona (OK, there are worse things) or... take a different airline. This can also force you to change your travel dates, making you stay longer (and have to spend another night at a hotel) or cut your vacation short.
    • They only fly to a given location certain months of the year.
    • Your don't get a baggage allowance, so you might have to pay 20 Euros a bag. That's not too bad, until you consider that's per flight, not trip.
    • Other hidden fees. Check out some of Ryan Air's, they include flying with musical instruments (€50) and kids under 2 fees (€30) - again per flight, not for the whole trip.
    • If there isn't a direct flight from your city to your destination, you have to book multiple flights separately. Other airlines usually bundle trips together, so a flight from Philadelphia to London to Hamburg might not be much more than one from Atlanta to Philadelphia to London to Hamburg or one just from Hamburg to London. Discount airlines don't do this, so you'd have to book two separate round trips, for a total of 4 flights. Since each flight is separate, that's 4 extra baggage fees, and it also means your tickets will add up. For example, an average of 40 Euros a flight sounds like a great deal, but it will quickly add up (4 flights, plus 80 in extra baggage fees), to 240 Euros spent on travel!
  • Travel During the Off Season! This depends on the place, for example, in the US it is more popular to go to the Caribbean or Mexico in the winter to escape the cold than in the summer. If you go in the summer you won't get to send photos of yourself sunbathing to your friend shivering in New England, but you might get a better deal, so it's a good advice. But for some places, there's a reason there's an off season: it's miserable there. For example, I'm going to Kathmandu for work during the tourist season even though the University could probably save money if we went at a different time. Why are we going during the tourist season? because after March the rainy season starts, and with the rain come the malaria bearing mosquitoes. A slightly less dramatic example is that much of Northern Europe is pretty dismal and dark in the winter, so unless you're going for Christmas festivities or winter sports, you're probably going to want to visit in the summer. Would you save money? Yes. Would you really enjoy yourself? Probably not.
  • Last minute travel deals. What a great way to start a new, spontaneous, exciting, adventurous journey, right? Well, yeah, so long as you don't have a job you need to show up for next week. Maybe you have a light work load that month and a really cool boss, maybe you're self employed and can do that, but unless you want to travel alone, your partner or friend is going to have to get the time off too. And that's assuming you don't have kids, pets, or other responsibilities and plans. Last minute deals are great if they're on a hotel in a city a few hours drive from you for the weekend, not so good if they're to Istanbul. 
After writing this long post about why cheap travel is a myth, a friend of mine from the States told me she's going to try to visit another friend of mine who lives near Venice at the end of March. I'll be in Kathmandu for most of March, returning right when she'll arrive. It's very questionable as to whether I'll be able to go, but while looking at flights I realized, I might have a way to test some of theses tips, particularly the ones about discount airlines and traveling during off season... and I have just the trip in mind!

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