Writing about how to travel cheaply in Southeast Asia feels like a bit of a cop out. In countries where a good meal costs the equivalent of £1, booze can start at anything from 10p a drink, cross-country travel is pennies and accommodation costs less than a cocktail, it isn’t hard to be frugal. It cost me less to travel around Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand for three months than it would have cost me to stay in Norwich and live my everyday life for that length of time – and it’s not like I was staying in the cheapest places and only eating rice.
Part of the reason I haven’t been very active on my blog lately is because my day job now involves writing blog posts for other people’s websites, along with all manner of other stuff. One of the main things I write about, or write content relating to, is cheap package holidays. And before you tune out completely let me say, I have never been enamoured with the idea of a package holiday. In my mind it was all lads weekends in Magaluf and families with screaming children on the Costa del Sol – never mind the fact that I like to build my own adventures, ”package holiday” brought to life visions of sunburnt Brits speaking slowly and loudly in their native tongue. I definitely never thought it could work out cheaper than hostelling.
For most budget travellers, the search for a cheap place to stay starts with HostelWorld. If you’re heading to countries where everything is cheap anyway, dorm bunks start at around £3 a night. But if you’re off to Europe, a dormitory bed is anything from £16 to £50 for a night depending on where you go. For a freakin’ bunk bed! If you don’t think you like package holidays, get ready to start liking, because I do work for a website where a week’s hotel stay with return flights and transfers sometimes works out as less than a tenner a day. No joke.
The problem with tarring all package holidays with the same “hell no” brush is that it’s a bit like saying “I don’t like pasta” while failing to acknowledge that there are about a zillion different kinds of pasta and you can basically cover them all in anything and make them taste like something you like. Package holidays are like pasta. You think penne arrabiata is boring as hell, but then you have some kind of med veg pesto tagliatelle and suddenly you’re telling everyone how great pasta is. This post is basically about how if you want to travel cheaply to countries that are expensive (I’m looking at you, Europe and America) you need to make friends with the idea of low-budget package trips.
I’m not talking about going all-inclusive and sitting by the pool all day ignoring the actual place you’re in. I’d like to think anyone who’s read a few of my posts has gotten the gist that I am not a three meals a day at the hotel kinda gal. But I spend a fair amount of my time daydreaming about my next getaway and comparing prices online, and it’s been pretty wild realising that an EasyJet return flight and an Airbnb quite often work out more expensive than picking out a last-minute offer on a generic holiday website. No lie.
I’d definitely recommend thoroughly trawling AirBnb, HostelWorld and Booking.com before you set anything in stone – the latter in particular will often have ludicrous discounts on random days of the week that mean you can get some swish hotel that real people stay in for the cost of a wonky bunkbed – but keep an eye on those sites that come up in Google under ”cheap holidays to —-” as well. Seriously – I wrote a press release the other day about a two week holiday on a Greek island that included accommodation, return flights and transfers for £87pp. TWO WEEKS. That’s £6.21 a day.
I regularly send out lists of soon-departing deals for under £150pp and half of them are at places with freakin’ waterslides and they’re next to the beach or there’s a free shuttle to some cool sh*t nearby. It’s hard work, but someone’s gotta spread the word.
Anyway, I’ve clearly been thoroughly brainwashed by my clients now, so here are a few tips on how to a) get a really cheap deal in the first place and b) not spend a million pounds while you’re away. Disclaimer: if you are travelling alone and want to meet new people, that bullsh*t bunkbed is going to be a better way of doing it, but if you’re travelling with a pal and you’re happy just making bar-friends while you explore, the holiday cheat is for you.
- Don’t plan ahead if you can help it.
No, seriously. This isn’t a gig, you don’t need to get your tickets before they sell out. The kind of big holiday companies you never think to book with offer massive discounts on their holidays in the eight weeks before departure – keep an eye on offers in the few months before you go, but if you’re happy to be spontaneous and travel anywhere new in the name of adventure, you could leave it right up ’til a few days before you’re free to pick your destination.
If you’ve got your heart set on a specific place where there aren’t likely to be many package deals, sign up for newsletters from cheapos like Ryanair who are constantly having flight sales and scour Airbnb/Booking.com on the regular for offers – honestly, European hostels are way more expensive than they need to be.
- Work out the daily cost.
Booking a hostel bed for £20 a night might feel like a cheaper option than booking a £150 package deal, but that £150 deal is going to work out as £21 a day if you’re off for a week, and you won’t have to spend extra money on flights and getting to and from the airport. If breakfast is thrown in too, that’s just a Brucie bonus. If you’re going away for several months, you could easily start or end your trip with a week of discount luxury – just skip the flight you don’t need.
- Always check every option before you book.
There is nothing more frustrating than booking a cute room in a shared flat on Airbnb and thinking you’ve got a good deal, only to look on Booking.com ten minutes later and see some swanky serviced apartment at a cheaper price. Check, check, check again – and if there’s an option with free cancellation just book it, because then if you don’t find anything better it’s in the bag and if you do, you won’t lose money for changing your mind. But seriously, check for package deals. Just do it. They aren’t paying me to say that (if they were I’d have mentioned them by name!)
- Dine D.I.Y.
If you’re staying in a hotel room, take a lunchbox and a knife and fork – I’m totally serious. If you’re in an apartment or somewhere self-catering, you’re going to have easy access to stuff you can make your own food with, but in a hotel you’ve only got that weird fridge with the expensive booze in it. They can’t stop you putting sandwich ingredients in there, so do it.
Eating out in western countries can be really, really expensive but if you can do half your meals D.I.Y, it won’t hurt so much when you hand over your bank card to pay for food someone else has made. At the very least, you can eat a supermarket breakfast in your room so you aren’t walking the streets hangry in search of other food you can afford.
- Use the force (…of the internet)
When you are eating out (because you can’t go to a new place and not eat the food, that’s just stupid) it is totally okay to cheat and use the internet to find places to go, no matter what the die-hard backpack wankers will tell you. I’m a big fan of wandering around aimlessly and just strolling into whatever place looks good, but if you’re on a tight budget you might find yourself surrounded by €5 pastries and that’s going to eat into your fun money.
TripAdvisor have price indicators AND you can find out if the food is total sh*te or not, or if you’re herbivorous then Happy Cow serves the same function but with a focus on places where you won’t be limited to bread and olives every day. They’ve both got apps, and if you don’t have roaming data you can just take a bunch of screenshots when you’re in bed with WiFi and come back to them as and when.
- Like I have to say it… Public transport.
The fact you can’t read the signs is not an excuse for wasting your money on taxis. Going on foot is ideal, because it is free, but you’re going to want to see and do things that require way more walking than you’re in the mood for when it’s roasting hot and you’ve been up exploring all day – BRAVE THE BUS. I can’t believe the number of people I know who are happy to eat other people’s leftovers if it means saving money but would rather get a cab than risk getting lost on the bus/tram/train. You’re all mad.
If there’s a group of you and getting a taxi is going to work out as cheap or cheaper then sure, get a taxi, but if there’s just one or two of you, scope out the local transport or forever hold your peace. Most big cities have travelcards and day passes and all manner of stuff to make public transport cost-effective, and frankly outside of the UK most places are a lot better at making their transport tourist-proof. Google Maps even offers public transport routes now and when you’re offline you can still watch the little blue dot moving across town – getting lost is getting harder to do!
And if that still doesn’t do it for you?
Pack a tent.