What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

Originally published in Mazing Magazine, Issue 3.

Let’s play a little game. Guess who said the quote: “Travel is an important part of who I am as a person.” 

Sorry, dear reader—trick question. Turns out, over 70% of millennials surveyed in the U.K., U.S., and China nodded their heads to this statement put out by an AirBnB study in 2016. If given more personal time, 70% of millennials in these countries also said they’d spend it on travel. And nearly 90% said if they had more money, they would travel more.

Unless you work at one of those all-trusting start-ups with unlimited PTO and a big cash salary, your unbridled affinity for wanderlust and adventure is most-likely hemmed in by time and money. Now, I can’t make any promises to get you more time away from your desk (if you unlock that secret, let me know) but I do think it’s entirely possible to travel fruitfully and well on a budget. 

When and Where

Let’s start with the big choices first: where to go and when. If you have a destination in mind, check flight prices well in advance and figure out when is the cheapest time to go. For those of us not constrained by an academic calendar, seasonality is key. Avoid summer and the holidays like the plague. When you’re ready to buy your flight, check out apps and websites like Airfare Watchdog, Hopper, and SkipLagged to score the cheapest deal on the ticket you’ve been eyeing. 

If you haven’t pegged a dream destination, cross-check inexpensive flights from your local airport with cities with a lower cost of living. Icelandic Air may be a dirt-cheap plane ride, but as soon as you land, your food and stay will seriously rack up your credit card bill—fair warning.

Deep cheap solutions: Take a bus or train to a different airport 2 hours away to save $100. You never know what you could spend that money on, plus I’m sure you need some more time to catch up on all those podcasts you’ve been recommended lately.

Pack It Like Pac-Man

Both of us already know, unless you’re flying Southwest, over-packing is going to cost you. Whittle it down to that one checked bag (as big as the dimensions will allow) and one personal item (backpack, no question) and you’ll be good to go. To squeeze in all your necessities, figure out flexible outfit options that can be dressed-up, dressed-down and layered. You only really need two pairs of shoes, maybe three. Plus, squeeze in some extra storage by using compression bags or ziplocks.

Here’s a pro tip  – no matter how adorable you want to look in those high-stakes, mid-trip Instagram photos, don’t add a single stitch to your wardrobe (unless it’s for extreme weather conditions). Period. That pre-vacation shopping spree can add a hefty price tag to an already pricey trip. So skip the new camera, borrow that suitcase, wear that shirt you always wear and everyone knows it. Some swanky new duds aren’t what’s going to make this trip—the experiences are. So allocate those assets to the having fun fund.

Deep cheap solutions: If you’re feeling a little underprepared for severe Scandinavian weather conditions, dig up your uncle’s puffer snow jacket from his middle school days to keep warm (and economical). Then, wear it on the plane even if you’re flying out of Phoenix at 85 degrees – that puppy’s not going to fit in your carry-on.

Eat, Drink, Do

Once you’ve scoured the dark ends of the internet for deals, unpacked and repacked your suitcase a dozen times, braved the unintuitive lines and crowds of the airport and finally unglued yourself from that cramped seat at your final destination, you’re ready to cut loose and treat yourself, right? Wrong. You might take a vacation, but your budget does not. Cheap travel is not for the faint of heart, friends.

I won’t tell you to skimp out on all the great attractions, but here’s where your spirit of discernment comes in. Don’t do it just because it’s in the travel guide—do it because it will make your day. For example, full admission here, I’m generally pretty bored at museums. So I’ll save that entry fee for a paddleboard rental, extra scoop of gelato, or a nifty souvenir. If you’re traveling with a buddy, this might be your chance to split ways for a couple hours and take some me-time to do the things that you know will give you maximum joy and put that big, cheesy grin on your face. Plus, walking and hiking are essential tourist activities that, turns out, are totally free. 

The same goes for restaurants. I know there are 25 top-notch Yelp spots you’ve been salivating over for your whole flight, but don’t pressure yourself to make every meal the best of your life. People have to eat, and take it from someone who once found deep pleasure in buying a sandwich from a hundred-year-old Italian man next door to my hostel, sometimes the undressed local fare is the best kind. So don’t be afraid to eat cereal for breakfast, pack a lunch, and stumble in somewhere for dinner entirely unplanned. Those serendipitous moments when you discover the best burger you’ve ever had is in Amman, Jordan always make it to the scrapbooks.

Deep cheap solutions: Two words—bread and cheese. You’ll live.

Be the Bad Guy

And tally your spend. It’ll help you keep on track, and it’s pretty easy to do, especially if you’re withdrawing cash. Look at it this way—less expensive trips just means more trips. And erring on the side of caution means you’ll feel confident to spend an extra chunk of change when something like magic arises, which it will. You’ll find yourself saying no to the unnecessary and yes to the moment—the jazz bar in London, the camel ride in Morocco, that random castle outside of Copenhagen with the best sunset view you’ve ever seen. Bon voyage, pals. Make your budget your travel buddy and you can afford this.