The 6 Best Budget-Friendly Ways to Travel

Americans have a lot of excuses for not traveling more, from worries that taking time off will jeopardize their jobs to fears about safety, especially when traveling abroad. Money concerns play a role as well. When Project: Time Off asked people why they didn’t take more vacation, 33% said it was because they couldn’t afford to go anywhere. Travel can definitely be costly, especially if you plan your trips the way most Americans do. Once you add up the cost of transportation, lodging, food and drinks, and entertainment, the average four-day trip within the United States costs $581, or $144 per day, according to ValuePenguin. A 12-day international vacations runs an average of $3,251.

But the truth is, you don’t have to spend nearly that much to enjoy a fantastic vacation. Budget-conscious travelers can save on everything from transportation to food to lodging. Sure, keeping costs in check might involve forgoing luxury hotels and fine dining. But budget-friendly travel doesn’t have to mean hitchhiking and grimy hostels, either. If money is keeping you from getting away from it all, check out these six ways to make travel truly budget-friendly.

1. Go by budget bus

A woman waits to board a Megabus in New York City

A woman waits to board a Megabus, a great option for budget-friendly travel | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Cost: $1 and up

Bus travel may not be glamorous, but it can be very cheap, especially on bargain-priced intercity routes offered by Megabus and other providers. Fares on Megabus start at just $1, though you’ll need to book a couple of months in advance to score those deals. Bolt Bus provides similar offers, and various Chinatown bus services also have dirt-cheap fares. Though passengers have complained of delays and safety concerns on some of these trips, the low, low fares means this is a perennially popular way for cash-strapped travelers to get around.

2. Score cheap flights

spirit airlines

A Spirit Airlines jet | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Cost: Varies

The skies aren’t off limits when it comes to budget-friendly travel. Maximizing reward miles and knowing how to game the system by spotting error fares and hidden city deals can help make flying affordable. So can bargains on budget carriers like Southwest and Spirit. Depending on where you’re going, you can score a round-trip ticket for under $100. Low-cost European carriers like WOW Air and Norweigan Airlines also service the U.S., making international travel more affordable. Just make sure you read the fine print carefully, since extra fees can add up quickly.

3. Share a ride

hitchhiker asking for a lift

Hitchhiker asking for a lift | iStock.com/Catalin`Grigoriu

Cost: What you chip in for gas money

Sometimes, the cheapest way to travel is to find someone who’s already headed where you’re going and hitch a ride with them. The rideshare approach to travel has long been popular with college students, who can now use services like the College Carpool to find people at their school who are offering rides (so much more efficient than the bulletin board method you might remember from your days as an undergrad.) Rdvouz helps people find long-distance rideshares, and it lets you see reviews, references, and Facebook profiles for drivers and riders to alleviate safety concerns. There’s also BlaBaCar, a long-distance, reputation-based ridesharing app in Europe, Mexico, and India.

What about hitchhiking, the oldest form of ridesharing? Thumbing a ride is less common than it once was, especially in the U.S., but frugal travelers still use it to get around. Some countries are more open to hitchhiking than others, and safety is definitely a concern, but adventurous budget travelers might want to give this Kerouac-esque form of travel a try.

4. Couchsurf

sleeping on a couch

Man sleeping on a couch | iStock.com/Ammentorp Photography

What it costs: Free (there is a fee for becoming a verified member)

Couchsurfing may be the most budget-friendly travel option for accommodations, provided you don’t mind crashing on stranger’s sofa. Hosts open up their homes to travelers, who get a free place to stay and a new friend in an otherwise unfamiliar city. Users have profiles on the site so you can make sure you’re getting accommodations that work for you, and references from previous guests assuage safety concerns. Be forewarned though: While many people report positive experiences with Couchsurfing, others have called it “the best hookup app ever.” That’s great if you’re searching for romance during your travels, but maybe not so ideal if you’re just looking for a place to sleep.

5. Become a WWOOFer

harvesting produce

Harvesting produce | iStock.com

What it costs: $30 to $50 per year, depending on the country you want to visit

WWFOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, connects budget-minded travelers who have an interest in food and agriculture with organic farmers who are looking for help with harvesting, weeding, and completing other tasks. In exchange for a few hours of labor per day, WWOOFERs get free room and board. You’ll be working, so there won’t be unlimited time for sightseeing, but you should also have some time to yourself to explore the local area. For people planning a long-term trip or who want to see more than just the tourist hot spots in the country they’re visiting, WWOOF is an affordable way to do so.

“Over our two-month stay, we spent zero on food and accommodation in a region of Italy where it otherwise costs backpackers at least €18 a night for a hostel and €15 a day for food. Over our two-month stay, that meant a total savings of at least €2,000,” WWOOFer Sophie McGovern wrote in an article for Nomadic Matt.

Different countries have their own WWOOF networks. You’ll need to sign up and pay a modest membership fee to see a list of which farms in the area you want to visit need help.

6. Hostel

hostel

A tourist walks through a hallway on the way to a room in the hostel Celica in Ljubljana, Slovenia | JURE MAKOVEC/AFP/Getty Images

Cost: As low as $10 per night

Hostels, long the accommodation choice for young backpackers, aren’t just for scruffy vagabonds. These budget-priced accommodations come in all varieties, from bare-bones, dorm-style properties to those that resemble a boutique hotel. While sharing a room with 8 to 10 other travelers will save you the most money, most hostels have private rooms, too. Many also have amenities like free breakfast, Wi-Fi, bikes, and even swimming pools. Plus, they tend to be more social than traditional hotels, so you’re more likely to strike up conversations and make friends with your fellow travelers. Prices vary considerably depending on where you’re traveling and the kind of room you want. Shared rooms in Central American hostels may cost less than $10 per night, but you may have to pay more the $100 per night for a private room at a hostel in a major European city.

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