Travel on a Budget: Identifying Priorities

I’ve already admitted to being a pseudo-minimalist and I’m ready to put forward a similar disclaimer now. For the next few days I’ll don my travel-on-a-budget hat, after first admitting I don’t have an overly impressive globetrotting resume. I didn’t set foot on an airplane until I was nineteen and have only touched down in 6 countries – but I happen to have married an expert.

Born in Portugal, John has worked in and explored far-flung corners of the globe: from snowy landscapes in Canada’s High Arctic and Norway to warmer shores in Fiji and the Canary Islands; he’s been to Tanzania and Rwanda, Brazil and Chile; he’s spent months working in Australia; he’s crisscrossed the US and visited Thailand, Japan, and too many countries in Europe to count.

Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he also happens to be a really, really great traveler. He’s efficient and smart and unflappable when on the road and, since our priorities are so well-aligned, he’s the best travel partner I could ever hope for (he’s also just really fun to be with and an all-round awesome spouse).

As time and money allow I can’t wait to fill up my passport with all kinds of stamps, but until then I lean heavily on his travel expertise. That said, we’ve definitely developed our own special method of budget travel since getting married.

A quick Google search reveals entire movements devoted to traveling on a budget – from working farm hostels to extreme credit-card reward gymnastics, some of the proposed methods feel a tad intense for my taste.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel or plowed a field to pay room and board. I just thought it would be fun to discuss some of the ways our family has traveled, economically, through the years. This includes periods where we were, on paper at least, living below the poverty line. Those years of financial constraints helped us be creative in our travel plans and many of these tendencies stuck, even as we’ve moved into a new chapter of life that has afforded more financial flexibility.

I grew up exposed to fiscal conservatism (as did my husband), and it comes naturally. Believe me, this can present some drawbacks, including exacerbating my preexisting (and unrealistic) maximizer tendencies. But it also drove us to look for creative ways to solve a problem which was, at first, how to fund international travel on a small bankroll. Today it means we continue to pursue the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

For us, the whole process of traveling on a budget can be satisfying. A mindset of frugality is what led to us having more financial independence in the first place, so why not continue the momentum?

I’ll talk about specifics in later posts, but today wanted to hone in on priorities. Just like identifying what truly motivates you can help you figure out where you want to get to in life, I think it’s helpful to identify priorities before traveling and then allocate money accordingly.

how to identify Travel priorities

  • One of our top priorities (individually and as a couple/family) is finding ways to get immersed in the local culture. We want to eat and explore like locals – do things we can’t do anywhere else. I remember talking to someone who mentioned he would always seek out a cheeseburger and fries wherever he traveled – he had absolutely no interest in sampling local cuisine. He prioritized consistency; we opt for experimentation.
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. This tiny cafe was tucked away on a side street, hidden from the main tourist thoroughfares. Inexpensive and absolutely delicious.
  • Exploring a new location on foot is a huge draw for us. It’s how we like to familiarize ourselves with a new space, and it happens to be a great way to save money.

When we went to our first (and only) all-inclusive resort, we had narrowed it down to two destinations. The selling feature of our eventual choice? Kilometers of accessible white sandy beaches. Every single day we headed out the door and walked and walked and walked. Because we identified walking as a priority before we even started the booking process, it helped us make an informed decision. We aren’t that fussy about a big hotel room or fancy entertainment options. We were never going to be the type to race to the beach at 7 am to reserve a cabana for the day. We weren’t going to use the pool or the hot tub or participate in morning yoga on the beach.

No, more than anything we wanted a long sandy beach – and that’s exactly what we got.

  • We also love art. Top highlights from almost every trip involve art/architecture and we always seek out art galleries – both the famous and lesser-known. If necessary, we know it’s better to forgo the nice lunch with a hefty tip to fund opportunties to explore local art culture.

Years ago when my parents were visiting Paris (without me, I might add), my brother-turned-tour-guide took my mom to the Louvre. My father opted out without second thought and visited a nearby war museum. He is always, always, always going to seek out history. Why pay an entrance fee to an art museum he’d rather not visit?

  • There is no right and wrong in terms of priorities. That’s the beauty of it all. You’re under no obligation to visit the Louvre if you go to Paris (though it’s amazing). You do you.

If I went to Las Vegas tomorrow I’d probably wander through a casino or two (more for the architecture and design aesthetics), but what I’d really want to do is take in a live show and wander through an art gallery. I wouldn’t want to hang by the pool and order an umbrellaed drink. I wouldn’t want to spend my time at a slot machine or playing blackjack. One would assume both drinking and gambling would be front-running priorities for many choosing to visit such a city.

But not for me!

I’ve seen Michelin restaurants, but don’t have any burning urge to visit one. But, if you do, make this a priority and find other places to save…

why travel?

I think most of us have a natural instinct to explore; an innate desire to get to know our world more intimately, to meet new people, and experience new cultures. Leisure tourism can get a bad rap, sometimes justifiably so, but I think it can also make us more informed citizens when we return home. Couldn’t it make us better doctors and lawyers and teachers and parents? In addition to tans and keychains and duty-free alcohol, we might just manage to bring back new perspectives that colour our world for the better.

One night in Paris my husband and I relaxed on the Trocadéro lawn at dusk. This was pre-COVID and people were everywhere. The fading sunlight, and the wine, cast a perfect glow over the setting. I think about that moment often and those few hours spent watching the Eiffel Tower reflect the colours of the changing skyline were some of the happiest of my life.

We travel to experience these moments; to trigger emotions and raise questions and escape routine. We also travel to get an idea of just how big the world really is and our place in it.

Maybe you travel for the scenery or the family hugs at the end of a long plane ride. Maybe you travel for work and pride yourself on relentless productivity, considering tourist traps something to be avoided at all costs. But, I suspect, if we stay open enough, travel could change us all, perhaps in surprising ways.

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