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Cheap Travel Not Just to Save Money

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FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- To a certain extent, I am missing the plot when I write travel tips about saving money. Traveling cheap means nothing if it is not fully enjoyed — the Hobo Traveler calls this the prime directive of the occupation, the goal of traveling is to enjoy it.

Not even a low budget should get in between a traveler and this objective.

In point, it means nothing to save a bundle of money by purchasing a “seat less” ticket for a train ride across China if you don’t fully enjoy the experience of standing crammed into the area between the cars hanging out with a bunch of poor Chinese chain smoking cigarettes, laying all over each other, laughing, and joking. I buy these ultra low price train tickets in China not because I am cheap but because I enjoy the experience of traveling in this way. I like traveling close to the people of the country I am in, and there are far more opportunities for conversation riding “wu-zuo” on a Chinese train than paying out the money for a private berth or any other seating option in between.

There is a little rule in travel: the cheaper you go the closer contact you will tend to have with the people whose country you are traveling in. If you travel the world like a rich person, or as foreigner using foreigner transport methods, you will more than likely pass through the world as if in a bubble; if you travel like a poor man, you will meet other poor men to talk with.

Perhaps this was the premise of Harry Franck’s Vagabond Journey Around the World:

Were I permitted
an avocation it would be the study of social conditions; what surer way of gaining vital knowledge of modern society than to live and
work among the world’s workmen in every clime?

To meet the people of the world, you need to drop out of the tourist bubble. This is easy to do: take the cheapest options for everything possible, eat where the working men eat, stay out of backpacker bars, choose local hotels over hostels, work, trade work for accommodation/ food, rent rooms in student apartment buildings, move through the world as the people do who live where you travel.

Stay on the ground, it is where the people are.

Traveling cheap is not only to save money, it is to meet people.

A traveler from a rich country will always be referred to as a rich man, no matter how poverty stricken they try to look, no matter how cheap they try to travel. The concept of poor Americans does not exist in most of the world. The goal of traveling poor is not to convince people that you, too, are poor — looking shabby is just a testament of your character, not your economic class — but it is to put yourself in a position to see, observe, meet people, feel places at ground level.

Jumping from tourist shuttle to hostel to backpacker bar to tourist shuttle may be fun — if this is what you are after — but this is to take a Disney World tour of the world. Most travelers seem to only want the Disney World tour, and this is alright by me — I don’t care where you find the prime directive of travel. But the prime directive of my travels is to be shocked, to learn, to feel uncomfortable, to be stimulated, on the edge, navigating places, navigating people, doing the work of traveling is fun for me. This is what I am in it for.

I read A Vagabond Journey Around the World when I was young. The author’s modus operandi was to travel without money, working his way around the world, for the purpose of completing a social experiment: to meet the people of the world. And he did. If Harry Franck traveled as a tourist and was shuttled around to the sites of the world there would not have been a book in it, there would have been no experiment, probably not even a story. He would probably just squandered his great linguistic ability arguing with tour guides and shopkeepers the entire time. Rather, Franck wrote a record of what life was like on the ground, in the villages, behind closed doors, on the back roads of the world.

To do this, he had to travel as a poor man, he had to travel cheap.

I have written before that wealth and adventure in travel are inversely proportional — the more money you are willing to spend the less true adventure you will have, “adventure” tourism is all too often anything but. Adventure means that you are in a precarious situation of which you are not completely sure of the outcome. A tour is not an adventure because you know that you are going to be taken back to your hotel at the end of the day, bungee jumping is not an adventure because you know that you are not really going to spat on the ground.

“Adventure only happens when things go wrong.”

The above quote was the sole redeeming factor of a rather fluffy book that I once read the beginning of ten years ago in Ecuador. I have carried this line with me, it is true: adventure needs unknown variables, adventure needs a plan that is broken, adventure needs something to go wrong. Humans perhaps crave adventure for its stimulation purposes, when things go wrong your mind jumpstarts itself and you must come up with a way to make things right again. Adventures are challenging, and humans seem to crave being challenged. We want to see what we are made of.

The cheaper you travel, the more adventure you are bound to have. I spend around $5 a day traveling in Europe on a bicycle. The little adventures that come from this are endless: riding as fast as you can through a web of highways outside Budapest, hiding from the cops as you hide in the bushes after being caught camping on the sly in the Czech Republic, having your back wheel fall off in the middle of nowhere, spending a perfect night on a tarp listening to owls hoot in a rather eerie Portugal forest, sleeping out on countless beautiful beaches, being chased out of a forest camping spot by creeping Gypsies, riding happily around an Eastern European lake just to turn a bend and find your bicycle surrounded by 100 fat, completely naked old sunbathers, parking your bike in a hostel’s stairwell and taking the work as it comes. I have had priceless experiences as the consequence of traveling dirt cheap. And this is not even to mention hitchhiking across Japan, China, or tramping through the mountains of India.

I can go on all day with precious experiences that I would not have had if I paid out the money to always travel as a regular tourist.

Why? Because they are paying money for comfort, they are paying money to hamstring adventure — they don’t want things to go wrong. Many guests who leave the Finca Tatin hope that their bus takes them across the country on time, according to schedule — even though they stand to take away a much more lasting experience if something went wrong. I remember the bus ride in Ecuador that was halted have way through in the middle of the night by a road block just because something went wrong, I remember that train out of Calcutta that crashed into a dump truck for the same reason.

It is fun to interact with people when something goes wrong.

As the mantra of Halliburton goes, “Discretion is nothing but an unwooable old maid, I much prefer to woo folly.”

It is far easier to woo folly by traveling cheap.

You will learn far more about a country by walking through the countryside, trading work for room and board on farms than by speeding by, jumping from city to city, in an express bus.

This is a given.

The goal of many of these tips that I publish here seem to be ways to save some cash, but they are also ways to “woo folly,” to meet people, to put yourself in a position to take away the most memories and build the most experience from your travels. The root word of travel is “travail,” and, like so, traveling is best when it challenges, when it grows some teeth, when you need to use your skill, your wit, to navigate the highways and paths of the world.

Traveling cheap allows you to obtain a feeling a self sufficiency, to know that you are earning your keep. Cheap travel often means doing work for yourself, cooking your own food, booting your own transportation, making your own shelter, earning your keep on the road. Earning your keep feels good, paying people to do everything for you for long periods of time dulls the mind, it allows the limbs to atrophy. It is my impression that the Self craves fending for the Self, I know that I feel better when I work at my own upkeep throughout the day — when I pedal a bicycle a long distance, cook my own meals, do my own laundry, actively make my own money — than I do just paying someone to do everything for me. The worse fate for me would be a life of luxury, a life removed from obtaining my own sustenance, a life where earning my keep is replaced by paying for it.

If someone was to offer me a million dollars I would of course take it. Though I feel strongly that the structure of my days would change very little. I live the way that I do because I want to, because I enjoy it, not because I have to, or because I am incessantly cheap. I argue with taxi drivers over price because it is a challenge, I barter hard in markets because this is an aspect of culture that I do not want to miss, I don’t let people rip me off because I respect them, I respect myself, and I demand to be respected in turn.

If my pockets were loaded with an endless supply of cash, a large part of the prime directive of travel would be lost for me — traveling would lose a large part of its luster. I believe that people are programmed to feel better and to be happier when active, productive, working for something. Traveling cheap provides you with an avenue to work for your upkeep.

I am not just working at the Finca Tatin to save money. It is beneficial that I get room and board in exchange for working, it is good that my entire family is living on around $2 a day, but this is not our prime directive for being here: we are here because we want to live in the jungle of Guatemala, we want to meet the people who live here, we want to make friends, we want to find out how people live here, learn a little something about other ways of living, and to have a good and solid place for our baby to enjoy her days, too.

So although the drive to conserve our funds may have brought us to working at the Finca Tatin — to make or save money is the main intent behind working any job — but the ulterior benefits are worth far more than the money we save. By working, through earning our keep, we are being shown an aspect of how people live on planet earth that we would have been able to see as paying guests who are just passing through.

Traveling cheap is not just to save money

Filed under: Travel Tips | Save Money to Travel | Make Money to Travel

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Filed under: Adventure, Budget Travel, Money, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap