People often ask me how I travel so much. The answer is very simple: work, save, travel, repeat. I certainly didn’t work 14 hour days at camp or bus tables until midnight for nothing. I prioritized, planned, and saved to travel, and haven’t looked back. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on top of a mountain in the Arctic Circle watching the sunset in the distance, and thought back to a night this time last year where I was working late, scrubbing guacamole and congealed nacho cheese off a table at a local restaurant in the Boston neighborhood I used to call home. Suddenly it was worth it.
It takes a lot of careful planning and research, but traveling, and traveling well, in your twenties is possible. You do need to be willing to spend money, but there are plenty of ways to see the world on a budget, which is why doing your research is so important.
Because people often ask about my “big secret” to traveling so much, I’ve compiled a list of ways to see the world like a local and on a budget:
- Go to school abroad- If you have to go to school to progress in your career path, go abroad. There are plenty of programs ranging from two weeks, to one semester, to one year, to entire degrees at universities abroad (fear not, most schools accept FAFSA). There isn’t a major you could study that can’t benefit from an academic experience abroad. Don’t use your credits or lab requirements as an excuse. It’s always possible. The great thing about going to a foreign university is that you get to experience a new academic system, new culture, and sometimes a new language. Also, your host university is probably a lot closer to all the action than your home university, so it’s quick and easy to escape to Budapest for a long weekend if you’d like and still be on time for class the next morning.
- Look for flight deals and one-ways- Looking at flights can be overwhelming when there are so many different websites offering the “lowest fare.” My starting point is always Google Flights because it is a very simple platform without crazy popup ads. Europe has plenty of “budget” airlines that offer cheaper than cheap airfare around the continent. Some of the airlines have even ventured to North America. If you don’t mind no-frills traveling, you can go transatlantic for under $200, provided you supply your own food, water, and entertainment for the journey. My other recommendation when it comes to flying with budget airlines is to travel only with a carry-on. The tickets are so cheap because they usually charge an arm and a leg to check bags (this isn’t true for all budget carriers though), so invest in a good sized backpack and test its limits with how much you can stuff inside.
- Hostels- Staying in hostels is a fantastic way to travel cheaply and meet people from all over the world. I’ve hardly ever paid more than $10/night to stay in a hostel and have had a wide range of experiences. I’ve met some incredible people, taken some horrible showers, and learned how to adequately stuff a duvet in the dark from the top bunk. At the end of the day, it’s part of the adventure, a place to sleep, and store your backpack. The exciting thing about hostels is that you literally never know what you’re going to get. Some have breakfast and towels included in the price, others offer pub crawls, walking tours, and bikes for hire. I recently stayed in a hostel in Tallinn that offered free “Welcome Beer”. Always be sure to check out the reviews before booking, and make location a top priority if you’re traveling solo.
- Cook In- Another great accommodation alternative is Airbnb. You can usually rent an entire flat or a room in a flat right in the heart of town! I pretty much stayed in a hallway in Tromsø, but it couldn’t have been more perfect. I also know someone who’s Airbnb ended up being a beanbag chair, so be sure to read reviews before booking. The great thing about staying in an Airbnb is that you have access to a kitchen, which means you can save money by cooking instead of eating out. Some people think this defeats the purpose of traveling and exploring local cuisine, but I tend to disagree. Have you ever grocery shopped in a foreign language? Still not convinced? Check out this article.
- Public Transit- Did you know that public transportation in Estonia is free for all citizens? Or that Budapest has the second oldest metro system in the world? I adore public transportation so much that I have an evolving rank of cities with the best. Taking public transportation to and from the airport and around town is the best way to see a city like a local. It can be challenging at times because every city has its own norms when it comes to purchasing and validating tickets, but it’s often a fun challenge. My other favorite alternative is to walk everywhere. It might take a little longer, but you never know what you’ll stumble upon.
- Don’t Buy Water- If the tap water is drinkable in the country you’re visiting, use it. Don’t waste your hard-earned money on water, especially because it can be more cost effective to buy beer in many parts of Europe than to pay for water.
- Free Walking Tours- Free walking tours are a fantastic way to get your bearings in a new city. Local guides work for tips and show you great spots around town to eat and drink like a local, point out places to avoid, and give a nice historical overview of the city. Many cities offer free walking tours every day of the week.
- Museums- Check out which museums are free, the best ones usually are! And many others offer great student discounts.
- Over Night Transportation- Traveling via an overnight train or bus tends to be cheaper and cuts out a night of accommodation costs. Once you’ve accepted that you won’t get the greatest night’s sleep, you’ll warm up to the idea and also “wake up” in a new city to explore, so it’s worth it. Sleep when you’re dead, right?
- Student ID- If you still have a student ID, use it and abuse it. You can get into plenty of museums for free or for a discounted rate by flashing that fancy university card with a less than favorable old photo of yourself. But the savings don’t stop there! Train tickets, bus tickets, and meal deals galore! Never be afraid to ask if a place offers a student discount, because they don’t always advertise it.
- Bring a book and a journal- I like to plan down time when I’m traveling because it can be easy to cram too much into one day when you’re exploring a new city. To prevent burnout, I always bring a book and a journal for a little down time in a local café, park, or library. This also comes in handy when you’ve already walked around in the rain for three hours and just want a little break and a pastry.
So, if you don’t mind a no-frills, shove-everything-in-your-backpack, sleep-on-a-train experience, then the world is your oyster! Becoming a Citizen of the World at the age of 20 was one of the greatest decisions I have made thus far, which is low-key impressive for someone with a fear of flying to say. With careful planning and research, traveling well in your twenties is manageable, and will shape your outlook on the world, teach you more than the classroom ever could, and present history from a new perspective.