Cheap Travel Hacks: Travel on a Budget

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People often ask how we can afford to travel on a teacher's salary. Here are some of our tried-and-true hacks.
Everybody’s hacks are different 🙂

Travel Hacks: A Little Background

We were invited to speak about our travels at Pei Chun High School in southern Malaysia while we visited that splendidly diverse country. That was great fun. We brought the entire Traveling Zoo and visited seven different classes, sharing our story. In a nutshell, we covered who we are, why we travel, and what traveling does for us, and spent time fielding questions. The students and teachers were all wonderful, and we got to meet the administrators who were very kind. As an added bonus, we were treated to a lunch (actually two lunches) of the best Malaysian foods, hand-picked by the students, including milk tea and fried bananas. Delicious! The kids were a hit, and many pictures were snapped with them. They were amazed that 4-year-old Turtle has been to 24 countries already. Our little blond Princess managed to be the center of attention, despite having only been to 7 countries in her lifetime. Anyhow, here comes my point: those lovely students asked questions that lots of people ask us. First and foremost, they wanted to know how we can afford to travel. Are we rich? Do we have some special travel hacks?

We had a great day speaking to this group of students (and others) at Pei Chun High School!


Travel Hack 1: How do we Afford to Travel?

Well, we’re sure not rich, so lets get that out of the way. And yes, it gets expensive to haul a whole family around the globe. So how do we afford to travel so much? The answer is we employ pretty simple travel hacks. The first and biggest one is this: Shon teaches. Teaching isn’t a profession that’ll make anyone a fortune, but if anyone is willing to take a teaching job overseas it can be a comfortable living. Most overseas teaching jobs provide airfare to and from the teaching destination. Working with ADEC in Abu Dhabi included annual round-trip airfare for the whole family. Thus, our travel to the United Arab Emirates was completely paid for. The same is the case for Russia and China. Even if we didn’t go anywhere else, we’d have the experience of traveling to and from those countries totally free. Additionally, since most overseas teaching jobs also include housing as part of the pay package, that also frees up money that would normally go to rent. That’s money we can apply to our further travels or our savings. It’s as simple as that. And before you object about a lack of a teaching certificate or being a non-native English speaker, do read this post by a fellow expat who spent time teaching in Thailand.

Travel Hack 2: We Couch Surf

We have definitely got other travel hacks, too. For instance, when possible, we keep things cheap by Couch Surfing. If, like me, you associate this phrase with literally sleeping on someone’s couch, then you need to learn more. Couch Surfing is a website which folks can join for free and from there, they can make contact with people around the world who are willing to host visitors. This is the coolest thing ever, not only because it’s free (yes, free to stay in a foreign country, in a foreign city), but because staying with families who actually live wherever you want to visit is a killer way to gain insight into local culture and worthwhile activities. Isn’t this kind of sketchy, you’re probably thinking, staying with strangers? Actually, no, it’s pretty safe thanks to the thoughtful way the Couch Surfing site is designed. We’ve stayed with professionals from various walks of life in lots of cities, and we’ve always had great experiences.

This lovely family that hosted us near Amsterdam was our first Couchsurfing experience–and we were theirs! We’ve kept in touch ever since 🙂

Here we are with another group of those awesome PCHS students. One of our Couch Surfing hosts, David, is pictured kneeling in the black T-shirt. He’s a cool guy.

Travel Hack 3: Use AirBnB

AirBnB is becoming popular, and as it increases in popularity, the prices of properties seem to be on the rise. That said, however, we’ve found a number of fantastic apartments in great locations, such as Mala Strana in Prague, for much less than we’d have spent on a hotel in the same location. In Reykjavik, we paid the same amount for a 2-bedroom place downtown that we would have paid for a room with a shared bathroom at a local motel.

Travel Hack 4: Cook at Home

This is a no-brainer. The most expensive thing you can do is eat out all the time. When we’re staying in an AirBnB, we get an entire apartment, which gives us access to kitchens. This way we can pick up groceries and have meals as usual. That’s not to say we don’t eat out or sample local cuisines–that’s a big part of the fun of traveling. Local foods give insight into local cultures as much as anything else. We just choose to have one meal out per day, and that makes it more special as well as keeping our spending reasonable. Even when staying at a hotel, we look for a room with a fridge and/or microwave so that we can at least pack our own lunches and snacks.

Travel Hack 5: Learn about Apps

Another thing which can help save pennies (or dollars) is learning which taxi apps work in the area. Uber is practically everywhere. Grab is in Southeast Asia. TapTaxi is indispensable in certain parts of Russia.  They’re amazing for simplifying the process of getting around, and also they can be a lot cheaper than hailing a cab. For example, this week hailing a ride using Grab cost us 150,000 Vietnamese Dong, while taking a taxi from one of the stands at the airport would have cost 300,000. Way cheaper.

Travel Hack 6: Do Your Homework

When our friends from the USA came to visit us in the United Arab Emirates, they naturally wanted to go up the Burj Khalifa (that’s the tallest building in the world if you’re somehow unaware) in Dubai. If they’d waited to buy tickets on the day, they would have cost almost double the money. By purchasing online and ahead of time, they saved a bunch. Not only can doing your homework ahead of time help you save money like that, it can help you find things to do which are completely free. With the little ones, we have to gear part of our explorations to suit them. While in Helsinki, we went to an open house at the city’s oldest Fire Station, Erottaja, for example, which everyone enjoyed. We also found a few free things to do in Hong Kong and the kids loved it. Had we not done our research ahead of time, we’d never have stumbled across these places. In London, we got two days of the hop-on-hop-off Big Red Bus tour for the price of one because we booked online. In Kuala Lumpur, we failed to research well enough, and missed out on the free GO KL bus service which connects the major tourist destinations. So the point: do your homework. It can be fun to take things as they come, but it’s often cheaper to plan ahead.

Travel Hack 7: Be Flexible

Several years ago, we had to cancel our trip to Budapest because the airfare cost tripled overnight, we went to Prague and Bratislava instead and it became one of our favorite trips. We went to Nepal because our friends found a ridiculously good deal not because we’ve been dying to go. We went to Helsinki because that international flight cost half as much as the domestic flight we were planning to take. Look into flying into Milan instead of Rome or Amsterdam instead of Copenhagen. You never know what can come out of being open to opportunities.

Monkey Temple Nepal
Swayambhunath, commonly known as The Monkey Temple, since it sits atop a monkey-ridden hill in the center of Khatmandu.

Conclusion: Traveling Can Be Cheap

What we told the fabulous students at Pei Chun High School was an abbreviated version of all this. Shon’s job provides us the first major step, and we are able to save money as a result of teaching abroad. We Couch Surf, use AirBnB, and cook our own food much of the time. When we’re lucky enough to find hosts via Couch Surfing, that saves us big money and helps us learn a lot about the area. We learn about apps which are both convenient and money saving and put them to use. We try to be flexible and open to interesting opportunities or alternative destinations. And, last but not least, we’ve discovered how important it is to do some research ahead of time. Traveling with a family doesn’t have to be expensive, and traveling with kids can actually be quite cheap. That’s how we do it.

hacks for budget travel

21 thoughts on “Cheap Travel Hacks: Travel on a Budget”

  • Great tips here!! I also teach abroad, and that has not only funded many of my travels, but I think staying in a place for a longer term and working alongside locals offers an incredible perspective into the culture and country! Flexibility and doing your homework is definitely another big key, as well as eating at home… well, sometimes. I’m a sucker for trying all the local food I can affort 😉 I’ve been trying to avoid AirBnB for the last year because of the negative effects it’s having in my and many other communities, but I’m all for Couchsurfing! All in all, great list – a lot of good tips in here! 🙂

    • Thanks, Erica! Teaching overseas does allow a unique way to travel. We’d be curious to hear about the bad effects of AirBnB in your community. You are in Spain, right?

  • I use a lot of these travel hacks as well. I have never considered using Couchsurfing as a whole family though! Is it harder to get people to accept your requests as a family of 4?

    • Yes, it definitely is. Generally, we have to plan well ahead. It doesn’t always work out even then. There are always exceptions, though, and we had great luck traveling through Europe one year just putting out general Couchsurfing requests.

  • A great rundown of ways to save money while traveling. I could never do the cooking part as I like trying the local cuisine was too much, but I could skip some in really expensive places like London and anywhere in Switzerland. Loved your suggestion of apps, something I need to do more of. Well done! Enjoy your travels.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Melody! Sometimes you can still get a taste of the local food without going to eat out. We had a good time with gas station food one evening in Lugano, Switzerland, for example–we didn’t want to spend a pile of dough at a restaurant, so we went in and bought food of a caliber rarely available in American filling stations! Fresh bread, cheese, and such. It was actually a really enjoyable meal that we ate as a picnic!

  • Very well organized post and super helpful tips. Not all of us teach, but we can all employ the “cook at home” to save money, be flexible, know your apps, and research. Totally love reading your blog and your posts.

  • Hi, you talked about teaching overseas. But for this, one usually has to be a native speaker. And most centres ask for certifications of teaching English as a second language, for example (I know the one I work in as admin staff has CETA, TEFL + 2 years of teaching full time after obtaining the certification.). Are there places where you can teach without such requirements?

    • Yes, there are private schools and language schools which don’t necessarily require more than a college degree (in any subject). Those places, of course, don’t usually pay as well or offer benefits to match. They’re not on my radar, because I am a highly qualified teacher. Plenty of opportunities, however, are out there.

  • Some great tips. Using AirBnB can certainly make things cheaper. I’ve never Couchsurfed, but I’ve also heard great things about it.

    But most of all, I agree with number 7: be flexible. When I was working in the airline industry, people who had been working there a while could get flights on ‘Standby’. This meant they could a day or two in advance, if seats hadn’t been sold, then they could jump on a plane to a destination to free. This is a lot more difficult to do nowadays, due to better computer algorithms etc. But still, I’ve heard stories of people turning up at an airport and booking the cheapest flight to a random destination. I’ve never tried it myself, but one day I might :).

    • Now that sounds like fun! We haven’t done that yet but have definitely organized travel around the cheapest place we could fly to on a specific date 🙂

  • All great tips.. i cant stress the importance of the travel apps which are local to a country . That helps in saving a lot of money especially with the deals they have got!

  • Excellent tips! I think having a job that can pay for you to live abroad is great. I’ve never tried couch surfing but my brother did that heaps when he lived in Europe. We use Airbnb lots – honestly, you can get some pretty sweet deals especially ones that offer breakfast and you get to meet some fabulous people along the way…which usually results in free accommodation on someone’s couch at a later date! Great tips.

    • Thanks, Juliette. Yes, we love both Couchsurfing and Airbnb. They make staying somewhere much more interesting than hotels. I guess your brother had good experiences with Couchsurfing, huh?

  • We use many of these hacks too. We especially like the “Do your research.” Not only do we find it great fun, but we find ideas and activities that you don’t see in tourist books. Reading blogs like this is also a great way to find ways to save money.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

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