What Does Frugal Travel Really Look Like? / by Amy Thibodeau


By Amy Thibodeau

The New York Times Online has been showcasing travel on the cheap through their Frugal Traveler Blog. Seth Kugal is the current Frugal Traveler and it's been great following his journey through South America where he stays everywhere from bog standard hostels to river boats and seems willing to eat anything: recently a guinea pig. In a recent entry he referenced his budget, which is $500 (USD) per week. My first instinct was that this didn't seem terribly frugal, at least for South America; then I remembered that he is ending his trip in the United States where things cost significantly more and I wondered if he is able to carry over any money he saves to apply to more expensive locales. In other words, was there any incentive to not spending the entire budget each week.

So I emailed him: "Quick question - do you get to carry over anything below $500 that you don't spend to use in future weeks?"

I'm quite certain that he gets a lot of emails, but to my surprise, he got back to me within a couple of days with the following:

Good question! In general, I am trying not to ever spend more than $500 in a single week. But at the end of my trip I will be in the United States, so may have to dip into the fund a bit.  Sort of depends. Usually I cap my hotel expenses at half my daily budget, which means absolute max of $35 a night. Not sure how possible that is in the US, while still staying at places I can recommend for readers.  We'll see!

I've spent the better part of the past six weeks in rural Mexico and it's been pretty cheap. We're staying in a small bungalow with two bedrooms, a basic kitchen and a small bathroom for about $12 USD per night. I won't lie, it's rustic - no air conditioning and although we have screens on the windows it's pretty buggy. The price was reduced from the regular fee of $20 per night because we block booked for a month. I think we could have easily found accommodations outside of the larger cities and tourist towns in hostels for about $20 per night.

With the $35 per night cap that the Frugal Traveler is using for accommodations, it leaves over $250 per week to spend on food, drink, recreation and travel and that is a lot of money in most areas of South America and Mexico. I've heard that certain places like Brazil are quite costly but on the whole, I would think that food, drink and entertainment would generally fall well below the $250 weekly budget.

I'm not judging Seth's budget because I think $500 per week will be tremendously challenging while in the United States; it's also important to remember that he is a journalist and as such he needs to have experiences that readers of the NY Times would want to read about. I'm just questioning whether the budget is really frugal by the average standard.

Then I was surprised again. Earlier this week the blogging duo behind The Two Backpackers website published a post called How We Paid for a Year of Travel. Maybe it's because they are backpackers, but I was expecting them to talk about how they are traveling on the cheap. Not so:

We rationed our budget at $1,333 USD each per month for a total of $2,666, of that $1,000 was allocated towards “adventure” and the rest for day-to-day living expenses.  The actual expenses varied from month to month and country to country.  After 11 months of travel we have already exceeded the $30,000 mark ...

After spending six weeks in rural Mexico, I can honestly say that our expenses are well below what the Two Backpackers and the Frugal Traveler are spending but we've admittedly compromised on some comforts and the ability to travel to a new spot every day or every few days as a result. If I had to guess (and it would have to be a guess because I'm pretty lousy at counting my pennies), I'd say that we've spent about $600 between us for our first month in Mexico. That includes cab fare in Puerto Vallarta, bus fare for day trips in the region, and our food and drink. That's about $150 per week for two people, or about $75 each per week. Granted, traveling with a partner helps to offset accommodation costs.

I really like both the blogs mentioned above so why am I telling you this?

First of all, it's important that travelers not underestimate their expenses. As both the Frugal Traveler and the Two Backpackers demonstrate, South America isn't necessarily cheap and can actually be relatively expensive depending on how you chose to travel. It's a bargain over Paris or London to be sure, but I think there's a misconception about how low the prices actually are.

Lastly, it is still possible to travel extremely cheaply if you are willing to compromise on some creature comforts and if you are happy to spend a longer time in one location. This isn't for everyone and I wouldn't recommend arranging your travel this way just to save money if it isn't the kind of experience you are after - but it is an option. For us, staying in one place was important because we continue to work while on the road and need a base with a reliable Internet connection and somewhere to work. We are also only a few months into a one year around-the-world journey and with very expensive stops in places like Japan planned for the coming months, it was important to save a little bit at the front end of our journey. In our situation the compromise made sense.

Unless you are Donald Trump, there are going to be compromises when you travel. A crucial part of preparing for serious travel is asking yourself hard questions about finances before you leave to ensure that you know how you are willing to balance your priorities against your monetary realities.

What are your experiences of traveling frugally? What do you think qualifies as true budget travel?

Image Credit: Money by Teb