The Truth About Extreme Budget Travel
What does budget travel mean to you?
For some of my friends, it means downgrading to a three-star hotel instead of a luxury property. For others, it’s giving up their private rooms for hostel dorms.
Budget travel is unique to everyone. The broadest definition of budget travel is being financially conscious during your travels.
I asked my Facebook fans a question: how low-budget would you go? Hostel dorms? Couchsurfing? Never eating in a restaurant, ever? They had a lot of great answers and I’ve included them throughout this post.
Extreme Budget Travel
I define extreme budget travel — or what I like to call traveling “on the hobo” — as traveling while spending the least amount of money possible.
“I had some Couchsurfers come stay with me that are doing a long term trip with a $0 budget for accommodation. If they can’t find CS hosts they camp. One was sleeping in temples in Myanmar. He said his average is $5/day but oftentimes only spends $3. They also only hitchhike everywhere.” –Nathan
Accommodation? Free only. Couchsurfing or camping in their own tent or van. Possibly sleeping in churches, temples or mosques. Free lodging via working gigs. Hostel dorms if there’s no other option.
Transportation? Free or very cheap only. Hitchhiking or traveling in their own vehicle. If anything, an occasional bus ride or public transit.
Food? Cheap only. Supermarket fare or cheap street food. No restaurants, ever. Maybe an occasional takeaway kebab.
Attractions? Free only. In cities, walking around and taking photos, enjoying free museums and attractions. In the countryside, hiking and exploring. Forget about paying for a ticket.
How to get by? Working from time to time. WWOOFing, Workaway gigs, working in hostels or bars, busking, random gigs along the way.
And while there are occasional exceptions, the above is largely how extreme budget travelers spend their time on the road.
Here are some examples:
The Pros of Extreme Budget Travel
Travel longer. See more. The less you spend, the more time you have to see everything the world has to offer. The price you would pay for a midrange two-week trip could grow into a multi-month extravaganza when traveling on the hobo.
Enjoying the same sights at a fraction of the price. Nobody charges you to walk through the piazzas of Florence, nor do you pay anything to enjoy the white sand beaches of Boracay. It feels awesome to look around and know that you paid far less than everyone else!
Expensive destinations aren’t off-limits. One thing I noticed was that extreme budget travelers don’t shy away from expensive countries. You find just as many extreme budget travelers in Norway and Australia as you do in Laos and India.
“Curiously enough it’s easier to spend less in expensive countries. It’s easier to say no to a $25 hotel room and camp, than to say no to a $5 hotel room and camp. In Europe I’d go camping and couchsurfing all the time out of necessity, but here in Asia I’d happily pay for accommodation, because it’s cheaper. But of course that adds up and in the end I pay more. I remember spending 6 months in the US and Canada and I spend $0 on accommodation. :D” –Meph248 on Reddit
Having more local experience. You’ll get to know locals more intimately, whether it means couchsurfing in locals’ homes, working with locals, hitchhiking with locals, or shopping at the local markets. Plenty of travelers will pass through the same town without having a conversation with someone who wasn’t a waiter or hostel employee.
The time of your life — on very little cash. You’ll have great stories to tell your kids someday!
“I did $5 a day while touring the Balkans for a month. I managed!
-Free lodging and food by volunteering at a hostel (even had my own room at the top floor)
-Free private beach access through a guy I was seeing
-Free drinks every night at the bar across the street because the owner swore I was Serena Williams
That about covers all bases! Lol” –Gloria, The Blog Abroad
The possibility of extending your trip indefinitely. If you pick up enough paid gigs in between, you can keep on traveling forever. This especially works well if you pick up gigs, either officially or under the table, in high-paying countries like Australia.
The Pitfalls of Extreme Budget Travel
Reduced safety. If you don’t have funds allocated for accommodation or private transportation, what happens when none of the Couchsurfing hosts in town appeal to you? What happens if your bus is delayed, you show up in Tegucigalpa late at night, and you can’t afford a cab to your accommodation?
Not having money for instances like these sacrifices your safety.
“I would never want to absolutely rely on couchsurfing for the whole of my trip. I couchsurf where I can but when I can’t find a decent host I book a hostel. I think when you get too desperate to couchsurf you end up pushing the safety limit a bit and staying with dubious people.” –Britt, Adventure Lies in Front
Just how bad can the result be? Read this heartbreaking post by Trish on Free Candie.
Missing cool activities and social events. You meet a cool group of fellow travelers and they’re all going whitewater rafting. They want you to join — but you can’t do that. And sure, you can walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge if the $300 Bridgeclimb is out of your price range, but would you go to Leon, Nicaragua, and skip $30 volcano boarding? What about a $5 wine tasting in a Tuscan town? And even if it’s just a $4 hostel shuttle to the beach, which all your friends from the hostel are taking, you’re stuck on the much longer 25-cent local bus.
Less exposure to local cuisine. Yes, there’s fresh produce and markets and supermarkets can be their own adventure, but if you’re making pasta in the hostel every night, you’re missing out on one of the best parts of traveling — the food.
“As a student in EU having a long-term schengen visa on a third-world passport, I think I have hit the bottom after sleeping at airports, night buses, railway stations, common areas of hostels. taking pictures of food in local markets and then coming back to cook pasta in hostel kitchen :-(” –Anshul
No backup savings. In the event of an emergency — say, you need to fly home for the funeral of a dear friend — you don’t have the cash to do so. Most of the time, travel insurance will only reimburse you if it’s a member of your immediate family.
Isolation and discomfort. If you’re not comfortable in your accommodation, you have fewer options and may be far from the city center or tourist zone. If you’re limited with money, you can’t just pick up and leave — you might need to stick it out for at least a night.
“Ive couchsurfed once and they tried to convert me to their religion so i just left.” –Christipede
No alone time. If you’re a natural extrovert, this probably won’t be an issue, but traveling on the hobo requires you to socialize with lots of people on a daily basis, especially if you’re couchsurfing. If you’re an introvert, you’ll have difficulties carving out alone time to relax your mind. (Camping solo is one way around this, however.)
Mooching off others. Conversely, depending on others day after day can wear away at you. Sure, you can help cook and clean, or play music, and you know you’ll pay it back to other travelers someday, but you might get uncomfortable having strangers host and feed you for free on a regular basis.
“It’s funny. I’m open to going extremely low budget. As long as I can be self-reliant about it. Meaning I’d rather sleep (legally or semi-legally) on an abandoned beach or in a corner of a park than ask for someone’s couch. This is strange, I know, since the spirit of travel is tied so intrinsically into the good will of others. I guess I’d rather rely on others for their company (and their rum!) and then slip off to my tent for the night.” –Bring Limes
Resentment. Is this the trip you had in mind? Is this even the kind of trip you’d want? Wouldn’t you rather be in a nice hotel room, eating in restaurants, doing cool activities, and not having to work every now and then? After weeks of depriving yourself, over and over, you could end up feeling resentful. It might not be worth the savings.
“I feel like [extreme budget travel] would detract from the travel experience itself. If I was wrapped up in my head worrying about money and a budget the whole time it would take away from experiences. I certainly don’t travel luxuriously, but I choose to travel within my means without missing out on things.” –Megan, Forks and Footprints
A Lot of People Think They Can Do This
I’m an avid Redditor but don’t comment often. What makes me comments are posts like these:
“Me and my cousin are going on a trip in 2015 for 16 months around SE Asia. we plan on visiting 19 countries in that time: Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri lanka, Tawain, Thailand, Vietnam, Bhutan
We dont really know what months to go to the different countries and theres not much info online about it, so im asking you we kind of want summer all the time around. Also what places should we see in different countries? Im thinking that 12k USD will be enough for this trip? no including air fare, is that close to accurate?”
First of all, no, $12K will not be nearly enough. I really hope he meant $12K each, because even $24k for two would not be enough for a trip like that, especially with countries like Bhutan and Japan on the list. The only way it would be possible would be through extreme budget travel, and just the idea of traveling that way for 16 months makes me want to curl into a ball and hide.
I get emails all the time from travelers who want to travel as long and as much as possible, so they squish their budget down to the bare minimum. They tell me that yeah, they really want to see as much as possible, so they’re going to couchsurf and camp and they’ll be able to stretch their trip to as long as possible. I give them advice, wish them luck, tell them to buy travel insurance.
Some of them end up traveling this way — and have a fabulous, life-changing trip. Others end up miserable and return home much sooner than planned.
My worry about these travelers is that they won’t end up enjoying themselves on what should be the trip of a lifetime. I believe that far more people think they can handle long-term extreme budget travel than can actually handle this style of travel on a long-term basis.
It doesn’t help that traveling on the hobo is romanticized in popular culture, complete with scenes of waking up on a farm in Provence, harvesting olives all day, then having huge dinners with wine every night before hopping on a train to the next idyllic destination.
In short, it’s fun to travel on the hobo if you’re doing it for fun. It’s not so fun if you’re doing it because you can’t afford anything else.
Special Concerns for Women Travelers
I feel like there needs to be an asterisk when talking about extreme budget travel as a woman. Just like there needs to be an asterisk with almost every kind of travel.
If you haven’t read Why Travel Safety Is Different For Women, please read it now.
In that piece, I talk about how women are attuned to the risk of sexual assault every minute of every day. It never leaves our minds, and each day we make dozens of micro-decisions for the sake of self-protection. For that reason, we need to be extra careful when it comes to extreme budget travel.
“extreme budget travel is a luxury that men can have I think. as a woman, I always need to have a little extra to get myself out of a bad guesthouse or take taxis rather than walk. I’m sure some women have managed it, but i wouldn’t feel safe on a low low budget. I usually budget $50/day with an extra $500/month of travel, although I rarely use it all. it gives me enough cushion to get a single room rather than share a dorm with just one man, etc.” –Lily
Camping alone or sleeping outside leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.
Staying in a sketchy guesthouse with a badly locking door leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.
Hitchhiking with strangers leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.
Taking public transportation in a rough city at night leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.
Accepting food and drinks prepared by Couchsurfing hosts leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.
That doesn’t mean that women can’t do extreme budget travel — I know women who do it and love it. I know that some take extra precautions, like carrying pepper spray and a knife. And even then, many of them have done so safely; most of them have only had a few scary but ultimately non-dangerous incidents, like I have.
But it doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t there. You need to evaluate that risk closely.
It’s Not For Everyone
If you want to try out extreme budget travel and you think you would enjoy it, go for it! I’m happy for people to travel in any way they’d like, as long as it’s not harmful to others.
There are plenty of people for whom extreme budget travel is a great choice. And they’re a surprisingly diverse group of people.
My issue with it is that I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to live this way on a long-term basis. In short, it’s not for as many people who think it’s for them. So many people attempt it, burn out, and leave their trip with regrets.
Short-Term Extreme Budget Travel
What if you only did the extreme budget travel thing for a shorter time? Say, for a two-week trip or just for a month or two out of a yearlong RTW trip? What if you just did it when you traveled in Australia and went back to spending more money in Southeast Asia?
I think that’s actually a very smart idea. This way, you get to try it out, reduce costs in the most expensive destinations, and see if you are interested in doing it long-term.
“I don’t mind dorms for cheap travel, although a few weeks is the max I could do that without at least a few nights in a private. I’m planning to couch surf and WWOOFing a lot in Japan, since I want to go for a while without spending thousands and thousands. I can’t live on that low though- it’s boring to only have enough to eat and stay in the hostel!” –Alexandria
How to Maintain Your Sanity While Traveling on the Hobo
Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Walking a mile out of the way for loaves of bread that cost 20 cents less is the definition of insanity. Instead, reduce your big expenses like accommodation and transportation, or stick to cheap countries.
Travel slower. Spending more time in fewer destinations will majorly cut down your costs. When you spend longer in a destination, you’ll get to know the cheaper places, you’ll spend less time sightseeing, and your transportation costs will be lower.
Stick to cheaper regions — not just cheaper countries. Most people consider Thailand a cheap country but don’t take into account that the beach resorts in the south are MUCH more expensive than the rest of the country. Stick to rural, less-visited areas for lower costs. In Thailand, you’ll find the cheapest prices in the north.
Set up a separate bank account for splurges. Use it for special activities like seeing Angkor Wat, getting scuba certified, or having a restaurant meal in a fabulous food region.
Plan on getting private accommodation every few weeks or so. Just a few days in a room to yourself will make you feel so much better, especially if you’re an introvert.
Have a re-entry fund saved up and don’t touch it. This is money to cushion your return home. How much do you need? Depends on your situation. Some people like to have enough to secure a new apartment and pay for a few months of frugal expenses; others just need a thousand dollars or so. The choice is yours.
Don’t scrimp on travel insurance. Even if you’re committed to spending as little as possible, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you weigh your health against saving money. Not to mention that it will save your ass financially in the event that you get severely injured and need an air ambulance to another country. I use and recommend World Nomads.
One Last Tip: Check Your Privilege
When you’ve been traveling on the hobo for awhile, there will be dark days. You’ll be down to your last few dollars and unable to eat anything but rice and pasta. You’ll be tired. You’ll be lonely. You’ll be treading water and you won’t know when you’ll earn enough to leave town.
This happens to all travelers. We all go through tough times, but extreme budget travelers are additionally vulnerable because of their lack of money.
Even when you’re at your lowest, it’s important to remember that you hold enormous privilege. You’re living this lifestyle by choice, and you’ve experienced far more than the vast majority of the world will ever be able to.
Don’t refer to yourself as poor. Don’t take food donations meant for the needy. And for the love of God, don’t compare yourself to the homeless.
Instead, practice gratitude each day. Be kind. Use what you’ve learned to create a better life for everyone you meet, both on the road and at home.
And if you choose to settle down for some time — whether it’s just for a few weeks or something more permanent — open up your home to vagabonds like yourself. Feed them, give them a place to sleep, show them your favorite spots in town. It’s time to repay the kindness that you’ve been gifted on your journey.