I first experienced budget travel as an eight year old. Mom felt like taking a road trip, so over the next eight months my siblings and I ended up living out of a white chevy suburban. I’m not sure if it was out of necessity, or part of a greater plan to impose upon us kids a frugal mentality. One or the other, over the course of that trip I recall us spending what seemed to be very little money.
I stuck with low budget travel during my teen years without being aware of it – likely because it was all I had been exposed to. Aside from family influence, the communities I was attracted to were made up mostly of extreme athletes who lacked the resources needed to travel in “style” – so I played along.
My family could have, if they wanted to, afforded me a more fashionable level luxury on my trips. But they never did offer, nor did I ask – they were often the ones pushing me to go further into the bush.
Let me make clear that I categorize travel and vacation very separately. A person assumes a completely different mindset when on vacation than the mindset that is necessary for travel. Travel, when done properly, demands a certain level of alertness that vacation does not. When traveling, a person must be reactive.
I’m going to suggest that there is a much greater value to be gained from low budget travel than simply saving a few bucks, as well as encourage people who don’t have strict financial constraints to at least attempt at having a low budget travel experience. I don’t claim myself to be some sort of travel expert. Yes, I have traveled on what I see as a low budget – though I’ve often encountered others who seem to do it with more conviction and result. However, the following is an opinion I can support from taking such trips, and I hope that my thoughts resonate with the wanderlust that lives somewhere inside you.
Interestingly, too much money is often as preventative to a person having an authentic and meaningful travel experience as is too little money. It’s easy to see why too little money is limiting. But how is too much money limiting in travel? Wouldn’t it allow you to do more?
Truly authentic and cultural experiences (at least the ones I’ve come to value) aren’t those with price tags. By cultural I do not mean eating grilled beef kebabs at a Jamaican resort while some Guatemalan guy spits fire and a chorus of Kenyan men smile and slap drums. Immersing oneself into a community is crucial to really experiencing its culture. And immersion cannot be accomplished by looking through a hotel window, but only by engaging in the very same activities that the people in that culture can afford to do.
I promise you, the majority of people in most cultures do not have big budgets – meaning that anything your big budget enables you to do is definitely not something that the locals are dedicating their leisure time to.
When you give yourself too large of a budget, you’re always focused on what that budget, or lack of one, will be able to afford. Instead of taking a chance on a hole in the wall eatery, you’ll choose a restaurant with the menu in six-languages. Instead of a hostel, BnB, couch, or other accommodation that forces you in with locals, you’ll book the Four Seasons. And by doing so you allow your budget to effectively distance you from the very culture you traveled to experience.
It’s a psychologic shift. A different way of thinking. If I were to hand you a thick stack of cash and say have fun, you’d ask yourself, “what are all the things I can get with this money?” The shift that comes when you start thinking low budget is, “what are all the things I can do without, or just a little of, this money?”
On a side note, we become passive when we pay for something – especially at the premiums which tourists pay – because we feel that we’ve done our part at that point. Just like on a vacation, you expect everything to be taken care of after you’ve paid the resort. Having that passive mentality will inhibit you from ever discovering most of what the world has to offer – not just in travel.
Almost all experiences do have financial elements to them. Whether you’re going to Couchsurf your way through South Africa or fish for all your food in Indonesia, a plane, boat, or bus ticket will need to be purchased, as well as other expenses incurred along the way. It is important though that you never allow that financial element to limit your vision to only those experiences it plays a role in.
So, in as few words as possible, here is the core lesson that I believe can be internalized from low budget travel (when combined with an adventurous spirit).
“Never let money limit your experiences only to those that money can buy”
This was written as a stream of thought on an early morning flight to Serbia… Please excuse any grammatical/structural errors, and let me know if it makes any sense at all!