Emily Articulated: Scrappy Travels

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

By the time you read this, I will be fresh off of a plane in Lima, Peru. And by “fresh off of a plane,” I obviously mean “haggard, tired and crick-necked from sitting in the bathroom row seat between a large and impossibly sweaty father and his sticky-fingered, wandering-handed child, or two very well-intentioned Wisconsinites (or any other notoriously chatty group of people) who continue to ignore my earbuds and attempt conversation for 16 consecutive hours.” 

Emily Erickson.

Because that’s what happens when you purchase the cheapest possible plane tickets to your destination. Your luggage doesn’t fit in the overhead container, you have an almost-guaranteed longer layover total than flight time, you’re across the aisle from your travel partner, and you get a seat right next to the toilet (the back one, not the nice front one). But guess what?

You get to your destination. And it’s totally worth it.

Traveling is one of those things that you can make every excuse not to do, repeating choruses of, “I can’t get that much time off work,” “I can’t afford all of those travel expenses,” “I don’t speak the language,” or “I’ll do that someday, when I have more time and money.”

The thing is, those excuses don’t really hold up when put into practice. You can travel cheaply by simply adjusting your expectations and getting a little scrappy when it comes allocating trip funds. 

And, due to the volatile nature of life, there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t have that much more time or money five years from now, or 15 years from now. Because our days don’t really get less messy; they just evolve from college dorm room pizza boxes to baby-spit-up cloths and back to pizza boxes (the teenager-ravished kind). So you simply have to make time for the things you want to do.

Not convinced yet? Well, here are a few budget-travel pointers from a money-strapped vagabond:

1. Get creative with your travel-saving techniques, keeping your “travel fund” separate from the rest of your money. Skip your fancy coffee once a week, transferring that $5 to your account instead. Use built-in programs with your bank, like ones that tack on an extra dollar every time you swipe your debit card, transferring it to your savings. Small amounts add up quicker than you think.

2. Buy your flights at discounted rates. Using sites like “Cheap Air” or apps like “Kayak,” set yourself up to get notifications when flights go on sale. More often than not, there is an incredibly cheap flight to somewhere magnificent. You just have to be patient and flexible to find one that works for you and your schedule.

3. Stay in hostels or in people’s homes with apps like “CouchSurfing.” Accommodations can be one the biggest budget-breakers when not approached strategically. The good new is, there are lots of cheap options if you are open to alternative sleeping arrangements. And when foregoing the private-room hotel, you often enhance your experience, meeting new people and forging connections you otherwise wouldn’t have.

4. Travel to places where the USD is strong. There are so many amazing places to see and travel where your dollar goes a long way, allowing you to do more while paying less. Save your Norway and Iceland tours for when you have a padded bank account. 

5. Eat like locals. Another quick way to rack up a big travel bill is by eating out in traditional and sit-down restaurants for every meal. Instead, opt for grocery store items, street food and other grab-n-go style cuisine, saving your meals out for special occasions.

6. Avoid tourist traps and gimmicks. Tourism is a booming industry and is in many places a source of exploitation at a poor traveler’s expense. Travel agencies and tour operations, although making things “easier” for you, often cost way more than simply figuring things out on your own or relying on the kindness of strangers to make recommendations instead. And by wandering off the beaten path, you often find secret gems to which regular tourists aren’t always privy.

7. Buy your ticket and just do it. Although I know it’s not an option for everyone, I think budget traveling is an option for most people. The only thing getting in your way is your own overthinking. Lock yourself in with dates and tickets, thus forcing you to figure the rest out in time. It’s not always perfect, but it’s always worth it.

There you have it. Happy scrappy traveling! I’ll save a back-of-the-plane bathroom seat for you.

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