According to recent studies, just 9 percent of Americans travel abroad (actually abroad, not to Mexico or Canada). Among many factors — including that professional, salaried Americans average only two weeks of vacation per year and seem to have a difficult time even using that — I believe a major reason for this is we wrongly believe that if we want to travel comfortably and enjoy our vacations, we must spend a lot of money on them. Budget travel is then equated with being uncomfortable or backpacking, but that simply does not have to be true. It’s time to stop buying into the myths that keep Americans from planning inexpensive travel overseas.
Myth No. 1: You’ll have to sleep in a room with five strangers.
If I use the word “hostel,” what immediately comes to mind? Uncomfortable bunk beds, dorm-style smelly bathrooms, strangers sleeping above you?
I completely understand why this is not appealing to a lot of people. I, for one, don’t feel comfortable with the idea of sleeping near people I don’t know — particularly if they’re male; it’s just a matter of feeling safe and valuing my privacy.
But that isn’t necessarily what a hostel has to be like. Yes, many hostels cater to young backpackers who simply need a place to sleep and are willing to share that place with other travelers they don’t know in order to save money — but some of these same hostels have private rooms as well, and many don’t even fit the stereotypical notion of a hostel. When I stay at a hostel, I always book a double private room, sometimes with a private ensuite bathroom and occasionally with a shared bathroom. It’s essentially a traditional hotel room but usually much cheaper. Americans tend to assume you can either shell out $100-plus a night on a decent (or better) hotel room or squeeze into a dormitory for dirt cheap — but there are actually a ton of options in between. I also frequently find inexpensive rates on Airbnb and Booking.com.
Myth No. 2: You must be young.
It certainly helps to have youth on your side, and I often advise young people to take advantage of a lack of obligations such as a mortgage or kids by traveling now. We also typically associate age with becoming more set in our ways. As I’ve gotten a little older (now in my late 20s), I choose to tolerate less discomfort when I travel than I did when I was 20 and studying abroad. I’ll shell out for a nicer dinner on occasion. I’ll use the hostel or guesthouse that is a few dollars more per night because I think I’ll be more comfortable there. And when I’m in my 30s and 40s and beyond, maybe I’ll even splurge once in a while on something considered luxurious. But some things — like a desire to be judicious with my money and immerse myself in the local culture, which is difficult to do at an expensive, all-inclusive resort — will not change.
Myth No. 3: It involves wearing an enormous backpack that could fit two small children.
Let’s dispel the backpacker stereotype entirely. There’s nothing wrong with traveling this way, but it’s not my style and it might not be yours, either. I don’t enjoy looking like a tourist when I’m abroad if I can at all help it, and a giant backpack is one way to signal that from miles away. I also don’t change much about the way I dress when I travel, with the exception of comfortable footwear (it’s critical!) and being very selective about what to bring with me (I’m a big proponent of packing light). If it’s impossible for me to fully blend in, I like to at least give the impression I could be there on business, and it helps to pack a soft, comfortable blazer. I take only a traditional carry-on suitcase and handbag onto the plane with me.
Myth No. 4: You’ll be too worried about money — or you’ll have to cut too many corners — to have a good time.
Making the most of a low-budget trip is really all about knowing your priorities, choosing to cut back on the things that aren’t as important to you so you can spend more on the things that are. It’s a principle of compromise that applies equally well to budgeting at home as it does to saving money on a trip. If you want to afford an unforgettable experience at an expensive, fine-dining restaurant, you don’t waste your money on forgettable sub-par dining out beforehand. When traveling, this might mean that you make a few of your own meals from items you buy at the grocery store or stay at a super low-cost hostel, spending the difference on the meal. If you enjoy the luxury of fancy hotels but can’t afford one for five nights, maybe you stay only one or two nights and spend the remaining nights at a hostel, or get your fill by patronizing a fancy hotel bar for pre-dinner drinks instead.
The point is to determine ahead of time what will make you happiest and prioritize your spending around that. Electing for a low-budget vacation doesn’t mean you have to have a low-rent experience. It might take a little planning and creative compromise, but it’s worth it.