Have you and a platonic friend ever tried to convince a hostel owner to let you share a single bed? Have you ever walked more than 20 minutes out of your way to save a few pennies on bottled water? Have you ever stubbornly hitchhiked for hours instead of paying US$2.50 in bus fare, or bragged about spending a month in Italy without shelling out for a single restaurant meal?
If so, you may have Tightwaditis. At one time or another nearly everyone has committed, or at least seriously considered, a ridiculous act to save a few travel bucks. Perspectives change when you’re on the road. The few bucks you'd absentmindedly pay for coffee and a muffin at home can, in some places, feel like a total rip-off for a perfectly good three-course meal. But the locals don’t pay that much! you whine. Yeah, and the locals make US$400 a year. And they probably don’t eat in restaurants.
Budget travel doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean living on bread and jam, sleeping at the bus station and playing bongos on the promenade for spare change. Sure, watch your spending, but don’t let compulsive penny-pinching detract from properly absorbing your destination.
Overnight buses, periodic self-catered meals and Couchsurfing are common knowledge tips at this stage. Here’s a few additional tips for saving money without resorting to cheapskate tactics and hobo living:
Can you drink the water? Obviously this depends on where you are and how sensitive your stomach is, but I’m frequently dismayed to see travellers thoughtlessly buying water in places where the tap water is potable.
Splurge on lunch, not dinner. My facial tic gets just a little worse every time I hear about people spending time in foodie destinations and eating nothing but fruit and kebabs. If you don't eat a few proper meals in Italy (or France, Japan, Argentina, wherever), you'll miss out on a defining part of that destination. Admittedly, the expense of sit-down meals adds up fast, so instead of blowing the equivalent for a private hostel room on dinner, blow the equivalent for a hostel dorm bed on lunch. Fancy lunches are almost always less expensive than dinners.
Stay outside of expensive cities. In places like Venice and Salzburg you gotta spend at least one night in the centre to absorb the atmosphere, but you can save a bundle by staying just outside of town the rest of the time. Just be mindful of transport costs from outer areas - in some instances they might erase your savings.
Book as you go. Booking things like sightseeing, ongoing transport and even accommodation is nearly always less expensive when you do it in-country as opposed to booking in advance from home.
Travel in pairs. There are many advantages (and some disadvantages) to long-term travel as a couple. Frequently double rooms are the same price or only slightly more expensive than single rooms. Also, you and your companion can share meals.
Avoid service charges. Exchanging cash or traveller’s cheques is the quickest way to devalue your funds. Stick to plastic, particularly cash cards as ATMs always offer the best exchange rate. However, credit cards with foreign transaction fees and banks that charge exorbitant ATM fees can chip away at your funds as well. Do the leg work to find a bank with reasonable foreign ATM fees and apply for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
The guidebook gambit. A strong anti-guidebook subculture has developed in recent years. I’m talking to you, I-prefer-unverified-online-information people. Nothing stings like losing money on things like easily avoidable scams so many of my guidebooks have paid for themselves and then some just by heeding the 'Dangers & Annoyances' sections, which is why I’ll be using them until foreign mobile phone data roaming charges are eliminated - and probably beyond.
Leif Pettersen has authored multiple books for Lonely Planet. He developed mystical travel and anti-aging superpowers after he was struck by lightning in 1888. He does not actually have a facial tic. Yet.