Champagne taste on a backpacker’s budget

A guide to affording that trip!


The number one question I always get: how do you afford it? You must be rich! For the first 9 years of my traveling journey I was a student. I self-funded all my trips, and you can too!

I spent 9 weeks in Southeast Asia and spent $3000. 8 weeks in Central America for under $2000. It is possible. You can easily spend this in just one week at a resort.

The number one rule I follow: find deals. I know, you dream of Paris, Australia, or South Africa. You have your heart set on that one place. Get rid of that idea! Just because you don’t go now, doesn’t mean a deal won’t open up next year, or even next month! Using apps like Skyscanner, you set your home airport and click “everywhere”. I found a $330 round trip, direct flight from San Francisco to Iceland this way. $47 round trip to Denver? Yes please.

Be flexible. This may mean a 5 hour layover.Maybe an overnight flight. I discuss how to survive layovers here.  Be open to taking a budget airline. Yes, budget airlines can be rough. It means you have to pay for luggage, or, even better, pack less! I once spent a week in Chicago using only a backpack. Guess what? I survived!

If your heart really is set on that one place, consider checking off season prices. Most destinations have about a 3 month peak period. If you can go the few weeks prior, or after, peak season, you often will get the great weather with much less press!

Eat off the grid

Hungry after your beautiful trip to the Eiffel Tower? Walk past the first cafe you see! Even walking just a few blocks from the main tourist areas will significantly decrease the cost, but not the taste! Christmas Eve my partner and I had a wonderful meal in Paris: mussels, fondue, and a bottle of wine. Cost? Only 32 euros!

Stop staying in hotels

I have yet to stay in a fancy hotel. No matter the country, it will cost you hundreds of dollars a night. Pick the location you want, and search hostels and Airbnbs. The most expensive Airbnb I booked was $126/night for New Years Eve in Amsterdam. I stayed in a cozy Airbnb in Paris for $60/night. A fancy Parisian hotel will cost 3-4 times that!

Rent a car

Planning to visit more than one area? Consider renting a car, especially if you are in a group. I did the math in Iceland. If I booked the bus tours I would have spent over $1000/person. Instead, we rented a car for under $500, split 3 ways.  Check with your credit card, many provide complimentary car rental insurance.

Pack light

Repeat after me: nobody will remember what you wore. Now, say it again. I have a 4 outfit rule for every trip, no matter the length. If it is winter, switch up the scarf. Summer? Mix shorts and tops, or, my favorite, convert your sarongs into a skirt one day, dress the next! If you don’t wear everything in your  bag, you are doing it wrong!  You can easily wash clothes in the sink, or run to a local laundry mat. Many Airbnb’s will have laundry in the unit. This is much cheaper than paying for those expensive luggage fees.

You need no more than 3 pairs of shoes. I know, shocking. For beach traveling, I have day sandals, night sandals, and hiking shoes I wear on the plane. Shoes are the biggest space stealer in those bags!

Ladies, your hair products have to go. Your blow dryer, straightener, curling iron – leave them at home. Most lodging will have a dryer. Trust me, you will thank me! Most electronics won’t work in other countries anyways, and less hair time means more exploring time! This goes for most make-up too!

Most lodges provide shampoo (especially Airbnb’s). If you can decrease your liquids, it will significantly decrease the weight of your bag. Remember, many international airlines have a weight limit, even on carry-on bags.

Trains, buses, and automobiles

Not on a time restraint? Look into buses and trains. I took a $4 bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Min City. It was a coach bus – it was actually nice. It took much longer than the $100 flight, but I saved $96 and saw some of the countryside.

Consider taking a night train, boat, or bus. This will double as your lodging for the night, as well as your transportation. Trains will often have beds, as do some boats.

Go to a hostel

I have mixed reactions when I tell people I sometimes stay at hostels. I have graduated to a private room, but these are often significantly cheaper. Compare the cost to an Airbnb, however, as private hostel rooms will usually charge per person, not per room, if you are with other people.

Even if you don’t stay in the hostel, visit one. These are meant for the backpacker on a budget. This being, tours are often much cheaper. In Colombia the Pablo Escobar Tour was 1/2 the cost at a hostel then it was at a hotel. Hostels also sometimes run free (or very cheap) walking tours.

Hostel employees are frequently longtime travelers. Ask them for great food recommendations, best tours, how to get from one city to another. They travel on a budget, so spend a few moments talking to them. Plus, many hostelers are traveling solo, and some even have a fun bar to meet people!

Pubic transportation

I get a secret kick out of learning other cities’ public transportation. Yes, it is scary at first. I have asked directions more times than I can count. In 36 countries, I have never been unable to find help. Most people love that you are exploring their home, and a simple smile will go a long way. Which brings me to….

Learn a few words

I have learned please, thank you, and hello in every language. Ask the flight attendant before you land, or an airport employee. Taking 5 minutes to learn 3 words goes a long way. Plus, how cool are you that you know hello in so many languages?!

Make your own breakfast

I almost always go to a local market and buy fresh eggs and fruit. This usually costs just a few bucks, and you have breakfast for several days. In expensive countries I will do this for breakfast and lunch. I leave dinners open for exploring local cuisine.


There are plenty of blogs out there that point out the math: if you eat out for lunch every day, 5 days a week, this is $200/month. Skip that Starbucks latte and you are nearing $100/month. Look at your credit card/debit card statements every month and see where you are spending the most money. Can you cut some of that out?

Go off the beaten path

I am not sure why, but many countries are considered “scary”. I loved El Salvador. The Perhentian Islands in Malaysia had some of the most beautiful water I have ever seen. Often these “scary” countries are only off the beaten path to Americans – I met more Canadians than  I can count in Central America, and Southeast Asia is home to many Australians.

Use your credit wisely

If you plan to travel frequently, consider investing in a travel credit card. The Chase Sapphire Reserve has no international charges. Find a credit card with travel redemption. Track your airline miles. This saves money, and you can buy even more trips.

Read a few blogs

The wonderful world brought us the internet. Before I travel any country, I always google “best things to do in x country blog”. If you can read through 10-20 blogs, most of your questions will be answered. Many bloggers are professional travelers, and have learned the best ways on a budget.


And finally, just go!

The best advice I can give is just to go. Don’t be afraid, you can do it!

A good traveler often has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu 

Follow me on instagram at coffeemeetsair to see my favorite travel photos! A new photo posted every day!

Jenna is a 32 year old coffee lover who spends much of her life on a plane, train, or automobile. You can email her directly at