How Budget Travel Can Lead to More Authentic Experiences

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Many people who want to travel say that money is the biggest obstacle keeping them from booking a trip. But if you plan ahead, it can be affordable — and sticking to a budget while traveling doesn’t limit you from having amazing experiences. In fact, the restrictions of a tight wallet can actually enhance your trip.

Here’s how:

Skip chain hotels in favor of small, locally owned guesthouses or apartments.

What’s the point of leaving home, crossing thousands of miles in an overnight plane ride – only to arrive and see the same thing? Chain hotels are designed to be comfortable and familiar, but traveling is about getting out of your comfort zone.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

The best kind of travel changes you. It shakes up all kinds of previous beliefs, giving you a new perspective on the world. It might even make you a better person. Putting up walls of comfort and familiarity shields you from the type of experiences that can plant those seeds of transformation. And it’s usually more expensive.

Staying in an apartment by design means you’ll be staying in a residential area instead of a commercial zone. That means you’re stepping away from touristic areas and are more immersed in local culture. Your home base is an actual person’s home. How much more authentic does it get?

The view from our Dubrovnik Airbnb apartment

The view from our Dubrovnik Airbnb apartment

Rome Airbnb apartment

Our cozy Roman flat

Airbnb is a popular option for finding apartments, and I’ve never had a bad experience. I love that it also gives me an opportunity to meet the person I’m renting from – someone who lives there and knows the area. I rented this one bedroom apartment in Rome from a very kind man named Gianvittorio, who even purchased and gave us city maps and a welcome bottle of wine. When we checked out, he treated us to coffee and breakfast because he was unable to let us check out in the afternoon due to the next guests arriving sooner than planned (he still stored our bags though). The apartment itself was comfortable, safe, and well-located – all this for a lower price than we’d have paid at a hotel. And if you’re traveling solo or with friends, you can save even more money by renting out a single room of an apartment instead of the whole place.

I also frequently stay at hostels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, and small independent hotels, usually going with whichever option is cheapest. Incidentally, many guesthouses list their rooms on hostel booking sites like Hostelworld. Not all hostels are created equal, and many have private rooms and bathrooms. In the end, you can get the same basic amenities and level of privacy as a hotel but at drastically lower prices. You’re also usually getting a more authentic experience, especially at guesthouses and bed and breakfasts, because you’ll likely have a chance to get to know the owner — who may even be making you breakfast in the morning!

Take the road less-traveled — literally.

Did you leave America to see more Americans? Probably not. Choosing locations that don’t have millions of tourists trampling through each year is a wise move if you want to actually feel like you’re getting a genuine experience of your destination. Tourists also tend to inflate prices. Odds are off-the-beaten-path destinations will cost less for everything from lodging to food and everyday purchases.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

In 2011, I traveled to Cartagena, Colombia with my boyfriend, inspired by this NY Times article. I’d never heard of it before; but the ultra-low cost airline, Spirit, had cheap flights there from my home city of Dallas and it seemed like a beautiful place. I did my research and found that the city itself was actually quite safe – it’s really the rural areas tourists need to avoid. Unfortunately, most people have been scared away by tales of drug violence, missing out completely on safe and gorgeous places like sunny Cartagena, an ancient walled city on the sea.

Meeting locals in Columbia

Seriously, Colombians are awesome.

I quickly discovered that Colombians are some of the nicest people on the planet. Everyone we met was eager to help us; and because tourism levels were low, they were especially grateful that we chose Colombia as our vacation spot. We made several new friends in Colombia, including a man who served us one night at a restaurant and we bumped into frequently near our hostel. One night we saw him when we wandered into a tiny 8-table bar chosen at random while walking back after dinner. We were the only customers. Before long, the owner of the bar had invited us to sit at his table with his friends and wife. No one spoke a word of English, so we communicated through whatever Spanish I could muster. That night was one of the most fun memories I’ve made while traveling, and it never would’ve happened if I had chosen a more expensive city overrun by tourists.

Eat like a local.

Instead of heading to a restaurant for lunch every day, go to a farmer’s market, grocery store, or bodega for supplies to make your own meals. You’ll spend less by making your own food and you’ll actually be shopping like a local with locals. If you’re staying in an apartment (or even a hostel, many of which have kitchens for guest use), you’ll have some basic cooking supplies, but that’s usually not even necessary. A loaf of fresh-baked bread, some deli sliced meat and cheeses, and you have a delicious sandwich. Add a piece of fresh fruit and a bottle of wine from the grocery store and you’ve got yourself a nice little meal for much less than you’d have spent at a restaurant.

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid.

I’ve saved a ton of money by eating this way, and it’s actually fun too. Just think of it like a picnic. Bring those sandwiches to a park or sit on the crumbling steps of a cathedral and people-watch. You don’t even have to tip anyone.

When you do want a restaurant experience, choose inexpensive, locally owned establishments that don’t cater to tourists. If you don’t know the local language, you might have to pantomime your order or use a dictionary to understand the menu, but that’s part of the experience. It’s the “less comfortable” part you’re offering in exchange for the opportunity to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Less tourist-y restaurants also offer more authentic flavors and cuisines, which is, in my opinion, one of the very best parts of traveling.

And for the love of all that is delicious, do not go to McDonald’s if you have any other options at all. You might be surprised to know that McDonald’s is actually pretty expensive abroad!

Get lost.

Rather than paying money for a guided tour where you’ll be corralled into a group with a bunch of other tourists and be disruptive wherever you go, buy a guidebook and a good map (or this iPhone app, which works without data roaming or wifi) and be your own tour guide. Allow yourself to wander, taking in your surroundings and noticing the details. Sure, maybe you’ll miss an interesting fact about this building to your left, or you’ll spend more time in an area that appeals to you and run out of time to visit an important landmark; but you’ll design your own experience instead of following someone else’s. There’s beauty in the details, and you won’t notice them if 20 other tourists are blocking your view.

Walking, in and of itself, is a great way to immerse yourself in your destination. On foot, you notice a lot more than you do riding in a car, and it’s free. If you need to cross greater distances, taking public transportation like a bus or train  is usually the least expensive option and will give you a more accurate look at how the people in your destination actually live.

Don’t hold yourself back with ideas that travel has to be incredibly expensive to be worthwhile. Designing your own trip with a tight budget is very likely to result in a more rich, memorable, and culturally authentic experience than any pricey travel package can replicate.

This is the first post in a new eHow Money weekly series on Budget Travel. To read more of Megan’s advice about travel, visit her blog, travelpaintrepeat.com.

All photos by Megan Van Groll.

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