The Starting Out Guide to Cheap International Travel
Save on flights, lodging, ground transportation and more, so you can explore the world while you're still young.
When you're young, facing a mountain of student debt, subsisting on an entry-level salary and dealing with the everyday expenses of living on your own for the first time, the idea of embarking on an overseas adventure might seem indulgent. But your youth might also afford you certain discounts and advantages that can help you travel on the cheap. Here are some ways to save every step of the way.
A plane ticket will probably be your priciest purchase, but being young can help you snag cheaper fare. If you're under 26 (or a student or teacher of any age on some airlines), you can find discounts through STA Travel or StudentUniverse, booking agents specializing in under-26 travel. For example, in late July STA Travel offered a nonstop one-way flight from New York City to London for the youth fare of $470.50, while the cheapest similar flight on Kayak was about $600 and included a layover. Booking through STA requires an International Youth Travel Card (or International Student or Teacher ID Cards; more on the cards later); buying a flight through StudentUniverse does not (you do need to sign up on the site and submit your age and school credentials, if relevant).
Don't forget about discount airlines, which are particularly abundant in many countries outside of the U.S. Some of these airlines are notorious for slamming travelers with unexpected fees, but young travelers should have little trouble packing light and skipping costly extras, such as booking tickets by phone or in person at the airport (which costs 20 euros, or about $26, with infamously fee-happy Ryanair, based in Ireland). Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of IndependentTraveler.com, recommends searching WhichBudget for flights with obscure carriers that the major aggregators, such as Kayak and Bing Travel, might miss.
Especially when you're young, your friends and family may expect you to stay with them—and save on accommodations—if you're visiting their areas. But if you're going to a buddy-free locale, you may still be able to find a free place to crash. Couchsurfing connects people around the world who are willing to lend space in their home to another traveler, at no cost. Or upgrade from a couch to a bed by renting a spare room in someone's home through Airbnb, where homeowners take reservations for their living spaces. Both options are nice for solo travelers because they provide you with a built-in local host.
Staying with strangers may sound sketchy, but you can take a few easy steps to help ensure your security. Be sure to use the various screens and safety features Couchsurfing and Airbnb offer, such as verified reviews and references, messaging systems to communicate with potential hosts and secure payment options (such as holding funds until you have had a chance to inspect the property). Talking to your potential hosts online is key to weeding out scam artists—ask about the safety of the neighborhood and about nearby attractions, keeping an eye out for responsiveness, friendliness and information that jibes with what you've already researched about the place, says Schlichter. Insist that hosts have complete and verified profiles, requesting that they fill in any missing information. "Keep in mind that hosts are also welcoming a stranger into their home, so they probably want to get to know you, too," Schlichter adds. Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, advises paying with a credit card for added protection in case of fraud.
If you're looking for an even more social experience, try a hostel. You can find upscale gems that offer outdoor hot tubs and swimming pools, sumptuous breakfast spreads and comfy beds—that aren't bunks—all for less than $30 a night. Many even have options for single-sex dorms, rooms with fewer beds, private rooms and rooms with en suite bathrooms. These amenities will generally add a few dollars to your nightly rate, but it will still likely be cheaper than a hotel. Compare your options (and look for promos) at Hostelworld.com, Hostelbookers.com, and Hostelz.com. You can also find reviews on TripAdvisor.
You may worry about safety at hostels. When I've traveled overseas, I found that hostels are much safer than they sound, but take precautions. Choose a hostel in a safe location with security measures that make you comfortable, such as 24-hour reception and lockable doors. Bring a small lock in case your hostel offers in-room lockers, and, if not, keep flashy items concealed and your valuables on you at all times—even when you're sleeping—tucked into a money belt or purse. Or better yet, don't bring anything irreplaceable in the first place. And grab the less-accessible top bunk if you can, for an extra measure of safety.
If you're traveling with a group, renting an entire apartment or house can make for a much cooler, more exotic and more economical experience than piling everyone into a bland hotel room. Explore everything from designer lofts to neon-lit tree houses at vacation rental Web sites such as Wimdu and HomeAway, as well as Airbnb. These sites offer security features similar to Couchsurfing.com and Airbnb.com, and you'll want to take the same precautions mentioned above.
Buses are probably your cheapest bet for hitting the road while on vacation. If you plan to do a lot of bus travel, look into flexible passes. Some let you purchase a pool of travel hours, kilometers or number of trips so you can create your own itinerary; others offer set routes for a fixed amount that allow you to hop off and on as many times as you please along the way. But price each leg of your journey separately before dropping money on a bus pass; if you're only taking a few, short trips, it will probably be more economical to buy point-to-point tickets (especially if you can secure early-bird fares in advance).
The same goes for rail travel: Passes may or may not save you money over individual tickets, so look up advance fares for each train trip you plan to make; the longer your trips and the more flexible you want to be, the more a pass makes sense. At RailEurope.com, you can sort through rail passes all over the continent, enter your desired countries to explore your options, or enter a multicity itinerary that will generate point-to-point prices. Also, if you have a long journey to make by land, choose the overnight bus or train. That way, you don't waste precious touring time during the day, and you'll save on a night's accommodation, too.
Renting a car is typically the most expensive option, so save it for exploring regions that are off the beaten track. Research small, reliable rental agencies within an individual country alongside the big-name Avis, Budget and Hertz options. Also consider advertising for road-trip buddies on your hostel's bulletin board, and ask them to split costs.
Food and Drink
A bonus to staying in hostels or vacation rentals is that you usually have a kitchen at your disposal. Shop for ingredients and snacks at local markets and grocery stores, cook your own meals and enjoy leftovers. Some hostels even allow you to bring in your own alcohol. Schlichter also recommends visiting bakeries late in the day, when baked goods may be on sale, to pick up breakfast for the next morning.
When it comes to eating out, hit up the food carts and cafes for local flavor on the cheap. "A lot of destinations have their own version of street food or snack bars, especially internationally," says Banas, citing Amsterdam's brown cafes and Poland's milk bars. If you treat yourself to a fancy restaurant, go all out on lunch, not dinner. "You typically get similar menu items for a lot less," says Banas. As for drinks, "the house wine is usually the cheapest thing on the menu, and in many countries, especially in Europe, it's pretty good," says Schlichter. Or look for BYOB venues, and buy where the locals do.
Things to Do
If your destination is heavily serviced by public transit, your best value option for seeing the sights is to do so independently. Hunt down festivals and cultural happenings on your destination's tourism Web site (look for an events calendar) or entertainment listings in local publications. Many museums and galleries—even the Louvre—offer free admission on certain days and evenings. Before your trip, register for daily deal sites in the city of your choice, and keep an eye out for discounts on attractions or getaway packages. If you're staying in a hostel, see if it offers nightly events, such as pub crawls or barbecues. Couchsurfing also organizes regular meet-ups and parties in cities all over the world. And many cities offer free walking tours (but do tip your guide to show your appreciation).
Remember the International Youth Travel Card (and International Student or Teacher ID Cards) we mentioned earlier as a prerequisite to booking discounted flights? Good for one year, each of the three cards costs $25 and offers thousands of discounts all over the world. For example, with the ITIC or ISIC, you can get 10% off Sandeman New Europe tours and pub crawls; with the IYTC or ITIC, you can score 20% off Australian railway fares.
Also consider local city passes, which combine discounts on museum admission, dining and more into one package for a set amount of time. A city pass may also let you skip the queue and get free public transportation. Such passes are available in many major destinations around the world and typically offer a range of options to suit your travel needs. For example, you can get a 48-hour Vienna Card for about $24 or a 72-hour pass for $28, either of which scores you discounts from more than 210 museums, music venues, retailers and other places, as well as free access to the city's public transit. But "be careful and make sure you know what you're paying for," says Banas. "If there are a lot of museums and sites you won't see, it might not be worth it."
If you want to explore somewhere remote, locking in your transport and accommodation with a tour package can save you money and headache. Again, be sure to read the itinerary carefully and clarify exactly what is included in the price tag (such as meals and activities) and what is not. Companies such as Contiki, Geckos Adventures and Topdeck are specifically geared toward people in their twenties and thirties. But inexpensive, small-group operators such as Intrepid and G Adventures draw lots of young travelers as well, says Schlichter. "They go to interesting places and make remote places pretty affordable," she says.