Thursday, 15 July 2010

On cheaper travel

I was recently talking to someone about trips, only to have them declare ‘do you have a stash of money you aren’t telling anyone about? How can you afford all this??’

I was suddenly struck by how many people might think the same way. The fact is, neither F or I work in particularly well-paid jobs, and although we are very blessed with our accommodation situation currently, we certainly don’t have lots of spare cash to throw around. We are however, in jobs which afford us a lot of holiday time, and we are determined to use it. So how do we manage it?

One of the benefits of being a 3 or 4 times a year traveller versus a ‘round the world’ trip (and there aren’t that many!) is that there is time in between travels to build up a bit of money, budget the rest and spread out payments. We are also becoming quite good at bargain-hunting, although it can be time-consuming.

So, here are our tips for affording great trips without having to win the lottery:

- Flights. This, for us, is nearly always our biggest expense. Unless we are travelling locally, flights often take up a third to half of our overall spending on trips. For us personally, booking early is essential. We tend to try to book at least 6 months in advance, guaranteeing us the best price (especially on long-haul). We are at a slight detriment with regards to buying plane tickets, as our travelling dates are fixed for us, without much leeway, but if you can be flexible, then signing up for email alerts from different airlines will let you know when sales are on, and you could snap up a real bargain. Price comparison websites are useful for comparing prices, and sometimes booking direct from an airline can be cheaper than other options, but the overall tip is: hunt around until you can find the cheapest option. For us, booking 6 months before we go means we have the flight paid off, and have 6 months to save for the trip itself.

- Accommodation. Can be another expensive element of any travel, although for us it is usually the cheapest. Why? We stick to hostels almost exclusively (or camping!). Rather than the flea-bitten pits that might be imagined, we’ve never (touch wood…) stayed in a terrible one. Yes, they can be noisy, the bathrooms aren’t great and the rooms are a bit sparse, but what do you really need when you’re out most of the time? We don’t scrimp too much – we nearly always go for a private room, with an ensuite if possible, yet rarely pay more than $20 a night (and that’s only in bigger, more expensive cities). We also try to book places that are family-run, or tucked away slightly, to help support local businesses rather than international chains, and have found that we get lots of extras – friendly conversation, lovely home-cooked breakfasts, and plenty of advice on things to see and do. When booking, some places might ask for a night’s payment in advance (booking through hostelworld or other such websites insist on this), so if you book a month or two in advance, then that’s a bit more paid off gradually rather than in one go.

- Food. F and I love food. Really love food. But we don’t need to go to gourmet restaurants when abroad to experience great cuisine. The local street stall is often delicious, and reflects the local diet. Price for a filling meal? 2 or 3 dollars. Why not treat yourself to seconds…

- Getting around. I have to admit, we do have the occasional splurge here – we often take a taxi to and from airports (only at our destination, not at home!!). The reasons for this are simple: at the beginning of a trip we are somewhere we don’t know, often at a funny hour of the day/night, carrying most of our cash for a trip. Getting a taxi is safe, and we know we’re going to find our hostel! At the end of a trip, we want to make the most of our time, not spend hours before our flight finding a way to the airport. However, for the rest of our time, we always opt for local transport. Buses, trains, carts, boats – all are cheap and fun ways to explore the local area, meet locals and experience daily life of a country. As a result, travel within countries barely costs us anything.

- Tours. This is a tricky one. We have done some tours, and loved them, and also travelled around completely on our own. When deciding, we tend to weigh up the pros and cons and make a decision based on that. For example, if we have limited time somewhere, know it’s unlikely we are going to go back, and have lots of things we want to do/see in a large geographical area which we are unlikely to be able to do ourselves, we tend to go for a tour. If we are doing an activity where it is tricky to sort out permits/permission independently (tracking gorillas in Rwanda, Inca trail) we’ll join a tour. Apart from that, we tend to go it alone. If we feel we would benefit from a guide for a day or two, or it supports the local community, we’ll find one, but most good guidebooks/internet sites can give excellent information about a range of sights. Tours can be expensive, so for us we need to weigh it up against the benefits, and the amount we would pay (roughly) if we did it independently. If a tour is the way to do, then shop around – lots of operators offer deals and some are specialised in particular areas of the world and committed to supporting local businesses/employing local guides.

- Visas. An unavoidable expense in some countries. But the price can be spread out again – with enough planning visas can be obtained in advance from embassies a month or so before travelling, so there’s less cash to pay upfront upon arrival.

- Sights/activities. I can’t be of much help here – sights and activities are the one area in which all our hard-earned savings disappear rapidly! However, there are still deals to be had – combination tickets for a number of sites in an area are often available; if you choose to do 2 or more activities with the same company haggle for a discount – 10 or 20% off is not uncommon. Also, although it is hit or miss (use your common sense), booking through locals can work out a lot cheaper than using major companies – when in Turkey we picked up all our activities from a street stall, and when we got on the bus we found groups on our bus, on the exact same tour, who had booked through their hotel and paid over twice as much! Do we careful though – look for popular/ permanent booths and ask around for recommendations.

In conclusion: If you fancy a big trip on the cheap, remember: bring flip-flops (for the showers. Yuck), pack some earplugs. Search around for great deals. Sign up for email alerts (you may want to create a specific email account for this – they come thick and fast!). Don’t be intimidated by local hostels/transport – but do prepare to be uncomfortable at times (3 and a half hours in a bus, without doors, holding 5 times its maximum number of people, with rap blaring out at top volume was an interesting, and certainly unforgettable way to travel up the Kenyan coast – but at only a few dollars, who cares?!). Be willing to haggle over everything.

Of course, saving on the holiday itself probably isn’t enough – needless to say we also deprive ourselves of a fair amount in between holidays in order to afford multiple trips!

So, there are my tips for travelling a long way on a short budget. We’ve found that when discussing trips and costs with others, what one person has paid for a one week all-inclusive package is the same amount that we might spend for 2 or 3 weeks somewhere else. Looks can be deceiving…

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