For those who haven’t travelled abroad, they usually have two basic misconceptions about foreign travel. First, they grossly overestimate the difficulty of it. The other misconception is that it is expensive. However, neither one of these assumptions are valid. This discussion leads to my perspective when defining a budget traveler, a term that would have three different definitions if you were to ask three different people.
With the advancement of technology in an increasingly globalizing world, traveling abroad has become easier than ever. In about 7 hours, I can go from New York City to London on a plane that has Wi-Fi capability, leather seats, and a collection of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. In addition, while countries in the developed world (i.e. United States, United Kingdom, Japan) have always been prime destinations for international travel, tourism has emerged as a competitive industry in many developing countries looking to diversify their economies. Even the most remote villages in Laos have one or two homestays looking for curious tourists to host. In addition to the informal economic emergence, many governments have established sophisticated tourism bureaus that have offices throughout the country providing everything from detailed country maps to language-specific guides. There is also the private sector as there are hundreds of companies offering specialized tours that take care of every detail from transportation to providing lunches to customers. It is now possible for someone who has never travelled abroad to go to a country like Honduras (which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for attracting Western tourists) and not have to speak Spanish or use local public transportation.
The other misconception involves the cost of traveling abroad. The misconception regarding the cost comes from two sources. First, most people travel using their disposable income or money that they have saved up. Unless you are a full-time traveler, your financial responsibilities in your home country don’t stop just because you decided to take a two-week vacation to Cancun. On top of the $160 (per person) kayaking excursion, you still have to pay that month’s mortgage, cable bill, and car note. The other basis of misconception is HOW people travel. You may be the hardworking person at your job, but when you are on vacation you inherently become lazy. It is understandable given that most people are only given 2 weeks a year to decompress and get away. However, it is that laziness that in the end will hurt your wallet. Everyone from 5-star hotel chains to grassroot tour companies are waiting to take advantage of your laziness for their own financial gain. What is not mentioned in my above example is that trip to Honduras where you won’t have to speak Spanish or use public transportation could easily cost you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. Service is a premium industry and while you may be comfortable riding in an airconditioned shuttle across the country, know that you are most likely paying 1000% over the local price to do so. It is your own fault if you are breaking the bank to go on a two-week vacation.
This leads me into the main point of this post……. How do you define a budget traveler? The internet is full of bloggers (including myself) that readily define themselves as budget travelers. First, the word budget is a relative turn because we all come from different socio-economic backgrounds. A first-term university student traveling through Europe on holiday has a drastically different financial portfolio than a mid-career professional looking to spend a gap year in Central America. Many bloggers get so caught up in the financial aspect of being a budget traveler that they only appeal to the narrow base that matches their financial background. I define budget in a more practical sense, in that it means being controlled in your finances whether you have $1000 or $100,000 in your bank account. In fact, some of the riches people in the world have admitted to being extremely frugal. Being a budget traveler requires discipline. It is setting a financial limit and sticking within that boundary whether you are traveling for three weeks or three months. It DOES NOT mean you have to force yourself to stay in low-priced hostels or avoid doing any activity that cost money. That is not being a budget traveler, that is just being cheap. I’ve stayed in 5-star resorts despite being a self-professed budget traveler.
Being a budget traveler also requires hard work and intelligence on the travelers’ part. As pointed out above, travel agencies and tour companies make a living off of people’s laziness. I myself have used a travel agency and can attest to the fact that you pay a premium for the convenience (you can read the post here). You often literally must go the extra mile to stay within your budget. For example, sometimes you won’t find a good deal for a hotel on Booking.com and actually requires that you physically walk an area to find economical alternatives. It also involves intelligence to know what activities you need a guide and which ones you can do on your own. While guides may be required for longer hikes or dangerous excursion, do you really need to hire a tour operator to take you snorkeling at the beach? It is being able to make sensible decisions after conducting the appropriate research that makes a budget traveler stand out.
In conclusion, being a true budget traveler is not about being able to brag to your friend about saving X amount of dollars while traveling through X country. Rather, it is about being able to maximize your travel experience at minimum cost. This is achieved by knowing your financial limits, setting budget to that matches it, and staying within that boundary during your trip WHILE doing as much as possible to experience the culture of the country you are visiting.