How to Travel on a Budget with Limited Vacation Days

Happy campers on the  Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu . We managed to do it for less than $100!

Happy campers on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. We managed to do it for less than $100!

Travel seems to have this aurora of inaccessibility to it. People tell me they wish they could travel as much as I do, and when I ask them why they don't, the two most common reasons I hear are:

I can't afford it.

I don't have enough vacation days.

It's as simple as this: they are wrong. I am living proof. I don't make a lot of money. I don't have an excess of vacation days (welp, that was until I quit my job… now I have endless!). Yet I am able to fit in a couple of trips a year that are completely on my own time.

I'm going to go through my how-to's on travel. The main aspect of it is being flexible with your plans. I have never thought to myself, "I want to go ____". It all starts with a good flight deal, and I go from there. 

Table of Contents:

  1. Finding a cheap flight

  2. How to make the most of your vacation days

  3. Vacation day hacks: Thanksgiving and Christmas!

  4. Websites for booking accommodation

  5. How to choose the perfect Airbnb or hostel

  6. Choosing a time to travel

  7. Budget transportation and getting around and transportation

  8. My recommended budget-friendly destinations

  9. Finally, a word about prioritizing

finding a cheap flight

As mentioned above, I never have a set destination for travel. I usually find a good flight deal, make sure there is something for me to do there, and book it. To find the best flight, I use Kayak. It searches almost all available flights to/from destinations, and sorts them by price. You can input flexible dates, which will give you the cheapest option +/- 6 days. Skyscanner is also great if you’re looking to book flights around Europe, but I don’t love it for flights within or out of the U.S.

Once I find a good flight deal, I head to the airlines website to book it directly. Sometime this comes out a little cheaper than the prices listed on third-party websites (i.e. Kayak), and it’s more reliable to book direct (especially if you end up needing to make changes to your flight). When booking international flights, I also do a quick search of what other local airlines are charging. Sometimes Kayak doesn't capture local airline rates.

how to make the most of your vacation days

Living and working in the U.S. doesn't really condone itself to lengthy vacations. Many of my friends have 10 vacation days, which is only 2 weeks if you took them back to back. And let’s not even talk about those six weddings you have to travel to this year…

The best way to stretch out your days is to pair them up with public holidays — see below!

vacation day hacks: Thanksgiving and Christmas!

The best weeks of the year to do this are Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years. You can string together a 10 or 12-day vacation using only 3 vacation days! I’ve laid it out plain and simple for the 2018 holidays, here’s how:

Thanksgiving Vacation Hack

In a nutshell: Get a 10 day vacation, and use only 3 vacation days. WHAT WHATTTT.

Friday, November 16th: Leave for vacation in the evening after work.

Friday, November 16th — Sunday, November 25th: Vacayyyyyy!! The majority of people have November 22nd and 23rd off as public holidays, meaning you only need to take three actual “vacation days” (Nov 19, 20, 21).

Sunday, November 25th: Head back home. If possible, you can maximise you time and take a red-eye on Sunday night. This may mean you have to go straight from the airport to work on Monday morning, but hey, that’s why we have coffee.

Christmas + New Year Vacation Hack

In a nutshell: Get a 12 day vacation using only 3-4 vacation days. *drops mic*

Friday, December 21st: Leave for vacation in the evening after work.

Friday, December 21st — Tuesday, January 1st (2019): VacYAYYY!!!! Most companies give December 25th and January 1st off as public holidays. In addition to this, some nicer companies often give the 24th and 31st off. Assuming you get these four days off, you will only need to take three actual “vacation days” (Dec 26, 27, 28). For those of you working at companies stingy on vacation days — I’m sorry. I used to work at one, I get it, and it sucks.

Tuesday, January 1st: Head back home.

websites for booking accommodation

This depends a bit on who I am traveling with, and what my budget is.

When traveling with Matt (my partner) or friends: Airbnb is my preferred choice. It usually has the right price:quality ratio I'm looking for. If you're new to Airbnb, you can use my code to get $40 off your first stay.

When traveling solo: Hostels. I use Hostelworld or Booking to book most of the time. Sometimes these third-party websites list a hostel as being sold out, so it’s worth emailing or Facebook messaging them directly to see if they have room (you also might get a better price by doing this). If you use my Booking.com link to book, you'll receive $25 in Booking credit to be used on a future booking.

how to choose the perfect airbnb or hostel

One word: reviews! Airbnb has a fantastic review system, so you can easily read the reviews for a listing and get a good idea of where you’ll be staying. As a personal rule, I only book Airbnbs with a host that has good reviews.

For hostels, I look at the reviews on the Booking and Hostelworld listings as a starting point. Both these websites only allow you to review if you’ve actually booked a room and stayed there (unlike Tripadvisor, which is easy to fake reviews on). I also check Google reviews, as I find these are reliable and accurate.

choosing a time to travel

After taking into account public holidays, the biggest thing I consider is weather. The last thing you want is to go to a beach in the middle of monsoon season. Check out the average weather and precipitation (rain or snow) for the month you are planning to travel. A great time to visit a place is shoulder season. You can figure this out for any destination with a quick Google search. Shoulder season is that sweet spot when there are less tourists, weather is still good, and the prices are lower.

If you’re contemplating a Patagonia trip, I only suggest two months of the year to visit!  Learn more about when to visit Torres del Paine .

If you’re contemplating a Patagonia trip, I only suggest two months of the year to visit! Learn more about when to visit Torres del Paine.

budget transportation and getting around

The best way to get around will depend on your destination. Here are my tips for a few common transportation modes.

Renting a car: I've found CarRentals.com to have the best prices. I once saved $700 on a car rental in Australia by using this website (even the people at the rental agency were shocked by the price I was paying).

Relying on rideshare: Rideshare is now extremely affordable, and eliminates any additional fees like parking and petrol. My go-to ride share apps are Uber and Lyft. You can also get intercity ride share from newer websites like BlaBlaCar, which links many major European cities.

Bus: My go-to transportation in South America and Europe.

Train: Sometimes this is cheaper than the bus (especially in Central Asia and Eastern Europe). It’s often more comfortable, but the trade off is that it usually takes longer than a bus would.

Flights: Sometimes it can be cheapest to fly. This is often true in Europe, with low-cost carriers offering really low fares, especially if you book a few months in advance. Just make sure you factor in costs like getting to/from the airport and baggage.

Hitchhiking: Depending on the country, hitchhiking can be a fantastic, safe, easy way to get around. And it's free! Countries that I have successfully hitched in are Chile, Georgia, Greece, Turkey, and Albania. While I'm usually with my boyfriend, I've also hitchhiked solo many times with no problems. Just use common sense when choosing to get in a car, and if you don't feel comfortable riding with someone, just say "no thanks" and wait for the next car.

Cuba: I spent $800 for 2 weeks. Check out my guides for Havana, Vinales, Trinidad.

Brazil: Rio de Janeiro. And don’t be worried about safety, it felt completely safe when we traveled there.

Chile: While it’s a relatively expensive South Amercian country to travel in, you can easily make your trip cheaper by camping and spending more time in nature. I managed to hike in Torres del Paine for $25/day for over a week — which is ridiculously cheap considering a tour can cost in the thousands $$$! Check out my guide to hiking the O-Circuit.

Peru: My daily budget was $25/day after spending six weeks backpacking and hiking. One of the biggest things we saved on was doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu without a guide. Our cargo ship journey through the Amazon was a standout experience, and also cost us about $50 USD for 3-days (included accommodation, meals, everything!).

Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state): Hands down the cheapest country I have ever travelled to. My daily budget after travelling in Georgia for over a month was $19/day.

Turkey: Just a tad more expensive than Georgia, my daily average spend was $22.

Bolivia: I travelled in Bolivia for three weeks and my daily budget was $25. The only downside is that a visa is $160 USD for U.S. citizens (for almost all other countries, it’s free).

finally, a word about prioritizing

There is always going to be an excuse you can conjure up not to travel. It has to become a priority, something you actively seek to do. With the vacation day and budget hacks above, I hope I’ve given you a few less excuses to fall back onto. Travel is something that I’ve prioritized in my life, and I genuinely think it makes me a better person on the other side.

Have a travel hack you think we missed? Or a favorite budget-friendly destination we need to visit? Share it with us below or @nutritiontraveller!

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Post updated on September 14, 2018.