About one year ago today, my friend and I embarked on a journey to Costa Rica with a couple hundred dollars to spare, one bag each of essential items (my friend packed the morning of, two hours before our flight departed) and nothing that resembled an itinerary on hand. One may argue that this is the best way to travel.
We’d purchased flights on a whim months before, drawn to Costa Rica for two primary purposes 1. They were cheap 2. Costa Rica sounded warmer than Massachusetts. We didn’t have much cash to spend on a luxurious trip, but we both knew something was possible. It had to be – we’d both spent our past three spring breaks working and staying in the cold, depressing place that is New England in mid-March and we couldn’t let that slide again.
We ended up spending less than $700 each on everything – flights, food, lodging, transportation, EVERYTHING. If we’d skipped out on the $28 meat pizza we ordered by accident one night (we’re both vegetarians so something was lost in translation) and had opted for the more tourist-y zip line by our hostel instead of the one at the top of the volcano, we could’ve saved even more.
Here’s how we managed to travel on a super tight budget and still have the time of our lives, and how you can, too:
The best places to travel on a budget to haven’t appeared in blockbuster films and probably aren’t advertised on postcards. Hallmark tourist destinations notoriously upcharge naive travelers for everything because they can.
I’m not trying to convince you to go to North Korea, but if you’re seeking to save a little money, steer clear of anywhere major cruise lines dock.
Now that you’ve settled on somewhere to go, it’s time to figure out how you’re getting there! Let’s get this straight – you won’t be flying coach. You’ll probably be in a middle seat, next to an apologizing parent and their screaming baby and in front of someone who’s decided to recline their seat to maximum capacity for the whole flight. Now that that’s settled, where can you find cheap flights?
Hopper – The Hopper app allows you to set notifications so that when flights for destinations you’re looking for are at their cheapest, you’ll know. The app is easy to use and visually appealing, featuring a cute little animated rabbit character to help guide your booking – and who doesn’t love that?
StudentUniverse – StudentUniverse, as their name would suggest, is the perfect site for students looking to fly as you can search for student discounts. If you aren’t a student, StudentUniverse will show you flights, too. My favorite feature is the matrix that shows the total flight prices by return and departure date in an easy-to-use chart.
Skyscanner – My favorite features on Skyscanner’s website are the ones that allow you to search for flights everywhere or by the cheapest month. Skyscanner is the perfect website for someone who has no particular destination or time frame in mind and just wants to GO. It, of course, allows you to search by destination and time frame, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Look directly at the airline’s website. To avoid the fees that inescapably come with booking travel, book directly through an airline’s website.
Get to know what the locals use to get around before going. Taxis exist almost everywhere, but fares can add up quickly, especially in areas with heavy tourism. In advance of your trip, look into how the locals get around. Is there a public bus you can take? If you’re in an area that’s walkable, that’s always, of course, the cheapest option.
My friend and I opted for the local bus that took us from the Costa Rican capital city of San Jose to the small town of La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano instead of paying top dollar for one of the more expensive tourist buses that would’ve shipped us directly from the airport to our desired destination. The local bus cost us under $10 round-trip, and gave us a view of the land we otherwise would’ve missed. Sure, air conditioning and comfortable seats would’ve made the 3.5 hour journey more palatable, but who needs that stuff?
Eat like the locals do! Learn a little bit of the local language and seek places without English language menus – those places are typically more expensive. Plus, locals know their cuisine best.
If you’re staying in a hostel with a kitchen, take full advantage of the opportunity to make your own meals. My friend and I did our shopping at local produce markets and cooked most of our meals for ourselves. By the end of our trip, our rendition of Gallo Pinto – the typical Costa Rican breakfast – was almost as good as one you could order from a restaurant.
Hotels are convenient and AirBnbs are becoming more popular everywhere but when it comes to saving dough, hostels are where it’s at. In several places, hostels go for under $15 a night.
As you can probably already gather, your hostel likely will not be providing luxury accommodations. You’ll probably be in a room with eight other people, at least one of which snores loudly and another that comes back drunk at 3 a.m. and flips on all of the lights forgetting their not at their own home. You’ll have to choose top or bottom bunk, each choice with it’s own unique set of negatives, and will be sleeping in sheets that may or may not have seen the inside of a washing machine in the past year.
For everything hostels lack in comfort and luxury, they make up for in character. You’ll certainly meet more interesting people in a hostel than you would holed up in your own hotel room. Plus, hostel dwellers and owners will always give you the best tips for where to go and what to see. Our fellow hostelites (probably not a word but whatever) led us to a hot spring resort that cost us $12 for all-day access to multiple springs, water slides and a poolside bar.
Traveling can be within reach for any budget! Have you traveled while strapped on cash? Tell me how you did it!