6 Tips to See the World in Style on a Budget

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My friends know that they can tell me their budget, preferred destinations and travel style, and I’ll find them the trip of a lifetime that’s right for them.

Being able to travel is definitely a privilege. For many though, cutting back on a few frivolous expenditures each week can fund an amazing trip.

For me, I have always preferred to travel as often as possible rather than in luxury. In college, I got a cheap ticket from Denver to London, an even cheaper round trip from there to Amsterdam, and a rail pass. Then I attempted to stay in hostels for $10 a night (it didn’t quite work out). $600-$700 could finance everything but food, and we mostly ate inexpensive street food (Belgian waffles, baguettes, cheeses, stroopwafel, amazing strange fried things, etc.)

British Museum 1999. I’m really more thrilled than I look!

In law school, I got a direct flight from Miami to London, a decent hostel bed for the week and an Oyster card for under a grand. (My rule on staying in hostels by then, by the way, was female-only rooms, four-bed max, so it was a bit pricier).

London 2011

Stashing a $20 bill each week for a year ($1k total) would finance a week-long trip to Europe. If I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, I hopped on a Contiki or G Adventure tour, which cost more but provided group security and instant friends for the week.

Note: You can always opt for the camping tours to save even more money on accommodations and meals—though I found during my first (and only) camping trek that this option isn’t for me!

Now that I’m married, I have a built-in travel companion. Planning is half the fun for me, so I’ve become our own travel agent. I’ve doubled the budget for a European trip from $1k to $2k per person. My rule is that saving a dollar an hour from your paycheck each year will finance an amazing trip.

The budget includes air and ground transportation, accommodations and excursions. The doubled budget combined with savvy planning for independent travel has quadruple the luxury and overall experience. We stay in better locations in the heart of the action, we take private tours, and we travel at our own pace.

That pace is sometimes fast! On our most recent trip, we traveled to 5 countries in 10 nights, took three private day tours, stayed in wonderful accommodations and still kept to our budget. Here are some tips on how to do it.

5 beautiful countries in 10 nights

Note: I’ve included links to the travel tools we use. I’m not getting paid to do so (though maybe I should?). These are the tools we use, and I am including them because I love to travel, write, and share our experiences to encourage others to see the world.

I know some people say they don’t like Airbnb or Uber. I can only say that we have had very positive experiences over the past 5 years of using each platform. I’ve had some really terrible experiences with hotels and taxis—so there are pros and cons to all choices, and we have to make the ones that work best for us. We support lobbying for a fair playing field for accommodation providers and workers. We also travel with respect for the local economy and kindness in our hearts for the people we meet. That’s the essence of travel.

  1. Find the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there

We really wanted to go to Dubrovnik on this trip, but flights from Washington, D.C. (with a layover) ran about $1,150 pp–which is more than half our budget. Flights into Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, could be found for $750, but instead, we found direct flights to Amsterdam for $600 per person and a direct one-way on easyJet from there to Dubrovnik for $50 each. We knew we’d be flying around the region, so the savings to cross the pond really helped.

It’s a good idea to play around with flights. Look for the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there. I swear by Google Flights because you can type in your origin city and then put “Europe” as your destination and see what comes up.

Save even more by opting for a layover on that first oversees flight. Right now you can find flights to Europe for less than $300.

Pro tip: keep in mind that Europe’s budget airlines often run from smaller airports. We could’ve flown direct to London Heathrow for $480, but we would have had to change airports for the flight to Croatia and that would’ve cost more time and money.

2. Get alerts on flight deals

We subscribe to Next Vacay for $25 a year and get daily emails on cheap flights from our origin city and other close-by airports. This service has led to $500 tickets to Paris and $450 tickets to Barcelona on major holiday travel dates, $750 tickets to Japan on a great flight route, and our $600 direct to Amsterdam. Some people use Scott’s Cheap Flights, which offers a free limited service and an upgraded paid feature.

We also use Hopper—an app that tells what a good flight prices looks like for your route and dates and alerts you when flight prices drop. This service got us $214 tickets to Panama from DC on a direct flight.

3. Stay in apartments instead of hotels

Staying in an apartment is almost always cheaper, more spacious and a better experience than staying in a hotel. You can use Airbnb or VRBO for this, or you can check out local sites for the cities you need. Orbitz also shows apartment listings, which we’ve booked successfully in the past for Paris and St. Martin.

The only problem is that individual apartment owners are more likely to cancel on you. This has happened to us three times, but everything ultimately worked out. You just have to accept it as part of the experience and come up with a new plan.

Apartment owners could be more flexible, too. Our Airbnb host in Barcelona generously gave us a full refund when we cancelled due to political unrest.

Apartments can save you even more money because you can use the kitchen for breakfast and lunch and just go out to experience local cuisine for dinner. In Dubrovnik, we stayed near a gorgeous hotel that cost more for one night than are apartment cost for 4 nights. We still wandered over to the hotel and enjoyed the on-the-water view with a bottle of Croatian wine without paying the steep price of staying there.

Sunset view from our Dubrovnik Airbnb

We try to book places with a washer because we pack really light, so this saves us on luggage fees and laundry service.

Our Belgrade Airbnb was so comfy and cute and in the heart of town

Our accommodation cost per person for 8 nights in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia was $300 per person, and our places were beautiful. Our Amsterdam apartment cancelled on us and we couldn’t find another, so we wound up paying much more than anticipated: $250 per person for two nights in a hotel (only $50 pp less than what we paid for the next 8 nights combined!). This is way more than we usually spend, but the hotel was centrally located by the train station for our 48-hour stay in the city.

4. Book private day trips

OK, this is NOT cheap, but it would be way more expensive to book a fully guided group tour to Europe. So if you want to get out of the cities and see the major sites with a local, this is a great way to do it.

On this trip, our 3 private day tours and 3 private airport transfers cost $500 per person and were worth every penny—especially considering that one of those trips got us from one destination (Dubrovnik) to the next (Sarajevo). We got to see the beautiful countryside in between and make stops along the way.

In Amsterdam, we used Withlocals to book a private food tour and it was awesome. We felt like we were wandering the city with a good friend and we stopped at places we wouldn’t have found on our own and sampled all the local cuisine.

We sampled all the local flavors
In Amsterdam

To get from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, we used MyDayTrip.com which offers one-way drivers between many cities in Europe. This is a great way to see the countryside and you can add stops at major attractions for an added cost. This is how we got to see Mostar and some other beautiful Balkan towns. We had an amazing driver who became a friend who we keep in touch with now.

Exploring Bosnia

While in Dubrovnik, we took a private day trip to Kotor, Montenegro. For this trip, we booked through Viator. I like Viator, which is now owned by TripAdvisor, because they provide guarantees and assurances when you book local guides through their website. I also book airport transportation through Viator. Prearranging private airport transfers is definitely more expensive than some other options (we use the train whenever it’s available), but it makes me feel safe. I always research the transport provider in advance and make sure there are plenty of positive reviews.

Gorgeous day visiting the Bay of Kotor

Safety tip: Research taxi, Uber and other ride options before you leave for your trip. In some cities, it’s perfectly safe to hail a taxi, in others it’s extremely dangerous. When in doubt, tuck into a hotel or restaurant and ask an employee to call a reputable taxi company for you. Carry your hotel’s business card with you (or the address of your apartment) in the local language so you can hand it to the driver. We use Uber where it’s available because it’s easy. The address is plugged in, the charge is automatic, and the ride is GPS tracked.

Save even more money by staying in one place and renting a car to explore on your own. We could’ve hopped along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and took day trips to Kotor and Mostar on our own, but we opted to hire guides for the convenience and the insider tips. We really like supporting the local economy while we travel.

You can also take group day tours for way cheaper than private trips, but the individual attention and experience is really valuable to us.

5. Consider trains, planes and automobiles

Because the scenery and stops along the way were extraordinary, we opted for the pricy day tour from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. It’s only about a 4-hour direct drive, so there aren’t direct flights from the major airports. There also aren’t any trains.

But I always look into each option to consider comfort, exploration, price and time value. A train, plane or car could be better in one situation and not in another (also research road safety when driving in unknown territory).

From Sarajevo to Belgrade, Serbia we decided to fly. A $110 plane ticket and 45-minute flight seemed way better than the 5-hour drive in that case.

Sarajevo

It cost us $178 per person to fly back to Amsterdam because we wanted a direct flight that gave us plenty of time to make our separately booked overseas flight home. Otherwise, there were direct flights on budget airlines available for about $55.

I absolutely love the train, and I usually go with this option if the trip is less than 4 hours, but rail transport wasn’t an option on this trip. Also, in some areas of the world, budget air travel is cheaper, safer and faster.

6. Travel in the shoulder season

Summer and holiday travel comes with expensive flights and accommodations, huge crowds, and sold out attractions. Sometimes this is when you have to travel because of work, school or other life demands, but if you can travel in the shoulder season, I highly recommend doing so. The shoulder season is different, depending on where in the world you are traveling, so do some research first. Find a time outside the high season when the weather is still comfortable and it’s not too rainy. October in most parts of Europe is lovely, but it’s a risky time to explore the Caribbean because it’s hurricane season—so consider March or April for that region. Another off-travel time to get a good deal is the weekend after New Year’s Day. Everyone in the world just got home from visiting family and isn’t going anywhere for a while.

You might even get a sunny October day in Amsterdam

The Budget Results

So for our most recent trip this October to Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Sarajevo and Belgrade, we had a luxurious experience all within the $2k per person budget:

  • Airfare: $1,000 (DC -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam-> Dubrovnik. Sarajevo-> Belgrade. Belgrade -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam -> DC. Including seat upgrades.)
  • Accommodations: $550 (for 10 nights).
  • Private day tours and transport: $500 (food tour in Amsterdam, round trip day tour from Dubrovnik to Kotor, one way day trip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, airport transport in Dubrovnik and Belgrade).

OK, so that’s $50 over budget. Not bad!! Do you have budget tips for world travel? Tell us in the comments.

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Our Top 5 Travel Destinations on a Time and Money Budget

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We love to travel as often and to as many places as possible. So we like to book trips for as cheap as possible without sacrificing too much comfort. After all, the less we spend, the more trips we can take. BUT we usually can only take one week off at a time (sometime a week and a half) so we will pay more for faster transportation, convenient flights and extra comfort on the road. We don’t stay in hostels, nor do we take long rides on the chicken bus—but those are great options for travelers who are on a tight budget and want to have an amazing adventure! We spend a little money for speed and comfort since we are vacation travelers rather than slow travelers at the moment. But we want to show you the experiences you can get by just saving a little bit each week.

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Got a friend? Got a grand? Go to Nicaragua! Here’s how

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The world is more accessible than some people think, and traveling through its great lands helps us to see that we are all one big tribe with the same hopes and fears.

The idea of world travel is exciting–it can be scary and costly too. BUT it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve been enjoying our travels through Central and South America over the last few years and have found the places we visit to be friendly, beautiful and unique.

We’ve also felt very safe everywhere we’ve been, from Bogotá to Managua. We say that while also cautioning that every place in the world has crime and tourist traps and scams to look out for.

We do to feel safer pre-booking transportation from the airport and have the hotel call taxis for us. This can be a bit more expensive, but it makes us feel comfortable as we’re getting to know a place.

We’ve used uber all over Colombia and Panama and wish it was available in even more places.

What we also love about Central America is that it’s close to the U.S. and affordable.

Here’s how you can do Nicaragua for about $1,000 – and we promise there are no chicken buses or hostels involved!!! Although, that can be a great way to travel too!

——–Airfare————————–

Flight from Washington, D.C.: $400

——–Accommodations—————

Hotels for 7 nights (per person based on double occupancy): $230.

You can easily find great rooms in San Juan del Sur (SJDS), Granada and Ometepe for $55 plus tax and fees, so let’s say $65 per night–which is exactly what we paid. So that’s $32.5 per person per night or $230 for a week.

——–Transportation——————

Transport: $138. Note that this can be done for a lot less. We took prescheduled shuttles with private companies everywhere and we traveled to three different locations (SJDS, Ometepe Island and Granada).

We used Iskra Travel and Adelante Express for our transportation. Both were excellent.

From Managua airport (we bypassed Managua itself), we took a 2.5 hour private shuttle ride down to SJDS for $40 pp.

We took a shared shuttle from SJDS to the port at San Jorge ($15 pp) to catch the ferry to Ometepe ($3 pp round trip) and then had the finca arrange a four wheel drive taxi to take us the 1.25 hour trek across the (sometimes unpaved) island ($30 pp round trip).

Our shuttle from San Jorge to Granada was $25 pp and from Granada back to the airport was $25 pp. It could’ve been cheaper, but we liked the security of prescheduling and the shuttle companies didn’t offer shared shuttles for the times we needed.

——–Food and Drink—————–

San Juan del Sur

OK – that’s $768 so far, which only leaves $30 per day for food. That’s a tight budget but it’s totally realistic. A giant and delicious Nica breakfast was included everywhere we stayed: Gallo pinto, huevos rancheros, fresh papaya, watermelon and banana, fresh squeeze juice, and toast.

When you’re hungry again, you can pick up a $5 sandwich or afternoon snack, $1 beers and 2-for-one cocktails at happy hour (which sometimes runs from 2 pm to 7 pm) and your all set. $15 is plenty for a good dinner–or you can get a decent $10 dinner and have a few more cervezas 🙂

You can tour around by renting a bicycle for $1/hour or $6/day.

Adding $125 to your budget would be plenty to do some really fun activities like kayaking ($25), horseback riding ($25) and volcano viewing ($20), with an ample amount left over to tip your guides, drivers and housekeepers.

There you go! Think about everything you waste money on. Stash a $20 bill every week for the next year and you’ll have enough saved for your adventure to Nicaragua!

It was a wonderful trip and one of the absolute best for meeting great people from Nicaragua and from around the world.

February 19, 2017

Save a Dollar, See the World!

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We never wrote anything about our February trip to Panamá. So we are sitting here in our hotel in Bogotá talking about how accessible the world can be if you make travel a priority – and you really don’t have to break the bank.

We’ve heard the question many times: “How do you get to travel so much?”

Of course there are numerous factors that go into the answer: available vacation time, pet sitters and the lack of unforeseen life expenses.

But world travel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive.

We’ve read a lot of articles suggesting that you cut back on expenses, like cable, or brow bag your lunch instead of buying an unhealthy $8 sandwich every day.

These are great ideas, and if those don’t work for you, We have another suggestion.

The next time you get a pay increase, open a separate savings account and have $1 an hour of your paycheck automatically deposited there–or stash $40 every week.

If you work full time, you will have $2080 dollars saved up a year later.

We’ve done many trips around the world for $2,000 or less per person. And it isn’t super budget travel either. We’ve done a bunch of trips for $2,000 to $2,500 for both of us, too!

Our days of staying in dorm-style hostels are over. But we do stay in comfortable, low-cost (sometimes low frill) places in great locations around the world.

Here’s how we did Panama:

We usually like to go somewhere warm in February because it’s cold at home and it’s the dry season in Central America and other locations. So, six months ahead of time, we picked a week we wanted to go and plugged three different destinations into our Hopper app for those dates: Panama City, Lima and Quito.

Then we waited. In the mean time, we watched Anthony Bourdain (Update: RIP, sigh, sigh, sigh), Samantha Brown and Jack Maxwell explore these areas. We searched Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Viator for suggested itineraries and neighborhoods to explore. This research is half the fun!!

In November, we got an alert from Hopper: “Your flight to Panama is $214. You should book now.”

What?! $214 direct to Panama from Washington, DC? We’re on it!

Flight booked!

Through our internet and television research, we decided to stay in the El Cangrejo district for the first three nights.

An Orbitz promotional rate of $75/night including tax got us a nice room at the Riande Granada Urban hotel. Great pool, workout room and beer garden. We would stay here again!

The hotel was in walking distance to casinos and to Via Argentina–which had lots of restaurants and bars. The area felt much less touristy than other places in the city, and there was still plenty to do.

Theo in Casco Viejo

We hired an Uber driver to take us to the Miraflores locks to check out the canal. The driver waited for us for an hour and kept the meter running. It cost us $20 including an extra tip.

We also hired an Uber driver to take us out to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We should have had him wait for us, because, although the view was beautiful, there wasn’t much to do. In hind sight, we would’ve had him take us to the nearby Soberania park and wait for us. This wound up being about $70 round trip.

After three nights, we relocated to the touristy Casco Viejo area for one night and stayed at Tantalo, a trendy and fun hotel with an amazing rooftop bar. $145/night. It was definitely cool to check out that area for a night!

After that we took an hour flight to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side for $200 per person.

We stayed in walking distance to Bocas Town in a little rustic cabin on the water–which was $100+ per night, depending on which cabin you rented.

We splurged and got the cabin on the end overlooking the water for $154/night including tax.

Bocas Town is very much a backpackers town. We had fun hanging out in town at a hostel bar, Selina, that had great happy hours, a pool table, friendly patrons from around the world and a relaxing view of the water.

There were lots of excursions we could have arranged from Bocas Town, but we just decided to relax.

There were some great little restaurants in town, and food prices were reasonable.

After four nights in Bocas, we flew back to Panama City and headed home.

It was an amazing trip!!

Factor in an additional $50/per person for taxi/uber to and from the airport and around town.

So there you have it. Here’s the per person breakdown:

International flight: $214

Domestic fight: $200

Sightseeing transport: $50

Airport and other transport: $50

Accommodations for 8 nights: $500

That’s a little over $1,000 per person for flights, accommodations and transportation. That leaves quite a bit per day to spend on food, drinks, excursions and whatever else.

Or you could budget some of that for the next adventure!