Backpacking on a Budget: Tips to Travel Cheaper & Longer
Last updated September 20, 2018
Greetings fellow backpackers! I have done quite a bit of backpacking all over the world at this point. And I like to make my trips last a super long time. My first ever backpacking trip was 4 months long and the next one lasted nearly two years! This post is going to be a narrowly-focused advice article that should be helpful to anyone who wants to travel and save as much as possible. A lot of what I'm talking about is travel hobo-style: hitch-hiking, camping, sleeping in airports, couchsurfing, & all that jazz. I’ll also get into working and volunteering abroad - the real way to extend your trip. Let’s do this!
Heading to New Zealand on a budget? Check out my NZ-specific advice here.
Sleep Where You Land: Airport/Train/Bus Stations
Check out sleepinginairports, an awesome site that let's you look up an airport and find out if you can sleep there, and where the best places to sleep are.
Also helpful for any layover or long-term stint in an airport is this map of airports and wifi passwords for their networks.
I have slept overnight in a few airports (Keflavik, Auckland, Melbourne Tullamarine) and napped during daylight layovers in even more (Charlotte Douglas, LAX, Charles de Gaulle). It's doable, for sure. Not very comfortable, but doable.
Tips for airport sleeping: Use your towel or a big jacket as a blanket. Sleeping on the floor is cold, avoid it unless it's the only option. If you have to sleep on the floor, find a distant corner that you can kind of hide in. Try to find a bench seat or better yet, a booth in a mostly closed food court area. Have earplugs and/or a sleep mask to block out general airport din and harsh overhead lights.
Tips for sleeping in train or bus stations: Same as above except I would pretty much avoid sleeping on the floor even more in a bus or train depot than anywhere else. The floors are usually dirtier there than anywhere except maybe a toilet. Sleep sitting up if you have no other choice. Most European train stations are open all hours, and are easy enough to sleep in. We had no trouble in Scandinavia and North Germany. Again, don't expect to be comfortable.
Book Overnight Transportation & Sleep There
Take a flight, a bus, or a train that travels overnight and wake up in your final destination. It's unfortunate to miss some of the sights out of the window but it's one less night paying for a bed somewhere. Norwegian Rail was by far the most comfortable transportation to sleep on. They give you a free blanket, sleeping mask, earplugs, and inflatable pillow on overnight trips. We kept them for the rest of our travels and used them a lot. I still use the inflatable pillow now when I'm sleeping on planes or in airports.
Tips for surfing: Use caution and make sure that the person you're trying to surf with is legitimately just a generous person willing to share their couch. Try not to surf with anyone who has almost zero pictures and no reviews from other travelers. Same goes for people hosting, I wouldn't want to host someone with zero reviews. So if you have none, consider getting some. Maybe at least one person you're facebook friends with has an account? (Couchsurfing's site can connect to your facebook account and tell you who's a member). Write reviews for your friends, it works even better if you're traveling partners. Lastly, if absolutely no one you know is on couchsurfing but you want to get a review, meet up and hang out with other members by joining a local couchsurfing group in their networks section. When we were in Copenhagen, we tried to stay with a guy who's house was full but he invited us and some other surfers from the Copenhagen group to go out to a concert. We did and had a great time.
Volunteering in Exchange for a Room (or Better Yet, a Room and Board)
There are many websites that are volunteer networks that can connect people who need work done and want to meet foreigners with people who want to work, meet locals, and stay somewhere for free. Check them out here: WWOOF, HelpX, Workaway, and Servas.
Which network is the best? I encourage you to check each of them out, but know this: WWOOF is primarily for organic farm volunteers only and you have to pay a membership fee for the WWOOF organization of each country you travel to. If you're going to more than one country and want to volunteer, you'll have to pay to sign up at each new WWOOF website.
Servas has a strict screening process for joining including letters of reference, etc. That makes it one of the safer networks for sure but is a little time-consuming.
Helpx and Workaway have annual signup fees of around 30 USD but they also allow you access to hosts from all around the globe.
You can also walk into a hostel (it's easiest in the offseason) and ask if they need any help around the place in exchange for a bed. You'd be surprised.
It is illegal and generally unsafe to hitchhike in the USA and Australia (among other countries). I would never do it in either of those places. I would consider potentially catching rides with friends made at hostels along the way but would likely never stick my thumb out to strangers there.
Hitch-hiking is pretty common in many parts of Europe. Emmett and I only did it once in the Lofoten Islands of Norway, where it was very easy because there's only one thoroughfare. If you look into it online, though, younger Europeans are really into it. They even have an annual competition.
*Update* I now have an entire post on how to hitch-hike in New Zealand that could easily apply to other countries as well.
General Hitching Tips: Have patience, trust your instincts, & don't be this guy. More tips on how to hitch can be found in my NZ-specific post I mentioned above but could also be applied to other places beyond NZ.
Lastly, I can only recommend hitch-hiking in Scandinavia, Malaysia, and New Zealand because those are the only places that I feel comfortable giving the ok. I'm sure other places are great for it, though.
Haven't dumpster dived yet, but I'm optimistic. I've only attempted it in countries where supermarkets tend to lock up their dumpsters. This dumpster diving wiki seems like a good place to start if you want to get into it. (Side note for those who are grossed out: people tend to "dumpster dive" to get food that's still packaged and expires the same day. The stores are required to throw it away even when it's still perfectly edible).
Alternatives to Flights: Overland Travel / Joining a Ship's Crew/ Traveling by Cargo Ship
Check out the overland travel wiki. I haven't used it but I'd love to do more overland travel, especially in Asia and the Americas.
There are a handful of crew-finder sites where boats traveling to international and domestic harbors need crew members (CrewSeekers International, Crewbay, Find a Crew). I haven't used any and it seems like there might be some pricey sign-up fees but this could be another cool way to get around.
I'm not as keen on this last option, traveling by cargo ship, but Emmett is enticed by the idea. I'm not sure I'd enjoy the monotony of an overseas voyage. Honestly, it's a little expensive, all in all. But if you're up for a pretty unusual journey or want to bring as much luggage as possible somewhere else, check out the resources listed at the link above.
Camping will always be one of the cheapest options for accommodation. If you bring your own tent & gear or get them when you arrive, a campsite is way less expensive than a bed or a room somewhere.
Most importantly: CAMPING IS FREE in some countries. In Scotland, Scandinavian countries, and others they have a philosophy where you can "wild camp" on private property - generally as long as you are out of sight of a residence and unheard. In New Zealand, there is "freedom camping" on public conservation land. Even in the U.S., you can camp for free in many places by doing "dispersed camping" in National Forests or on public land. Definitely look into the laws about camping at your potential destinations before you go. This can be an excellent way to see countries for cheap - especially ones that are notoriously more expensive.
If you click the link above, you can read all about living out of your car aka “car camping” which I personally did for over a month in New Zealand.
Teaching English Abroad
There is an awesome guide to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Teaching English Abroad by Nina at Where in the World is Nina.
Working Holiday Visas
Working Holiday Visas are typically available to the following groups of people: recent university graduates and people aged 18 - 30. Some of the countries with Working Holiday programs include Singapore, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. I’ve received two of these visas - one for Australia and one for New Zealand. Read all about my experiences on my Working Holidays here. Or check out my specific guides for an Australian Working Holiday and a New Zealand Working Holiday.
This Book: Work Your Way Around the World
- Work Your Way Around the World is a UK-based book which frequently releases new editions. It is an incredible resource. It's got listings on how to find work virtually anywhere (including volunteering). I really appreciated the sections on New Zealand that had charts detailing fruit-picking seasons by region, which is a common temporary job for working holidayers.
- The same author, Susan Griffith, also has a book about Teaching English Abroad that I've heard is just as comprehensive.
There you have it folks! Hope you found something that will allow you to stay on the road for as long as you want. Let me know if you have any hacks I may have missed in the comments below!