What’s a huge downside of traveling solo? There’s no one to split costs with!
OK, so that sounds like a first-world problem. But it’s true: solo travel on a budget can be tricky, and could very well affect your whole itinerary (and trip length).
As someone who has been traveling solo for quite a while, I figured it’s time to dump everything I know about saving money on the road into one blog post. Hope you find something useful in here!
Executive Summary: on most trips, the three largest expenses are transport, accommodation, and food. All the other stuff is relevant, but pales in comparison to these “big 3” categories. So our priority is to minimize those expenses–before moving on to everything else.
We begin with transportation:
Tip #1: Become a Flight Booking Ninja
If you really want to stretch your travel budget, you’ve got to get better at saving money on airfare.
There are 100’s of flight booking websites out there. In my experience, few are fast and comprehensive as Google Flights. There are some killer features on this site, such as a “Date grid” for quickly finding the lowest prices for a given time period, and a “Price graph” for monitoring fares over time. I prefer this one over Skyscanner and Kayak (the other two popular ones).
Pro tip: you can leave the destination blank and see possible outbound routes from your destination. This is great when you’ve got time and no set plans (my favorite kind of travel!)
As a general rule, you will pay less if you book at least 3 weeks in advance of your trip. You will likely also save money by flying on weekdays (Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Saturday for US domestic flights).
If you’re willing to wake up at 5 AM (or earlier), the first few flights of the day are usually more affordable – and are less prone to delays! As a bonus, it could mean getting to your destination well before dinner, giving you plenty of time to settle in and prepare an action plan for the following day.
Also, don’t forget to check flights in/out of nearby airports. It’s easy to forget, for example, that SFO (San Francisco) is practically next to OAK (Oakland).
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of holiday season (when prices spike up considerably worldwide). I try to avoid all air travel during the Christmas holidays – all it means is more delays, super expensive tickets, and long lineups in airports. For specific date ranges to avoid in 2019, check out this handy guide from FareCompare.
Tip #2: Say “NO” To Baggage Fees
OK, so don’t literally say “no” if you’re asked to pay the fees – or you might get shown out of the airport!
What I mean is: try to avoid paying any bag fees at all. You can do this by:
- Traveling with only carry-on luggage (just one backpack)
- Making sure my carry-on luggage is within the size and weight limits imposed by the airline (someone has gone ahead and compiled a complete chart of these – handy!)
“Isn’t that just letting the airlines win?” you might ask.
Yes and no. On one hand, yeah, we jump through all these hoops to save on something that we probably shouldn’t be charged for in the first place. On the other hand, this is the only way now – airlines have had no choice but to deal with rising fuel costs (and competition) by jacking up the costs for everything else.
And I’ve already written at length about the benefits of traveling super light. It’s a liberating feeling, and I do my best to convince everyone I know to skip checked luggage entirely. A “budget airline” ticket isn’t so budget when you have to pay an additional 30$ in checked bag fees.
Tip #3: Use Credit Card Points To Fly For Free
When I started my round-the-world journey, I already had close to 500,000 air miles saved up – this meant that I flew for free (or only paid the taxes) on multiple long haul flights. This ended up saving me thousands.
Warning: this whole credit-point-ticket-hacking game is a rabbit hole of frequent flyer programs, “cost per point” calculations, and insane flight redemption techniques. Once you start reading the various blogs and fora on the subject, it’s easy to get lost (and waste dozens of hours figuring it all out).
Here’s how all this works (the short version):
- Long before your trip, you sign up for new credit cards. The focus is on credit cards with a “sign up bonus” (e.g. “50,000 points”). Typically, this means that if you spend a certain amount within 3 months of opening the card, you’ll be given some quantity of card points.
- The juiciest deals usually have a minimum spend of $3,000-5,000 and up, so people try to sign up right before they’re expecting to make major life purchases. Major business trip coming up (that you can get reimbursed for later)? Perfect. Buying a lot of furniture for your new place? Great, might as well get some points while you’re at it!
- Once you have the points, they can be converted to air miles for your airline of choice. Generally, I recommended keeping all the points as regular credit card points until you know exactly which airline you want to redeem on.
- First, I punch in my origin and destination into AwardHacker. This handy tool gives me all the available redemption options (with the miles required).
- I then go to the airline’s website (e.g. British Airways) and attempt to find available flights that can be booked with miles. If I see something available, I log into my credit card account and send those points into my frequent flyer account with the airline (for example, I would convert Chase Ultimate Rewards points into British Airways Avios miles).
- Once the points have been converted (typically in 1-2 days), I can go ahead and book the flights with miles.
And that’s just the gist of what’s going on. There’s a bunch of other stuff you need to be aware of in this game, such as point expiration policies, points:miles conversion ratios (e.g. sometimes you get 2:1, or maybe it’s 1:3), possible redemptions on partner airlines (e.g. One World, Star Alliance), and so on. If you want to get really deep into this stuff, start here: churning subreddit.
Note: from everything I’ve seen, these tactics are most useful to U.S. travelers. Other countries don’t have nearly the same selection and award bonuses when it comes to credit card programs. If you’re outside of the US, you may be better off ignoring all this and just getting a cashback card with no foreign transaction or exchange fees (more on this later).
Tip #4: Embrace the Stopover
To the uninitiated, a “stopover” is simply a layover longer than 24 hours. In other words, it gives you a chance to explore a city in-between (before flying to your final destination).
Layover: fly to Tokyo, wait 6 hours, get on connecting flight to Hong Kong
Stopover: fly to Tokyo, explore for 3 days, get on connecting flight to Hong Kong
“Free” stopovers (that is, stopovers that don’t end up costing you than a regular layover ticket) are rare, but they do exist. Sometimes, airlines even advertise “free stopovers” as a major selling point.
Here are some Airline/destination combos that people have pulled off “free” stopovers with:
- Stopover in Reykjavik (KEF) on Icelandair when flying from North America to Europe
- Amsterdam (AMS) with KLM
- Paris (CDG) with Air France
- Istanbul (IST) with Turkish Airlines (really underrated carrier!)
- London (LHR) with British Airways
- Singapore (SIN) with Singapore Airlines (a great way to see Singapore as it’s tiny and can be easily seen in 1-2 days)
- Tokyo (HND or NRT) with ANA
- San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX) on Qantas when flying between Sydney and the East Coast (e.g. Toronto or NYC)
- … and so on.
These kinds of opportunities come and go all the time, so check to see what’s possible. Google Flights “Multi City” search is a good place to start if you need stopover ideas.
Pro tip: finding “secret” flight deals gets even deeper. Consider the following scenario, in which you’re looking at flights from Toronto to LA:
- Option A: there’s a ticket from Toronto to Los Angeles for $300
- Option B: there’s a ticket from Toronto to Las Vegas (with a stop in Los Angeles) for $250
As you can see, there’s something weird going on with the ticket pricing. People have figured out that you could simply buy Option B, get out in LA, and ignore the remainder of the journey (i.e. don’t get back on the plane to continue to Vegas). There’s even a website out there that helps you find these loopholes (SkipLagged). Warning: don’t do this with return tickets, because if you fail to check in for any segment… the other segments on your itinerary will be void. Also, don’t do this if you have checked bags (because your bags will make it all the way to Vegas!)
Tip #5: Take long-haul buses and save big
It’s not exactly a secret, but you really don’t have to fly everywhere.
Intercity buses exist in almost every country, and are an affordable way to cover long distances. Contrary to popular belief, they are typically not “scary” at all – plenty of families take these buses. And you’d be surprised how often you get “business class” amenities on these buses – I’m talking fully reclining seats, privacy curtains, personal TVs, lunch/dinner service (with alcohol), on-demand coffee, on-board bathrooms, and so on.
The longest bus journey I’ve been on was Mendoza to Buenos Aires (Argentina). It took 13 hours, but I got to see a whole different side of the country – and slept for at least half of it. No regrets, and I would recommend this to budget-minded travelers. (I know plenty of you have been on 24+ hour bus journeys – respect!)
Pro tip: if you’re taking a night bus, keep your valuables close to you when you doze off. If putting stuff in the overhead bins, secure them to the rail with a lock (or at least a carabiner). And try not to entrust any of your baggage to the luggage compartment under the bus – bags are notorious for getting “lost” in transit down there.
Tip #6: Public transport is your friend
Even if you don’t really use public transport at home, don’t be so quick to dismiss it abroad. In many places (e.g. major European and Asian cities), it’s the fastest way to get around a busy city – and the cheapest, too!
In the past, travelers would have to walk around with bus timetables and constantly ask locals for assistance with routes and stops. These days, the whole process is heavily simplified: Google Maps, for one, has public transport information for many countries – and they’re constantly adding new features.
For me, a great public transport system is an attraction in of itself. From the futuristic Tokyo Monorail to the classy and chandelier-clad stations of the Moscow Metro (and everything in between), there’s a lot of engineering and architecture to appreciate in places that have invested in efficient transport networks.
Pro tip: if you’re in a city for a few days, it may make sense to invest in a multi-day or weekly transport pass. Buy it once, and you won’t have to waste time figuring out Zone fares, transfers, and all that (especially in a language you don’t understand). You’ll be saving money and time.
Tip #7: Avoid the dreaded airport taxi
OK, so you’ve found a cheaper flight – and snagged affordable accommodation. But there’s still one major challenge remaining: getting from the destination airport to the city.
This is the point at which most travelers surrender – there’s simply no energy left after a long flight, passport control, and multiple interactions with airport staff. Nothing sounds better than to just throw your bag in the back seat of a waiting taxi and pay whatever price they’ve dreamt up for a ride downtown.
And yet I urge you to remain strong! Unless it’s the only option, resist the temptation of the airport taxi (perhaps the only method of ground transport out there that will charge you 50$ for a 10km ride).
Do your research beforehand (we always try to include alternate airport transport information in our guides). Double check with the info desk in the Arrivals hall. Ask someone who’s not busy. Do anything and everything in your power to get to town like the locals do: either via airport bus/shuttle, train, or, in the worst case scenario, via a ride-hailing service like Uber.
Pro tip: if you do have to take an airport taxi, make sure you find out the normal fare to downtown. And confirm with the driver before you get in. Also, confirm that their credit card machine is working if you don’t have any cash – these guys are notorious for claiming the reader is “failing to connect to the system” at the last second.
Tip #8: Hostels are not always the best option
These days, backpackers are so used to staying in hostels that they have developed “hostel myopia” – they simply don’t consider any other form of accommodation!
When it comes to the most sensible lodging options, it really, really depends on the destination. Some examples:
- Need a place for a few nights in Hanoi, Vietnam? You might find a hostel bed for a few dollars each, but a decent private hotel room might only be $12/night total (with daily room cleaning and breakfast included).
- Need to set up base in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a whole month? You could bounce between hostels, but then you’d have to deal with the hassle of having roommates and constantly worrying about your stuff getting stolen. Instead, you could literally rent an apartment for the same price (or less) as long as you pre-pay for the whole month.
- Passing through Hong Kong? With average property prices so high, there are very few hostels to begin with (and even fewer in a convenient location for sightseeing). I’d be checking room listings on Airbnb to see what’s available on the west side of Hong Kong Island.
- Visiting San Francisco during a big tech conference? Well… we can’t help you there.
Moral of the story: hostels are great, but they should never be the only option you consider. These days, mainstream websites like Booking.com aggregate a ton of various options – hotels, hostels, villas, apart-hotels, serviced apartments, and so on. Check all your options before you commit.
Tip #9: How to save big on Airbnb bookings
When you book something on Airbnb, there’s a human at the other end of the transaction – not a major corporation. This means there’s plenty of leeway for negotiation.
If you have a good tenant record and want a place for at least a week, you could consider emailing Airbnb hosts ahead of time to see if you can secure a stay for some kind of discount (it’s not uncommon to ask for 40% off right away).
Your message could be something like this:
Hi HOST_NAME, I'd like to book your Airbnb listing from DATE to DATE. I'm visiting CITY because BLAH BLAH. I am a OCCUPATION and HOBBIES. And SOMETHING PERSONAL ABOUT THEIR PROFILE. Airbnb shows the price as $PRICE. Since I'm staying for X WEEKS I'm wondering if I can book your Airbnb for 0.6*PRICE. Thanks, NAME
The worst thing that can happen? They’ll say no – or simply ignore your message. No problem, because you can reach out to multiple hosts simultaneously.
Don’t worry about offending the hosts – they understand that this is a business. Airbnb prices are already marked up for tourists and visitors – this is simply a chance to save during less busy periods (e.g. “low season”).
Pro tip: this tactic works even better when you’re already staying at their place (and paying the full listed amount). You could simply message the host via WhatsApp and SMS and offer to keep renting the place at 40% off. Hosts love no-nonsense, clean, and responsible tenants – especially when the tenant offers to pay with cash 😉
Tip #10: Use sleeper trains as your hotel
This is a quick tip that applies mostly to European trips, where overnight train voyages are a popular method of transportation.
The idea is simple: intentionally book an overnight train ride (with sleeper bunks) so you save money on accommodation. As a bonus, you’ll arrive at your destination refreshed and ready to explore the city – and no days are lost to “travel time.”
This method really only works if you’re a hard sleeper, and have no trouble dozing off on moving vehicles. Otherwise, you’ll be waking up every hour (or worse, not getting much sleep at all).
Pro tip: just as on long bus voyages, it’s imperative that you keep watch over valuables. Secure any bags to the nets/railings, and keep the most expensive stuff (passport, cash, jewelry) on your person. Sleeper trains are notorious target for pickpockets and petty thieves.
Tip #11: Get creative with accommodation
Remember: there are no “rules” for travel. There is no performance review, and no one is watching (except maybe your Instagram #followers?)
On your trip, you are free to do anything: including spending your nights in unusual places. Allow me to illustrate with some examples:
- As long as you don’t mind tight spaces, you could conceivably stay in capsule hotels for your entire stay in Japan. Will it be weird that everyone else there is a businessman or office worker that has missed their last train home? Only at first – then you’ll get used to it.
- Have you heard of people playing games in those Korean internet cafes for days on end? Turns out these places often have reclining chairs, designed to keep you there – and comfortable – for as long as possible. Put on those noise canceling headphones and doze off, lulled by the excited outbursts of excited gamers and the sounds of simulated gunfire.
- Need to save some cash in China? Well, you could spend a couple nights in a sauna. They have reclining armchairs, showers, towels, free snacks, water, and WiFi. Sometimes even separate swimming pools. Oh, and you’ll get some world-class massages, too. Nothing shady going on here – there are thousands of these establishments.
- Willing to house-sit someone’s place while they are away? As long as you have a good reputation for watering the plants and feeding pets, you might be able to swing free accommodation. Check out websites like Trusted Housesitters for more info (females tend to have more success on these websites).
- You’ve probably heard of Couchsurfing: a site where people offer their couch (or a spare room) to travelers for free. While this is a roll-of-the-dice that I haven’t tried yet, there are millions who have used it (and lived to tell the tale). This is a risky one for both parties.
- Sleeping in airports has become so commonplace that there is now a site with detailed info on the best areas and airports to overnight in. Not a bad idea, especially if it’s a newer (read: cleaner) airport and you’ve got a flight to catch very early in the morning. Some airports even have designed sleeping zones, padded benches, or full-on sleep pods!
The list goes on. Whether it’s sleeping on a beach (“under the stars!”) or dozing off while hunched over a table in a 24/7 McDonalds, travelers have found all sorts of creative ways to save on accommodation. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever go to such extremes, just know that there are options.
Pro tip: if you really need last-minute accommodation and park benches are not an attractive option, try simply walking into a hotel and asking the front desk if they have rooms available. Turns out you don’t have to book online (who knew, right?) Sometimes, hotels will have discounted last-minute room deals available (this is coincidentally the entire premise of the app HotelTonight).
Tip #12: Cooking for one: is it even worth it?
Unless you really love cooking – and have the right equipment and condiments at your accommodation – it becomes really hard to justify cooking for yourself. Nevertheless, it can be worth it in some situations.
Let’s break it down by meal: is cooking for one worth it?
- Breakfast: depends on your habits. If you’re like me and need that big boost of energy first thing in the morning, it’s usually worth it to buy some basic ingredients at the supermarket for your whole stay. Otherwise I’d just be cranky and hunting for something – anything – to sate my hunger in the morning.
- Lunch: rarely worth cooking for yourself. There are so many great lunch deals these days, so I find that it’s far better value to eat at local restaurants for lunch. After all, you’re traveling to experience new cultures – and what better way to immerse yourself than to try the local cuisine? Eat at a different place for lunch every day!
- Dinner: usually worth cooking for yourself (at least on longer trips). Unless you’re a serious foodie and have a dedicated budget for great chefs and restaurants to check out, you can save a lot of money by cooking some quick meals before you hit the nightlife. As a bonus, learning to cook dinner is great preparation for a romantic night in!
Note: this section won’t even be relevant unless your room/hostel/Airbnb has a kitchen. I also tend to travel “slowly” (staying in one city for 1-2 weeks or even longer sometimes), so cooking becomes a legitimate money saver. If you’re looking for minimalist cooking ideas, check out this handy blog post.
Tip #13: Dine with the office workers
If you want to find out where to eat to get the best value, just see where all the regular office types eat during their lunch break! They know the area better than anyone, and have already picked out the best cheap eats around.
This tactic works especially well in expensive neighborhoods (e.g. Ginza in Tokyo) where it seems every little snack costs an arm and a leg. Trust me: the local employees aren’t going to be overpaying for anything. See where they’re going, or just ask them where the best ramen is. Don’t tell them you want the cheapest–but ask for a place with big portions!
The general lesson here is: learn to eat local. You’ll save a lot of money by eating the local cuisine instead of constantly seeking out food that you’d get back home (you’ll probably be disappointed with the latter, anyway).
Tip #14: Book tours locally
When I hiked the Salkantay Trek* from Cusco (Peru) to Machu Picchu, I found out that some people in my group paid much more than I did (for the exact same experience). The difference? They booked online, way in advance. Whereas I booked locally, just two days before the trek started (and I paid in cash).
I’ve seen these price discrepancies again and again. It’s almost always better to book things in person at your destination–where you can assess all the options at hand, negotiate face-to-face, and get competing quotes before committing to one provider or another. It’s rarely the case that there’s just one super special tour operator (unless it’s truly exclusive, like an edge of space tour in a fighter jet or something).
Don’t be afraid to comparison shop, and use time pressure to your advantage: if the tour is leaving in a few hours and they still haven’t sold out, you may be able to swing a discounted price. Solo travelers even have an advantage here, as operators may only have the one extra seat/space available–and who else is gonna fill it if not you?
Remember: everything is negotiable. And always ask if you can get a slight discount for paying in cash.
*The Salkantay is similar to the Inca Trail, but you end up arriving to Machu Picchu from a different direction. Same destination, different route (and usually much more affordable). I paid ~$180 in 2017, others paid north of $250, and the folks who booked online? I’ve heard numbers as high as $600 (all US dollars). Keep in mind that these prices fluctuate all the time.
A word on scoring free tours. As recently as a few years ago, travelers were making deals with tour operators like so: “let me go on the trip for free, I won’t tell the others, and in return I’ll take high resolution photos with my fancy camera that you can use for your TripAdvisor pages, website, etc.” This was a legitimate tactic for a while–until it got saturated and most providers got all the photos they need. Today, this could still work if you a) offer great video (drone) footage and/or b) have a very sizable following on your blog that the operator would get exposure on. Otherwise, it’s becoming a hard sell!
Tip #15: Exchanging money (and withdrawing cash) like a pro
Repeat after me: do not exchange your money at Travelex.
Whether it’s Travelex or another big chain of foreign currency exchange stores, more often than not you’re going to get taken for a ride on the exchange (either the rate will be horrible, or they’ll take a hefty commission, or both). These operations are all over major airports and train stations, and I recommend avoiding them altogether.
Usually, the best way to exchange money is actually through the ATM. Use your debit card at a reputable bank branch (ideally, inside the actual branch) to withdraw cash in the local currency. You’ll still be charged an ATM fee, but at least the rate will be close to the real interbank exchange rate that day. Americans have an advantage here if they have signed up for the Charles Schwab debit card (all ATM fees are refunded).
If you really must exchange money on the street, look up “currency exchange” on Google Maps and just read some reviews–if there are any good places, they will be rated 4 stars or higher (with plenty of recent reviews).
Generally speaking, I try to make very minimal use of my debit card abroad. I treat it as an “emergency use only” device. Where possible, I pay with one of my credit cards. If something goes wrong, a credit card company will reverse a suspicious charge immediately (if you used a debit card, the money will simply have left your account and thus begins a long and annoying investigate process with your bank that will require lots of paperwork and phone calls).
To sum it up, quick “finance” tips for travelers:
- Before leaving, see if you can get a debit card that refunds ATM fees.
- Also, sign up for a credit card with no FTF (Foreign Transaction Fees). This means that all purchases abroad will be treated just like purchases back home
- If asked whether you want the credit card transaction to be in the local currency (e.g. Thai Baht) or your home currency (e.g. USD), always pick your home currency. This way, the exchange rate used will be the bank’s (as opposed to whatever exchange rate the local payment processor has concocted for that day).
- Before you set off, put a travel alert on all your cards so they don’t suddenly get frozen by the bank for “suspicious activity”
- Have some amount of cash hidden away for emergency uses at all times. I like to keep at least $200, half of that in American 20-dollar bills (very handy), and the other half in the local currency.
- Be very careful about using your debit card at random ATMs. Even if it looks like a busy area (with cameras), you never know which ATMs have been fitted with card skimmers/readers. This stuff happens way, way more often than you realize.
Pro tip about tipping: find out what the tipping culture is like at your destination before arrival. If you’re American, for example, you may be used to tipping 15-20% for just about everything–this is considered over-the-top in most places around the world. As a general rule, 10% is a perfectly good tip in a restaurant (read the bill, as it may have already been added on as a surprise “service charge”).
Tip #16: Bring your student ID
Are you a student? Bring your student ID You will be saving a lot of money through discounts on transport, entertainment, museums, food, clothing, etc. You may even be eligible for “student only” packages and tours.
Pro tip: try to register for an ISIC card before departure. This is an internationally recognized student card that is sometimes the only form of student ID a business or organization will accept.
Tip #17: Sign up for some walking tours
In almost every major city, there are people offering guided walking tours. Often, they are marketed as free (or close to free). I highly recommend taking advantage of these for the following reasons:
- It’s a quick way to find out a lot about the city you’re exploring. Walking tour guides are knowledgeable and have done the tour many times, so they’ve already got lots of answers to common questions. Let’s face it: it’s far easier to have someone give you the entertaining, abridged version of the city’s prolific past than to read a long Wikipedia article 😉
- These tours usually last anywhere from 2-4 hours, and will end up costing you around 10-20 USD at most (it’s how much I’ve tipped on those free tours if there’s no suggested price). This is great value for money, and is effectively “outsourcing” the afternoon’s itinerary to someone else.
- It’s a great chance to meet other travelers–whether they’re also solo (or traveling as a group). Strike up a conversation, and you’ll be surprised at how receptive people are to meeting someone new!
- The tour guides tend to know a lot about the city, so you can get the unfiltered local wisdom from them about what else is good to see, eat, and experience. They’ll know where the best nightlife is, and which areas are to be avoided.
Pro tip: this is something you can do without even going anywhere! Ever signed up for a walking tour of your own city? Sounds silly, but you’d be surprised at how much there is to learn about the same streets you’ve been walking on for years.
Tip #18: Don’t sweat the small stuff
Finally: don’t try to squeeze every last penny of savings out of the trip.
You’re on a trip, after all. Why waste hours and precious energy trying to over-optimize every last detail? If you’re lucky enough to be able to take time off to travel somewhere else (a luxury by world standards), then you can afford to spend the extra few dollars.
Don’t be the guy wearing a $300 high-tech travel backpack while haggling over a $0.50 tuk-tuk discount in Chiang Mai. Or the girl too cheap to buy a round of drinks when it’s your turn during the hostel pub crawl in Budapest.
Your trip won’t last forever. Eventually, you’ll have to return home–in most cases, back to the office and 100s of unanswered emails. Believe me when I say this: when you’re back home and going through the 9 to 5 motions again, you won’t regret paying that $200 for a spontaneous scuba dive tour that you didn’t even know existed on the island you were staying on. All that money will feel like cash well spent.
Don’t sweat the small stuff–enjoy the trip!
I hope at least one of these tips was helpful as you plan–or continue–your solo adventure. Please feel free to leave any other tips you have in the comments so that we may all benefit!
PS. For a detailed comparison of major tour group operators, check out our article.