I have spent many years traveling on a very low budget, and keeping a tight hold on the purse strings. Being frugal has allowed me to see much more of the world than I otherwise would have if I had been less inclined to hitchhike, camp, eat street food, and haggle like a fiend. However, despite some seriously cheap traveling, there are some things that I will always budget for before leaving, that remain my minimum baseline finances that I need to travel. While some of my most rewarding experiences have come about when I had to be creative about my finances, there is always something left in my account, even if I am reluctant, or unwilling, to spend it.
Despite the travel blogger trend of telling readers that it’s possible to travel the world with no money, most of that kind of advice is either A) fairly dishonest (a budget travel blogger selling the dream won’t tell you about their backup cash on hand), or B) completely irresponsible. Most people do travel without anything significant going wrong, but assuming that it will never happen is naïve and dangerous.
The blogger crowd does provide excellent tips for traveling on a budget, and they aren’t completely wrong in telling the masses that they don’t need to spend excessively to see the world. But having a financial cushion is essential if you are going to go halfway across the world, away from any kind of support network. If you can’t afford the following expenses, you can’t afford to travel.
1. Travel Insurance
It should go without saying that travel insurance is 100% necessary when you travel abroad (whether it is for a short time or a long-haul adventure), but the number of crowdfunding pages asking people to donate to pay for repatriation of travelers’ remains or big medical bills suggests that it isn’t as common sense as it should be. Despite travel insurance premiums getting lower every day, thanks to more competition in the industry and increased numbers of travelers, so many people are foregoing the expense. Travel insurance can be expensive, and in some cases, it can be one of the costlier parts of your trip. Hell, most of the time it never pays off. But that’s a good thing.
These days, I don’t bother with choosing the most expensive policy with all the bells and whistles. Often the excess for a trip to the doctor, a stolen phone, or malaria medication is too high to bother with a claim. However, I never leave without basic health coverage. That way, if I find myself in an accident, I know that I won’t be begging for goodwill to compensate for my bad choices, or expect my parents to remortgage their house to bail me out. Plenty of travel credit cards offer free insurance (if you book your flights with the card), and there are even policy comparison websites that make it incredibly easy to find the cheapest deal.
2. An Emergency Flight Home
Unfortunately, when you’re overseas, shit does happen back home (or even in the country where you are traveling), and you might need to spring for an emergency flight back home. Maybe the political situation in the country goes downhill, and you need to make a hasty exit. Having enough money for a flight out can save you having to beg your friends for money and getting yourself into debt. Similarly, family and friends do get sick, and unfortunately, do sometimes die. Imagine being stuck overseas, and unable to get back and be with them in their time of need. It’s a shitty situation, which is made even worse when you have to grovel for a trip back. You can still be a spontaneous traveler with an open-ended trip, but if you decide to go for broke and find that you need to be that person once you decide it’s time to move on or go home, you should probably reassess your budget (and life choices).
Even if you have a good travel insurance policy that will fly you back if a family member dies, there still may be a reason you will want to return before that happens. Seriously, don’t avoid paying for a flight home by waiting for someone close to die! Quite simply, if the only cash left in your account is the cost of a flight back, unless you have an income, it’s time to go home.
Thanks to online platforms like Couchsurfing, Help X, and Workaway, which offer free accommodation to travelers, there are plenty of options for saving money by not paying for a place to sleep every night. Budget travelers can extend their trip, see the country they’re in through the locals’ eyes, and enjoy something different than a typical hostel scene every single night. However, free accommodation isn’t a right, nor is it guaranteed. Unfortunately, many travelers embark on their trips expecting that they will never pay a cent to stay anywhere, which can go awry as soon as a Couchsurfing host has to cancel and they find themselves on a park bench or racking up credit card debt at a hotel.
Even if you can plan to stay with a kind stranger, or work for your accommodation every day of your trip, you should always have enough to book a hostel or hotel just in the case that your host is being creepy, you want a day off from working, or your bus breaks down and leaves you miles from your host. Budget enough for a place to stay every night. Even if it’s the minimum amount for the cheapest place there is. If you end up with free accommodation, then you have bonus cash to extend your trip or do something fun. If you do find yourself stuck without a place to sleep (or you want to be spontaneous and go somewhere different), you are covered.
4. Enough Money To Have Fun
This last one is certainly going to be contentious, and fun can be had on any budget depending on the person. However, if you’re so desperate to be away from home that you don’t care about missing out on doing the things you enjoy, it might be time to go home. There is no reason to say “yes” to every costly attraction or outing, and it’s probably best to skip unnecessary tourist traps that drain your wallet for no good reason. But if you really want to visit that museum, have a drink, or eat something other than ramen, but you can’t afford it, you should probably start trying to earn some money (or go somewhere that you can).
Just look anywhere on the budget traveler trail (yes, Southeast Asia, I’m looking at you) — it is full of frugal travelers sipping on their water and eating the cheapest meal on the menu as slowly as possible at a local café, so that they can use the free wifi to tell all of their friends about the fun that they’re having living on $5 per day (or complaining about their lives). By all means, save money and travel on a budget. But if you feel like you’re missing out, and can’t afford to do the things you like, then move on, rather than being miserable.
There is no shame in cutting your trip short if your finances aren’t covering your travels, or if the only way of continuing is by putting yourself in a precarious financial situation. Traveling on a budget is exciting and fulfilling. Traveling while broke, on the other hand, is insane. Don’t be that person who has to crowd-fund or beg their way out of a tight spot because you were too cheap to take some responsibility for your holiday.
Gabby is a career hopping traveler who works with small businesses and startups when she’s not eating or sleeping.
Image via Unsplash