The Beauty (and the Beasts) of Budget Traveling

March 13, 2013, In: Asia, Backpacking, Travel
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Traveling sucks.  Being in beautiful places is great. Seeing new things is amazing. But the actual act of “going” to them can really suck. When we meet new people they often ask, “Are you traveling or are you on holiday?” There is a big difference. Most Americans are on “holiday” (we call it vacation), mostly due to our work schedules. Most of the other people we meet, especially between the ages 18-35,  are “traveling”.

There is a distinct difference between those who are traveling and those on holiday. The most obvious difference, is the length of time people are going to be on the road, but the other- and one that affects the way people are traveling is budget. People on holiday often fly to a location, with a hotel pre-booked, settle in, and enjoy the week(s) they are away. When you have a longer period of time, however, you may find yourself opting for buses, trains, even minivans to save a few dollars.

When you only have a limited time, it’s worth spending a few extra bucks to make it as easy, seamless and enjoyable as possible. Trust me, it’s how I prefer to travel when on holiday. In travel mode, we rarely book places in advance, opting to strap on our backpacks and navigate the streets looking for prices we can negotiate. I have been lucky on this trip to stay mostly in hostels, only splurging on hotels every once in a while. Some people opt to do it even cheaper by trading work for room and board. My best friend actually spent a year traveling New Zealand doing help exchange, working in a surf school, as a cook, as a nanny, etc.

I am beyond blessed to have the opportunity to take this trip, but for those who have glamorized it and assume that I am globe trotting in style- let me clear that up really quickly!

Right now, I am sitting by a polluted river, waiting a for a ferry that is not scheduled to come for almost 5 hours. I am here because the travel agent who sold us “overnight” bus tickets, said our bus would arrive here around 6 a.m. and we would hop on a ferry at 7 a.m. (I’m not sure why I still believe anything  these travel agents tell me, but every time for some reason, I think it will be different.) Well, we got here at 2:50 a.m., so we have some time to kill until the ferry gets here. Having slept for about half an hour, I am not in the best mood of my life. We are camped out listening to the chorus of mosquitoes and the buzzing of fluorescent lights above us that make us prime targets for these bird-sized bloodsuckers.

There are easier ways we could have gotten here, that would not have left us sitting at a deserted ferry dock for hours. We could have flown for $150, but that option never crossed our minds. For a moment, we debated booking an overnight first-class train ticket, which is actually not nearly as expensive as you might guess (the story of Thailand). For about $70 we could have booked a private sleeper car. But again, we decided that the option was a little too indulgent and pricey.

Over here, taking a $30 bus and saving that $40 can mean accommodation for several nights. For the length of time I am traveling- budgeting is worth it. In the moment before we book our tickets, I always reason: “It’s forty bucks. Let’s just do it and get a good night’s sleep!” But now that I am sitting at the ferry stop, cranky as I might have been when we got dropped off here,  I remember all the good things about budget traveling. We go beyond meeting each other- we get to know each other. There is a mentality among travelers that we are all in this together. We all know that we could do it easier, but we have made the choice to do it this way. And let’s be honest, there is nothing like a shared negative experience to bring people together. So maybe the reason we all seem to get so close is because of these 2:50 a.m. drop-offs, in the middle of nowhere, with none of us knowing what the heck is going on. When we were woken up and directed to get off that bus, not one person was excited about it. But we dealt with it. We Rolled With It.

Ferry Stop

Right now we are all sitting on our packs, or laying on the ground, exchanging horror stories about past transportation nightmares- because we have all had them. About 30 meters away from me there is a group of people who have never met before, rocking out to Jason Mraz on a guitar that just magically appeared from someone’s pack. A few minutes ago the port opened, and people started lining up, offering to buy coffee, oreos and beer (an eclectic assortment we have here!) for the friends they made only hours ago.

While I was in Australia a few weeks ago, I phoned Andy, an Australian friend I’d met back in 2007 in a hostel dorm in London. He is currently still living in London, but I knew that wouldn’t be a problem. I told him I was staying near Sydney and was looking for cheap accommodation. Within hours he had a list of friends I could stay with, including his parents, who live on the coast about an hour north of Sydney. I emailed them immediately and a few days later they welcomed me into their home with arms outstretched.

Me and Andy Collage

That is what I love about budget traveling. It’s rare to make that kind of long-lasting bond with strangers when you are on holiday, keeping to yourself and enjoying the convenience of your own hotel rooms. It’s worth noting that Andy has also let me and my friend Kevin (whom he’d never met) stay with him a few years ago in London. The following year, Andy spent a week with me in the States a few years ago and then traveled north staying with our friend (from the 2007 trip) in Georgia and then Kevin in Chicago. He housed my friend Ben (whom he had met once during his stay in Florida) in London when Ben visited. He met up with Kevin in Germany last and plans to visit him again this year in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day.

With Friends and Andy Collage
What goes around comes around. The more you travel, the more you can. The relationships you make on the road, especially when you have a pack strapped to your back, defy space and time.

I’ll rephrase my first sentence. Traveling doesn’t suck. Transportation sucks. Especially unreliable transportation. Traveling is hard- but it’s worth every headache.

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    • Jennifer Jones
    • March 15, 2013
    Reply

    Your stories always leave me wanting more!

  4. Reply

    i’m a cheapskate when it comes to vacationing and traveling. i’ve stayed in some pretty plain jane b&b’s, motels, hotels in the U.S. just to save money. hey, the Westside YMCA right on Central Park in NYC is the tiniest, ratties one yet, but it had the cleanest sheets of any hotel i’ve ever stayed in! i could see myself doing exactly the same things just to save a few dollars! hey, every dollar counts! then treat yourself to something nice later with all that money you saved!

    • Aunt Patty
    • March 13, 2013
    Reply

    You continue to entertain us with your wit, your resilience and your anecdotes. It’s fantastic that you are taking advantage of this opportunity! Love, Aunt Patty

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In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.
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