For my upcoming book about trying to visit Kiva and other microfinance clients in the field, I traveled around the world with side trips on five continents, visiting destinations both frequently touristed (Cusco, Siem Reap, Cebu) and less so (Sarajevo, Kigali, Chennai). Given that any $25 saved could be rolled into more loans, conserving money while traveling safely was a major consideration.
With no pretense of presenting a comprehensive guide to budget travel, and acknowledging that others will have different preferences, here are a few things that helped me keep things cheap, safe and sane:
What to pack
As close to nothing as you can imagine. If you're checking a bag, you're doing it wrong. I've been all the way around the world three times now without checking a bag: backpack, sport jacket, camera or computer bag, done. Unless your job requires bulky yet essential equipment -- perhaps you're a golfer, supermodel, band roadie, or all of the above -- checking a bag means you've brought too much stuff. Light travel is happy travel. Go full-on Buddhist here. Release your possessions, at least onto the floor of your living room, and cut down to the bone.
Get it all down to carry-ons, and you'll save fees, energy, and hours at baggage carousels. Plus, no airline can ever lose anything of yours again, and packing for the next destination becomes a breeze. Once your personal inventory becomes familiar, you'll never again have a nagging feeling of having left something behind.
Skip the foreign currency packets, traveler's checks, and so on. ATMs connected to international banking networks have become ubiquitous virtually anywhere you're likely to visit, and you'll get a favorable interbank exchange rate as well. Check the destination airport's website in advance if you want to feel certain, but there's probably an ATM you can use right after customs.
Electrical adapters are easy, too. Cheap all-in-one units the size of a soap cake are easy to buy online, and they work nearly everywhere (South Africa being the main giant-pronged exception). I pack two and a small U.S. multi-plug, and I never worry. Laptops, cameras, and other small electronics are designed to work internationally on nearly any supply you're likely to encounter. (Again, check ahead if you have any concern.) Certain items like hairdryers need special adapters, but if you're bringing a hairdryer, you're reading the wrong article.
Bottom line, here's my basic packing list: socks and undies in quantity, plus outerwear I can layer. Sunscreen, insect repellent, sun hat. Shorts that double as swim trunks. Foldable mosquito net, depending on destination. (This is the size of a CD travel case.) Maybe a light rain shell, crushed mercilessly into the bottom of the pack, again depending on destination. Toothbrush, floss, razor, travel meds (see below), thermometer. Electrical adapters and multi-plug. Laptop computer. (I prefer to bring an old one, stripped of all data except basic software.) Earphones and basic computer cables (Ethernet still comes in handy sometimes). Digital camera with extra batteries, memory cards, and charger. ATM and credit cards. Vaccination card and travel health insurance info. Earplugs and sleep mask. Pages from guidebooks, ripped from their spines to save weight and volume. Ballpoint pens. Small black moleskine notebooks for doodling or sharing ideas or drawing maps for a stranger. And, of course, my passport.
And we're off to the airport...
Bob's stuff-- all of it --in the Beijing airport during a 2008 round-the-world trip: one sport jacket atop a backpack and computer bag.
I'm not savvy enough about credit scores to know how many readers can even try this, nor how many will savage their credit if they do (mine may be toast, for all I know) -- but anytime a bank or airline has wanted to give me tens of thousands of free air miles, I've taken them. Some airline credit cards offer 40,000 miles or more just for signing up, making some low threshold of purchases, and paying a small annual fee comparable to the cab fare to the airport for your first trip.
I must have burned through half a dozen of these while writing the book, but it paid off in thousands of dollars of saved airfare. When I visited Cambodia in 2011, I first flew from LAX to Tokyo for 20,000 miles and $102.50 in fees on one major U.S. carrier, then continued down to Singapore for just 10,000 miles and $30.90 in fees on another. A short hop on a Singapore-based airline got me to Phnom Penh for just under $120. Total price, Los Angeles to Cambodia: less than I usually spend flying home to Ohio.
Be flexible about routing, and for long journeys, figure out how to cross the ocean first and work backwards. When I needed to get back to the U.S. from Lebanon, for example, I first searched for the cheapest transatlantic fare regardless of departure city. At the time, this was Barcelona-JFK for just 10,000 miles and $85 in fees. So now I just needed to get cheaply from Beirut to Barcelona -- a simple task, given the competitive market for discount air travel all over Europe. (Check out whichbudget.com for matching any two cities.) It took about 10 minutes to find a cheap one-way to Barcelona on Czech Airlines via Prague; I wound up getting to New York more cheaply from Lebanon than I often do from California.
Prepare to believe some incredible deals you may come across. Singapore, Bangkok, London, and several other cities are remarkably competitive markets that often feature did-I-see-that-right fares. I've twice traveled round-the-world from England for under $2,000, including taxes and fees. (The Great Escapade is a great place to start.)
That said, deals like these are often on airlines that many Americans may not feel familiar with. No worries -- just check the airline safety records yourself, so you can stay off the planes that fall down and go boom. Generally speaking, flying abroad is as safe and often more comfortable than flying in the U.S.
Most of all, be ready for pleasant surprises. On the Sharjah-to-Nairobi route, Air Arabia followed a long echoing prayer to Allah with reruns of Pinky and the Brain.
"Pinky and the Brain" on Air Arabia (note the Arabic script on the seat back).
Getting around locally
On the other hand, don't cut corners on local transport. Spend the money for a train, bus, scheduled van, or taxi over smaller, more vulnerable vehicles like mototaxis and tuk-tuks. The price difference may seem substantial, but the safety difference is more so. As a rule, if your knees are accessible to traffic, the dollar you're saving is not worth it.
I always carry a small notebook and ballpoint pen. This has a million uses: besides simple note-taking and address-sharing, I've gotten taxi rides to monuments simply by drawing them; passed hours with seatmates with no shared language just by drawing maps of our respective hometowns, diagrams of our family trees, and simple doodles of the people around us. I even once navigated a complex ride to a hospital by asking a neighbor to write its name in the local script, then showing it as needed along the way.
Learn the name of a major landmark near where you're staying. In some cities, this may be more useful for getting home than any address, cross street, or even the name of the hotel or guesthouse. If it's a famous statue, tower, bordello, sports arena, or sacred shrine that everyone knows, you will never have trouble finding your way home.
When something like this is just a few blocks from your hotel, even a simple facial expression may help a cabbie get you home.
Where to stay
One personal preference is finding a locally owned, perhaps family-run hotel where I can feel more hopeful that my dollars are staying in the country for a while. (International chains may return much of their income back to a corporate mothership in Europe or America, doing less for the local economy than one might hope.) Compared to the big internationally branded hotels, these may also only charge about half as much for the same accommodation.
Some very nice options in many developing countries may not be on major travel search engines yet. If you're curious but unsure how to proceed, just book something conventional for the first few nights, and then ask around. You may soon find a deal that is better both for you and for the people you're visiting.
This is why the gods gave us Skype. For years, I traveled with a four-band Motorola Razr that was compatible with at least one local frequency virtually anywhere on the planet, all enabled by a cheap worldwide calling plan on T-Mobile, but it just stopped being necessary. It's still a good idea to have a phone of some sort in case of emergency, and the cheap, ubiquitous, easy-to-SIM-switch Razr is still a surprisingly useful choice. If you have some brilliant roaming plan on your iPhone or whatever, more power to you. But me, I just Skype now.
Get your shots. Do not screw around. Check with a tropical disease specialist and/or the CDC to make sure you're immunized for your destination, and if not, get on it. For malarial areas, make sure you have the proper prophylaxis for the region (regimens vary) and take it without fail In areas where other insect-borne diseases (dengue, etc.) are endemic, keep exposed skin to a minimum and wear appropriate repellent.
My doctor always sends me overseas with filled prescriptions of two kinds of antibiotics along with guidelines on when to begin their use if necessary. This has saved my kiester a couple of times. Highly recommended.
The sun is a mighty god to be feared. Do not mess with tropical or high-altitude sun if you're not used to it. Keep your head covered and your skin screened. When applying both sunscreen and mosquito repellent, sunscreen goes on first, that bug repellent layer goes on the outside, facing the bugs.
Basic food and water hygiene are well covered by many travel websites. Study up, and follow the rules religiously. It only took me one slip-up in China to turn an entire week into Crouching Tourist, Shooting Dragons.
Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet will range from pretty nice to downright wonderful. Still, trust your instincts. People are people. If your spidey sense kicks up, trust it and remove yourself from the situation.
If you do ever find yourself in a mugging situation, surrender your goods pleasantly, without showing fear, then attempt to exit as casually as possible. If you have packed properly, every item in your possession can be easily replaced. Your internal organs are another matter.
Customs, as in the national-boundaries kind
Have your visa card, control stamp, entry or exit paperwork, or whatever else the bureaucracy wants from you ready in advance. If there's a fee on arrival, make sure they'll accept the currency you're carrying or you may find a rare exception to the don't-need-currency-in-advance rule.
If you're planning on smuggling anything -- booze, pot, a fragment of some historic relic, an enchanted monkey's paw, anything -- please stop reading right now and hit yourself repeatedly around the eyebrows with a ball-peen hammer.
If a customs officer wants to confiscate something, let them. Consider it an official mugging, and play by the same rules as above. Protest lightly if you must, with a smile and an explanation -- no, good officer in Beirut, my computer security cable which has traveled uneventfully to 23 countries cannot be used to throttle a pilot into submission, despite your feverish lunacy -- but after that, let it go. You can buy more stuff a lot more easily than you can buy your way out of trouble.
Customs, as in the personal-boundaries kind
If you forget whether it's appropriate to bow, kneel, remove shoes, or self-flagellate on Tuesdays, no worries: just ask. It's really that simple. When in doubt, just cop to being a visitor, express your desire to be respectful, and ask with friendly humility. In my experience, the response has ranged from patient helpfulness to flattered delight.
Learn the basic greetings (including any gender-specific phrasing), plus the words for "please," "thank you," and so on before you even think about setting foot in somebody's country. It's just polite, and even if it's all you learn, and you spend weeks roaming the countryside saying "hello, thank you, please, hello, thank you, please, hello," people will at least be entertained.
Beyond those phrases, if there's a language barrier you just can't cross, enjoy the puzzle. The person on the other side may well join you in a group activity of navigating the barrier. Get out your notebook and start to draw. Pictionary is international.
To avoid accidental offense in gesturing: few cultures frown on keeping your hands close to your body, and most gestures that can cause trouble involve individual digits going in directions considered offensive. Solution: y'know the stiff-fingered paddle-hand gestures that airline crews use during pre-takeoff safety briefings? That's pretty safe. Find a way to gesture "I'd like to buy this item" or "is your taxi free?" with flat hands and an open facial expression, and you'll rarely give accidental offense. (With practice, you may even go long stretches needing little verbal language at all.)
Also keep your hands from touching other people until you know the local ground rules. Some cultures aren't particularly keen on menfolk and womenfolk even talking outside certain circumstances. A friendly American hand on the shoulder may be a major faux pas. When in doubt, again, sincerely asking is a demonstration of your respectful intent. Honest curiosity -- "is this a bow or a handshake moment?" -- usually buys friendly laughter and a ton of social breathing room.
Keep your feet to yourself, too. Pay attention to where your shoes and the soles of your feet are supposed to go. This isn't just an Arab or an Asian thing; minding your shoes and keeping the soles of your feet out of view is a good habit pretty much anywhere.
Finally, good-natured patience and genuine interest in your hosts are your two most important pieces of travel equipment.
Pack these first, double-check that you have them at all times, and you'll rarely go wrong.