I estimate that so far on this trip I have spent about $6400 (rough estimate, including airfare). On average, that’s about $915 per month. Considering where we’ve been, what we’ve done and seen, and how comfortably we’ve traveled, that’s far from bad; especially if compared to living in California where I’d probably have to pay half that in rent each month and need at least the rest to get around, eat and do fun stuff. With literally zero income this entire trip (for me at least), and everything costing as much as it has, we’ve learned how to keep the traveling as cheap as possible.
I’ve found that a big part of being able to stay super cheap is carrying the right things (or rather, not carrying the wrong things), so I’d like to just give you an idea of what we’ve been carrying. We’ve gone through a good amount of stuff, either throwing or giving it away, and we were lucky to get a chance to send stuff home with John & Gina when they went. So these aren’t the things we’ve had the whole time, but it is what we’ve had for the majority of our travels.
I have 1 pair of shoes. Not even. I have 1/2 of a pair of shoes: a pair of Chaco sandals. The prefect traveling shoe: no socks to get dirty, it doesn’t matter if you step in a puddle, no heavy boots to lug around, they slip on and off if you want, your feet stay well ventilated and not smelling as bad- I could go on for days. I bought them just for this trip and soon saw the glory I had heard about from many. They’re so good that Karl was inspired to pick up his own pair of epic trekking sandals, leaving us both free of the need of socks.
In the clothing department I’ve got three T-shirts, one pair of pants (which zip off into shorts), three pairs of shorts (one that doubles as a swim suit and one that used to be pants but are now cutoffs), a waterproof jacket, some back up underwear, two long-sleeve shirts, and one pair of socks (in case my feet need protection from mosquitoes or the cold). We do laundry about once a month so we have about a week with clean clothes, two weeks with dirty clothes, and a week with unbearable clothes. We certainly get our money’s worth when we finally get around to getting our clothes cleaned.
Besides clothes we don’t have much. A few electronics: I have an ipod and camera (and their respective chargers) and Karl has his laptop. We carry sleep sheets for times that we have to sleep outside or in other places where we would like a bit of protection. The essential toiletries of course (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, contacts and solution, glasses) and a few extras (bug spray, baby powder, pain killers, malaria meds, a first-aid kit, etc.). Some random stuff that has proven to come in handy from time to time (super glue, rubber bands, zip-ties, string, a knife, hand wipes, electrolyte packets). We both carry water bottles but rarely use them to carry water because we don’t trust the local water we’d fill up with.
We’ve got our passports, or course, and we also carry a bunch of books. We had a travel book for South America that was really big and heavy so we were glad to get a digital version for Central America. We also had a Spanish/English dictionary (before trading it) and then lots of other books for pleasure reading. We trade old books for new books whenever we have a chance.
Finally, we carry a few food items. Mostly just mustard and salt, but sometimes ketchup and peanut butter as well. It’s just a few things that can help make snacks and makeshift meals (bananas, crackers, bread, etc.) seem a little more substantial.
Carrying the right stuff helps save money in a few ways. For example, having little enough stuff that we can carry our bags comfortably for a few mile walk (I found out recently my pack weighs about 12 kilos) means we rarely have to pay for taxi rides. With our sleep sheets we tend not to shy away from staying in the cheapest accommodations and our few food items keep us content with cheap snacks from the supermarket instead of the restaurants listed in our tour book.
Of course we’ve found loads of other ways to save money. We learned quickly to always negotiate prices and/or ask for discounts (even on things that supposedly have set prices). We get student discounts here and there, and used to get bulk prices when we were traveling as a bigger group. We’ve often found asking prices to be over twice what the seller would actually accept. It seemed that in Peru and Ecuador we never bought anything for the asking price, although I’m sure we were still paying more than the locals- the gringo tax is a killer. The real trick is to not actually want whatever they’re selling at all- then it doesn’t matter how much it costs, we ain’t buying.
Not holding comfort too highly makes it possible to get much cheaper long-distance bus tickets. I don’t think we ever took a “cama” bus (where the seats lay flat) because there was always a “semicama” option (less comfortable, but much cheaper). We always try to take overnight buses because it saves us the cost of accommodation for a night. Once in a town, we save money by either walking to our destination, like I mentioned (tour book maps have been very helpful in this), or by asking around for which local bus goes where we need. If we do have to break down and take a cab we always try to find someone going the same way to split the cost (and ALWAYS establish the price before going anywhere).
Knowing exchange rates is very helpful in saving money. 1 US Dollar = 18.5 Uruguayan Pesos = 4 Argentine Pesos = 457 Chilean Pesos = 2.7 Peruvian Soles = 7 Bolivian Bolivianos = 3861 Paraguayan Guarani = 1756 Colombian Pesos. Not only can we make sure we’re getting a good rate when changing money, but also when spending the foreign cash, we can know roughly how much it’s costing us in dollars (some countries have their currency tied to the dollar and some accept dollars, so that makes it easier). One tip: make sure that when you exchange money, the guy selling you the local stuff has a calculator that obeys normal multiplication and division laws- we definitely ran into ones that did NOT. We also save a good chunk of change because one of Karl’s checking accounts reimburses him for international ATM use fees. That saves us around $5 per transaction and we have a lot of transactions because carrying large amounts of cash is never a good idea.
When it comes to food and accommodation, there have really been two phases of this trip. In the beginning, through Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, food and accommodation were very expensive. I don’t think we spent less than $10 per person for a night in any of those countries and the most we spent was probably around $20, even with our winning strategy of finding the cheapest, reasonably well rated place on hostel world. Back then we were desperate to camp or crash with friends to save some real cash. We almost never ate out. Instead we would buy food from the supermarket and cook it ourselves in hostel kitchens, one of our criteria in choosing a hostel. We also searched for hostels that had breakfast included. Often it was unlimited food so we’d eat as much as we could, trying to avoid buying lunch (and sometimes even stashing food from the breakfast to eat for lunch- shameless, I know). At one hostel they provided unlimited pancake mix, all you had to do was make the pancakes. I think we had 2 or 3 meals that were pancakes each of the 5 days we were there. We even went to the supermarket just to buy things to put on them.
The second phase started when we moved into Peru and through Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Colombia. I’m not sure we spent over $10 per person to stay a night in any of those countries, and the lowest was definitely under $3 (with a view of Lake Titicaca). Usually, in these countries, eating ‘out’ (meaning, eating the cheapest set meal deal at a family run comedor) was considerably cheaper than what we could cook for ourselves. They just cook in such bulk and sell huge plates of it for so cheap that we can’t compete. We learned that places listed in our tour book and online meant they would have gringo set prices by default. Usually we’d just ask locals to point us in the direction of a high value place.
We always try to avoid activities or tours that we think we’d be disappointed in. It sounds obvious, but often fellow travelers are very excited about a certain excursion just because they opted to do it. We’ve constantly tried to get as much info on things as we can from other travelers, locals, websites like Trip Advisor, etc., to make well informed decisions. And when we decided that a tour, or whatever, would be worth the cost, we usually don’t go with the top named company (as we would be paying for the name) but would put time into searching for a similar quality tour by a lesser known (and therefore much cheaper) company. That strategy has worked for us many times.
In places we went where there wasn’t much to do whether you were willing to pay for it or not, we try to find something free and interesting that we could do on our own. Usually that means picking the highest hill in town (usually with a Christ statue at the top) and hiking up it to get a view of the city and surrounding area. That, timed well with a sunset (free of charge), has made for some very high value evenings.
Finally, staying with friends has proven to be the best way to save money. We haven’t been able to do much Couch Surfing on this trip, though we have tried (usually there isn’t a strong community for it in the towns we visit or we are traveling as too large of a group to accommodate). But our time with Ahkim in Buenos Aires and with Tess and other PCVs in Paraguay saved us loads of money, and of course were amazing good fun because we were with someone who knew the area and the people and we were welcome in the homes of the friends of our friends right away. Yeah, I’d say that’s the simplest way to save money: make friends. If you’ve got friends- hell, you don’t even need money.
More to come soon.