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Thrifty globetrotting tips


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POSTED: Thursday, July 16, 2009

Times are tight, and going abroad is not on the list of essential expenditures, but it’s hard to fathom spending the rest of the year at home. So what’s a wannabe globetrotter to do?

Rest assured, it IS still possible to travel despite limited finances, albeit more modestly. Back in the day as a resource-strapped graduate student, I acquired the skill of hitting the road on a budget, and here are my tips on how to do it.

>> Destination: Traveling is like real estate; what matters most is “location, location, location.” Choose your destination wisely, and your dollar will stretch a lot farther.

Developing countries are ideal for an affordable trip. They tend to be inexpensive as well as less crowded. In recent years my husband and I once had an excellent steak dinner at a four-star restaurant in a capital city for less than $7 each.

The exchange rate isn’t looking favorable these days, but when it does reverse, it will be a choice time to go elsewhere. Places that make the news under adverse circumstances also become bargain-laden in the ensuing months (think Thailand after the 2004 tsunami).

Don’t overlook road trips across the good ol’ mainland U.S.A., where there is an incredible amount to see and do. Washington, D.C., for example, has a multitude of impressive sites open free to the public. The national park system likewise makes for a memorable vacation. If you’re set on exploring a different country, neighboring Canada and Mexico are also accessible and interesting nations.

>> Packing: Keep it light and you’ll avoid baggage fees and paying for porters, not to mention an aching back. Remember the old adage that you should pack half of the clothing and twice the money as you originally thought you might need. If you do happen to forget an item, most urban areas have a number of well-stocked stores. Even places off of the beaten path, as long as they are populated, have the basics (i.e., food and clothing) available.

Do make room in your luggage for anything essential that cannot easily be obtained at your destination (e.g., prescription medication). If you are staying at a budget accommodation, depending on which type it might also be helpful to bring along items such as earplugs, sleep sack, travel towel, drain plug, laundry detergent, clothesline and appropriate toiletries.

And don’t forget to bring a reliable travel resource. The Internet is chock-full of information, but sometimes it is easier to have all of the details in one place from a trusted source. In that case, check out traditional guidebooks at the local library, and stick to budget-oriented publications (e.g., Lonely Planet, Let’s Go).

>> Transportation: The plane ticket will probably be a significant chunk of your total travel costs. Keep the fare down by considering alternate airports (think San Jose or Oakland instead of San Francisco), flying at offpeak times (e.g., low season, weekdays), riding smaller airlines (e.g., JetBlue, Southwest) and using fare tracking sites to keep tabs on prices. Get the biggest bang for your buck by taking a lengthier vacation (e.g., it would make sense financially to see Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro in one versus multiple trips). If you plan to use miles, book as far in advance as possible, because the seats requiring the fewest miles are becoming as rare as snow on Oahu.

If you must rent a car, you can reduce the cost by using a comparative online booking site plus any coupons, discounts or promotions, and by renting at a nonairport location. Otherwise, local transportation might be a better way to get around. Trains are a scenic way to ride, and overnight trips eliminate the cost of a hotel room. Buses tend to be inexpensive, and some of them go great distances; I’ve traveled by bus across Malaysia and half of Turkey. Multiday passes can provide savings for various forms of transportation, but you have to do the comparison calculations to find out for sure.

>> Lodging: Camping is certainly economical, but Remember the old adage that you should pack half of the clothing and twice the money as you originally thought you might need. If you do happen to forget an item, most urban areas in developing countries have a number of well-stocked stores. it’s not for everyone, and while pitching a tent is perfect for that visit to Yosemite, it’s not always feasible, either (e.g., where would you camp in the middle of Beijing? Or when it’s icy outside?). Hostels and YMCAs/YWCAs are good alternatives, with some hostels even offering private rooms for a slightly higher price. As long as they are safe and clean, budget hotels, motels, guest houses, bed-and-breakfasts and pensions will all suffice if you will be spending most of your time outside sightseeing and simply need a place to sleep.

For promotions, coupons and discounts, read the fine print and do the math first. For example, package deals can sometimes end up costing more than purchasing each part separately. Remember that there is a reason behind every so-called sale (e.g., is it hurricane season? Is the building undergoing renovations?). If your plans are flexible, auction sites such as Priceline or Hotwire are worth checking out.

Or you could always pull out your contact list and see whether any hospitable friends or relatives in the area are willing to open up their homes. It is especially helpful in foreign countries to have a native host, which also allows you to gain precious insights into the local culture. I have been impressed by the hospitality exhibited by others, such as my friend’s aunt’s friend who invited me to stay at her place in Kuala Lumpur without ever having met me (plus, I had just met my friend’s aunt a few days prior).

>> Dining: While sightseeing in Japan, I found the food prices beyond my meager graduate student budget, so I ate a lot of rice and nori combinations from convenience stores. It wasn’t gourmet cuisine by any means, but it was enough to get by on in the short run. While living in Paris for a longer period, I frequented the farmers’ markets for nutritious but basic fare, or purchased what was on sale at the local supermarket. Even if your accommodation does not have much in the way of a kitchen, there is a wide variety of food out there that requires little preparation (e.g., in France I ate plenty of baguettes, cheese, fruit and yogurt).

Some lodging establishments will include free breakfast, and if so, be sure to take advantage of it. If you do want to go the restaurant route, try eating more at breakfast or lunch when the prices tend to be cheaper than at dinner. In French Polynesia my husband and I limited our budget to two meals per day: a large buffet brunch and dinner.

And do avoid the tourist oriented restaurants when possible. Even though the menus translated into English are convenient, the food is often not as authentic or inexpensive. It’s easy enough to eat local and bring along a guidebook with menu translations (or simply point at the tasty looking dish being served to another patron).

The main thing to keep in mind for eating and drinking, especially abroad, is cleanliness, for a bout with Montezuma’s revenge (aka traveler’s diarrhea) is definitely something to avoid. So be wary of food from street vendors and don’t be afraid to splurge on bottled water or other drinks in sealed containers.

>> Sightseeing: With a decent guidebook, you can skip the pricey tours and do it yourself. Most sites will provide at least enough basic background in the form of signage or complimentary brochures which won’t cost you a cent, and sometimes tours are included in the price of admission.

This brings us to the sometimes hefty entry fees. Try to take advantage of any discounts (e.g., student, educator, senior citizen, motor club), and inquire to find out about any upcoming times with reduced or free admission. Companies or organizations sometimes sponsor days with no entry fees, and many museums are open free to the public on a regular basis. For example, I was once in Seattle on the first Thursday of the month, when admission to many museums is complimentary. Multiday and multisite passes can also provide savings, but check to make sure that they coordinate with your plans.

If you do opt to go the guided route, bus tours (e.g., Gray Line) can be reasonably priced. Even hiring private taxis and minivans for tours in some countries can be affordable if the cost is split with fellow passengers. However, public transportation and a reliable guidebook will most likely be the least pricey way to go.

Finally, keep in mind the maxim to which my sales representatives adhered when I worked in the corporate arena: “Everything is negotiable.” Don’t be afraid to inquire about discounts when it comes to travel, especially now when many companies are trying to boost business and court customers.

Now go ahead, plan an affordable vacation and cure that case of island fever.

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Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and former marketing executive. She has lived in Europe and Asia, and traveled to nearly 70 countries primarily on a budget.