My wife and I recently returned from two glorious months of traveling through Eastern Europe. That's the kind of extended international travel adventure we like to treat ourselves to at least every year or two since we became semiretired. But it's also something that sometimes gets me accused of being a cheap-fake, as opposed to a cheapskate.
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However the reality is that this trip ended up costing us only about $100 per day, total — for the two of us combined — including all transportation, lodging, food, incidentals and sightseeing.
When you consider that when we're at home we have living expenses as well (including a couple of hundred dollars a month just to keep gas in the car), a trip of that length doesn't cost us a whole lot more than we'd spend if we stayed home in Maryland. In fact, sometimes when we've traveled for protracted periods like this we've managed to rent out our house while we're away and actually turn a profit on our trip!
Of course when we travel the world we don't stay in five-star resorts or fly first-class. But we do typically enjoy a level of comfort that's at least on par with the lifestyle we have when we're not traveling.
Over the years we've also mastered some cheapskate tips that make world travel a lot more affordable than you might think. Here's our short list:
1. Maximize credit card reward points and frequent flyer miles
The cost of our round-trip airline tickets from Washington, D.C., to Vienna was a big fat ZERO, my favorite price. We redeemed credit reward points to cover the entire cost of the two tickets. There is no single "best" credit card rewards program or frequent flyer program, because it depends on many factors, including your spending and travel habits. However, you can compare different card offers and frequent flyer programs to find the ones that best fit your needs at websites like CreditCards.com/reward.php and webflyer.com.
2. Get creative with travel routing
We decided to fly round-trip to Vienna because, of the possible arrival/departure points for our journey, Vienna had the lowest airfare options. We then found that by flying through Istanbul then into Vienna, we could reduce the price by an additional $400 per ticket, to a mere $830. On other trips, we've saved on hotel costs by planning our itineraries to stay during the weekends in urban hotels frequented by business travelers — weekend rates are sometimes lower because their main clients are at home with their families — and we've even saved on overland transportation costs simply by reversing our course of travel on itineraries suggested in popular guide books. ("Everyone goes the other way around, because it says so in the book," a private bus driver told me in Guatemala once. "So we charge less this way to get more passengers.")
3. Timing is everything
Traveling in the off-season (or, in the case of our most recent trip, in the so called shoulder season just prior to the peak season) can make your travel dollars go a lot further. Remember, it's always the off-season somewhere in the world! On our recent trip, we found that lodging and many transportation costs were scheduled to increase by 20 percent or more once peak season arrived, in some cases just a week after our visit. And even a little flexibility in the dates you can travel can result in big savings when it comes to booking airline tickets; we've saved hundreds of dollars on international tickets just by being able to leave or return within a day or two of what we'd originally planned.
4. The lowdown on lodging
For many years, our preference when traveling internationally was to only book lodging arrangements in advance for the first night or two following our arrival, so that we could recover from jet lag without having to find a place to stay. From there on out, we'd follow our noses and find accommodations as we went, which allowed us to get some terrific deals on rooms that would otherwise be vacant for the night. This approach still works well, particularly since we travel in the off-season and prefer inexpensive mom-and-pop establishments, like pensions, B&Bs, hostels, and private rooms/apartments to let, facilities which can't always easily be booked from back home. However, with the advent of the Internet, we now also travel with a mini-laptop computer and use websites like bookings.com and airbnb.com to sometimes nail down places to stay a day or two ahead of time, still allowing us the flexibility to determine our itinerary as we travel and also take advantage of last-minute deals on accommodations.
5. Learn to use public transportation
Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to traveling in many parts of the world because most of us have very limited experience with public transportation. But the good news is that public transportation systems in most other countries are far more extensive — as well as affordable and user-friendly — than here in the U.S. Once you've mastered a subway system or figured out how to use public buses or trains in one country, you'll be amazed at how easily you can navigate the public transportation systems in countries all around the world. We rented a car for a total of only five days during our recent trip to reach some remote locations not accessible by public transportation, but otherwise our trip through 11 countries and covering more than 3,000 miles was entirely by public bus, train, ferry, subway, tram, foot, motor scooter, bicycle and — on rare occasions — taxi. This saved us an estimated $3,500-plus compared to the cost of renting cars to make the same journey.
6. Embrace self-catering
Make no mistake about it, my wife and I love to eat, and sampling local cuisine is one of our greatest pleasures when we're globetrotting. We research in advance the dishes we want to try and then ask local folks to direct us to the restaurants they recommend for those specialties, often enjoying them for lunch rather dinner — when menu prices are generally lower —or sometimes as inexpensive street food. However, even for food junkies like us, eating every meal in a restaurant when you travel for long periods not only gets extremely expensive, but also gets downright tiresome. Since I love to cook, most of our meals are self-catered, often prepared in the kitchen facilities common in the type of accommodations we prefer. Sampling local baked goods, cheeses, meats, libations and fresh fruits and vegetables — in the form of everything from simple picnic-style breakfasts and lunches, to some pretty impressive impromptu dinner parties I've whipped together for groups of fellow travelers out of our compact "food backpack" (complete with a thermal compartment) — gives us a chance to shop where the locals shop and experiment with cooking ingredients we can't always find at home. It also gives a cheapskate like me a chance to learn phrases like "Do you have a coupon for that?" in multiple languages.
7. Minimize money exchange costs
Particularly when traveling between countries with different currencies, it's easy to waste a lot of money by not being smart about currency exchange. During our trip we encountered seven different currencies in addition to the euro — that's seven chances to trade away the value of your travel funds in commissions, fees and rip-off exchange trades. In general, the most cost-effective strategy is to withdraw as much of the local currency as you estimate you'll need from a bank ATM upon your arrival. This usually gives you a better exchange rate than trading money in the country itself, and, if you're staying in a country for a longer period of time, allows you to safeguard your cash by withdrawing it incrementally. If you travel internationally enough, it's worth the time to look for a bank back home that doesn't charge a special service fee for ATM withdrawals overseas or has minimal fees. The same is true of finding a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.
8. Study local negotiating customs
Throughout much of the rest of the world, negotiating the price of goods and services is the norm, not the exception like it is here in the U.S. In many other countries, you're not being rude — you're just doing your due diligence — if you politely ask at hotels, local markets and some other service providers (e.g., car rentals, taxis, etc.) if they'll take less than their stated price for something. I kept score, and on our trip more than 90 percent of the time when we inquired at hotels or other lodgings about the possibility of getting a lower price, we got one — along with a friendly smile — with the average reduction being 10 to 20 percent of the originally quoted price.
9. Go long for greater value
Of course our ability to travel much of the world for the all-inclusive price of about $100 per day as I mentioned earlier is, to some extent, a function of the protracted periods when we're able to travel. If we'd taken only a one- or two-week trip to Eastern Europe and had to pay for airfare, we'd have more than that average daily amount in the cost of the airline tickets alone. And some days in particularly pricey locales we easily spent more than $200 per day. But when you travel for long enough, as the freedom of retirement — or, in our case, semiretirement — allows many of us to do, in the end it all averages out.
So, how can you afford to travel the world for months at a time? When you travel the cheapskate-way, the better question is: "How can you afford not to?"